Thursday, June 17, 2004

Sunday Brunch I will be spending the weekend playing chess in Springfield, VA, so there will be no post this sunday. Regular blogging resumes on Monday.

No Argument Here Gina Dalfonzo has this interesting article up over at BreakPoint. In it, she laments what she calls the “infantilization of the church”. After citing several examples where churches and ministries have used dopey, childish gimmicks in an attempt to bring people in, she closes with this thought:

With all these complicated factors, it’s not going to be easy to combat the infantilization of the church, but I hope more and more Christians will come to recognize the problem and decide to ask for more from their church than just the fun stuff. It may be tempting just to pick up the “easy reading” novel when there isn’t much else available in the local Christian bookstore, but if more requests started coming in for C. S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer, or even Augustine, the bookstores might recognize a need to provide something better. As more people choose challenging Bible studies curricula over childish ones, more challenging studies will be published. Those of us who are tired of being treated like babies need to stop ignoring the problem and start asking to be treated as adults.

BreakPoint is Charles Colson's organization. They make frequent appearances here for their frequent and relentlessly stupid articles about evolution. I mean, these were the folks who offered two essays arguing that if you accept evolution you should be delighted by the looming extinction of the giant panda. If Ms. Dalfonzo is really worried about infantilization, she should start by casting a critical eye on the site to which she contributes.

Teach the Controversy? The journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution has recently hosted an exchange of editorials and letters to the editor on the issue of “Teaching the Controversy”. This is the rallying cry of ID proponents; doggone it, they just want to present leigitmate scientific controversies over the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, you know, so students will be better informed. Of course, such controversies as exist have nothing to do with the validity of anything that is taught at the high school level. When pressed for examples of weaknesses in evolutionary theory that students are currently not hearing about, they invariably come up with examples that are exaggerated, misinterpreted, and usually just plain wrong.

It is worth noting that “Teaching the Controversy” is hardly original with the ID crowd. It was also a favorite demand of the young-Earthers, and, to be blunt, of holocaust deniers.

The exchange began with this article by Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education. Here's an excerpt:

Although 'teaching the controversy' sounds fair, it is unfair to pretend to students that a controversy exists in science where none does. It is unfair to students to miseducate and confuse them about the nature of the scientific process. Furthermore, there is a fundamental unfairness about the antievolutionist position, which, in essence, is trying to circumvent the normal process of peer review by which scientific ideas work their way into the science curriculum. As Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University who was prominent in the recent struggle to protect the Ohio state science standards from antievolutionist attack, described his opponents, ‘They use language that sounds sensible. “We just want fairness,” they'll say. “We just want an equal playing field for our ideas.” The point is they already have an equal playing field – the field of science. They can submit their ideas to journals, and get peer reviewed, and if their ideas are any good they'll make it into the scientific canon, and make it down into the high schools. What they want is something completely unfair, to bypass the whole process and go directly to the high school students’

Two letters were published in reply. The first was this letter from Clarkson University biologist Tom Langen:

In an important recent Opinion article in TREE [1], Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch propose five criteria for evaluating whether it is appropriate to teach a controversy in a public school science class. They argue that antievolutionary alternatives to the standard science account of organic evolution fail on most of the five criteria and, therefore, should not be discussed within the framework of a science course.

I propose a sixth criterion: the controversy should be taught if it clarifies the demarcation between science and other ways of knowing about nature. Most introductory biology texts (e.g. [2, 3 and 4]) begin with a chapter that reviews both the foundational assumptions about nature that underlie science (e.g. natural phenomena have natural causes, natural ‘laws’ operate everywhere and for all time), and the ethical ideals that the scientific community recognizes as being essential for scientific knowledge to progress (e.g. detailed public reporting of scientific research so that peers can accurately evaluate and replicate it, all accepted scientific claims are provisional and therefore might be revised or rejected upon further review). US national science education standards direct high-school science teachers to cover the assumptions and ethics of science [5].

Langan's letter is quite good. As Scott and Branch point out in reply, however, what Langen is proposing (and what he elaborates on in the rest of his letter) is a different sense of “teach the controversy” than what they were discussing in their original essay. Contrasting evolution with alternative, nonscientific theories, for the purpose of giving students a better udnerstanding of what science is and why scientists believe the things they do is entirely appropriate. That is not what the ID folks want, alas. Rather, they want to bamboozle students with enough false and misleading information to make them think that evolution is bad science.

