Monday, March 18, 2013

The Foresight of Justice Kennedy

Since the 1950s the Longview, Wash. City Council has opened its public meetings with prayer, as Congress has done for 239 years. But fear of a lawsuit from groups like the ALCU has caused the mayor to tell the local ministerial association that it is “not acceptable” for ministers who volunteer to give a Christian prayer that refers to Jesus.

To their credit, the ministers refused to give a generic prayer that violates the convictions of their faith.

So, for fear of an ACLU threat, city officials decided to exclude ministers simply because their faith teaches them to pray a particular way.

In 1992, the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of public prayer. Justice Anthony Kennedy warned that when the government dictates that public prayers must be generic or avoid references that are unique to any particular faith, like referencing Jesus, it is constitutionally problematic.

Surprised? That’s because you can’t believe everything you read in the news releases of groups that want to cleanse all traces of religion from the public square.

Kennedy explained that allowing the government to dictate the content of prayer can create a state religion and disguise religious hostility under the cloak of neutrality.

Now, some 20 years later, reports indicate that the city of Longview is foregoing Kennedy’s insight. As The Daily News reported, “‘Christ’ ban signals apparent end to Longview council meeting invocation.”

This is a mistake of constitutional proportions. Kennedy’s opinion concerned a prayer given at a public school graduation exercise, but his warning applies equally to cases challenging public invocations given before legislative meetings.

Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court decided Marsh v. Chambers, which denied an atheist’s attempt to stop the Nebraska Legislature from opening sessions in prayer. The court rejected the claim, noting that the first Congress voted to hire chaplains to open sessions with prayer three days before finalizing the wording of the First Amendment. The court wisely reasoned that finding legislative prayers unconstitutional would foolishly accuse the Founding Fathers of violating the Constitution - even as they were writing it!

Following Marsh v. Chambers, some questioned whether the government could place limits on the types of public prayers that are offered. Likely well-intentioned officials began imposing restrictions on the content of the prayers because they believed that audiences would be more comfortable with a generic prayer. It was this sentiment that gave rise to Kennedy’s warning in Lee v. Weisman that government should not and cannot dictate a form of prayer.

Unfortunately, some courts have ignored his warning.

In 2011, one lower court scoffed at the notion that mandating a non-descript, religiously neutral prayer would create a challenge for local governments. But the Longview debacle demonstrates that demanding a person leave their faith at the door of city hall is indeed a real problem.

Since 2004, secularist groups like the ACLU, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have brought 17 different federal lawsuits to prevent people from praying according to their personal beliefs. Instead, the secularists ask courts to banish the historic tradition outright or to so neuter prayers that they become meaningless.

In the next few weeks, the Supreme Court will have an opportunity to weigh in again on challenges to public prayer. The Town of Greece, N.Y. has asked the high court to reverse a federal appeals court decision striking down a prayer practice because too many of the prayers were Christian. Let’s pray the Supreme Court gets this one right.


Don’t attack Britain’s oldies – they keep the economy going

The growing army of working over-65s dispels the idea that the elderly burden the young

When I worked at The Scotsman, news editors were always looking out for stories portraying Glasgow in a positive light. The newspaper was anxious to overcome perceptions of an Edinburgh bias, so there was great excitement at conference one morning over a study hailing Glasgow as the “youngest city in Europe”, with an average age of 36. Much discussion followed about the city becoming a cosmopolitan magnet for the young, until a Glaswegian colleague spoiled it all by stating the obvious. “They’re young,” he said, “because when they’re not, they’re deid.”

It was an inarguable point. To be a “young” city, or country, is no boast: it tends to mean poverty, sickness and low life expectancy. But the converse is also true: as a country becomes more prosperous, its people become healthier and live longer. To note that Britain is “rapidly ageing” is another way of saying that things are getting rapidly better. The air is cleaner, the roads are safer, our hospitals (for all their problems) can equip us with new knees or hips to keep us moving and working. The political panic about the “ageing population” is the equivalent of saying: Oh my God, we’re all going to live.

This, at least, was the reaction to the House of Lords report yesterday peering a little into the future. It found that, by 2030, the number of over-65s will rise by a third. The new Royal baby can expect to be writing a letter to himself (or herself) in July 2113, because half of children born nowadays will likely become centenarians. Cities such as Glasgow have their own problems, but most Brits will live longer than ever. That ought to be great news – in Westminster, though, it is seen as a “demographic timebomb”, and an impending avalanche of dribbling NHS customers.

