Thursday, November 30, 2006

The privilege of birth

The Patriot News: Area teens struggle with U.S. citizenship test
If American teens had to pass the same test to remain in the United States that immigrants must pass, many would face finding another country to call home.

Based on the results of The Patriot-News' unscientific sampling of 10 high school-age youths, it appears our world would be a far different place.

I have to admit that I missed one question, the 13 original states. I added Vermont and Maine and realized 15 just wasn't right.

I do take issue with the social studies teacher quoted here, though:
That's why Mark Zeigler, who teaches social studies at Camp Hill High School, was not surprised to hear how local teens struggled with the test. It was not something they had been cramming for.

Zeigler agreed that the questions used in the test are very reasonable and the type of things kids ought to know, but he isn't certain they measure knowledge that would be of real value to them as adults, or to a new citizen.

"The way we taught history in the past really doesn't do democracy any good. If we just teach facts, that does not equate to more voters, more participation," Zeigler said.

Today, the educational approach emphasizes more concepts and broad strokes of knowledge. The idea is to give students an understanding of the whole democratic process, not just a collection of facts.

I agree with the teach that concepts and broad strokes are important, but the facts in this test are part of understanding the concepts. How can you understand how government functions if you don't know the three branches of government? It's no wonder The Hostiles get away with attacking the judiciary. How can you understand elections if you don't know about the Electoral College? How can you understand modern day foreign relations if you don't know our three enemies in WWII? (I started college with the intent of being a history teacher and ended up with a minor in history, so this is near and dear to my heart.)

This has a serious impact on the way public dialogue is carried out in this country. Besides the attacks on the judiciary, this lack of knowledge also comes into play when people try to claim "majority rules." Actually, the Founders recognized that majorities could be tyrannical, which is why they set up the system the way it is. It's why Christianity is not the official religion of the country and English is not the official language. If young people (and plenty of older folks, too, sadly) don't get this, we are heading down a dark path.

Andy in H-burg

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Thankful for victories

Last week the 2005-06 legislative session wrapped up in Harrisburg, and we are hyped to report two victories. These were not the "we beat back a horrible bill" type victories. In fact, bills supported by the ACLU of PA passed the legislature.

First, in legislation championed by Senator Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), the Assembly passed SB 669. Court interpreters will now be in all Commonwealth courtrooms across the state, a recommendation made in the 2003 report by the PA Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System. Here are some words of wisdom on the issue from ACLU-PA lobbyist Larry Frankel, courtesy of WITF-FM.

This bill now awaits the signature of Governor Rendell.

Second, as discussed previously at SF, the Innocence Commission of Pennsylvania has been established. The commission will take the nine DNA exonerations in Pennsylvania, examine them, and determine remedies for assuring that innocent people are not convicted of crimes. Senate Bill 1069, The Innocence Commission Act, passed the Senate unanimously in April but hit a roadblock in the House Judiciary Committee. On the second-to-last day of the session last week, Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) introduced Senate Resolution 381 to establish the commission under the Joint State Government Commission, and it passed unanimously. Because it went the resolution route, approval from the House and Governor is not required.

It sure is nice to win, rather than not lose.

Andy in the HBG

Monday, November 27, 2006

'Tis the Season

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas around the ACLU office here in Pittsburgh; our first round of holiday cards just came in the mail. The messages range from 'You Will Burn in Hell' to 'Go Back to Russia' (?), but thankfully they all end with a hearty 'Merry Christmas.'

Apparently there is an orchestrated campaign among some churches to inundate ACLU offices with holiday cards, as if we are vampires who recoil from religious iconography. To be honest, though, I don't want to totally denigrate the card campaign. They often are very pretty cards, and we use them to decorate the office for the holidays. Still, please feel free to share with your friends and family that the ACLU is absolutely, positively NOT against Christmas.

