PA. Republican Attempts to Stifle Church/State Separation Lawsuits by Introducing Legislation that Would Prevent Plaintiffs from Remaining Anonymous

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The man in the photo above is Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tim Krieger.  Apparently, Rep. Krieger doesn’t like the idea of citizens using anonymity to protect their safety and identities, when filing lawsuits that they fear may cause public backlash upon them and their families.

Yesterday, the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus website reported on the introduction of House bill 922, which would prevent plaintiffs in lawsuits pertaining to the display of religious symbols on public property from remaining anonymous, unless they can directly prove that they would suffer physical injury as a result of appearing in court.

GREENSBURG — Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Delmont) announced today the introduction of his legislation to guarantee public transparency in litigation impacting the expression of religious liberties in public places (House Bill 922).

Passage of House Bill 922 would require that the party bringing any lawsuit designed to suppress, remove or inhibit the display or use of religious symbols in public locations would not be allowed to proceed anonymously, unless it can be clearly demonstrated that the primary litigant(s) would suffer serious physical harm due to appearing in court.

There are so many things wrong with this, I almost don’t know where to begin.  Let’s start with Krieger’s rationale behind this bill:

“Religious expression in public places has been part of our nation and Pennsylvania for generations, from the founding of the Commonwealth by William Penn and onward to modern times,” said Krieger.  “Even inside our state Capitol, religious symbols are still prominently displayed in both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, as well as through a mural of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments adorning the chamber of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  A troubling practice has emerged in recent years where private parties file anonymous lawsuits to attack the display of religious symbols in public places.”

So, apparently Mr. Krieger finds the enforcement of church/state separation “troubling.”  Do you know what I find troubling?  The fact that we have state representatives who oppose the enforcement of and adherence to one of our most basic constitutional principles: that no government body may endorse any religion in any way.  Whether the practice of public religious displays has been traditionally allowed or not has no bearing on its legal status.  The fact is that the establishment clause makes it an unconstitutional practice.  Period.  This constitutional ideal has been upheld and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in case after case, yet we still have elected officials who directly ignore, and even fight against it.

“Passage of House Bill 922 would guarantee that no individual or organization will be able to use our state courts as a weapon to attack the right of Pennsylvania citizens to display religious symbols in public places while hiding in the shadows,” said Krieger.

The right of citizens to display religious symbols in public places?  I don’t remember reading that in the constitution, Mr. Krieger.  Could you point it out for me, please?  Because, as I’ve already said, I’m pretty sure that the establishment clause, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, says something very different.

As far as his comment about the plaintiffs in these cases “hiding in the shadows,” this is nothing more than an attempt to vilify a minority who has every reason to want to remain anonymous in these cases.  This is illustrated by the huge precedent of harassment and threats that has been seen in the past, when individuals have publicly identified themselves in lawsuits such as the ones that this bill is aimed at.  Through cases like those of Jessica Ahlquist,  Vashti McCollum and many others, we have repeatedly seen the plaintiffs in such lawsuits and their families subjected to a variety of attacks, including verbal harassment, community shunning, threats of violence and death, actual violence, the online publishing of home addresses and more.  The fact that Mr. Krieger wants to do away with the only real protection that future plaintiffs have against this type of backlash is both angering and sickening.

When we have elected officials who directly oppose the enforcement of constitutional principles, it should be a red flag.  When those same officials attempt to introduce legislation that is aimed directly at discouraging citizens from pursuing the enforcement of those principles by taking away their only means of guaranteeing their safety in doing so, the citizenry should be sounding the alarm so loudly that those officials can’t hear themselves think.

So, I’m issuing a call to action for all secularists and other supporters of the establishment clause: let Rep. Krieger know that we will NOT tolerate this attack on citizens’ ability to safely fight for church/state separation.  You can find Rep. Krieger’s office contact information below.

-J.C.

Representative Tim Krieger
57th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
101 Ehalt Street
Greensburg, PA 15601-2300
Phone: 724-834-6400

E-mail: Tkrieger@pahousegop.com

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Outcome of Battle Over Fraudulent Therapy Practices Still Undecided in NJ. Leader in Fight Warns that Gay Rights Advocates Still have a Long Road Ahead.

As the debate in Washington over gay marriage heats up, some gay rights advocates currently fighting other battles point out that there will still be a long way to go, even after marriage equality is achieved.  Troy Stevenson, the director of Garden State Equality, spoke about the issue with The American Prospect:

“The marriage-equality movement gets a lot of press [because] it’s viewed as the glass ceiling, that once we get that done, we’ve achieved equal rights. But that’s not the truth,” Troy says. “In many ways, these smaller battles are more important because they are less understood.” He points to the history of the women’s rights movement as evidence that full equality for homosexuals will not come with the stroke of a pen or a single Supreme Court decision. “After Roe v. Wade, a lot people declared victory and dropped out of the [women’s rights] movement, and now 40 years later they’re fighting the same battles again,” he says. “This is not something that we want to happen in the LGBT community.”

