Big new British monument to answered prayers

September 13, 2020 • 8:45 am

As Britain races towards secularism faster than the U.S., the faithful are making their last stands. One such stand is this Mobius strip of a memorial slated to be started next spring in Coleshill, near Birmingham. As this article in The Times explains, it’s to be called “The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer”, and it’s huge. (Of course, an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayer would be much, much larger!)

Click to read; it may be paywalled, but judicious inquiry will yield you the document:

Here’s how big it is:

At 169ft tall, the monument will be just a few inches shorter than Nelson’s Column in London but almost three times the height of the Angel of the North, Anthony Gormley’s 66ft-high steel structure in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.


It’s a big ‘un!  It was envisioned by Richard Gamble, former chaplain of the Leicester City football club, who had a revelation to build it.  He began a crowdfunding campaign had an international competition to design it, and then crowdfunded the construction. It’ll contain a gazillion answered prayers (actually, about a million).

Each brick in the wall will be associated with a Christian prayer and feature a unique code that can be read with a smartphone app. Visitors can use their phones to learn about the prayers individuals feel were answered, as well as the personal stories behind them. For bricks out of reach, the app can zoom in on a map of the monument.

Gamble, 51, and a team of volunteers have been collecting people’s testimonies online since 2018, noticing a surge in messages during the pandemic.

“Until this year it had been a small trickle,” he said. “But then it started accelerating. During lockdown it went mad.”

They need £9.35 million to finish it off, but, you know, God will provide; all you have to do is pray. So far God has prompted the faithful to ante up nearly £6 million. And you can submit answered prayers here.

It’s curious that God decided to answer more prayers during the lockdown (were more people were praying?), but the one prayer he didn’t answer was “God, please make this pandemic disappear.” But of course He works in mysterious ways, and one of those ways is killing off lots of innocent people.

The article gives examples of some of the prayers that will appear on the bricks:

The apparent miracles people have shared range from the dramatic to the mundane.

One person wrote about how their baby daughter had been rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage but survived and is now a healthy five-year-old. A doctor told a story about how, after 20 minutes kneeling in prayer, he and his team were sent a delivery of personal protective equipment that had been cancelled. Others also talked about mending difficult relationships and overcoming serious illnesses.

At the other end of the spectrum, one person explained how they had managed to have an “impossible meeting” with a dentist while suffering a swollen gum during lockdown.

“God is sooooooooooo good! He listens to our hearts’ cry,” they wrote.

But God is also sooooooo bad! He’s killed a million people in this pandemic, and he could have stopped it. At any rate, there’s been some discussion about “inclusivity”—not racial inclusivity but religious inclusivity. Not all religions are Christian, so they’ll be an exhibit inside about how adherents to other faiths pray.

I still think the humanists should build an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayers nearby, but to make its point it would have to be larger than this one, and that would cost too much.

h/t: Dom, Jez


Greg Lukianoff of FIRE outlines how colleges should commit to freedom of speech

August 3, 2020 • 10:30 am

Here’s a short video of Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), outlining five actions people can take to ensure free speech on college campuses. These are, he says, things that people should demand of all college presidents.  I’ll give a short list of What Is To Be Done, but watch the video:

1.) Stop violating the law if you’re a public university with speech codes that abrogate the First Amendment. There should in fact be no speech codes in colleges beyond those affirming the principles and exceptions of the First Amendment.

2.) Ask the university to reaffirm its commitment to freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of inquiry.  The University of Chicago has led the way in this with its Chicago Principles, though various recent ideological statements by administrators and departments threaten to erode the freedoms of speech and inquiry by creating a chilling effect, one in which University members are implicitly urged to adopt a stance of ideological conformity.

3.) “Defend the free speech rights of your students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early.” This happened here when the students, faculty, and alumni asked for Steve Bannon’s invitation to speak to be withdrawn. The university merely made this statement:

“Professor Luigi Zingales of the Booth School of Business is planning an event with the tentative format of a debate on subjects including the economic benefits of globalization and immigration, and has invited Steve Bannon, former chief strategist and senior adviser in the Trump administration, to debate an expert in the field, with Zingales serving as moderator. More details will be available soon from the Booth School of Business.

“The University of Chicago is deeply committed to upholding the values of academic freedom, the free expression of ideas, and the ability of faculty and students to invite the speakers of their choice.

“Any recognized student group, faculty group, University department or individual faculty member can invite a speaker to campus. We recognize that there will be debate and disagreement over this event; as part of our commitment to free expression, the University supports the ability of protesters and invited speakers to express a wide range of views.”

Now isn’t that great? (Bannon didn’t come, by the way.)

4.) “Teach free speech from Day One.” Every school should, says Lukianoff, have orientation sessions for incoming students to instruct them in the principles, philosophy, and meaning of free speech. I’ve long suggested this. These are not the usual sessions on “hate speech,” but a discussion of the principles of the First Amendment and why they’re important. (There could, for instance, be readings by John Stuart Mill or the viewing of Hitchens’s excellent “free speech” video.)

5.) “Be scholars; collect data.” By this Lukianoff means polling the faculty and students to find out what the climate for free speech is. That will determine what reforms need to be effected. Note that FIRE is willing to help any college that asks to formulate a free-speech policy.


At long last, the University of Chicago contravenes its own principles of political and ideological neutrality

July 23, 2020 • 12:00 pm

One by one, elite American colleges and universities (as well as the less prestigious ones) are giving in to Wokeness, rushing to embrace Critical Race Theory, trying to suppress “hate speech,” and indoctrinating students with a preferred ideology when they arrive on campus.  The University of Chicago hasn’t been immune to this, but I’ve taken great pride in the fact that, compared to others, we have remained the Great Holdout among elite colleges.

