Thursday, June 25, 2009

Teachers Should Have the Right to Say That Creationism Is "Superstitious Nonsense"

On May 1, 2009, a federal district court judge in central California issued a ruling that aimed to clarify what teachers may and may not say about creationism in public school classrooms. My initial reaction was that the attempt failed, because the judge’s legal reasoning was seriously flawed. Lingering over the ruling for almost two months and considering the few critiques that followed it, that conclusion has become even harder to avoid.

The case before the United States District Court for the Central District of California was styled C. F. et al. v. Capistrano Unified School District et. al.

“C. F.” was a student named Chad Farnan. He and his parents charged Dr. James C. Corbett, a twenty-year teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo with "repeatedly promoting hostility toward Christians in class and advocating 'irreligion over religion’ in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause." The teacher made the remarks in his Advance Placement History class.

According to the Orange County Register, "Farnan's lawsuit had cited more than 20 inflammatory statements attributed to Corbett, including 'Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies — that's interfering with God's work' and 'When you pray for divine intervention, you're hoping that the spaghetti monster will help you get what you want.'"

Since Judge James Selna found nothing unconstitutional about 19 of the 20 utterances to which the Farnans took offense, advocates of church-state separation could just count their blessings and consider the ruling mainly a vindication of the teacher and of his right to speak accurately on religious topics.

The judge, after all, took pains to note that several of the challenged statements “do not touch upon or mention religion” at all. He even held that public school teachers have the right to offend a specific religious group: “A statement by a government official does not violate the Establishment Clause merely because a particular religious group may find the official’s position incorrect or offensive… This would be unworkable given the number of different religious viewpoints on various issues. This would also be directly contrary to the fundamental principles of the Establishment Clause jurisprudence because it would require a teacher to attempt to teach in accordance with certain religious principles.”

So what’s not to like about the ruling? The trouble is--as The Los Angeles Times agreed in an editorial on May 20th--that the judge found fault with a statement that really should have been protected under the speech and religion clauses of the First Amendment. And not content with that, the judge also talked himself into endorsing other statements by the teacher that seemed much more clearly an egregious assault upon religion. As a result, the ruling causes more confusion than it resolves.

The statement the judge found unconstitutional involved Corbett’s position on the religious approach of another teacher, John Peloza. In the words of the court decision:

“Peloza apparently brought suit against Corbett because Corbett was the advisor to a student newspaper which ran an article suggesting that Peloza was teaching religion rather than science in his classroom. Corbett explained to his class that Peloza, a teacher, “was not telling the kids [Peloza’s students] the scientific truth about evolution.” Corbett also told his students that, in response to a request to give Peloza space in the newspaper to present his point of view, Corbett stated, “I will not leave John Peloza alone to propagandize kids with this religious, superstitious nonsense.” One could argue that Corbett meant that Peloza should not be presenting his religious ideas to students or that Peloza was presenting faulty science to the students. But there is more to the statement: Corbett states an unequivocal belief that creationism is “superstitious nonsense.” The Court cannot discern a legitimate secular purpose in this statement, even when considered in context. The statement therefore constitutes improper disapproval of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.”

Strikingly, the judge finds it unconstitutional for a public school teacher to say about creationism what the federal courts have said! The courts have ruled, repeatedly, that creationism is a religious position that may not be taught in public school science classrooms. Driving that point home is the “legitimate secular purpose” of Corbett’s statement. And that purpose makes his statement a proper upholding of the court decisions against Peloza’s contrary behavior, not an “improper disapproval of religion.”

By contrast, the judge found no fault with Corbett’s lengthy diatribes on scientific reasoning and the Bible, in which the teacher distorts several Christian positions, then ridicules the distortions, with no evident secular purpose. The ruling quotes several of those statements:

“Um, see, people believed before the scientific revolution that the Bible was literal and that anything that happened, God did it. They didn’t understand. They didn’t have the scientific method. They didn’t approach truth. The explanation to everything literally was that God did it. And the ultimate authority, who was (inaudible). The ultimate authority was the Bible. And, for example, you have (singing) Joshua fought the battle of Jericho . . . [b]ecause the sun stopped in the sky. Well, if the Bible says the sun stopped, the sun must have stopped. Of course, those Chinese astronomers who were watching the same sun didn’t notice this phenomenon. But if it’s in the Bible, it must be true...So there you go. They believe the Bible literally... So, you know, understand that we have this sort of mindless centric notion, right? And these people didn’t even know about it – get it out. They didn’t even know about the Western Hemisphere. So they thought Jerusalem is in the center of the world.

“So – and presumably – and think how humbling it’s going to be, you know, when all these people who have been talking about Adam and Eve and creation and all of this stuff for all that time when eventually something happens, and they find out that there are people on another planet, six billion light years away, who don’t look like us, worshiping huge geckos. . . . You have (inaudible) people who are deep believers and find out that maybe we’re not so important. Aristotle was a physicist. He said, ‘no movement without movers.’ And he argued that, you know there sort of has to be a God. Of course that’s nonsense. I mean, that’s what you call deductive reasoning, you know. And you hear it all the time with people who say, ‘Well, if all of this stuff that makes up the universe is here, something must have created it.’ Faulty logic. Very faulty logic.

