Feb 24, 2015

Scientology's Chilling Effect

New York Times
February 24, 2015
Joe Nocera
When I was at Fortune magazine in the 1990s, one of my colleagues was a reporter named Richard Behar. He had a special lock on his door, and he wouldn’t even let the janitor in to empty his wastebasket. He used a secret phone, which he kept hidden in a desk drawer, so that calls made to sources couldn’t be traced back to him.

At first, I just thought he was paranoid. But I soon learned that he had come by his paranoia honestly. In May 1991, as a correspondent for Time magazine, Behar had written an exposé of Scientology, calling it a “hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”

Before the article was published, Behar says, he was followed by private detectives, who also contacted acquaintances, asking whether he had financial problems. After its publication, that sort of harassment continued, he says — along with a major libel suit. Although the suit was eventually dismissed, it took years, and cost millions of dollars to defend. Behar’s deposition alone lasted 28 days.

What brings this to mind is Alex Gibney’s fine new HBO documentary about Scientology, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” which is based on the book “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright. (Disclosure: I played a small role in Gibney’s 2005 documentary on Enron.) “Going Clear,” which was shown at Sundance in late January, is scheduled to air on HBO on March 29.

It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Scientology without getting into the issue of intimidation. As the film notes, going on the offensive against its critics is part of Scientology’s doctrine, handed down by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. “It is the antithesis of turn the other cheek,” says Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking official who left the church in 2004 and has since been subjected to Scientology harassment, as the film documents. It also retells the story, first reported in The New York Times, of how, in 1993, Scientology won a 25-year fight against the Internal Revenue Service, which had refused to grant it nonprofit status. Scientologists filed several thousand lawsuits, against not just the I.R.S. but individual I.R.S. officials, and hired private detectives to look for dirt and conduct surveillance operations.

But the film doesn’t really tackle the intimidation of journalists. One of the first journalists to take on Scientology, in the early 1970s, was a young freelance writer named Paulette Cooper. Scientology’s retaliation was astounding. It framed her for supposedly sending bomb threats to the church. The documents it forged were so convincing that she was indicted in 1973 and was fully exonerated only when the F.B.I., acting on a tip, raided Scientology offices and discovered the plot against her in 1977.

Over the course of the next three decades-plus, there were a handful — though only a handful — of tough-minded articles like Behar’s. “Everybody who wrote about Scientology knew they were taking a risk,” Wright told me. You’ve heard of the “chilling effect?” Scientology offered a prime example of how it works.

Then, in 2009, The Tampa Bay Times (then The St. Petersburg Times) published an important series about Scientology, based on interviews with high-ranking defectors, including Rathbun and Mike Rinder, who had been Scientology’s top spokesman. The series was the first to suggest that Scientology had a longstanding culture of abuse. Amazingly, the church did not sue.

Vanity Fair published a big piece about Scientology. (This was after the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes; Cruise, of course, is the most famous Scientologist of them all.) No lawsuit. Anderson Cooper did a series on CNN. The BBC weighed in. Ditto and ditto.

Sure enough, when I spoke to Wright and Gibney, they said that the pushback they had gotten was nothing they couldn’t handle. A Scientology website has posted a video attacking the two men, and the church has also taken out full-page newspaper ads denouncing “Going Clear.” “I didn’t expect quite this much venom,” Gibney told me, but, he added, “I regard it as good publicity.”

(In a lengthy statement, a Scientology spokesperson said that Gibney had “lied to us repeatedly,” that Marty Rathbun had “destroyed evidence and lied under oath,” that a judge had described Behar as “biased,” and that in defending itself against Gibney’s “propaganda and bigotry,” it was speaking “for those who are subjected to religious persecution and hatred.”)

Gibney also noted that the people who are really harassed these days aren’t journalists but those who have left the church, like Rathbun, who told me that, with more people leaving and talking about the church, it no longer has the resources to sic private eyes on all its critics. He also thinks the Internet has hurt the church, because it is far easier to find out information about it — and many of its supposed secrets are posted online for all to see.

“Part of the message here is that you don’t need to fear Scientology anymore,” says Wright. It’s long overdue.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 24, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Scientology’s Chilling Effect.


PSA: Shit Scientology Say - To Normal People

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Feb 23, 2015

Bikram yoga founder accused of multiple counts os sexual assault in "cultish" training environment

February 23, 2015
Joanna Rothkopf

Bikram Choudhury, the founder and “guru” of Bikram yoga, is currently facing six civil lawsuits from women who all claim that he has raped or sexually assaulted them — many during teacher-training sessions.
Still, despite the numerous accusations, Choudhury faces no criminal charges and remains at the helm of his empire.
“A lot of people have blinders on,” said former Bikram devotee Sarah Baugh, 29, who sued Choudhury in 2013. “This is their entire world. They don’t want to accept that this has happened.”
Bikram yoga takes place in a heated room, in which teachers guide students through a variety of fixed poses, each held for a number of minutes. While the form has its devotees, others have criticized it for its unwavering focus on body achievement and cultish devotion.
Teacher training sessions taught by Choudhury himself cost $12,500 per person and take the practice to a new level, featuring mandatory screenings of Bollywood movies until 3 a.m., hours-long yoga sessions, and trainees giving Choudhury massages in a large chair on a stage before other pupils.
“I was pretty much appalled. It was very cultish,” said Tiffany Friedman in an interview with the New York Times. “I saw how people really wanted his favor and wanted him to shine a light on them and wanted to believe he was a guru and had all these powers. It was heartbreaking.”

A statement released by Choudhury’s lawyers denies all wrongdoing on his part: “Their claims are false and dishonor Bikram yoga and the health and spiritual benefits it has brought to the lives of millions of practitioners throughout the world. After a thorough investigation, the Los Angeles County district attorney declined to file any sexual assault charges against Mr. Choudhury or the college for lack of evidence.”
Baughn no longer practices yoga. “I went through total hell,” she said to the Times.“What happened to me was awful. I’ll probably always have bad dreams.”