A large reason for this is because we have several Foundational Principles and Policies that undergird how the University is run. One comprises the Free Speech Principles as outlined by the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression. These so-called “Chicago Principles,” mandating near-absolute free speech (and in a private university!), have been adopted by over fifty of our peer institutions.  At Chicago you can say anything you want that’s in line with the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment, and nobody is going to punish you. You may of course experience “counterspeech,” but the University itself will neither praise nor censure you; it will just say, “Professor X has the right to say whatever she wants.”

The other Foundational principle is the “Kalven Report,” known as the Kalvin Committee’s Report on The University Role in Political and Social Action. I’ve described this report before, but you should read the short document for yourself. It ensures that the University as a whole takes no stands as an institution on political, moral, or ideological issues, but remains neutral. Faculty and other individuals are of course free to write and speak about their own views, but the University does not express official views on politics, ideology, or social issues. Why is this principle so important here? The report explains (my emphasis):

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.

The main exception to the Kalven Principles, outlined in the report, occurs when there are cases in “which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” In such instances, the University is justifiably obliged to combat the threats to its underlying principles. Otherwise, we espouse neutrality. During the two great crises of my college years: the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Era of segregation, demonstration, and victory for equality, the University of Chicago remained completely silent. Likewise with the McCarthy “Red-baiting” era.

This estimable principle, which was erected to ensure intellectual independence and freedom of expression, is being dismantled quickly.  In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, departments are planning or issuing statements that take explicit ideological, moral, and political stands that have nothing to do with the mission of the university to seek truth wherever it lies. Here’s one from our Department of English Language and Literature, representing the views of the department as a whole, about racial inequality. I’ve put the full text below it (click on screenshot to see it in situ):

What it said (the bolding is mine):

The English department at the University of Chicago believes that Black Lives Matter, and that the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks matter, as do thousands of others named and unnamed who have been subject to police violence. As literary scholars, we attend to the histories, atmospheres, and scenes of anti-Black racism and racial violence in the United States and across the world. We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality. As part of our commitment to funding and fostering scholarship in Black studies, in the coming academic year (2020-2021) we are prioritizing consideration of applicants who work in and with Black studies for admission to our PhD program.

The department is invested in the study of African American, African, and African diaspora literature and media, as well as in the histories of political struggle, collective action, and protest that Black, Indigenous and other racialized peoples have pursued, both here in the United States and in solidarity with international movements. Together with students, we attend both to literature’s capacity to normalize violence and derive pleasure from its aesthetic expression, and ways to use the representation of that violence to reorganize how we address making and breaking life. Our commitment is not just to ideas in the abstract, but also to activating histories of engaged art, debate, struggle, collective action, and counterrevolution as contexts for the emergence of ideas and narratives.

English as a discipline has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness. Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why. And while inroads have been made in terms of acknowledging the centrality of both individual literary works and collective histories of racialized and colonized people, there is still much to do as a discipline and as a department to build a more inclusive and equitable field for describing, studying, and teaching the relationship between aesthetics, representation, inequality, and power.

In light of this historical reality, we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere. In support of this aim, we have been expanding our range of research and teaching through recent hiring, mentorship, and admissions initiatives that have enriched our department with a number of Black scholars and scholars of color who are innovating in the study of the global contours of anti-Blackness and in the equally global project of Black freedom. Our collective enrichment is also a collective debt; this department reaffirms the urgency of ensuring institutional and intellectual support for colleagues and students working in the Black studies tradition, alongside whom we continue to deepen our intellectual commitments to this tradition. As such, we believe all scholars have a responsibility to know the literatures of African American, African diasporic, and colonized peoples, regardless of area of specialization, as a core competence of the profession.

We acknowledge the university’s and our field’s complicated history with the South Side. While we draw intellectual inspiration from the work of writers deeply connected to Chicago’s south side, including Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, and Richard Wright, we are also attuned to the way that the university has been a vehicle of intellectual and economic opportunity for some in the community, and a site of exclusion and violence for others. Part of our commitment to the struggle for Black lives entails vigorous participation in university-wide conversations and activism about the university’s past and present role in the historically Black neighborhood that houses it.

Note that because it is the statement of the department as a whole, it is also a statement from the University. For at the University of Chicago, more than anywhere else, it is the faculty who are considered to run the school. Departments admit students, set curricula, and in those ways are the heart of the University. Departments have no more right to take ideological or political positions than does the University as a whole, represented administratively by the President and Provost. Nevertheless, we have here a specimen of performative wokeness that violates in may ways the Kalven Report.

Now in some respects the English Department statement also defends the mission of the University, and in that way is fine. It’s within a department’s purview to emphasize equality, assuring students that their freedom of expression, and their rights, will not be abridged on the grounds of ethnicity, race, or sex.  Likewise, it’s within a department’s mission to set its curriculum, and if they want to increase the number of courses on ethnic studies because they think it’s educationally useful in today’s society, then that’s fine, too.