Next came Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute. He offers a more hard-core response here:

Scott and Branch deny the existence of any significant scientific controversies about the ‘validity of evolution’. But the credibility of their position depends on definitional equivocation. All reputable scientists agree that ‘evolution happened’, they insist. Overwhelming evidence reinforces this opinion. And, of course, they are right if they equate ‘evolution’ with ‘change over time’ or ‘descent with modification’ (as they do when pressed).

Yes, life has changed over time. But, of course, neo-darwinism affirms a good deal more than that. In particular, it affirms that: (i) that an undirected processes, principally natural selection acting on random mutations, is sufficient to generate biological complexity; and (ii) all organisms have descended from a common ancestor.

Scott herself acknowledges significant scientific debate about the sufficiency of the neo-darwinian mechanism. Recently, in a public forum at the University of San Francisco, she also acknowledged that many evolutionary biologists now disagree about the truth of universal common descent. Our position, radical though it might seem, is that students should be informed about such dissenting opinion and, furthermore, that they should be told why some scientists doubt aspects of neo-darwinism.

Both of Meyer's points (i) and (ii) are misleading at best.

Scott and Branch offer their reply here:

The crucial phrase in clause (i) of Meyer's definition of ‘neo-darwinism’ [2] is ‘undirected processes’, the alternative to which is, presumably, directed processes. But directed by what? In spite of the CSC's nods in the direction of extraterrestrial aliens and time travellers from the future [5], God is clearly the favored candidate, as reflected in the CSC's original logo, featuring Michelangelo's God from the Sistine Chapel [6]. Is there, as Meyer implies, a scientific controversy about whether ‘directed processes’ are responsible for ‘biological complexity’? We are unaware of such a controversy, and we are confident that readers of TREE are too.

In clause (ii) of Meyer's definition, it is perhaps sufficient to observe that he conflates the undebated idea of common ancestry in general with the actual debate about whether it is possible to identify a single universal common ancestor. Woese's work (e.g. [7]), to which Scott was alluding in the forum that Meyer mentions, contributes to the latter debate. There is no reason not to sketch Woese's basic idea in a pre-university biology class. However, it would be scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible to pretend that it challenges the common ancestry of primates, tetrapods, or eukaryotes, or that it constitutes evidence for a special creation of the three domains, or that it is anything but a necessary refinement of the idea of common ancestry.

Just in case you're not up on Carl Woese's work, the issue here has to do with horizontal gene transfer in ancient bacteria. Woese uncovered important evidence that some of the genetic commonalities among bacteria are due not to common descent, but rather to horizontal gene transfer, in which genetic material from one organism is, well, transferred directly to another. A more detailed description is available here.

The point is that such transfer makes it effectively impossible to identify the universal common ancestor, because the genetic relationships among the most primitive organisms are confounded as a result of genetic transfers. Such transfer, however, is only thought ot be significant in simple, prokaryotic organisms. As Scott and Branch point out, it has nothing to do with the common descent of, say, mammals from reptiles. And even if it were to turn out that such transfers are possible among complex organisms as well, that would hardly constitute an argument for supernatural intervention in natural history.

Incidentally, I learned about this exchange from the website of the pro-ID Discovery Institute. They had a link to Meyer's letter, but they linked to neither of Scott and Branch's essays, nor did they link to Langan's letter. Rather childish of them, don't you think?

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Prayer Study Called into Question Several years ago (October of 2001 to be exact) the newspapers were buzzing about a study stemming from Columbia University that seemed to show that anonymous, intercessory prayer could effect people's medical condition. Specifically, the people being prayed for were a group of Korean women about to undergo in vitro fertilization. Their pictures were shown to people in the US, Canada and Australia, who then prayed for the people they were shown. Accoding to the study, the women who were prayed for were twice as likely to conceive as those who did not.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the study has now been called into serious question. It has now been revealed that one of the three authors on the study is a notorious con man who recently pleaded guilty to fraud chrages (though these charges did not relate to the study itself). In addition, Wirth has no scientific credentials to speak of, and has frequently collaborated with a fellow named Joseph Horvath, widely considered a scientific crank.

England's Guardian newspaper has the full story here:

It was a miracle that created headlines around the world. Doctors at one of the world's top medical schools claimed to have scientifically proved the power of prayer.
Many Americans took the Columbia University research - announced in October 2001 after the terror attacks on New York and Washington - as a sign from God. It seemed to prove that praying helped infertile women to conceive.

