Canadian Comparative Religion Case

May 19, 2015

I’d like to tell you about a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding religious education.[1] Quebec has a “mandatory core curriculum” which includes a Program on Ethics and Religious Culture, to teach “about the beliefs and ethics of different world religions from a neutral and objective perspective” as the Court described it. It “requires teachers to be objective and impartial” and “to foster awareness of diverse values, beliefs and cultures.” The court decided that freedom of religion required Quebec to allow a Catholic school, to teach about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, but the Court held that the school nevertheless needed to present other faiths in a neutral way, a position that the school largely accepted.

I understand the problems with the case. I understand that there will be difficulties interpreting and enforcing the decision and the law on which it is based, and in balancing the rights of the schools and the students. But it’s also very interesting.

It has always been legal to teach comparative religion or the history of religion in public schools in the United States. The so-called “wall of separation” has always been about fairness toward all the students, denying government the power to promote any religious viewpoint over others. It has not been about total exclusion from the classroom. Here’s what our Supreme Court wrote:

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment’s prohibition, the State may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which “aid or oppose” any religion. [2]

We perceive “exclusion” from public places and programs because litigants typically want to promote a specific religion or doctrine rather than treat us to a display of inter-faith brotherly love. Multi-faith displays aren’t generally a problem – except for the promoters. Most Americans support that kind of basic fairness. And there is much to admire in what Quebec has tried to do.

Some congregations themselves teach their young people about the differences in the ways people pray, taking them as a group on tours of other houses of worship. Sometimes the little congregation where I pray plays host to such groups, a practice I admire very much.

I’ve felt lucky over the years to spend time at Chautauqua where religious lectures and services are programmed into the Amphitheatre, so even if you don’t plan on attending you may be mesmerized just passing by, as I was a few years ago hearing thousands of people in the Amphitheatre in this historically Protestant religious community reciting a prayer in Arabic as part of what they called their Abrahamic initiative, exploring the different faiths that have roots in the religious world of the patriarch Abraham and the ancient Hebrews. They explored it by including clerics from each of those traditions.

My college experience was similar – we had to go to services, regardless of whose, and programming in the main university chapel was ecumenical – so I heard some of the world’s finest theologians of the era, regardless of faith.

I came to appreciate the fact that the finest minds of most faiths understand the similarity of their religious worlds, and the identity of unanswerable questions with which we all struggle. Most of all I appreciate what unites us and the import of that unity for us all.

Given the rise of religious war and cruelty in many parts of the world, I can’t bring myself to take brotherhood for granted. It is the hard won prize of our America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 19, 2015.

[1] Loyola High School v. Quebec, 2015 SCC 12 (2015), available at http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/14703/index.do

[2] Epperson v. Ark., 393 U.S. 97, 106 (U.S. 1968) quoting McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 225 (1948).


I don’t get it

November 11, 2014

I don’t get it. Political scientists tell us that the advantage of democracy is that the elected officials have to act for the benefit of most of the people. And if they don’t, they lose.

So the Republican Administration of George Bush delivered war, torture and economic disaster – and the Republicans then lost the White House. But then the Republicans calculated that if they could prevent Obama from delivering any benefits, they could take over. They went on the campaign trail saying that Obama failed because he hadn’t forced them to pass what he wanted, and at the same time telling the public that he had done a great deal of damage by doing everything he wanted to do. Never mind the contradiction.

But lots of people seem to have bought it. So how’s democracy supposed to work?

All over the political spectrum people seem to be voting against their own interests, convinced by nonsense that what hurts, helps them. Hard-working people who don’t make a lot of money vote for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Businessmen vote against investment in critical infrastructure they use daily.

The electoral process looks tribal to me. Science, expertise, experience, all get reinterpreted by who’s who supporting what. If Princeton economists support policies that help the poor, then those policies must be bad and must not support “me” – because my interests differ from the interests of the poor. Remember I’m middle-class. I couldn’t share the interests of the poor. Increase in the minimum wage? Forget it; I’m on salary. By the way who’d you say buys my stuff? Couldn’t be we’re all in this together!

Well most of us. See “I’m” on the side of the billionaires, even though they make infinitely more than me and won’t share a penny – that’s why they pay for so many lobbyists to squeeze the last penny out of the government, and stiff me all the way. That isn’t supposed to happen in a democracy.

Except that the plutocrats – ok that’s the old name – the super-rich, the 1/10 of 1%, or fewer, the oligarchs – cut the bottom out of the voting booths by making it harder and more expensive to vote, and by splashing money at the media and the commentators ‘til it sticks or just confuses people so they stay home – so our oligarchs can control the political system for themselves.