Personally, I'm still trying to convince my 90 year-old grandmother, but unfortunately she believes Bill O'Reilly more than she believes me. Maybe it is just hard to take someone seriously when you used to change their diapers. I bet Bill O'Reilly's grandmother didn't trust him either.

-Lisa in Pittsburgh

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Guest Blogger: Paula Cochran

Paula Cochran is a member of the board of the Central Susquehanna chapter of the ACLU of PA.

All deserve to be treated fairly
What makes you queasy?

Marriage can mean a man and a woman making a lifetime commitment and the possibility that the relationship will produce offspring. Yet, we don't take a marriage licence from those who choose not to, or find they cannot, produce offspring. Just as we do not take a marriage licence from those who adopt because they lack a shared genetic make up with their child (and yes, we do consider it their child). Nor do we deny marriage licences to those who divorce and choose to remarry, once, twice or three times.

A letter to the editor in The (Sunbury) Daily Item recently stated that the writer can "understand gays and lesbians entering into economic interdependence" though the thought of gay couples "engaging in some form of physical union" makes him queasy. Yet, there is no legal requirement for heterosexual couples to assure their choice of "physical union" won't make the rest of us queasy. And who would get to decide which forms of "physical union" qualify as queasy and thus, make one ineligible for a marriage license?

At least fifty percent of Americans grew up in a family where the parents got divorced. In my family there were three. All heterosexual marriages and divorces, I might add. Anti-gay marriage advocates believe that legalizing gay marriage will destroy the definition of family, which they define as "a stable, two-parent, male-female home." Yet the divorce rate in the US hovers at around 50% for first marriages, 67% for second marriages and 74% for third marriages. Almost 50% of children live in a single parent family and another 30% live in either a step or cohabiting family. That means 68.7% of American youth live in a nontraditional family already.

If gay marriage becomes legal will it mean heterosexual marriages will fall apart and we'll find 68.7% of our children living in non traditional settings? No. We already have that. Will it mean that marriage will no longer "imply procreation?" Or do moral, responsible, stable, two-parent, male-female heterosexual couples only have sex for procreation but gay people do it just because it feels good? Now I'm beginning to feel a bit queasy.

So, what would be the consequence of gay marriage? Gay people would get the same legal benefits heterosexual couples get. It's not a moral or ethical question. It's a legal question. That question is: Do all people, by law, deserve to be treated fairly?

Monday, November 20, 2006

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

Family Planning means No Birth Control.

From an editorial in last Saturday's Boston Globe:

BY NOW, Americans might expect President Bush to appoint an opponent of abortion to a key public health position in his administration. But to name an opponent of family planning to oversee the nation's family planning program is perverse even by the standards of a government that doesn't much believe in government.

Marblehead gynecologist Eric Keroack's appointment as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs in the Health and Human Services Department exemplifies the concerns of women's health advocates who have long warned that the antiabortion movement will not stop at abortion. Dr. Keroack oversees a network of "crisis pregnancy" centers across Massachusetts, where staffers not only try to talk women out of having abortions, but also oppose the use of contraception, even for married couples.

The Washington Post's editorial on the appointment noted:

To put it simply, the Bush administration's choice to direct the federal effort to make contraceptives available to low-income women works for a group that doesn't support using contraception. What comes next -- a science adviser who doesn't believe in evolution?

Well, pretty much.

And unlike the ambassador to the U.N., this position does not have to be confirmed.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

Friday, November 17, 2006

Ah, sweet irony

I'm sure it comes as no surprise to hear that there is a lot of misinformation about the ACLU out there. One that continually pops up is an email that claims the ACLU is trying to get rid of crosses on graves in Arlington. It's been around for years, and never seems to die. (You can see it on, a great site that debunks urban myths like this one.)

The truth is that personal gravestones in federal cemeteries are chosen by the family of the deceased, and not by the government. The ACLU fully supports the right of these families to express their religious beliefs.

