Let’s hear it for the United Churches of Christ (UCC) which managed the feat of providing a platform for a political candidate during its convention in Hartford CT last year, without violating IRS regulations about religious groups not engaging in politics.

Yes, you heard that right. A church group, which is not supposed to be political, gave a candidate a speaking venue to sell himself, but somehow didn’t actually do so, according to the IRS:

The Internal Revenue Service says the United Church of Christ did not violate rules when it hosted Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at its convention in Hartford last year.

The IRS says Obama’s appearance at the UCC’s national meeting in June 2007 did not violate federal rules governing the appearance of politicians at religious events.

Earlier this year, the IRS had said there were questions that the speech violated restrictions on political activity for tax-exempt organizations. The denomination has denied any wrongdoing.

However, in a letter to the national church the tax agency says it found the UCC had taken the necessary steps to avoid any appearance that Obama’s appearance was of a political nature.

Let’s all give the UCC a round of applause for successfully skirting the law in the cause of Jesus! Hallelujah!

If this sounds familiar, you’re not seeing things or experiencing deja vu; there really has been a recent spate of news stories in which religious folks are being allowed to violate laws in the name of their religions (see this blog entry and this one). Hopefully this trend unnerves you as much as it does me.

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Back when the story of the FLDS compound in Texas that was raided because young girls had been subjected to sexual abuse, I was worried this might happen … given that Texas is the buckle of the Bible Belt where religious extremism is generally viewed positively. Well, it happened:

The state of Texas should not have removed children from a polygamist sect’s ranch because it didn’t prove that they were in “imminent danger,” an appeals court ruled Thursday. …

In its ruling, the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals decided in favor of 38 women who had challenged the removals and appealed a decision last month by a district judge that the children remain in state custody.

“The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department’s witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger,” the three-judge panel said.

Hmm. I’d be interested in knowing exactly how a theology that says that girls must be married and become pregnant as soon as possible in life, can possibly be considered “safe” for them … I mean, really! How could such thinking result in anything other than the abuse of said girls, and the wanton violation of consent laws?

I guess the Texas courts are angling, now, in the direction of a religious exemption to laws on child abuse and consent laws. Good luck, Texas; you’ll need it!

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It’s gotten to be an old story … teachers pushing religion, in the form of creationism & “intelligent design,” on kids in public school science classrooms. This is in spite of court rulings specifically forbidding the practice. Here’s a report from MSNBC:

One in eight U.S. high school biology teachers presents creationism or intelligent design in a positive light in the classroom, a new survey shows, despite a federal court’s recent ban against it.And a quarter of the nation’s high school biology teachers say they devoted at least one or two classroom hours to the topics, with about half presenting it favorably and half presenting it as an invalid alternative. …

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, also revealed that between 12 percent and 16 percent of the nation’s biology teachers are creationists, and about one in six of them have a “young Earth” orientation, which means they believe that human beings were created by God in their present form within the past 10,000 years.

Scientists, on the other hand, agree that humans evolved from a common primate ancestor in a process that stretches back tens of millions of years. The theory of evolution on which this is based is one of the most well-supported theories in science.

The highly publicized Dover ruling in 2005 banned the teaching of intelligent design in Pennsylvania public school science classes, and there have been many other legal victories at the state and local level for the teaching of evolution.

What we have here, folks, are believers who are all too eager to break the law in order to edjumicate dem dere chilluns on da Lorduh ’cause we dun gots ta save dere precious souls. Our preachermen dun tol’ us so!

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On the heels of the recent California Supreme Court ruling I blogged about earlier, it’s time to set the record straight on the matter of marriage in Judeo-Christian tradition. There are a great many misconceptions about it, which are frequently stated but are erroneous, and many flaws in the traditional views of it.

First, most people who are of the Judeo-Christian tradition consider marriage to be sacred and to be only between one man and one woman. There is scriptural support for this, in Genesis 2:24:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.

This verse is alluded to or quoted by Jesus in the gospels and in other books of the New Testament, so it can safely be said that this basic idea was presumed valid by those later authors. But the Bible is not consistent on the matter. A number of important figures in the Bible had multiple wives and even concubines in addition:

Abraham: Married Sarah (Gen 16:1), then took as additional wives Hagar (Gen 16:3) and later Keturah (Gen 25:1).

Jacob: Married Leah (Gen 29:23), then Rachel (Gen 29:28), then Bilhah (Gen 30:4), then Zilpah (Gen 30:9).

Moses: Married Zipporah (Ex 2:21), then an unnamed Ethiopian woman (Num 12:1).

David: His named wives were Michal (1 Sam 18:27), Abigail (1 Sam 25:39), Ahinoam (1 Sam 25:43), Eglah, Abital, Haggith, & Maacah (2 Sam 3:3-5); and Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:24); there were an unknown number of other wives as well (2 Sam 5:13).

