Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee was the first speaker at the Spring Dialogue for the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. You can see his, and all of the other speakers’, talks here.

Tabbernee discussed the death penalty and its role in separation of church and state.

I should say from the outset I have a fairly lawyerly approach to separation and Establishment Clause questions, so I wasn’t overly inclined to be convinced that we should consider the death penalty an issue relevant to this topic. I don’t see an obvious application of the Lemon Test to the death penalty.

That said, Rev. Tabbernee makes an interesting case. He points out that all of the secular utilitarian justifications for the death penalty just aren’t supported by the data. He outlines three historical justifications: deterrence, closure for families and safety to society.

I don’t consider the second a compelling reason at all. Whether families get more closure from the death of a criminal isn’t a major concern to me, but deterrence and safety are both good justifications for a law…if they are true.

Tabbernee doesn’t go into a lot of detail on deterrence and safety, but it seems obvious to me that the astronomically small number of criminals who get the death penalty compared to the overall number of crimes, makes the deterrence argument pretty weak. Amnesty International points out that if you compare states with the death penalty to those without, you so no significant difference in the data. The overwhelming consensus of criminologists is that death penalty, at least as it exists in the United States, has no real deterrence effect above the threat of incarceration.

As for the safety question, I see no difference between the safety effect provided by life in prison without the possibility of parole and the death penalty. Granted, there is always the astronomically low possibility of escape or pardon, but that can’t possibly be enough to justify the negative effects associated with the costs of the death penalty.

Tabbernee misspoke in his talk when he said that California had spent $4 billion on executing 13 people over the last fifteen years. It is actually since 1978. Nevertheless, it is the case that California spends something like $130 million a year to keep the institution alive. A ballot measure that would have ended the death penalty and put all of the current California death row inmates in prison for life failed by 4% last November.

Since nobody in their right mind is advocating for a streamlining process that would make the death penalty cheaper, it seems that the economic argument against it is quite compelling, at least in California. I haven’t looked at the costs in Oklahoma. That might make for a pretty interesting article.

Tabbernee gets into the separation of church and state element of the discussion when he looks at the only justifications really left for the death penalty, and those are basically religious. Particularly, in the United States the death penalty is justified using the Bible. Basically, the chain of logic is that the King, or in our country the state, derives its authority from God. This actually makes a lot of sense Biblically. In the Old Testament, the king is chosen by God and anointed by the prophet. In the New Testament, there are passages that explicitly admonish Christians to submit to governing authorities, because those authorities wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t God’s will (Romans 13:1-7).

Tabbernee argues that the death penalty is a carryover of this concept and is an example of the state acting as God’s judgement on earth. He points to a speech by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before the Chicago Divinity School to demonstrate as much.

Here is the most relevant passage:

This is not the Old Testament, I emphasize, but St. Paul. One can understand his words as referring only to lawfully constituted authority, or even only to lawfully constituted authority that rules justly. But the core of his message is that government—however you want to limit that concept—derives its moral authority from God. It is the “minister of God” with powers to “revenge,” to “execute wrath,” including even wrath by the sword (which is unmistakably a reference to the death penalty). Paul of course did not believe that the individual possessed any such powers. Only a few lines before this passage, he wrote, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” And in this world the Lord repaid—did justice—through His minister, the state.

Scalia, a devout Catholic, later in the speech articulates why he disagrees with the current church doctrine, which is almost always opposed to the death penalty.

Tabbernee rightly points out that the United States was founded upon a rejection of the divine right of kings, and the separation of church and state outlined in the constitution enshrines that reject in our law and history.

Scalia would probably object that it is only when a nation legitimately represents its people that the divine right of kings applies. He explicitly frames Paul’s passage in Romans as meaning as much. How that squares with Paul’s passage being an admonishment to submit to the rule of a pagan Roman government that routinely oppressed and murdered its own subjects, with no recognition of basic human rights, qualifies as the kind of government that fits this description, I couldn’t say. Why Rome would qualify as a legitimate state under which divine authority was justified, but Christian England which by every measure was more civilized than Rome with respect to its treatment of its subjects would not, seems slightly insane. Then again, I’ve never considered Scalia particularly intelligent or cogent.

Tabbernee’s argument is that it isn’t up to the state to enact vengeance. Leave that up to God. Where that leaves nonbelievers or those who don’t believe that there is a god that punishes, I couldn’t say. Scalia actually articulates a possible secular moral justification for opposition to the death penalty in his speech.

Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post–Christian Europe, and has least support in the church–going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next? The Christian attitude is reflected in the words Robert Bolt’s play has Thomas More saying to the headsman: “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.” And when Cranmer asks whether he is sure of that, More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to Him.” For the nonbeliever, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence. What a horrible act!

