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Rehoming Troubled Children

Posted by Aramink on March 6, 2015 in Arkansas, Children, Lawyer |

This week, the Arkansas Times broke a tragic story about a sexually abused 6-year-old girl. The most horrifying element of this story is how the girl came to be living with the man who molested her, rather than with the family of the three-term Arkansas state legislator who had legally adopted her.

The facts, as we know them:

The girl and her sisters, who were 8 and 3, were wards of the state of Arkansas. They were in foster care when their natural parents’ parental rights were terminated. In September 2012, the Department of Human Services (DHS) placed the three girls in the home of Justin and Marsha Harris for adoption. Justin Harris is a third-term Republican state representative here in Arkansas. He sits on multiple legislative committees that oversee matters pertaining to children. He also runs an overtly Christian preschool that is unconstitutionally funded with government money.

The oldest girl stayed in the Harrises’ home for just a few weeks before DHS moved her elsewhere. It was obvious that the Harrises’ home was not the right placement for her. The Harrises did eventually adopted the two younger girls.

Then, around October 2013 – just a year after the girls had come to live with them – the Harrises “rehomed” the girls, who they claim were a danger to their family. Eventually, in March 2014, someone called in an anonymous complaint to the Child Abuse Hotline to report that the the girls were no longer in the Harris home. During DHS’s investigation of that complaint, the Harrises’ adopted 6-year-old daughter, by then living with yet another family, revealed that she was touched inappropriately by the man the Harrises had given her to.

When the perpetrator was arrested, Justin Harris made public statements about how tragic it was that any child had gone through such trauma. He never admitted that the victim was his own daughter, or that Harris himself had given her to the man who abused her. Until the anonymous complaint, no one had notified DHS that these little girls were no longer living with the Harrises, who, as their adoptive parents, were receiving a cash subsidy for their support.

Because they were foster children, we can assume that these girls were removed from their biological parents by the state because of neglect or abuse. According to the Arkansas Times story, the 6-year-old had been sexually abused by someone before she was ever placed in the Harris home. The story doesn’t reveal whether this sexual abuse was the reason for the children’s natural parents losing custody, or whether it might have happened while she was in foster care. In all likelihood, that information was not available or ascertainable by the Times reporter, because the records of juvenile courts pertaining to child abuse and neglect cases and adoption records are sealed.

When children are placed for adoption, Arkansas law requires that the adoption not be finalized until the children have been in the adoptive home for at least six months. Typically, if there is no guardianship in place, the court issues a temporary order of adoption when the children are first placed in the adoptive home.

The state might never have known but for a call to the Arkansas Child Abuse Hotline in March 2014. DHS apparently investigated the abandonment by going to the older child’s school and interviewing her. The child revealed that the caller had told the truth, and that Eric Francis, the man the Harrises had given her to, had molested her. Francis confessed. The molestation had happened in January 2014.

It’s sickening that this little girl was abused, spent time in foster care, was adopted, was abandoned by her adoptive parents, was again molested by the man her adoptive parents gave her to, and was then put in yet another home. It’s horrifying that the abandonment and sexual abuse and second rehoming happened without the knowledge of DHS.

This triggers the juvenile lawyer in me.

I practiced juvenile law for more than 15 years. I saw a lot of abused and chronically neglected kids get adopted into new families. When their existing foster parents adopted them, I wasn’t worried about them nearly as much as when new families adopted them.

In defense of families who give up on children

Children who have been abused have so many emotional and behavioral problems that it takes a special family to take them in. It takes really special – and dedicated – adoptive parents to deal with all the therapy appointments, crises, acting out, insecurities, and everything else that goes along with the trauma of severe child abuse and neglect. And face it: if the abuse and neglect weren’t severe and chronic, those kids wouldn’t be in a position to be adopted.

It’s hard enough if the parent has bonded with an abused child since birth and has shared the joys of the child’s development and personality as well as the despair of something this devastating. It’s much harder to remain committed to a child with whom the parent does not have a strong bond. And it’s harder still when, because of a serious case of reactive attachment disorder, any bond between the parent and child is tenuous and volatile. In my experience, attachment disorder is tragically common in foster children and abused children.

New adoptive parents who think they can manage when they’ve only known a child for a few months have no idea what they’re getting into. The honeymoon period is real; problems may be ignored or minimized because they think the child “just needs time to adjust.” Nope. Those problems aren’t going anywhere, at least not without a lot of seriously intensive help. And truthfully, no matter how young the child was at the time of the abuse or neglect, the trauma from it lingers for a lifetime.

What’s worse, when that six month period between the court orders for the temporary and final adoption nears its end, the new adoptive parents are completely stressed out and exhausted. They don’t have an attachment disorder so they feel committed to the child, who they may not ever be able to handle. Saying no to a clearly troubled child is devastating for well-meaning and deeply compassionate people, especially when there’s an encouraging DHS caseworker standing in the wings, promising that things will improve.

There comes a point at which foster parents and adoptive parents break. Maybe it comes when their natural child is abused by the adoptee. Maybe it comes when the child sets a fire or when the parent wakes up to find the adoptee wielding a knife in a darkened bedroom with mayhem clearly on her mind. Maybe it’s when the family dog is bludgeoned to death. Maybe it’s when feces get smeared all over the walls and furniture. In the worst cases, these kids are so disturbed that they end up institutionalized. (Newsflash: There’s not a lot of love or nurture in a long-term mental institution. They don’t come out “fixed.”)  In his prepared statement yesterday, Rep. Harris said that his family was in danger from these two little girls. Even at the ages of 4 and 6, that might well have been true.

What to do when adoptions go wrong

I have no doubt that the Harrises meant well when they adopted these children. The problem isn’t that they wanted to adopt. I’m sure they had every intention of giving these children their “forever” home. The problem is that when the adoption went south, they passed already-traumatized children off to non-professionals who had not been vetted. The Harrises had no way of knowing whether the new home would meet the needs of children whose needs the Harrises apparently could not meet. Without the help of the state, it’s highly unlikely that the severe emotional issues of these children – issues that caused the Harris adoption to fail – could get addressed adequately.

I won’t condemn the Harrises for giving up on a pair of seriously troubled children. I’ve worked with these kinds of kids and their natural, foster, and adoptive families. I’ve seen how tough it can be to live with a deeply disturbed child. It’s can be emotionally and physically draining for the parents and completely disruptive to other children already in the home. Not everyone can or should take on such a situation. When they realize the situation is beyond them, the potential adoptive parents should throw in the towel – it’s best for the child and for themselves. So, no, I don’t condemn the Harrises for deciding that these children shouldn’t live in their home.

When a situation with a child gets that bad, though, there are avenues for relief. The first thing parents can do is seek medical intervention for the child. This kind of help includes mental health treatment, therapy, and even institutional treatment. If the parents can’t afford the medical or mental health treatment, they can tap the resources of the state.

