Voucher Plan Dies
On March 10, the U.S. Senate defeated a Republican effort to continue the District of Columbia’s controversial school voucher plan. This is a victory for church-state separation, religious liberty, and public education. In taking this action, the Democratic-controlled Congress was very much in line with the twenty-five statewide referenda from coast to coast in which millions of voters rejected school vouchers or their variants by an average of 2 to 1. The GOP seems wildly out of touch with public opinion; in 2007 voters in the most Republican state of all, Utah, defeated a voucher plan 62 percent to 38 percent. But don’t relax just yet; promoters of tax support for discriminatory faith-based schools are far from giving up.
Victories for Science
President Barack Obama wasted little time in reversing George W. Bush’s bans on embryonic stem-cell research and on U.S. support for overseas family planning programs sympathetic to reproductive choice. Bush’s bans were based on the faith-based notion that embryos are persons, a view equivalent to saying that acorns are oak trees. Neurobiology shows that the functions of human personhood become possible only after the cerebral cortex is wired up, sometime after twenty-eight to thirty-two weeks of gestation. Interestingly, for those for whom it might matter, the word for person in the Judeo-Christian scriptures (nefesh) refers to something that breathes, i.e., a born child.
Texas Flunks Sex Ed
Sexuality education in Texas’s nearly one thousand public-school districts must gladden the hearts of fundamentalists. Its numerous faults are spelled out in a comprehensive sixty-six–page report by the Texas Freedom Network, Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools (available online at www.tfn.org). Among its conclusions: “Most Texas students receive no instruction about human sexuality apart from the promotion of sexual abstinence”; sex-ed “materials used in Texas schools regularly contain factual errors and perpetuate lies and distortions about condoms and STDs”; “Shaming and fear-based instruction are standard means of teaching students about sexuality”; “Some Texas classrooms mix religious instruction and Bible study into [sex ed] programs.” The TFN report is a good step toward straightening out this mess. Incidentally, the Texas Freedom Network would be an excellent model for other states to emulate.
‘Only Fetuses and Popes’
In March, a nine-year-old girl, raped repeatedly and impregnated by her stepfather, was given an abortion by physicians who feared that the eighty-pound child would not survive the birth of twins. Local Catholic Church officials went ballistic and excommunicated the girl’s mother and the doctors. Then a Vatican official ratified the excommunication. Former Catholics for Choice president Frances Kissling, now a visiting bioethics scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, hit back in an online article on March 9 in Religion Dispatches. “Are these prelates crazy?” she asked and then explained that in the Church’s latest Code of Canon Law “automatic excommunication” is incurred only for abortions and attempts to assassinate a pope. As she put it, “Only fetuses and popes are worthy of consideration. The rest of us are on our own.”
Religious ID Shifts
Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar’s new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), released in March, registered interesting changes since their earlier surveys in 1990 and 2001. The most noticeable: a sharp decline in Roman Catholicism in New England, partly offset by increases in Texas and California due to Hispanic immigration; a nationwide decline in mainline Protestants but a slight increase in conservative Christians; a large increase in those claiming no religion or no affiliation along with a small increase of agnostics and atheists. The entire, complex Trinity College survey is available online at www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org. It would seem that the United States has been edging a bit toward the other advanced countries, as examined in Gregory Paul’s important article “The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved,” in the December 2008/January 2009 Free Inquiry. It’s really too early to tell, given the current economic downturn affecting the United States and most of the rest of the world.
From Hither and Yon
In this bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the Society for Interpretive and Comparative Biology moved its annual convention from New Orleans to Salt Lake City. This was in response to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s refusal to veto a bill aimed at allowing creationism to sneak into public-school science classes. . . . Texas fundamentalists are hoping the legislature will pass a bill to allow the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school to grant degrees, a step toward promoting creationism in public schools. . . . Defeated Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) has been hired to head a new project to try to unseat prochoice members of Congress. Ms. Musgrave doesn’t think women should have reproductive choice. . . . Although U.K. policy is to bar creationism from state schools (what we Yanks call public schools; “public” schools in the U.K. are what we term private schools), efforts are under way to promote creationism in state secondary schools.