But The Observer can reveal a story of fraud and cover-up behind the research. One of the study's authors is a conman obsessed with the paranormal who has admitted to a multi-million-dollar scam. Daniel Wirth, now under house arrest in California awaiting sentencing, has used a series of false identities for several decades, including that of a dead child.

Wirth is at the centre of a network of bizarre scientific research, often working with co-researcher Joseph Horvath. Horvath has pleaded guilty to fraud, has used a series of false names and is accused of burning down his house for insurance money.

Many scientists are now questioning how someone with Wirth's background was able to persuade Columbia University Medical Centre to unveil his research in such a high-profile way. They also want to know why it appeared in the respected Journal of Reproductive Medicine, whose vetting procedures are usually strict. 'We are concerned this study could be totally fraudulent. It is an amazing saga,' said Dr Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor at the University of California.

The article goes on to note that Columbia is distancing itself from the study, claiming their contribution was only editorial.

The New York Sun also published an article on the subject, available via the Skeptic website here.

Want to guess how many papers are going to pick up this story? Or how many editors are going to feel even a moment's regret for lavishing so much attention on a pile of superstitious malarkey?

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Pledge Reactions Dahlia Lithwick of Slate argues that the Supremes were right to find that Michael Newdow did not have standing to file his suit:

Ask a divorced or unmarried parent with primary custody of a child what was at stake in this case, and you'll get an answer that differs profoundly from the headlines: The lawyer's trick here came from Michael Newdow, who wanted to override the religious decisions made by his daughter's mother. (The two never married.) Allocating the duties and obligations of custodial and noncustodial parents has always been the province of state courts. It's a hideous job, and no one should have to do it. But the simple fact is that judges decide on a primary parent, and the other parent can either try to change that arrangement or learn to live with it. Initially, Newdow went for door No. 3. He tried to use a backdoor to force the issue first and only tried to modify the custody agreement later.

And later:

In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist disagrees with the majority, finding that Newdow has the unfettered right to expose his daughter to his religious views. Of course he does. But Newdow cannot make ultimate decisions on yes/no matters, such as whether she can recite the pledge. For Banning's veto to mean anything, it must mean that she makes those calls.

Lithwick is one of my favorite commentators on legal issues, but she's all wet on this one. Newdow's suit had nothing to do with whether his daughter could recite the pledge. It also had nothing to do with who makes ultimate decisions on yes/no matters. Rather, Newdow alleged that his daughter was being harmed by the unconstitutional practice of her school district. His interest was in seeing his daughter protected from this practice, not to overrule any particular decision of the mother.

Keep in mind that the ruling on the standing issue was 5-3 with the supremes, and unanimous in the 9th Circuit. Clearly the standing issue was subtle and not as clear-cut as Lithwick implies. That it was cowardice, not conviction that led the Court to rule as it did comes from three sources. First, there is the opening statement of Rehnquist's concurring opinion:

The Court today erects a novel prudential standing principle in order to avoid reaching the merits of the constitutional claim. I dissent from that ruling.

Both the tone and the substance of this statement suggest unsavory motives on the part of his fellow justices.

There is also the fact that Justice Kennedy joined with the majority in finding that Newdow did not have standing. This, along with the fact that O'Connor herself described the constitutional question as a close call, suggests that had the Court ruled on the merits they were likely to have upheld the 9th Court's ruling against the Pledge.

Finally, there is Justice Thomas' blunt assessment that if the Court were to rule in a manner consistent with its past rulings in Establishment Clause cases, they would have to uphold the 9th Circuit.

Obviously, we have no way of knowing for certain what motivated the Court to rule as it did. Cowardice strikes me as the most likely explanation.

If you're looking for something more nourishing than Lithwick's essay, have a look at Brian Leiter's commentary on the subject. His essay also contains several useful links. Here's an excerpt:

So, happily, the opinion does no damage to Establishment Clause jurisprudence (which is a big enough mess already), and, at the same time, permits the Court to avoid a pointless, election-year firestorm over religion, that would only help the current criminal occupants of the White House.