His comments stem from another current fight in in the gay rights movement, over the use of “gay conversion,” or “pray the gay away” therapies.

Gay rights advocates, including the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), are targeting the practice of conversion therapy on the grounds that by perpetuating the belief that homosexuality is a treatable mental disorder, it helps to legitimize discrimination against LGBT people.

Not to mention the fact that these kinds of therapies have been discredited by every major medical, psychiatric, psychological and counseling organization in the U.S.  Aside from having been shown to be ineffective, many even consider these therapies to be psychologically damaging and harmful.  Despite these facts, the practice has been allowed to continue.

Homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of pathological disorders in 1973.  But for decades, an ideologically motivated fringe industry has quietly carried on the work of trying to “cure” gay men and women.

Last year though, a bill was introduced in New Jersey that would take a major step towards ending these harmful and fraudulent practices:

Garden State Equality has been coordinating with New Jersey lawmakers to advance legislation that would ban conversion therapy for minors under the age of 18. The bill was introduced last fall by Democratic state Senator Ray Lesniak and is modeled on a similar law in California currently being challenged by proponents of conversion therapy.

The position of the charlatan “therapists” who are spearheading the opposition in California is that the ban violates their right to freedom of speech.  Lesniak points out, though, that this argument doesn’t really have a basis in reality.

“There is no scientific basis for this treatment—it’s akin to a chiropractor saying they can cure cancer by manipulating your spine,” he says. “Free speech does not mean anyone licensed to practice therapy can engage in fraudulent speech without being subject to a penalty.”

I couldn’t have possibly put it better, myself, Ray.  This is NOT an issue of freedom of speech.  It’s an issue of one group of people selling a service that is ineffective, at best,  to another group of people, based on a fraudulent claim: that homosexuality is a mental illness, and that it can be “cured.”

Still, gay rights opponents in New Jersey, including the organization  Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing, or JONAH, quickly geared up to make a fight of it in their state, too, enlisting the aid of attorney Charles LiMandri.  You remember him, right?  He’s the anti-gay attorney who has committed such disgusting displays of public bigotry as calling homosexuality “destructive and pathological,” and threatening a second civil war if same sex marriage becomes legal.

They have been unsuccessful in their opposition to the bill, so far, as it was passed by the New Jersey State Senate last week.  Governor Chris Christie still hasn’t signed it, though, saying that it is a complex issue that has him divided:

“I’m of two minds just on this stuff in general. No. 1, I think there should be lots of deference given to parents on raising their children,” Christie said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “I don’t – this is a general philosophy, not to his bill – generally, philosophically, on bills that restrict parents’ ability to make decisions on how to care for their children, I’m generally a skeptic of those bills. Now there can always be exceptions to those rules, and this bill may be one of them.”

Here’s my last thought on the issue: these “therapies” are nothing short of psychologically abusive.  Sexual orientation is NOT a choice, and therapy practices that maintain that it is, and try to force people to change it do nothing but heap shame, guilt and emotional trauma upon people who have NOTHING WRONG WITH THEM.  So, while parental choice issues may be a complex topic, Governor, abuse of minors is not.  Stop pretending that it is, just so you can continue toeing the political line.

-J.C.

Proud to be Intolerant

I’m extremely busy today, so this post will be short.

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In recognition of the Supreme Court hearings on the issue of same sex marriage, I’d like to make a few comments about intolerance and oppression. Both are issues that are central to gay rights, but they have also recently become rallying cries for fundamentalists and others who oppose them.

When coming from that sector, the general claim is that gay rights supporters are being intolerant and oppressive of those who believe that homosexuality is a sin and that homosexuals should not be entitled to equal rights, due to that fact.  Most gay rights supporters (in my experience) counter this argument by pointing out that it is the other side who is being intolerant of homosexuals, and that affording other people equal rights is the opposite of oppression.  I see things a little differently.

I say that, in my case at least, the gay rights opposition is absolutely correct.  I am intolerant.  I am 100% intolerant of bigoted, discriminatory beliefs, based on ancient, outdated moral codes.  I am intolerant of those who would hide behind those beliefs to justify their own bigotry and hatred towards those who are different than they.  I am intolerant of any who would oppose the affording of equal rights to all people.  And, call it oppression if you will, but I will continue to speak out and fight against all those who embrace such ideals.

So, there you have it.  On this issue, I am intolerant, and I am proud of it.