Apparently the US government doesn't share the this belief in religious expression. The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides headstones free of charge to mark the graves of eligible veterans, has refused to move on applications to have the pentacle of the Wiccan faith designated as an emblem of belief. An emblem of belief is included on the headstone only if it is on the list of symbols approved by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This fall the ACLU and Americans United for Separation for Church and State filed separate lawsuits challenging the VA for refusing to move on applications for the Wiccan symbol for nine years. In the meantime, the agency approved additional emblems of numerous other religions and belief systems as a matter of course, usually in a few months. (More information about cases, see the ACLU press release and the Americans United release.)

And we're the ones who don't respect people's religious beliefs?

Sara in Philly

Thursday, November 16, 2006

E-Day fallout

People who are concerned about civil liberties and civil rights issues often wonder what they can do. After this last Election Day, it became abundantly clear of at least one action that people can take to preserve our democracy- volunteer at the polls. I'm not talking about the poll watching that the parties organize but the actual poll work through the county elections board. Although this is anecdotal, in just my small circle of friends, I heard of three different incidents in three counties of poll workers doing what they should not be doing regarding identification. In two of the three situations, workers asked for photo ID from voters who had previously voted in that precinct. In the most egregious example, a poll worker in Dauphin County asked a first time voter for photo ID (correctly) and her voter registration card. Fortunately, it was a friend of mine who I happened to see that night before the polls closed. She asked me if that was the right thing to do, I said, "No," and she went back and voted.

Volunteering at the polls is one small way to help protect the vote.

Andy in H-burg

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Fox-y CNN Commentator

Apparently CNN is trying to out-obnoxious Fox News. From a Media Matters post:
On the November 14 edition of his CNN Headline News program, Glenn Beck interviewed Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN), who became the first Muslim ever elected to Congress on November 7, and asked Ellison if he could "have five minutes here where we're just politically incorrect and I play the cards up on the table." After Ellison agreed, Beck said: "I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.' " Beck added: "I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."

As Media Matters for America has noted, Beck previously warned that if "Muslims and Arabs" don't "act now" by "step[ping] to the plate" to condemn terrorism, they "will be looking through a razor wire fence at the West" and declared that "Muslims who have sat on your frickin' hands the whole time" rather than "lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head" will face dire consequences.

The Media Matters has a clip of the interview, and it sounds even worse when you hear it said out loud.

Thankfully Beck prefaced his remarks by saying "No offense." Whew. Otherwise, Rep.-elect Ellison might have taken them the wrong way.

Sara in Philly

Think Tank Will Promote Thinking

Such reads a novel headline from the Washington Post today.

Apparently this group of crazies "want science, not faith, at core of public policy."

Concerned that the voice of science and secularism is growing ever fainter in the White House, on Capitol Hill and in culture, a group of prominent scientists and advocates of strict church-state separation yesterday announced formation of a Washington think tank designed to promote "rationalism" as the basis of public policy.

More specifically...

While the speakers at the National Press Club unveiling were highly critical of Bush administration policies regarding stem cell research, global warming, abstinence-only sex education and the teaching of "intelligent design," they said that their group was nonpartisan and that many Democrats were hostile to keeping religion out of public policy.

No, this is not some sort of ACLU front group--these are real flesh and blood scientists (of the mainstream variety).

Although I was glad to read about this, it is also sad our political climate has deteriorated to needing a think tank for the promotion of 'science, not faith' as the basis of public policy.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

And the award for most creative linkage of issues goes to...

I almost choked on my morning diet soda up my nose when I read this headline in the Washington Post: Mo. Panel's Report Links Immigration To Abortion

Huh? According to the article:

A Republican-led legislative panel says in a new report on illegal immigration that abortion is partly to blame because it is causing a shortage of American workers.

The report from the state House Special Committee on Immigration Reform also says that "liberal social welfare policies" have discouraged Americans from working and have encouraged immigrants to cross the border illegally.

