Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Equality and Backlash in Malawi and Uganda

May 18th, 2010 3 comments

Consider this quote from a gay rights activist:

“Long before we built a movement…, no one bothered about us. We got away with so many things. When we decided to come out and claim our space, society came harshly against us.

“This implies that we are stepping on people’s toes. People hate to see us free and that’s why oppression of LGBT people is on the rise. One of the indicators of a progressive social movement is when its enemies start organising against it.”

While this might be a statement from, say, an advocate for the repeal of DADT or for marriage equality, in fact it’s from a spokesperson for a group in Uganda. This article from the Guardian discusses recent developments in several African countries, focusing on the backlash against the brave men and women who have begun to come out. Perhaps none is braver than Tiwonge Chimbalanga, one half of the Malawi couple about to be sentenced — for up to fourteen years —  for the “crime” of publicly declaring their marital commitment to each other. Said Chimbalanga:

“I love Steven so much. If people or the world cannot give me the chance and freedom to continue living with him as my lover, then I am better off to die here in prison. Freedom without him is useless and meaningless.”

This story (and others involving both governmental and citizen actions against their LGBT communities) would be bad enough, but then there’s this:

“This assertiveness is apparently being met by a ferocious backlash from religious fundamentalists and politicians determined to preserve the status quo. It has been described as a proxy war between US liberals and Christian evangelicals, both of which pour in funding and support to further their cause.”

If this indeed a proxy war, there’s only one side to be on: the one that supports people in their efforts to live authentic and fearless lives. Yes, it’s probably true that some well-meaning assistance has blundered in without sufficient awareness of local cultural and religious norms and mores, but their central argument can’t be countered. And consider the other side’s willingness to simply lie in order to rile people up about the evils of homosexuality. Here’s a comment about evangelical Scott Lively, who visited Uganda last year shortly before the introduction of the “gays must die” bill that has become an international lightning rod:

Gay activists have placed on the web a video of Lively telling a Ugandan audience that he “knows more than almost anyone else in the world” about homosexuality. He says that the genocide in Rwanda was carried out by gays, that AIDS is a just punishment for homosexuality and that foreigners are trying to promote homosexuality in Uganda.

It’s all true. Box Turtle Bulletin has posted three videos from Lively here.

Watch this one for the comments summarized above, and so much more.

Lively tells you that he “enjoys gender normalcy.” (Lucky guy.) He also expresses dismay that the Southern Policy Law Center considers him and his message to be “hate.” Oh, and gays were the spark for Nazism. One correction to the story quoted above: He says only that the “Rwandan stuff probably involved these guys.”

The “Rwandan stuff” was something called “genocide.” And where’s his evidence about the “probable” involvement of gays? He doesn’t have it, but this is about scape-goating and incitement based on pseudo-science (to dignify it). And he ends it with the AIDS comment, which is particularly stupid in a country where most of the infections occur from heterosexual sex.

Lively and his fellows have spilled the blood of gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people — ostensibly in the name of religion. But their lies can’t stand against the simple truth of men like Tiwonge Chimbalanga.

May 11th, 2010 1 comment

Driving back from a camping trip last weekend (now there’s material for an upcoming post!), I noticed a sign for a house of worship called Christ’s Church of the Valley and this website:

Here are a few things that struck me about “moviechurch” (as it’s generally known):

  • If there’s a Rock and Roll Heaven, let’s hope it doesn’t feature this band, which is shown here performing a song that sounds like an outtake from “Rent.”
  • Note how user-friendly — both doctrinally and as far as the service itself is concerned. Basic belief in the Bible and Jesus? That’s all you need.
  • My suspicions about the financial structure and motivation of these mega-churches aren’t exactly allayed by the inaccessibility of the “Senior Pastor.” Call him and you’ll get his assistant. Will he minister to the sick, the lost, those questioning their faith? No. “Brian is unable to meet with people for pastoral counseling.” (But you can visit his website to buy his books.)

