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Free Inquiry Frontlines

Volume 20, Number 2
Spring, 2000

The following articles are from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 20, Number 2.

Marital-Type Benefits for Same-Sex Couples

by Tom Flynn

In a sweeping decision, Vermont's Supreme Court has ruled that the state cannot deny marital-style legal benefits to same-sex couples. Chief Justice Jeffrey L. Amestoy's decision invalidates Vermont's marriage statutes, and directs the state legislature either to amend them or to draft domestic-partner legislation so that same-sex couples will enjoy the same hospital visitation, medical decision-making, insurance access, inheritance, and homestead-protection privileges afforded to legally married couples.

Religious Right and other antigay groups were predictably outraged, charging that the court had made "an act that until recently was a crime everywhere-sodomy-the qualifier for receiving the legal privileges of marriage."

The case, Stan Baker, et. al. v. State of Vermont, et. al., began with a complaint by three same-sex couples who had been denied marriage licenses.

Chief Justice Amestoy declared that "the underlying purpose of marriage is to protect and encourage the union of committed couples and that . . . the statutes should be interpreted broadly." He explicitly rejected state arguments that marriage law should "send a public message that procreation and child rearing are intertwined." Ultimately, Amestoy concluded, "the State is constitutionally required to extend to same-sex couples the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage under Vermont law," but left it up to state legislators how this shall be achieved. Should legislators respond by enacting an explicit gay-marriage statute, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which lets states refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, will face its harshest test to date.

House of Representatives Rocked by Chaplain Flap

by Rob Boston

The Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives is defending itself against charges of religious bigotry in the wake of an ugly sectarian flap over appointing a new chaplain.

An 18-member House committee divided equally between Republicans and Democrats met for months last year to find a replacement for retiring chaplain James D. Ford. The committee considered 40 applicants and recommended three finalists. The leading contender, according to several committee members, was the Reverend Timothy J. O'Brien, a Roman Catholic priest.

But in late November House leaders announced that the job was being given to the Reverend Charles Parker Wright, a Presbyterian minister. The New York Times reported that Wright was the choice of House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.). Hastert and Armey, along with Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), an O'Brien supporter, were given the task of making the final selection.

Several Catholic House members cried foul, asserting that O'Brien had been the victim of religious prejudice. (A Catholic chaplain served in the House briefly prior to the Civil War, but in modern times the job has always been held by a Protestant minister.) "As a member of the House and a member of the committee and as a Catholic, I'm offended and resentful," Representative Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) told the Washington Post. "After all is said and done, Speaker Hastert and the majority leader squandered a very rare and unique opportunity to highlight, to showcase, bipartisanship. I don't think the entire thing is an anti-Catholic bias. Do I think that's part of it? I do."

O'Brien, who is a professor of political science at Marquette University's Center for Government in Washington, D.C., told the Associated Press that he believes pressure from the religious Right spiked his candidacy. "I just kind of felt that I was going to have some trouble with the Evangelical Right because they . . . likely had a different candidate, " he said. O'Brien asserted that, during one interview, Representative Richard Shimkus (R-Ill.) noted that the other chaplains had had families and wanted to know if O'Brien was "of good moral character." (A spokeswoman in Shimkus's office denied the charge.)

The priest also told the Times that during his second interview he ran into an "evangelical Protestant line of questioning" from Republicans. One member asked him to name three Bible passages by which he lives his life and another wondered if his clerical collar would be divisive.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) suggested an easy way to end the controversy: abolish the congressional chaplaincy. In a December 6 letter to Hastert, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the wrangling in the House would be almost inevitable "when a government post is devoted solely to religious matters."

Wrote Lynn, "To select a clergyman from one tradition (and reject all those from other traditions) is virtually certain to unleash charges of favoritism. The answer is not to try to improve the selection process, but to abolish the post of House chaplain. Such a move would be in keeping with the church-state separation principle provided in our Constitution." Lynn also appealed for abolishing the office on financial grounds, noting that the chaplain's office has an annual budget of $132,000, even though few House members actually attend the opening prayers.

Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair challenged congressional chaplains in an unsuccessful lawsuit in 1982. Two years later, the Supreme Court, ruling in a separate case, Marsh v. Chambers, upheld taxpayer-funded chaplains in state legislatures. Many church-state observers believe it is unlikely that the current conservative high court would reverse that ruling and declare chaplains in Congress unconstitutional.

Dr. Paul Kurtz, Council for Secular Humanism founder and noted humanist philosopher, filed a lawsuit in 1984 seeking the right to deliver nontheistic opening remarks before Congress, but the effort was rejected by the federal courts.

Ironically, James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution, strongly opposed congressional chaplains. Writing in his "Detached Memoranda" after he left political life, Madison called taxpayer-supported chaplains a "palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles."

A Scouting Troop for Gays and Lesbians

by Andrea Szalanski

The Boy Scouts of America await the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on their appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision that it cannot exclude homosexuals from leadership positions. Meanwhile, individuals and groups such as Scouting For All are organizing and going public to protest Scouting's position that belief in God is required for membership. But the biggest strides may be being made in Canada.

What is thought to be the first Scouting troop for gays and lesbians has been formed by Scouts Canada. The 129th Troop of Toronto will serve ages 18 to 26. According to co-founder Bonte Minnema, there is a need for a community group to organize "empowering, supportive programs" like the troop because homosexual youth have a high rate of suicide and homelessness.

Minnema says that the Canadian response has been positive, but the well-intentioned group has attracted the attention of American Reverend Fred Phelps. Charging that it was "recruiting Canada's youth to filthy lives of sin and shame," he threatened to stage a public protest, but backed off when he learned that a counter-demonstration was being planned.

Fanning the Flames of Superstition

by Matt Cherry

Charan Shah lit three candles on the funeral pyre and then tied the train of the wedding dress she was wearing to the leg of her dead husband. As the funeral pyre began to blaze she calmly jumped into the flames. Her family looked on in pride as the 45-year-old widow burned to death in the ancient rite of sati. The date was November, 1999. 

Tens of thousands of devout Hindus are now making pilgrimages to Charan Shah's shrine in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Hindu traditionalists believe that through her act of literal self-sacrifice Charan Shah was transformed into a god with the power to heal the sick. Her family has launched a fund drive to build a temple on her cremation site.

Some Indian women's organizations believe that Charan Shah's self-immolation was a symptom of a politically motivated crusade to resurrect Hindu traditions. The ruling Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP) government originally came to power by riding a wave of Hindu-chauvinism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Many of its supporters continue to see political advantage in fanning the flames of superstition. 

Confederate Flag Unfurls Controversy

by Norm Allen, Jr.

The Confederate battle flag flies over the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. Many of its supporters claim that it was raised there in 1962 to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. Many of its detractors assert that it was hoisted in racist defiance of the Civil Rights movement. Flag advocates see it as away of embracing Southern heritage. Its critics see it as a symbol of white supremacy.

Many opponents of the flag believe it is wrong to display it anywhere on the Statehouse grounds. Many flag supporters want to move it from the Capitol to a Confederate soldier's memorial on the Statehouse grounds. Leading Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and and Bill Bradley have publicly opposed the flag. Leading Republican candidates George W. Bush and John McCain have said that the state should decide the issue. Meanwhile, many of McCain's South Carolina supporters are vocal and influential defenders of the flag.

On the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, January 17, 46,000 people marched in Columbia to protest the flag, the largest demonstration in the city's history. Several athletic events, family reunions, and convention group groups have canceled visits to the state. According to the NAACP, 130 conventions and more than 100 family reunions have turned away from South Carolina. State tourism officials estimate that the boycott has cost the state $7 million in lost revenue last summer. Adding to the problem, state and business officials claim that some businesses refuse to relocate or expand due to the flag controversy.

While many identify with the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage, the Ku Klux Klan and racist skinhead groups have appropriated it to represent white power. The polls show that a majority are in favor of moving the flag.

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