Archive for December 9th, 2006

The First Amendment Was Just For Practice…

Long and infuriating story in tomorrow’s NYT (yes, I can see into the future, but I only use my power for good) about government-funded Christian indoctrination. It’s very long, so my interminable excerpting is not nearly as comprehensive as it may appear. I recommend reading the whole thing to get a better sense of scope and scale.

Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks — white porcelain ones, like at home — were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems” and showing inmates “how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.”

One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.

(…)

The Iowa prison program is not unique. Since 2000, courts have cited more than a dozen programs for having unconstitutionally used taxpayer money to pay for religious activities or evangelism aimed at prisoners, recovering addicts, job seekers, teenagers and children.

(…)

[I]n a move that some constitutional lawyers found surprising, Judge Pratt ordered the prison ministry in the Iowa case to repay more than $1.5 million in government money, saying the constitutional violations were serious and clearly foreseeable.

His decision has been appealed by the prison ministry to a federal appeals court and fiercely protested by the attorneys general of nine states and lawyers for a number of groups advocating greater government accommodation of religious groups. The ministry’s allies in court include the Bush administration, which argued that the repayment order could derail its efforts to draw more religious groups into taxpayer-financed programs.

(…)

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that public money could be used for religious instruction or indoctrination, but only when the intended beneficiaries made the choice themselves between religious and secular programs….

But even in today’s more accommodating environment, constitutional scholars agree that one line between church and state has remained fairly bright: The government cannot directly finance or support religious evangelism or indoctrination. That restriction typically has not loomed large when public money goes to religious charities providing essentially secular services, like job training, after-school tutoring, child care or food banks. In such cases, the beneficiaries need not accept the charity’s religious beliefs to get the secular benefits the government is financing.

The courts have taken a different view, however, when public money goes directly to groups, like the Iowa ministry, whose method of helping others is to introduce them to a specific set of religious beliefs — and whose success depends on the beneficiary accepting those core beliefs. In those cases, most of the challenged grants have been struck down as unconstitutional.

Those who see faith-based groups as exceptionally effective allies in the battle against criminal recidivism, teen pregnancy, addiction and other social ills say these cases are rare, compared with the number of programs receiving funds, and should not tarnish the concept of bringing more religious groups into publicly financed programs, so long as any direct financing is used only for secular expenses. [This is ironic – remember when the Bush administration made the reverse argument to deny all funding to any international clinics that performed abortions?]

(…)

One grant went to a theater company that toured high schools performing a skit called “Just Say Whoa.” The script contained many religious references including one in which a character called Bible Guy tells teenagers in the cast: “As Christians, our bodies belong to the Lord, not to us.” [this isn’t particularly relevant, I’m just amused by the name “Bible Guy” for some reason]

(…)

In ruling on [the Iowa prison] case, Judge Pratt noted that the born-again Christian staff was the sole judge of an inmate’s spiritual transformation. If an inmate did not join in the religious activities that were part of his “treatment,” the staff could write up disciplinary reports, generating demerits the inmate’s parole board might see. Or they could expel the inmate.

And while the program was supposedly open to all, in practice its content was “a substantial disincentive” for inmates of other faiths to join, the judge noted. Although the ministry itself does not condone hostility toward Catholics, Roman Catholic inmates heard their faith criticized by staff members and volunteers from local evangelical churches, the judge found. And Jews and Muslims in the program would have been required to participate in Christian worship services even if that deeply offended their own religious beliefs.

(…)

Not all programs in prisons are so narrowly focused. Florida now has three prisons that offer inmates, who must ask to be housed there, more than two dozen offerings ranging from various Christian denominations to Orthodox Judaism to Scientology. But at Newton, Judge Pratt found, there were few options — and no equivalent programs — without religious indoctrination.

“The state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates,” Judge Pratt wrote. “There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates.”

I’m not quite as offended by the Florida prisons with multiple religious options, although I would be happier if they had an atheist/agnostic option, or at least Unitarian Universalist.

There are two aspects of the Iowa prison program, and many other Christian proselytizing-masquerading-as-good-works programs that really piss me off:

1) They are, in effect, bribing inmates and other targets (jobseekers, homeless, teenagers) to succumb to their ministrations. Yeah, sure, they’re not coerced into choosing the Christian program, but who wouldn’t want a nicer cell with a private toilet and the occasional pizza party? Or a job, or some food, or time on a really cool ranch? (Yes, I’m pretty sure the kids are given the most positive, appealing spin imaginable about what life on the Christian ranch will be like.) It may comply with the letter of the law, but it is fundamentally (heh) dishonest.

2) I resent the underlying premise that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is the only path to rehabilitation and redemption. It is just a little too similar to the prejudice that atheists cannot be moral because they do not have a religious code to guide them. What might a secular rehabilitation program look like? Social work is waaaay outside my area of expertise, but how about something like this, or any other organized activity that focuses the mind and builds up discipline and self-worth? Religion does not have a monopoly on instilling purpose and values.

5 comments December 9th, 2006 at 08:50pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Constitution,Favorites,Politics,Religion,Republicans,Wankers

Finally, An Exit Strategy!