The statements about abortion and welfare policies, along with a recommendation to abolish income taxes in favor of sales taxes, were inserted into the immigration report by Rep. Edgar G.H. Emery (R), the panel's chairman.

I just hope our own state legislature, which has been looking to take on the immigration issue, doesn't get any ideas from their colleagues in Missouri.

Sara in Philly

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

South Dakota Abortion Ban Defeated

Well, what a night (and day)! Among other things, here we have been celebrating the defeat of South Dakota's abortion ban. Voters turned out to repeal this dangerous restriction on women's reproductive healthcare (breakdown is 56-44).

The ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project has been supporting the activists involved with South Dakota's Campaign for Healthy Families for months and some staff were able to join them late last week to help make phone calls and go door-to-door to make sure people were aware about what was really at stake. Sondra Goldschein, State Strategies Attorney, wrote in her blog entry:

Someone should tell my body that this race is now over. This morning, I woke up at 6:00am ready to put on my "No on 6" t-shirt and spring into campaign mode. But not today--today is the time to savor these amazing victories against attempts to interfere with our personal and private decisionmaking.

Yes, let's all savor this moment because we all know that there's still so much more work to be done. Thanks to ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, Campaign for Healthy Families, and all the volunteers who live in or traveled to South Dakota for all their hard work.


Julie in Philly

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Radio calls on voting machine problems bogus

It turns out the calls to the local AM station about problems with electronic voting machines were just activists behaving badly:
In Dauphin County, a group of people opposed to the use of electronic voting machines called in bogus reports to a local radio station. Several callers said they voted for one party but their votes were recorded for the opposite party.

Dauphin County election chief Steve Chiavetta said there were no such problems in Dauphin County.

Chiavetta said the callers had targeted Lancaster, Dauphin, Cumberland and York counties with false reports about problems with electronic machines.

Actually, it would be impossible to have those kinds of problems in Dauphin County because we are using the same machines we've used since I was a kid, although the callers I heard did not identify the county. In Dauphin, we use a lighted push board. You push the button by your candidate and a flashing red light appears next to his/her name, and then you push a green "Vote" button. My parents took us into those booths when we were kids, a tradition carried on this morning by my wife with our daughter.

Meanwhile, the polls are going to stay open an extra hour in Lebanon County due to operator failure:
But by mid-morning, Ludwig isolated the voting machine problem to faulty disks her staff prepared for each of the county's voting machines.

"It was our fault," Carpenter said, not the voting machine manufacturer.

And the Department of State is happy with the electronic voting machines, which is a relief:
"Overall, we're pretty happy with the way things are going," said Department of State spokeswoman Cathy Ennis. Out of the 9,271 polling places and the more than 25,000 voting machines (across the state) it's a very small percentage of problems. And most of those were technical glitches when the polls opened that have been resolved."

Andy in H-burg

Rock the vote!

So today democracy is in full swing. Feel free to share your Election Day anecdotes here. No SF bloggers will tell you, of course, who we voted for since ACLU-PA is nonpartisan. I will tell you, though, that I asked myself these questions about the candidates: Will this person uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution? Does this person believe in liberty and justice for all?

Already, at 9:28am EST, stories are popping up about problems with electronic voting machines. Our local AM newstalk station reported that they received about six calls from voters from unidentified counties who claimed that when they pushed the buttons for candidates for one party, the candidates from the other party popped up. Fortunately, all of the callers said they were able to fix it before finalizing their votes.

Here's a more benign machine problem: Voting machine glitch strikes some Lebanon County machines

Also, here's an op-ed from yesterday's Harrisburg Patriot News that I found thought-provoking. A professor at Juniata College states that voter registration disenfranchises voters. I'm not aware of an ACLU position on this issue. As a general rule, we believe in expanding the vote, not restricting it:
Long before the first ballot is cast tomorrow, government officials in 44 states and the District of Columbia already will have taken away the right to vote in the upcoming congressional elections from more than 53 million Americans. No, they are not under the age of 18, illegal immigrants or convicted felons.