-J.C.

New Reality Show Aims to Exploit Children, Family Members of Deceased Loved Ones

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If my daughter suddenly came up to me one day, claiming to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra, I would assume that she had been watching a bit too much television, and sit down to have a talk about reality vs. fantasy.  After all, every parent knows that sometimes, children’s imaginations can get a bit carried away, and that it would be unhealthy to encourage such delusions.  Right???

Well, maybe not quite every parent, and a new reality television show aims to capitalize on that fact.

In the tradition of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, Ghost Inside my Child, a new show by producers Joke Fincioen (not taking this one, too easy), and Biagio Messina, will rely on parents who place potential profit over the mental well-being of their children, in order to fill their casting calls.

A Los Angeles production company is currently holding a nationwide casting call for children who claim to have, or have had, past life memories for a new reality series, “Ghost Inside My Child,” scheduled to air on the Bio Channel later this year.

What’s even more disturbing is that not only will the show be encouraging these fantasies in children, it will attempt to pull the family members of those deceased folks who they claim them to be reincarnated from into the delusion along with them.

As part of the show, Fincioen and Messina arranged a meeting between Leininger [one of the children featured in the pilot episode], and a member of Huston’s [the man who the show claims Leininger to be a reincarnation of], family, a woman now in her 90s.

The woman felt a connection with this young kid and, now, they hope to do similar bits of “closure” with the new crop of past life preteens…

Fortunately, some prominent members of the skeptical community are already speaking up about the dubious premise of the show, as well as its potential harmfulness.  D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, voiced some of these concerns to the Huffington Post.

“Unfortunately, people use anecdote and stories as proof of these supernatural claims, and this is not dissimilar to ghost stories, or accounts of supposedly accurate psychic readings people will tell,” he told HuffPost by email.

He also has problems with the idea of going to family members of deceased people and telling them that a kid just might be a dearly departed loved one.

“The people who lost a loved one have to re-experience the loss, are told outlandish claims about their loved one being alive again and stuck in the body of a child somewhere,” he said. “I think this is a crassest manipulation of belief and of the fear of death merely for the sake of reality TV ratings.”

As for my two cents, the producers of this show, as well as any parents who would encourage their child to maintain fantasy as reality by submitting them for casting, are placing that child’s future development and mental health at risk, for profit.  In my view, this makes them some of the worst kinds of charlatans, and if there were an afterlife, I like to think that there would be a special place of unpleasantness reserved just for them.

-J.C.

A Word on Childhood Indoctrination

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I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag, and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty to all who believe.

Picture, if you will, 15-20 small children, huddled around a Christian flag at the front of a small church, droning these words out in a thrall-like monotone.  This is the scene that I was unfortunate enough to witness at the start of a church service, a few months ago. For numerous reasons, this was one of the most disturbing things that I have ever witnessed.  Let’s start at the beginning:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag, and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands.

Now, this may not be the most popular idea that I have ever expressed, but I dislike the concept of children being required to pledge their allegiance to anything.  The idea that any of these children (some who were as young as 4, and none who were older than 9) have the mental capacity to truly comprehend the implications of taking an oath of allegiance is almost as ludicrous as the religious ideas that their parents are forcing them to pledge to, here.

Additionally, if someone is going to teach their children to pledge their allegiance to something, I can think of many other things that are much more deserving of it than a flag, or a religious figure.  How about a pledge of allegiance to the human race, or to all life?  Perhaps a pledge of allegiance to the planet that sustains all forms of life that we know of?

One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again…

So, now we get down to the fairy tales.  The fact that these ridiculous notions of resurrection and immortality are being taught to these kids as factual events is sickening, in and of itself.  That these kids are forced to recite a weekly pledge, in which they must assert complete belief in these stories, under the pressure of doing so in front of a large group of adults and authority figures, makes me angrier than I have words to express.

…and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.

And, to hell (literally) with all who don’t believe, right?  As a parent, this one gets to me the most.  How anyone could possibly think that teaching their children that anyone who does not think, believe, or live as they do is undeserving of life or liberty is a positive thing is completely incomprehensible to me.  Have we, as a species, not seen enough of the harms that are caused by notions such as these?  Are the parents of these children so ignorant, as to be unaware of the fact that millions of people throughout history have been enslaved, tortured and murdered, because of this very concept?  To be honest, I truly hope that they are that ignorant, because the only other possibility is far more disturbing.

The bottom line to all of this is that this kind of childhood indoctrination is brainwashing, no matter how you look at it.  Taking these children to church every Sunday, and forcing them to affirm belief in a religion that they cannot yet even fully comprehend or understand cannot be viewed under any other light.