“[T]he other possibility is it’s always been here. Those are the two possibilities: it [the universe] was created out of nothing or it’s always been here. Your call as to which one of those notions is scientific and which one is magic. [Inaudible] the spaghetti monster behind the moon. I mean, all I’m saying is that, you know, the people who want to make the argument that God did it, there is as much evidence that God did it as there is that there is a gigantic spaghetti monster living behind the moon who did it.

“Therefore, no creation, unless you invoke magic. Science doesn’t invoke magic. If we can’t explain something, we do not uphold that position. It’s not, ooh, then magic. That’s not the way we work.

“Contrast that with creationists. They never try to disprove creationism. They’re all running around trying to prove it. That’s deduction. It’s not science. Scientifically, it’s nonsense.”

Here, said the judge, “the Court cannot find that the primary effect of the lecture was to disapprove of religion.” Instead, said the ruling, “a reasonable observer would find that the primary effect of Corbett’s statements above was to distinguish generally accepted scientific reasoning from religious belief and to illustrate a historical shift from religious to scientific thinking.”

I think most reasonable observers would say that Corbett’s statements do considerably more than that. Corbett reduces religious positions on which there was considerable debate within and among various churches to a univocal position he characterizes as religious. Invariably, it is the most ignorant stance any religionist took. Then he belittles that stance to compare God to “a gigantic spaghetti monster living behind the moon.”

Is that not a pretty blatant “disapproval of religion?” And what exactly is its “legitimate secular purpose?” There were ways Corbett could have developed and conveyed his points with historical accuracy and constitutional precision. Unfortunately he did not do so, resorting to religious caricature instead.

So it seems quite clear that Judge Selna’s ruling cannot be the last word on this topic from the federal courts. If other judges try to apply his ruling, they will find that it creates more problems than it solves. Hopefully they will see the wisdom of over-ruling him.

In the days after the ruling, Corbett said publicly that he was considering an appeal. Although he felt mostly vindicated by the court, he was concerned about “the chilling effect” of the sole ruling against him. But so far I have seen no report that Corbett has appealed. Perhaps he concluded that he survived the experience about as well as he could hope to. Or maybe he considered that an appeals court might not agree with Judge Selna that the 19 other statements can all pass constitutional muster. So we are probably awaiting some other plaintiff to help the courts clarify how separation of church and state applies to situations like these.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Every Objection to a Public Health-Care Plan Option Is Nonsense, Robert Reich Says

Of all places. The Wall Street Journal! Today's has an excellent column by Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton admnistration and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. Why is the publisher noteworthy? Because the column knocks down each and every argument conservative critics have raised against including a public plan as an option under health-care reform.

Reich begins by noting that projections by the Congressional Budget Office and others significantly overstate the cost of health-care reform overall, since they do not count the savings a public option would yield. Then he shows why each objection to a public plan option is nonsense. Excerpts follow.

...without a public option, the other parties that comprise America's non-system of health care--private insurers, doctors, hospitals, drug companies, and medical suppliers--have little or no incentive to supply high-quality care at a lower cost than they do now.

A public option would squeeze their profits and force them to undertake major reforms. That's the whole point.

Critics say the public option is really a Trojan horse for a government takeover of all of health insurance. But nothing could be further from the truth. It's an option. No one has to choose it. Individuals and families will merely be invited to compare costs and outcomes. Presumably they will choose the public plan only if it offers them and their families the best deal--more and better health care for less.

Private insurers say a public option would have an unfair advantage in achieving this goal. Being the one public plan, it will have large economies of scale that will enable it to negotiate more favorable terms with pharmaceutical companies and other providers. But why, exactly, is this unfair? Isn't the whole point of cost containment to provide the public with health care on more favorable terms? If the public plan negotiates better terms--thereby demonstrating that drug companies and other providers can meet them--private plans could seek similar deals.

But, say the critics, the public plan starts off with an unfair advantage because it's likely to have lower administrative costs. That may be true--Medicare's administrative costs per enrollee are a small fraction of typical private insurance costs--but here again, why exactly is this unfair? Isn't one of the goals of health-care cost containment to lower administrative costs? If the public option pushes private plans to trim their bureaucracies and become more efficient, that's fine.

Critics complain that a public plan has an inherent advantage over private plans because the public won't have to show profits. But plenty of private plans are already not-for-profit. And if nonprofit plans can offer high-quality health care more cheaply than for-profit plans, why should for-profit plans be coddled? The public plan would merely force profit-making private plans to take whatever steps were necessary to become more competitive. Once again, that's a plus.