There's some encouraging news in this decision for those of us worried about the ambitions of the aspiring theocrats in the current Administration. The majority that opted for the “no standing” argument almost certainly concurred with the Laycock argument, and the original 9th Circuit argument, about the unconstitutionality of “under God” in the Pledge--that's why they opted for the procedural out. (As Chief Justice Rehnquist points out in dissenting from that portion of the majority's decision, it would have been easy enough to have reached the substantive issue, and bypass the standing issue. Note that Rehnquist concurred in the outcome only because the result of the Court's finding that Newdow had no standing was, as noted, that the original 9th Circuit decision was reversed.)

Monday, June 14, 2004

One More Thing Our friends at the Christian website Agape Press were kind enough to remind us what Dwight Eisenhower said when he signed the new Pledge into law:

In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war.

Ceremonial deism my ass.

Final Thoughts If the “under God” clause really were just a religiously neutral bit of ceremonial deism, why is there so much opposition to restoring the pledge to its pre-fifties version? Then there would be no opposition at all to having kids recite it. Ceremonial deism is not what inspires the entire Congress to recite the Pledge on the stairs in front of Congress.

The fact is that as it stands the Pledge is not just unconstitutional. It is blatantly, flagrantly and flamboyantly unconstitutional. The problem the courts face is how to pretend that what is obviously an endorsement of religion is actually something else. They can make up nonsense phrases like “ceremonial desim” and compile arbitrary lists of criteria for determining which religious invocations are religious and which are just ceremonial, but this is precisely the sort of judicial activism conservatives hate when the result goes against them.

This is not the church/state issue I would have chosen to fight. Unlike O'Connor, I do think there are de minimis violations of the Establishment Clause; things that are violations but are so minor in the scheme of things that it's probably better just to let them slide. I find Bush's faith-based initiatives, giveaways of tax money to parochial schools in the form of voucher programs, or the attempts to thrust creationism into science classes to be far more important issues.

But the fact remains that this was the issue Newdow chose to fight and it was the one the supremes agreed to hear. The standing issue was hardly clear-cut (that issue was decided 5-3, recall). The majority found the way they did becuase they wanted to duck the firestorm that would have ensued had they ruled the way their consciences dictated.

Rehnquist's Silliness At least O'Connor put some thought into her argument. Rehnquist was, apparently, too busy for that. Most of his opinion is taken up by a catalog of examples in which President X officiating over Event Y invoked God in some ill-defined way. Since none of the examples he cites involve pressuring school children into declaring their fealty to God, it's not clear to me why Rehnquist finds any of that relevant.

He does manage to close his opinion with a real zinger:

When courts extend constitutional prohibitions beyond their previously recognized limit, they may restrict democratic choices made by public bodies. Here, Congress prescribed a Pledge of Allegiance, the State of California required patriotic observances in its schools, and the School District chose to comply by requiring teacher-led recital of the Pledge of Allegiance by willing students. Thus, we have three levels of popular government--the national, the state, and the local--collaborating to produce the Elk Grove ceremony. The Constitution only requires that schoolchildren be entitled to abstain from the ceremony if they chose to do so. To give the parent of such a child a sort of “heckler's veto” over a patriotic ceremony willingly participated in by other students, simply because the Pledge of Allegiance contains the descriptive phrase “under God,” is an unwarranted extension of the Establishment Clause, an extension which would have the unfortunate effect of prohibiting a commendable patriotic observance.

Neither Rehnquist nor O'Connor seem to grasp the fact that we are talking about very young children indeed. Newdow's daughter was nine when his suit was filed, and children younger than that are expected to say the Pledge as well. Don't you think that's a bit young to expect kids to have the wherewithal to consider seriously the merits of the Pledge, and stand up to their more sheep-like peers if they demure?

O'Connor's Disgrace Meanwhile, Justice O'Connor weighed in with a lengthy and pretentious bit of nonsense in defense of the claim that the phrase “Under God” was an instance of “ceremonial deism”. Even she, however, concedes that it is a close call:

This case requires us to determine whether the appearance of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance constitutes an instance of such ceremonial deism. Although it is a close question, I conclude that it does, based on my evaluation of the following four factors.

As an example of O'Connor's fatuousness, consider the following:

Facially religious references can serve other valuable purposes in public life as well. Twenty years ago, I wrote that such references “serve, in the only ways reasonably possible in our culture, the legitimate secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.” Lynch, supra, at 692-693 (O'Connor, J., concurring). For centuries, we have marked important occasions or pronouncements with references to God and invocations of divine assistance. Such references can serve to solemnize an occasion instead of to invoke divine provenance. The reasonable observer discussed above, fully aware of our national history and the origins of such practices, would not perceive these acknowledgments as signifying a government endorsement of any specific religion, or even of religion over non-religion.

