Religion Chautauqua Style

August 1, 2017

Instead of the mess in Washington, let’s talk about something positive. We just got back from a brief vacation in Chautauqua. I’ve been going there whenever possible since 1955 and I think it is valuable to talk about what it has meant to me, especially in this time when discussion of religion is so fraught.

Chautauqua had been founded in 1874 as an ecumenical summer school for protestant Sunday School teachers. Before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, ownership of property was still restricted to Protestants, although lots of us learned to love the place regardless of religious commitments. I’ve always felt welcome, no matter whom I’m talking with, who’s running things or whose chapel I’m in. Neighbor or stranger, I’ve been included and welcomed. That welcome was important to me; it influenced me to move beyond the familiar terrain of where I grew up in my choice of college, law school and subsequent career decisions.

The spirit of Chautauqua has always taken the sermon on the mount seriously. As Ben Franklin wrote in his Autobiography, “the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.”[1] For Franklin that service to mankind was by no means limited to people of one’s own faith.

This summer I took a seat in the amphitheater at the Sunday evening Sacred Song Service. For some years, religious gatherings in the amphitheater included material from across the Abrahamic tradition, the three great religions which all trace themselves back to the patriarch Abraham. I have heard this religious and primarily Christian congregation recite from the Qu’ran along with Christian and Jewish liturgical prayers, poetry and song. This year I was particularly struck by the inclusion of a gorgeous Native American chant.

It’s a good feeling, affirming our mutual respect and appreciation. No one is diminished as we celebrate the best in ourselves and in each other. We walk out feeling stronger, wiser, more confident. Bridges among us are also bilateral entree, enlarging our options, prospects and opportunities as well as our understanding. They amplify both the good we can do in this world as well as our own security.

We shared embraces with friends from many traditions and from all over the country, shared a home cooked dinner with a pair of old friends, both of whom are Lutheran ministers, and went out for dinner with a former student of mine here in Albany who has become a Methodist minister. There is of course nothing unusual about this. But it is worth noticing that this is one of the strengths of our country and of Chautauqua in particular.

Nor, at my recent college reunions, was I diminished by reciting a Muslim prayer at a memorial service for deceased members of my college class along with prayers from the Christian and my own Jewish tradition. We are and were all human, with the strengths and frailties common to mankind. We find a common end in death as we shared the world in life. We remember each other fondly without regard to where they prayed.

Part of what made this country a beacon for the world was that we left our prejudices behind in the old world our ancestors left. Our First Amendment is, after all, a cry for brotherhood as much as it is a restraint on government. We keep government out of the religious tent because we celebrate both the rights of all faiths and our common humanity in brother- and sisterhood.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 1, 2017.

[1] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin With Introduction And Notes (P F Collier & Son Company, ed. Charles W Eliot, New York (1909) [available online at The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Release Date: May 22, 2008 [EBook #148] [Last updated: November 10, 2011]]

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When More Law is Too Much – a Case of Airport Excess

May 19, 2016

A proposal before the Albany County legislature makes it a crime to “interfere[] with or fail[] to submit” to the United States Transportation Security Administration inspection protocols.  It would become a crime to turn around and leave the airport for any reason once one enters the screening area.

Proponents imagine people probing airport security until a vulnerability is found by “start[ing] the screening process at an airport” but leaving before completing it. The legislation’s supporters want travelers to have to go through a secondary screening process which includes a physical search of the person and their luggage, a pat down or more. But this poorly drafted legislation makes it a crime to leave once the traveler approaches the conveyor belt, before luggage has been screened.

The proposal substitutes inconsistent local rules for uniform national ones. Under the vague “interference” language, a person who questions why a security officer wants to search the traveler or her luggage may well be arrested for interfering with security protocols.   The proposal aggravates the problem of “flying while Muslim” – or at least flying in Muslim apparel, though I know from experience here and abroad that the vast majority of Muslims are, like the rest of us, decent, caring, peace-loving and law-abiding, although stopped and searched in very disproportionate numbers.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has described this proposal as “a remedy in search of a problem.”[1] There is no apparent problem this legislation would solve. Under long established rules, the TSA and other law enforcement personnel at the airport have all the authority they need to take action whenever they actually suspect a problem rather than whenever someone turns around because they have to run to the bathroom, had a panic attack or forgot something, which becomes criminal under this proposal.

I’d like to quote an eloquent letter sent to me by psychiatrist Aliya Saeed: “physical searches are quite traumatic for many … including survivors of rape (who are unlikely to want the back of a stranger’s hand next to their crotch, and on their breasts, as practiced currently), transgender individuals, those with emotional and mental health issues, pubescent children, etc. Being forced into an arrest … in a crowded public place, because someone is perceived to be walking away from a checkpoint, instead of … being able to simply leave an intolerable situation, presents  an undue risk …. We know that people with mental illness are far more likely to end up at risk of harm in police encounters because they are often unable to communicate effectively or comply readily with police demands. This presents an unnecessary liability for the law enforcement, and an unacceptable risk…, especially [for] those with mental health issues, history of trauma, autism, or those with limited English proficiency.”

This legislation just isn’t needed – there is no gap in authority to take necessary action when officials reasonably suspect wrongdoing. Instead, this will cost us tax dollars without giving us any benefits while threatening travelers with totally unnecessary harm. This legislation should be withdrawn.

– This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 17, 2017.

[1] NYCLU Memorandum Re: Proposed Albany County Local Law E of 2016, establishing a secondary search protocal at Albany County Airport, submitted at a meeting of the Albany County Legislature, Monday, May 9, 2017.


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