Monday, June 25, 2007

Bong Hits 4 Jesus?

There were two interesting Supreme Courts decisions today, both were 5-4 decisions, and both clearly indicate that the court will lean right when it’s close. No real surprise there I guess.

The first was a decision in Hein vs. Freedom from Religion Foundation in which the FfRF was attempting to challenge Bush’s Faith Based Initiatives program. The issue was whether or not someone can challenge an executive branch program they believe violates the 1st Amendment’s Establishment Clause simply because they are a taxpayer.

Normally, one cannot make a legal claim unless one can show a direct injury. The government spending money on a program you disapprove of is not considered a direct injury and you can’t sue simply because a minuscule portion of that money came from your tax dollars. It’s a good rule because otherwise we’d have total chaos. However there is one exception on the books at the moment and that’s related to congressional spending in violation of the Establishment Clause.

In Flast v. Cohen (1968) the Supreme Court held that a taxpayer had standing to challenge congressional assistance to religious schools and in Bowen v. Kendrick (1988) the court held that a taxpayer had standing to challenge grants to religious institutions.The question Hein vs. Freedom from Religion Foundation is whether simply being a taxpayer is enough to confer the legal standing to challenge aspects of Bush’s Faith Based Initiatives program.

This is not a simple question because it’s plain that there are far too many people in this country with too much time, too much money, some very strange ideas and a willingness to sue at the drop of a hat. The fear is that if you extend the exception to the executive branch, it could open the doors for a host of ridiculous lawsuits.

As a matter of fact a number of Amicus Briefs, including one from 11 states, supporting Hein proposed the overturning of Flast as a doctrinal aberration.

Anyway, to make a long story less long, the court held, 5-4, that the FfRF had no standing to sue but they left Flast in place. In dissent Justice Souter questioned the rationale that sees a difference between the legislative branch and the executive branch when it comes to a question of the 1st Amendment.

Clearly Souter has a point. If the Bush Administration can allocate general funds to support religious institutions, what is to prevent a situation where congress allocates “general funds” and the president allocates it to the establishment of religion? Who now has the standing to sue? As a matter of fact, in the case the FfRF "set out a parade of horribles that they claim could occur" unless the court stopped the Bush administration initiative. However Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority said "Of course, none of these things has happened."

No Sammy, they haven’t happened, but given the direction the religious right would like to go, they may if you keep slamming the door on possible avenues for a redress of grievances. Keep this up and I might start a petition to repeal your New Jersey roots.

So what does this have to do with “Bong Hits 4 Jesus?” Well, nothing, except that a decision in a free speech case came out the same day. This was one of those silly cases that somehow take on monumental proportions.

In all started one fine day in 2002. An Alaska high school student displayed a 14-foot-long banner, which read simply “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” at a school-sanctioned event to watch the Olympic torch make its way through Juneau en route to the Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

The student said he was asserting his right to free speech, although later he admitted that he was trying to get the principal’s goat. The principal interpreted the banner as advocating drug use, which the student denied, and suspended the student.

The court sided with the school principal saying that the school had the right to curtail student speech it saw as undermining its effort to educate about the harms associated with drug use.

Drug use? Apparently a “bong” is a slang term for a water pipe which is commonly used for smoking hash or grass. I didn’t know that, did you? Even with that information it’s a bit hard to see what the hell “Bong hits 4 Jesus” means. This was one of the points made by the defense, the message was nonsensical.

Yeah right, then why not say “Lettuce Hits 4 Jesus?” Clearly the guy knew what a bong was, suspected how the principal would react and did it anyway. I think the court got this one right. There is a limit.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Presidential Candidates

Over a year ago I took a look at five potential presidential nominees both Republican and Democrat. Of the five, only two seem to be still in contention while a host of new possibilities have appeared.

Most of the new entries I think it’s safe to ignore, but this time around I’m going to talk about six.