First off, it is sheer lunacy to argue that an invocation of God is not an endorsement of religion over non-religion. A request that God bless some particular event makes no sense unless it is based on the belief that God actually exists and occasionally blesses things. Such invocations of God are not meaningless phrases intended to indicate that what follows is meant to be very solemn.

Second, it is beyond me how publicly requesting God's blessing or asserting his existence can be construed as a way of encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society. And there are considerably more direct ways of expressing our confidence in the future than some vague reference to God.

Third, it is not clear to me how a “facially religious reference” is different from an invocation of divine provenance. And surely the ability of a religious reference to solemnize an event will depend on the religious beliefs of the person hearing the reference. To an atheist such an invocation is likely to trivialize an event. Solemnity can be achieved is many ways; to argue that religious references are required for such things shows a profound lack of imagination, to put it kindly.

O'Connor follows this bit of legal brilliance with the following:

There are no de minimis violations of the Constitution--
no constitutional harms so slight that the courts are obliged to ignore them. Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve, however, I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution. This category of “ceremonial deism” most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto (“In God We Trust”), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as the Star-Spangled Banner, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions (“God save the United States and this honorable Court”). See Allegheny, 492 U. S., at 630 (opinion of O'Connor, J.). These references are not minor trespasses upon the Establishment Clause to which I turn a blind eye. Instead, their history, character, and context prevent them from being constitutional violations at all.

Yeah. And it's not about the money.

Of course, minor trespasses upon the Establishment Clause are exactly what those references are. “Ceremonial Deism” is a term concocted for the sole purpose of allowing such religious references to pass constitutional muster nonetheless.

Incidentally, I wonder how O'Connor squares her acceptance of acknowledging the divine with her earlier statement that such invocations do not endorse religion over non-religion.

O'Connor then gives four factors that must be weighed in determining whether your particular religious observance can plausibly be passed off as ceremonial deism:

The constitutional value of ceremonial deism turns on a shared understanding of its legitimate nonreligious purposes. That sort of understanding can exist only when a given practice has been in place for a significant portion of the Nation's history, and when it is observed by enough persons that it can fairly be called ubiquitous.

This from a section entitled History and Ubiquity. Translation: As long as your Establishment Clause violation has escaped judicial notice for a long enough period of time, we'll just let it slide.

In an attempt to circumvent this obvious implication of her argument, O'Connor writes:

It cannot be doubted that “no one acquires a vested or protected right in violation of the Constitution by long use, even when that span of time covers our entire national existence and indeed predates it. Yet an unbroken practice . . . is not something to be lightly cast aside.” Walz v. Tax Comm'n of City of New York, 397 U. S. 664, 678 (1970). And the history of a given practice is all the more relevant when the practice has been employed pervasively without engendering significant controversy. In Lynch, where we evaluated the constitutionality of a town Christmas display that included a creche, we found relevant to the endorsement question the fact that the display had “apparently caused no political divisiveness prior to the filing of this lawsuit” despite its use for over 40 years.

So the constitutionality of a practice depends at least in part on how long it takes to find someone willing to go through the expense and inconvenience (not to mention public ostracism) of challenging it. Brilliant.

The next section is entitled Absence of Worship or Prayer:

“[O]ne of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way [lies] in the Government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services.” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421, 429 (1962). Because of this principle, only in the most extraordinary circumstances could actual worship or prayer be defended as ceremonial deism.

And later:

Of course, any statement can be imbued by a speaker or listener with the qualities of prayer. But, as I have explained, the relevant viewpoint is that of a reasonable observer, fully cognizant of the history, ubiquity, and context of the practice in question. Such an observer
could not conclude that reciting the Pledge, including the phrase “under God,” constitutes an instance of worship. I know of no religion that incorporates the Pledge into its canon, nor one that would count the Pledge as a meaningful expression of religious faith. Even if taken literally, the phrase is merely descriptive; it purports only to identify the United States as a Nation subject to divine authority. That cannot be seen as a serious invocation of God or as an expression of individual submission to divine authority.