But this statement goes far beyond that. Have a look at the first paragraph. First, the Department explicitly aligns itself not with racial equality, but with the Black Lives Matter movement, which holds to a specific political and ideological view. Have a look at their “What We Believe” page, which says a lot about “state-sanctioned violence”, the death of Trayvon Martin and  Michael Brown (with the shooters exculpated by Obama’s Justice Department), “cisgender privilege”, and a pledge to dismantle the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” Black Lives Matter is a political movement, one that adheres closely to the tenets of Critical Race Theory. Note too the Department’s statement, “We are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality.” Yes, there’s nothing wrong with holding that view, but doing so as a department violates the Kalven Report in a big way. It is a statement not of academic commitment, but of political commitment. Even in the Sixties we saw no departments, much less the University, issuing such statements. The conflation of academic with political commitments, violating the Kalven dicta, persists throughout the statement. The bolded part at the end again expresses a political commitment.

I emphasize again that during the racial turmoil of the Sixties, inarguably more serious and far-reaching than the troubles going on now, the University remained silent. There were no statements like the above. Individual faculty and students, of course, had plenty to say!

The rest of the Department’s statement, while it could be interpreted as a valid commitment to change the curriculum and to ensure equality of students, is also couched in cringeworthy wokespeak, using much of the argot of postmodernism. The view that “all scholars have a responsibility to know the literatures of African American, African diasporic, and colonized peoples, regardless of area of specialization, as a core competence of the profession”, implies that this is a duty not just of English students and professors, but of all students and professors. That is a prescription for everyone, not just a requirement for those in that niche of English studies.

More important, the statement is one that enforces ideological rigidity and conformity upon the Department. If you were an untenured professor in this department, would you dare challenge the tenets of Black Lives Matter, or question affirmative action? No way! The statement above is ideologically rigid, implying that the Department will brook no dissent. So while you could argue that it’s just mandating and explaining a new curriculum, you’d be disingenuous to think that it isn’t also putting in place a system of political values that will brook no dissent. The University in the Sixties would never have written such an authoritarian screed.

Writing this post gives me no pleasure. I don’t like to criticize my school, of which I’ve been immensely proud for nearly 35 years. And, of course, I’m bucking authority here. But I can’t hold my tongue any longer. It’s not just the English Department, either: other departments are contemplating similar statements. And lately we’ve received notes from the President and Provost that seem to skirt the Kalven Principles in similar ways: by conflating our academic mission with a political and social mission, calling for us to commit to action not just on a university level, but on a national level. Again, while I approve of many of the sentiments, for I accept the need for university initiatives to promote racial equality, including affirmative action, those views should be limited to our mission as a university. While as an individual I’m happy to promote such initiatives on a broader scale, it is not the business of the University—or its departments—to do so, and for the cogent reasons outlined in the Kalven Report.

As that report says, the University “is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby. . . . . . Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.”

I fear that, caught up in the desire to conform to what liberals are supposed to do, my university is indeed beginning to “endanger the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” We may not wind up in the sad position of The Evergreen State College, but we may well converge on Yale and Harvard, losing all that made the University of Chicago a unique American institution.

UPDATE: Lest you think that this kind of statement is limited to the Humanities, there is an even stronger statement, one that clearly contravenes the Kalven Report by expressing political views and calling for action beyond the University, on the website of the Department of Human Genetics.

A conservative argues for mandatory school prayer to stem the increase in nonbelief

May 16, 2020 • 11:30 am

Where else would you find a mushbrain argument like this except in The American Conservative? For it not only sees the decline in religiosity in America as a bad thing, but, importantly, blames it on the lack of mandatory prayer in schools, which, they say, makes religion seem “taboo” to kids and weans them from their faith.

Implicit in all this is that the First Amendment is a bad thing, at least insofar as it is held by the courts to apply in schools. Also implicit is the idea that religion is a good thing. The argument, also implicit, is that we should change the First Amendment, or at least the way it’s been interpreted, so that kids can not only pray in schools (which they can—on their own), but have organized prayer in schools.

So here is the argument:

1.) Religion has declined in America not because of increasing wealth, well being, education, but because of the increasing secularization of education. Author Helen Andrews gives two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

A new report from the American Enterprise Institute has a different explanation. “The most likely causes of declining religiosity are the increasingly intense role that more and more secularized educational institutions play in children’s lives,” author Lyman Stone writes, plus “the continuing delay and decline of marriage.” It is not education that makes people less religious, he argues, but specifically secular education.

There’s no further mention of marriage in the article, though it’s also supposed to contribute to America’s godlessness.

I haven’t read the report, and maybe they have real data about this, but I doubt it, for the “increasingly intense role” of secularized education simply means the banning of mandatory school prayers in American schools, which occurred in the Sixties. And, as the chart below shows, the real increase in “nones”—those lacking affiliation to a church or feeling that they have no religion—has occurred after 1970. When I went to secondary school in the sixties, there was already no school prayer, and yet since then the loss of religion has skyrocketed. If the author’s argument is correct, nonbelief should have begun increasing in the 1960s, not as late as 1975, and of course there would be no reason for a continual increase.



2.) In fact, the decline of religiosity is imputed almost solely to a “more secular schooling” rather than people becoming less religious because they either give up faith or were raised in a less religious home. The New Atheists take a hit:

That education would have something to do with secularization fits with what we know about when secularization happens. Contrary to the New Atheists’ heroic pose, the rise of the “nones” is not driven by the mature decisions of adults but by habits being formed (or not) in childhood. “The story of secularization in America is not mostly a story of lots of people who were raised religious leaving their religious faith as adults,” Stone explains. “It is a story of fewer people having a religious upbringing at all.”

Yes, but why are people having less religious upbringings? Even if this were the case, It must be a case of the priorities of the parents, not the absence of prayers in schools.