Skeptic » Insight » Considering a Complaint About Skeptical Tactics

Considering a Complaint About Skeptical Tactics

POSTED ON FEB. 20, 2015 BY  | COMMENTS (13)
Few skeptical tactics are as hard-hitting or as ethically fraught as undercover investigation and “sting”-type traps designed to expose the roots of too-good-to-be-true claims—or even to catch tricksters red-handed. A recurring controversy over those tactics has flared up again over the last few days, following some sharp remarks about skeptics from former Ghost Hunters cast member Amy Bruni. Bruni took to her Facebook Page to express her frustration with skeptics who engage in such tactics, presumably in reaction to two recent sting attempts (dubbed “Operation Bumblebee” and “Operation Ice Cream Cone” by organizer Susan Gerbic). Bruni wrote:

Weird…I don’t see people who believe in paranormal and psychic phenomena accosting “skeptics” at their conventions and gatherings—or posting constant blogs and forums about how skepticism is terrible. Strangely enough, we really don’t care what their belief system is—because it is their right. And personally, I don’t care or have to justify what I believe to someone else.
So, why do they feel the need to constantly bash what we do? Arrange “guerrilla stings” on psychics and paranormal conventions? I mean—puh-lease, you must have something better to do.
Truly—there’s a whole lot of bad in this world. And if your “cause” is to take on people whose thoughts on life and existence are different from yours, (but causing YOU no harm), I think it’s time you take a little look at yourself.
Make a real difference with the time you have. Volunteer at an animal shelter, join Big Brothers/Big Sisters, serve food at your local soup kitchen…the list goes on.
Because I have news for you—none of us kooky paranormal folks need saving.

It’s normal and human to want to defend oneself or one’s community from what one perceives as unfair criticism. For this same reason, not surprisingly, some skeptics expressed annoyance at this latest hostile characterization of work we consider worthwhile and helpful. At a blog called “Skeptic’s Boot,” blogger Robert Leaargued that Bruni was repeating “many misconceptions and misunderstandings ‘believers’ tend to have about ‘skeptics'” such as “the confusion between a ‘skeptic’ and a ‘cynic.'” On her personal Twitter feed, Doubtful News editor Sharon Hilldescribed Bruni as “clueless about inquiry and skepticism.” (There are misapprehensions baked into Bruni’s post, in my opinion. For a trivial example, it actually is quite common for paranormal proponents to devote timeinkattentionand emotion to complaining about and “going after the skeptics”—sometimes using deception in pursuit of gotcha moments of their own.)

Not all skeptics were unsympathetic toward Bruni’s point of view. “Amy Bruni Has A Point…” argued UK blogger and skeptical paranormal investigator Hayley Stevens. An equal opportunity critic, Stevens feels grave ethical and pragmatic concerns about undercover stings, overzealous language, or what she views as lack of transparency in skeptical activism. Although she acknowledged that “Psychics in general routinely refuse to have their abilities tested in controlled conditions,” she feels that effective investigation can still be conducted without resorting to deception. She declared,

 I’d stand with Amy Bruni and [“Operation Bumblebee” target] Chip Coffey any day rather than associate myself with “skeptic activists” who don’t seem able to see past their own noses. It isn’t always about being right and it isn’t always about point scoring.
In the wake of these reactions, Bruni clarified and softened her views in an update,here:

I welcome skepticism. I love and think we need skeptics to bring up logical arguments to what we experience. … Critical thinking IS severely lacking in this field and it makes us easy targets. Which brings me back to my original post. Again, I have nothing against skeptics in general—but I do have everything against the methods some are employing and the fact they are attacking people who I love and trust intensely. Furthermore, I am a free thinker and everyone should have that right. It is not anyone else’s job to make those decisions for you. Their argument is they’re saving you from yourself. I say—stop worrying about people who don’t need your advice or sympathy.
Sharon Hill then issued a measured followup of her own, extending something of an olive branch. “There is common ground,” Hill said. “We rarely meet upon it.” Robert Lea also returned to the topic,  with an update taking Bruni to task for her association with psychic performer Chip Coffey. For completeness’ sake I’ll mention that Bruni’s travel company, Strange Escapes, does business with Coffey and “other paranormal notables,” but I’ll take Bruni’s reaction at face value: she’s unhappy to see critics “attacking people who I love and trust intensely.” Well, fair enough. No one likes that.

Bigger Questions
Now, I don’t know Bruni’s work, so it’s not my purpose at this point to critique her positions (insofar as I understand them). However, her complaints about skeptics raise two wider conceptual questions which seem very interesting to me:

1. Do undercover work and “gotcha” sting operations have a place in skeptical investigation or activism?

and, more broadly still,

2. Why are skeptics interested in the paranormal at all? What are we to make of all-too-common complaints, like Bruni’s, that we “must have something better to do”?

I will dig into the issue of undercover investigation and sting operations in skeptical activism in my next post. The second question is one I’ve addressed many times in my work (notably in 2007 and 2013 essays available in PDF format, here and here). I will come back to that question again with some further thoughts in another upcoming post.

Feb 18, 2015

Feb 15, 2015

Religious radicalisation - it's sudden, secret and unexpected

Religious radicalisation – it's sudden, secret and unexpected http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/religious-radicalisation--its-sudden-secret-and-unexpected-20150214-13dyan.html?eid=socialn%3Afac-13omn1676-edtrl-other%3Annn-17%2F02%2F2014-edtrs_socialshare-all-nnn-nnn-vars-o


FactCheck.org’s SciCheck feature focuses exclusively on false and misleading scientific claims that are made by partisans to influence public policy. It was launched in January 2015 with a grant from the Stanton Foundation. The foundation was founded by the late Frank Stanton, president of CBS for 25 years, from 1946 to 1971.

Feb 11, 2015

Mother of girl who died in Nithyananda ashram alleges torture, unnatural death

The News Minute
February 11, 2015

The parents of a girl who died in Nithyananda Dhyanapeetam ashram in Bidadi on the outskirts of Bengaluru, have said they suspected foul play in death of their daughter. Sangeetha Arjunan (24) died on the ashram premises on December 28 and the ashram officials claimed she died of a heart attack. Her parents however, have said that Sangeetha did not have any heart condition and that they suspected foul play. The girl hails from Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu and her parents had initially approached the police there. They have since met with the Ramnagara district Superintendent, under whose jurisdiction Bidadai falls. In her complaint to the Ramnagara police, the girl’s mother Jansi Rani has said that they suspected that Sangeetha’s death was unnatural as she did not suffer from any heart ailment, and also said that Sangeetha’s and her own signatures had been taken on blank papers. In her complaint Jansi Rani also spoke about alleged assaults and beatings her daughter suffered at the ashram at the hands of some of the people there. She said that in mid 2013, her daughter called her up from the ashram: “After reaching home, she showed me her legs, she had been beaten very badly below her waist & on her legs. I was shocked to see several bruises and injury marks.” She also said that the ashram officials had tried to restrict her movement on several occasion and that one person “locked up all of Sangeetha’s certificates in a cupboard and when she wanted to leave, he refused to return them to her. Another boy called Saravanan from Thanjavur tried to help sangeetha by breaking open the cupboard and getting the certificates for her. But just because he helped her, ABC and other ashramites punished him also. They beat him up badly and locked him up in a room for a few days. Finally his family and relatives went to Bidadi, got him released & took him away from ashram.” She further said: “After I left Sangeetha in the ashram, I went 3 times within 2 month to see her and to tell her to come home, but they didn’t let me meet her alone. I was only allowed to meet her along with other sanyasis in the ashram, and they kept telling me she has not finished her work, she can leave after finishing all the work assigned to her. The 3rd time when I went, they brought her to meet me, but she was in a terrible condition, she could not even walk a single step. I could not bear to watch the sight. Some 30 ashram people came with her, maybe they wanted to make sure she will not tell me anything.” “They told me promise on Kalabairava that I or any of my relatives will not give any report against Swami Nithyananda to anyone. I promised. “(sangeetha called from ashram) She said, if I continue to say wrong things about swami - they were telling her to say this – then she will file case against me! I said okay, go ahead file a case against me. Immediately after I said that, they cut the phone line. That was the last time I talked to Sangeetha. After that they did not even let me talk one word to her.” Jansi also alleged that certain people had asked her to sign blank papers if she wanted her daughter’s body back, and that she could not read either Kannada or English. Tweet


