Tag Archives: Oregon

This Makes Me Very Uncomfortable

File this one under there’s a right way and a wrong way to get to a desirable result.

A federal district court in Oregon has declared Secular Humanism a religion, paving the way for the non-theistic community to obtain the same legal rights as groups such as Christianity.

ThinkProgress quoted Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain on the decision. “I really don’t care if Humanism is called a religion or not, but if you’re going to give special rights to religions, then you have to give them to Humanism as well, and I think that’s what this case was about.”

I agree that Humanism deserves equal status with religion under the law. But the First Amendment requires neutrality; it doesn’t simply require equal treatment of religions, it forbids government from privileging religion over non-religion.

Here’s the danger I see in achieving parity by labeling humanism as just another religion: for years, religious literalists have pushed for “equal treatment” in science classes, arguing that secular humanism is a religion, that it is being privileged, that fundamentalist Christianity should be entitled to “equal time,” and so creationism should be taught in science classes. Up until this point, federal courts have refused to take that bait, properly noting that secularism is the absence of religion, and that it would be improper to teach religion in public school science classes.

Science is not a matter of faith, or belief. It is a method, an approach to determining the nature of empirical reality. Science cannot explain everything–it is limited to areas that can be falsified–and there are multiple aspects of human existence where faith or ideology  has a role to play. But drawing that line between matters of fact and opinion is only muddled by confusing a non-theist philosophy with religion. (I know there are non-theistic religions, but in those cases–Buddhism, etc.–their adherents claim the label.)

Courts struggled with the definition of religion in cases involving conscientious objectors, but finally recognized that sincere pacifism should entitle someone to claim that status whether or not that pacifism stems from a “recognized” (established?) religion or not. Similarly, the Oregon court could have–should have–found Humanists entitled to equal treatment for purposes of the prison program at issue under well-settled Establishment law principles.

I hope I’m wrong, but this “win” has the potential to be a real loss. How you get to a result is every bit as important as the result itself. Sometimes more so.

Indiana Could Learn a Few Things from Oregon

People who live in Indiana are aware that our public officials are somewhat deficient when it comes to recognizing ethical standards. Not to put too fine a point on it, we have far too many people in public office who wouldn’t recognize an ethical issue if they fell over one–and they do have a well-documented tendency to stumble.

The most recent display of ethical chutzpah revolved around Eric Turner, the Senate Republican who knew enough to recuse himself from voting on a bill that would damage his son’s very lucrative business (in which he held a significant interest), but somehow failed to see any problem with strong-arming members of his caucus behind the scenes. Perhaps the most interesting part of that story is that he broke no rules–because Indiana’s legislative code of conduct is for all practical purposes non-existent.

I’ll leave it to others to opine on the ethical propriety of a sitting Governor appointing University Trustees who (what a coincidence!) then hire him to be President of that University. Or the City-County Counselor who cast the deciding vote on a fifty-year contract with a vendor represented by his law firm. Or or or…..the list is long and definitely not pretty.

Indiana might take a lesson from Oregon.

Data from the Justice Department, compiled by political scientists at Indiana University at Bloomington and the City University of Hong Kong, show that, over a period of 32 years, there were fewer corruption convictions in Oregon than in any other state, when controlling for the number of state workers.

The researchers attributed Oregonion honesty to robust transparency laws, tough rules for campaign finance disclosure, and rules forbidding lobbyists and special interest groups from giving gifts worth more than $50 to state employees. It is also significant that Oregon  requires most public-improvement contracts to be awarded based on competitive bidding–they don’t do the no-bid contracts so popular around here.

It’s no surprise that taxpayers foot the bill for corrupt practices, but the number of ways in which corruption costs us did surprise me.

Corruption forces states to spend more on everything from construction and highways to corrections and police. But the authors of the study, John Mikesell and Cheol Liu, also found that states with higher rates of corruption tend to spend less on education, public welfare, health and hospitals. So more corruption costs taxpayers — in terms of money and the social services the government provides.

Hoosiers can and should tighten up our lax ethics laws. But that’s unlikely to happen unless voters make it an issue.

Meanwhile, as we wait for that (thus far undetectable) civic indignation, Indianapolis is proposing to cut a deal with “consultants” and private contractors to build a massive justice center–and being considerably less than forthcoming with the details. The Administration has taken the position that we mere taxpayers (and the City-County Councilors who represent us )have no right to know how these transactions are being structured.

Somehow, knowing that –whatever “extra amounts” that deal ends up costing us, whatever no-bid or “wink wink” arrangements may be involved–none of the deals being cut are likely to violate Indiana’s nonexistent ethics laws doesn’t comfort me.

I hear Portland is a really cool city.