The truth is obvious to anyone who has done any shopping and looked at the age of the cashier: the over-65s are not just fitter than ever, but working harder than ever and paying more tax than ever. Ten years ago, 500,000 pensioners were working, and by the peak of the boom that number was 700,000. But it didn’t stop there. Throughout the great recession, Britain’s grey workforce have been working harder than ever. Almost a million of them are now employed – behind checkout desks, at the office or even setting up companies. The proportion of elderly people in work has doubled over a decade.

Neuroscience has now proved what many long suspected: that the brain accumulates wisdom and older workers tend to make better decisions. In the old days, health could be a problem. Now, medicine has advanced to the extent that a 76-year-old with one functioning lung can be elected pope and 85-year-old pontiffs resign because death is too distant a prospect.

The nature of work is changing, too: the Church of England will next week enthrone a former oilman for whom religion is a second career. As retirement becomes a process, rather than an event, pensioners find themselves with more energy than ever.

There are two ways of seeing this. One is to salute the industriousness of those whose taxes built the welfare state, and still choose to keep at it. The other is to imagine that the “baby boomers” are now stealing the jobs of the young and burdening the NHS, having grown undeservedly rich from the property boom. In recent years, this latter argument has morphed into the “intergenerational fairness” agenda, which is worth taking seriously, because it is one of the more potent and sinister ideas of recent years.

The complaint of the generational jihadists is based on a valid point: that the housing boom of the past two decades has left pensioners living in properties worth mind-boggling amounts. Now and again, there is talk (even among young Tory strategists) about taxing the “unearned” income of the old and passing the cash to the young to address the elderly’s “unearned” boost in assets. The baby-boom generation have anyway benefited from free university education, runs the argument, and their legacy has been a massive debt that will take decades to repay. So it’s time for the taxman to impose a little “fairness”, perhaps with a wealth tax.

There is, of course, no moral justification for penalising those who have saved just because they happened to do so before an asset boom (induced, incidentally, by an easy-money policy that continues to this day). Nor would it be reasonable to begrudge NHS care, no matter how expensive, to those who built this country and, in many cases, defended it.

But if the Government is wrong to regard pensioners as charity cases, it is also wrong to dispense so much charity that it cannot really afford. The idea of free bus passes, for example, is hard to defend in the age of cuts. A minister in the last government told me that he started work on abolishing them, and envisaged £1 billion of savings. He was amazed to see David Cameron pledge to keep them – the first of many pledges to ring-fence benefits for the elderly, who were by no means demanding the concessions. The irony of last year’s Budget was that George Osborne was lambasted for a granny tax while giving the largest ever increase to the state pension. “We should have been telling pensioners: 'You’ve never had it so good’,” one Cabinet minister tells me.

The generational jihadists say that this generosity is because the baby boomers are now the most powerful lobby group in the country. But the truth is rather more mundane. Politicians, of all persuasions, seem to view pensioners with a mixture of fear and condescension – imagining that they do little else but stay at home, count their benefits and vote for the party that offers the most. A fear of the grey vote led the Coalition to make the most expensive ring-fence pledge of all: a “triple lock” on pensions, which have been rising far faster than salaries. This focuses pain on working-age benefits and, of course, students.

There is no oldies’ union that demanded a triple lock on pensions. It wasn’t in the Tory manifesto. It emerged because politicians panicked, and imagined that pensioners want greater welfare. And this sprang from a patronising and out-of-date view about how to please the over-65s – who, incidentally, account for a fifth of the increase in employment under Cameron.

Michael Caine, who turned 80 yesterday, spoke for many when he wondered a few years ago if the old were now carrying the young. “We’ve got 3.5 million layabouts on benefits and I’m 76, getting up at 6am to go to work to keep them,” he complained when filming Harry Brown. “Let’s get everybody back to work so we can save a couple of billion and cut tax, not keep sticking it up.”

The idea of a clash of generations is based on a false idea: that the working-age must support the pension-age. Each day, a growing army of healthy (and much sought-after) British workers over 65 is disproving this notion. The balance between tax and welfare will have to change, but the shifting demographics make odd grounds for panic. Britons are leading longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than ever before – as political problems go, it’s a good one to have.


Parents' social service hell after one anonymous letter : Judge attacks Baby P council for 'knee-jerk' abuse investigation

A mother told of her nightmare yesterday after being secretly investigated for child abuse by social workers who received a  single, anonymous letter.

The woman was left ‘terrified’ that her six-year-old daughter would be removed in the probe by Haringey Council – the authority at the centre of the Baby P scandal.