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Polygamy not integral part of Islam

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Feb 10, 2015

How fringe religions find followers behind bars

By Daniel Genis
Washington Post
Chicago Tribune
February 10, 2015

Fringe religions are busy in prisons, where education levels are low and wishful thinking is high

Wiccans, Druids, Satanists and Zen Buddhists. Welcome to the world of prison evangelism.

When I entered New York state’s prison system in 2004 to serve 10 years, I was shaved, given a number and told to check the box next to my religion. Prison guards handed me a long list of faiths: In addition to the regulars, there were Odinism, Rastafarianism and the Nation of Gods and Earths. (The latter was once considered a gang, but years of lawsuits had turned it into a viable religious option.) Had I been honest, I would have checked the box next to “atheist.” Instead, I marked “Jewish,” reflecting my father’s heritage.

My motivation wasn’t the access to kosher meals or a desire to belong to a clan in prison, though both drive convicts’ religious affiliations behind bars. I opted in because I wanted to work for rabbis, a job that would put me in the company of educated thinkers whom I could relate to during the lonely decade I had stretching before me. Ultimately, it did more than that. It showed me the dishonest ways religion is spread in prison. The evangelists I saw used prisoners’ desperation to add to their faiths’ numbers.

The first thing I noticed after beginning my sentence for five counts of armed robbery, a consequence of heroin addiction, was how many faiths were represented. During my decade behind bars, I met thousands of prisoners in 12 of New York’s joints, both maximum- and medium-security. I spoke with agents of Opus Dei, Fez-wearing Moorish Science Temple members, a few Druids and a surprisingly nice Satanist. I encountered Wiccans (warlocks, never witches), Odinists (worshipers of the Norse pantheon and almost exclusively white supremacists, though one Colombian was brought in), Nation of Islam men in bow ties (Louis Farrakhan’s Muslims), Hebrew Israelites (black Jews), Zen Buddhists (meditation pushers), one Sikh (a Kashmiri cabbie who killed his passenger but fed me curry) and one Jedi (charming fellow, heinous murder). No one but me believed in nothing.

One reason a thousand flowers have bloomed is that the evangelism typical of mainstream faiths such as Catholicism and Protestantism has spread to newer players who place a greater value on the souls of convicts. At most, there are 20,000 followers of the pagan religion Asatru, sometimes referred to as Odinism, in the United States, while Catholics number 78.2 million. Hardly any Catholic missionaries came to the 12 facilities where I was housed, but I saw many evangelists from outsider faiths visit. Winning one new convert to a tiny corps is far more significant than winning 10 new converts to a horde.

Judaism and Islam also have their fringes, and I saw the same trend among them. A nontraditional Jewish sect that argues the messiah has already come courted my allegiance in a way the establishment did not. And the Nation of Islam tried harder with my neighbors than regular Sunni Islam did. These groups offer personal attention and loyalty (scarce resources in prison) from support networks that clergy of the established religions, especially those employed by the state prison system, cannot provide.

The incarcerated world is one where leaps of faith are taken with ease. The educational level is low (nationwide, 68 percent of state prisoners don’t have a high school diploma) and wishful thinking high. Jailhouse “common knowledge” holds that ghosts are real and the moon landing was not. I knew men who couldn’t identify the actors of World War II but were familiar with the sins of the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission, clans that are alleged to secretly control the world. Convicts who quit school in the fifth grade cited the Merovingian dynasty to demonstrate that Jimmy Hoffa simply had to go. (It’s said he learned that unions are run by Masons and became a liability. He knew too much.) In prison, where hope is limited, people are looking for answers, even wrong ones.

Religions often depend on the vulnerable to grow their numbers. Jehovah’s Witnesses are willing to drive for hours to do a Bible study with a convict, even if their doctrine promises only 144,000 slots in heaven. (This belief is not emphasized in their prison pamphlets.) The visiting rooms are where the shepherds meet their flocks and the faithful ply their craft. I saw Franciscan monks visit one incarcerated brother, carrying lox, pomegranates and pricey Latin texts, despite his conviction for child abuse. They believed his victims lied because he said they did, all three times.

There are two approaches to jailhouse religion: There are clergy hired by the state — Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, Sunni imams and Orthodox rabbis. The fringe groups have their own leaders, who work outside of the prison bureaucracy, winning converts by bucking the establishment.

During my time, I clerked for several state-hired rabbis; all but one were Orthodox. Part of my job was to work with the Jewish program Reaching Out, which issues a newsletter and provides support to incarcerated Jews. Its leader, Rabbi Shmuel Spritzer, comes from a fringe sect of Lubavitcher Hasids who think the messiah was Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a charismatic rabbi who died in 1994. (They say he is simply concealed for now and will re-emergereemerge soon.)

In theory, the chaplains are in the prisons to minister to the men, but in practice, they are colleagues of their oppressors. When they work for the state, they can’t really take an inmate’s side in a dispute, no matter how right he is. But religious counselors such as Spritzer can and do. In a prison where talking in the halls was forbidden, I once got locked up for breaking that rule. I had answered a question that the state-hired rabbi asked in passing. At the disciplinary hearing, did he save me? No. But Spritzer did, by calling the warden, who reversed the charge. Perhaps he valued my soul more. And he, not the rabbi of the state, was the one sending clothes to cold Jews and food to hungry ones.

After reading the Bible, visiting the Western Wall in Israel and seeing the pope at the Vatican, I became an atheist at 16. By 20, I was a militant one. But there are no atheists in trenches, it’s said. That goes for prison too: Nationally, only 0.07 percent of convicts who declare a religious preference say they do not believe in God. Inmates use faith to build support groups, find work or just get kosher meals — things they need. But I witnessed too many unanswered prayers by inmates (on matters from football games to parole boards) to shake my godlessness.

