Sunday, September 26, 2010

Women Priests

          Today is Sunday Without Women day, a boycott of Catholic masses in protest of women's treatment in the church, and there are stories everywhere about women priests. The New York Times tells the story of Maria Vittoria Longhitano, who was ordained by the Old Catholic Church, which broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the nineteenth century. The Swiss bishop who ordained her said for Italians unaccustomed to seeing women in priestly garb, Mother Vittoria’s ordination “had a great echo; it was a small earthquake.” (Mother Vittoria is Longhitano's new priestly name.) The Women's Ordination Conference reports that about 100 women have been ordained by bishops since 2002; of course their ordinations are not recognized by the official Roman church. Catholic teaching excommunicates anyone involved in the ordination of a woman.
          The Times pictures Mother Vittoria in traditional priestly garb
          Alta Jacko, an 81-year-old Chicago priest, was told she could not attend services in her Catholic church wearing her Roman collar and is no longer allowed to be a lector, merely reading out loud at church, because she was excommunicated.  
          Time Magazine also shows pictures of women in clerical garb and labels its story Robes for Women. The picture shows Nancy Corran and Jane Via. Corran was ordained by parishioners rather than a bishop in San Diego in August, and Via was the country's first woman Catholic priest. 
          Reflecting the facts of these stories, in a National Catholic Reporter article, Rosemary Radford Ruether, the dean of Catholic feminist theologians, reports a dispute among feminists about how to conduct ordinations. One group is ordained by a bishop--the same way men are usually ordained--and then claims they are part of the apostolic succession of the church, just as the men are. The second group looks to the local community for its ordination and is ordained in a collective action of their faith community.
           The theology behind the two groups is different. The community ordination group goes back to very early Christian practices, while the bishop group takes the church's own beliefs about ordination and applies them to women. 
          Ruether argues that both groups can find common theological ground but doesn't address what would be most effective in changing women's role in the church. Withhold funds? Wear a green armband? Boycott mass? A surprising story out of Chicago says that a lot of male priests are helping women prepare to become priests, although they are doing their best to keep their identities hidden so that they don't get excommunicated and lose their jobs.
          One great thing about the American civil rights movements is the constant disagreement about tactics that inevitably arises. Take gay rights to the courts or wait for the legislatures? Have the president abolish Don't Ask Don't Tell or wait for Congress? It will be interesting to see what tactic is most persuasive in establishing future Sundays With Women. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Does First Amendment Protect Pregnant Nuns, Burning Qur'ans?

          The United Kingdom, which does not have a First Amendment, recently banned an ad showing a pregnant nun enjoying ice cream. The ad included the language immaculately conceived to describe its fresh ice cream. The ice cream manufacturer said it was using gentle humor to convey the message that ice cream is our religion. The government, however, thought that the ad distorted and mocked the beliefs of Roman Catholics, an especially serious offense during a week in which Pope Benedict made a historic trip to London. And so the ads were banned.
          Meanwhile, in the U.S., where the pregnant nun ads presumably enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, Justice Stephen Breyer has people debating how much constitutional protection burning Qur'ans enjoys. Referring to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous statement in Schenck v. United States that the "most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic," Breyer said in a TV interview, "Holmes said [the First Amendment] doesn't mean you can shout 'fire' in a crowded theater,...Well, what is it? Why? Because people will be trampled to death. And what is the crowded theater today? What is the being trampled to death?" Thus Justice Breyer is not prepared to conclude that -- in the internet age -- the First Amendment condones Qur'an burning
          The Supreme Court, however, has also held that the First Amendment protects burning the American flag as a means of political protest. It has also ruled, in a case involving the Ku Klux Klan, that the First Amendment allows the states to ban cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate. Political protest is protected but threats are not. 
          Justice Breyer is probably correct that it will take a lot of new cases to resolve the free speech controversies. Unlike in the UK, however, in any case the First Amendment should still allow individuals to distort and mock religion, even if visiting popes find the speech to be offensive. 

Honor Killings

        Thanks to Feminist Law Professors blog for pointing out this recent series by Robert Fisk about honor killings, in which women (and some men) are killed because they committed sexual misconduct that was perceived to dishonor their families. The killings are performed by Muslims, Christians, and Hindus as well as by families of various ethnic, tribal and cultural backgrounds. Fisk reports: "The details of the murders – of the women beheaded, burned to death, stoned to death, stabbed, electrocuted, strangled and buried alive for the "honour" of their families – are as barbaric as they are shameful. Many women's groups in the Middle East and South-west Asia suspect the victims are at least four times the United Nations' latest world figure of around 5,000 deaths a year." 20,000 women killed each year
          Most surprising is that the number of such crimes is increasing every year. 
          Fisk gives names and details. In his words:

