Civil Liberties

The Wisconsin Tragedy

My first meeting with a Sikh profoundly changed my life for the better. I was new to the city, and he was the first person that I had met wearing a turban and an elaborate curved dagger. We were both volunteering at an event for the homeless and struck up a conversation.

I admired his knife, or kirpan, but also thought it strange that he could carry a sheathed dagger on his person, in full view. I had moved from Arizona, where guns were the norm, but knives were unseen. He then told me of its significance. 

He told me that he would fight to the death for my religious freedom. Mine. He would fight for the religious freedom of every person at that carwash. I learned later that a person carrying that dagger will fight to the death on behalf of any oppressed person. The caveat caught me up short. The dagger is used only after every peaceful means has been exhausted. The pacifist in me was honored to have met him. 

I left that carwash with the determination that I, too, would fight for freedom of religious expression, if only through peaceful means. It was not until reading Frantz Fanon more than a decade later, in seminary no less, that I could understand that sometimes, in some cases, violence is justified. 

I mourned in the days following 9/11 for the Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was shot to death in Arizona because the turban he wore. There is no doubt in my mind that it was a hate crime. The European American male killer mistook him for a Muslim. 

I mourn, too, for the members of the Wisconsin temple who were shot, and their friends and loved ones. Again, a dominant culture, European American, male has used an indiscriminate high-powered weapon manufactured for maximum lethality against fellow human beings. 

A kirpan is no match for an automatic weapon. Would it have made a difference if the killer knew that Sikhs value religious freedom as much, if not more, than other human beings living here in these United States? I think not. Intolerance has become more blatant, and normalized, as evidenced by the incendiary voices given airtime in the mainstream media. A culture of intolerance that has been allowed to flourish makes the deaths in Wisconsin all the more tragic.

I Voted Today, Did You?

Unlike most of my friends and colleagues, I am not out working in an election-related capacity today. I am not volunteering to work in the polls, as is Alex, to make sure that the process runs smoother. I’m a slacker depending on the volunteer time of others. I am not out getting out the vote, or last-minute canvassing, or other activities that would increase my voice by convincing like-minded people to vote. As such, my voice will be but one of an estimated 153 million possible (registered) voters today. All I did was walk over to my neighborhood polling place, wait in line, cast my ballot, and go to work. My part in this great democratic process is small.

But I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face that has not receded yet. First of all, the atmosphere at the polling place (my neighborhood junior high school) was festive. Colorful banners for different candidates decorated the chain link fence leading into the gymnasium from all sides. People, positioned well away from the actual polling place, handed out fliers and chatted with us as we walked up. Cardboard cutouts of candidates of choice, also well away from the polling place, stood on the sidewalk, as if to shake your hand. The impression that I got was that of a party.

Inside the actual polling place, courteous volunteers showed me which line to stand in and where to go next. Everyone was smiling. It was contagious.

As I stood in the booth – just me, my ballot and a number two pencil – the momentousness of the occasion hit me. I don’t mean that regardless of the outcome, this election will have made history. Of course there is that. I don’t mean that the choice between men who want to take this country in very different directions will determine our future. Yes, there is that too. But what I felt in the polling place was simply the awe of getting to make a choice.

Each one of us who is a citizen of this country (and not a felon in some states, but that’s for a different blog post) gets to make this choice. We get to participate in this sacred process of self-determination. On equal footing with each other. Standing in that booth, I felt empowered, and a part of something much bigger than myself.

I left the polling place with a huge smile on my face, and it hasn’t dimmed yet. And so I’m saying to you out there, “I voted today, did you?” I’m not going to lecture you on how it is your duty and responsibility (even though that’s true). I am telling you to get out there and vote, because it will make your day.

Update on the Evolution Debate in Florida

About two months ago, I blogged in recognition of Darwin Day, at which time I pointed to a disturbing trend in Florida. Twelve county school districts had passed resolutions banning the teaching of evolutionary theory.