I did once betray my atheist beliefs. The night before I was to be sentenced in 2003, I prayed, not knowing how or to whom, to keep two years of my life (the judge’s sentence would commit me either to 10 years or to eight). I begged a nondescript divine being that the judge would impose the minimum. I broke with my conviction.

Today I shudder at my cowardice. I wish I had held firm to my atheism, especially since my prayers weren’t answered (I got the maximum). And over that time, I saw how shallow belief ran: Inmates changed their religions so often that the state imposed a limit of one change per year. The abundance of faith and choice created too much paperwork.

But my atheism stayed consistent. Even a decade of Rabbi Spritzer’s kindness to me in prison could not change that.

Washington Post

Daniel Genis is a writer in Brooklyn.


A Letter to Mrs. Frost - Part I & Part II

Huffington Post
Scott Terry
February 10, 2015

My seventh-grade teacher in Evanston, Wyoming, Mrs. Ronci, recognized that I was hungry, and in ways that were unbeknownst to me she wrangled a simple lunch-time job in the school cafeteria where I handed out cartons of milk each day in exchange for a free lunch. It was the first time in my childhood when I recognized that some people, teachers in particular, knew more about me than I desired. I never thanked Mrs. Ronci for her generosity because hunger was something I wanted to keep secret.

For the last few years, I've been feeling an overwhelming desire to contact some teachers from my past. That's typical for cult or abuse survivors like me, I think. Children who grow up in fringe religions, or cults if I use the term I favor, often find themselves where I am today -- craving a need to reconnect with all of those generous and insightful teachers from past decades who had some influence on our lives. Influence that we might not have recognized as being significant at the time, but we now look back upon fondly, wishing we could show our belated gratitude.

Mr. Romero, my fifth-grade teacher, was the first to encourage me to explore my passion to write. Mr. Romero was a thick Italian ex-Marine with a bushy moustache who had just arrived home from the war in Vietnam, and he was my first crush. I adored Mr. Romero. I loved him as much as any 10 year old can love a teacher with childish adoration. Like many children who develop adolescent feelings for teachers, I cried when school ended and Mr. Romero disappeared from my life. I cried when I realized he would never again read my stories.

My writing took a bizarre turn the following year when I fully embraced my religion. A primary doctrine of the Jehovah's Witnesses is that members must share their spirituality with everyone who will listen. Mrs. Georgia Frost, my sixth-grade teacher in Piru, California, endured umpteen written essays from me in which I extolled the many virtues of the Witnesses. Throughout their history, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been expecting the immediate arrival of Armageddon, and I inserted that topic into my writing at every possible opportunity. Sharing my faith with Mrs. Frost, through my writing, brought praise and approval from my parents and fellow Witnesses. I shared my religion with everyone who would listen and then reported the time on my Monthly Field Service Report that the Witnesses require of all members. Yes, that is what I did. I craved the accolades it brought to me, and besides, the End was near. I must share it with everyone. That was a duty imposed upon me by religion.

That same year, my Aunt Jackie received a letter in the mail that she claimed was from Satan. The elders in our Kingdom Hall rushed over and stood around her kitchen, praying to Jehovah, while they lit the letter on fire in her kitchen sink. They had difficulty getting it to burn, which only fueled their assertions that it was from Satan.

In my home, my parents gave out frequent lectures and warnings that I might arrive home from school one day to find that my family had been hauled off to jail for worshipping Jehovah. If that were to happen, I must, as instructed, run to the hills to search for other Witnesses who were evading capture and patiently wait for the death and destruction of an angry God to bring our wicked world to an end. I was 11, and I believed every word my parents and my religion told me. I shared them, ad nauseam, in written school assignments with Mrs. Frost, except for the letter that Aunt Jackie got from Satan. I never told Mrs. Frost about that. Even I knew it sounded crazy to claim to receive mail from Satan.

I wrote a lot about death for Mrs. Frost. Witnesses were likely to be killed for serving Jehovah, I told her. I quoted scriptures. I quoted passages from Witness literature. I assured Mrs. Frost that Armageddon was near. I did not need to focus on education, I told her. The End was near. My religion promised me so.

I was absolutely gifted with the ability to weave religious themes into her assignments. When Mrs. Frost wanted me to write about the American Bicentennial celebration, I wrote about the 200 year anniversary of our country and then segued into a brief discussion about the celebration being a sin, not to mention the fact that Jehovah was going to destroy our country soon. The End would arrive any day now, I wrote.

What I wrote was often a lie. Genius, but full of lies. When Mrs. Frost assigned the task to keep a daily food log over the course of one week, documenting what I had eaten for breakfast each day and evaluating it in terms of my sixth grader's understanding of the USDA food chart, I lied. I lied like I'd never lied before. I constructed elaborate charts of what my breakfast had been, according to what I thought she wanted to believe. I painted a beautiful picture of two wonderfully fluffy scrambled eggs, maybe three slices of bacon, toast, and a glass of real milk.

Mrs. Frost never knew that I was often hungry when I entered her class, but I was sure to let her know about Witnesses who had starved to death in German concentration camps. Yes, starvation was a great thing to include in my food essay. My religion thrived on thoughts of persecution, death, despair, and starvation. Oh, how I wanted to please my religion. Pleasing my church assured me that I would survive Armageddon and live in a beautiful new paradise on earth where I would have plenty to eat. Food would be plentiful in the new world. The Jehovah's Witnesses had assured me so.
A Letter to Mrs. Frost: Part II

I'll never know how my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Frost, stifled the urge to push me out of my cult mindset, because she is certainly dead. I left her classroom more than 30 years ago, and how she was able to mark my essays with an A grade when she most certainly must have wanted to scream is beyond me. She somehow found the ability to encourage my writing while never crossing the line into what could have been construed as condemnation of my faith.

Not once did she utter a word of disapproval. As I would imagine is true of all great teachers, she must have yearned to push my religiously-imposed boundaries on creativity aside and see me write about things that didn't progress into biblical rants about Jehovah's Witnesses. But she didn't. Not once did she question what I wrote, nor did she ever cause me embarrassment. Not once did she acknowledge my blatant attempts to convert her to my faith.

Towards the end of that same year, a gym teacher discovered my sister's bruises and called the police. I will never know how much angst that must have caused her to report the abuse of a child to the authorities. How does a teacher handle a decision such as that? Two officers showed up on our driveway the next day, and my parents assured them that they would not inflict any more bruises. The officers left our home, satisfied with the promise, and my family then left town to join a new congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Wyoming where we hoped that people would not know about our bruises.

