Monday, December 28, 2015

NOSHA’s Social Aid and Pleasure Club: Helping at the Holidays!

~A special report from NOSHA member Eve Ortiz

As 2015 comes to an end, NOSHA members came together once again to volunteer at the Second Harvest Food Bank. While families and friends all across the nation start preparing for their end of the year festivities, many see the need to give back to their communities through volunteer work. This time of year is about giving; giving our time and our labor can be the best gift of all. Food banks and soup kitchens are a good choice for helping the neediest. For a few selfless hours, we ensure that many will eat another day.

NOSHA members have proven time and again that hard work does not scare us away, and our December 5 shift was no different. In past visits we helped to box up the food to be distributed to 474 locations throughout the 23 southern most parishes of Louisiana. By now we pretty much have a system down for the “boxing” room. The most recent visit presented us a new task. We were to sort the foods that would eventually go to the “boxing” room.

At first, it seemed a daunting task as we listened to the employee go through the instructions. In the middle of the room were several crates piled high with the donated foods that we would be sorting. Bordering the edges of the room were the many categorized boxes we were to fill. As an extra incentive, we were told that the foods that we sorted that day would end up on kitchen tables in time for Christmas dinners.

Organized chaos is what comes to mind when I think of that day! We eagerly dove in, and although some of us seemed a bit confused in the beginning, we all quickly fell into step and were sorting like it was our second nature. Organizer and NOSHA member Glenn Pearl commented that if one was to look down on us it would have looked like a bunch of ants toiling about—we were definitely a determined bunch. The speed with which we were moving — in, out, and around each other— it is surprising there were no accidents.

In the short four hours that we were there, we not only accomplished our goal of giving back to the community, but we all also got in a good physical workout. By quitting time we had emptied all the crates and had sorted a whopping 9,000 pounds of food. Thanks to Glenn for organizing another successful outing by NOSHA’s Social Aid and Pleasure Club. We’ll be back in 2016 most definitely!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Humanism (and NOSHA) Goes to Church!

The Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church
Mr. Alan Wolfe helps coordinate the “First Tuesdays: Spirituality in the City” speaker series and acts as the liaison between the guest speakers and a the co-sponsorship of The Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church and several other Catholics entities. Now in it’s seventh season, guests from diverse religions, human interest groups, and prominent leaders in local government and business are chosen to “initiate conversations about their spiritual traditions and address the theme ‘Spirituality in the City’.” We met up with Mr. Wolf at the front steps of the grand 160-year old Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church—with its Moor-influenced architecture of onion domes and pointed arches—less than a block off Canal Street in the Central Business District of New Orleans. He shuttled us down a pedestrian alley between the church and the adjacent Lenes Hall, the parish center for the church where the group meets.

Scrolling through the list of past speakers, one finds representatives from Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish traditions; journalists and authors, including Jason Berry, Bob Marshall, and John Barry; and local celebrity chefs Leah Chase and John Besh. Tuesday, December 1, the bar for diversity was set a bit higher, even by the liberal standards of the Jesuits.

“We had a speaker from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation a while back,” Wolf told me after Tuesday’s presentation, “but this was the real deal.” The “deal” being the presentation of a humanitarian, ethically positive outlook on life based on naturalism rather than traditional theology, gods, or laying claim to an ethereal spiritualism, courtesy of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association (NOSHA).
NOSHA President Charlotte Klasson and Membership Coordinator Beth Deitch spoke on the theme “Humanism: Ethical, Secular and Good for Everyone” in a coordinated tag team effort before a group of about 30 there for the midday talk and light lunch affair. Deitch started by defining terms: Humanism, naturalism, consequentialist ethics—all fitting together in overlapping  meanings and nuance, and building on a comprehensive outlook on life through the “self-aware moral agent” that the human is. Klasson gave the audience a brief history of NOSHA from its beginnings, its affiliate groups, and its function as the only local organization of its type for people sharing a non-theistic, naturalistic worldview. She stressed the importance of being vigilant about church and state separation issues, and pointed out Harry Greenberger’s (NOSHA President Emeritus) multiple ‘secular invocations’ at city council meetings to balance the typically Christian bias at that part of the meeting agenda.

