Agriculture Secretary’s answer to nation’s drought: prayer and rain dance


Image: Clipart

If you’re like most of the US this summer, you are currently living in a region experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions. According to Reuters (via Yahoo News*), 60% of the contiguous 48 states are now in drought, with a state of natural disaster declared in nearly 1300 counties across this great land.

You might hope our government would be on top of the situation, engaging the public in a serious discussion of the likely causes (climate change, anyone?) and short- or long-term measures that might be needed to deal with a situation that will affect millions if not billions of people in our country and, as the top grain exporter in the world, across the globe.

Well, I’ll let you be the judge of how seriously the worst natural disaster in US history is being taken. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told reporters that faced with the current situation, “I get on my knees everyday and I’m saying an extra prayer right now […] If I had a rain prayer or a rain dance I could do, I would do it.” And then, at least according to the Reuters/Yahoo News article, he went on to discuss the economic effects of the drought on farmers and the stock market, but no mention of why there might be a drought or what concrete solutions there might be for those in drought regions.

Let’s give Mr. Vilsack the benefit of the doubt and assume he was joking about the rain dance and “rain prayer.” Is the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of farmers, as well as millions of people worldwide who may be affected by not having access to affordable food, really something to joke about?

But perhaps a more important question is: is he truly going down on his knees to pray “everyday” for more rain? If we take him at his word, it sounds like it. I suppose if he wants to waste his breath on his own time talking to a sky god who apparently would withhold much-needed rain from his creation if he doesn’t hear enough prayers (wonder what the quota is?), then Mr. Vilsack is free to do so on his own time in private.

In his role as Secretary of Agriculture, however, one of the highest-ranking officials in the country, he is representing the American government and all of its people when he is speaking as a public figure. Instead of cracking jokes about rain dances and discussing his religious practices, why is he not engaging the country in an actual discussion of this recording-breaking heat and drought? For example:

  • What he or his fellow cabinet members can or cannot do to aid farmers should the drought continue and decimate this year’s yields
  • What the science says about how likely this year’s conditions are just a freak blip or more likely a foretaste of what’s still to come
  • Which steps need to be taken this year or in the future to deal with extreme weather conditions
  • How average citizens can or cannot help (using less water so that more can go to farmers? practicing fire safety to avoid causing fires in the city or countryside?).

To be fair, it is possible the secretary touched on some or all of these issues, but the article left them out. If this is the case, maybe he should realize that he should be on message and not talking about whether or not he thinks his god is going to send rain our way one of these days, but rather what government officials should actually be talking about: governing the country. Hopefully the drought will soon be coming to an end, but if not we need to know our officials are looking for real-world solutions and not just hoping for a Deus Ex Machina.

UPDATE: FFRF (the Freedom From Religion Foundation) was also offended by our Agriculture Secretary’s religious remarks. Here is their press release and letter to Tom Vilsack

* Note: As is seemingly becoming more and more common, news sites are updating their articles and sometimes significantly changing the content (not just correcting typos, or posting add-on updates as above.). As of this update, the Yahoo News story is almost completely rewritten from what it was last night, and does not even mention the praying that was in the original headline for the story. The Indian Express has the article in its original form, or at least the form I saw it in originally.

Churches fight transportation fee on 1st Amendment grounds

Image from http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/13909

The Alliance Defense Fund, which is known for trying to tear down the wall of separation between church and state, is now claiming that churches in one town do not have to pay a new tax because of church-state separation.

According to the Huffington Post, Mission, Kansas has instituted a new “transportation utility fee” which taxes properties based on the amount of traffic they get.

“It was just a fair way to spread the cost among those who are generating the traffic,” said Mission Mayor Laura McConwell, “to help pay for the roads that you need to bring people in either for your business or for the churches or to people’s homes.”

But some churches are apparently none to happy about the tax and have asked the Alliance Defense Fund, known for fighting for religious symbols on public property and defending convocations at public schools and government meetings, to help them on 1st Amendment grounds, arguing that the 1st Amendment prohibits the government from taxing churches. Again from the Post

“It makes no sense to tax churches and to limit their ability to provide their services, and it does damage to the constitutional separation between church and state,” argues Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund […] He acknowledges that church-state separation is generally not an argument made by his conservative Christian law firm; but in this instance, he says “there should be a separation here.”