3.) Further evidence for the importance of religion in schools comes from—get this—countries where religious school systems shift to secular ones:

Stone points to test cases in France and Turkey where secularization followed not just from expanded access to education but from shifts from religious to secular schools. “If educational attainment drives secularization, then spending two more years in school should reduce religiosity, even if that school is a religious school,” he theorizes. In fact, longitudinal studies have found that attending a religious school is associated with greater religiosity later in life.

But of course when you’re immersed in religious education during the whole day, and that’s taken away, you’re not going to be as wedded to faith. But that’s different from having a two-minute school prayer once a day: the frequent drill in America in the Sixties.  In religious schools you’re marinated in delusion all day.

3.) Equally dubious is Andrews’s argument that if you can’t pray in school, kids see that as abnormal, a taboo. And that makes them less religious.

But if the AEI report is right, there is something irreplaceable about those hours between nine and three. The atheist’s knockdown argument against school prayer — that there are plenty of other hours in a day to pray in — was based on a fallacy. Society either teaches its children that religion is something normal or something taboo. Banning prayer from schools teaches them that religion is not normal.

Seriously? If there’s no mandatory prayer in school, people are going to think religion is taboo? I doubt they’d think of it at all. And if they asked “why can’t we pray in school”, they could get an answer from Andrew Seidel of the Freedom from Religion Foundation: you are allowed to pray in school on your own time; it just can’t be mandated. You can pray in the cafeteria, at recess, on the playground, and so on, and no teacher is going to stop you! In fact, they wouldn’t be allowed to stop you.

Andrews is making a desperation argument based on the unstoppable secularization of America. But she’s not going to get her school prayer, and the “nones” will continue to increase. So it goes.

h/t: Barry

Supreme court set to further erode the First-Amendment wall between church and state

January 31, 2020 • 10:45 am

In the past few years, federal courts have continued a slow erosion of the church-state wall specified by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, often ruling that religious symbols or monuments can remain on public land, or be flaunted by government agencies, because they’re not really religious but simply part of our “tradition.” Now the Supreme Court is set to speed up that erosion, and I suspect that, given the preponderance of conservative Justices, they will decide to allow more of the religious camel into America’s secular tent.

On January 22, the Supreme Court heard arguments on a “landmark” case—that is, it could be a landmark case if the Court decides to further bash the First-Amendment wall between church and state. This is the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, whose arguments can be seen on the Supreme Court’s blog below (click on screenshot), and are summarized in the New York Times article below that.

This is a complicated case, with the details and issues not at all clear from newspaper reporting (even the NYT), so I had to call the Freedom from Religion Foundation to get clarification (h/t to Attorney Patrick Elliott).

What’s at stake here is whether the government is obliged to fund religious schools, something that’s previously been off limits in most but not all states. This case represents an appeal following a case in Montana, where the state’s supreme court ruled against a scheme that allowed such funding. At the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s website, constitutional lawyer Andrew Seidel summarizes the case so I don’t have to:

The case involves a neo-voucher scheme adopted by the Montana legislature. Taxpayers owe taxes to Montana. They are relieved of that obligation [JAC: not completely relieved; they get a tax break] if they divert the payment to a scholarship organization that funds private education. It’s a dollar-for-dollar match. One dollar to a scholarship fund is one dollar off your taxes, and 94 percent of these scholarships fund private religious education. Montana appropriated $3 million to cover the anticipated shortfall from forgiving those obligations. The Montana Supreme Court struck down this neo-voucher program because the Montana Constitution says that the state “shall not make any direct or indirect appropriation or payment from any public fund or monies, or any grant of lands or other property for any sectarian purpose or [school].” The court ended the entire neo-voucher scheme, for all private education, religious and nonreligious.

Plaintiff Espinoza brought suit against the state’s ban because she has daughters in a Christian school and want the state program to be maintained to allow them to stay there.

According to another NYT piece, 13 schools were served by these vouchers, 12 of which were religious—and all of the latter were Christian schools. Seidel continues:

Conservative Christian parents want the U.S. Supreme Court to save the program by declaring that they have a right to public funds for their private religious education. If the Supreme Court agrees, it will be overturning a crucial legal principle. Without that principle, states could compel all taxpayers to fund religious worship and religious education. So, yes, this case does threaten religious freedom. Because the right to be free from that compulsion is religious liberty. The right is possessed by every Montana citizen and taxpayer, not just a select segment of Christian parents. That is the right at issue before the Court today.

Well, the law as I read it doesn’t compel taxpayers to fund religious education; after all, you don’t have to contribute to the “neo-voucher” fund. Nor does the state government directly issue vouchers to give money to religious schools. But in effect, the Montana state government was subsidizing religious education, for tax monies that could go to secular schools were diverted, though the program, to private schools, and in Montana that means religious schools. That’s why the Montana courts completely dismantled that program: what was happening was an “indirect appropriation” used for religious purposes: a violation of the state constitution.  The issue might be clearer if the law said that if you gave money to a fund that supported churches, your state taxes would be reduced by that amount. Now that is clearly a violation of the First Amendment. Well, it’s no different with religious schools.

Now half of what the plaintiffs are arguing is that the Montana court decision violates the “equal protection” clause of the U. S. Constitution (which is why this is before the Supreme Court, which has no power to interpret a state constitution). But that argument is bogus because the program that funded both secular and religious schools was eliminated by the state. So the issue of protection has disappeared. If the Supreme Court had its wits about it, it would reject this contention. But many people think that conservatives on the court will accept any argument to further religion.

Besides constituting a government subsidy to religious schools at the expense of public ones, the prospective voucher system also weakened the public school system.