Mrs. Ronci entered my life in Wyoming. As teachers are wont to do, she doled out many writing assignments, but I had stopped writing about Armageddon about then. Teachers were not likely to be receptive to my proselytizing, I had realized.

Mr. Smith became my creative writing instructor shortly after. He taught me some wonderful literary skills that I had not previously grasped -- the proper use of pronouns, for example. Mr. Smith once instructed all of his students, including me, to write a very specific and personal essay about the love of our parents. His assignment was so foreign and unrelated to my life that I couldn't complete it. I couldn't tell Mr. Smith what my home life was like. I couldn't write about my parents, or the hunger, the anger, or the loneliness that was pervasive all through my childhood -- so I copied a story from a magazine in the school library and changed enough words to believe it had become my own.

Mr. Smith was so pleased by my essay that he read it out loud to the entire class. I squirmed in my chair and listened to words that weren't mine being read from a homework assignment that had my name written at the top, and wondered what would happen if my deceit was discovered.

It was discovered, two months later. Shortly after he found the original story from which I had plagiarized, Mr. Smith pulled me in to his office to discuss what he referred to as a private matter. After a stern lecture and threats to flunk me, he changed my course grade from an A to a C. An F would have been devastating. A C was a gift.

Just a few years ago, when my memoir was close to being finished and I had begun writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, I found myself thinking about Mr. Smith and what he had done for me. I should find him, I thought. Perhaps I would forward a few of the warm and fuzzy gardening stories I had written for the Chronicle to him. Surely he would be pleased to know that I had become a writer and had outgrown my juvenile immorality and willingness to plagiarize. He would remember me, I was certain. Perhaps he would forgive me, I hoped. Maybe not. No, perhaps he wouldn't forgive me. Plagiarism is an evil thing. It would be best to wait until my memoir was published and send a paperback copy to him, I decided. It would explain everything.

My memoir was published two years ago, and in our modern world of internet capabilities, it didn't take long to find Mr. Smith online. He was dead. Just a year earlier, Mr. Smith had passed away. He will never read my book. I wish I could have talked to him before he died. I wish I could talk to many teachers from my past whom I remember so fondly.

Today, I find myself thinking about teachers in general and the enormous responsibility that comes with their duty to teach and protect children. Is it a burden, I wonder? As gingerly as they must trod through the regulatory landscape in our education system, how do they focus on their teaching obligations when caring for children who have stories like mine?

If Mrs. Frost were alive today, would she remember me? I'm sure she is no longer influencing the lives of children, but I'd sure like to tell her how she influenced mine. For all of those teachers who must yearn for children to be free from abuse or religious indoctrination, I'd like to let them know that I did escape from what was imposed upon me as a child. Sometimes, children do emerge, somewhat unscathed and undamaged from their childhoods. I am one of them. Looking back, my teachers affected my life, and for that, I am thankful.

Follow Scott Terry on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottTerryWrite



Feb 9, 2015

Folly of good vs. bad religions: Column

Stephen Prothero
USA Today
February 9, 2015

Obama's comments about Christianity and Islam expose liberal-conservative divide.

President Obama spoke at Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast in the nation's capital, and another culture war broke out.

Obama denounced the so-called Islamic State as a "brutal, vicious death cult" and cataloged instances of "faith being twisted and distorted" in Syria, Nigeria and India. He then observed that no one has a monopoly on violence. "Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," he said. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Obama also spoke of humility, love and compassion, but his critics were having none of that. Former Florida congressman Allen West called Obama the "Islamapologist in chief." Joe Scarborough of MSNBC called the president out for "stupid, left-wing moral equivalency." Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore judged Obama's remarks "the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime."

Denouncing Obama's "historically illiterate" critics, Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates responded by recalling how Christians used the Bible to justify slavery and segregation. Journalist Bill Moyers, remembering a photograph of the charred body of 18-year-old Jesse Washington tied to a cross and burned alive in 1916 in Waco, Texas, observed that ISIL is not the only community of fanatics that has incinerated human beings.

Since 9/11, Americans have engaged in a tortuous national conversation about Islam. Is Islam a religion of peace? Or a religion of war? This discussion is for the good as long as it is civil and informed. But civility nowadays is as rare as a snowstorm on Capitol Hill, and religious illiteracy is rife. Routinely, our disagreements devolve into cultural warfare.

I see two competing narratives at work here.

The conservative narrative is that there is one true religion (which is good) and many false religions (which are bad). This is the view of evangelist Franklin Graham, who responded to Obama's remarks by writing that "Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness. … Mohammed, on the contrary, was a warrior and killed many innocent people."

The liberal narrative, which Obama apparently shares with popular religion writers Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith, is that all religions are basically good. They all preach compassion but are twisted beyond recognition (in Obama's words) by "those who seek to hijack religions for their own murderous ends." This is what the president was getting at when he said, "There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith."

As a historian of religion, I find neither of these narratives convincing. The first is special pleading on behalf of one theological viewpoint. The second lets the world's religions off too easily, absolving believers of any responsibility to criticize and correct evildoers in their midst.

It could be the case that one or more religions are inspired by God, but religious institutions are undeniably human institutions. This is not a controversial proposition even among Christians, who harbor far less outrage over Obama's remarks than conservative pundits attribute to them. The logic is as simple as it is theologically orthodox: If all humans are sinners, and all Christians are humans, then all Christians are sinners. And so it goes for Muslims, Buddhists and Jews.

Even so, sin was not invented on 9/11 or at the proclamation of the First Crusade in 1095. Christianity and Islam ceased to be perfect the second the first humans joined. When it comes to riling up believers into a murderous rage, no hijackers are required. Any sinner can do the trick.

All religions include "texts of terror" and texts of compassion. The challenge to those of us who call ourselves Christians or Muslims (or atheists) is to mobilize the resources for good inside our communities and to exorcise the resources for evil. That task is impossible if we continue to pretend that the sinners all reside in another camp, or that our religion's history alone is free of hatred and terror.

Stephen Prothero is a Boston University professor and the author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World.


Church of Scientology rehab centre rejected in Warburton

Sydney Morning Herald
February 9, 2015

Fresh debate over a drug and rehabilitation centre linked to the Church of Scientology has emerged after the program lost a bid to operate in central Warburton in the face of more than a year of intense community opposition.

A Church of Scientology offshoot, the Association for Better Living and Education, appealed to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, after a unanimous Yarra Ranges Council decision to refuse it a permit to operate its drug treatment program from a central location in Warburton.

The controversial international program, Narconon, has operated from a secluded site in East Warburton since 2002. The facility was set to move to a central site that abuts seven residential properties, and is 300 metres from a local primary school. The application drew almost 300 objections from local residents.