I guess it works for some. I’d want to know my pastor, thanks, even if he’s busy writing his third book.

Sunday Out at the Piazza — Equality Forum Concludes

May 4th, 2010 No comments

At about 1 pm this past Sunday, I set out with my pre-school twins for the newly chic Northern Liberties section of the city, where Equality Forum‘s Sunday Out event had moved. I was especially looking forward to the interfaith blessing of a slew of same-sex commitment ceremonies. Our neighborhood is very progressive and we have many friends but everyone else is either (1) straight or (2) if gay, childless. (Just a couple of weeks ago, a gay couple on the next block adopted a kid. Hooray!) So I thought that watching all of those commitments would provide a cultural corrective to the onslaught of straight messaging and iconography that is so, er, wedded to marriage that I sometimes worry that my kids have trouble understanding anything else — in spite of the evidence right in front of them.

Before I get to that event, though, I want to talk about the misnamed “Family Fun Zone.” It was for LGBT families, all right, but it wasn’t much fun and was hardly a “zone,” unless that term can be accurately applied to a rectangle of scorching blacktop at some distance from the epicenter of the Piazza. When we got there, only a handful of other kids were on hand, and the events were few. Hoping for something jumpy or watery, we settled for face painting — which was actually quite good. Alexa, heavily into a dinosaur phase, opted for T-Rex, whose teeth were cleverly painted around her mouth for a terrifying effect when she spoke. Courtnee opted for a full arm’s worth of rainbow butterflies.

After that, Alexa looked around and said, “There isn’t much to do.” There was no arguing with that (a much better effort needs to be made for next year), so we stopped for some ice cream and then headed back to the Piazza for the interfaith blessing.

We entered from the side furthest from the stage, and at first I wasn’t optimistic about the event. The Piazza was barely half full, and it was hard to see where the undifferentiated crowd gave way to the couples. So we wandered closer. And then I was delighted to be in attendance. The celebrants complemented each other perfectly: Tim Safford, who’d appeared at the History panel earlier in the week, was bright and affirming; Joseph Tolton, of the Rehoboth Temple, was emotional: happy, yet visibly angry at the continued injustice (here‘s a nice thumbnail of his ministry and activism); and Rabbi Linda Holtzman closed the proceedings with a heart-felt Hebrew chant and the ceremonial breaking of the glass. When has that act, meant to reflect the challenges facing the newly married couple, held such rich symbolism? Holtzman offered a communal narration of the ritual, reminding the couples that their joy would be found even in the face of the challenges that not only their relationship but the broader society would throw in front of them.

The kids were quiet and attentive. The only comment I recall during the ceremony was Alexa’s statement that she wanted to stay. Remarkable, given that it was easily 90 degrees on the paved piazza, and that we’d by that point been walking around for about an hour and a half. More than once, they asked me whether “all of these people” were two men and two women. Yes, look around. Two men in matching tuxes. A lesbian couple, with one in a dress and one in a beautiful pants and flowing blouse. An African-American couple, with one man in a wheelchair pushed by his spouse. Some very unconventional couples; others conventional in all but their sexual orientation.

How liberating! Not just for us, but for everyone who just wants to be able to define their marriage in their own wonderfully idiosyncratic way. By now, the crowd had doubled and a huge cheer went up at the end of the ceremony.

Why, oh why, is this so hard for people to understand or, failing that, to at least allow? In an image that flashed briefly in a video following the ceremony, I read this familiar but forgotten sign:

Some people are gay. Get over it.

Is it really more complicated than that? Does anyone still believe that our most virulent opponents are free of their own pyscho-social issues; problems that animate their vitriol? Just today, another story emerged of a sad man, George Alan Rekers — co-founder of the dangerously homophobic Family Research Council — who was spotted with a male escort disembarking from an airplane after a long vacation together. No one’s even surprised by these stories any more. (This guy was really nasty to the community. Read the whole stories for the infuriating details.)