They are citizens whose only crime is being too busy to notice the arbitrary cutoff date for voter registration.

UPDATE, 10:30am: I intended to put this in the original post but forgot. Here's a piece on prisoners at Bucks County prison (suburban Philly) opting not to vote, even though many/most of them have that right. Speaking of expanding voting rights...

Andy in Harrisburg

Monday, November 06, 2006

To everything...turn, turn, turn

The ACLU has returned to court for the latest round in the battle against Internet censorship with ACLU v. Gonzales...

originally ACLU v. Reno...

then ACLU v. Ashcroft...

and now ACLU v. Gonzales.

My, how time flies.

The ACLU is challenging the "Child Online Protection Act" (COPA), which would impose draconian criminal sanctions, with penalties of up to $50,000 per day and up to six months imprisonment, for online material acknowledged as valuable for adults but judged "harmful to minors." The court will decide whether the law violates the constitutional right to free speech.

The Child Online Protection Act sounds like it would be all about restricting kiddie porn, right? Not quite. Our clients include Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh and Aaron Peckham, owner and maintainer of, among a number of others. (Check out the entries for ACLU in the Urban Dictionary.)

In the spirit of Dover, ACLU National staff is blogging on the trial. Testifying today is Professor Ronald Mann, a law professor who specializes in the study of electronic commerce and payment systems with a particular emphasis on credit cards.

The ACLU also set up a pretty good page on this case here.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Miscarriage of justice in Allentown

The case of Dennis Counterman, a case that death penalty opponents have tracked for many years, finally resolved itself two weeks ago when Counterman took an Alford plea in which he accepted lesser charges, without admitting guilt, in exchange for time served and his freedom.

Counterman was in prison for 18 years, including 11 years on death row, for a crime he likely did not commit. In fact, the house fire that killed his three sons was probably not a crime at all and instead a tragic accident that was set by one of his sons. Counterman was convicted because the Lehigh County DA's office withheld multiple pieces of evidence that pointed to his innocence.

Here is some coverage:

(Allentown) Morning Call: Death row to freedom
Morning Call op-ed by yours truly: Counterman case highlights death penalty problems
CounterPunch, Joey DeRaymond of Lehigh Valley Committe Against State Killing: A Case of Injustice in Pennsylvania

Andy in the HBG

Digging, Chipping, To-may-to, To-mah-to

If you're a woman who's had an abortion in Kansas, your medical records are likely to be reviewed by Attorney General Phill Kline in his quest to find "rapists, sex offenders with child victims and doctors involved in abortions."

The Kansas City Star reports:

Attorney General Phill Kline's office has received records from 90 patients at two abortion clinics and is reviewing for evidence of possible crimes.

Kline, who is opposed to a woman's right to an abortion, is not only seeking to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence. He says the doctors who would be under investigation "could include physicians performing abortions, providing a second opion for late-term abortions or failing to report abuse of a child."

Women who have had abortions in Kansas are not the only vulnerable ones in this scenario. Although the attorney for one Planned Parenthood clinic said "the records don't show any wrongdoings by the clinic," doctors who perform abortions will be subject to the extreme scrutiny of Kline's office. Abortion rights supporters believe that Kline's motive is not solely to find and prosecute sexual predators--they believe "he's on a fishing expedition designed to ensnare the clinics."

Kline's opponent in this election race is District Attorney Paul Morrison. Morrison's campaign manager says,

"Phill Kline has used the power of the attorney general's office to finally get what he wanted all along: the chance to dig through Kansans' private medical records. . . It's desperate and it's dangerous."

In South Dakota (abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest), in California (Proposition 85), in Pennsylvania (where conservative politicians want to prevent a woman's access to contraception), and in Kansas. . .it's male politicians who seem to be leading the way in chipping away at a woman's right to comprehensive reproductive healthcare.