So apparently the 1st amendment somehow prohibits the government from taxing churches? We could play the Christian Right’s game and bring up the fact that the exact words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution, nor does it explicitly say “The government will not apply transportation utility taxes on churches.” But that would be somewhat disingenuous since the exact wording is not what matters, but the idea behind the words. And no matter how you twist it, the 1st amendment does not even come close to saying churches should pay no taxes. It is ridiculous that churches are exempt from most taxes to begin with. And in this specific case, the transportation fee has absolutely nothing to do with establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Hey, maybe that’s their plan: they’re going to claim that “free” in the Constitution doesn’t mean “unrestricted”, but rather “without cost.” If religion should be “free”, then they shouldn’t pay taxes!

The sad thing is, if the Alliance Defense Fund can suddenly become church-state defenders when it suits them, I wouldn’t put it past them to try to twist the word “free” in the Constitution. I’m glad to see the Religious Right finally recognizes the idea of Church-State separation; it’s too bad it’s only when taxes are concerned.

War on Christmas meets War on Terror

Before the end of 2010, one last story on the craziness involved with the so-called “War on Christmas,” which has apparently now started to overlap with the “War on Terror.”

From AlterNet comes an article by the Nashville City Paper describing how a letter sent by the Tennessee branch of the ACLU was placed on a Homeland Security map as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity.”

The ACLU had the audacity to remind schools that during the end of the year, public schools should not be celebrating Christmas to the exclusion of other religious observances because the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing religion. Tennessee Homeland Security’s website’s explanation for why it was placed in that category was exactly that: “ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday’.”

So the ACLU reminding schools about what the Supreme Court has found in terms of state-church separation apparently puts them with Bin Laden and the shoe bomber. Browning, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Homeland Security, said it was a “mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a “suspicious activity”. When contacted about it, the spokesperson claimed that it had been reclassified into their website’s “general information category.”

The story doesn’t end there. The Nashville City Paper checked up on this though and found out the ACLU’s letter had now been classified as “general terrorism news.” The Homeland Security spokesperson explained that “That’s the general news category. It doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism.” (Why not just take the darn thing off the website, then?!)

So at first the ACLU sending out a letter about schools respecting the First Amendment was first described on Tennessee’s Homeland Security site as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” and is now described as “general terrorism news.” Scary times we live in, especially since being associated with terrorist activity can get you on no-fly lists, among other things.

Hopefully 2011 will be a better year for freethought, atheism, and just all-around. Happy New Year!!

Atheist plaque combats Christmas display in MS: is this a good thing?

Jackson, MS is the among latest cities in the news that are having illegal Christmas displays challenged. FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) has put one of their plaques in the Capitol building next to a nativity scene placed there by the Mississippi 9/11 Remembrance Association, according to WLBT.

Why would a 9/11 organization put up a nativity scene? The connection between 9/11 and this nativity scene is perhaps that both were organized by religious zealots… The comparison is a little unfair, perhaps. Obviously a nativity scene is not an act of terrorism, but it’s scary that religious people feel like they can do whatever they want just because it’s honoring their god.

There shouldn’t be Christmas displays or atheistic plaques in government buildings. I will admit that, although I support the FFRF, I am concerned that the expansion of the plaques into more cities might mean that it will become the norm or accepted to have Christmas displays, they will just be accompanied by “token” displays that include secular or non-Christian themes.

I think the plaques were originally meant to represent atheists but also as a deterrent (the language in it is strong and some might prefer there  to get rid of both the Christmas decorations and the plaque). I’m not sure it’s working, though. I do not object to the plaque’s message itself, although it isn’t the most positive of fronts to present to theists. But I vacillate on whether I think it is an effective strategy. If the plaque + Christmas scene precedent gets established, Christians will (mostly) get their way of having Christmas in state buildings around the country because they can then argue, “well, the atheists get their sign, too, so what’s the problem?” I want less religion in public places, not religion and atheism mixed.

