Friday, April 28, 2006

TLA Conference Notes: Day 1, Session "Render Unto Caesar."

Day 1, April 26
Session: "Render Unto Caesar."
Presenter: Reverend Barry Lynn, Executive Director, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. If you click on the About link at the page, there is a small profile of Reverend Lynn if any readers want some more information. Any of my own comments I will try to put in parentheses; the rest is my notes.

This was my first session, and I have to say it was interesting as well as inspiring. I came out feeling a need to go bash a censor someplace. OK, so I don't really advocate violence, but I still think censorship is something we need to confront and counter. Rev. Lynn opened his remarks by observing that living in Washington D.C. is like living in an alternate universe from a bad science fiction novel. Thus, he finds it nice when he gets to travel.

On connecting intellectual freedom with the separation of church and state.
  • The idea of the separation of church and state is a great American contribution to thought. Such a policy actually strengthens both sides. Historically, it has not been a perfect process. Bigotry should have no sanction in America when it comes to faith and religion. (I think that last phrase he was referring to something George Washington may have said).
  • Religious fundamentalism assaults freedom and critical thinking. Fundamentalists would alter society to fit their narrow worldview. The government often turns to these people due to their power (real or perceived).
  • Not taking fundamentalists seriously is a mistake. The second mistake is to give up because we see them as too powerful. Censorship challenges intellectual freedom. A third mistake is the inclusion of bogus materials and the failure of following the evidence where it leads. (Reverend Lynn then expands these points).
Censorship in the form of challenges, book bans, etc. was discussed. Rev. Lynn discussed various examples. Religious objection cannot be the basis of censorship. Much censorship is not noticed because it occurs at the level of the decisionmaker. Groups that push for censorship can be frightening, but they are never satisfied, so giving in once will not make them go away. Therefore, don't give in.

Their tactics may vary, but the objective of the censors is always the same. Censors do not like the idea of others thinking critically. Critical thinking can undermine authority, and findamentalists hate that.

On the inclusion of bogus materials, the intelligent design issue is an example. Their concept begs the question as proponents of ID give vague answers when confronted. "Is God the intelligent designer?" "-Well, not really, but He could be." "Was it aliens then?" "Were they time travellers?" "And who then designed those folks?" Rev. Lynn also discussed the Dover case in Pennsylvania as an example. He noted that local citizens can make a different, but they have nto be informed citizens.

On academic freedom, it is to protect judgment and pedagogy of academic disciplines, not anti-intellectualism. He mentioned how President G.W. Bush has said, "I don't like to argue with myself" as a sign of anti-intellectualism. This moved to the idea of refusing to take evidence where it leads. Policy should be made on the basis of evidence. For instance, the religious right is opposing the cervical cancer vaccine, even though evidence has shown that it can be effective. Their reason for the opposition? To keep girls from being promiscuous (he added the remark that a dead girl certainly can't be promiscuous. I just linked to one article for reference. Readers could run a Google News Search or use other tools to find further information on the vaccine).

Rev. Lynn went on to observe that in the past the courts protected the people. However, the current government has been working on dismantling the judiciary and its independence. An example is seen in Judge Samuel Alito's recent letter of gratitude to Dr. James Dobson for his help in getting him to the Supreme Court (again, I include a link for reference). Another tactic that the government has used is removing certain issues from a court's jurisdiction. The idea is to avoid having the court confront certain issues, like same-sex marriage.

So, what can we do when the fundamentalist censors come? Citing Jerry Jeff Walker, "life is about attitude and timing." So, we should be acting before a challenge or issue has a chance to get controversial enough to make it to the national news. Be aggressive and fight back at the right time. And remember that we do have friends in various organizations: religious (other than the Right), legal, so on. These organizations are important resources, and we should feel free to use them.

Librarians are the ones who make sure that the truth is available to those who seek it. A bit of advice: on exhibits, err on the side of more (be inclusive), but one should be open to discussion. An example, what if Focus on the Family wants to have an exhibit at the library organization's conference? Now, such an organization is private, so they have a right to refuse, and Rev. Lynn mentioned the AU has at times been refused at some events by private organizations. However, such decisions should be at least food for thought.

If you are challenged, don't panic. Do your homework. Talk to your administrators, know your policies, and be informed. Inform the administrators too.

The best opportunity to make wise decisions is with the free flow of ideas.

Rev. Lynn suggested there should be monuments to the Bill of Rights, given that it is such an important document to the nation. It turns out there is an organization working on this.

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