Arkansas juvenile law allows parents of troubled children to file a petition with the court to claim status as a “Family in Need of Services” (FINS). Even with no resources of their own or only modest ones, families can ask the state for assistance with therapy, treatment, and even temporary foster care for their troubled children. By saying formally that they can’t cope with their child’s problems alone, they are not deemed bad parents. Parents who avail themselves of the state’s resources are not abandoning their children, even if a judge decides that the child should be removed from their home – and even if the parent asks the court to remove the child from the home for the safety of one or more other family members. When parents have to choose which of their children to protect, they need the help of the system.

With a FINS action, the parent can ask that the state take custody of the child. There are special foster homes that are specifically trained to provide therapeutic foster care to seriously troubled children who disrupt from regular homes. The Harrises could have availed themselves of such training had they been serious about keeping the girls in their home, too.

When problems arise with adopted children, adoptive parents are encouraged to get help directly from DHS.  “[I]f you’re having difficulties or troubles with a child you adopted from us, reach out to us, we have resources that can help families,” said DHS spokesperson Amy Webb when asked about the situation.

There were services the Harrises could have tapped to get help, and when all else failed, the children could have gone back into the foster care system. While they might have had more disruptions and uncertainty there, as wards of the state they at least would have had a caseworker who was ultimately responsible for seeing that they were safe and had the treatment, education, and basic requirements of living in a non-abusive environment.

If it looks like abuse, sounds like abuse, and smells like abuse

Children aren’t pets. Responsible parents – natural or adoptive – don’t just give them away when they become inconvenient, and parents don’t surrender their parental rights or responsibilities when they park their troubled kids with someone else.

According to the statement the Harrises’ attorney issued yesterday, they apparently felt that they could not seek any help for the children:

Due to threats of possible abandonment charges, they were unable to reach out to [the Arkansas Department of Human Services] for help with children who presented a serious risk of harm to other children in their home. Upon the advice of both a psychiatrist and a pediatrician, they were forced to move the children to the home of trusted friends, who had a lot of experience with children with reactive attachment disorder. Rep. and Mrs. Harris are devastated about the outcome of that decision, but faced with no good option, they did the best that they knew how.

This statement raised more questions than it answered.

Presumably Rep. Harris had some clue as to how the law in this area works – he is vice-chairman of the state House Committee that oversees matters pertaining to youth and children, after all.

Why didn’t the Harrises make sure that these children, at least one of whom had already been severely abused, were able to get the services they needed in a stable and loving home? Giving them away to another family – one that had not been vetted and made perfectly aware of the needs of these children by professionals and not merely by a pair of frustrated and overwrought adoptive parents – is abuse and neglect in and of itself. They packed one trauma on top of another when they gave these kids away to be rehomed. They set the children up for the abuse that was to follow.

Furthermore, what they did clearly constitutes child abandonment. “Rehoming” happens a lot, even to children who aren’t adopted. Think of the children who live with grandparents or other relatives because their parents are not able or willing to take care of them. There is no state involvement unless the new custodian goes to court to get guardianship.

Rehoming is often very informal. The people who acquire possession of a child this way don’t have legal rights. Without legal guardianship, they have at most a power of attorney from the legal parents or guardians, and they don’t usually even have that. This means the person who the child lives with is not legally able to consent to medical care, can’t enroll the children in school, and can’t apply for government benefits for the children.

Questions needing straight answers

But these aren’t the only questions that demand answers. Michael Cook at Talk Business and Politics has a long list. I agree with each and every question he’s asked, and want to add a few more:

  1. Were Justin and Marsha Harris trained as a therapeutic placement for seriously disturbed children?
  2. Did the Harrises ever consider residential treatment for these girls? If so, why didn’t it happen? If not, why not?
  3. Who was the “head of DHS” who told the Harrises that abandonment charges would be pursued against them if they tried to dissolve the adoption?
  4. Were Eric and Stacey Francis trained as therapeutic foster parents?
  5. Did the Harrises give the Francises power of attorney to take care of the girls’ medical, financial, and educational needs?
  6. Did anyone ever talk to the Harrises about a FINS petition?

When he spoke briefly with the press without making a statement yesterday, Harris understandably looked strained and upset. I have no doubt that he and his wife are heartbroken over the way the adoption unfolded, not to mention traumatized the negative publicity swirling around them now.

Justin Harris

Screen grab from video posted on KATV

At his press conference this afternoon, a clearly emotional Harris described a hellish situation. If pets are being tortured and killed and the rest of the family has to sleep barricaded away from the adopted children, there are obviously very serious problems. The Harrises’ home may not have been a suitable placement for those children.

But I find it difficult to believe that the “head of DHS” threatened to file abandonment charges against him and his wife if they gave the children back, despite the fact that the therapist, psychiatrist and pediatrician all recommended that the children be removed. DHS definitely does ask the courts to dissolve adoptions when all else fails.

I practiced juvenile law for 15 years before I threw in the towel myself, burned out and discouraged at the horrible things people did to their children and the unresponsiveness of the state agency tasked with protecting children. I know that DHS caseworkers routinely dole out threats and misinformation to people who need help. DHS is rarely held accountable for failing the people it is supposed to protect and serve.

There is more to this story. It all needs to come out. It’s not going to be easy for the Harrises. It may not make them look very good, but my guess is that DHS won’t look very clean, either. No one is going to “win” this investigation.

But wait – there’s more

For abandoning troubled children into the questionable care of others, both Harrises should investigated for child neglect – and that investigation should not be done by DHS. No agency is capable of policing itself.

If Justin and Marsha Harris neglected and abandoned their adopted daughters, they should be listed in the Child Maltreatment Central Registry, which lists people who have been found to have committed child abuse and/or child neglect. I’ve represented parents who have been listed in the registry and had their other children removed from their custody for less.

Listing them in that registry would disqualify them from operating a daycare or preschool. No more state funds would go to support that patently religious institution run by a state legislator, something that is entirely unconstitutional to begin with. Another problem solved.

Furthermore, Justin and Marsha Harris must be forthcoming with proof that they forwarded the adoption subsidy to the girls’ actual caretakers. The subsidy is taxpayer money intended to get treatment and assistance for children whose natural parents have already abused and/or neglected them to the point of getting their parental rights terminated. If someone other than their caretakers was getting the government assistance intended to address these children’s emotional, physical, developmental, and medical needs, that’s fraud.

I’m no fan of Justin Harris. He’s a hyper-religious Republican who ignores separation of church and state with great abandon, something that deeply offends me. But in this situation, I’m not ready to condemn him or his wife. I’ve seen the ugly side of an uncooperative DHS too many times over the years to disbelieve their version of events entirely.