Why can’t people just celebrate holidays on their own instead of forcing it on everyone in official areas? That pesky First Amendment again always trying to protect the rights of the minority where government is involved… Christmas is alive and well, in case Christians haven’t noticed. Aren’t the gazillion Christmas displays up in stores and private residences this time of year (bad) enough?!?! Hopefully eventually people will realize that religion is a private matter, but it doesn’t look like this will happen any time soon.

Images from WLBT.

Christian leaders condemn overturning of Prop 8

As most people who follow the news likely know, California’s Proposition 8 (the ban against same-sex marriage in that state) was just overturned last week in federal court. There will of course be appeals, but this is a major step towards the legalization of same-sex marriage not only in California, but if it survives appeal, possibly at the national level.

Since Christianity is all about love, they are throwing their full support towards gay marriage, right? (Did you detect a note of sarcasm there?)

Here is a link to an article by Christianity Today (which I saw posted in a few freethought-friendly places) which provides some reactions from the Christian community. To be fair, there are some quotes that are fairly neutral or even supportive of LGBT community, but here are a few gems to give you an idea of the other side of the coin.

Majorities are unstable, and while traditional marriage has the upper hand now, it may not in 20 years. [What is going to happen, LGBT people will suddenly become a majority in the next 20 years? Now that’s what I call evolution! Or will they just corrupt the rest of God-fearing people by then?]

Because gay marriage is less than God’s best for relationship, we need to equip ourselves to minister to those who will choose it and later realize it might not have been the best decision. [Will they also equip themselves to minister to those who will choose and later realize it was the best decision of their life?]

At stake in the debate is the very nature of marriage itself. Thinking biblically does not allow us to regard marriage as merely prudential or preferential (I like strawberry, you like pistachio), but as a covenantal union of one man and one woman established by God for a purpose that transcends itself. [Comparing the love and devotion of two adults committing to spend the rest of their lives together…to liking pistachios. It’d be hard to make a more ignorant or belittling comparison. Although  “my cute little strawberry” does sound like a nice pet name.]

The Bible makes clear that marriage is God’s idea rather than a social contract that we are free to renegotiate based on changing social trends. [So if we have to follow God’s ideas on marriage, does this mean we’re sticking with the whole you-must-marry-your-rapist thing dictated in the Bible, then? (Deuteronomy 22:28). If we mustn’t follow social trends when it comes to marriage, should we also wear BC-era wedding attire?]

The gospel is deeply serious while Judge Walker’s decision is a jumbled mess of sloppy thinking […] [That’s funny; I would have said the exact opposite.]

Hopefully this ruling will lead society towards understanding of those who are not in the mainstream, instead of the continuing legacy of bigotry towards the “Other” that religions too often help perpetuate.

Woman sentenced to death by stoning

An Iranian woman, after already being lashed 99 times for adultery, has now been sentenced to be stoned to death. It’s hard to believe such barbaric punishment can occur in the 21st century, but Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani, who is a 42-year-old mother, has exhausted all her legal options and could be put to death any day for her alleged crime.

According to CNN

Ashtiani, 42, will be buried up to her chest, according to an Amnesty International report citing the Iranian penal code. The stones that will be hurled at her will be large enough to cause pain but not so large as to kill her immediately.

People continued to be cruelly tortured and killed like this because of religious dogma. Some Muslim apologists claim that since stoning for adultery isn’t in the Koran, that it’s not an Islamic but rather a cultural practice. While it’s true that the Koran doesn’t condone stoning for adultery, it is condoned in hadith writings which are meant to interpret and give guidance to Muslims about the Koran. While interpretation and application of hadiths can vary (notably between sunnis and shiites), the fact remains that this practice stems from Islamic tradition.

Even worse are the facts that

• there is no conclusive proof that the woman actually committed the crime she has been sentenced to death for.
• she has already been punished for her alleged crime (99 lashes), and

According to the Guardian:

Sakineh already endured a sentence of 99 lashes, but her case was re-opened when a court in Tabriz suspected her of murdering her husband. She was acquitted, but the adultery charge was reviewed and a death penalty handed down on the basis of “judge’s knowledge” – a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where no conclusive evidence is present.