The history of the “under God” clause is that the Congress in the 1950's wanted to distinguish God-fearing America from godless Russia. That is not a secular purpose. It is ubiquitous only because so many school districts currently require it. It is the constitutionality of that practice that is at issue. In the context of the pledge it might be arguable whether the reference to God constitutes prayer or worship since God is not actually being asked to do anything. But some of O'Connor's other examples clearly doconstitutee prayer or worship.

And is O'Connor seriously arguing that when I recite the Pledge I am affirming only that it is my country, and not myself, that is under divine authority?

The next category is Absence of reference to particular religion.

“The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” Larson v. Valente, 456 U. S. 228, 244 (1982). While general acknowledgments of religion need not be viewed by reasonable observers as denigrating the nonreligious, the same cannot be said of instances "where the endorsement is sectarian, in the sense of specifying details upon which men and women who believe in a benevolent, omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the world are known to differ." Weisman, supra, at 641 (Scalia, J., dissenting). As a result, no religious acknowledgment could claim to be an instance of ceremonial deism if it explicitly favored one particular religious belief system over another.

The Pledge complies with this requirement. It does not refer to a nation “under Jesus” or “under Vishnu,” but instead acknowledges religion in a general way: a simple reference to a generic “God.” Of course, some religions--
Buddhism, for instance--are not based upon a belief in a separate Supreme Being. See Brief for Buddhist Temples, Centers, and Organizations as Amicus Curiae at 15-16. But one would be hard pressed to imagine a brief solemnizing reference to religion that would adequately encompass every religious belief expressed by any citizen of this Nation. The phrase “under God,” conceived and added at a time when our national religious diversity was neither as robust nor as well recognized as it is now, represents a tolerable attempt to acknowledge religion and to invoke its solemnizing power without favoring any individual religious sect or belief system. (Emphasis Added)

Again, what can it possibly mean to acknowledge religion without denigrating the nonreligious? After all, it is not the mere existence of religion that is being acknowledged. It is a specific belief of Western, monotheistic religions that is being endorsed. O'Connor simply doesn't take seriously anyone who is not a member of a monotheistic religion, whether that person be atheistic or a member of some non-monotheistic religion.

Finally we come to Minimal Religious Content:

A final factor that makes the Pledge an instance of ceremonial deism, in my view, is its highly circumscribed reference to God. In most of the cases in which we have struck down government speech or displays under the Establishment Clause, the offending religious content has been much more pervasive.

So much for there being no de minimis violations of the Establishment Clause.

The Supremes Punt Those worthless jackoffs on the Supreme Court punted on the Pledge of Allegiance question. They ruled that Michael Newdow, the plaintiff in the case, had no standing to bring the suit on behalf of his daughter. From the New York Times article on the story:

The Supreme Court ruled today that the phrase “one nation, under God” can stay in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag recited by millions of schoolchildren each day, at least for the time being.

But the justices — deciding the case, coincidentally, on Flag Day — did not reach a finding on the fundamental question of whether the pledge violates the constitutional demarcation line between church and state. That question could come before the court again, given the somewhat narrow parameters of today's ruling.

The court held today that the plaintiff, Michael Newdow, did not have standing to bring a suit challenging the pledge as presently worded. Eight justices agreed that Dr. Newdow, a nonpracticing lawyer who is also a physician, cannot qualify as a legal representative of his 10-year-old daughter, on whose behalf he filed suit.

The various opinions are available here.

The decision to reverse the Ninth Circuit's ruling in favor of Newdow was 8-0. However, only five justices (Stevens, Souter, Breyer, Ginsburg and Kennedy) agreed with the standing ruling. In separate opinions, Justices Rehnquist, O'Connor and Thomas dissented. They felt that Newdow did have standing, but that his claim did not have merit.

Curiously, Thomas was the only justice who showed any balls at all. In his opinion he states bluntly that not only does Newdow have standing, but that if the Court were to rule in a manner consistent with previous Establishment Clause cases, they would have to find the Pledge unconstitutional:

Adherence to Lee would require us to strike down the Pledge policy, which, in most respects, poses more serious difficulties than the prayer at issue in Lee. A prayer at graduation is a one-time event, the graduating students are almost (if not already) adults, and their parents are usually present. By contrast, very young students, removed from the protection of their parents, are exposed to the Pledge each and every day.

The reference here is to the 1992 case Lee v Weisman, in which the Court ruled it was unconstitutional to begin a graduation ceremony with a prayer.