According to Josh Marshall (hat tip to lotus):

Okay, these are fairly round numbers. But they give us at least a broad view of the problem. According a recent UN report, approximately 100,000 Iraqis per month are leaving the country. And an average of 2,000 per day across are streaming out into Syria (the rest appear to be leaving through Jordan, approximately 1,000 per day according to this Brookings report). Bear in mind that Iraq is a country of just under 27 million people. So in demographic terms, that amounts to something like arterial bleeding.

In a related story, President George W. Bush called a press conference this evening and announced:

After much discussion and prayer, this administration has decided to adopt a modified version of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s recommendations for troop withdrawal. The Bush-Cheney Withdraw-To-Win Plan will call for the removal of all American combat personnel not essential to oil production in, uh, 27-million-divided-by-100,000 months. We will strive to accelerate this timeframe further by arming all patrol vehicles with “bunker-buster” speakers and copies of Kevin Federline’s “Playing With Fire” CD. Victory is mine!

At long last, prevailure is within reach.

2 comments December 9th, 2006 at 08:22pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Bush,Favorites,Iraq,Politics,Wankers,War

What The.

I just can’t make any sense of this at all:

Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a secret farewell trip to Iraq, a senior Pentagon official confirmed on Saturday.

Rumsfeld’s trip, first reported by ABC News, was his 13th unannounced visit to the country. It came one day after he gave a farewell address at the Pentagon and nine days before he is replaced by Robert Gates.

No other details of Rumsfeld’s trip or whether he was still in Iraq were immediately available.

Seriously, I can’t think of any possible reason, unless this is part of some kind of elaborate suicide plan.

5 comments December 9th, 2006 at 06:35pm Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Politics,Wankers,Weirdness

Justice For Thee, But Not For Me

Remember that Foley guy? Used to be a congressman, had kind of a creepy thing for underage pages, and the Republican leadership looked the other way? NYT has something to say about him, or rather, his enablers. Um, would you believe his enablers’ enablers?

Watching our elected leaders in action, it’s not surprising that Americans wonder if there is any limit to the crass misbehavior that members of Congress are willing to tolerate from their colleagues to protect their privileges and hold on to their own jobs. The House ethics committee answered that question yesterday with a resounding “No.”

Sixty-four days after it promised to find out who knew about Representative Mark Foley’s wildly inappropriate, sexually predatory behavior with teenage House pages, and why they failed to stop it, the bipartisan committee produced a report yesterday that was a 91-page exercise in cowardice.

The report’s authors were clearly more concerned about protecting the members of the House than the young men and women under their charge in the page program. And they made absolutely no effort to define the high standard of behavior that should be required of all members of Congress and their staffs.

….The report makes clear that Mr. Foley’s misconduct became known to an ever-widening circle of his colleagues and their aides, including Speaker Dennis Hastert. But no one made any serious attempt to stop Mr. Foley or reveal his misdeeds. A few urged him to cut it out, for political reasons, but did not follow up.

The committee concluded that other people preferred to remain willfully ignorant — to protect Mr. Foley’s secret homosexuality, to avoid partisan embarrassment or for other political reasons.

But even after all that, the report said that none of this amounted to the sort of behavior that might discredit the House of Representatives and thus violate ethics rules. The committee, which never heard from Mr. Foley, did not call for disciplinary action against current members of the House or their staffs….

The panel’s justification for inaction is a breathtaking exercise in sophistry: “the requirement that House members and staff act at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House does not mean that every error in judgment or failure to exercise greater oversight or diligence” is a violation.

No, not every error or failure should be a violation, but certainly the ones that lead to an elected official’s sexually stalking teenage boys while his colleagues turn a blind eye or cover it up should be. We’d set the bar at least there. Apparently, it’s too high for the House.

Oy. Maybe this should have waited until the Democrats took over. Assuming that that would have helped.

This speaks to a huge structural problem with our supposedly self-policing government: That guilt or innocence is never decided by an impartial jury, but rather by congresspeople with clear-cut political affiliations and loyalties. Imagine a murder trial where the jury is composed solely of the defendant’s friends and enemies (and furthermore, that only a simple majority is needed to convict). The testimony and evidence in the case would be irrelevant – all that would matter would be whether the defendant had more friends than enemies on the jury.

That is the situation that we had eight years ago, when Clinton was frivolously impeached, simply because his enemies controlled Congress. That is the situation we have today, when Foley’s enablers got off because their friends control the ethics panel. President Bush admitted to breaking the law in his use of wireless wiretapping and uncontestable detentions, yet impeachment was never even a possibility because his party controlled both houses of Congress. Even under the incoming Democratic Congress, impeachment is not a possibility because the new majority party has to worry about how it might affect their chances of re-election. Granted, this could change as investigations bring more presidential wrongdoing to light, but the underlying problem remains: In-house law enforcement for the political class is a political rather than a legal process, making true justice and accountability impossible.

(Yes, granted, certain crimes can trigger criminal court proceedings, but the government appears to have some discretion to keep things in-house – much like, say, the Catholic Church. And as I understand it, a sitting President’s immunity to criminal prosecution is absolute.)

17 comments December 9th, 2006 at 11:10am Posted by Eli

Entry Filed under: Bush,Constitution,Favorites,Foley,Politics,Republicans,Wankers


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