ABLE applied for a permit after purchasing the $1.2 million site, but the council rejected it, arguing the program would threaten the community's safety.

The Narconon program has been associated with deaths in the United States and Europe, and has been banned in Quebec. The program's non-medical practices are contentious in drug rehab circles, particularly the detoxification process, which involves weeks of five-hour-long sessions in a sauna and mega-doses of niacin and other vitamins.

The Warburton case follows a similar dispute in NSW, where the Wyong Shire Council rejected a permit application for the same treatment facility in Yarramalong Valley due to risks associated with its flood-affected site.

In a decision handed down on Thursday, VCAT members ruled the residential site was an inappropriate location for the centre, due to the program's insufficient security and management regime. It also ruled that the program was not an education centre, as ABLE proposed in the permit application, but fundamentally a drug and rehab centre.

Information obtained through freedom of information data by local objectors shows 26 police callouts to the centre since 2005, including an incident in which a student threatened staff with an axe, a psychotic offender threatening to kill and an offender detoxing off heroin and ice harassing neighbours.

The dispute in Warburton has brought into question the controversial practices of Narconon.

Local objectors, who formed the campaign "Say No to Narconon", raised concern about the lack of professionalism of the staff, the program's unscientific treatment practices, and they questioned its advertised 75 per cent success rate.

The program's critics have called for increased accountability and performance reviews of the drug and rehabilitation sector. There is currently no requirement under Australian law to seek a licence to run a drug and rehabilitation centre.

Local campaigner Lindy Schneider posed: "Beyond the planning scheme where is our cover? Our recourse? Our backstop?"

Senator Nick Xenophon, the force behind a Senate committee investigation highlighting activities of the Church of Scientology in 2010, said drug rehabilitation programs must be subject to government oversight.

"These are incredibly vulnerable people ... we need to make sure the base level of accreditation is sought and to start ensuring we have the world's best practice in drug rehab."

The program costs about $30,000 for a six-to-nine-month stay – plus $260 weekly fees for board.

Narconon staff are trained internally, learning from the program's own curriculum.

Ninety per cent of the program involves intense study, based on the teachings of the Church of Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Executive director of the organisation running the program Andrew Cunningham said the drug treatment program was fundamentally educational.

"Our program is 90 per cent educational as it addresses why the user took drugs in the first place and deals with this.

"People who enter our program are off drugs and are there of their own free will and have paid for the program (no government funding received)."

He said he was reviewing the tribunal's decision and remained "firmly committed to resolving the serious scourge of drugs on society".

The program will continue to operate at the existing facility in East Warburton.


Narconon rehab strikes out in second Ontario town

Narconon’s rehab program, inspired by the religious teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, involves detoxifying sauna sessions and high doses of vitamins.

Toronto Star
Jacques Gallant Staff Reporter
February 09, 2015

When Narconon, a controversial rehab program rooted in Church of Scientology teachings, tried to set up shop in Hockley Village near Orangeville two years ago, it was met with angry residents, petitions and “No Narconon” lawn signs.

In Milton, where Narconon is now trying to open a facility, it is staring down Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw 144-2003.

The document may not be as attention-grabbing as furious townsfolk terrified by what they’ve read on the Internet, but it is just as powerful. Milton’s Committee of Adjustment and Consent denied a proposal last October from Social Betterment Properties International for a Narconon centre on a parcel of land it acquired on Milburough Line in an isolated, rural part of town. The committee found it did not fit the town’s definition of a group home.

Social Betterment Properties is appealing that decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, with a hearing scheduled for March 30.

Narconon’s rehab program, inspired by the religious teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, does not involve over-the-counter medication, but rather detoxifying sauna sessions and high doses of vitamins that is all the rage among famous Scientologists like Tom Cruise.

It is also controversial, and the subject of lawsuits in the United States filed by the families of three Narconon clients who died at a facility in Oklahoma.

Clark Carr, president of Los Angeles-based Narconon International, did not return requests for comment. Narconon has previously denied allegations that its practices are unsafe.

“Narconons have always been strong members of the communities in which they operate,” said Tim Lomas, a spokesman for the Association of Better Living and Education, a Scientology-related entity. “We are moving forward to resolve all issues that have come up on the zoning process so that we can work together with the community to help those suffering from addiction.”

Milton officials say that the controversy surrounding Narconon had nothing to do with the committee’s choice.

“This is rural residential, not institutional . . . It’s intended to be agricultural and single-family units, not resorts,” said Councillor Cindy Lunau, whose ward includes the relevant part of Milburough Line. “(The controversy) is certainly another layer of concern, but that has no place in good planning. Good planning doesn’t judge the applicant . . . If we chose every one of our neighbours, we’d have very empty spaces.”

The committee found that Narconon did not meet the town’s definition for “Group Home Type 2,” as the private facility does not fall under the province’s oversight.

Health Ministry spokesman David Jensen said private organizations do not require the ministry’s permission to offer treatment and rehabilitation services for substance abuse, but said that the health professionals who work in them would be subject to legislation governing their profession and the oversight of professional colleges.

College of Physicians and Surgeons spokeswoman Kathryn Clarke said that if a Narconon facility is opened “and we receive any complaints about physicians practising there, we would investigate, and take further action, if appropriate.”

There is currently no Narconon program in Ontario. The organization lost its bid in 2013 to buy the estate of late Conservative MP Donald Blenkarn in Hockley Village amid furor from the locals. Blenkarn’s decided instead to sell the property to a village resident.

Carr, Narconon’s president, told the Star at the time that “Narconon is very interested in opening a facility in Canada and we are continuing to explore opportunities to do so.”

With files from Rachel Mendleson


Feb 8, 2015

Feb 7, 2015

Bolsover: Satan's heartland and one very scary MP

After the Derbyshire mining town was named England's Satanic capital, Joe Shutover: Satan's heartland and one very scary MPe braves the Beast of Bolsover (and 17 satanists, too)

By Joe Shute
February 7, 2015

The Devil, as local legend tells it, has already paid a visit to Bolsover. One day, some centuries past, he appeared before a blacksmith in the town demanding to have his hooves shod in sturdiest Derbyshire iron. But the blacksmith had other ideas. While fitting the shoe he drove a nail deep into the soft part of his hoof. The Devil tore off over the hills, aiming a furious kick at nearby Chesterfield Parish Church along the way – so causing its famously crooked spire.

Satan may have been driven out of Bolsover long ago, but his acolytes remain: 17 of them, to be precise, out of a population of 75,866, who claimed Satanism as their religion in the 2011 census. The findings, which only emerged this week, mark this ancient town on the far fringes of the Peak District out as the Satanic capital of England and Wales.