The teaching of evolution is no more a matter of ideology than the teaching of the Big Bang theory or thermodynamics. These are scientific theories, and whether or not one agrees with them, valid scientific theories are what is taught in a science class room. I myself have serious misgivings about the theory of natural selection, but I would still put it forth if I were teach high school science. To censor the teaching of evolution in a science curriculum is like censoring the teaching of Plato in a Greek philosophy curriculum. Teaching Plato has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with him.

At that time the Florida State Board of Education was scheduled to vote on the new science standards. The good news is that the board did vote to adopt standards of science education that require the teaching of evolutionary theory in Florida schools.

However, in response to this, anti-evolutionists then took on the strategy of requiring that Intelligent Design be taught as an alternative theory. Eight Florida school boards have since passed resolutions insisting that “alternative theories of organismal origin” be presented alongside evolution. On February 29th, Florida State Senator Ronda Storms introduced a bill in the legislature to the same effect.

The claim is that it’s not about religion (as that would obviously violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment) but about allowing teachers to teach alternative theories. The problem with this, as I said in my previous post, is that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It is by its very nature unscientific. This has nothing to do with whether it is “true” or not. I myself believe in a God who interacts in the world. But theories involving God as a cause simply cannot be empirically tested, and one of the criteria for a valid scientific theory is that it makes testable predictions.

When the bill was first introduced, the Florida Citizens for Science blog predicted it would go nowhere. Likely, that was the author’s hope. It so far has passed through two committees. And once again, these events have gone largely unreported in mainstream media, being carried mainly through blogs.

UCC Under IRS Investigation

If by chance you haven't heard yet: PastorDan on Street Prophets tells us that the IRS is investigating the United Church of Christ (UCC) because Barack Obama addressed their General Synod last year.

General Synod is the UCC's once a year big annual meeting, akin to our General Assembly. It's quite common to have well-known people speak at these things. Barack Obama is a looong-time member of the UCC, a public figure and a published author. It's quite reasonable that they would have him speak. And as long as he didn't tell people to vote for him I can't see how this could be considered an endorsement. It was LAST JUNE, after he announced his candidacy, yes, but well before the campaign seriously began. And if the General Synod is anything like GA, they probably had him locked in as a speaker well before he entered the race for president.

Technically speaking, if one goes strictly by the rules, I can understand why the IRS is investigating. I'm also confident that they'll find nothing wrong. But this news sets all progressive religionists on edge because we still remember the 2005 investigation of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA. Guest priest, Rev. Dr. George Regas, had delivered a sermon titled "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush," which called on congregants to look at various social issues from a gospel perspective. He criticized the war in Iraq but did not tell people whom they should vote for.

Regardless, the IRS opened an investigation, claiming that the sermon constituted "prohibited political campaign intervention," and threatening the congregation with loss of its tax-exempt status. Other congregations across the country had been criticizing the immorality of the war, as we still are today. When word got out that the IRS had targeted All Saints, it sent ripples of fear across the progressive landscape. It seemed obvious to us that this church was being punished for its anti-war views, that we all could potentially lose tax-exempt status for appealing to the conscience of the country.

After two years of uncertainty and much expense suffered by the Pasadena congregation, the IRS closed the investigation without explanation. It neither found the church guilty nor exonerated it. And it left the question of how much could be said from the pulpit still up in the air for everyone.

So liberal denominations have reason to be suspicious when the IRS starts investigating the UCC for what at least on the face of things appears to be a superficial "offense."

New Jersey Repeals the Death Penalty

Just excerpting the New York Times article:

Gov. Corzine signed into law a measure repealing New Jersey’s death penalty on Monday, making the state the first in a generation to abolish capital punishment.



Corzine declared an end to what he called “state-endorsed killing,” and said that New Jersey could serve as a model for other states.