I don’t find this line of thought particularly compelling. Mind you, it is just as easy for someone who is a nonbeliever to take other stances on the value of human life. The Soviet Union and Mao’s China certainly did. For a less obviously wrong stance, you might look to the work of the atheist moral philosopher Peter Singer, who thinks that some human life is of less value that the lives of some animals. Mind you, Singer is an opponent of the death penalty as it exists.

Tabbernee argues that capital punishment is “unnecessary, morally unjustified…, fallible…, ineffective at its goals… and exorbitantly expensive.”

I asked him to expand on this fallible point in the Q&A, because it is the basis for much of my opposition to the death penalty. Like Singer, I don’t find the death penalty inherently immoral. I’m opposed to it for epistemological reasons. The state is acting on behalf of me. To the extent that the state is likely to make a mistake and execute an innocent person, I’m opposed to it. It is as if I’m executing an innocent person, something I’m willing to take pretty drastic measures to avoid.

There is a lot of reason to think that we’ve executed innocent people. I’m strongly in favor of, for example, legislation that would mandate that any execution must involve DNA evidence. No person should ever be executed based on circumstantial or eye witness evidence. Both are notoriously unreliable.

Even this wouldn’t solve the problem of corrupt testing labs like we had have here in Oklahoma.

Mind you, I’d still oppose capital punishment even if I was convinced that the system got the right person every time. The economic argument is pretty devastating. Oklahoma probably doesn’t pay nearly as much per death row prisoner per year as California, but I’ll bet you a Thunder ticket that it is more than the cost of life without parole.

All of this is to say that, while I agree with Tabbernee in his opposition to capital punishment, I don’t agree with his assessment that it should be framed within the context of separation of church and state. The economic and innocents executed argument is much more compelling to me than the sanctity of life opposition. It isn’t to say I wouldn’t come around to it given enough time, but it seems probable to me that Tabbernee is finding his opposition to the death penalty in his faith as much as proponents find it in theirs.

It is superficially compelling that the only justification left on the table for the death penalty is a religious one, and the courts should remove that justification from the table. I’d agree if I was convinced that most people who support the death penalty are aware enough of the cost and lack of deterrence data. It is probably the case that the public advocates for the death penalty are religious ideologues for the most part, but the average voter probably isn’t tuned in enough on the issue to consider the religious argument the primary reason for favoring legal executions.

This isn’t like creationism, where it is clear to everyone involved that religion is the issue being debated. With creationism, it is the rank and file that appeal to religious justifications, while the ideologues try to frame their arguments in the veneer of science to gain plausibility with the courts. It seems likely to me that it is the other way around with capital punishment. Cranks like Scalia recognize that the only justification left is a religious one, but your average person on the street isn’t likely to cry religious oppression if the death penalty gets ruled unconstitutional.

I’m taking a break from the separation of church and state panel talks to highlight an example of how an Oklahoma public school recently had to admit they were violating the establishment clause.

Hemant Mehta over at the Friendly Atheist Blog had two posts recently on how Muldrow High School has the Ten Commandments in all of its classrooms.

An atheist student complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The FFRF sent the school a letter, warning them that if they didn’t take the plaques down, there would be a lawsuit, and they’d lose.

The local media is portraying this as Christians being persecuted, but that’s a joke. Public schools, like any government institution, shouldn’t be about picking sides on whose faith, or lack-thereof, is right or wrong. You don’t get to hang the Ten Commandments on a classroom wall any more than you get to hang verses from the Koran or excerpt’s from Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not A Christian.

Of course, as soon is it came out publicly who did this, the student and his family began being mistreated. You can see the student, Gage Pulliam, talk about it on Reddit. He also conversed with Hemant.

From his talk with Hemant:

“I want people to know this isn’t me trying to attack religion. This is me trying to create an environment for kids where they can feel equal.”

Gage get’s it. Separation of church and state is about fairness and impartiality. This is a perfect example of the principle I outlined in my talk to the AU-OK panel. You can see that talk in yesterday’s post. I’ll have a more detailed blog post outlining the main themes of my speech soon.

On Monday night, the school board met and decided to do the right thing, over the objection of almost everyone in attendance. Gage is actually having to worry for his safety now. So far, all he’s had are some angry comments and stares. Let’s hope that remains the situation. Gage is a brave kid that deserves our accolades, not our threats.

The Raindrop Turkish House is located on north Classen a few blocks south of the Expressway. This is in the same neighborhood as Lee’s Sandwiches, which I’ve blogged about before. I couldn’t pass up the chance. Dinner finished, my wife, daughter, and I headed for the dialogue.

The Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s annual Spring Dialogue is explicitly billed as a discussion, not a debate. They do have debates, but this wasn’t one of them. In a way, this added an extra element of pressure for me. I can handle playing an adversarial role in a hostile audience, but finding a way to say something unique and interesting to a crowd that already largely agrees with me on policy positions adds an extra element of anxiety. So, I walked in the door with my adrenaline high and nerves on edge.

It doesn’t help that I’d rewritten the outline for my talk three times in the last five days, and still wasn’t happy with it. I also wasn’t sure what to expect from the crowd. If it skewed heavily toward Turkish immigrants, my talk, which focused on the Enlightenment and American history, might require a little more historical context. I wasn’t sure how to cram all of the information I needed to get out into the seven minutes I had available. My stomach was in knots.

The venue was very nice. There was an elevated stage for the speakers to sit at, and miked podium. The audience was situated at circular tables scattered throughout the room, much like you might find at a wedding reception. At the back, the east and south walls were lined with additional chairs, and the west end featured several tables with Turkish dishes, including some of the best baklava I’ve ever eaten. The stuff you get in restaurants around here doesn’t even come close, not that I was dumb enough to eat any before my talk. I was too nervous once I set foot in the door.

I meandered around with my wife and daughter, introducing them to the OK-AU leadership and meeting the other speakers. To my relief, I was neither under- or over-dressed. I’m not a tie and blazer guy, and I’d never be allowed in the Magic Castle. It isn’t that I’m opposed to them or anything, I just don’t own a tie that is less than ten years old, and I’ve outgrown any of the blazers from my college days. I don’t work in an office setting, and the best I can bring myself to get up to is a buttoned shirt and a pair of black slacks. It worked out okay.

Damion, who blogs over at Background Probability, set up a camera to record the whole thing. When the video goes online, I’ll be sure to post it.

A few minutes after seven, we took our seats on the stage. Our moderator, Chas Stewart, welcomed everyone and introduced Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee.

I’ll have a summary and discussion of his speech on the next post.

Last week, the following image turned up in my Facebook feed.

Advertisement in the Oklahoma Gazette

There was some conversation about it, but nobody seemed to know what incident it was referencing.

Well, Dr. Kurt Hochenauer over at Okie Funk made me aware of the rest of the story.

Apparently, former Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner Jim Roth was assaulted at Grandad’s recently for his sexual orientation.

The Oklahoman had a story on it Saturday.

From the Oklahoman:

A check of police records turned up an assault and battery report from April 6 that listed Roth as the victim.

According to the report, Roth and some friends were at the bar for a birthday dinner when a man started making anti-gay comments.

Roth and one of his friends at first ignored the comments but eventually decided to leave, he said.

They were followed out of the bar by the man who made the comments and two of his friends, who attacked them when they got outside, according to the report.

This is really tragic. It is bad enough that a person can’t go out to a bar without being mistreated, but to follow someone outside and physically assault them is really terrible.

There have been other violent crime incidents in Oklahoma City where GLBTQ persons were targeted for their sexual orientation in the last year. In July 2012, a gay man’s car was painted with the word ‘fag’ and firebombed in north Oklahoma City. He received first and second degree burns in the incident. In August, a lesbian woman was beaten and attacked with a knife while her assailant told her “I’m going to make you straight” and “I’m going to kill you.”

Oklahoma has not made the same strides other states have in the recent years on gay rights. The one bright spot in recent memory was in 2011 when Ed Shadid proposed and got passed a measure for Oklahoma City to add sexual orientation into the city’s employment nondiscrimination policy. Instead of hailing it for the step forward that it was, the Oklahoman ran a headline calling it a “controversial sexual orientation measure.” At the time, the Oklahoman refused to support or oppose the measure. The only editorial comment they had was bitching that Oklahoma County had done the same thing in 2005 without getting public input.

While this particular incident is rather obviously a hate crime, as Okie Funk points out, Oklahoma does not cover sexual orientation in its hate crime laws. I’m not entirely sure how federal hate crime laws factor into an incident like this. Federal hate crime charges were filed in an assault and kidnapping case in 2012 in Kentucky. This incident has many of the same elements.

In fact, a few weeks ago the Oklahoma House passed, HJR1009, a resolution reaffirming its opposition to gay marriage 84-0. Not a single person was willing to stand up in the House and vote against it. There were 17 cowardly abstentions, all but one of which was a Democrat. Even worse, a number of the House democrats voted in favor. You can see a list of who voted and who didn’t here.

Nate Silver, the guy that really pissed off Republican pundits when he once again accurately predicted the outcome of nearly every election in the country in 2012, predicts that Oklahoma will be one of the last states to have a majority support for same sex marriage by 2020, just behind Texas and North Carolina.

Roth didn’t originally go public with this story because he didn’t want the bad publicity for himself and Grandad’s, but thanks to the Oklahoman that ship has sailed. Seeing as how Grandad’s are the good guys in this story, let’s hope that they actually gain some business over their public statement.