Solomon: Had 700 wives plus 300 concubines (1 Kg 11:3)

There are many other Biblical figures with multiple wives and concubines, including Esau and several kings of Israel such as Ahab; but the above should suffice to demonstrate that multiple wives and concubines litter the pages of the Old Testament.

Lest anyone think that God allowed these patriarchs and kings to have multiple marriages but did not approve of the practice, note that Solomon, David’s heir, was the son of Bathsheba, who was not David’s first wife. God obviously didn’t mind polygamy that much if one of its offspring could have become God’s favorite and a later standard for divine wisdom.

In the wider Greco-Roman world of the 1st century CE, marriage was mostly monogamous, however, in the Near East — especially in places at the fringe of the Empire such as Persia and Egypt — polygamy and concubinage sometimes appeared, and the Romans generally tolerated it. Thus, in the pastoral epistles, there is an injunction on deacons in the early church:

Deacons must be husbands of only one wife (1 Tim 3:12)

as is the case for overseers or bishops (1 Tim 3:2). That the author of the epistle found it necessary to make this distinction implies that polygamy occurred, even if it may not have been the usual practice. If the words of this epistle are viewed through a strict legalistic interpretation, they mean that a Christian man could have more than one wife; he was merely disqualified to be a deacon or bishop. Let me repeat: These passages in 1 Timothy indicate that its author considered it possible for a good Christian man to have more than one wife! The only restriction on a Christian man with more than one wife, is that he cannot be a deacon or bishop.

Marriage did not become a Christian sacrament in practice until the Middle Ages. But even then this was merely an informal understanding; during the Reformation, the sacramental nature of marriage was still up in the air, so it was not officially declared a sacrament by the Roman Catholic Church until the Council of Trent in the 16th century, and it took some time to work its way into the official doctrines of other Christian sects.

So we are not talking, here, of millennia of Church control over marriage; the truth is far different.

There are two other common objections that Judeo-Christian traditionalists make against gay marriage, both of which are also just as invalid as their belief that monogamous marriage is scriptural. These are:

1. Letting gays marry will open the door to polygamists, communal or plural marriages, etc. This is an example of the slippery-slope fallacy. Doing one thing does not automatically require doing another, no matter how they appear. Polygamy and plural marriages are quite different from gay marriages — mainly because marriages are actually contracts between two parties. How can multiple people simultaneously enter into the same contract? Furthermore, how would inheritance, control over one’s affairs, etc. be adjudicated in a plural marriage? The answer: It can’t, at least not easily. Allowing plural marriages would require many adaptations and changes in the legal system. Going from man/woman marriage to two-person gay marriages, is not much of a leap; but enabling plural marriage introduces many potential complications. So slippery-slope thinking just does not apply here.

2. Marriage is intended for procreation only. Most people who spout this canard have never once considered the ramifications of this statement. If one follows this logic, it leads to the conclusion that infertile people cannot be allowed to marry (since they will never have children); it also means that couples cannot be left childless. I cannot even begin to imagine policing the “marriage-is-only-for-procreation” policy if it were to be made law; I suppose one could arrest and punish childless couples, and force infertile people to divorce, but really … it’s simply absurd. The idea that marriage is solely for procreation, cannot become the basis for matrimonial policy.

The bottom line, folks, is that gay marriage is here, and it will stay. I suppose opponents could fend it off for a generation or two by amending constitutions (state and/or federal), but eventually it will happen. Offhand I’d say the better thing to do is to grow up, accept it, and stop meddling in other people’s lives for no good reason.

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A lot of people who know that occidental religions, with their emphasis on “faith,” can be detrimental, see eastern religions as being superior and not vulnerable to the same abuses. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Hinduism, the dharmic religion that dominates India, has a caste system, which until the middle of the 20th century was strongly observed (and still is, in most places). Indian society is made up of a number of castes, the bottom two of which, known together as the Dalit or untouchables, were once so reviled that they could be punished merely for allowing their shadow to fall on someone of a higher caste. Over the last three millennia or more of Hindu dominance over India, the dalit have been subjected to harassed, ostracized, beaten, and even killed. Given India’s high population and the long history of caste-based abuse, it’s quite likely that much more human misery has been inflicted on humanity via this, than by all the abuses of occidental religion (e.g. the Inquisitions, the Crusades, etc.) combined.