Investigative journalism is the bedrock of democracy

Investigative journalism is an important and necessary way to get things like this addressed properly. Benji Hardy, with help from Leslie Newell Peacock, has done a fantastic job of exposing this rot. Had Justin and Marsha Harris been more forthcoming about the situation when the press asked, there might be a bellowing call for investigation of DHS right now instead of the pillorying the Harrises are getting in the national press. DHS’s shortcomings are in dire need of exposure, because they are outrageous. DHS has more power to ruin lives than just about any other state agency, and they do it regularly.

When we allow the decline of print media, we forget that excellent journalists like Benji Hardy keep our government and our elected officials accountable. If you live in Arkansas but don’t subscribe to the Arkansas Times, change that. This weekly paper has some of the best, most astute, and well-seasoned serious journalists in the state working for it. Don’t ever dismiss it as just restaurant reviews and a calendar of community events.

And about that First Amendment – without it, articles like this one might never see the light of day. I maintain it is the best, most essential, and most humane of all the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. All of the others flow from it.

 

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Religion of Peace

Posted by Aramink on January 7, 2015 in News, Politics, Religion |

Ten French humor writers and cartoonists and other magazine staffers were murdered in their offices, along with two police officers, by a trio of adherents to Islam, the “religion of peace.” The victims’ crime? They had dared to make and publish a cartoon of Mohammed. According to the BBC, at least seven others were wounded.

French Mohammed

Killing the people who criticize religion is probably as old as religion itself. Yesterday’s massacre was nothing new. The murderers themselves are nothing special. They are nothing but yet another face of religious extremism.

They are not the mainstream of their religion. In fact, the Arab League and Al-Azhar mosque, Egypt’s top Islamic institution, condemned the attack. I can almost hear the protests by these leaders of Islam: “Islam is a religion of peace,” I imagine they gently protested – just like they did after 9/11.

There is no such thing as a “religion of peace.”

In the name of religion human beings have forcibly removed entire populations from their homelands and taken their livelihoods. Religion has slaughtered entire towns from the youngest child to the oldest woman. It has pitted people against hungry predators in public arenas. Because of religion, people have gone on crusades, gone on jihads, and attacked their neighboring countries. Religion has prompted governments to burn people at the stake and hang innocents. Religion was at the basis for Hitler’s final solution, when he tried to cleanse the world of a certain people. Because of religion we humans have bombed ourselves, bombed others, hijacked planes to fly into buildings, beheaded people, and executed apostates. We have done all of these atrocities all to appease or defend some “higher” power that is apparently, despite its magnificent omnipotence, incapable of defending itself.

The Catholic Church actively protects priests who persistently rape children. Scientology officials stalk and smear anyone who dares to disagree. Anders Breivik murdered 77 Norwegians in the name of right-wing political beliefs and Christianity. Charismatic psychopath  Jim Jones convinced 900 people to kill themselves and their children in Jonestown. Preachers claiming the Rapture is imminent persuade their gullible followers to give up their jobs, their homes, and their possessions in preparation for an apocalypse that never happens. Doctors are murdered in their clinics for offering legal health services to pregnant women contrary to the religious beliefs of people who aren’t patients of the clinic. Westboro Baptist Church – need I say more? It’s such a lovely thing that Christianity is a religion of peace.

Jewish people in the US sponsor political parties in Israel, which in the name of its “God-given authority” then breaks international laws with its settlements and holds a million people in a gigantic cage. Is Judaism a “religion of peace”?

Hinduism and Buddhism have their share of religious atrocities, too. When a pig wandering into a public place causes riots, there’s a problem. When little girls are forced into marriage and virtual sexual slavery, the religion commits war against half of its own adherents. When history is revised to support a narrative of exclusion and religious fervor, no one wins. It’s child abuse to send young boys and girls to camps and schools to radicalize their religious beliefs and to instill in them a commitment to die for their religion. Nationalism based on adherence to a religion – whether Hindu or Jewish – makes no room for dissenters, which will always appear in the population, just because some people in every population will question authority.

In the name of their religions, people have sacrificed perfectly healthy young members of their society, tortured and killed suspected witches, rounded up dissenters and executed them, justified enslaving an entire race, and sacked entire cities.

Even today – in this “enlightened” era – people pass laws forcing others to bow to the religious sensibilities to which those others do not ascribe.  They reject and ostracize their own LGBT children. Governments expatriate religious dissenters like Sanal Edamaruku. Religious leaders put out hits on authors like Salman Rushdie. Because of the baseless assertions of priests and shamans, people burn suspected witches alive – including “witches” who are still infants. Religious rigor demands that parents deny education to their female children. Religion instigates the torture and murder of gay college students. Uneducated religious leaders encourage their followers to reject proven science. Because of religion, parents genitally mutilate their children (both boys and girls). Religion permits men to disfigure women by throwing acid in their faces and shoot little girls who want to go to school. Religious people deny life-saving medical treatment to their family members. Citing their religion and that of their constituents, legislators pass national and state laws to allow horrific treatment  of and discrimination against LGBT people. Religion insists that its adherents ignore decades of psychiatric progress. Nauseatingly, the list or atrocities and injustices due to religion just never seems to end.

There is no “religion of peace.” There is just religion. It is utterly disgusting what someone can get desperate or gullible people full of fear and anger to do in religion’s name.

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On Costain, the Plantagenets, and History Books

Posted by Aramink on December 30, 2014 in Book Reviews, History, Reading |

I love all these things. I love reading, period. There is so much to learn, so much to know. If I can come away from a few minutes of reading with one real fact to share at a cocktail party, the magazine rack in my bathroom library is worth the small investment.

I like science books explain concrete things that we don’t ordinarily think about. They engage us in subjects that aren’t essential to our survival or even to our happiness, but that simply interest us and send us off on a quest to know more. They may be the books that explain innovations, technologies, or practices that controlled the civilizations of their time, from the development of agricultural practices to the economy of the Silk Road. They may examine animal behavior, linguistics, migrations, burial practices, or art. They may be the history books that examine the politics and personalities of an era that led to a revolution. The books that stick with us are the books that teach us something.

I know which books kicked open my love of English medieval history. I know when I read them and why. Sometime in the mid-1970’s, my dad was re-reading one of his favorite authors. As he often did, he read the fun parts aloud to whichever of his children happened to be in earshot – he loved sharing his books as much as he loved reading them.

That day, he was reading Thomas B. Costain’s Below the Salt.  I remember asking him what the title meant, and he explained that in medieval times salt was still a precious commodity. Only the wealthy had much access to it. Even in the dining halls of royalty or nobility, only the head table was allowed free access to a salt cellar. At the other, lower, tables sat the hired hands, the retainers, the working people, and the less influential members of the noble house. They sat “below the salt,” or at tables without access to valuable salt.

below the Salt

Salt? Cheap, ordinary salt? I was incredulous. Dad read me more passages from the book about heroic William Marshal, the beautiful and tragic Maid of Brittany, and King John, perhaps the most depraved of the Plantagenet kings of England.

“The stories are true,” he told me. “Mostly.”

