Saturday, December 17, 2011

Atheists Plan ‘Slightly Blasphemous’ Nativity Response to Combat the ‘War on the Constitution’‏

The Freedom From Religion Foundation went near-nuclear when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker started referring to the annual “holiday” spruce as a “Christmas” tree. If that minor action is what led the group’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, to call Walker “…a Teabagger governor wearing religion on his sleeves,” one wonders just how venomous her language will get now that a nativity scene has been placed in the state capitol. Now, the group is planning to respond with its own “slightly blasphemous” version of the nativity.

Christmas, a holiday that has many secular elements, but one that is rooted in the Christian faith, often comes along with a fair share of debate surrounding the separation of church and state. Now, for the first time in recent memory, WISC-TV is reporting that an undoubtedly Christian depiction has been placed in the state’s Madison capitol. The capitol has, in the past, hosted menorahs and other religious displays, but the presence of the nativity scene is raising some eyebrows.

Julaine Appling of Wisconsin Family Action, the conservative organization responsible for the nativity, has come out defending the exhibition. ”We think it’s a very tasteful presentation,” she said. It is, of course, important to note that while it was the governor who began using the word “Christmas” to describe the tree in the rotunda, the new nativity scene was put together by a private group.

Of course, Gaylor doesn’t agree with the display’s presence. ”We just don’t think a nativity scene belongs in the Wisconsin State Capitol,” she says. “It’s the seat of state government and everybody should feel welcome there.” [Why would a nativity display make anyone feel unwelcome? It's just a display of statuary. It doesn't do anything.]

In commenting on the nativity display, Gaylor said, ”There’s no war on Christmas, there’s a war on the Constitution during the entire month of December.”

In an effort to show further opposition to the nativity, Gaylor’s group is planning what she calls a “slightly lasphemous… irreverent tweak on the nativity scene.” The FFRF is currently seeking a permit for the display.

Appling, though, doesn‘t see why there’s a controversy. She contends that everyone is already welcome to showcase their views in the capitol and she points out that there is another display next to hers with a message she disagrees with (there is a sign from the FFRF that proclaims that God doesn’t exist).

But in the spirit of inclusiveness she says, “…they have as much right to be there as we do. I think it’s time for all of us to realize there’s a lot of room for different voices.”

During “Interfaith Awareness Week” various groups showcase their religious traditions around the capitol’s rotunda. This, WISC-TV reports, is how Appling’s group received permission to display the nativity until the end of December.

Gaylor hasn’t provided more information on her planned display, but she is hoping to have it up soon.


Obama and religion

On two major issues cited by Perry, Obama has broken with precedent to curtail religious freedom in a way that should alarm staunch secularists (like myself) as well as the devout.

The first instance arose after passage of his health care overhaul, when the Department of Health and Human Services ordered that all insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization for women, with no co-payment. The mandate means many Americans would have to be complicit in something their faith forbids.

As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pointed out, "Before the mandate, insurers were free to issue plans covering contraception and sterilization (or not); employers were free to sponsor, and usually subsidize, plans with this coverage (or not); and employees were free to choose this coverage and pay for it through their premiums (or not)." That is no longer true.

The administration provides an exemption for religious employers -- while defining the term so tightly that religious hospitals, social service agencies and colleges wouldn't qualify.

The president of the University of Notre Dame is a priest. But under Obama Care, he is obligated to furnish his employees and students with birth control options that are anathema to the Catholic Church -- or else drop health insurance coverage altogether.

Even states that mandate contraceptive coverage allow companies to avoid it by self-insuring. They also grant broad exemptions to those with faith-based conflicts. The federal employee health insurance program permits carriers with religious scruples to offer policies without contraceptive coverage.

But so far, the administration is not nearly so reasonable (though it is considering limited changes). Under its policy, the free exercise of religion ends where health insurance coverage begins.

Even more extreme is its position on a dispute involving an evangelical Lutheran church and school in Michigan. The school had dismissed a teacher who taught both religious and non-religious classes, and she went to court alleging illegal discrimination.

Federal courts have generally barred such lawsuits, leery of getting tangled up in church doctrine and discipline. But an appeals court ruled in favor of the teacher, and Obama's Justice Department took her side.