Apparently several other states have voucher programs that support religious schools, but some other states have forbidden them. In a ruling two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that eliminating such programs actually violated the First Amendment by barring religious schools from participating in programs along with other private schools. And the basis for that ruling is “religious freedom”: the second contention of Espinoza in the Supreme Court case. Apparently religious people think that the First Amendment entitles them to not only have religious schooling for their kids (a right they have already), but also should have government support for that schooling. That, too, seems to be a backwards interpretation of the First Amendment, which is supposed to prevent entanglement of the government with religion.

The religious plaintiffs and their defenders, which of course include the Trump administration as well as various conservative and religious groups, are arguing that freedom of religion demands subsidies to religious schools if there are subsidies for secular private schools, for otherwise, excluding them under a voucher system is discrimination against religion.  But, as New York Times court reporter Linda Greenhouse wrote:

There is so much about this case that is simply backward. The administration argues in its brief that “the constitutional violation in this case is especially egregious because it involves the education of children.” But to the contrary, that’s exactly where the wall of separation has to be maintained with the greatest care. Religious education serves a purpose, inculcating religious values and preserving religious traditions. A parochial school is not just another neighborhood school down the block.

What is the FFRF and secularists worried about? Apparently that if the Supreme Court overturns the Montana decision, then all voucher programs must also include religious schools. As Greenhouse writes:

Certainly, parents are constitutionally entitled to choose a religious education for their children. And under a 2002 Supreme Court decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, states are free to offer parents the choice of using vouchers to help pay for religious education. That was a bitterly fought 5-to-4 decision. The administration now would go further: not only that a state may include religious schools in a voucher program, but that it must include them, if it wants to have a voucher program at all.

But it could be worse than that. It’s not beyond the Court’s purview to confect a ruling that requires all states to allow government funding of religious schools, though it’s not clear how that would work. In other words, they could not only reinstate Montana’s original voucher program, but make it mandatory for every state to have such a program. And that would represent the most serious erosion of the First Amendment.


Is free speech killing us? An op-ed from the New York Times answers “yes”

October 5, 2019 • 12:30 pm

Well here we have an intersectionalist article: the intersection of New York Times wokeness with the intersection of New Yorker wokeness. For Andrew Marantz, who wrote this NYT opinion piece (if you read it, it looks like a Sunday Magazine piece), is a New Yorker staff writer whose bailiwick, according to his profile, is “technology, social media, the alt-right, and the press [and] comedy and pop culture”.

I read the piece several times, and am not sure what he’s getting at. First he notes that speech can be damaging, then admits that forms of damaging speech are already prohibited by the courts, then adds that he’s not in favor of ditching the First Amendment. He then complicates matters by claiming that “hate speech” on social media should be regulated, and then ends by implying that yes, perhaps the First Amendment itself should be modified by taking into account the Fourteenth Amendment—the amendment that guarantees all citizens will receive equal protection of the laws. In other words, he’s calling for revisiting the courts’ construal of the First Amendment. If you don’t think so, look at the title of his piece, though that title may have been confected by an editor.

Marant’s op-ed what they call a “hot mess” (see photo below), and suffers severely from not specifying what counts as “hate speech”, as well as a slipperiness as he tries to avoid saying explicitly what I think he really means.  Click on the screenshot to read it:

Marantz begins, as is usual with these pieces, by saying that words can be harmful.

Having spent the past few years embedding as a reporter with the trolls and bigots and propagandists who are experts at converting fanatical memes into national policy, I no longer have any doubt that the brutality that germinates on the internet can leap into the world of flesh and blood.

The question is where this leaves us. Noxious speech is causing tangible harm. Yet this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we — the government, private companies or individual citizens — be doing about it?

Yes, they can be harmful if you consider “tangible harm” to encompass someone being offended, but they can also be harmful if they inspire violence, foster child abuse via promulgating child pornography, spread lies that damage a reputation, constitute personal harassment, or make false claims, as in advertising.

Fortunately, the courts have considered all these forms of harm, and have taken them into account as limiting freedom of speech—save that the only abrogated speech that leads to violence should be speech “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” that is “likely to incite or produce such action”. (See here for a list of First Amendment exceptions.) I see this list as pretty comprehensive, but extending it to cover “hate speech”, a slippery concept that has been seen as including all kids of speech that we see as debatable but permissible—affirmative action, immigration, abortion, the use of pronouns, how transgender people should be classified in sports competitions, whether Israel should exist, and so on—is not something I favor.

But Marantz doesn’t discuss any of that tangible stuff. He simply makes dark noises about how free speech should be balanced against other rights:

Free speech is a bedrock value in this country. But it isn’t the only one. Like all values, it must be held in tension with others, such as equality, safety and robust democratic participation. Speech should be protected, all things being equal. But what about speech that’s designed to drive a woman out of her workplace or to bully a teenager into suicide or to drive a democracy toward totalitarianism? Navigating these trade-offs is thorny, as trade-offs among core principles always are. But that doesn’t mean we can avoid navigating them at all.

Earth to Mr. Marantz: driving a woman out of her workplace or bullying a teenager into suicide have ALREADY been ruled by the courts as limitations of free speech that violate other rights. As far as “driving a democracy toward totalitarianism”, does Marantz seriously think we should place limits on that kind of discussion? When I was at Williams College two days ago, I was asked by a student why, as a determinist, I should favor democracy as the best form of government, as people’s wills (and, I presume, votes) are so easily manipulated by others, distorting their own “free will”. I could have said, “Well, yes, sometimes a benevolent despotism might be better”. And even though I don’t agree with that, for of all imperfect forms of government, democracy is the least imperfect, Marantz implies that such a statement might be construed as “driving a democracy toward totalitarianism”. You could also characterize people campaigning for Trump as falling in that class. Give me a break! If our democracy can’t stand criticism and calls for authoritarianism, what kind of democracy is that?