Critics charge that the public plan will be subsidized by the government. Here they have their facts wrong. Under every plan that's being discussed on Capitol Hill, subsidies go to individuals and families who need them in order to afford health care, not to a public plan. Individuals and families use the subsidies to shop for the best care they can find. They're free to choose the public plan, but that's only one option. They could take their subsidy and buy a private plan just as easily. Legislation should also make crystal clear that the public plan, for its part, may not dip into general revenues to cover its costs. It must pay for itself. And any government entity that oversees the health-insurance pool or acts as referee in setting ground rules for all plans must not favor the public plan.

Finally, critics say that because of its breadth and national reach, the public plan will be able to collect and analyze patient information on a large scale to discover the best ways to improve care. The public plan might even allow clinicians who form accountable-care organizations to keep a portion of the savings they generate. Those opposed to a public option ask how private plans can ever compete with all this. The answer is they can and should. It's the only way we have a prayer of taming health-care costs. But here's some good news for the private plans. The information gleaned by the public plan about best practices will be made available to the private plans as they try to achieve the same or better outputs.

As a practical matter, the choice people make between private plans and a public one is likely to function as a check on both. Such competition will encourage private plans to do better -- offering more value at less cost. At the same time, it will encourage the public plan to be as flexible as possible. In this way, private and public plans will offer one other benchmarks of what's possible and desirable.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Stoking the Fires of Hate for Ratings and Political Gain Endangers Everyone of Us

Reflecting on the white-supremacist shooting at the National Holocaust Museum, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. had an excellent column June 13th on the endangerment public figures perpetrate when they stoke the fires of hatred for ratings or political gain. He cited several examples and the specific violence they provoked.

All that was missing was an example of the many acts of violence provoked by religious conservatives when they insist, long and loud, that every abortion is the murder of an innocent child -- regardless of Supreme Court rulings and state laws that say otherwise, the threat the developing fetus may pose to the health of its mother, or even the ability of the child to live if the pregnancy comes to term. The Pitts column follows.

''Them Jews aren't going to let [President Obama] talk to me.'' -- the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

''I hate gay people . . .'' -- Tim Hardaway, former NBA star.

''A Third World country.'' -- Tom Tancredo, former Colorado representative, speaking of Miami.

''She's frightening. And she's racist.'' -- Dennis Baxley, former executive director, Christian Coalition of Florida, speaking of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

''Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.'' -- Glenn Beck, talk show host, to Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim.

''Fifty years ago they'd have you hanging upside down with a [expletive] fork up your [expletive].'' -- Michael Richards, ''comedian,'' to an African American in his audience.

WASHINGTON -- I've always liked this place.

''Enjoy'' is not a word one uses in connection with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but I've always found a visit here conducive to contemplation and reflection. So it is even on a fog-shrouded morning when you can't get in, when yellow tape rings off the entrance, police vehicles sit with lights flashing and armed security stands watch.

Last week, a man with a rifle walked in and opened fire, fatally wounding security guard Stephen Johns. Other guards shot the intruder down.

Authorities say the shooter, James von Brunn, was an avowed racist and anti-Semite well known to the pustular netherworld of white supremacy and to those who monitor it. He believed the Holocaust a hoax and America a ''Third-World racial garbage dump.'' He believed this, even at 88 years of age. ''It's time to kill all the Jews,'' he wrote in one e-mail. And can you imagine what might have happened had he managed to shoot his way past the guards?

It is jolting to recall that I once thought we were living in the last days of creatures such as this. My only excuse: It was the 1970s and I was young, raised on civil rights marches and Norman Lear comedies. Kids like me felt, with the offhand smugness of youth, that we were harbingers of a new world too enlightened to ever again hate people because they were. We were past all that.

Or so we thought. Because what a shock it is to wake up 40 years later in a world where the intercultural dialogue we thought we'd mastered has become a shrill circus overrun by haters and opportunists, a world where on any given day one might be assaulted by the casual anti-Semitism and homophobia that afflict so much of the African-American community, or the racist patter of a washed-up TV star who has mistaken freedom of speech for freedom from thought, or the gassy posturing of political and media figures who happily, disingenuously trivialize the rawest wounds of the American experience for ratings and political position.

We act as if it were all a game, as if it means nothing when people of position and visibility spew garbage, validating and galvanizing the unhinged and the disaffected who need little encouragement to believe all their problems are caused by Them. We act as if we do not toy with fire when people of authority claim white Christians are a victimized minority or Hispanics a threatening and faceless Other. We act as if we were not heirs and witnesses to a blood-soaked history that tells us exactly where this hate some of us so fecklessly stoke will logically, inevitably lead.

Hate groups standing now at record numbers. One dead. Ten dead. Six million dead.

I've always liked the Holocaust Museum because it is a stark reminder in an era where too many are in a hurry to forget. And so it is even today, even quiet and locked up tight. Behind yellow tape it sits, scene of a hate crime authored by an old man who thought he was great because his skin was pale. An American flag droops limply at half staff as if tired of waiting, waiting for the last days of creatures such as this.