Amnesty International has a campaign trying to get Iran to abolish stoning, but there appears to be little chance it will work in time to save Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani or at least 10 other people who as of 2010 are awaiting stoning.

Debating whether or not there is a god may be an interesting intellectual enterprise, but in the meantime the horrible crimes committed in the name of supernatural beings goes on. Governments, no matter whether they claim to be Islamic, Christian, or secular, should not be punishing people based on religion.

Photo source: Amnesty International

Opt-out required for school prayers? Teacher fired for 2nd time

It is against both Tennessee and U.S. law to lead public school students in prayer. But some people just won’t stop breaking the law and trying to find ways around it. Should students have to opt-out in order to be spared from teacher-led prayers?

According to WLBT news, “A Franklin County High School teacher was fired on Tuesday for leading her students in prayer in the classroom,” At first this sounds like good news, because the school board did not renew her contract because of her illegally leading prayer in school. But the news is not entirely good.

Apparently, teacher Alice Hawley had been fired “over 15 years ago”…for doing the same thing: leading prayers in class. “A few years later” she was asked back. So at least 15 years ago, she was let go because she was leading students in prayer. Then she was asked back, let’s say 10 years ago as a conservative estimate since we’re not given exact figures. That means she very well may have been leading class prayers for the past 10 years until a student or parent complained, or someone outside the school found out.

The principal was allegedly aware of what the teacher was doing, at least according to one student. “And sometimes our principle [sic: principal] comes and he’ll bow his head and he’ll pray with us.” If the principal was coming in and praying, he obviously was aware of the practice at some point before the teacher was let go; and since he actively participated in the prayers he may very well also be breaking the law, depending on the circumstances.

But in addition to subjecting some students who may be of different religious faiths or no faith at all to the teacher’s prayers, it’s the teacher’s defense that particularly irks me. One of her students said her policy was that if a student objected to the teacher praying:

“She said you can leave a letter an anonymous email, or just tell her raise your hand in class,”

So apparently, if the student is presenting the situation accurately, this teacher thinks that it’s okay if she imposes religious prayer upon her students, who are minors, so long as she tells them they can raise their hand to complain or leave an anonymous letter if they object. What she apparently doesn’t get is that she is in a position of authority, and that as a public school teacher, she is also acting as a representative of the government. She is not allowed to advocate religion. For her to say that the default is prayer and that you have to complain to stop it, when most or all of your other classmates support the prayer, is clearly a violation and an undue burden to put on a minor.

The video shows several students with shirts or writing on their arms saying “I broke the rule, I prayed in school” in support of their now-fired teacher and her prayers. What happens if a kid does not wear such a shirt, or does not actively support their teacher? Will they be singled out overtly or subtly and treated differently?

Teachers and other people hired by the state or federal government should not be forcing religion on anyone, especially not children. Children should not be forced to protest in order for the law to be upheld; the adults should be doing this on their own. I am glad the teacher got fired, but appalled that she was rehired in the first place, that this was the second time she had to be fired for the same thing, that the principal appears to have known about such prayers and even participated in them, and that her leaving has now further brought students into the fray. Hopefully whoever is hired to replace Hawley will start off their tenure by setting a good example for their students: respect for both students’ rights and the law by not leading classes in prayer.

Protecting victims not in the name of God, but in the name of Justice

I could not believe this headline when I saw it.

Irish cardinal to stay on despite abuse concerns (AP via Yahoo News)

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, is refusing calls to step down even though he is involved in the cover-up of sexual abuse (assault and/or rape) cases.

Can you imagine the head of any other organization—the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a prime minister of a country, even the den master of a cub scout troop—refusing to step down when he admits having knowledge not only of the sexual abuse of minors, but also of efforts to coerce victims into not reporting the abuse, yet he did not come public with this knowledge while other kids were being abused?

According to the article:

In the 1970s […] he was at meetings where children had to sign oaths of silence about allegations of abuse against a Nobertine priest, Brendan Smyth, who was later convicted and died in prison.