You know, I bet all of our problems would be solved if only everyone received abstinence-only-until-marriage indoctrination from the age of 6 until they were no longer of reproductive age (see yesterday's post). I guess this means for you men out there, you'll have to suffer through the federal government's lessons on chastity a little longer than us gals since we can bail after menopause. Could this be a really twisted triumph for women!?

Julie in Philly

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What's Common Sense Got to Do With It?

Since this little tid-bit of information got quite a chuckle at our staff meeting today, I thought I'd let you in on the "joke".

The federal government has recently expanded the targeted age group for which abstinence-only-until-marriage funds are directed. Now, it won't just be children who receive inaccurate and biased information about sex and sexuality. Unmarried adults up to the age of 29 are the latest age group that the federal government is trying to make chaste. From yesterday's USA Today:

"They've stepped over the line of common sense," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that supports sex education. "To be preaching abstinence when 90% of people are having sex [according to the National Center for Health Statistics for ages 20-29] is in essence to lose touch with reality. It's an ideological campaign. It has nothing to do with public health."

For many of us, it's not such a surprise that the Bush administration has lost touch with reality. But, since the majority of us think in terms of the real world, let's think about how this would play out.

Imagine that a 29 year-old single male might be told,
For condoms to be used correctly, over 10 specific difficult steps must be followed every time. This tends to minimize the romance and spontaneity of the sex act. (Choosing the Best, p. 25).

Or, a 25 year-old female would be told this about how her needs differ from a male partner (because that is the only possible option--apparently, if we ignore homosexuality it will not exist):

"Women need affection while men need sexual fulfillment; women need conversation while men need recreation companionship; women need honest and openness while men need physical attractiveness; women need financial support while men need admiration, and women need family commitment while men need domestic support" (WAIT Training, p. 199).

While I can't help but laugh, it's quite scary to think about how this new "clarification" in the federal government's grant guidelines may impact public health.

Remember, if you're in your late 20s and still single (whether or not getting married is in your life plan and/or legal for you and your partner), it's not too late to take a virginity pledge!

Julie in Philly

First victory in Hazleton

Congrats to our great legal team, who picked up a "W" yesterday when a federal judge ruled that Hazleton cannot enforce its anti-immigrant ordinance until November 14:
U.S. District Judge James Munley, ruling that landlords, tenants and businesses that cater to Hispanics face the prospect of "irreparable harm" from the laws, issued a temporary restraining order blocking their enforcement.

"We find it in the public interest to protect residents access to homes, education, jobs and businesses," he wrote in a 13-page opinion.
Mayor Lou Barletta, who spearheaded the law, has argued that illegal immigrants have brought an increase in drugs, crime and gangs to the city. The city's lawyers on Tuesday cited a 10 percent increase in crime between 2004 and 2005 as a reason why the ordinances should be enforced.

Munley, however, wrote that the city "offers only vague generalizations about the crime allegedly caused by illegal immigrants, but has nothing concrete to back up these claims."

Which is what we've been saying almost from the start.

Here's some local coverage of the decision. And here's a good AP article that appeared on the WaPo's website yesterday:
A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the measure for at least two weeks, but the evidence suggests many Hispanics- illegal or otherwise- have already left.

That, in turn, has hobbled the city's Hispanic business district, where some shops have closed and others are struggling to stay open.

"Before, it was a nice place," said Soto, 27, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic a decade ago. "Now, we have a war against us. I am legal but I feel the pressure also."
Pennsylvania native Kim Lopez and her husband, Rudy, a Mexican immigrant, closed their grocery store Oct. 1 after business tailed off dramatically over the summer. They lost more than $10,000- their life savings.

"Everyone was running scared and left town," said Lopez, 39. "We had customers who came in who were legal citizens and they didn't want the harassment and hassle and told us they were leaving."

Andy in H-burg