A total of 1,893 people chose Satanism as their religion in the 2011 census. Bristol, by means of comparison, had the highest actual number of registered Satanists at 34, but that only works out as 0.008 per cent of the population, compared to 0.2 per cent of Bolsover residents.

Those living here, in the shadow of Bolsover Castle, are well-used to ghost stories. But they remain incredulous at the new reputation foisted upon them. None more so than the town’s veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner,

When I phone to inquire about whether Mr Skinner has encountered any Satanists during his constituency duties, his voice crafted in the pits surrounding the town, rumbles like a tide of grit and coal, gaining in volume by the second.

“I have never even heard the word before and I don’t believe in talking about anything that I am not aware of,” Mr Skinner growls, while a parliamentary aide shouts in the background that the story is a nonsense. “I have represented the area since 1970 and worked in the pits for 21 years when I left school. Underground they talk about every subject under the sun but I have never heard this phrase before.”

It may well be mischief-making. Some 176,632 also referred to themselves in the census as Jedi Knights, and in recent days, Derbyshire Police has ruled out any recent incidents connected to Satanic activity in Bolsover – or elsewhere in the county. Yet there has been prior evidence in the area of the occult.

A decade ago, in the run up to the summer solstice, there were at least12 attacks on horses in fields along the border between Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. One horse had eight litres of blood drained from its stomach, others had their tails removed, and their manes plaited in intricate patterns. Stones arranged in the shape of pentagrams (five-pointed stars) were found in nearby fields. The following year there were several more attacks on horses reported in nearby Aughton, Barnsley and Rotherham.

Such nefarious activities aside, Bolsover is also a God-fearing place. The largest of several churches is the Parish Church of St Mary and St Laurence, originally built in the 12th century. Mr Skinner says he was at a charity “sing-a-thon” here a week previously, personally belting out show tunes from Carousel (If I Loved You) and Oklahoma (People Will Say We’re in Love).

Come nightfall, however, such cheery scenes evaporate. The snow-covered graveyard surrounding the parish church shines luminescent in the light of the full moon. On Hornscroft Road, peals of eerie laughter ring out from the darkness. I take refuge in the nearby Blue Bell, a former coaching inn dating back to 1748, where Cynthia Wilson is propping up the bar.

“I have been here for 25 years and you do get a lot of old witches in Bolsover,” cackles the 67-year-old. “But as for the Satanists, I personally don’t think it’s true. Nobody has ever spoken about it, not even the Sunday afternoon crowd who come here and put the world to rights. That lot are like the G8. If anybody would know about it, they would.”

Some of those working along the town’s small parade of shops are similarly dubious about the existence of the Bolsover 17. “I don’t think there is anything really to it at all,” says Chris Christopher, 29, who runs a newsagents opposite his wife Emma’s fruit and veg shop.

However Mark Wilde, a 28-year-old fryer at Bolsover Fisheries, is somewhat more susceptible to the census results. “It doesn’t surprise me to be honest,” he says, arms folded over the counter while a battered sausage wilts on a hot plate next to him. “Because we have the castle here and because that is known as a scary place, it will bring people into the town. There are all sorts of ghost stories.”

All such stories, it seems, lead to Bolsover Castle; a medieval fortress which was converted into a luxurious pleasure palace of playboy William Cavendish in the 17th century. Its ancient grounds stalked by swirling murders of crows seem ripe for Satanic worship. That is if they get past property manager Gareth Gwilt, first.

“Nobody is allowed to come on site and carry out a religious ceremony, unless they have paid for a wedding,” he says. “But we welcome everybody to the castle, regardless of their religion or faith, so long as they are an English Heritage member or pay the admission price. We don’t discriminate against anybody, particularly against devil worshippers, because nobody is allowed to worship here on the site.”

John McCorvus, a 26-year-old from Hartlepool, is northern organiser for The Rational Church of UK Satanism (an offshoot of the Church of Satan established in 1966) which claims to have hundreds of members across the country. Both churches insist their members do not worship the devil, rather they focus on the “self”.

McCorvus, whose day job is a security guard, says sacrifices, animals or otherwise, are ruled out. Rather than gathering out in the open, many convert a room in their homes into special ritual chambers.

“Our members are people of all backgrounds living all over the country. Lots just wear normal clothes. Often you won’t even know you are talking to a Satanist until they choose to tell you.”

The Satanists themselves are dubious of the Bolsover claims. And indeed the 17 may just be pranksters.

Then again, you could be standing next to one in the queue to buy flowers at Bolsover Fruit and Veg, and be none the wiser. This time, the Devil may be keeping a low profile.


'Religious' objections to vaccinations? There really aren't any

Mark A. Kellner
February 7, 2015

In the national debate over immunizing children, much has been said about "religious objections" to vaccines claimed by parents. Finding a religion whose tenets object to the practice, however, is difficult.

The number of students receiving vaccination exemptions for any reason is relatively small, the Federal Centers for Disease Control reported. Surveying the 2012-13 school year, the agency reported, "an estimated 91,453 exemptions were reported among a total estimated population of 4,242,558 kindergartners, roughly 2 percent of the nation's newest students.

But many of these exemptions, the CDC reports, are for philosophical reasons. California, for example, reported 14,921 philosophical exemptions in 2012 and zero religious ones, while Illinois reported 8,082 religious exemptions and none on philosophical grounds.

And while the question of personal objections to vaccinations remains a hot topic, one aspect seems to be indisputable: No major religion explicitly objects to immunization. The Deseret News identified one faith, with approximately 12,000 members, that has a tenet explicitly rejecting injections or vaccines of any kind.

But the world's major faiths — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam — have no explicit prohibitions against oral or injected vaccines. At times, some followers or preachers within a given religion or sect may have spoken against vaccination, but researcher John D. Grabenstein of Merck Vaccines, writing in the scientific journal Vaccine in April 2013, could find no sustained teaching against the practice in any major faith community.

In fact, Grabenstein wrote, "multiple religious doctrines or imperatives call for preservation of life, caring for others, and duty to community (e.g., parent to child, neighbors to each other)."

In an interview, Grabenstein said many religious objections were "about safety concerns, not about theology, (even though) people who went to a church, or mosque or synagogue, said 'I'm not going to get a vaccine because of my religion.'"

Mark S. Movsesian, a law professor at St. John's University in Queens, New York, who specializes in religious liberty issues, agrees.

"The people who are claiming these exemptions, it's not religious exemption, but 'personal belief,'" he said. "My impression is, that's what most of the objection is about."