Thomas B. Costain wrote historical fiction that was so well researched that even experts found it difficult to discern what was truly history and what was not. When Dad finished Below the Salt, I picked it up and read it for myself. Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

And I had so many questions! Why was the Count of Anjou called “Plantagenet”? (Because he wore a sprig of blooming broom – “planta genêt” in French). Why were the kings of England named for a French Count? (Because he was their father, and married their English princess of a mother, who used to be an empress before she had to settle for a mere count.) How did the counts from France get to be English kings? (Read the books!)

Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

A History of the Plantagenets Boxed Set (1962)

Costain’s writing led me on a romp from one English civil war (with the death of Henry I and the usurpation of the throne by his nephew Stephen of Blois) to the next (the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses). I credit these books with making medieval English history roar to life for me. Costain’s vivid descriptions of the personalities and actions of the Angevin kings, their nobles, and their enemies launched my lifelong fascination with this era.

And the writing! These are not dull history books. Engaging, fluid prose exposes the mysteries, romances, political posturing, and betrayals. Anyone who can tell stories like this really should be a history teacher. No one can possibly come away from these books without a new fascination for the Conqueror’s family and their unique brands of turmoil and governance.

I realize that all this sounds like hyperbole, but truthfully, I don’t have enough words to explain how wonderful these books are and how they made such a difference in how I viewed history – and not just English history, but all of it – for a lifetime.

When I looked on my mother’s shelves for these beloved books a few years ago, I couldn’t find them. I set about the business of locating replacements. The books were out of print and resellers charged a premium for them. Apparently no one who owns them really wants to give them up, and others who want them can’t find them.

I finally came across a boxed set of the books online and I ordered it. When it arrived, I devoured every word just as I had done years ago. Costain’s writing and storytelling are every bit as good as I remember. Some of the stories were missing, though, especially those about the fractious, ruthless sons of the Conqueror. In particular I remember a story of a very suspicious hunting accident that brought down King William Rufus…no, dear readers, George R.R. Martin wasn’t the first to think of a boar hunt as cover for regicide. I realized that the first book of the set I now own was edited rather heavily before its inclusion.

The boxed set holds Costain’s own explanation as to the revision:

A HISTORY OF THE PLANTAGENETS

I began these books of English history with the hope of carrying the series forward, under the general title of The Pageant of England, to a much later period than the last of the Plantagenet kings. Pressure of other work made it impossible, however, to produce them at the gait I had hoped to achieve. And now the factor of time has intruded itself also. Realizing that my earlier objective cannot be reached, I have decided to conclude with the death of Richard III and to change the covering title to A HISTORY OF THE PLANTAGENETS.

This has made necessary some revision in getting the four volumes ready for publication. The first five chapters in the initial book, which began with the Norman Conquest and covered the reigns of William the Conqueror, William (Rufus) II, and Henry I, had to be dropped. The first volume in this complete edition of the four begins with the final scenes in the reign of Henry I, whose daughter married Geoffrey of Anjou and whose son son succeeded in due course to the throne of England as Henry II, thus beginning the brilliant Plantagenet dynasty. The title of the first volume has been changed to THE CONQUERING FAMILY. In addition to the deletion of earlier chapters, a few slight cuts and minor revisions have been made throughout the series. Otherwise the four books are the same as those published separately under the titles, THE CONQUERORS, THE MAGNIFICENT CENTURY, THE THREE EDWARDS, and THE LAST PLANTAGENETS.

 

The boxed set of the four Plantagenet books is available at a premium – it’s out of print and only available in the secondary market. The lowest price I found a full set for was $175.00 at Amazon, although a seller on Facebook is offering it at a bargain for only $164.99.

Barnes & Noble doesn’t even have the full set, but does have then as eBooks and is even offering free downloads of the first two volumes – the first volume is the original title of the first book, so I downloaded it and have hope that it contains the missing parts that were edited from this final version contained in the boxed set. I’ll be reading it tonight, looking for clues as to who killed William Rufus. (Spoiler: the culprit was likely a minion of his brother Henry, grandfather of those fascinating Plantagenets.)

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Better Grammar for Better Lives

Posted by Aramink on December 9, 2014 in Grammar, Lawyer |

I get teased a lot for my grammar compulsion. Misplaced apostrophes distract me from the content of written communication, and double negatives instantly downgrade my estimation of the person speaking. I have tried, but these things bother me. It’s no secret: I think grammar is important.

I participate in two critique groups for writers. A new writer came to one of those groups recently. His story featured a dystopian society with teenage protagonists, and something significant was about to happen. Dystopias are popular especially among young adult readers, and his premise was interesting, but reading his submission with an eye critical to style was painful. It took me nearly an hour to agonize my way though his ten double-spaced pages. The biggest problem was not his story. It was his grammar.

He committed the usual subject-verb agreement crimes. He butchered his sentences with improper punctuation. Malapropisms peppered every page. Sentence fragments. Ridiculous imagery completed the ghastly picture he painted with his words. He probably has a good story to tell, but until he learns to tell it in plain – and correct – language, he won’t be telling it to much of an audience.

I suggested that he use a grammar checker. Grammarly’s free online grammar checker is a good one. It’s fun to play with, and it’s educational to boot. Anyone who seriously wants to write well can benefit from a grammar checker.

Plain, understandable language lets us communicate succinctly and clearly. The better people communicate, the more likely they are to get what they want and to understand what others want from them. Skilled communicators are more likely to persuade others. Good, clear language reduces misunderstandings.

GRAMMAR-INFOGRAPHIC-570

 

Jargon-filled vernacular and pretentious verbiage are every bit as off-putting as double negatives. As a practicing lawyer, I have spent huge amounts of time rewriting contracts and legal precedents that other lawyers have written in “legalese.” If the people bound by the contract or the court order or the contract can’t understand it, the document is not worth the expense of drafting it.

Bad grammar and poor usage leave a bad impression. While job interviews and sales meetings obviously require concise communication, so do ordinary daily tasks. Understanding how to assemble a new purchase, how to troubleshoot a technical problem, directions for using medication, information transmitted to and from police and ambulance services – some of these communications make life easier, but others mean the difference between life and death. When careful communication becomes habit, everyone wins.

Let’s practice good grammar – for all of us.

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Duggars Accidentally Raise Money for LGBT Kids

Posted by Aramink on November 25, 2014 in Arkansas, Children, Domestic, News, Religion |

A funny thing happens when someone broadcasts hate. Sometimes – just sometimes – love proves itself to be stronger.

I’m sure Jim and Michelle Duggar never intended to give money to any young LGBT people, especially not LGBT youth made homeless when they came out to their parents.

The Duggars (of TLC’s 19 and Counting reality show fame) live near Fayetteville, Arkansas. In August, Fayetteville’s city council passed an historic civil rights ordinance  that prohibits discrimination against LGBT people with respect to employment, housing, and other accommodations. On the eve of the vote, the pre-recorded voice of Michelle Duggar, mother of 19 good and self-righteous Christian children, made robocalls around town. She was panicked that if transgender women used the “wrong” restroom, some of her brood might be subjected to the discomfort of not knowing whether the woman in the next stall maybe had a penis.

Since the ordinance passed, the Duggars have spent $10,000 in an effort to get it repealed.

Last week, their eldest son, Josh Duggar, who works for the anti-gay hate group Family Research Council, hosted a rally of hate at the Arkansas State Capitol against same sex marriage the day before the Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the pending lawsuit.

Poor Josh. He never dreamed he’d be giving a helping hand to those same homeless LGBT kids he and his family, along with their sanctimonious ideological minions, like to bully.

But it’s happened. And as a board member of Lucie’s Place, I’m not thanking the Duggars. I’m thanking an outfit called Memeographs.

See, Memeographs got busy and made a graphic and started tweeting the heck out of it.

Lucie’s Place is a relatively new nonprofit in Arkansas with sights set high to help the local homeless population, many of which are LGBT youth who have ended up on the streets because their parents kicked them out for the dubious sin of homosexuality or being transgender. The graphic got good attention, so later in the day, Memeographs ramped up the campaign with this tweet:

Memeographs tweeted the graphic to various groups and it got picked up and retweeted hundreds of times. In just a little over eight hours, Lucie’s Place was flooded with lots of small donations.  Among many others, Dan Savage retweeted it.

Penelope Poppers, the Executive Director of Lucie’s Place, alerted the board members once she realized what was happening. By mid-afternoon, 54 different people in 28 different states and Canada had donated. The campaign was even mentioned on Sirius XM satellite radio by Mike Signorile, the editor of the Gay Voices section of Huffington Post.

Penelope is not a full-time executive director – Lucie’s Place just doesn’t have the budget for that yet. She said, “I was sitting at work and had to turn off my phone because notifications of new emails were coming in quicker than I could check my email.”

And when she checked the Lucie’s Place bank account?

Lucie’s Place had received about $1,000 in the space of about 8 hours.

Right now, Lucie’s Place offers counseling services, toiletries, clothing, bus passes, and phone minutes to as many clients as possible. Lucie’s Place wants to open an actual shelter for homeless LGBT youth in Central Arkansas, and maybe a mentoring program to help give these homeless young people, most of whom are 18-25, a decent chance at a successfully independent life.

If only about 15% of the entire population is gay, but 40% of homeless youth are, it points to a societal problem.

family rejection

Only one shelter in the area will accept openly gay or transgender people, and it is always full. On the shoestring budget it has, Lucie’s Place does what it can. It is raising money and saving toward a facility, which may be years in the future unless something amazing can happen. The organization is still hundreds of thousands of dollars away from its goal.

Can you help make that amazing thing happen? Please donate.

Help Lucie’s Place realize the dream of a real shelter for real kids adversely affected by the hateful bigotry that so often results from the twisted Duggaresque interpretation of religion.

3

The Truth Behind My English Degree

Posted by Aramink on November 19, 2014 in Personal |

Fraternity parties, reading and writing. College didn’t consist of much else.

Oh, there were variations on the theme, of course. Maybe instead of Fraternity Row, we headed downtown to one of the bars. Maybe a study group got together to discuss the assignment at the on-campus pub.

I started out in political science. When a Canadian foreign policy professor insulted me in class for being “stupidly southern” – my accent had not yet flattened into the nondescript sound it would have by the end of my college career – I switched to philosophy. Weed and philosophy just seemed to go together, and as a college freshman, I liked weed. The term papers, fortunately, came easily.

Too much of philosophy dealt with religion, though. Kant bored me. Kierkegaard had some good points, but his conclusions disgusted me. Don’t even get me started on Nietzsche and the nihilists. It became hemlock to me. Me, who preferred whisky sours. I felt like a hack pulling an all-nighter to spew existentialist nonsense through my typewriter onto onionskin paper.

At a party at the Beta house just before fall class selections were due, an interesting guy I had just met talked about his passion for history. We drank a hell of a lot of beer that night, and, still hung over on Monday, I signed up for a history major.

History is where all the best stories were, right? Battles, intrigue, betrayal, love stories, revenge, swords, longbows: history had them all. I had a great professor who liked to host parties at his home for his favorite students. We’d go and talk about more history. But why did all of these cultures clash? Over cheese dip and home-made hard cider, the conversations I liked best were the ones that talked about motivation, not just the cold facts.

One spring evening at the history professor’s house, his buddy from the Sociology Department showed up wearing a t-shirt from Belize. Belize had just become independent from Great Britain. (Yeah – now you can tell how long ago this happened.) He spoke passionately about imperialism and colonialism, and I was hooked on a new discipline. I also discovered that Long Island iced teas oiled conversation really, really well.

The next semester, I signed up for every class the Belize guy taught, and I adored his Welsh accent. Anthropology and Sociology ripped my attention away from the details of medieval European wars. Cultural annihilation and tribalism made for much more fertile ground for delving into the mysteries of what motivates people.

Campus was a microcosm of colonialism, tribalism, and cultural annihilation. Some of us resisted the allure to joining Greek tribes; others of us embraced them. None of us would leave the same people we were when we arrived. Intramural rivalries made for every party on the Row outdoing the last. Theta Chi was a very different tribe from Sigma Chi, despite sharing the same last name.

It wasn’t until the spring of my junior year, when I realized that I was writing the same paper for a sociology class that I had written for every other sociology class I had ever taken that I decided I’d had enough. Two days before the end of the drop-add period, I dumped that sociology class and changed my major to English. It was the only major I knew I could complete in two semesters. I still adored that professor with the Welsh accent, though.

I graduated on time, even getting a class in nothing but Kurt Vonnegut novels to count toward my new major. I cranked out papers faster than ever. I soared on the written page. And now when I hung out with the guys at the Fiji House (may it rest in peace), I could talk about any subject under the sun. I had, it seemed, even if only briefly, majored in them all.

On a brilliantly sunny day in May 1984, I got my sheepskin. I had my Bachelor of Arts degree. It claimed to be a B.A. in English, but I knew better. My B.A. in English was actually a B.A. in B.S.

Ah, the humanities of it all.

2

Rapert’s Utopian Theocracy Defines Marriage

Posted by Aramink on June 1, 2014 in Arkansas, Domestic, History, News, Politics, Religion, Science & Skepticism |

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave significant print space today to state senator Jason Rapert to let him deny that he ever called for Judge Chris Piazza’s impeachment. (It seems the paper printed the story, and then refused to issue a correction despite Rapert’s demands, so they allowed him to submit a “guest column.”)

You may recall that Judge Piazza declared the ban against same sex marriages unconstitutional, which raised Rapert’s Neanderthal hackles. Rapert’s screed focused on the will of the people as opposed to the foundational laws of our country – at least, the will of 753,770 people who voted a decade ago against letting any pair of consenting adults marry.

Oh, and God, God, God. Because God. Or, at least, Senator Rapert’s version of a god.

From Rapert’s essay:

I believe the current culture war on marriage between one man and one woman is a symptom of the degradation of the fundamental principle that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution–that our government is based upon “We the People.”

We, the people of this country and of each state, do indeed elect those who make our laws. Occasionally, in the case of a referendum (the ban on same sex marriage was a referendum back in 2004), we the people actually vote on whether something should be a law. But we don’t all vote – not even when we’re eligible.

Judge Piazza decided that 750,000 individual citizens of our great state, representing 75 percent of the electorate at the time, were wrong, and their sense of morality and beliefs no longer mean anything in Arkansas. In reality, he rendered a judgment essentially saying that the will of an overwhelming majority of the people in our state means nothing and their votes do not count.

But did the majority of Arkansans, actually reject same sex marriage? Did we, the Arkansas people, actually speak with a strong voice about this matter?

Arkansas has a population of around 3 million people, 3/4 of which are over 18. According to the United States Election Project, 54% of the population eligible to vote in Arkansas made it to the polls in November 2004, when the legislature’s referendum was on the ballot. The total turnout was 1,070,573 – about a third of the actual population of the state. Nearly 2 million Arkansans were eligible to vote.

About 1/4 of the population of the state was sufficiently incensed over the notion that equality might happen that they beat a path to the polls in that election to vote against equal marriage rights for their LGBT neighbors, friends, and family members. Not a majority of the population. Not even a majority of the population over 18 or a majority of eligible voters. Just a majority of people who voted on that issue decided to maintain an unequal status quo.

It gets better:

Judge Piazza and activist judges like him … are saying they no longer respect the values, traditions and mores of the majority of the population in our nation and that they singularly have the right to impose the will of a small vocal group upon the rest of our state and the nation.

More than anything, this quote from his essay underscores Sen. Rapert’s lack of understanding of both the concept of separation of powers and the role of the judicial branch of government. It also tells me that a man charged with the responsibility of making laws does not understand that there is this foundational document called the United States Constitution that gives him – and the judges who overrule him – that authority. The U.S. Constitution and the Arkansas Constitution define the roles of each branch of government and explains how checks and balances work. Where state and federal laws conflict, federal law trumps.

Changing that foundational document takes much more than the proverbial “act of congress,” and ever since Marbury v. Madison was decided in 1803, the judicial branch was confirmed as that branch of government endowed with the responsibility of interpreting how laws should be applied. Therefore, judges like Chris Piazza are doing their jobs – not engaging in activism – when they interpret laws withing a constitutional framework. We don’t have to like their decisions. If we don’t like their decisions enough, we can appeal them to a higher court, until the buck stops with the US Supreme Court. Ultimately, the language of the United States Constitution applies.

Jason Rapert and his ilk don’t like the decision. Rather than wait for the appellate process to weave its constitutional magic, they scream like banshees at the idea that other human beings – human beings who are a tiny bit different from them – will get treated like actual full citizens of this state and country.

Rapert felt the need to make a number of points about how awful it is for the nasty homos to call themselves a family:

As for the context of the debate raging in our nation and now in Arkansas over same-sex marriage, there are a few things that must be said.

First, honoring the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman whether out of a sense of morality or based upon one’s religious faith does not mean that a person hates homosexuals.

With this quote, we see what the problem is. Jason Rapert really wants to live in a Christian theocracy. Of course, not a theocracy defined by, say, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers, or Evangelical Lutherans. Nope – he wants a Southern Baptist or fundamentalist evangelical theocracy. In other words, if someone else’s religious beliefs don’t mesh with Rapert’s, then they obviously shouldn’t have the right to hold those beliefs.

And he doesn’t hate homosexuals – he just doesn’t think they are really “people” and that they shouldn’t have the same rights to the pursuit of happiness as “real” people. Of course he doesn’t hate them. How can you hate someone that isn’t really a person? It would be like hating a doll or a tree or a puppy. It’s like accusing an atheist of hating God. It’s not possible to hate something that doesn’t exist.

Rapert’s claim of a “sanctity” of marriage is the big giveaway. Marriage is a contract between two people. It isn’t a sacred state; it’s a legal one. Sure, the couple can have their marriage blessed, and because that blessing is important to many people the state generously allows religious leaders to file their credentials with the state and empowers them to confirm the existence of the marriage in a religious ceremony. The bottom line, though, is that the state has the final say over whether someone is married or not and over who can sign the marriage license. The legal documents have to be in order. The mere act of blessing the couple’s union is not sufficient to marry them. And by virtue of their elected or appointed office, nonreligious people also have the power to marry people.

Furthermore, to dissolve a marriage is akin to dissolving any other legally binding contract. What the state has joined together, the state must split asunder.

barbados-gay-marriage

This is the sanctity Rapert wants to protect. Seriously.

Rapert goes a step further in his “I don’t hate” insistence:

I do not personally hate anyone who has chosen a homosexual lifestyle and I believe they should be able to live their lives in peace like anyone else.

Really? Then why is he so gung-ho to deny them the basic and fundamental right to form a family with the partner of their choice? Why does he want to deny them the rights that heterosexual spouses have when it comes to matters like health care decisions? Why does he want to deprive them of inheritance and property rights like dower and curtesy? Why does he want to deprive them of the parental rights to children they have raised together? Why does he want to deny them the tax status granted to legally married partners? Why does he want to deny them the ability to obtain insurance as a family?  Why does he want to deny them retirement benefits a spouse would normally get automatically? Why does he want to refuse them the privilege of not testifying against each other in court? Clearly, he does not want them to be able to have the same rights, privileges, and protections “like anyone else.”

Oh, there’s a reason for that, according to Senator Brother Rapert. “[M]arriage is integral to the concept of family, and research shows that children are given the best opportunity for well-rounded social development when they are raised in homes with a mother and father.”

Sure, children do better when there are more adults with a hand in child rearing. The gender of the parent-figure doesn’t matter, nor does the gender orientation of that parental figure. The fact that there is a stable home with the same adults in the household matters.

Not just one, but several factors tend to forecast a happy, successful child. Stability of the family is a paramount predictor of a child’s success. Based on all the research gathered to date, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has concluded that “[l]ike all children, most children with LGBT parents will have both good and bad times. They are not more likely than children of heterosexual parents to develop emotional or behavioral problems.”

Canada agrees. In 2006, the Canadian Psychological Association reiterated its 2003 position on the issue:

CPA continues to assert its 2003 position that the psychological literature into the psychosocial adjustment and functioning of children fails to demonstrate any significant differences between children raised within families with heterosexual parents and those raised within families with gay and lesbian parents. CPA further asserts that children stand to benefit from the well-being that results when their parents’ relationship is recognized and supported by society’s institutions.

Therefore, if this is all about the children, validating the union of same-sex parents will go much farther to stabilize families than telling the kids that they don’t have a “real” family at all.

Senator Rapert calls a marriage between one man and one woman “natural” marriage. Once again, he displays his ignorance on a sleeve.

Marriage is whatever the law deems it to be. Let’s look at how marriage laws used to be:

Biblical-Marriage-Infographic

Click to embiggen and read this wonderful infographic that comes complete with citations.

 

Out of all that, he picks only one style of marriage to be “natural.” Blinders make the world a lot less expansive, don’t they?

Mildred Loving might find his comments ludicrously funny. She would have noted the irony that completely escaped Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases that were decided a year ago: but for a US Supreme Court finding that equal protection was violated by the anti-miscegenation statutes on the books of many of the states, his own marriage and family would not be recognized as valid.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his melanin-challenged wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his melanin-challenged wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas

Senator Rapert claims he’s not prejudiced.

Fourth, the tactics of intimidation toward those who object to same-sex marriage, including comparisons to racism, are unfair, unwarranted and shameful. When I was invited to join over 100 African American pastors on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol just a few days ago as they took a public stand for marriage between one man and one woman, that argument began to fall completely apart.

He actually wants us to believe that his embarrassingly solitary white face in that crowd of black pastors was because they invited him, not the other way around.

black rapert

Jason Rapert lies, therefore his argument is invalid.

The comparison to racism is unfair? Why? Because giving equal rights to people born with a different skin color is different somehow from giving equal rights to people born with a different gender orientation?

Let’s imagine for a moment that in 1859, there was a vote in some slave state (just for giggles, let’s pick Arkansas) to preserve the status quo and make it illegal for the government to free the slaves. Heck, let’s take it one step further and suggest that in this vote, any black people who weren’t slaves would automatically become slaves unless they left the state before the end of the year. The state was determined to maintain an unequal status quo.

Impossible, you think?

Nope. That totally happened.

Rapert then claims that the bad press he’s gotten is because people don’t like his “stance on marriage and also as the sponsor of the Arkansas Heartbeat Protection Act.” He is absolutely right. His ideas are completely repulsive to those of us who value our individual liberties, autonomy over our own bodies, and the freedom to make very personal choices for ourselves. He claims that these are the acts of “liberal extremists.”

If only “liberal extremists” are in favor of same sex marriage, then we have generations of “liberal extremists” to look forward to. Liberal policies are the hallmark of progress, while conservative policies tend to be just the opposite. Senator Rapert, like many Tea Party Republicans, goes beyond maintaining a status quo, though. His policies are regressive and authoritarian. Passing statutes for no good reason other that wanting to deny equal rights to a segment of society they find distasteful is a reprehensible way to govern. He does not deserve the office he holds, nor do his like-minded comrades in office. Their policies are fascist.

It’s all about Senator Rapert’s religion, when it comes right down to it:

The America I was taught to honor and respect would never force Christians to do anything that violated the tenets of their beliefs. We have freedom of religion in this nation, not freedom from religion altogether.

No one is forcing anyone else to get gay-married. They aren’t forcing them to go gay-grocery shopping or to gay-teach students. No hate-filled Christian has to have gay sex or even decorate with glitter or rainbows. They don’t have to hire gay interior decorators, get their air trimmed by gay stylists, or wear clothes designed by gay designers. They also don’t have to benefit from the use of computers conceived by gay Alan Turing or read books and plays by gay Oscar Wilde or Gore Vidal. They can switch the channel when Ellen comes on. They can boycott Wachowski films like the Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas, and V for Vendetta. They don’t have to patronize LGBT businesses and art any more than LGBT people have to patronize those who proudly proclaim their prejudices and hate.

What they cannot do, though, is refuse service to any LGBT person on account of their hate. As it did upon the demise of Jim Crow laws, the Heart of Atlanta case will provide the precedent to prevent discrimination by businesses through the application of the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

Oh, and that dig about freedom from religion? Yes, that’s actually a thing. It’s also the law. If we don’t have freedom from religion, we can’t possibly have freedom of religion. Otherwise, courts would be in the business of establishing religion, and telling us which tenets we have to observe and which we don’t. And the First Amendment to the US Constitution says that can’t happen.

But Senator Rapert feels victimized:

It is very interesting that Christians are targeted so heavily with the venom of the homosexual lobby because most all other major faith traditions do not embrace homosexual marriage either, including Islam.

I would suggest to Senator Rapert that perhaps because they invoke their religion as the reason someone else can’t do something, they seek to establish their religion as the law of this country. And like I mentioned above, they don’t want to establish the denominations that are tolerant of other people’s private behaviors. They want to establish an authoritarian, restrictive, invasive religion. That is entirely, absolutely, completely, and decidedly unacceptable. If the Muslims were the ones doing the screaming and quoting the Qur’an as the reason we shouldn’t allow certain people equal rights, Senator Rapert and his troglodyte cronies had better believe that the American people would object to that, too.

I’m not even going to respond to the whole God thing Senator Rapert spewed on and on about in his column. The United States of America is not a theocracy, and Senator Rapert and his ilk may not cherry-pick their favorite version of the Bible to oppress people with Iron Age laws. If immigration rates continue the way they have been, pretty soon a majority of Americans will be Papists. Does he want a Catholic nation just because the majority of the population attends mass?

If the basis for a law is Biblical, it should immediately be suspect, and it should bear intense scrutiny. The science and research do not support these laws, no matter what they are.

Arkansas voters and legislators have an unpleasant history of maintaining an unequal status quo. When men make decisions for how a woman may take care of her own body, when straight people make decisions for how gay people may create and care for their families, when white people make decisions about whether black people can take part in the electoral process, there is a very real danger that the dominant and privileged among our population can – and will – oppress those whose voices are not as strong. That’s why the constitutional safeguards of equal protection and due process exist.

Oh, and

P.S. It’s not “activism” for a judge to uphold the constitution.

3

Same Sex Marriage: Arkansas Just Became Gay-Friendly!

Posted by Aramink on May 9, 2014 in Arkansas, Domestic, News, Politics |
(Source)

It’s a hard climb to the point where Equality is a Thing. (Source)

Arkansas is now added to the list of states that permits same sex marriage. Judge Chris Piazza’s decision did not come with an automatic stay, and the Pulaski County Clerk (the county where Little Rock is located) says that starting Monday morning, his office will be able to issue gender-neutral marriage licenses.

The decision strikes down more than Amendment 83 to the Arkansas Constitution, which was passed by the state’s voters in 2004. It also declared several laws aimed at preventing same sex marriage that were passed by the Arkansas legislature in 1997.

Arkansas Attorney General had said privately that he wouldn’t oppose a ruling striking the same sex marriage laws in Arkansas, but last week said he believed he had to continue to defend the laws on appeal as part of his duties as the state’s chief lawyer.  Among practicing attorneys, there has been hot debate about whether McDaniel would be more ethical to defend the laws or not.

Unless the attorneys on the case get cracking, though, it’s unlikely that there will be a decision before next year, when the make-up of the Arkansas Supreme Court may be more conservative after the mid-term elections.

But come Monday, if any same sex couples want to get married, they should hurry to the courthouse, get their licenses, and let me know. I’d be proud to do the officiating.

Read the court’s decision here.

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5

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Posted by Aramink on April 30, 2014 in Children, Death, Personal, Philosophy, Reading, Religion |

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

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3

Zimmerman, Trayvon, and Justice

Posted by Aramink on February 21, 2014 in Domestic, Friends, Lawyer, News |
Trayvon-Zimmerman-diptych

Good Trayvon, Bad George

Yesterday, some friends of mine – all of whom have Big Brains and Big Compassion, argued intensely and passionately about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Because my friends are passionate, compassionate, intelligent people, they are more likely to disagree very strongly when they disagree. Yesterday, tempers flared. Folks got defriended and blocked. “Fuck yous” were tossed about. Names were called. It was decidedly unpleasant all the way around.

I’m very glad they don’t disagree more often.

I haven’t said anything about this case because what I have to say won’t be popular: the American system of justice worked in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case.

Does it piss me off that a 17 year old kid died for no apparent reason? You bet it does. Do I think Zimmerman acted wrongly? You bet I do. Should he have been convicted of murder for his conduct? Not based on the evidence.

The jury did not have enough evidence to convict Zimmerman of murder. The evidence was ambiguous at best, and tended to exonerate him. In order to convict someone of a crime, there can’t be any reasonable doubt as to the criminality of his conduct. When evidence is not clear, when it can be interpreted more than one way by reasonable minds based on the totality of the circumstances, the evidence doesn’t rise to the level of “beyond reasonable doubt.” Therefore, the jury had no choice but to find Zimmerman not guilty. They did not find him “innocent,” mind you. They found that there was insufficient evidence to say he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

It’s true that had Zimmerman not followed Trayvon, both would have their lives today. He was told by the police dispatcher not to follow the suspicious person and he ignored that instruction. He probably ignored it because he knew police were on their way and he wanted not to lose sight of the person he deemed to be suspicious. George Zimmerman should never have followed Trayvon Martin. Period. But once he did, the facts become much murkier, and the most important question becomes whether he was justified in using deadly force after the situation escalated. And that’s where reasonable minds may differ.

A terrible thing we do as a society is second-guess juries based on media hype. What happened was awful, tragic, and ultimately pointless. Zimmerman was probably the aggressor in that he scared a kid who was just walking home. That kid probably made a mistake when he decided to lash out at a guy who was scaring him by following him. The situation escalated out of control, until ultimately a gun was fired. Whose fault was it? Both Zimmerman and Martin screwed up their engagement, and one of them died as a result.

Don’t get me started on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. I’m not going to rehash the evidence. Wikipedia and about ten million news stories do that for us, and they are all available on the Google for anyone who wants to look for them. What we absolutely cannot do is armchair quarterback the conflict and the trial.

I’m not defending George Zimmerman. What he did was stupid, ill-advised, and ultimately cost a child his life. I’m also not persecuting Trayvon Martin. Based on the evidence presented, Trayvon acted in self-defense himself. And when two people reasonably believe they are acting only in self-defense, and one of them dies, there should not be a murder conviction. If reasonable minds can differ in the heat of the moment, they can certainly differ as to whether, in hindsight, the actions of one of those parties rose to the level of criminal conduct.

The bottom line is that based on the evidence it was presented, the jury did the right thing – just like they did in the original OJ Simpson case, and just like they did in the Casey Anthony case. Personally, I would rather have a guilty person walking the streets than an innocent person rotting in jail. All too often, juries seem to convict defendants on less evidence than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” When there is room for doubt, and that doubt is reasonable given the known facts and circumstances, juries should never convict. Even if, in the guts of each and every one of them, they think the defendant is most likely guilty. “Most likely” isn’t the standard of proof. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is.

What Zimmerman did was wrong. Had he not disregarded the dispatcher’s advice not to follow a person he deemed suspicious, we would not know his name and Trayvon would be a freshman in college somewhere. Had there been no “stand your ground” law, the case may well have turned out very differently. Had George Zimmerman not been armed when he and Trayvon confronted each other – whichever of them initiated the confrontation – the entire situation may well have turned out differently. Zimmerman, not Martin, might be the dead person, and Trayvon Martin might have been acquitted after a national media circus. Or he might have been convicted.

I haven’t practiced criminal law since 1991, but as I recall, the person who initiates the conflict is generally at fault if he has reason to believe that things will escalate to the point of physical violence. In Zimmerman’s mind, he was following a probable criminal. It would not have been unreasonable for him to think that criminal was armed – yet he engaged him anyway. At least, we think he did. No one actually knows whether Zimmerman or Trayvon initiated contact. And that’s why the jury couldn’t convict him.

I’m not going to call for Zimmerman to be persecuted, lynched, chased off a beach, or otherwise harassed. I would like to see his concealed-carry permit revoked, because I firmly believe that his gun probably made him braver and less cautious than he might have been had he been unarmed that fateful night. However, I admit to an extreme distaste for guns and the inflated bravado they inspire. (If I had a dollar for every time someone had remarked that a gun would have taken care of the men who robbed me last year, I’d be rich. And if I’d had a gun handy that night I might be dead. Or in intensive psychotherapy because omigod I shot someone.) What I take away from the Zimmerman-Martin situation is that we need realistic gun control laws, and we as a society absolutely must stop romanticizing how handguns protect us. They don’t. They endanger us, whether or not we are the person wielding them.

I want justice for Trayvon Martin, but I don’t think the criminal conviction of his killer is the justice that will prevent this situation from happening again. It certainly won’t bring Trayvon back. Responsible laws and public education about the use of force and weapons will make a difference. Warehousing George Zimmerman in a prison won’t. And if Zimmerman is going to commit crimes, he, like any other criminal, ought to be judged on the merits of his conduct in that circumstance.

I can’t imagine being George Zimmerman right now. He’s a pariah in the media, which delights in scrutinizing every mistake and case of bad judgment the man makes. Is Zimmerman a shitty person? Maybe. Some of the things reported about him sure paint that picture. He’s also under incredible stress – he HAS to be, given the microscope the national press uses to follow him. No one acts completely rationally under intense, chronic stress. The media scrutiny on Zimmerman’s every move is horrific. If someone followed me around and reported everything I said and did for months on end, and then only reported the negative stuff and not the good or boring stuff, I’d probably be suicidal.

If I were George Zimmerman, I’d move, get plastic surgery, change my hair, and change my name.

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Bad Trayvon, Good George

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