Then Marantz pulls back a bit:

I am not calling for repealing the First Amendment, or even for banning speech I find offensive on private platforms. What I’m arguing against is paralysis. We can protect unpopular speech from government interference while also admitting that unchecked speech can expose us to real risks. And we can take steps to mitigate those risks.

He then offers some modifications, like Facebook hiring more “content moderators” and paying them better. Yes, that sounds good, but what content should be moderated? Marantz alludes to white supremacists, Alex Jones, and Milo Yiannopoulos. But companies already have the right to ban such people. Who doesn’t is the government, for that’s what the First Amendment is all about. Granted, I think that all universities, whether private or public, should adhere to the courts’ construal of the First Amendment, but remember that the First Amendment says this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . .

Congress shall make no law. That says nothing about Facebook, Instagram, or even this website. And if that is all that Marantz is calling for—judicious examination of the speech policies of private entities—well, fine. I think that people should be careful about restricting speech, but private corporations and establishments have a right to do that, by and large. I, for one, have no problem with Milo Yiannopoulos having a Facebook account. After all, he’s never called for violence against people, and what violence has resulted from his words, as occurred in Berkeley, has come from those who have rioted in opposition to his appearances. In other words, the violence came from people opposed to free speech.

At the end Marantz hints, without saying so directly, that maybe the First Amendment needs to be reined in a bit. For example, he seems to agree with John Powell, a law professor at the University of California:

[Powell] thinks that some aspects of our current First Amendment jurisprudence — blanket protections of hate speech, for example — will also seem ridiculous in retrospect. “It’s simpler to think only about the First Amendment and to ignore, say, the 14th Amendment, which guarantees full citizenship and equal protection to all Americans, including those who are harmed by hate speech,” he said. “It’s simpler, but it’s also wrong.”

Okay, if Powell thinks that “hate speech” should be prohibited, and if Marantz agrees, what forms of hate speech should be banned? Who shall do the banning? And what do they mean by “harm”? Psychological harm? Hogwash! Physical harm? That’s already something that the courts have ruled on.At the very end Marantz’s mask slips a bit more:

I should confess: I used to agree with the guy I met in the coffee shop, the one who saw the First Amendment as an all-or-nothing dictate. This allowed me to reach conclusions with swift, simple authority. It also allowed me to ignore a lot, to pretend that anything that was invisible to me either wasn’t happening or didn’t matter.

In one of our conversations, Mr. Powell compared harmful speech to carbon pollution: People are allowed to drive cars. But the government can regulate greenhouse emissions, the private sector can transition to renewable energy sources, civic groups can promote public transportation and cities can build sea walls to prepare for rising ocean levels. We could choose to reduce all of that to a simple dictate: Everyone should be allowed to drive a car, and that’s that. But doing so wouldn’t stop the waters from rising around us.

And there is the implied call for more government regulation of speech. Why?  Because “the waters are rising around us”, i.e., free speech as construed by the courts is harming America.

You know, if Marantz would be more upfront about what he meant, he’d be easier to analyze. But because he pretends that he’s in favor of the First Amendment and yet the same time that’s he’s not in favor of the current construal of the First Amendment, his argument is slippery. But of course if you must use code words like “harmed by hate speech” to change the Constitution, you can’t afford to be more explicit.

h/t: Tom, Cate

South Dakota requires all public schools to PROMINENTLY display “In God We Trust”

July 29, 2019 • 8:45 am

We all know that “In God We Trust” is the U.S. national motto, though the unofficial motto—a much better one—is E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”). The former is divisive, the latter unifying. The change in mottos was made in 1956, during the Cold War, and was largely a response to “godless Communism”: an American affirmation of “See, we’re better than you are!” The motto bill was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law on the same day by President Eisenhower.

Of course this motto violates the First Amendment, as it’s a government endorsement of religion over nonreligion, but, as Andrew Seidel recounts in his book The Founding Myth, the courts have been weaselly about this, interpreting this kind of breach as “not religious” and “part of tradition”. But I have little doubt that founders like Madison and Jefferson would never have approved of such a motto.

I’m not sure exactly why the forces of Christianity are trying to push this kind of stuff on us more than ever. Perhaps it’s a desperate response to the increasing secularization of America.  And so “In God We Trust” bills are passing in various states. The latest is in South Dakota, where, according to multiple sources (e.g., CNN and ThinkProgress), students returning to public schools this year will be greeted by the results of a new law: a required public display of “In God We Trust”. And it has to be “prominent”, like this stencil on a wall at South Park Elementary in Rapid, City, South Dakota (photograph from 6 days ago). I find this dictatorial and ridiculous: something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four (just substitute “Big Brother” for “God”).

Photo: Adam Fondren/Rapid City Journal via AP

The law takes effect this month. As CNN notes:

A bill signed by Gov. Kristi Noem mandates that the words be on display for students to see beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

The display can be on anything the principal feels is appropriate for their school, like a plaque or student artwork.

But there are requirements. The display must be at least 12 inches square and must be in a prominent location.

“A prominent location is a school entryway, cafeteria, or other common area where students are most likely to see the national motto display,” the bill said.

Here’s most of the bill; note that, anticipating lawsuits, display of the bill will be defended by the state at no charge to the school or school district, though it’s not clear where the money will come from. (Click on the screenshot to get a pdf of the full bill).