Who else in this world, besides a so-called man of the cloth, would be allowed to continue leading an organization (with thousands if not millions of kids as members in that country, mind you) after he witnessed and kept silent about such a thing? And with 200 new allegations of abuse being brought to light between April 2009 and March 2010, who would have the audacity to declare he is going to stay on in his position?

Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter to Irish Catholics apologizing for the abuse in these and other cases, but

Victims of abuse said they were deeply disappointed by the letter as it failed to address the role of senior church leaders in the scandal.

But this news deeply disturbed me on the face level of sexual abuse, and the man’s unwillingness to take responsibility for his complicity in the matter, but on several other levels as well.

  • The AP article starts out by saying the cardinal was involved in “a cover-up of a sexual abuse case decades ago”. It isn’t until later that we read that “a sexual abuse case” (singular) involves “children” (plural). I find the use of the singular in the lead paragraph to be misleading.
  • Since the article doesn’t deem it worthy to mention the details of the case, I looked it up and found several sites (including a BBC News article from March) that state that it was two teenage boys, aged between 10 and 14 (is a 10-year-old a “teenager”?), who were abused. I don’t say “allegedly” because of the facts that the offender was found guilty and the Cardinal does not appear to be disputing the facts.
  • The BBC News article states that at the time Brady was a “relatively junior cleric it was not his responsibility to report Smyth to the police and that he passed all relevant information to his superiors. Smyth’s child abusing continued for many years after 1975.” The fact that he did not report the abuse and cover-up to authorities meant that other children were abused, for years.
  • The media are largely playing down the viciousness of the abuse that happened in these pedophile priest sex cases. As has been pointed out in many venues, the euphemism “abuse” in the media particularly irks me when referring to despicable rape and sexual assault of minors. “Abuse” sounds like maybe a priest touched or fondled children, which would be a serious, life-damaging event in and of itself. But Brendan Smyth was later accused of “rape”, according to a number of sites (including an article by Ireland’s public service station RTE).
  • I could not find information as to the nature of the abuse in the specific cases of the two children who were forced to sign the oath of silence, but if later children were allegedly raped, one can imagine the abuse might have gone beyond inappropriate touching. The article should have mentioned that the priest was later accused of rape. I have yet to see an American article that says a priest has been accused of rape, as Smyth was in later cases at least. For other accused rapists, and people who help cover up their tracks, do the media talk about “abuse”? Priests deserve no special treatment when it comes to reports of crime.
  • Not only do religious people not deserve a pass when it comes to reporting, they also should be equal under the law. I don’t know enough details about Cardinal Brady, but in other cases of accused rapists and abusers law enforcement and government officials have looked the other way, or given unfair and unjust treatment to accused pedophiles. I recently watched the film Deliver Us From Evil which describes an American priest (O’Grady) who abused numerous children over decades. Complaints to the police didn’t help: the church promised to keep him in a monastery away from children (which didn’t happen). If any other organization promised to keep a child abuser and raper away from children, would the law enforcement just let him go scott free, or would they be tried in the courts? He eventually was jailed, but is now free again. My understanding is that this is not an isolated set of incidents, but that some police and public officials have been knowingly letting the destruction of children’s lives go on for decades just because the accused are priests, clerics, and other religious people.
  • Lastly, when is public outcry going to be loud enough that police, government officials, and churches no longer protect rapists, abusers, and the people who cover up what they have done? It’s obvious they won’t protect children when left to their own devices, so people need to demand justice. I think some people still think the abuse is minor or not widespread, but slowly but surely the word seems to be getting out that these are not isolated incidents, but systematic cover-up allegedly going as high as the current pope (London Times, The Guardian).

The rape and sexual abuse of children is sickening and horrendous, and so is the cozy treatment the accused and their cohorts have been getting for years. The Catholic Church needs to be disabused of the notion that it is above the law and that their priests and cardinals are more important than the victims they leave behind. It is time for secular justice to get to the bottom of this and punish these criminals, not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (since that apparently isn’t enough to set them straight), but in the name of justice.

Image source: Wikipedia

The Good Friday Turtle stops by (while James Madison does a facepalm)

The yummy treats that the Good Friday Turtle (if he exists) might bring us next year!