Mitt Romney – Rank = 6
We disagree on just about everything it appears or, at least, we disagree about his current updated positions. I can’t shake the feeling that this guy is saying whatever it takes to get votes at the moment. He’s shuffled to the right fighting for the nomination and who knows? Maybe he would shuffle left for the election? I can’t have confidence in someone who plays that kind of game.

Now let’s talk about his Mormonism. Mormons believe things that appear to be demonstrably false. Regardless of how implausible you find Christianity in general you have to concede that, as unlikely as it seems, it might be true. Accepting the Book of Mormon as scripture, despite contradictory archeological and genetic evidence, strikes me as lousy decision making. Do we really want another idiot with lousy decision making skills in the White House?

John McCain – Rank = 5
McCain was my #2 man last time around but since then John has slid to the dark side. I understand that you have to look like a right wing fruitcake in order to get the support of the religious right which, for the moment, wields tremendous influence in the Republican Party, but McCain is starting to sound like a convert. I can no longer see myself supporting McCain.

On the personal side, I think John’s just too old, ten years ago maybe, but not today. I’d like to see a younger man in the oval office.

Barack Obama – Rank = 4
I just don’t think he has the skills and experience. The last time I talked about Obama I said he couldn’t possible be any worse than some past presidents and was, justly, chastised for that. We need to go for the best that’s available and not settle for someone that’s simply better than past mistakes. Hell, finding someone better than Bush would be easy. About 90% of the population would be better than Bush but most of them shouldn’t be president either.

Clearly you can’t talk about Obama without addressing the question of race. Suffice to say that the question of race means absolutely nothing to me. I would have voted for Colin Powell in a heartbeat and still would. Someday I expect to vote for Barack Obama for president as well, but not in 2008.

Rudy Giulianni – Rank = 3
I never had the impression that Giulianni was all that great a mayor. He just happened to be the mayor on 911 which catapulted him into a fairly favorable national spotlight. Hell, they cheered the Giants in Kansas City the following Sunday too. While I don’t feel uncomfortable with his position on most issues, I have to wonder how effective a president, who is so out of tune with his own party, could possibly be?

On the personal side, anyone that’s been divorced three times leaves me a little cold. If I’ve had to suffer and stay married to my first wife, everyone should suffer and stay married to their first wife. Nah, only kidding, I love my wife. But again, one has to wonder about the decision making talents of a man who married the wrong woman three times?

Hillary Clinton – Rank #2
She’s growing on me a little. Sort of like a creeping fungus. Maybe I’ve been contaminated by the many people who really hate this lady but I just don’t feel comfortable with her. I’m really afraid she would be more of a polarizing entity than a healing entity and, after Bush, this country needs some healing. I’m afraid Hillary would just make the schism worse. I also don’t think she can get elected

This is sort of unfortunate because, on the issues, we line up pretty much 100%. I might even forgive her for supporting the start of the war in Iraq, but only if she admits she made a mistake.

John Edwards – Rank #1
Edwards has admitted that voting for the war in Iraq was a mistake. Perhaps that’s the main reason I prefer him over Hillary. I also believe that he’s viewed as more moderate and, perhaps, just perhaps, he can begin the process of putting the country back together again.

You will notice I’m ignoring the whole $400 haircut thing. That was a really stupid thing to do but at least he appears to have chosen the right woman which strikes me as much more important. I think having a woman with the courage of Elizabeth Edwards keeping John in line would work out just fine.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Death Penalty Update

Another execution based upon voodoo science has, at least for the moment, been avoided in Texas. The Medical Examiner who testified against Cathy Henderson, the woman accused of murdering a baby she was babysitting for, has recanted his testimony that the injuries were inconsistent with a fall. Henderson has always maintained that the death was an accident.

Apparently “new evidence” has convinced the doctor that he might have been wrong about what he was certain enough about 12 years ago to be the crucial witness leading to Henderson’s conviction. Exactly how she was considered dangerous enough under the Texas aggregating factors to get the death penalty is still a mystery to me.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed her execution and remanded the case to the trial court for a more careful examination of the new scientific evidence. Amazing, there are signs of intelligent life in the Texas justice system.

