Category Archives: Government

Religious directives dictating healthcare

Occasionally I have discussions with people about whether it is a such a big deal that Catholic hospitals follow their own set of religiously-inspired directives when treating patients. Shouldn’t a private institution be able to do whatever they want? Isn’t a breach of religious freedom to tell religious organizations how to operate? This is how I respond.

On December 9th, the New York Times Editorial Board summarized the issue regarding Catholic hospitals and standard of care:

Beyond new state efforts to restrict women’s access to proper reproductive health care, another, if quieter, threat is posed by mergers between secular hospitals and Catholic hospitals operating under religious directives from the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. These directives, which oppose abortions, inevitably collide with a hospital’s duty to provide care to pregnant women in medical distress.

They go on to describe a case from 2010 in which a pregnant woman from Michigan had her water break at 18 weeks. The doctors at the only hospital in her county – a Catholic hospital – did not inform her that her fetus had almost no chance of survival, and that terminating the pregnancy was the safest option. Despite the danger to her life, the woman was sent home twice. The doctors had been following the religious directives of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which apply to all Catholic hospitals in the nation.

Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and, in many communities, are the only hospital facilities available.

This isn’t the first time that religious directives have conflicted with proper medical treatment in the US or abroad. In 2010, a nun at a Catholic hospital in Phoenix was excommunicated for approving a life-saving abortion for a pregnant mother-of-four. Last year, in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar died of blood poisoning because doctors weren’t permitted to perform the abortion that would save her. In short, Catholic directives require that doctors withhold information or withhold treatment from patients, and the consequences can be tragic.

No hospital should be allowed to operate this way. There are standards of care that healthcare institutions must adhere to, and the ACLU is currently suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for enforcing directives which contravene those standards. No one knows if they’ll win the suit, but I applaud them for trying. The bishops are right to call this is a matter of religious freedom; specifically, it’s a matter of whether our healthcare system will be free from the bishops’ religion.


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Filed under Catholic Church, First Amendment, Government, News, Reproductive Rights, Women's Issues

Does it matter if the United States was founded as a christian nation?

NPR has just published a damning indictment of David Barton, an evangelical christian “historian” who – as you can see from the article – makes things up about the connection between the christian religion and the United States government. I’ve known about Barton’s lies for a long time; many skeptical bloggers have written posts exposing Barton’s ignorance or flat-out contradiction of the historical evidence. I don’t plan on writing about that today. What I do plan on writing about, and what I find worth looking into, is the fact that this argument takes place at all.

My experience has been that when claims such as Barton’s – say, that America was founded as a christian nation – are uncritically posted in blog posts, opinion articles, or Facebook statuses, non-religious people are quick to stand up and say That’s not true! And you can tell from the tone and immediacy of their responses that they feel something is at stake. They don’t want it to be true, which is part of why they are so quick to point out that it’s not. I’ve seen it numerous times, and certainly fallen prey to it myself. The same can be said of David Barton, who obviously wants what he says to be true, otherwise he wouldn’t be revising US history to say it.Why is this? Why does it matter whether or not America was founded as a christian nation?

To put it simply, there are systems of government that are more encouraging of human flourishing than others. Free speech, freedom of the press, balanced governmental powers, equal rights for all citizens, and so on all seem to be important factors in sustaining a prosperous society for the long-term. These things are not at all present in the Bible; in fact, several of them are completely at odds with Biblical principles. One need only look as far as the Ten Commandments to see that women are considered property, and that freedom of religion is anathema. “You shall have no other gods before me.” This was not an option. Clearly, the principles of US government are not religiously-inspired. And if they were, then the United States would probably not be as successful or prosperous as it is today, seeing as how such impositions on liberty do not ever lead to a society that is successful for everyone. Successful for those in power, yes. But for the common man? Not so much.

If the government of the United States were based on principles that, as far as history has shown, do not seem to work, we as a nation would have the option of keeping our government the way it is, or changing it to try and make it better. I think the argument that many religious conservatives would make, and that many rational people would oppose, is that if our nation was founded as a christian one, then it should always be so. But this does not follow. We should always be concerned with governing in a way that will bring the greatest happiness and liberty to the greatest number, and if the principals our nation was founded on turn out to be unsuccessful, then we had bloody well revise them.

So really, when someone makes the assertion that the United States is a christian nation, we should correct their error, but also ask the follow-up question: Who cares?


Filed under Government, News

If you read one thing this week…

On the anniversary of his wife’s assisted suicide, Eric MacDonald is in excellent form on the subject of assisted dying. This cannot be shared enough.

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Filed under Assisted Dying, Government, Human Rights, Humanism, Morality, Religion

Protecting a student’s right to make anti-gay statements

Following up my previous posts on free speech, we have a case involving the ACLU and a student’s right to wear a T-shirt with an anti-gay message.


The front of Seth Groody’s T-shirt.

Wolcott High School in Connecticut designated April 20th a Day of Silence in order to raise awareness of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. On that same day, junior Seth Groody wore to school a T-shirt depicting a rainbow with a slash through it – an anti-gay statement. School officials forced him to remove the T-shirt.

The ACLU has pointed out that this is unconstitutional, and they’ve asked school officials to guarantee that students’ rights to free speech are not infringed in the future.

“The First Amendment was written to protect unpopular speech, which is naturally the kind of speech that will always need protection,” said Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “The ACLU has fought hard for same-sex marriage and we couldn’t agree with Seth less on that issue, but he is absolutely correct about his right to express his opinion.

“The impulse to suppress ideas that we find unpleasant is antithetical to freedom and democracy. That’s why the ACLU of Ohio stood up in 2006 for the rights of students to wear T-shirts supporting same-sex marriage and the ACLU of Connecticut must stand up in 2012 for the rights of students to express the opposite sentiment.”

This is the right thing to do. I, too, am vehemently against anti-gay sentiment, but if people are to be free to express good ideas, then they must also be free to express bad.

The only exception I would make is the exception that US case law already makes – if speech becomes so frequent or disruptive that it infringes on the rights of others, then it becomes harassment, and it is no longer protected under the First Amendment. If a great number of students at Wolcott High came to school wearing anti-gay shirts, that would arguably create an oppressive atmosphere towards LGBT students, with negative consequences for their psychological wellbeing. Anti-gay bullying is a big issue in American schools these days, and it isn’t to be taken lightly. However, if only a handful of students are openly expressing anti-gay sentiments, then the answer is for students and teachers who disagree to raise their voices higherand to repudiate the idea that there is something wrong with being attracted to members of the same sex.

(via the Friendly Atheist)

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Filed under First Amendment, Free Speech, Government, Homosexuality, Human Rights

Obama thinks it’s reasonable to kill Americans without trial, but won’t tell us why

There was an eight-page article in the New York Times yesterday entitled, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will. The article contains quite a number of excuses and loopholes the administration has found to justify morally- and legally-questionable actions. Innocents can be killed in the line of fire, even if we are not at war. All military-age males in a strike zone are automatically designated as combatants, so we cannot say that we killed non-combatants. The US has a veritable take-no-prisoners policy in order to get around the tricky issue of detaining someone without trial.

This even applies to American citizens. From the article:

[Anwar al-Awlaki’s] record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

“Due process” now consists of the executive branch deliberating about whether you should die or not. We have rewritten the rules to suit our needs.

Still, my mind is not made up about the administration’s actions. It is possible that some of them are morally justifiable -by which I mean they are consistent with the goal of creating an international human society in which people have their basic liberties. Perhaps it is reasonable to kill terrorists in other countries without trial in order to protect innocent lives. However, I am not convinced. I tend to think that the rights guaranteed by the American constitution are there for a good reason, and I tend not to trust people who break the rules and then invent justifications for it later. Humans have done this throughout history; very seldom has it looked noble in retrospect.

In choosing not to release, among other things, the fifty-page Department of Justice memo which gives legal justification for the killing of Awlaki, Obama makes it appear as if he has something to hide. If the administration thinks it is reasonable and good to practice indefinite detention, or to kill American citizens without trial, then let them state their case for it openly, and let the nation debate it openly. This is a democracy, and our ability to scrutinize the actions of our leaders is paramount to keeping power in the hands of its people.


Filed under Crime and Punishment, First Amendment, Government, Human Rights, News

Our government has standards that religious institutions must live up to

There have been many excellent responses to the Catholic bishops’ complaints about the new US law regarding  insurance coverage for contraception. But Marty Klein at his blog, Sexual Intelligence, has just published the most concise and powerful response I have seen.

Amidst complaints by the Catholic clergy that their religious freedoms are being infringed, Klein states the obvious – our government mandates standards for work environments.

What employers like Notre Dame should NOT be allowed to do is present their employees with a substandard work environment. Just because they have strong religious feelings (yawn), their workplaces shouldn’t be less safe, less free of harassment, or offer less healthcare protection. It’s the government’s job to make sure Notre Dame meets the current minimum standards of the American workplace, whatever they are. It’s not the government’s job to help Notre Dame shape its employees’ private behavior to suit its vision of personal morality.

Safety regulations in the workplace are not new. It doesn’t matter if your religion prohibits you from wearing a hardhat; you still have to follow the rules. The same goes for harassment, and healthcare. There are standards enacted for the good of everyone. Expecting people of all religions to abide by them is not a novel concept, nor is it unfair.

Do read the whole thing. It’s short and direct, and makes it obvious what the Catholic bishops are doing – whining that they can’t do whatever they want in a secular democracy.

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Filed under Catholic Church, First Amendment, Government, News, Reproductive Rights, Women's Issues

Why harassment isn’t free speech

One of the limitations on free speech in American public schools is when speech becomes harassment. What constitutes harassment, and why is it a good idea to put limits on this sort of behavior?

Here is an interesting example from a high school in Nova Scotia. Granted, Canadian law isn’t American law, but it’s the case that I care about. A student named William Swinimer was suspended for wearing a t-shirt to school with the slogan, “Life Is Wasted Without Jesus.” Now this, alone, would not be an actionable offense in the US or in Canada. In a previous post on student speech, I discussed students’ rights to express all sorts of potentially offensive ideas via their dress (one student wore a Jesus costume to his school’s “Fictional Character Day”). Swinimer, however, had been repeatedly preaching his religion and telling other students that they would go to hell. He was, it seems from the report, disrupting the school learning environment and making it more difficult for other students to learn. As a result, he was ordered to stop wearing the offending t-shirt (which he had worn every day for several weeks). When he continued to wear the shirt, Swinimer was suspended for five days.

Is this the right approach? It seems to me that the distinction between speech that should be protected in schools (including speech that is unpopular or offensive), and behavior such as the above, is a valid one to make. The Washington chapter of the ACLU has an article explaining why behavior such as Swinimer’s constitutes “harassment,” and why it should be restricted:

Students do not abandon their rights to freedom of speech at the classroom door. A school should allow students to speak freely so long as their speech does not substantially interfere with the educational process or the rights of other students. However, certain conduct may be prohibited in a school setting even where it could not be punished in other settings.

For example, it does not violate freedom of speech when teachers require that students stop extraneous conversations and pay attention in class; this form of student speech interferes with the educational process. In the same way, harassment of students by other students interferes with the operation of the school and infringes on the rights of the harassed students to enjoy equal treatment under law and equal educational opportunity. Schools have a compelling interest in eliminating discrimination and harassment, and this goal may be pursued in a manner that does not abridge the right to freedom of expression.

In a previous post (linked above), I discussed why free speech, and therefore the free exchange of ideas, is important. It makes our society better to be able to say what we think, and respond to ideas that we find false or pernicious. Censorship does not solve problems. Harassing individuals, however, and interfering with their ability to learn is a problem, and should rightly be prohibited. In certain cases where harassment or bullying of a group is particularly prevalent or severe, we have an even greater responsibility to see that those students are protected, lest something terrible happen. This is why it was disgusting last November to see Michigan Republicans attempt to pass a law to let school bullies off the hook if they acted out of a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” Against a national backdrop of anti-gay bullying and teen suicide, Republicans wanted christians to have free license to disparage students for being gay.

So to return to the current issue, while I defend William Swinimer’s right to express offensive beliefs in school, I think it’s good to draw the line at pestering other students and disrupting the learning environment.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)


Filed under First Amendment, Free Speech, Freethought, Government, Human Rights