There are some savvy students there, though their attempt to modify the bill failed miserably (from CNN):

Lawmakers have heard concerns that displaying the motto may alienate students of non-Christian backgrounds.

A group of Stevens High School students in Rapid City spoke to their school board to propose a modification to the sign that would include mention of science, Allah, Yahweh, the Spirits, Buddah, Brahman and “ourselves” in addition to God, according to CNN affiliate KOTA TV.

“I think that’s a really foundational element of American society is that we are a cultural melting pot and it is really important that we make all people who come to America to feel welcome and to be more in accordance with the First Amendment since we all have the freedom of religion,” student Abigail Ryan told KOTA TV.

The board heard the opinion but took no action, the station said.

ThinkProgress adds a bit more information (my emphasis):

Only one Democratic state senator voted in favor of the bill.

During the 2019-2020 school year, all South Dakota public schools will have to display the “In God We trust” in a “prominent location” and the words “may be no smaller than twelve inches wide by twelve inches wide.” Prominent location is defined as a school cafeteria, school entryway, or other common area. The law also requires that the attorney general provides legal representation at no cost to the district, employee, school board, or member of the school board and that the state will financial responsibility for any monetary damages, attorney’s fees, and other costs.

This bill is part of a national movement, too:

South Dakota is not alone in its decision to require public schools to display the motto. According to The Washington Post, at least six states passed these kinds of laws in 2018 and another 10 have introduced or passed them this year. Kentucky schools are also getting ready to display the motto prominently in public schools this year.

This will clearly go to the Supreme Court, and it’s pretty certain they will declare it constitutional. After all, if every $1 bill the kids have carries “In God We Trust” on it, and that’s legal, why not in the schools?  But we can be sure that there will be challenges. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, for instance, has correctly deemed the law “exclusionary”, and adds this in a bulletin (my emphasis):

“The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., which has legally challenged the motto’s inclusion on U.S. currency, alerted its South Dakota members to contact their legislators to express opposition to the law,” AP reports. [JAC: this bulletin was issued four days ago, though the law passed in March.]

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor told AP: “Our position is that it’s a terrible violation of freedom of conscience to inflict a godly message on a captive audience of schoolchildren.”

“In God We Trust” was belatedly adopted as a motto when President Eisenhower signed legislation at the behest of the Knights of Columbus and other religious entities, which undertook a national lobbying campaign during the height of 1950s zealotry. The original inclusionary U.S. motto, chosen by a distinguished committee of Jefferson, Franklin and Adams, is the Latin E Pluribus Unum (From Many, [Come] One). As FFRF principal founder Anne Gaylor always pointed out, the religious motto isn’t even correct: “To be accurate it would have to read ‘In God Some of Us Trust,’ and wouldn’t that be silly?”

Anne Gaylor’s remark is more apt now than ever. The nonreligious segment of the U.S. population is currently the largest “denomination,” surpassing Roman Catholics at almost 24 percent of the populace. One-third of Millennials are “Nones,” and one-fifth of Gen Z explicitly identifies as atheist or agnostic. A large portion of the schoolchildren in South Dakota belong to Gen Z — and with the required display of an explicitly religious motto, religion is being imposed on the freethinkers among them.

It really is a violation of the First Amendment to force American kids to confront a motto that many of them don’t accept. If the courts let this stand, it will represent a further erosion of the wall between church and state. These laws are travesties, but show the desperation of the faithful who, in a climate of increasing secularism, need to force their own religion down the throats of children—in schools that are an arm of the U.S. government.

I know we have readers in South Dakota, so weigh in below. Are you people doing anything about this?

My talk with Andrew Seidel about his book on America’s secular origins

July 23, 2019 • 9:15 am

As I wrote a while back, in June I had a 45-minute public discussion with Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and its Director of Strategic Response. The topic was Andrew’s new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American. It took place at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Hemant Mehta (“the Friendly Atheist”) was the moderator.

As always, I can’t bear to listen to myself talk, so I didn’t go through this. But I recall that Andrew was very eloquent and enlightening (as interlocutor, my role was just to ask questions, so the floor was his).  I think you’ll learn a lot about Andrew’s twin theses: the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation, nor was it founded on Christian principles. (Also, as you probably already know the founders weren’t very religious. In fact, some of them were quite randy and, by evangelical Christian lights, immoral!)

I did listen near the end just so I can tell you that the audience questions begin about 48½ minutes in. And I can assure you that you will enjoy Andrew’s conversational style and will learn a lot, including what a liberal constitutional lawyer thinks of today’s Supreme Court, and where the law is heading.

Twitter starts censoring speech, beginning with speech about religion:

July 11, 2019 • 10:45 am

Diana MacPherson called my attention to this new post by Twitter on conduct that they’re going to block. And they’re starting with religion. Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s what Twitter says:

We create our rules to keep people safe on Twitter, and they continuously evolve to reflect the realities of the world we operate within. Our primary focus is on addressing the risks of offline harm, and research* [JAC: they give two studies in the article’s footnotes] shows that dehumanizing language increases that risk. As a result, after months of conversations and feedback from the public, external experts and our own teams, we’re expanding our rules against hateful conduct to include language that dehumanizes others on the basis of religion.

Starting today, we will require Tweets like these to be removed from Twitter when they’re reported to us:

Twitter notes that if you’ve already put one of these up, it will be removed but your account won’t be blocked. But after the rule was set (July 9, 2019), accounts may be deleted if they start posting stuff like the above. (But how would you know? Who reads Twitter-policy updates? Shouldn’t you at least get a warning?)