Elsewhere, the Tennessee legislature has overwhelmingly approved a study of the death penalty in that state based upon a negative report from the American Bar Association and New Jersey is moving at a snail’s pace toward abolition. Motions have been introduced but there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency in the Garden State. Perhaps that’s because New Jersey has never executed anyone under the current statute and is in no danger of performing an execution anytime soon.

There have been 22 executions so far this year, 15 of which have been in Texas. This is about the same as last year. Also similar to last year, there are a lot of executions scheduled during the summer. There are 28 executions scheduled between now and the end of September, including 12 in Texas. That would put 2007 well ahead of the execution rates in 2005 and 2006.

So things aren’t really getting much better despite a new DPIC poll that shows that 58% of Americans feel that it’s time for a death penalty moratorium. Perhaps that’s because, according to the same poll, 40% feel they would be excluded from serving on a death penalty jury and an incredible 87% believe that an innocent person has been executed in recent years.

In the meantime, in the Fantasyland called Washington D.C., the Supreme Court, in a recent decision upholding the decision of a trial judge to exclude a juror that simply had doubts about the death penalty, appears to have widened the range of jurors that won’t be allowed to serve on capital cases which would further reduce the chance of broad spectrum juries and fair trials when folks are on trial for their life.

And I thought things couldn’t get any worse. Let that be a lesson to me, things can always get worse.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A String of Bad Luck

Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything in this idea of Yin and Yang. That somehow, the good, and the bad, need to balance.

Usually I think about this during a string of petty annoyances. Then I think about people who have really terrible things happen in their lives and I tell myself to stop bitching about trivia.

But, if you want a chuckle, let me tell you how things have been going for me recently. I was leaving the gym and decided to fill up my gas tank for the morrow’s commute to work. Just as I was signing the Visa receipt, one of the gas station guys came out and lowered the price from $2.91 a gallon to $2.89 a gallon.

The End of the Sopranos

Badda-bing, badda-boom, the HBO hit series “The Sopranos” went out last night with a whimper. No blood, no gore and no shock, just a sudden darkening of the screen that left millions thinking that their televisions had malfunctioned.

Nope, the TVs were fine, it was the show’s writers, directors and producers that had malfunctioned. They should have asked me. I could have told them how to take out the show with a bang while still leaving all their options intact.

You pan away from the family sitting in the restaurant to some innocent scene of commonplace objects. Then, suddenly, there’s a commotion, followed by yelling voices that can’t be understood, then, several gunshots and finally, a single scream. All the while the camera stays focused on the placid commonplace objects. After a few seconds of bedlam, the screen fades to black and everything goes silent.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Religion or Bad Science?

Over the Memorial Day weekend Answers in Genesis (AiG) opened its $27 million dollar Creationism Museum in Kentucky.

There were a number of groups that organized demonstrations in order to prove that people weren’t going to let the distortion of truth go unprotested. Virtually all of these groups fell over themselves denying that it was religion that were opposing. It wasn’t religion, it was “bad science.”

There is a difference between “bad science” and dishonesty. There’s certainly enough “bad science” out there. Jumping to conclusions on too little evidence is “bad science.” Failing to investigate alternative hypotheses adequately is “bad science.” Failure to fully investigate whether a correlation really demonstrates a cause and effect relationship is “bad science.”

Drawing the curve before you plot the points isn’t “bad science,” its dishonesty. And, essentially, that’s what religion does. First it establishes “the truth” and then it goes looking for so-called evidence, or twisted hypotheses, that support the predetermined conclusion. Where I come from that’s called lying.

When are we going to stop putting religion up on a pedestal and keep it immune from the criticism of reason? Guys, it wasn’t “bad science” you were protesting, it was the dogma inherent in religion. How about we be honest about it?