Sorry…where was I?

After that, we wondered around a bit more, found a horse stable (fillies in Philly?) to spend some time, ran into a few folks, and left. While the Family Fun Zone needs some improvement to live up to its aspirational name, the kids learned plenty about family on Sunday.


My piece on the Saturday conversation with Dan Choi will appear sometime during the next few days on When it does, I’ll link from here. Then I’ll offer a wrap-up piece on the week-long event.

Equality Forum’s History Panel: Spotlight on Religion

May 1st, 2010 3 comments

Social justice

You couldn’t swing a rainbow cat at Equality Forum’s History Panel without hearing that phrase. In fact, social justice has been one of the recurring themes at the panels I’ve attended so far, suggesting that the movement is entering a newer, more mature phase and looking toward the day when we can move beyond the identity politics that circumstances have required of us to date.

Of course, one is entitled to expect that the panel of religious leaders would emphasize social justice, and the LGBT rights movement within that context. Although some misguided religious folks seem to spend most of their time on the attack against everything from our community to Obamacare to women’s reproductive rights, any religion (or part thereof) that takes its founding messages to heart invests both belief and blood in ameliorating the difficult conditions in which many people live.

But I was nonetheless heartened (not quite amazed, but…) at the panelists’ willingness to be as direct and forceful as they were. Perhaps the most progressive of the lot were Timothy Safford, who is the Rector at the historic Christ Church Episcopal Church in Old City, Philadelphia. I’ve been there. Two of our closest friends are congregants, and when my partner David had the honor of being named godfather to their second child we attended the baptism. Safford, who’s straight and married, will be one of the three officiants at tomorrow’s blessing of some 100 same-sex unions.

The Episcopalians, of course, are known and celebrated (well, by some) for their progressive stand on women’s issues and for being increasingly welcoming to the LGB (and, to a lessser extent) T community.  Safford and his gay twin (at least as far as dress was concerned — they looked as though they’d decided to confuse us by selecting almost identical clothing for the event) Rodger Broadley, Rector at St. Luke and the Epiphany, had a nice sort of back and forth on issues ranging from the debt the LGBT movement owes to the women’s movement (Safford is particularly eloquent on this point), and on the on-going struggles between the U.S. church and the “home office” back in Britain. With a second gay (lesbian, in this case) bishop to be ordained soon in L.A., both men expect that the U.S. church will be “voted off the island” and made to forge ahead, alone. But that didn’t seem to trouble them, and — oddly, to some — they thought it important not to walk away from the table no matter how exasperated and angry they became. Safford expressly decried his own “moderation” in supporting the compromise reached a few years ago, by which Bishop Gene Robinson’s ordination was “traded” for a promise to ordain no more openly gay or lesbian clergy. As Broadley so movingly put it: “Who are we to tell God who can serve?”

Approaching issues of history and faith from a more academic perspective was L.A. Rabbi Denise Eger. She explained the evolution of the various movements (less formally, “branches”) of Judaism on LGBT issues; as might be expected, the Reform and Reconstructionist sects embraced their LGBT fellow worshippers decades ago, with Conservative Judaism by now fairly far along on that path. She also mentioned that even the Orthodox branch had recently begun discussing our issues, and not in the kind of negative dismissive way that might have been the case earlier, but in a real effort to come to terms with the reality that can no longer be ignored.

Interfaith matters are an area of special interest to Eger, and she described the efforts of a female Muslim cleric in L.A. who is now trying to apply reform principles to that religion. Her comment reminded me that all four of the panelists — as good as they were — represented only the Judeo-Christian tradition. The panel would have been even more compelling had it showcased clergy from Eastern religions.

Rounding out the panel was Francis DeBernardo, who is Executive Director of New Ways Ministry, which has been described as a “national Catholic ministry of justice and reconciliation for lesbian and gay Catholics. I’ll confess that I have trouble understanding why anyone who identifies as LGBT would consider himself or herself Catholic, but that’s my issue. Obviously, not all Catholics (in the U.S. or elsewhere) follow every pronouncement from the Vatican, and many see the Church’s undeniable good works (social justice, again, at least for the poor and the sick) as reason enough to stay. Thinking of what’s going on at the very top of the Church hierarchy these days (do I really need a link here, people?), DeBernardo said that reform within the Church has come at precisely those times when the Vatican leadership seems most ossified and out of touch. Perhaps the Church can get out of the sucking vortex that’s pulling it down, but I doubt it.


This post is a bit later than promised. I ended up attending the Tribute to Brian Sanders last night, staying out late, and then running from event to event today. The good news is that I’ve got tons to write about, and will be busy doing it well into next week.

BTW, the interview I did with David Boies earlier tonight will run on, not here — although of course I’ll provide a link and a summary when it posts.

His Holiness [sic] and the “Pro-life” Canard

March 20th, 2010 1 comment

I was Catholic, but only by circumstance, and that was a very long time ago. I didn’t so much leave the Catholic Church as I lost interest in all churches and in organized religion, generally. But it should be said that my experience growing up in the stultifying, boring Church didn’t exactly awaken whatever religious feeling I might otherwise have had. And my family was very low-key about it: No Catholic school, limited instruction in doctrine, little evidence of it at home. We went to Church most Sundays, unless there were swim meets in the way. But that’s about it.

For me, then, leaving the Church was easy and not even so much the product of a conscious decision. It’s more like I would have needed to decide to be a Catholic, rather than not to.

Yet growing up around all of that ritual and history had some effect on me, notably that I follow and in some way care about what the Church is doing more than I otherwise would. Most of the time, I’m either amazed or appalled (or both), but then there are the occasions when the socially progressive, charitably inclined part of what the Church is supposed to champion reminds me that it’s not all one-way traffic to Hell (to use one of their favorite scare words, among many).

Lately, the Church has been in the news and mostly for terrible reasons. The unfolding horror of the sex scandals in Ireland and Germany,1 which have — let’s face it — implicated His Holiness [sic] in the cover-up is just the most dramatic of the stuff coming through the wire. There’s also the benighted response by the Diocese in D.C. in response to marriage equality (ending health benefits to employees’ spouses, discontinuing their foster care program), and the expulsion of pre-schoolers from the Sacred Heart of Jesus (remember him?) because their parents were lesbians. Add to that the bishops’ opposition to the Senate health care reform bill on the ground that it doesn’t do enough to make abortion even more difficult to obtain, and I’m left to say: Enough already.

Just in time, other voices in the Church have come forward to call the bishops on their slick, “pro-life” (read: anti-life) rhetoric. The Catholic Health Association (CHA), which describes itself as “the nation’s largest group of not-for-profit health care sponsors, systems, and facilities,” has taken on the bishops’ abstract, disembodied, and disconnected opposition to the health care reform effort. Here’s why:

The insurance reforms will make the lives of millions more secure, and their coverage more affordable. The reforms will eventually make affordable health insurance available to 31 million of the 47 million Americans currently without coverage.

CHA has a major concern on life issues. We said there could not be any federal funding for abortions and there had to be strong funding for maternity care, especially for vulnerable women. The bill now being considered allows people buying insurance through an exchange to use federal dollars in the form of tax credits and their own dollars to buy a policy that covers their health care. If they choose a policy with abortion coverage, then they must write a separate personal check for the cost of that coverage.

There is a requirement that the insurance companies be audited annually to assure that the payment for abortion coverage fully covers the administrative and clinical costs, that the payment is held in a separate account from other premiums, and that there are no federal dollars used.

In addition, there is a wonderful provision in the bill that provides $250 million over 10 years to pay for counseling, education, job training and housing for vulnerable women who are pregnant or parenting. Another provision provides a substantial increase in the adoption tax credit and funding for adoption assistance programs.

An association of nuns, representing 59,00o sisters, agrees and amplifies, from the point of view of those actually providing health services to the poor (compare the bishops):

We have witnessed firsthand the impact of our national health care crisis, particularly its impact on women, children and people who are poor. We see the toll on families who have delayed seeking care due to a lack of health insurance coverage or lack of funds with which to pay high deductibles and co-pays. We have counseled and prayed with men, women and children who have been denied health care coverage by insurance companies. We have witnessed early and avoidable deaths because of delayed medical treatment.

The health care bill that has been passed by the Senate and that will be voted on by the House will expand coverage to over 30 million uninsured Americans. While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all. It will invest in preventative care. It will bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It will make crucial investments in community health centers that largely serve poor women and children.

[T]his is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it….

Did this get Bark Stupak to rethink his position? What do you think? Perhaps because of unpleasant experiences with Catholic nuns in school (write your own joke), he blathered about getting his “pro-life” guidance not from them but from the bishops and organizations like Focus on the Family — the same group that has this advice for parents who find that spanking isn’t working: “The spanking may be too gentle. If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t motivate a child to avoid the consequence next time. A slap with the hand on the bottom of a multidiapered thirty-month-old is not a deterrent to anything. Be sure the child gets the message….”

If health care reform doesn’t pass tomorrow, it will be because Stupak has been able to hold on to enough fellow slavish devotees of the simplistic pro-life legislators. They should listen to the people who actually deliver health care services. If they did, they might take a position that is actually pro-life; instead of “pro-life,” complete with ironic quotations.

  1. There’s been great coverage of the issue over at the Daily Dish.

“The Pulverizing Tedium” of Christopher Hitchens’s Rant

March 4th, 2010 1 comment

Warning: Here comes some negative eye candy, an avert-your-eyes pic of Christopher Hitchens. He’s guy who took off on a flight of anger against all things sport, using the just-concluded Winter Olympics as the excuse for his rant:

christopher hitchens getting a brazilian wax

Perhaps the screed would have more stick had it come from someone who understood the first thing about the rush that exercise and competition can provide the body and (yes!) the soul. Surely Christopher Hitchens is aware of the compelling body of evidence linking physical activity and fitness to health and even to mental acuity, but that didn’t blunt his clumsy attack — a broadside launched against sports writing (and reading), poor sportsmanship and downright cheating, the sports themselves, and blah blah blah, in the usual, and by now wearily predictable, Hitchens style.

So let’s see: Here’s a guy for whom fitness is far, far, down on his list (although for some reason he feels the need to strip his body of evidence-concealing body hair), thundering against anything sports-related that popped into his head, and concluding with a condemnation of the “pulverizing tedium” of the Olympic events themselves. He wrote that he couldn’t escape the events, but why? Is it that hard to stay out of bars for a few weeks? I don’t believe that he actually did see much of the competition; had he put down his poison pen for a few moments, he would  have witnessed some stuff that only the most curmudgeonly among us could call tedious. Here I’m thinking of the conclusion of the fifty-kilometer, cross-country ski race, where the exhausted, close-to-truly amateur competitors managed to sprint up a final hill toward the finish before collapsing in complete exhaustion; and of the gold-medal hockey games between the US and Canada, the men’s version of which was extended dramatically into OT1 on a goal with scant seconds remaining, before being won by the host team.

Of course, his article contains many truths among its efforts to explain away inconvenient counterexamples, notably the events that inspired Invictus, a case for the other side he would have been better off conceding. But Hitchens doesn’t do nuance or complexity.

What he misses, colossally, is this: There’s something vital about sports, and for those of us who struggle to rise above our own mediocrity in engaging in them, something transcendent about witnessing — yes, even cheering — those who have attained mastery over such difficult and challenging tasks. Such mastery eludes almost all of us. It’s certainly harder than writing angry, blunderbuss polemics against sports. That, in turn, is much harder than reading or writing sports, according to Hitchens. The adults, he snoots, prefer the rest of the paper.

Look, people get their emotional rushes in different ways. Some exult in their proofs against the existence of God (here are some excerpts from Hitchens’s influential book, “God is Not Great”), others in success by their favorite sports figures or teams. It doesn’t mean they apply this same “us v. them” logic to politics, or that sport assumes an unhealthy fixation for them (although that’s certainly the case for some). But no part of the opposing case is in evidence in Hitchens’s windy article.

Being a provocateur is easy, really, and clever in its way: Even by responding, one has taken the bait — been provoked enough to respond. That’s a desirable outcome in the case of arguments for or against, say, the existence of God, because it’s one or the other. A bright provocateur can get the interest, the juices, flowing. But most of life doesn’t operate according to a binary yes-no principle, and “‘The Case Against’ This or That” would be stronger if it acknowledged its own weaknesses. Otherwise, case dismissed.

  1. That’s “overtime,” for the proudly sports illiterate.

Polyamory, continued

March 3rd, 2010 No comments

This discussion on polyamorous relationships continues to be interesting, and to generate thoughtful comments. Here’s another, from my lawyer-swimming friend, Eric Cheung:

In my Family Law class, which was taught by a graduate of Yale Law named Jill Hasday, she had us go over some readings discussing how social norms during the early 19th century were established against polygamy specifically to oppress Mormons.  Basically, there were these series of pulp romance novels directed towards female readers depicting women being brutalized, raped and enslaved due to their status as a one of multiple wives.  The result was a popular movement, led by women, against polygamy — and by extension, against LDS.  What I got out of those readings was that polygamy was perhaps more acceptable in early American society, until it became identified with Mormonism.  Then it became vilified so that people would learn to fear and hate Mormons.

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that popular culture has directed legal and social movements, sometimes movements directed against unpopular groups. Of course I’m interested in reading more of your thoughts  and comments.

Categories: religion Tags: ,

Of Mormons and Gays (First Steps)

February 28th, 2010 4 comments

For a political movement  to gain traction, it must first come from the shadows. Somewhat to my surprise, that’s what starting to happen with the fundamentalist sect of Mormons (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). First there was Big Love, the well-acted and compelling HBO series that depicts one polygamist family, with a patriarch and three sister-wives. And now comes a feature story (“Polygamy in America“) in this month’s issue of National Geographic, which is notable for its balanced look at this reviled and ridiculed group. Of greater significance, in the long run, is the article’s accompanying photo essay. To show a group is, often, to begin a conversation that had been avoided. Sometimes, the depiction only serves to confirm worst fears, but at least the subject is no longer unspeakable. And conversation can lead to a multiplier effect: As more people are emboldened to “come out,” they in turn give courage to others, and so on until the movement seems inexorable and inevitable.

You can see where this is going. When I saw and read the story, I was of course reminded of the gay rights movement. One can pick any milestone from Oscar Wilde’s Invention of (Gay) Love to Stonewall, but  the cry for equality and dignity only became deafening after enough people, emboldened by courageous forebears, came roaring out onto the political and social landscape. Now the efforts to hold it back are as doomed as King Canute‘s, even if that conclusion may at times seem less than apparent.

So I’m on a bus traveling from the airport in New Orleans to a conference, sitting next to a colleague who is a member of the more mainstream LDS, a guy I quite like and respect. For reasons that will surely be obvious, I had never engaged him directly in the subject of gay rights, much less marriage equality. But when he heard what I was speaking about at the conference (more gay rights stuff, natch), he performed a cannonball right into the deep water, saying something like: “We’ve never discussed gay marriage, but here’s what I think.” Gulp.

What ensued was about ten minutes of the kind of conversation I wish I could have more often. He told me that some in the Mormon church had serious concerns about the decision to support and fund Proposition 8. While his religious beliefs (he strongly implied) were against gay marriages, he thought that Mormons, “of all people,” should have understood the dangers of ganging up against a despised minority. Somehow, this led into a discussion of polygamy, and my friend said that I had a duty to seriously consider the equality claims of those who sought legal recognition of their (multiple) unions. I murmured something about my concerns regarding whether the women really were consenting, and he said: “I think you’d be surprised.”

Maybe he’s right. Polygamy isn’t exactly unknown, world-wide. What, exactly, are the arguments against it, and how, if at all, do they compare to the arguments on same-sex marriages? Maura Strassberg has relied on Hegel’s notion of the proper role of the family within society to denounce polygamy. Here’s the crux:

Hegel believed that in a monogamous marriage, a “mutual, whole-hearted, surrender” of individuality that acknowledges the husband and wife as fundamentally equal creates positive feelings of love, confidence and faith. Certainly, a husband in a polygamous family cannot make such an undivided surrender to any single wife. As a result, none of his wives will return such sentiments of surrender. Because no mutuality of individual sacrifice for the union exists, positive natural feelings cannot characterize the polygamous family.  Competition between individual wives and between their children not only precludes love, trust, and confidence between these sub-units of the family, but must breed jealousy and disharmony within the fully consanguineous family sub-units as well. Indeed, modern studies of formal and informal polygamy across many historical and contemporary cultures have suggested that so little loyalty naturally develops among polygamous family members that strong external controls, such as walls, armed guards, or the threat of torture, mutilation, or death for sexual or political disloyalty to the patriarch, are frequently utilized to preserve family integrity. In the polygamous family, therefore, neither love nor justice is likely to flourish.

Is Hegel right today? (Is Strassberg?) The National Geographic article suggests that, to an extent, these polygamous families are matriarchal, not patriarchal, given the power that these women wield by dint of their specialized labors: not just the labor associated with child-bearing and rearing, but their economic division of responsibility (some teach, some cook, some sew, etc.). I need much more convincing, because fulfilling professional lives don’t seem to be in the mix, and I have a hard time believing that none of these women would have chosen that path, were their choices uncoerced. (I’m not talking here about marriages to under-age girls, which are clearly something else, and at least under a certain age not a fit topic for debate.)

But maybe I’m wrong. And my friend is right: We don’t have the luxury of dismissing, out of hand, others’ claims to authentic lives. I’m interested in reading testimonials. Here’s one that doesn’t reflect the FLDS in a positive light, to say the least:

Religion, Assimilation, Vaccination

February 9th, 2010 1 comment

According to this story, an outbreak of mumps has occurred in counties just north of New York City, mostly in Orthodox (or Hasidic) Jewish communities, where parents routinely seek religious exemptions to vaccination requirements for their children. In total, about 1,000 kids (mostly adolescents) have been afflicted.

When I was a kid, we all came down with mumps, and more: measles, chicken pox, and so-called “German measles” (rubella) were the most common. Mostly, these were cause for missing a week or so of school, but nothing more. Yet all of these diseases are properly seen as deadly threats to the public’s health. Measles, which is particularly likely to spike in a population where a significant number go unvaccinated, routinely killed many hundreds of kids each year in the U.S. alone, caused about double that number of permanent brain injuries, and cost the health insurance system dearly through the many thousands of hospitalizations. Mumps, in addition to the quasi-endearing chipmunk cheeks we all had, was most often associated with deafness as a complication.

The outbreak sits at the confluence of two infuriating obstacles to vaccination: bad science and over-deference to religion. Apparently, the outbreak in the U.S. was an unwanted import from the U.K., where a mumps outbreak had spread to some 4,000 people. Vaccination exemptions are frighteningly common there, mostly because of a thoroughly refuted study that purported to show a link between vaccinations and autism. Indeed, the prominent British medical journal that had published the study, the Lancet, last week retracted it after a British medical panel concluded that the lead author had been unethical and had conflicts of interest. And a flood of other studies since that one had already disproven its autism-vaccination link.

Once mumps made its way into the U.S., the congregation Orthodox and Hasidic Jews proved fertile ground for its spread. One locus was an area within Rockland County, New York, where a large, insular community of Hasidic Jews lives. I grew up in Rockland (in a nearby town), and know the community. On a Saturday, we’d drive past the synagogue-going residents — all on foot, the men in simple black garb with a defining hairstyle, the women in long dresses with head covering. Quite an insular community, and one in which, (credible) rumor had it, the families didn’t pay property taxes on their homes (each being considered a holy place). So there’s one exception from general laws that they enjoyed.

I didn’t know until recently of this other exemption for vaccinations, and I don’t support either carve-out. (In my view, no church should be exempt from paying property tax in the first place. There’s another whole post there, but I digress.) Respecting religion doesn’t require subjecting the public to needless risk. Quite the contrary: Religion is honored when we find and protect a proper, separate space for it. But personal or congregational religious expressions should end where the interest of the general public — a secular interest — is imperilled. Thus, it’s hard to justify a ban on the burka in public spaces (compare, say, driving, if evidence showed that the compromise to peripheral vision was significant), but equally hard to justify allowing the adherents of any religious group to forego vaccination. It’s easy to forget the public health success story of vaccinations. This recent story on those confronting new challenges from polio, many decades after they were first afflicted, should be reminder enough — but probably won’t be.

What’s the public health threat if everyone else is vaccinated? First, there’s the threat to the unvaccinated children themselves. The state has an interest in them, too, and at least one state supreme court has held that this interest makes unconstitutional any non-medical exemption. Beyond that, the vaccinations are themselves not completely effective. Thus, even the vaccinated kids can come down with the illness in question; and some of them will if a sufficient number in the population is not vaccinated. So it’s not “just” a question of getting to decide what to do about your own child’s health, an issue that the state has an interest in anyway.

When they first enacted religious exemptions to vaccination requirements decades ago, states did do under duress: Congress tied recognition of such exemptions to federal funding. It’s time to wake up and repeal these laws before we undo this great public health accomplishment.

Back to the Burka

February 6th, 2010 2 comments

In an earlier post, I criticized the French government for its plan to ban the public wearing of the burka. It won’t liberate women, it will drive the issue underground, it sacrifices religious freedom to nothing more than public sensibility, and so on.

But what about the government’s recent decision to deny citizenship to a Muslim man whose wife is veiled? Is that equally indefensible? I don’t think so. The guy’s comments about his power over his wife amounted to an almost cartoonishly chauvinistic litany. According to the official with responsibility for the decision, the less-than-enlightened hubby said: “My wife will never be able to go out without the full veil; I don’t believe in gender equality; women have inferior status; I will not respect the principles of the secular society.”

If that’s really what he said, the government made the right choice. This is quite a different situation from the one presented by banning the burka in public. Here, the government has to decide whether to accept, as a French citizen, someone who openly rejects gender equality, one of the principal pillars of modern, secular society (at least rhetorically, anyway). The burka that his wife wears is but one tangible expression of his repressive behavior, and the government should no more approve his application than one filed by a domestic abuser. To gain membership in a secular democracy, there are certain principles by which one agrees to abide.

So what’s different about the “no burkas in public” rule? It’s all a matter of degree, of course, but I think the cases are quite different. Although the burka is certainly a marker of women’s inequality under religious law, it’s more than that; for some women, at least, it might be a deeply felt expression of their own religious belief, uncoerced at least in any obvious way by their husbands. A society should be open enough to accommodate the kind of conversation that the burka invites, even if it makes many (including me) uncomfortable. But a potential citizen who openly sneers at the very foundations of gender equality, in 2010, should be rejected — both on the merits and as a symbol of France’s willingness to take a stand in favor of women, and against those who would oppress them.