But note that they’re starting not with ethnicity, race, or other common subjects said to attract “hate speech.” They’re starting with religion. Why? Here’s what they say:

Why start with religious groups?

Last year, we asked for feedback to ensure we considered a wide range of perspectives and to hear directly from the different communities and cultures who use Twitter around the globe. In two weeks, we received more than 8,000 responses from people located in more than 30 countries.

Some of the most consistent feedback we received included:

  • Clearer language — Across languages, people believed the proposed change could be improved by providing more details, examples of violations, and explanations for when and how context is considered. We incorporated this feedback when refining this rule, and also made sure that we provided additional detail and clarity across all our rules.

  • Narrow down what’s considered — Respondents said that “identifiable groups” was too broad, and they should be allowed to engage with political groups, hate groups, and other non-marginalized groups with this type of language. Many people wanted to “call out hate groups in any way, any time, without fear.” In other instances, people wanted to be able to refer to fans, friends and followers in endearing terms, such as “kittens” and “monsters.”

  • Consistent enforcement — Many people raised concerns about our ability to enforce our rules fairly and consistently, so we developed a longer, more in-depth training process with our teams to make sure they were better informed when reviewing reports. For this update it was especially  important to spend time reviewing examples of what could potentially go against this rule, due to the shift we outlined earlier.

But this doesn’t at all explain why they started with religion. The next bit is said to help explain “why religion first?”, but it doesn’t seem to, either:

Through this feedback, and our discussions with outside experts, we also confirmed that there are additional factors we need to better understand and be able to address before we expand this rule to address language directed at other protected groups, including:

  • How do we protect conversations people have within marginalized groups, including those using reclaimed terminology?

  • How do we ensure that our range of enforcement actions take context fully into account, reflect the severity of violations, and are necessary and proportionate?

  • How can – or should – we factor in considerations as to whether a given protected group has been historically marginalized and/or is currently being targeted into our evaluation of severity of harm?

Well, you could say that delineating “hate tweets” and enforcing rules consistently is easier with religion than, say, gender or race, but I don’t think so. In both cases you have to separate hatred for people with dislike of policy (e.g. “Deport all Muslims” vs. “Islamic doctrine is often oppressive”; or “Send blacks back to Africa” vs. “Affirmative action is wrong”). Note that both examples, which involve religion and race, show the potential blurring of lines, for sentiments against affirmative action or against Islamic doctrine can be and have been deemed “hate speech”.

This blurring is why I object to Twitter doing this kind of policing, as drawing lines will be arbitrary. But if they feel they have to draw lines, then the tweets above, which are bigoted against people, are clearly reprehensible. And since Twitter is a private company, they can do what they like. But I want them to hew to the First Amendment as closely as possible, and the tweets above don’t violate that.

Diana felt more strongly than I, and told me this (quoted with permission):

It sounds like a bad idea all around to me. How many times have religious groups had atheists banned from social media just for being atheists? So now if someone criticizes a religion, is that going to be counted as violating their rules? And why religious groups that get special protection? Twitter calls them marginalized – really? Christians are marginalized? It just seems like really faulty thinking all around.

I’ve seen reasonable speech characterized as hate speech too often to immediately get on board with Twitter’s rules. Yes, the examples above are beyond the pale—if you must police speech on a social-media platform. But there will be many other examples where criticism of religion might be either chilled or censored. To many, completely innocent pictures in my tweets—like animal pictures that come from my websites—are labeled by Twitter as “sensitive material” that you have to click to see. I think that’s because I tweet Jesus and Mo cartoons, which got me censored in this way.

Although Twitter still allows us to Post Jesus and Mo strips, it also acts as an informant when somebody else objects to “sensitive” material, as when Maajid Nawaz tweeted Jesus and Mo as well:

Does Twitter need to inform Nawaz that his content violates Pakistani law? Shouldn’t Twitter just tell Pakistan to “bugger off”?

Well, at least Twitter doesn’t ban the cartoons in the way that WordPress does to help out the Pakistani government when it accuses me of “Jesus and Mo”-related blasphemy.

The more I ponder this, the more I’m coming around to Diana’s point of view, and thinking that so long as social media doesn’t violate the First Amendment principles of free speech as interpreted by the courts, it should allow everything to be posted.

Do the rules above seem reasonable, or do you, like me, see a slippery slope?

I was wrong about religious proselytizing in National Parks

July 4, 2019 • 5:30 pm

Yesterday, incensed by the presence of a pair of proselytizing Jehovah’s Witnesses in a lovely little National Park, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, I wrote a post wondering whether this kind of leaflet-mongering was legal, or somehow violated the First Amendment.

According to reader Jenny Haniver’s comment on that post, my suspicions that this flouted the First Amendment was wrong. The Supreme Court and other courts have ruled that not only is religious activity permitted in national parks, but you don’t even need a permit to proselytize.

Looking back, I should have realized this. After all, religious speech is just a form of speech, and if free speech is permitted in National Parks, which it is on many government properties (sometimes you have to get a permit), then religious speech should be as well.

So perhaps I overreacted. I guess the sight of a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking to spread their odious doctrine in a National Park was more than I could take, and I had to find out if it was legal. Apparently it was. My apologies for raising a fuss, but I, for one, have learned something.

That said, I still think groups should be required to get a permit to demonstrate or pass out literature in national parks, and I’m still offended that the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even have the decency to leave us alone to enjoy nature. It’s bad enough that they knock on our doors to ask us if we have a minute to hear the Good News.

Here I am enjoying the beautiful lava beach behind the main part of the park.

And here’s my message to all you godless heathens: