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Ugly Food Waste

Miguel de Cervantes

We celebrated the holiday season with an abundance of food. Roasted turkeys, sweet potatoes, greens, pumpkins, cranberries, pecans, wine – it would be unthinkable to omit the wine!

Some traditional holiday foods are those we don’t eat. For instance, some great-grandmother on one side of our family passed down a recipe for fruitcake-like cookies that have a half-life of a Hostess Twinkie. Everyone nibbles on one to be polite and insists that I really don’t need to bother with them next year. We toss the bulk of these cookies into the trash come January.

Of course, nearly all of the food we ate this holiday season came from a grocery store. It was beautiful food. Kroger heaps its bins high with out-of-season and exotic produce, not to mention the seasonal fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Food no longer has a season.

We pick out only the best to take home. Marred, oddly shaped, or irregularly colored produce stays behind. We study those “sell by” dates as though they are an oracle. Every once in a while, we purge our pantries and fridges, laughing about the discovery of new life forms while sheepishly wishing we hadn’t wasted the money or that we had planned our meals a little better.

Food waste Is No Laughing Matter

One-third of all food grown for human consumption either spoils or is thrown out. Here in the United States, we waste more than that – a full forty percent of the food we grow. Half of that waste never even leaves the farm because it isn’t considered attractive enough: misshapen carrots, undersized pears, crystallized honey, apples with dimples, scarred squash, mutant strawberries, off-color tomatoes. These fruits and vegetables have nothing at all wrong with them except that we humans have assigned them a ridiculously high standard of beauty.

Conservative estimates are that people throw away 20% or more of the food they actually buy. Imagine walking out of the grocery store with four or five bags, dropping one in the parking lot, and not bothering to pick it up. That’s essentially what we do.

Ugly Food Waste is Thirsty Business

Wasting food wastes the resources that create that food. Agriculture sucks up 80% of our nation’s freshwater supply, so when food goes to waste we waste all that water too. And in some places right here in the United States, fresh drinking water is disappearing.

Consider California’s Central Valley. More than 230 different crops grow there, amounting to nearly half of America’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The Central Valley accounts for one-sixth of the nation’s irrigated farmland. Four trillion gallons of water a year disappear from underground aquifers and its river basins.

Desert irrigation in the Central Valley

Practically no snow has fallen in the Sierra Nevada mountains for several years, so snow melt has not replenished the Central Valley’s water supply. Groundwater levels currently sit 100 feet below average. There is no water to flow through irrigation canals. In some parts of the Central Valley, the desiccated land subsides by more than two inches every month due to a lack of water. Crops deplete not just groundwater, but deep water wells, and a third of these crops never even leave the fields because they aren’t pretty enough for grocers to stock. Meanwhile people in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, who depend on that same source for water to drink and to bathe in, ration it and pay steep penalties for use deemed “excessive.”

Waste from food animal production also impacts our environment. We have all probably heard that the Buffalo River watershed is threatened by a farm that needs to dispose of 7 million gallons of hog manure a year. That project involves a single large farm. Because of the pollution from this one pig farm, the Buffalo River has experienced unusual algae blooms this year. Now imagine that sort of effect on every stream in America from hundreds of thousands of animal farms.

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

Growing and transporting all that wasted food spews out a staggering amount of carbon emissions. Wasted food is the single-largest contributor to U.S. landfills, and correspondingly to the methane emissions that result from them.

Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers from these wasted crops have polluted the streams of the Missouri-Mississippi River systems. The second largest marine “dead zone” in the world is at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers in the runoff from farms become more and more concentrated as they move downstream and collect still more fertilizers from more farms. By the time the Mississippi reaches the Gulf coast, this soupy brew causes recurrent algae blooms. Decomposing algae consume the oxygen needed to support aquatic life. Fishing boats and shrimpers have to travel farther from shore to harvest anything. The ecosystem of the polluted shores no longer sustains the wildlife it once did. The Gulf dead zone has now grown to the size of the combined states of Connecticut and Rhode Island. It is easily visible in satellite images because the toxic, hypoxic waters appear murky and brown.

Food Waste Can Beget or Resolve Food Waste

Vegetable crops are not the only wasted food. Meat raised for human consumption is wasted at an alarming rate. Twenty percent, or about twelve billion chickens, pigs, and cattle, are raised, fed, watered, and slaughtered for food but never eaten. Raising an animal from birth to table is incredibly expensive in terms of the food it eats, the water it drinks, the labor to care for it, the space it requires, the time it takes to grow, and the drugs used to keep it healthy.

We grow enormous amounts of grain to feed the animals we eat. Imagine the savings in resources, water, and pollutants if the animals we eat were fed on the food we waste. Two food consumers are doing just that: Rutgers University in New Jersey donates dining hall food scraps to a local cattle and hog farm, and MGM Resorts in Las Vegas donates food scraps from its casinos and restaurants to a local hog farm. Imagine if more businesses and farms cooperated like this.

The Cost of Food Waste

Worldwide, nearly a trillion dollars worth of food is wasted every year. In 2015 the UN’s task force on global food insecurity reported that nearly 800 million people – one-eighth of the planet’s population – are chronically undernourished. The food that currently feeds landfills could feed the 800 million hungry people in the world twice over. And we are throwing away forty percent of our perfectly edible meat, vegetables, and fruits. Poverty and logistics create food insecurity, not scarcity.

When we think of starving families, we think of places like war-torn countries and times of famine. We think of Syria, where humanitarian aid is prevented from reaching bombed-out cities. We think of Yemen, where families have to choose which children to feed and which to allow to die. We think of that Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving Sudanese toddler, crouched in hunger and despair as a vulture stalks her.

We don’t think of developed nations. We do not think of the fertile American South and we certainly don’t think of our own neighborhoods.

But one in every eight American families struggles to put enough food on the table. During the school year, the only meals the children in some of these families get are the ones served at school. As much as a fifth of Mississippi’s population has trouble finding affordable, nutritious food. Arkansas’s numbers are slightly better, but before we say “Thank God for Mississippi,” we should recognize that one in four Arkansas children cannot grow and develop normally because they don’t get enough to eat. Single parent families, the working poor, and senior citizens tend to not have enough food, while Pulaski County discards more than 100,000 pounds of food daily.

Reclaiming Ugly Food for the Hungry

We must put this wasted but perfectly edible food into the mouths and bellies of the people who need it. The United Nations has recognized that the right to food and water is a basic human right, and its member nations are slowly taking action.

In November Slovenia made the right to clean drinking water a constitutional right and Scotland’s Independent Working Group on Food Poverty recommended that its government make the right to food a matter of law. Such legislation will not end food insecurity or water scarcity. It would, however, mandate that the governments of these countries ensure that everyone has access to adequate and affordable food and water. Earlier this year, France passed a law banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, requiring them to donate that food to charities and food banks. Italy did the same. It also created tax incentives for businesses based on the amount of food donated and passed legislation to permit food slightly past its sell-by date to be donated without risk to the donor.

Non-government organizations also try to make a difference. In its first year of existence, a single company in the San Francisco Bay area rescued 350 tons of produce that had been rejected for sale in grocery stores solely for cosmetic reasons. The company donated the produce to homeless shelters and food banks and sold what it could to individual consumers.

To help address the hunger issue locally, the Junior League of Little Rock started a nonprofit organization called Potluck. Potluck collects food waste from hundreds of area food donors such as hospitals, food distributors, event centers, grocery stores, restaurants, and hotels. It redistributes its collections to food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. It serves several Arkansas communities, and with more help could serve more.

History’s Lessons

None of us has to waste as much food as we do. When my grandmother died more than 15 years ago, I rescued several tattered, fragile books from the shelf in her kitchen. Two of these hand-written books of recipes were over 100 years old and had belonged to her own mother and grandmother. These women who lived in Scott, Arkansas more than a century ago did not waste anything that could be eaten. They had recipes that specifically called for sour milk, bruised plums, and leftovers.

If we are foolish enough to believe that our society’s current careless attitude toward our excess food production cannot be a serious problem, let us remember that a drought between 1931-1941 desiccated the mid-section of the U.S. In the 1930s more than three and a half million people abandoned farms in the Plains states. Following Route 66, many of them ended up in California’s Central Valley. Their descendants still produce half of our domestically-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

The ghosts of Joad family, the Okie protagonists of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, are watching us. After five years of desperate drought in Oklahoma, they moved to California’s Central Valley. California’s Central Valley, which has been in a state of desperate drought for five years.

Agri-business, commercial consumers, governments, and ordinary people must work together to increase the efficiency of our food supply system. Ugly food is wasted, but the impact of current levels of food waste is even uglier.

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families -a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.

benj-west

Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Vanus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers world-wide were anxious to test the theory . Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.

benjamin-wests-1769-telescope

Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the Brown brothers – founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.

benjamin-wests-diagram-of-the-1769-transit-of-venus

Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals, but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.

______

Bibliography:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097. https://books.google.com/books?id=qZ2yBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1096&dq

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993). https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=W0170

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360), http://books.google.com/books?id=HLQRAAAAYAAJ.  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906. http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss794.htm.

Voting Right

In honor of today’s primaries, here’s a an old argument about voting rights. It hasn’t yet died.

Even though Arkansas’s Supreme Court struck down the voter ID law on the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, many other states still have burdensome voter ID laws. These laws effectively prevent legally eligible people from voting. There’s another problem, as well: too many young people think their votes don’t matter. (Spoiler: they DO!)

President Jimmy Carter, that stalwart champion of international democracy, supports voter ID requirements, at least to an extent. He has cautioned that voter IDs must be free and people living in remote locations must have some way of getting them. Proponents of Voter ID laws heard the first part of Carter’s statement, but not the last.

Republicans seem to promote these laws, while Democrats oppose them. Why? Because these laws target the young, minority, and elderly voters. These voters are the least likely to have an official government ID that is accepted at the polls.

Why are all those silly liberals so upset about this? The Founding Fathers didn’t let poor people or minorities vote either. They even had the good sense not to let women vote!

According to the Brennan Center, which conducted a notable investigation into the issue, as many as 11 percent of the voting population does not have one of these state-issued IDs. That’s a lot.

Seriously, many Republicans touted these laws as a way to ensure voter fraud doesn’t happen. The only type of voter fraud these laws address, though, is in-person voter impersonation. The ID laws are an undue burden intended to address a problem that simply doesn’t exist.

voter fraud stats

Source: voterfraudfacts.com. Check out the site for more info about the frequency and types of voter fraud in the United States.

 

To prevent 13 fraudulent votes from being cast, we should prevent 65 million votes from being cast. That certainly ensures a good representative democracy, now doesn’t it?

Republicans knew this. They still promoted passage of these laws, claiming that floods of illegal aliens inundated the polls and entire cemeteries emptied as their zombie residents tried to vote progressive politicians into office. A zombie without an ID could be turned away only if this law was in place.

Haha! Gotcha, Democrats! If your zombie base can’t vote, you don’t get elected! Those cocky Republicans just couldn’t resist tweaking the noses of their Democratic counterparts once the laws were passed. They brazenly admitted on multiple occasions that these laws were intended to prevent Democrats from being elected-not by keeping down the hoards of immigrants and stopping the zombie apocalypse, but by preventing the poor, young, old, and minorities from voting.

In one hotly-contested 2014 election in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, the Democrat lost to the Republican by less than 2500 votes. There were 386,434 registered voters in the 23rd District, and only 115,429 actually voted. A research team from the University of Houston and Rice University conducted a poll of a representative sample of the 271,005 registered voters who did not vote in the midterm election. They found that 12% of those polled believed they did not have the type of ID required to cast a ballot. Upon further questioning, the survey established that only 2.7% of those polled actually lacked proper identification. Still, that accounted for more than enough votes to have changed the outcome of the election.

Voter fraud is anything that tampers with a fair voting process. Inciting fear of non-existent fraud to pass laws that effectively disenfranchise a tenth of the population ought itself to count as voter fraud on a massive scale. It sure worked in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District in 2014.

Arkansas Republicans were not above inciting this kind of baseless fear. In 2012, when these laws were being promoted all over the country, our Republican Secretary of State’s spokesperson publicly claimed that there was rampant voter fraud being committed in all 75 Arkansas counties, mainly by Democratic county clerks who let illegal immigrants register to vote. According to Alex Reed, who used to handle press relations for Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin, it was absolutely essential to get rid of all county clerks who ran for office on the Democratic ticket because of this.

They might even illegally register on their illegal voter registration forms in Spanish that the Secretary of State’s office resented supplying. (All illegal aliens are Hispanic, and all Hispanics are illegal aliens. That’s a Venn Diagram with only one circle. Really.)

Almost the moment he was elected, Martin made it clear that here in ‘Murica English ought to be the official language. As if the Arkansas Secretary of State has any power over such things. (Source)

In August 2012 Reed spoke to the Union County Republican Party while on the state’s clock. He was there because he worked for the Secretary of State, who is the state’s chief election officer. In response to a question from the audience about how illegal immigrants get on voter registration rolls to begin with, Reed said:

Under federal law, we are required to print Hispanic voter registration applications and send those out. Then they send them back to us. The Secretary of State, they’re not the main registrar of voters. It’s the county clerks. That’s why I preach around to the county officials that it’s so important to have a Republican county clerk in every county. Because that’s the main person there and that’s who we work with the most. Either through error, or, they register and have the wrong address and it’s, ‘Oh well, they’re registered voters.’ … I don’t know what to say about it, other than it’s kind of a disgrace.

“It’s kind of a disgrace,” he said.

We suspect we know where the disgrace lies, and it isn’t with phantom illegal alien voters or county clerks.

Understandably, the county clerks in Arkansas were somewhat bemused by these irresponsible remarks. The Association of Arkansas Counties checked into Reed’s allegations and released a statement. The Association found no evidence in any of the 75 counties that Reed’s claim was accurate. Stung by the accusation of rampant misfeasance, Crystal Gaddy, the Republican secretary of the Association and a county clerk herself, rebuked Reed:

“I’m a proud Republican, but what’s important to me is to serve the people of Arkansas and my county regardless of political views. I am disappointed by the comments and the ensuing false perception of county clerks. I think it is vital to represent your office in a nonpartisan manner.”

Association president Rhonda Cole, a county clerk of the Democratic persuasion, agreed. “We’re here to serve the taxpayers regardless of political affiliations…. To describe county clerks or their actions as ‘disgraceful’ is unjust, unwarranted, and uninformed.”

If only all elected officials remembered that they represent all taxpayers, and not just those who share their party affiliation! Why, there might be less nasty rhetoric among politicians. We might even get some governing accomplished.

Might anyone in Washington be listening? No? I thought as much. Certainly local partisan hacks like Jason Rapert aren’t. If a constituent doesn’t support him 100%, that constituent gets blocked from Rapert’s social media, and maybe even gets threatened.

This man has a future in politics. (Source)

 

What the flap with these voter ID laws around the country underscores is not that there’s fraud-there’s precious little of that-but that partisan politics have sunk to a new low.

Then again, maybe it’s the same old low that Jim Crow enjoyed.

A voter denied his voting rights and an eligible voter whose ballot isn’t counted have both been disenfranchised. Disenfranchise enough people and the outcome of an election changes.

I keep hearing that Millennials feel their votes won’t count, so they don’t bother going to the polls. Guys guys guys guys guys! If your vote didn’t count, the people you’d vote against wouldn’t be so dead set on preventing your peers from voting. Your vote counts, and if you vote in large enough numbers, your votes rule.

 

Americans have long made a big deal of sending high-profile politicians to other countries to observe voting as fledgling democracies get off the ground. President Carter has gone on these poll-watching romps regularly. Why do we make a big deal out of observing the democratic process in new democracies? Because the validity of the election, and therefore the validity and authority of the elected government, depend upon those elections being conducted openly and honestly.

The validity of the election depends on the validity of the voting process.

Supporters of the voter ID laws claim that illegal voters will swarm the polls and elect the crazy “liberals” if swift, certain measures are not immediately taken.

Proponents of Democracy counter that the more people who vote, the better the people’s chance of being represented by someone they can tolerate.

VOTE. It matters.

Rehoming Troubled Children

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.

 

Duggars Accidentally Raise Money for LGBT Kids

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.

Rapert’s Utopian Theocracy Defines Marriage

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.

Same Sex Marriage: Arkansas Just Became Gay-Friendly!

(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.

Nathan Warren: Free Man, Confectioner, Minister, Civil Rights Advocate

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Student portraying Annie, Nathan Warren’s first wife, at 2013’s Tales of the Crypt at the historic Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock

The lot of a slave in the American South was not easy, no matter how well he or she was treated by well-intentioned owners. It is hard for many of us to imagine being born into bondage, not free to make our own decisions about where to live, whether to be educated, whom to marry, and whether we can even live with our own families. In the early 1800’s, though, for most black people living in the newly-formed United States of America, such a situation was their reality, and a well-intentioned slave owner was not the norm – certainly not when it came to the liberty of his slaves.

Some slaves overcame their stifling beginnings, though, and became laudable examples of the kind of men and women their entire race should always have been allowed to be. Nathan Warren was one of these great men. Born into slavery, Nathan “Nase” Warren was a successful businessman, a minister, a devoted husband and father, a community organizer, and a civil rights activist. He is buried in a lost grave at Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas.

When Robert Crittenden came to Arkansas as the first Secretary of the newly-created Arkansas Territory in 1819, he brought with him a six year old slave called Nase. Some of Crittenden’s white descendants and some of Nathan’s black ones believe Crittenden, who was about 15 or 16 years older than his young slave, was the child’s father.

In 1834, when Nathan was about 21 or 22 years old, Robert Crittenden died nearly bankrupt. Crittenden was only 37 years old when he died, and his widow had difficulty even keeping a roof over her head. This meant turmoil for young Nase, whose ownership was transferred to Daniel Greathouse, the pioneer in Faulkner County, Arkansas, who at the time was living in Little Rock. But Greathouse filed an interesting document with the Pulaski County Clerk – after three and a half years of service, Nase was to be freed. Greathouse died before those three and a half years had expired, and Nase was indeed given his freedom just before Arkansas became the 25th state to be admitted to the Union.

Possibly because of his visibility in the Crittenden household, Nathan had made important contacts among other members of Arkansas’ territorial elite. Chester Ashley, one of the men who donated the land where the Mount Holly Cemetery sits to the City of Little Rock, was one of those contacts. Ashley hired Nathan as a carriage driver. Nathan and Anne, the quadroon daughter of the Ashley’s cook, married. They would have either nine or ten children together, and Nase would help to rear Anne’s older son, W.A. Rector.

Nase was much more than an ordinary carriage driver. When he took over a confectionery two blocks from the Ashley’s home, on the land where part of the Capital Hotel now stands, the people of Little Rock quickly learned that he had a true gift for his craft. His shop was so successful that the ladies of Little Rock would not consider having a party without treats from his store. They begged “Uncle Nase” for his secrets, but he refused, telling them that if he shared his recipes with white ladies, he would give away his trade.

His confectionery eventually moved to a larger storefront west of Main Street. He suffered a setback when his shop burned. Arson was suspected. He reopened, though, and business continued briskly.

Nathan was not the only member of his family to live free in the early 1800’s. One of his brothers who had remained with the Crittenden family in D.C. had also been freed, and together they purchased the freedom of a third brother from the Crittenden family in 1844.

When Nathan’s first wife died, he married another Ashley slave, Mary Elizabeth. He had two daughters with her, and eventually purchased their freedom. The children from his first marriage remained slaves in the Ashley family, though.

In the 1850’s, sentiments against free black people ran high in southern states, and Arkansas was no exception. In 1859, Governor Elias N. Conway signed the Free Negro Expulsion Act. Free black people, which meant anyone who had at least one black grandparent, were required to leave the state by January 1, 1860, or face sale into slavery for a period of one year. The continued freedom of about 700 people was directly jeopardized by this Act. Nathan was not among them, though. He was a very intelligent man, and when a similar measure had narrowly failed in the legislature in 1857, Nathan had seen the writing on the wall. He packed up Mary Eliza and their two free daughters and left for Xenia, Ohio, where he lived for several years. While he was in Ohio, he took the name Warren as a surname. At the time of the 1860 census, he lived in Xenia, Greene County, Ohio, with Mary Eliza, their daughters Ellen (8) and Ida (4), and two sons, William (2) and Edwin (7 months). As he had in Little Rock, Nathan worked as a baker.

A story in a newspaper article about Nathan claimed that an old friend encountered him in New York during his exile, and that Nathan was miserably unhappy and down on his luck. The friend, a Mr. Tucker, brought Nathan back to Arkansas even though the Act expelling free black people was still in effect. Family legends and the census locating Nathan’s family in Ohio for this time period dispute this version of events. Nathan’s descendants believe that Nathan and his free family returned to Little Rock about 1863, possibly with the help or sponsorship of the Ashley family. Since Nathan had left nine or ten of his still-enslaved children in Little Rock, one can only assume that he missed them and worried about them as the Civil War raged in and around Little Rock. Perhaps local people had their hands full with politics and the war, or perhaps “Uncle Nase” was so well-liked that the society ladies were grateful for his return and persuaded their husbands to leave him alone. At any rate, upon his return to Little Rock, Nathan Warren reestablished his confectionery and his popularity.

While living in Ohio, Nathan and the Warren family had been introduced to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME church had broken away from the Methodist Church in Pennsylvania because black congregants wanted their own place of worship, independent from the white church. Almost as soon as he returned from Ohio, Nathan started the Bethel AME Church in Little Rock and was ordained as a minister. The Bethel AME Church is still a vital part of the downtown community, although it has moved into a different building that takes up the block bordered by 16th Street and Wright Avenue between Izard and State Streets. It is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year.

The year Nathan Warren started Bethel AME Church was a turning point not just in his life, but in the lives of all American slaves in rebellious states. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued January 1 of that year, and Civil War raged across the country. Most of the battles fought in Arkansas occurred after January 1863, including the battles of Bayou Meto (also known as Reed’s Bridge) and Bayou Fourche, both of which were fought on the Union army’s approach to Little Rock.

With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the rest of Nathan Warren’s family soon became free. Most of the children from his first marriage were adults now, and many of those ten children had inherited Nathan’s musical talent. Nathan was a popular fiddler, and his children played other instruments and performed publicly as a group.

The end of the war brought other changes, too. The government’s efforts at reconstruction in the southern states meant that black people would be granted rights. Exactly how those rights would be realized, and exactly how the former slaves would support themselves, was uncertain. Nathan Warren was a Pulaski County delegate to the Convention of Colored Citizens held in Little Rock November 30 – December 2, 1865.  It was the first convention ever held by the black residents of Arkansas.

The language contained in the minutes of that convention is stirring. The convention

met for the purpose of conferring with each other, as to our best interest and future prosperity; also, to memorialize the State Legislature and Congress of the United States, to grant us equality before the law, and the right of suffrage, … we have earned it and, therefore, we deserve it; we have bought it with our blood, and, therefore, it is of priceless value to us.

Rev. Nathan Warren delivered the prayer at the closing session the final day of the convention. The final resolutions of the convention underscored the great hope that the newly emancipated black Arkansans had, while recognizing that a struggle still lay before them.

The persecutions of two and a half centuries have not been enabled to destroy our confidence in the eventual justice of the American people. We believe the time has come when wisdom again asserts her sway in the councils of the nation.

It would be another hundred years before the federal government would pass a civil rights act to ensure racial equality.

Through the Reconstruction era, Nathan Warren maintained his confectionery and his musically-gifted children continued performing. Their musical gifts would bring them tragedy, though. In early 1866, the Warren family performers were hired to perform for a private party aboard the steamboat Miami on a journey between Little Rock and Memphis. In the early morning hours of January 28, 1866, the Miami was on its return to Little Rock. As the Miami navigated waters near the then-thriving town of Napoleon in Desha County, where the Arkansas empties into the Mississippi, its boilers exploded. Three of Nathan’s sons, George, Frank and John, were among the 225 passengers killed, as was his son-in-law, Wash Phillips. Nathan’s son Isaiah and stepson W.A. Rector were on the boat, but survived the explosion.

The Miami was one of three such tragedies in just a few days on America’s central waterways. Two days after the Miami’s explosion, the Missouri exploded, and two days after that, the W.R. Carter blew up. Around 365 lives were lost in the three explosions. The causes of the explosions on the Missouri and the W.R. Carter were never explained, but according to a report in the Cincinnati Enquirer on February 6, 1866, inspectors investigating the incident blamed the Miami tragedy on its engineers, who apparently were aware that the boilers needed repairs, but failed to maintain them properly during the trip. The Atlantic and Mississippi Company, which owned all three of these steamboats as well as three others that had exploded in the preceding year, had no insurance coverage for its vessels. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the company’s managers had reasoned that it was cheaper to replace a boat now and then than it was to pay expensive insurance premiums on its entire fleet. A month to the day after the Miami tragedy, three more of the Atlantic & Mississippi’s steamboats were destroyed by fire near St. Louis. After losing nine steam boats – six within thirty days of each other – the company finally elected to insure its fleet. The Miami was lost during the most destructive four months in the history of America’s river navigation. It was one of twenty-nine steamboats destroyed by fire in the sixteen weeks between December 15, 1865 and April 12, 1866.

Despite this incredible personal tragedy, Nathan Warren continued to push for his own prosperity and for the prosperity of his race. Bethel AME Church grew exponentially, and Rev. Warren himself shepherded the flock there. On August 22, 1873, an article in the Arkansas Gazette described efforts to form an organization designed to test the limits of the newly-enacted Arkansas Civil Rights Law of 1873. Some believed the act was a sham and that the white people of Arkansas had no intention of granting rights to black people. Nevertheless, a coalition of black and white citizens met to devise ways in which the law’s purpose could be tested and fulfilled. Rev. Warren attended, and was elected to the group’s finance committee.

Rev. Warren’s name appears in minutes of other meetings during Reconstruction. He was a civic leader, a minister, a successful businessman, and a civil rights activist. Despite periods of great suffering, tragic setbacks, and loss, Nathan Warren persevered. His descendants have every reason to be very proud of their notable ancestor.

He died in 1888 at about the age of 76. He was a member of the Mosaic Templars, and was accorded Masonic rites at his funeral. He was buried at Mount Holly Cemetery.

Nathan Warren’s tragedies did not end with his death, however. The civil rights he wanted so much for himself and his family were to be tested in the fires of Jim Crow, and at some point during those terrible years of racial inequity, tombstones of the graves of a number of black residents at Mount Holly were vandalized and removed. The minutes of the Mount Holly Cemetery Association are incomplete for dozens of years in the first half of the 20th century, and no one now alive has any memory of exactly what happened to the obelisk that had been erected on Nathan Warren’s grave. Even the location of his grave has been lost to history.

Mount Holly’s surviving records show that the Reverend Nathan Warren was buried in the Chester Ashley family plot, and that an obelisk marked his grave. On November 9, 2013, a new monument, donated by Dr. Sybil Jordan-Hampton of Little Rock, was unveiled in the Ashley plot over the spot believed to hold Rev. Warren’s grave. Dr. Jordan-Hampton is a member of Bethel AME Church and a member of the Mount Holly Cemetery Association, which maintains the cemetery. The monument is crowned with the Masonic symbol and reads:

NATHAN WARREN

UNCLE “NASE”

BORN INTO SLAVERY 1812

CAME TO AR WITH ROBERT CRITTENDEN IN 1819

OBTAINED FREEDOM IN FEBRUARY 1835, THEN WORKED

TO SECURE THE FREEDOM OF FAMILY MEMBERS

DIED JUNE 3, 1888 LITTLE ROCK, AR

LITTLE ROCK CONFECTIONER

FOUNDER BETHEL AME CHURCH LITTLE ROCK 1863

DEDICATED IN HONOR OF BETHEL AME CHURCH

SESQUICENTENNIAL 2013

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Lucie’s Place

Dear Leaders of all community-minded organizations:

A study released in September by the Center for American Progress determined that as many as half of all homeless people under the age of 25 are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning their sexuality (LGBTQ), and that those numbers probably under-represent the scope of the problem – obtaining accurate demographics on the homeless is quite a challenge.

These numbers are not surprising. Other studies have shown essentially the same thing, and that while LGBTQ adults may focus on issues like marriage equality, their younger counterparts are struggling to find the resources that will let them stay alive. We already know that school-age people perceived by their peers as homosexual are disproportionately targeted for bullying. The suicide rates among LGBTQ teenagers and young adults far outpaces the suicide rate among straight people of the same age.

Little Rock is no different. Currently, the only local shelter that will accept openly homosexual people is Our House, and beds there fill very quickly. Homeless young LGBT people desperately need resources that are less available to them than to any other segment of the Central Arkansas homeless population.

Lucie’s Place exists specifically to meet these needs in Central Arkansas. The mission of Lucie’s Place is to establish a shelter for homeless LGBTQ young adults, ages eighteen to twenty-five. The envisioned shelter will provide a safe home in which these young adults can get their basic needs met while developing skills necessary for independent living. We are a relatively new nonprofit organization, though, and not yet fully operational. We need your help.

We are currently raising funds with the hope of purchasing and maintaining a building that will house several clients as they get stable enough to go out on their own. In addition to the homeless shelter, these young people need meaningful assistance to ensure that they do not remain homeless, and do not become homeless again. This means counseling, employment services, educational and job training opportunities, and other services in addition to basic food, shelter and clothing.

Most of the funding we’ve received so far has come from grants awarded to Lucie’s Place, but fund raising efforts cannot be limited to grants. This is a community problem, and Lucie’s Place needs help from the community.

Lucie’s Place wants to reach out to churches, civic groups, clubs, and any other organization that may have members willing to help. A board member can present an overall vision of Lucie’s Place and explain the organization’s needs. We need assistance in the form of donations, service providers, and volunteers who can contribute their expertise and resources to serve our mission.

When can Lucie’s Place schedule a presentation to the leaders and interested members of your organization?

Please contact me.

Reason in the Rock’s Indiegogo Fundraiser

For the second year running, I’m organizing a conference on science and secularism. My friend Sky came up with the idea after a group of us from central Arkansas attended Skepticon in the fall of 2011, and we’ve run with the project. Last year was the first ever Reason in the Rock. We expected maybe 75 people for a day of speakers. Instead, over 250 signed up!

We’ve learned from organizers of similar conferences, especially from Skepticon’s, that we can expect to double our attendance for the first few years as word spreads. And like Skepticon, we really want to keep Reason in the Rock free for anyone who can’t afford to attend otherwise.

diplodocus

*Image is considerably smaller than actual creature

This presents a bit of a problem, because renting a venue, hosting speakers from all over the country (not to mention just getting them to Little Rock), and promoting the conference takes money. We depend on donations to make Reason in the Rock a reality.

See the video, which was made mostly in my basement hallway, in front of the collection of books in the Star Wars Expanded Universe – proving my X-treme geekery – and with a diplodocus from the Carnegie Collection of dinosaur figurines serving as the horns of the devil in many segments.

This event is very important. It’s the only one of its kind this year in Arkansas. Conferences like this can change minds, open eyes, and expand horizons. Reason in the Rock did all that last year, and will do it again this year, if it can make its funding goals.

Not only did Reason in the Rock expand the number of people who knew about the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers – because we organized the conference – it got us important positive news coverage. So often when the Freethinkers get in the news, it’s because we’re objecting to violations of separation of church and state, which, in the minds of those who would have us live in a theocracy or think that injecting religion into politics isn’t harmful, makes us seem like Grinches. We aren’t – we’re a group of fun-loving, politically diverse, intellectually active, friendly, community-minded humanists, agnostics, atheists, ethicists, and other secularists.

In the deeply religious Bible Belt, someone who doesn’t ascribe to religion can feel very alone. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is working to build a community dedicated to good science education, rational inquiry, critical thinking, secularism, and fun. This conference is one of many ways we can get the word out that the isolated nonbelievers in Arkansas are definitely not alone.

We have a great lineup this year, and one that will appeal to anyone who loves science, reason, and independent thinking.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, will be here. Dave’s fun to hang out with and fun to hear speak. And yes – those who come to Reason in the Rock will get to hang out with the speakers and talk with them one-on-one. Those who donate $500 to sponsor a speaker will even get to share a meal with one of the stars of the line-up!

Jerry DeWitt, who just published his memoir Hope After Faith about his transition from charismatic Pentecostal preacher to nonbeliever, will be returning. Fun fact: The first time Jerry ever spoke publicly about his atheism was in Little Rock, at a meeting of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. He’s a special guy, and we’re glad to be special to him, too! Jerry’s book will be available for sale, and he’ll happily autograph it for you.

Ben Bell and Kyle Sanders, who started Little Rock’s Skeptics in the Pub, will put on a special Skeptics presentation for us. Kyle put together the Indiegogo campaign for us, and he just generally rocks.

Ever seen Matt Dillahunty on the Atheist Experience? No one pwns theocrats and unthinking believers like he does. Oh, they try to argue with him. They lose. Decisively. Matt’s amazing, and if you’ve never seen him in action you should definitely check out the Atheist Experience’s YouTube Channel.

Bil Cash, the director of Arkansas’ EEOC office, will speak about religious discrimination in the workplace. Since he was one of my very best friends in law school a million years ago, I’m really excited about his participation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is sending Lecia Brooks, the Director of Outreach, to talk about the state of intolerance in America. There’s some controversy here, because some have said that SPLC is promoting intolerance just by keeping and making public its dossiers on hate groups. Is it wrong to keep tabs on the haters and to describe them that way?

We’ll show an awesome documentary, No Dinosaurs in Heaven, and the filmmaker, Greta Schiller will take questions after it. Me, I’m hoping she can explain how none of the dinos managed to make it onto the ark, and how even the prehistoric swimming creatures drowned in the flood. (I’m kidding, guys. Relax.)

Darrel Ray will be here to talk about Sex and God. Rachel Johnson says she’ll be talking about sex, too, but from a biological perspective. She’s one of the co-hosts of the Pink Atheist Podcast along with LeeWood Thomas, who is one of our members, and Phil Ferguson, who also plans to be here.

No conference on secularism would be complete without the participation of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, will be here. As much as FFRF gets slammed in the press by theocratic fundamentalists, you’d think he sports a tail and horns, but in actuality he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.

These aren’t the only great speakers in our lineup. There are more, and we want to make sure they all come and they all make a bog impression. Please help the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers make this year’s Reason in the Rock a reality.

We’re actually hoping to be over-funded, so we have a head start on next year’s conference. We have big dreams about who we want to invite next year. BIG dreams!

And Arkansas has uphill battles. We have hateful bigots in our state who advocate the murder of gay people, a former governor with  Faux News show who thinks his version of Christianity would make a great theocracy, and a largely uneducated state legislature who not only doesn’t have the first clue about how to pass laws that also pass constitutional muster but also want to impose their dubious morality on everyone in the state…. We need all the help we can get.

Please help.

Please donate!

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