The process of abolishing the death penalty moved forward at an unusually fast pace. A bill replacing capital punishment with life in prison with no chance of parole first passed a Senate committee in May, but did not advance any further until this month. Leaders of both chambers in state Legislature made the bill a top priority of the current legislative session, and vowed after the November elections to vote on the issue before the end of the year.

In less than two weeks, the bill passed the state Senate and General Assembly and was signed by the governor.

What else is there to say, other than thank you New Jersey.  You are the first state to abolish state-endorsed murder since the Supreme Court restored it in 1976.  (Why do we think of the 70's as liberal?)  And I hope that Gov. Corzine is right that New Jersey is the start of a national trend.

Congress Has Been Busy

Wow, I came into work today to find that Congress had been working during the weekend. Shocking. So what was this most pressing issue that had our lawmakers working on a Saturday? Why it was to quietly and quickly further erode our civil liberties.

The Bush administration went to Congress a couple of weeks ago, pushing for further “modernization” of FISA. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA for short, was enacted in 1978 in order to protect Americans against government spying by regulating how information could be collected. I say "further 'modernization'" because the so-called "Patriot Act" of 2001 had already significantly weakened the protections in FISA. Apparently that was not enough. The Bush administration threatened to keep Congress in session if they didn't comply. Lo and behold, the "Protect America Act" of 2007 sailed through the Senate on Friday and the House held a special session on Saturday to follow suit, voting 227-183 in favor of emasculating FISA and the 4th amendment. Not a single hearing was held. (Click here to see how you representatives voted.)

The White House claims that FISA is outdated because it needs to be able to speedily intercept phone/email conversations involving individuals “reasonably believed to be outside the United States.” Maybe. But the effect of the legislation that was just passed is that the administration can now wiretap any domestic-to-foreign conversations, on American soil, without warrants. This would include the ability to tap your weekly conversation with your Russian grandmother, for example, if the NSA decided that it was suspicious.

As the Washington Post said: This [FISA modernization] is as reckless as it was unnecessary. Democrats had presented a compromise plan that would have permitted surveillance to proceed, but with court review and an audit by the Justice Department's inspector general, to be provided to Congress, about how many Americans had been surveilled. Democrats could have stuck to their guns and insisted on their version. Instead, nervous about being blamed for any terrorist attack and eager to get out of town, they accepted the unacceptable.

Being a Washingtonian, I can understand the urgent desire to leave this concrete swamp in the hot and humid month of August, but must our lawmakers sell us out just to get away from some discomfort? They have air-conditioning after all.

Chinese Justice

The recent head of China's State Food and Drug Administration was executed today.  Zheng Xiaoyu, 63, was convicted of accepting bribes constituting $800,000 U.S. to approve tainted and dangerous products, and sentenced to death in May.

As an American, who is used to people sitting on death row for years if not decades, the news came as a shock. Even by Chinese standards the execution was swift,  designed to tell the world that China was taking the recent export scandals seriously.  Designed to save Chinese face preceding the Olympics and the Chinese economy in general.

I am seriously torn.  On the one hand, I decry capital punishment for whatever offense.  On the other hand, his greed has negatively impacted so many lives. Antifreeze in toothpaste.  Children exposed to lead paint.  Contaminated pet food that killed thousand of pets worldwide, including in the U.S.  And that's when the Chinese government started paying attention.  Because before that the same corruption had led to useless drugs and contaminated baby formula that killed thousands of people in China.  But Chinese government officials did not care until their exports were threatened.

Given that blue collar crime so often results in harsher punishments, part of me agrees that a white collar crime that results in so many deaths should receive the same.

He lost his life for $800,000.  Was it worth it?  Thousands of others died for $800,000.  Was it worth it?    The immorality of that equation is astounding.

But still the execution leaves me feeling sick.

As Sen. Chuck Schumer said, "If China thinks that its issues with food and product safety are going to be fixed with these types of executions, it shows how much they just don't get it."

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative