12/21/2005

Transit Strike

Filed under: — Joe @ 12:57 am

As I’m sure everyone knows, the NYC transit strike became a reality today. For me, that meant a long walk to and from work–but it was a clear and lovely day, and I took it with an adventurous attitude–even shot some photos!

I certainly hope it doesn’t last. Not only do I not want to make that walk again (once was enough), but the real suffering, the real damage, is not going to be inflicted on the MTA, or the governor, or the state, or even the striking transit workers. Too many of the sufferers are going to be the working people of the city, the people (not me) who don’t get paid if they don’t come to work, and who can’t come to work without the transit system. The TWU is punishing the victims, not the villain.

12/20/2005

Sometimes the good guys win

Filed under: — Joe @ 12:42 pm

The decision is out in Kitzmiller v. Dover (a 139-page pdf)–and from a quick skim, it looks like exactly what it should be. The Dover school board got thoroughly (and deservedly) slammed for their dishonesty and “breathtaking inanity,” and the decision includes a broad judgment of the religious nature of IDC. Nice job, Judge Jones!

Here’s the conclusion:

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID. We will also issue a declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs’ rights under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been violated by Defendants’ actions.

Defendants’ actions in violation of Plaintiffs’ civil rights as guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 subject Defendants to liability with respect to injunctive and declaratory relief, but also for nominal damages and the reasonable value of Plaintiffs’ attorneys’ services and costs incurred in vindicating Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

12/16/2005

The last Middle School visit–MS 51

Filed under: — Joe @ 6:01 am

MS 51, the William Alexander School, was the last Middle School we had to visit, and it’s the closest one to our home–just a very short walk down the avenue, maybe a seven-minute walk at most–the application is in, but I wanted to summarize the impression of 51, and some final thoughts about the process and “strategies.”
MS 51 Negatives:

  • The school is really, really, big. It’s a big building, so doesn’t feel crowded, but some kids mightfeel overwhelmed or a bit lost in the huge numbers of students.
  • Lunch. The kids can go out for lunch, across the street to the deli or pizza shop, and eat in the park. Neither my wife nor I liked that idea very much, but our daughter (and her friends) loved it! The principal assured us that they have supervision in the park every day, and that this open lunch policy is part of the school’s culture–they’ve been doing it this way for (literally) decades, with very few problems.
  • Gym. Reminded us of the bad old days of PE in middle school–kids change into gym uniforms, there are huge numbers of kids in the gym at one time, and the teachers seemed like the old-time drill sergeant type of coach.
  • The craziness of needing to get ‘accepted’–there are about 1700 applicants (between 1500 and 2000 expected) for 300 seats. Kids have to go through a process of coming in (during January) and writing an essay + a reflective piece, and the applications are judged on that. But it still means that many, many academically strong and qualified kids will not be accepted.

That’s it for the negatives. They were not too overwhelming–
MS 51 Positives:

  • Academics–this was a very strong school academically. The classes we saw were active and engaged, and students seemed to be learning and participating at a high level. There was good classroom organization and discipline, but still room for the kids to be enjoying themselves. The drama class was particularly impressive (rather than just putting on plays, they were using drama to study basic themes and principles of literature). The photography class was quite good, with a teacher dedicated to having students understand principles and techniques–not just taking pictures. The musical performance rehearsal was polished and professional–like a Broadway show–but that’s not something I care about so much (although many parents on the tour seemed to be wowed by that).
  • Social/Emotional–I had a good feeling from watching the students interact. They seemed happy and comfortable, and the change of classes was orderly but not militaristic. There seem to be a lot of activities, and students could choose plenty of them. The building was clean and safe-feeling, with a welcoming atmosphere.

Overall, I think it’s an excellent school. If my daughter does get in there, I’ll be glad. The fact that it’s in walking distance of our home really tilts the scale in the positive direction. On the other hand, Sunset Park Prep had some advantages over 51–it’s a much more nurturing and respectful environment, with kids getting to know all the other kids and all the other teachers–because it’s so much smaller. So I’ll be very happy with that, too, if that’s where she ends up, even though it would mean a subway ride.

If we had complete open choice, we’d probably choose 51 first, only because of the proximity. If Sunset Park Prep and 51 were equally close to home, I might choose SSP first.

Anyhow, the application is in, so I guess some time (May?) we’ll have an answer about where she’s going next year!

And now, about the process generally…I got different answers to my questions–but from what I gather, the way it works is this: The district office takes in all the applications, and then makes copies. The two schools that you rank #1 and #2 will get your application, but they won’t know whether you ranked them #1 or #2. If your kid is accepted by both of those schools, she goes to whichever one was ranked #1. If she’s only accepted to one of them, that’s the one she gets. If she’s not accepted by either of them, they send the application to the number 3, 4, 5, and 6 for a second round.

But the most popular schools will not have any spacesat all for the second round, usually. That’s when things get bad, and you have to start doing personal appeals and so forth. I hope not to get to that point at all.

Last year, the top two choices were informed whether they were ranked 1 or 2, and most of the best schools would not accept any kids who ranked them #2. That led to all kinds of problems. So now they don’t tell the schools–other than to let them know that they were one of the top two–just not which school. But I don’t totally trust that–I have heard rumors that schools can “find out” if they were really #1 or #2, and may use that fact in their decision-making process.

So we ranked them like this
#1–MS 51
#2–Sunset Park Prep
#3–MS 447
(those are three we visited and liked)
#4–New Voices
#5–Peter Rouget (MS 81)
(those are two that we didn’t visit, but we’ve heard good things about them. If it comes to the point where she’s being considered for one of them, of course we’d make a visit at that point).
#6–Collaborative Studies
(and that’s the one we visited and did not think much of.)

The logic is that her application will go to 51 and SSP, and if she gets into both, she’ll go to 51. If she doesn’t get into 51, we think she will almost definitely get into SSP. SSP is much less well-known, much less popular–probably because the students are almost all Latino. But SSP makes their selection from any kids who ranked them 1 or 2, and they base the selection mostly on the 4th grade test scores. Our daughter’s 4th grade scores were very good.

We’re hoping that with this logic, she has a 90% chance of getting either 51 or SSP, and we’d be very happy with either of those. Of course, if she doesn’t get into either of them, things get much more complicated. We’d be fine with her going to 447, but it’s not likely that they’d have space for her in the second round. But we’d hope that among 447, New Voices, and Rouget, at least one of them would have space for her.

The whole thing is so stressful it’s unbelievable. It’s really infuriating. Luckily, except for one night a couple of weeks ago when she was coming down with a cold and feeling generally weepy, our daughter does not seem to be very stressed about it. I know that some parents put a lot of pressure on their kids about this, and we really don’t want to do that–so we try not to have conversations that will make hernervous about it in front of her.

She’s a good kid, with a good heart and a good spirit; she’s very smart and likes school and gets along with other kids pretty easily (says the proud dad!), and I really think she’ll be fine wherever she ends up.

12/15/2005

Christmas Wars Redux

Filed under: — Joe @ 6:13 am

Last year around this time I posted a short little tongue-in-cheek piece on this blog about Christmas, and the ubiquity of Christmas symbols. I tried to make the point that for people who celebrate Christmas, for whom these symbols are their own, it’s very difficult to understand how those same symbols feel and appear to those of us who do not celebrate the holiday. I made the whimsical and ironic suggestion that if most Christians could spend even one day a year, not by choice but by requirement, walking through a world with Jewish symbols everywhere, they might gain an important perspective and understanding.

Well, that one blog post touched off a bit of a firestorm in my online relations! One member of another forum named me “Assman of the Day” in a post on her own blog, and another member of that same forum decided I was an anti-Christian bigot, and said that he would never again be a part of a forum where I was a member. My one little blog post (not all by itself, but in combination with a lot of other factors, including other of my own errors) resulted in me being insulted and ostracized in a forum that I really valued. Later I was even banned from that forum after breaking a rule–but I was baited into breaking that rule by a member who was looking to get rid of me, specifically because of my “anti-Christian” bigotry. Of course, it was my choice to take the bait–but my membership there had been so poisoned that it was almost inevitable that some way would be found to get rid of me, or that I would find such a way myself. That ban didn’t last as long as it was intended to. I saw my own role in bringing it about, and some others there were open-minded enough to reconsider. But it was very painful, and disturbing.

So I’m understandably a bit nervous about saying anything at all about the “Christmas Wars” this year. But, as the loud arguments on this issue continue this year, I couldn’t resist weighing in once more.

One of the things I value most about this country is that it is, by law, a secular country–a place where all religions are free, and none is favored, none established, by the government. That was a revolutionary principle at the time of the country’s founding (although very much in the tradition of the Enlightenment). The founders realized that they were starting a country that was going to be diverse, that was going to have a need for people of many different faiths and religions and origins to be welcome and equal, and that the only way for that to work would be if the government did not represent or favor any one faith.

Justice Brennan, writing for the majority in Larson v. Valente in 1982, said

The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.

A little later, Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority in County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, wrote that the Establishment Clause

means at the very least that government may not demonstrate a preference for one particular sect or creed (including a preference for Christianity over other religions).

And in the same decision, (answering Justice Kennedy, who wanted to permit a Creche on the courthouse steps), he wrote

The Constitution mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliating itself with religious beliefs or institutions, precisely in order to avoid discriminating against citizens on the basis of their religious faiths. Thus, the claim that prohibiting government from celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday discriminates against [492 U.S. 573, 575] Christians in favor of nonadherents must fail, since it contradicts the fundamental premise of the Establishment Clause itself. In contrast, confining the government’s own Christmas celebration to the holiday’s secular aspects does not favor the religious beliefs of non-Christians over those of Christians, but simply permits the government to acknowledge the holiday without expressing an impermissible allegiance to Christian beliefs.

To me, these principles are eminently reasonable, logical, and essential to our constitutional protections and freedoms. (And I should note that the Allegheny v. ACLU decision is now over 15 years old).

In the New York Times last week, Adam Cohen gave a very perceptive discussion of how it is really commericialism and materialism, rather than secularism, which are the main threats to Christmas in this country. In the course of that discussion (which I recommend–you need to have “Times Select” to read it–that’s free to home delivery subscribers, and should be free to everyone, in my opinion, but that’s another subject), he raises some very interesting historical facts.

The “war on Christmas,” contrary to the common perception and the hysterical hyping of Fox, is far from new, and far from secular or liberal in its origins. The Puritans in Massachusetts, in fact, tried to outlaw Christmas entirely (an approach which would, happily, be prohibited by our Constitution), and

The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritanism waned. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the Devil had stolen Christmas ”and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing.” Throughout the 1800’s, many religious leaders were still trying to hold the line. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on Dec. 25 because ”they do not accept the day as a Holy One.” On the eve of the Civil War, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states.

Not only that, but some of the exact disputes and struggles we’re still fighting now are at least a century old.

as early as 1906, the Committee on Elementary Schools in New York City urged that Christmas hymns be banned from the classroom, after a boycott by more than 20,000 Jewish students. In 1946, the Rabbinical Assembly of America declared that calling on Jewish children to sing Christmas carols was ‘an infringement on their rights as Americans.’

Historically, and factually, and rationally, I see nothing at all wrong with any retail store, individual, or private institution of any kind wishing me a “Merry Christmas” or “God bless you.” I think people have every right, and it’s a good thing, and perfectly American, to decorate their homes or places of business with Creches or Crosses or Santas or Reindeers (I do hate those plastic flamingos, though! ;)). Similarly, I think people have every right not to do any of those decorations, or make any of those wishes. In a nation where it’s OK for private citizens or businesses to say “Merry Christmas” or “In Jesus’ Name,” it has to be also OK for them to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” or to have a “Holiday Tree” instead of a Christmas tree.