Parents, here’s a novel idea: instead of teaching your children what to believe, why not try teaching them how to think?  Rather than teaching them to accept whatever they are told by those who hold authority over them, try teaching them to examine things, ask questions, and draw their own conclusions.  Granted, there’s always the possibility that they may not end up seeing things as you would like them to, but would you not prefer to raise a thinking individual, who decides things for his or herself, rather than an ignorant follower, who accepts whatever he or she is told by authority?

And, if you’re going to force your children to pledge their allegiance to something, please allow me to suggest this alternative to having them pledge to a flag, or belief system:

I pledge allegiance to the Universe, and all the life which it supports. One cosmos, in our care, irreplaceable, with sustenance and respect for ALL.

-J.C.

This Week’s OFFF Award Goes to Pat Robertson!

This Week's OFFF Award Goes to Pat Robertson!

Pat Robertson pulled off a double play, this week. On top of his claim that environmental regulation could result in the deaths of “a couple billion people,” this king of charlatans actually had the balls to WARN people AGAINST religious frauds, telling them to “beware these scamsters, especially scamsters in religious garb, quoting the bible.” Holy Cow!!!

Either one of these statements alone would have made him a nominee for this week’s OFFF award, but both of them in one week made him a shoe in! Congratulations, Pat, on some truly Outstanding Fraud, Fakery, and Falaciousness.

Don’t forget to send in your nominees for next week’s award!

‘Psychic’ Twice Arrested for Fraud Completely Avoids Legal Punishment by Paying off Her Victims in Both Cases

At the beginning of this month, the Orlando Sentinel reported on a woman named Peaches Stevens, who had been arrested for fraud, back in November of 2011.  Apparently, Peaches, who also goes by the name of “Miss Starr,” makes her money as a self proclaimed psychic and fortuneteller.  Her basic M.O. is to convince her victims that they and their loved ones have a terrible curse upon them, and then extort large sums of money from them, with promises to remove the curse:

Overwhelmed by problems, Priti Mahalanobis consulted a fortuneteller who told her there was a curse on her family.  After spending nearly $136,000 in cash, gift cards and jewelry to have Windermere psychic “Miss Starr” remove the hex, Mahalanobis came to the conclusion that she had been swindled.

This time, her fraudulent ways came back to bite her, and now she must repay every cent that she took from Mahalanobis and her husband. Now, I’m usually a huge fan of exposing and punishing frauds and charlatans, especially when they are forced to pay restitution to those poor, desperate and gullible people who they have victimized, but I have some major problems with the way that this case was handled.  For example:

All charges were dropped in September [2012] after Stevens agreed to give Mahalanobis and her husband a full refund of $135,898.60.

So, there will be no further repercussions for her actions, no record of charges or convictions, and she gets to go on scamming people out of their hard earned cash.  To me, this feels like a justification for ‘psychics’ like this woman defrauding people, based on their gullibility.

“Whoops, you caught me, this time. Since you were clever enough to figure me out, I’ll just give you your money back, and we’ll call it even. Next customer, please!”

On the other hand, I do believe in giving second chances, so I’ll try to be optimistic, and assume that the prosecutors in the case were hoping that the whole thing would convince her to switch to a more honest line of work.  If only we lived in a perfect world.

On Thursday [March 7, 2013], a similar settlement was negotiated and the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office agreed not to prosecute Peaches Stevens, 30, or her aunt Sharon Stevens, 45, also a psychic.

Sharon Stevens, professionally known as Sarah Stevens, was arrested last week at her home in Hallandale Beach on charges of scheming to defraud and grand theft. A warrant for the arrest of Peaches Stevens was recalled Thursday.

Sharon and Peaches Stevens will reimburse a 67-year-old woman in full: $50,702.94 in cash, gift cards and unspecified merchandise paid to have evil spirits vanquished, the State Attorney’s Office said. Neither psychic admitted civil or criminal liability.

So, we have the same psychic, this time with the addition of her aunt as an accomplice, arrested for pulling the same scams as before, and then being allowed to wriggle out of legal punishment in exactly the same way.  Once again, there is no deterrent or legal accountability.  Once again, she is allowed to continue operating her business under the fraudulent claim of psychic ability, and running her same old scams.  This woman should have been held to the same prosecutory standards as any other common con artist to begin with.  To allow her off a second time shows just how ridiculously tolerant of this kind of behavior our society is.

So, let me be clear on where I stand, here: charlatanry is NOT a victimless crime, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, with monetary restitution being only a portion of perpetrators’ total legal punishment.  Frauds like this woman prey remorselessly on the aggrieved and desperate, and the emotional and psychological damage that they often do to their victims goes far beyond monetary loss.  So should the consequences.

-J.C.