Writing on the website for First Things magazine, Movsesian also denied that conscience exemptions could be blamed on the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, he noted, the Hobby Lobby majority opinion specifically excluded vaccines from such conscience protections.

Not Christian Scientists

While members of the Christian Science Church are noted for relying on spiritual healing, the organization does not list a formal policy against immunizations on its website.

Church founder Mary Baker Eddy said in 1901 that members should comply with vaccination mandates, according to Boston College history professor Alan Rogers, whose 2014 book "The Child Cases: How America’s Religious Exemption Laws Harm Children," examined legal cases involving children in the movement.

Because Eddy, who died in 1910, has spoken on the subject, Rogers said, "the (Christian Science) Church took no official position against vaccination. But, since the central belief of the Scientists was that there was no material reality, that the human body was a manifestation of God's perfect spiritual world, there was no need for vaccination. Indeed, to choose vaccination would be to deny that religious 'reality.'"

A spokesperson for The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was not immediately available for comment.

One religious group that explicitly forbids vaccinations, surgeries, medicine and anything invasive is the New Jersey-based Congregation of Universal Wisdom, founded by 71-year-old chiropractor Walter P. Schilling. He said the group has "11,600 members in 48 states and a couple of foreign countries." On its website, the group classifies as "sacrilege" the "injection into the body of medication or other matter of substances that defy natural law."

"The immunization thing isn't the driving force, it's about keeping the body pure," Schilling said. "We're looking for the natural, innate ability of the body to heal itself."

The group's beliefs have withstood legal challenge. In 2002, Kelly Turner, a Congregation of Universal Wisdom adherent, had her objections to immunizing her daughter recognized as religious by the federal District Court in Syracuse, New York, despite school authorities' contention that it wasn't a bona fide religious belief.

Exemption repeal pondered

While 20 states allow some measure of personal belief exemption, continuing instances of disease outbreaks related to unvaccinated children have caused legislators to re-examine the doctrine.

California state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and Democrat from Sacramento, introduced a bill this week that would repeal that state's personal belief exemption, the one used by nearly 15,000 kindergartner's parents in 2012.

"As a pediatrician, I’ve been worried about the anti-vaccination trend for a long time," Pan said in a statement. "I’ve personally witnessed the suffering caused by these preventable diseases, and I am very grateful to the many parents that are now speaking up and letting us know that our current laws don’t protect their kids."

In 2012, Pan sponsored, and the Legislature passed, a bill requiring those who claim a vaccination exemption to talk with a "licensed health care practitioner" about potential impacts in their communities. That bill cut personal exemptions by 20 percent in its first year, Pan said, but some California communities still have opt-out rates of more than 10 percent, which endangers others at risk for infection.

Health advocates stress the issue is one of community protection and not a religious rights conflict.

"There's not two sides of the story," said Diane Peterson, associate director of the Immunization Action Coalition in St. Paul, Minnesota. "There's the side that 95 percent of the nation support and then there's the hardcore (of people who) never met a vaccine they liked."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com Twitter: @Mark_Kellner


Feb 2, 2015


FEBRUARY 2, 2015

In case you haven’t heard, the measles are back. In a big way. Cases of measles have been on the increase in the last few years, and this month an outbreak now reaching at least 94 patients has been tied to an exposure at Disneyland.

It appears that the source of this latest infection was likely either a foreign tourist or an American who returned carrying the disease from abroad, but the outbreak has brought renewed attention to the anti-vaccination movement (like this RNS commentary arguing that “Parents who do not vaccinate their children should go to jail”). What hasn’t been highlighted is the fact that the increased instances of measles and other previously-eradicated diseases in this country over the last decade are actually a cautionary tale about religious exemptions.

All states have mandatory vaccine laws for public school students, but almost all states (48 to be precise) allow exemptions for those who have a religious objection to vaccines. And 19 states allow exemptions for those with philosophical/conscientious objections that are not explicitly religious in nature. Although I haven’t delved into the legislative history of each of these laws, I think it’s a fair bet that when they were passed the religious exemptions were intended to protect a very small percentage of the population with religious objections to vaccination, like Christian Scientists or some parts of the Amish community.

It’s unlikely that the exemptions were intended to be used by the growing number of well-educated and well-off parents whose version of a “natural”/”organic” lifestyle has metastasized into vaccine science denial. There is a debate about whether the purpose of religious exemptions is to give religion special privileges or simply to protect religious people from discrimination, especially people of minority religions who may be disproportionately impacted by general laws that are made by people of a majority religion. But regardless of the reason, most religious exemption laws are, as the name suggests, only for religious believers. (In the military conscientious objector context, the set of protected beliefs was expanded to include a philosophical opposition to war that was of a similar scope and gravity to a religious objection.)

But a belief that vaccines cause autism (which is contrary to all scientific evidence) is not the kind of life philosophy that exemption laws are generally designed to protect. And in fact, there have been recent calls to remove the “personal belief” exemption from California’s vaccine law on the grounds that it is being abused and is destroying the herd immunity that is required to protect people who actually cannot be safely vaccinated, like young babies, or immuno-compromised individuals. (“Herd immunity” refers to the idea that a population can support a small percentage of unvaccinated individuals as long as the proportion of vaccinated individuals remains above a certain threshold – in that context herd immunity will protect most of the unvaccinated individuals because outbreaks will be thwarted by the high level of vaccinated individuals).

The irony is that if there were no such exemptions in a vaccine law, it is unlikely that a plaintiff would be able to win a Religious Freedom Restoration Act claim (under a state RFRA or similar statute). A plaintiff with a “personal belief” claim would certainly not be able to obtain a judicial exemption, since RFRAs protect only religious belief.

But even a plaintiff with a religious belief against vaccination would have an uphill battle. The government’s compelling interest in public health and the eradication of fatal diseases, particularly in the population of young children, seems very hard to overcome – especially in a situation where herd immunity is required for successful eradication of the disease.

Further, it’s hard to imagine a case in which you could have stronger third-party interests than this one. For those children who cannot be safely vaccinated, the presence of an unvaccinated child who might transmit the disease is literally a question of life or death.

And the fact that there might be more than one child who cannot be vaccinated in a given school isn’t fatal – that’s the narrow tailoring inquiry, which asks whether the government has designed the law being challenged as narrowly as it can in order to achieve the goal that law is after without unnecessary infringement on people’s rights. The law requiring vaccination of all children who can be safely vaccinated in order to protect both those children and the few children who cannot be safely vaccinated is as narrowly tailored as it can get.

All in all, these vaccination exemptions should remind us of the dangers of including overly broad exemptions in generally applicable laws, especially those protecting public health and access to civil rights like education. Once the exemptions are in, they are hard to get out and very difficult to control.