There are still four separation of church and state bills of concern in the Oklahoma Legislature.

HB1940 designates a number of school activities as a “limited public forum.” The intent of this bill is to create a way for students to proselytize and lead prayer at graduations, ball games and other events. The Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional in 2000. It found that prayers delivered “on school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school’s public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer” violate the endorsement clause. HB1940 has passed the House and is currently in the Education Committee in the Senate.

HB1060, by Sally Kern, is a return of the anti-Sharia bill that has already been ruled unconstitutional. The bill has been reworded so that it doesn’t specifically mention Sharia to avoid the court’s wrath. Instead, it bans Oklahoma courts from looking at any foreign laws in making decisions. HB1060 has passed the House and the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will likely get a vote on the Senate floor soon.

HB1918 offsets the cost to employers imposed upon them by the federal government for refusing to provide contraceptives to employees under the ACA. It is a tax cut for Hobby Lobby for being mean to women. HB1918 is still in the House.

HB1674 is an anti-evolution “academic freedom” bill. It is still in the House.

The Senate has been much more reasonable this session. All of its worst bills are already dead. A few timely visits, letters, phone calls or emails to our Oklahoma State Senators and Representatives can kill these as well.

Last week I wrote about parents complaining their children are being taught Scientology indoctrination by way of Narconon’s anti-drug campaign, and rightly so. The program is pretty awful and based on L. Ron Hubbard’s inaccurate pronouncements about the nature of pharmacology.

At the same time, there is a bill working its way quite rapidly through the Oklahoma legislature. Considering they can’t get Governor Mary Fallin’s tax cut figured out with a Republican supermajority, it is pretty amazing that Senate Bill 295 has sailed through the first chamber 46-0 and is already in the House Public Health Committee. You should be writing your House Representative in favor of this, by the way.

On top of that, earlier in March, all of the counselors at Narconon Arrowhead had their certification revoked. Those who have been following my reporting on this story will remember that back in the 1990s when Narconon was trying to get going in Oklahoma, it ended up in a protracted fight with the State Mental Health Board that ended up in courts. Eventually, Narconon took advantage of a loophole in the law that allowed them to seek certification from a private entity. Apparently, due to all of the bad publicity and pressure, that private entity has even withdrawn its support for Narconon.

The former Narconon Arrowhead President Lucas Catton is probably glad he bailed on the facility and the church.

Now, as if all of that wasn’t bad enough, five new lawsuits have been filed against Narconon Arrowhead.

From the Tulsa World:

Five lawsuits filed Thursday allege that an Oklahoma drug rehabilitation facility engaged in false representation, fraud and deceit in its dealing with patients.

Narconon Arrowhead’s program “has the appearance of being nothing more than a pyramid scheme and sham” that operates to extort money while acting as a recruiting tool for the Church of Scientology, according to one of the lawsuits filed Thursday in Pittsburg County District Court.

The other four lawsuits, brought by former Narconon patients or their family members, make similar claims.

This is on top of the three wrongful death lawsuits that are already working their way through the system.

None of these new lawsuits is for more than $25,000 a piece, which is a drop in the bucket for an organization backed by a number of Hollywood celebrities. Still, it is one more black eye for an organization that is already reeling from tons of bad press both in and out of the state. I’ve set up a Google Alert for the words “Scientology” and “Oklahoma,” and no more than a day or two goes by recently where I don’t get another headline popping up in my inbox.

Prepare to commence schadenfreude.

Every once in a while, I’ll scan through the Friendly Atheist blog over at Patheos for the word “Oklahoma.” His site is a veritable torrent of news stories, and it isn’t unusual for Oklahoma to end up in his cross hairs. Last week was no exception. Hemant picked up on a story from the Tulsa World.

It turns out that the Tulsa branch of Nebraska-based Voss Lighting, a company who has both a business and a biblical mission statement, doesn’t like hiring non-Christians. In an interview, a potential employee was asked about when he became saved, which churches he had attended in the last ten years, and whether he would come in off hours for Bible studies.

This was a huge mistake. It turns out that discriminating against an employee or potential employee on religious grounds, even if you are a for-profit that has a religious mission statement (hell, especially if you are a for-profit that has a religious mission statement), is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Who knew? You’d think a company that has been around since 1939 would know better. Idiots.

I wish a company would do that to me when I was applying for a job. I wouldn’t have to work for a year when I got done suing the pants off of them. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Voss trucks plastered with Bible verses wandering around Edmond and OKC.

/engage “Google”

Yep, they have a location in OKC. If you are looking for a job, and want to get a year’s worth of free salary, go apply with these morons. Maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll grill you about your religious preferences before turning you down.