The reason for the emergence of a caste system in India — and the reason that many cling to it still, in spite of civil-rights laws which have been in place since India’s independence — is that Hinduism has reincarnation at its core. People are born into social strata, and thus assigned their lifetime’s dharma, according to their past actions or karma. This actually leads some Hindus (though certainly not all!) to believe that the Dalit actually deserve to be treated like animals (or worse than animals) … because of the fact that they were born Dalit! Had their karma been better they would not have been born so low on the social ladder. What’s more, it is actually necessary to treat them poorly, since if they are not, their dharma will not be fulfilled and they will not ascend higher in their next lifetimes.

Reforms in India meant to improve the lot of Dalit have been met with resistance by large swaths of Indian society; despite their civil rights, the Dalit are still widely harassed.

A recent honor killing brings this point home (WebCite cached article):

Five armed men burst into the small room and courtyard at dawn, just as 21-year-old, 22-week pregnant, Sunita was drying her face on a towel.They punched and kicked her stomach as she called out for her sleeping boyfriend “Jassa,” 22-year-old Jasbir Singh, witnesses said. When he woke, both were dragged into waiting cars, driven away and strangled.

Their bodies, half-stripped, were laid out on the dirt outside Sunita’s father’s house for all to see, a sign that the family’s “honor” had been restored by her cold-blooded murder.

A week later, the village of Balla, just a couple of hours drive from India’s capital New Delhi, stands united behind the act, proud, defiant almost to a man.

Among the Jat caste of the conservative northern state of Haryana, it is taboo for a man and woman of the same village to marry. Although the couple were not related, they were seen in this deeply traditional society as brother and sister.

“From society’s point of view, this is a very good thing,” said 62-year-old farmer Balwan Arya, sitting smoking a hookah in the shade of a tree in a square with other elders from the village council or panchayat. “We have removed the blot.”

If that doesn’t make your blood run cold, I don’t know what will!

Those of us in the western world should not operate under the illusion that the evils of religion and its attendant intolerance are limited only to extreme Christianity or Islam. There is brutal intolerance elsewhere, too, even in the eastern religions that so many in the western world think of as peaceful. Yes, India was the home of famously non-violent Mahatma Gandhi, but he is the exception it seems, not the rule.

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To the chagrin of social conservatives around the country (especially the Religious Right), the Supreme Court of California has approved gay marriage, as reported in the Los Angeles Times:

The California Supreme Court decided today that same-sex couples should be permitted to wed, ruling that gay unions must be given the “respect and dignity” of marriage.

In a 4-3 vote, the court became the first in the country to apply the constitutional protections reserved for race and gender to sexual orientation. The Massachusetts high court struck down bans on same-sex marriage in 2003, but under a different legal theory.

The court held that people have a fundamental right to marry the person of their choice and struck down marriage laws limiting matrimony to opposite-sex couples as a violation of the state constitution’s equal protection guarantees.

This does not settle the matter, however. The forces of theocracy in California already had a ballot initiative underway which would amend the state constitution to make marriage one-man one-woman; if it succeeds, it will obviate today’s ruling. The outrage is already blazing around the country, so this initiative will certainly pick up steam.

While I’m sure that conservative pundits on radio and TV will rail against the “‘activist’ left-wing court,” they will do so in error. This story concludes:

The California Supreme Court has six Republican appointees and one Democrat. Scholars have described the court under the leadership of [Ronald M.] George, the chief justice, as cautious and moderately conservative.

In other words, it’s a conservative Republican court that handed down this decision … not a bunch of raging left-wingers!

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John McCain has pastor troubles of his own, which recently have been somewhat alleviated by the pastor himself:

Pastor Hagee apologizes for anti-Catholic remarks

John Hagee, an influential Texas televangelist who endorsed John McCain, apologized to Catholics Tuesday for his stinging criticism of the Roman Catholic Church and for having “emphasized the darkest chapters in the history of Catholic and Protestant relations with the Jews.”Hagee’s support for McCain has drawn cries of outrage from some Catholic leaders who have called on McCain to reject Hagee’s endorsement. The likely Republican nominee has said he does not agree with some of Hagee’s past comments, but did not reject his support.

In a letter to William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, Hagee wrote: “Out of a desire to advance a greater unity among Catholics and evangelicals in promoting the common good, I want to express my deep regret for any comments that Catholics have found hurtful.”

Donohue, one of Hagee’s sharpest critics, said he accepted the apology and planned to meet with Hagee Thursday in New York.

Note that this allows Donohue and his Catholic League, and Hagee as well, to line up behind McCain in November. This still leaves Hagee quite separate from other evangelical leaders who, as I’ve blogged about before, despise McCain and are willing to let Obama win in order to deny him the White House.

Having said all of this, and having endured the Obama/Wright affair … is anyone else as tired of the clerical politicking as I am? Isn’t it time for America’s presidential candidates to extricate themselves from the affairs of ardent pastors who’re often afflicted with that illness known as “diarrhea of the mouth”?

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