Unlike Christmas and Easter, which unfortunately have become widely commercialized and somewhat secularized, Good Friday remains very unambiguously a religious holiday: specifically a Christian one. Very few people would claim that Good Friday is a secular holiday. There is no Good Friday Turtle that crawls around giving presents to good little girls and boys, no exchanging of Turtles chocolate and pecan candies, no TMNT marathons on TV, no playing of music from The Turtles (though “Happy Together” would make a nice holiday song!).

Although it’s nice to think about, no Virigina, there is no Good Friday Turtle. The only reason that someone would treat Good Friday differently than any other day is for religious reasons. It is a religious observance of the day that some guy named Jesus, who only some people believe was the son of their god, died on a cross before going to hell for a couple of days, after which he miraculously (magically) rose from the dead to go back to heaven. All this trouble just so daddy would agree to let some people up into heaven, while leaving the rest burn for all eternity.

Personally, and for the record, I like the Good Friday Turtle idea much better, but the Constitution says people have a right to believe that whole God-sent-his-son-to-be-tortured-to-death mumbo jumbo. The Constitution also tells us however that government cannot endorse one religion over another. So when the Shelby County Clerk in Tennessee reportedly closes on Good Friday, or the state of Wisconsin recognizes Good Friday as a holiday, these government entities certainly seem to be celebrating a Christian-only holiday.

So what’s the harm in these and other government agencies closing for Good Friday? What’s wrong with people having a day off or people having to wait until Monday to renew their licences? Giving this strictly religious holiday preferential treatment shows an official bias in favor of that religion (Christianity) over other religions or non-religion.

Despite what many religious folk claim, the founding fathers did not intend the US to be a Christian nation, unless you think the entire Constititional Convention did a collective facepalm once they realized they had accidentally left “The United States is a Christian nation” out of the Preamble. Doesn’t seem likely to me.


A photo of James Madison after realizing he and other founding fathers forgot to establish the United States as a Christian nation in the Constitution??

The country was intentionally founded with freedom of religion in mind. People may celebrate their religious holidays if they so please, but government is not and should not be involved. Holidays of other religions besides Christianity are generally not observed or usually even mentioned by government bodies, and this is the way it should be. An occasional nod to Jewish or Muslim holidays may occur, but they normally don’t shut down government just because some religion somewhere thinks a given day is important to their deity of choice. And that’s the way it should be.

Government agencies get around this issue for Christmas because it has now taken on a largely (if not predominately) non-religious life of its own. Few would dispute this fact, although many might justifiably object to it. The main objections to Christmas arise when government steps over the line and starts inserting Christian words and symbols into what has become a secular celebration. Easter has followed Christmas along the path to secularization to a lesser extent (with pagan and secular symbols such as the Easter Bunny, colored eggs, marshmallow Peeps); but since most government agencies are closed on weekends anyway, the issue of officially recognizing Easter by closing offices normally doesn’t come up.

But when government or government-funded agencies (schools, libraries, etc.) declare Good Friday to be a holiday and shut down in observance of that Holy Day, they are very clearly moving from secular celebration to religious observance. That’s something that government isn’t allowed to do. It wouldn’t be an honest argument to claim that Good Friday is just part of some sort of long weekend of a secularized Easter, since Christians obviously must separate Good Friday from Easter enough to want a separate day to observe it. Good Friday is clearly, in practice and by definition, a Christian-only holiday. One that most religions don’t recognize, and some people object to. I don’t want my government telling me or my fellow citizens (whether child or adult) that one religion’s primitive idea of human sacrifice to appease the gods is something to be respected and revered. And the Constitution has my back on this one. Religions can teach this, but governments can’t endorse it by saying Good Friday is a holiday.

Unless The Good Friday Turtle stops by Tennessee, Wisconsin, or elsewhere next year, bringing candies and presents for all, I expect government to drop Good Friday as a holiday and get back to the business of running the country, not promoting religion.

Source of Turtles image: http://www.candyfavorites.com/i/t_3822.jpg and facepalm image: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/facepalm.jpg