Thomas goes on to argue that Lee, like most of the Court's recent Establishment Clause cases, have been decided incorrectly. I'll leave his argument in that regard for another day.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

I'll Comment as Soon as I Pick My Jaw Off the Desk From WorldNetDaily:

Twice President Reagan faced life-threatening experiences and twice he had encounters with angelic beings who comforted him and helped pull him through his medical crises, says a new book, Hand of Providence: The Strong and Quiet Faith of Ronald Reagan, by Mary Beth Brown.

As Reagan was fighting for his life after being shot by John Hinckley March 30, 1981, he was having trouble breathing. His skin had turned so pale, Nancy Reagan remembers, “He was the color of paper – just as white as a sheet, with dried blood around his mouth.”

Reagan later recalled looking up from the gurney and praying. Half-conscious, he realized someone was holding his hand.

“It was a soft, feminine hand,” he writes in his autobiography, An American Life. “I felt it come up and touch mine and then hold on tight to it. It gave me a wonderful feeling. Even now I find it difficult to explain how reassuring, how wonderful, it felt.”

Despite great efforts to find out who was holding his hand, no one in the hospital could help the president.

Reagan's children believe those mysterious nurses that helped pull their father through this life-threatening ordeal were angels.

“Patty believes they were angels, and so do I,” said Michael Reagan, who wrote the foreword to Hand of Providence.

The president had experienced a similar event when he was critically ill with viral pneumonia many decades before. He had been working on a movie with Shirley Temple when he became gravely sick.

In his autobiographical book, “Where's the Rest of Me?” he described days and nights of shivering with chills and burning with fever. His temperature kept rising, and it was difficult to breathe.

“Finally I decided I'd be more comfortable not breathing,” recalled Reagan. “I don't know what time of night it was when I told the nurse I was too tired to breathe. 'Now let it out,' she'd say. 'Come on now, breathe in once more.'”

This went on all night, and Reagan says he decided to keep breathing out of courtesy to the nurse.

Once again, despite his efforts to thank the mysterious nurse, Reagan could never locate her. This led family members to consider other possibilities – such as angelic visitations.

Seebach on Project Steve As part of their ongoing quest to convince ignorant people that scientists are abandoning evolution, creationists routinely produce lists of people with PhD's (usually not in any relevant branch of science) who challenge evolution. To parody this silly rhetorical strategy, the The National Center for Science Education started Project Steve. The idea was to compile a list of scientists who support evolution. The catch was that only people with the name Steve (or some variation on it like Stephanie) could sign. Currently, Project Steve has 435 signatories, far more than any comparable creationist list.

Linda Seebach, of the Rocky Mountain News has written this fine column on the subject. Here's an excerpt:

People who oppose the teaching of evolution in the schools or who want nonscientific theories such as “intelligent design” to be part of the curriculum are fond of claiming that evolution is “a theory in crisis” and that “growing numbers” of scientists now dispute it.

As purported evidence for their claim, they compile lists of scientists - well, some of them are scientists - who agree with them. They are very short lists, compared with the hundreds of thousands of scientists who understand that evolution by natural selection is the foundation of all the biological sciences, but how to make that point to, say, members of state school boards who are neither scientists themselves nor well prepared to evaluate competing claims about what is science and what is not?

Evolutionary biologists' light-hearted answer: Project Steve.

The National Center for Science Education, whose motto is, “Defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools” (at - click on "resources" and then the Project Steve box on the right) came up with the idea of parodying the intelligent design lists by making their own list of biologists willing to sign a strong statement in support of evolution, with the only requirement being that their names had to be Steve, or some variation of it (Stephanie or Stefan, for instance).

Matt Inlay, then a graduate student in biology at the University of California at San Diego, suggested that Steve would be an appropriate name, to honor Steven Jay Gould, who died not long before the project got started. (There are no plans to repeat it with other names; as the center says on its Web site, “It's only funny once.”) According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 1 percent of the U.S. population has a Steve name.

Since one list widely circulated by intelligent design proponents has 100 names, the center originally hoped to get 100 signers by circulating the statement to a limited number of qualifying scientists. But scientists like to chatter among themselves by e-mail, and so as soon as word got out, in February 2003, lots more people volunteered. The Steve-o-meter currently stands at 435, executive director Eugenie Scott said. About two-thirds of them are biologists but the others include such luminaries as Stephen Hawking.