Not only that, it said churches and their schools should be treated no differently from other employers. Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean the Catholic Church could be forced to admit women to the priesthood.

When the case was argued before the Supreme Court, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia marveled at the administration's claim: "There, black on white in the text of the Constitution, are special protections for religion. And you say it makes no difference?" Exclaimed liberal Justice Elena Kagan, whom Obama appointed, "I too find that amazing."

In this case, as with the health care mandate, the president evidently thinks that when the imperatives of faith thwart his vision of social policy, faith will have to get out of the way.

Is Obama the enemy of religion? Not quite. But when it comes to religious freedom, he's not a reliable friend.


Australia: Another triumph of multiculturalism

Three would-be terrorists jailed for plotting Sydney army base attack

THREE would-be terrorists who plotted an armed attack on a Sydney army base remained defiant after they were jailed for 13 years today.

Justice Betty King told Wissam Fattal, 35, of Melbourne, Saney Edow Aweys, 28, of Carlton, and Nayef El Sayed, 27, of Glenroy they planned a horrific and evil attack on the Australian community. Justice King said it was troubling that none of the three had renounced their extreme Islamic views and they would remain a threat to the community even after they are released.

"None of you, not one, has recanted from any extremist view you held," said the judge. "The protection of the community remains a very significant factor."

In her Supreme Court sentence, Justice King said the planned attack on the Holsworthy army base would have resulted in the deaths of a number of innocent people.

Fattal, who has caused trouble consistently in court, had to be removed before the sentence commenced after he started shouting about "Jews, Palestine and Afghanistan". He was dragged out by security officers. At the end of the sentence El Sayed shouted "God is with us" as a woman wept hysterically in the public benches.

Justice King set maximum terms of 18 years. Almost a year after they were convicted, Fattal, Aweys and El Sayed faced justice.

Family members, friends and supporters of the trio packed the public benches and balcony of Supreme Court number three. As the men were led into court they laughed, waved and gestured to the supporters, looking completely unconcerned.

Their trial heard that Operation Martyrdom was planned to create mayhem at Sydney's lightly guarded Holsworthy army base, with the men using high-powered weapons to gun down as many army personnel as possible.

The Supreme Court jury, which convicted the trio but found two other men not guilty, deliberated for more than 45 hours after a marathon trial that lasted 12 weeks.

The jury heard the home-grown terror plot was designed to bring a fatwa down on Australia and it had its genesis in the seething anger among a small group of Muslim men, some of them refugees, over their belief Islam was under attack from the West. In secretly recorded conversations, the plotters, all of whom attended inner city mosques, talked of their contempt for Australians and their plans to take out "five, six, eight or 10" soldiers. Fattal was recorded saying:"If I find a way to kill the army, I'm gonna do it."

The men were found guilty of conspiring with each other and people unknown between February 1 and August 4, 2009 to do acts in preparation for, or planning a terrorist act or acts.

They were believed to be connected with the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabaab, and it was alleged the group tried to obtain a fatwa, or religious decree, justifying the attack.

The jury viewed CCTV footage of Fattal taking a train to the Holsworthy base and walking along a perimeter fence and towards the blockhouse at the front gate. Fattal later told his co-conspirators: "The work is easy".


Speech cannot be free in a net of regulation

Comment from Australia

STUART Littlemore, QC - commanding, eloquent and, in the words of one senior journalist to me, overweeningly arrogant - took his seat at the independent media inquiry.

"The previous woman is wrong," he opened, referring to an AAP representative. "She mistakes error for defamation." It had taken just seconds for his pugnacity to assert itself.

In Littlemore's testimony could be found a snapshot of the cultural fault-line defining the inquiry. Crudely, it divides journalists and media proprietors from those who conceived and administer the inquiry - the federal government and judges and lawyers. (Inquiry head Ray Finkelstein's deputy, Matthew Ricketson, is, however, a former journalist and current journalism academic.)

It's a fault-line defined by rival professional instincts - free speech and self-regulation on one side, and reform and regulation on the other.