But if a symbol is religious–as a Creche certainly is, or a cross certainly is–if it represents one particular religion, and if the government is promoting or displaying it, then the Constitution and the Supreme Court have been eminently clear that that is a violation. It’s a violation of all of our rights–not because it feels bad, or anyone’s offended, or because there’s anything wrong with Christianity, but because the government must not show favoritism to any one religion. When it does, when Christianity is presented as a “state” or “official” religion, that’s a clear violation of one of the most important civil rights and foundational principles we have. (There’s a reason it’s the first amendment ;)).

Now, of course, there are always grey areas. Is a Christmas tree a religious symbol? I think the courts have ruled repeatedly that it’s not. So if that’s the case, then no renaming of the tree can possibly be an insult or attack on religion. Is a snowman or a snowflake or a candy cane religious? Clearly not. Anyone trying to ban or forbid these symbols in public schools or elsewhere is over-reacting–and is wrong. What about if the city or state gives some kind of “equal time” to several different religions? The courts have ruled that that’s OK, and although the practicalities can get difficult, it seems to be a reasonable kind of compromise.

I acknowledge that many Christians, and other religious people, feel that their faith is under attack, that the broad forces of “secularism” or “humanism” are threatening what they see as essential to the enjoyment of their faith and traditions. That fear is very real, I know, but it’s also, I think, misguided and misdirected. People who are at least nominally Christian make up some 85% of the American population, as well as a percentage at least that high of every branch of government. Christmas is not really threatened, Christianity is not really threatened…in fact, quite the opposite. But the fear seems not to be about numbers, or power, but about something much deeper–and I think the whole “Christmas Wars” discourse really misses the point of that fear. The threat to spirituality and religion in this country is, I think, (ironically) very closely to connected to the much more serious and real threat to learning, reason, and science.

People who have a deep religious commitment to Christmas specifically or Christianity generally are not threatened in the slightest by the Constitution or the secular nature of our government. They are much more threatened (as Cohen points out in the Times piece, as others have pointed out, and as we see in the stories of people being trampled when the stores opened on Black Friday) by the materialistic, consumerist, immediate pleasure, new toys and supersize fries, culture in which we live. That culture is a major threat not just to deep spirituality and religion, but to deep thinking or feeling of any kind. And that culture is not a product of our secular system. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of the enlightenment tradition from which our secular system springs.

And that’s a trend I see in all kinds of areas of our culture, and it’s a trend that worries me more than almost anything (it may be a far stretch, but that’s actually, in my view, the same trend that gives rise to violent Islamism and other fundamentalist terrorisms).

We all have to live together and we should be able to get along with mutual respect and tolerance. The government should not ever show preference to one religion over others, or to religion in general over the lack of religion. That’s my bottom line. In the blog post that got me into so much trouble last year, I was not trying to promote any kind of “reverse discrimination” or converse bigotry, or anything of the kind. I was only trying to comment on the fact that when people are part of a majority group, their own religion becomes transparent to them–so much so that it’s hard to even understand what it’s like for those who do not share that majority religion. I was hoping that if people in the majority could actually see the world from the perspective of the minority, it might add to their understanding…and it might subtract from the mistaken belief that that minority, just by existing and by having guaranteed, reasonable, Constitutional rights, was somehow an attack or a “war on Christmas.”

12/14/2005

Pickle Player

Filed under: — Joe @ 11:59 pm

Not quite working right yet–but we’re looking at Pickle Player–would be great if it works.

Anticipation continues to build!

Filed under: — Joe @ 2:39 pm

The word is (according to the ACLU of Pennsylvania blog) that the decision in the Dover Intelligent Design Creationism trial will be out early next week! Optimism is high that the judge will decide this one correctly–especially since, throughout the trial, the IDC witnesses were so inept, manipulative, and blatantly dishonest.

Will this be the death knell of IDC? Doubt it. But a clear, strong, decision against them by this judge in this high-profile case would be a very good thing.

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