These are just a few of the murders, a few names, a small selection of horror stories across the world to prove the pervasive, spreading infection of what must be recognised as a mass crime, a tradition of family savagery that brooks no merciful intervention, no state law, rarely any remorse.
Surjit Athwal
Murdered in 1998 by her in-laws on a trip to the Indian Punjab for daring to seek a divorce from an unhappy marriage
Du'a Khalil Aswad
Aged 17, she was stoned to death in Nineveh, Iraq, by a mob of 2,000 men for falling in love with a man outside her tribe
Rand Abdel-Qader
The Iraqi 17-year-old was stabbed to death by her father two years ago after falling in love with a British soldier in Basra
Fakhra Khar
In 2001 in Karachi, her husband poured acid on her face, after she left him and returned to her mother's home in the red-light district of the city
Mukhtaran Bibi
The 18-year-old was gang-raped by four men in a hut in the Punjab in 2002, while up to 100 men laughed and cheered outside
Heshu Yones
The 16-year-old was stabbed to death by her Muslim father Abdullah, in west London in 2002, because he disapproved of her Christian boyfriend
Tasleem Solangi
The Pakistani village girl, 17, was falsely accused of immorality and had dogs set on her as a punishment before she was shot dead by in-laws
Shawbo Ali Rauf
Aged 19, she was taken by her family to a picnic in Dokan, Iraq, and shot seven times after they had found an unfamiliar number on her phone
Tulay Goren
The 15-year-old Kurdish girl was killed in north London by her father because the family objected to her choice of husband
Banaz Mahmod Babakir Agha
The 20-year-old's father and uncle murdered her in 2007, after she fell in love with a man her family did not want her to marry
Ayesha Baloch
Accused of having sexual relations with another man before she married, her husband slit her lip and nostril with a knife in Pakistan in 2006 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Remembering JFK

          Thanks to Howard Friedman for reminding me that today is the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's famous campaign speech about separation of church and state, given here in Houston before an audience of Protestant ministers 50 years ago. It is a shame that Kennedy's brilliant words upholding separation of church and state and pledging to follow the law instead of church teaching are not endorsed by our current politicians. We would have a more tolerant society if today's politicians would take the Kennedy pledge: 
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishoners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him....
Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
But if the time should ever come--and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible--when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
Instead, former Pennsylvania Republican Roman Catholic Senator Rick Santorum visited a Catholic school in Houston this week in order to reject Kennedy's approach to politics. Santorum thinks that Catholic politicians should govern by their faith, which includes opposing gay equality and reproductive freedom, issues on which Kennedy would have follow the Constitution. The Wisconsin Catholic bishops have just drafted a letter telling Catholics how to vote in upcoming elections. In Hawaii, supporters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mufi Hannemann are urging Republican voters to cross party lines and vote for Hannemann in order to show their opposition to Neil Abercrombie because he declares no religious affiliation (and therefore may support gay marriage).

          President Obama has repeatedly refused to take the Kennedy pledge, preferring to campaign on his religious values, his church membership, and his status as a mainstream Christian. Too bad the first Muslim president didn't learn the first Catholic president's lesson: only a secular government can assure religious freedom. Don't worry, I know the president is not Muslim, but believe he would  have convinced the country of that more easilyif he had taken the Kennedy pledge to govern by the Constitution instead of his own Christian faith. Or Muslim faith. Or any faith. Even in response to all the anti-Muslim sentiment in the country he spoke about his own religion at his recent press conference:

And I will do everything that I can as long as I am President of the United States to remind the American people that we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names but we remain one nation.  And as somebody who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise.  But I’m also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religion, even if they don't subscribe to the exact same notions that I do, and that they are still good people, and they are my neighbors and they are my friends, and they are fighting alongside us in our battles.

Everybody battling side by side in defense of his own religious values. That is not what President Kennedy had in mind.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


          Stoning as a penalty for sex crimes is back in the news after an Iranian woman was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and an Afghanistani couple was stoned to death for eloping. The debates are complicated by fears of offending Muslims by appearing to blame Islam for such barbaric practices. Some Muslims complain that stoning — along with other traditional penalties like whipping and the amputation of hands — is too often sensationalized in the West to smear the reputation of Islam generally. Most of these severe punishments are carried out by the Taliban and other radicals who, many Islamic scholars say, have little real knowledge of Islamic law.  
          The world's religions are rooted in ancient ideas and traditions much older than modern notions of equality. Stoning for sex crimes, for example, was originally intended to preserve the purity of male tribal bloodlines. Stoning is another reminder why religion should not be the basis of any of our laws. 

Hamilton Debates/Defeats Friedman

          Professors Marci Hamilton and Howard Friedman recently engaged in an online debate about the merits of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Congress passed RFRA after the Supreme Court ruled that religious individuals must obey the law in the same manner as the non-religious. This idea was so offensive to religious believers that they successfully lobbied Congress to exempt them from many laws. Many states have followed Congress' lead and passed state RFRAs. Under the federal and state RFRAs, religious believers can challenge any law that places a substantial burden on their religion. The courts then rule that religious believers do not have to follow the law. 

          While Friedman thinks these statutes are a great idea that protects religious freedom, Hamilton is more persuasive in pointing out their folly. Hamilton discusses three cases:

In Potter v. District of Columbia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that the District was required to permit firefighters with facial hair to keep it, even though there was evidence on the record indicating that it is dangerous for firefighters to have facial hair.
In Barr v. Sinton, the Texas Supreme Court held that a small Texas town could not zone out halfway houses for ex-convicts from residential zones.
In Merced v. Euless, the Fifth Circuit interpreted the Texas RFRA to permit a Santerian priest to slaughter at least seven goats and sixteen chickens in his home, feed them to those in attendance, and discard the carcasses in plastic bags—with no regard for dangers such as cholera and E. coli.

          In all three cases, a non-religious person would have to follow the law. The non-believer could not wear a beard, build a secular halfway house, or sacrifice animals in the home. 

          Religious exceptions to the law are a bad idea. They undermine the equality that is essential to democracy. The folly of RFRAs is undebatable.