After winning a ‘landmark’ case yesterday, she also spoke of her anger that the local authority had sought to avoid being named in the affair to prevent further public embarrassment.

Officials had obtained three mobile numbers and a landline phone number for the family after contacting the girl’s school without her parents’ knowledge.

The mother – who works as a social worker – said she was ‘horrified’ when a student social worker later contacted the couple to belatedly reveal they were investigating allegations of mistreatment.

Yesterday a High Court judge condemned Haringey for its ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to the unsigned letter, which was riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.

This included approaching the child’s GP and her school to ask for any signs of ‘emotional and physical abuse’ of the child before they had spoken to her parents.

Judge Anthony Thornton said the child was never at risk of harm from her middle class parents, who had never been in trouble with police or had previous contact with social services.

He quashed the ‘unlawful’ decision to start the investigation and ordered the council to pay £2,000 compensation to the couple and legal costs expected to run to tens of thousands of pounds.

After the hearing, the girl’s mother urged the Government to step in to sort out Haringey’s beleaguered child protection department.

She expressed fears that while the council squandered taxpayers’ cash investigating spurious complaints it risked overlooking genuine cases.

She said: ‘This has been a dreadful ordeal that has taken a huge emotional and financial strain on my family. Although I knew it was groundless, I was terrified they would take my child away.

‘We were accused of smacking our child. As it happens, we don’t smack, but if the council starts investigating all parents who occasionally smack their child to discipline them, they would end up looking at 90 per cent of families in the borough.’

The woman and her partner are both experienced social workers and so knew the council’s reaction was excessive.

They brought a legal challenge to the council’s decision to investigate them under Section 47 of the 1989 Children Act, which the judge described as an ‘intrusive’ assessment of a child and her parents to determine if she was being harmed.

The mother said: ‘Because we know the system we had the courage to stand up to the council and take it this far, but I pity the many other parents who aren’t able to do this and have to suffer in silence.

This is the first time that a section 47 investigation has been successfully challenged and overturned.’

The council launched the investigation after its ‘social services child abuse department’ received the unsigned letter dated March 2011 from someone claiming to be a neighbour of the family saying he was worried about the child.

The judge ruled that approaching the GP and school without seeking the parent’s permission was ‘erroneous’.

He said: ‘These were serious departures from permissible practice and these actions were unlawful.’ The child was not at risk of significant harm and it... was highly likely the anonymous referral was malicious.’

A Haringey Council spokesman said: ‘Our handling of this case fell below the standards that we would expect, and we apologise to the family concerned.’


Ita Buttrose joins growing chorus of prominent Australians who don't back the Australian Labor Party's proposed media regulations

AUSTRALIAN of The Year Ita Buttrose has slammed Labor's media reforms saying the public should be the ultimate judge of what is appropriate journalism.

The publishing queen told News Limited she was disappointed with the government's package of reforms, announced this week, and did not believe greater regulation of the press was necessary.

"I don't think we need any further regulation," Ms Buttrose said.

"There are already enough regulatory authorities and it's not really clear what the problem is with the current way of doing things.

"At the end of the day the public makes their own decisions. If they feel we've done the wrong thing they switch us off or don't buy us. The public should be the ultimate arbiter."

Ms Buttrose has been a staple of the Australian media landscape for decades. She was the founding editor of Cleo and editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph in the 1980s.

In January Ms Buttrose was announced as the 2013 Australian of The Year at a ceremony on the lawns of Parliament House presented by Julia Gillard.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has come under fire for Labor's media reforms, with many slamming the package as an attempt to constrain freedom of the press.

Senator Conroy has said the measures would be put into parliament next week and needed to be passed by Thursday or they would be abandoned.

This morning he said it was not an imposition to ask parliament to pass the laws quickly because the issue had been debated since 2007.

"For people to suggest that there hasn't been an effective debate around the country, they are just ignoring the facts," he told ABC radio.

He said some of the media coverage on the reforms had been "hysterical" considering the concepts in the package had been in place in the US and UK for years.

Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said he believed it was unlikely the reforms would pass through parliament.

He said Senator Conroy had done a poor job at selling the package.   "He could not sell fresh fish to starving seals," Mr Turnbull told the Nine Network.

Labor needs to secure the votes of several independent MPs in order to pass the reforms.  But former Labor MP now independent Craig Thomson and independent Rob Oakeshott have both indicated they won't back the package.



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, AUSTRALIAN POLITICSDISSECTING 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   here.  Email me (John Ray) here


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