Jonathan Holmes, host of the ABC's Media Watch, put it to me this way: "Ray Finkelstein is contrary to the basic instincts of those appearing. I think the media are basically anti-regulatory, and the judiciary are regulatory by nature." Holmes added that it would be "primeval", for instance, to begin issuing "media licences".

Littlemore's opening line about mistaking error for defamation struck at the heart of most journalists' testimonies: that common and criminal law, combined with a cultural sense of propriety and market competition, is sufficient regulation and provides those mistreated by malicious or inaccurate stories with vindication or compensation.

"The brutal reality," Littlemore said, "is that if a case is settled, lawyers get less money. The reality is, lawyers keep cases going too long … Plaintiffs can't afford to sue, mostly."

It's a difficult point to ignore: if we argue that the law provides for those injured by journalistic excess, we must also accept that there are serious hurdles to accessing said justice.

The competing professional reflexes of the media and the judiciary are not the only fault-line of these proceedings. A deep lack of trust is, also.

I spoke to Margaret Simons, media writer for Crikey, author of Journalism at the Crossroads and a witness at the Sydney hearings; Errol Simper, the 33-year veteran media writer at The Australian; and Jonathan Holmes - and none was in any doubt as to the motivations of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in establishing the inquiry. "It's clearly politically motivated," Simons said. The rest felt the same. "Who is Ray Finkelstein?" Simper asked. "Why was he appointed? Is he mates with Conroy?"

Contradictions abound. The media inquiry hasn't piqued passions here in the way the Leveson inquiry has in Britain, and for good reason: the industrialised corruption and sordid nexus of police, politicians and press men in Britain hasn't been replicated here.

"Not yet," some say, as a way of arguing for press regulation, while others argue that it's absurd and offensive to pre-emptively compare our press with Britain's. This is just one of many irreconcilable tensions.

Avaaz, an activist organisation that claims 250,000 Australian members, gave testimony at the Sydney hearings. I expected Jacobin zealotry, but listened instead to a young, polite and well-spoken young man. Still, I gritted my teeth as I listened to his anaemic mantra: "We need more diversity."

It was put to him that the internet provided an increasing spectrum of independent news and opinion sites, but this was dismissed. "We don't think it's enough." He didn't have any suggestions, really, about how to compel this into existence.

I would have also put it to our young man that the media mogul is a phenomenon in decline, and that if he feels not enough Australians are reading "intelligent" sources, I would remind him that it is not the job of government to corral people to "approved" news sources or to legislate for people's intelligence or political interest.

It's also true to say that a concentration of ownership does not equal a concentration of opinion. There are more thoughtful arguments, though, for press regulation.

Only yesterday did a friend say to me that you don't hear engineers boast that if their industry wasn't up to scratch - if a lack of professional standards meant that any building you occupied could collapse - that society, like their shoddy workmanship, would fall apart.

They don't say this - and it might be ridiculous if they did - but it is undeniably true. The same applies to doctors and nurses and so many other professions.

"Journalism," Stuart Littlemore said, "is not a profession. There's no accountability whatever. It may be a craft, but it is not a profession. I feel very strongly about this. There are no enforceable professional standards."

He's right. But does it matter? The media is arguably no more important than doctors or nurses or pilots for a safe and stable society, and, however noble the defence of free speech by journalists, it is an arrogance and a sense of exceptionalism that promotes it above all other principles. It's an axiom, too, that free speech must be accompanied by responsibilities.

But free speech is a principle different to, say, engineering integrity, in that it's a principle best served by an absence of regulation. This seems to me to be a reasonable philosophical basis for media exceptionalism.

The thoughtful Jay Rosen, in a recent piece for The Drum, detailed a troubling culture in News Ltd - and one that's been echoed to me by former News journos - but if you read Rosen's piece through, he could not come up with any regulatory solution, just the suggestion of more external and internal criticism. Fine.

And here's the rub: to state that you find Today Tonight or The Australian or 2GB repugnant is not clever or useful, however deep your conviction. If there are problems, then the road to regulation is a difficult one, delicately balancing freedom of speech with protections of the individual. This requires a sobriety and a humility that have been sorely lacking.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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