Will the people fight back? The damage is all over the legal spectrum. Patent and copyright law? Forget the artists and inventors. Minimum wages? Forget the workers. Infrastructure? Forget the people who drive or ride – the super-rich fly private jets or live abroad. Forget the small business that benefits from infrastructure – the super-rich got their breaks for businesses so big they don’t need to worry about regular folk – they own the markets. Taxes – guess who gets tax relief while the rest of us are left with the bill while the super-rich make noise about deficits? Wonder why we have those!

Are we letting democracy sink that low? Sounds like the dictator’s game – shrink the electorate and lavish huge benefits on your supporters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 11, 2014.


For a Better Education

July 1, 2014

A recent headline read, “Slow Common Core.” For quite a long time there has been a backlash against anything viewed as “too tough” for our kids. That is a tendency of living in a democracy. Anything tough for our kids is bad but at the same time they have to get a fabulous education that will equip them for life’s challenges. So the solution is teachers who can make everyone learn painlessly. And therefore, if anything goes wrong it’s the teacher’s fault, not the student’s. Read the rest of this entry »


Economics, Lawyers and the Risk to American Democracy

April 1, 2014

Ever notice that I frequently talk about economics. What’s a lawyer doing talking about economics? I did read and study economics but there are other reasons why economic issues are dear to this heart.

Lawyers do lots of different things. But for many of us, law is a helping profession. We work with people who are headed for bankruptcy and other events that will turn their lives upside down. We do our best to help them avoid personal tragedies – or pick up the pieces. We don’t think of clients as numbers but as people, most of whom we like and respect. We learn not to think of financial reverses as a judgment about their character, decency or personal value. It happens for all sorts of reasons, often beyond our clients’ control. When it is a mistake, it is often a part of learning how to do business or operate in this world. Some of the world’s most successful people have been through bankruptcy. Up close and personal, we care.

So the national recession wasn’t just a set of numbers for me. It was a catastrophe in the lives of many people. They were passengers on the national ship on a foggy night when the captain  crashed into another vessel. Millions of people went overboard, leaving their jobs and belongings behind. Rescuing people isn’t a choice; it’s an obligation just as it was not optional whether to pick our friends up from the wreck of the Achille Lauro. An S.O.S. has a clear and obligatory meaning.

But there is another reason. One could trace it to a famous French aristocrat who visited and wrote about the U.S. in the 1830s but statistical studies beginning after World War II keep making the point that poverty and inequality are both hostile to the survival of democracy. Historians studied the failure of democracies on multiple continents and reached the same conclusion. Others with different methodologies keep reaching similar conclusions.

It’s not a surprising conclusion. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many were worried that we would lose our system of self-government, and some advised President Roosevelt to take dictatorial powers, but he refused. Now science has come to support common sense. Poverty can be dangerous, not only to individuals but to society. It makes people desperate and when they are, all bets are off.

With that knowledge, it is painful to me to watch Congress leave the victims of corporate shenanigans in the dirt as if they were so much trash. And as an attorney, it is particularly painful to me to watch the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts doing everything in its power to play the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich. Many of those decisions are complex legally as well as economically but their effect on the fairness of the contracts we sign daily and on the lives of many people are extensive and often tragic. To me, the Roberts Court is threatening our democratic patrimony.

The personal suffering would be enough. The risk to our country is hard to bear.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 1, 2014.


What Makes American Democracy Successful?

December 24, 2013

We are justly proud of democracy in America. But what makes a democracy morally great and what makes it successful?

Many countries have elections but aren’t successful democracies. Their elections are about which families will reap the spoils of election victories. Successful democracies focus on taking care of the whole peoples of their countries. Lincoln spoke about government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Speaking about democracy, we often concentrate on government “of … [and] by the people.” But Lincoln’s last clause – “for the people” – defines the difference between success and failure; between government and kleptocracies; between governments that get things done and governments that imitate the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich.  Read the rest of this entry »


Our Stake in Each Other’s Welfare

October 8, 2013

Do we have a stake in each other’s future or only in our own? That is a central question of American politics. The Tea Party’s tossing of the entire American budget into the sea over the issue of Obamacare is an effort to say no, we have no stake in each other’s welfare. To claim a stake in each other’s welfare is socialism. Although the political waters warrant silence from many elected officials about it, that same cry has been leveled and is being leveled against other American efforts to help each other. Social security, socialism. Medicare and Medicaid, socialism. Indeed, there is no logical reason to draw the line there and many don’t. National parks, socialism. Veterans’ benefits, socialism. Head start, socialism. Why stop there? Public schools, socialism. Public hospitals, government health departments and laboratories, socialism. It’s all socialism in the heads of the true believers. So let me repeat that question – do we have a stake in each other’s future or only our own? Read the rest of this entry »


The Arab World and Us

July 30, 2013

I have been quite disturbed by events in Egypt. We won’t know for some time what has been happening behind the scenes, but it appears that the Obama Administration told the Egyptian military that our support would not flag, which I, and certainly they, would have read as a green light to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood.

Look at that geographically. Read the rest of this entry »


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