Beth referred to cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker’s recent  book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker’s thesis, that, in spite of appearances, violence in the world is decreasing, could  be traced back to the tradition of the Enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th Century Europe and America, which held as axiomatic that there are knowable truths in the world, which, when discovered through the scientific method and rational thinking, would lead to an increasing improvement of the human condition—and less violent behavior—over time. This is a foundational concept of secular humanism.

During a brief Q and A segment at the end, several of the typical concerns about a godless world were brought up by thoughtful listeners. One questioned how humans could have been the basis of their own positive ethical behavior. A: The primary motivation of survival has shown us that cooperation and altruism are necessary for maintaining and propagating life. Another question from a priest in the audience was how values of good and evil, right or wrong can emanate from the naturalistic materialism that humanism claims—a problem Kant had, he added. A: The problem of consciousness remains unsolved, and the solution to the question lies in the theory of consciousness itself. (And besides that, our consequentialist ethics are “at 180s” with Kant’s categorical imperative, or universal and unswerving morality Kant thought could be  derived from rationality.)

Maybe the most relevant question—at least as it related to the theme of "Spirituality in the City”—came from a dapper man near the front, who wanted to know if humanists have anything they call spirituality. “The term is problematic,” said Deitch, as the ambiguity between spirituality being something that comes from some real but intangible spirit, which we reject, or if it is something more like a sense of awe or wonderment, a magical or enchanted mental state. Apparently he had been unmoved by an earlier partial reading of Carl Sagan’s ode “Pale Blue Dot” which, for many, stimulates an awe that comes from man’s realization of his insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps the observation of theoretical physicist/cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, though not quite as lyrical, but no less poetical, which invokes a sense of wonderment by a reversal of tack, placing man as a shining product of the grand scheme of the universe, his bodily makeup the result of elements manufactured in solar furnaces, and then spread by the exploding aged stars and spread as elemental fertilizer to create untold diversity in the cosmos.

And maybe when it is shown that spirituality is possible without spirits, numen, genies or poltergeists or gods, will we better appreciate the “real deal.”

~ Marty Bankson

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Greenberger Gives Historical Invocation at City Council Meeting

Harry Greenberger’s Secular Invocation
New Orleans City Council
November 19, 2015

"I am Harry Greenberger, President Emeritus of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association.

Thank you for having me today for my eighth secular invocation before this Council. Only one Councilperson now seated was here for any of those prior meetings, so I find it appropriate to give a quick explanation of the constitutional requirement that mandates allowance of such invocations. An old Supreme Court ruled that “Freedom of Religion” in the Bill of Rights meant that government must stay out of religion and religion must stay out of government. A more recent Supreme Court ruling was that religious invocations before governmental bodies did not violate that restriction, so long as the body invites any and all religions and established non-religious groups to present such invocations.

So you convene to consider the needs of our city, instead of lowering your heads in prayer, I invoke you, with eyes open, to deliberate with reason and compassion the needs and problems of New Orleans in order to produce the best solutions possible, remembering that we have a disparate population in which most of us are members of some minority group, race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, and I hope that we all share the belief that we must treat our fellow human beings with respect and dignity.

By applying your experience, intelligence and persuasiveness to matters on your agenda, you have, without a need for prayer, ability to lead this city into brighter days ahead.

I therefore, invoke: Your ability to govern amid conflicting interests and issues. Your ability to work together in harmony. Your sense of the true needs and welfare of the New Orleans people.

So be it. Amen."

You can watch it here. Harry's invocation starts around 26:00 minutes (not much happens for a while... there are some large gaps in activity, so be patient.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Honor of Dr. Sagan

The November reading for  the NOSHA meeting by Connie Roeder Gordon Schultz (November 21, 2015)


In 1990 as Voyager 1 spacecraft sailed away from Earth, Ground Control issued a command that directed the craft to turn around and look back from its 4 billion mile vantage point and photograph all the planets it had passed leaving our solar system.

“From Voyager’s vast distance, the Earth was captured as an infinitesimal point of light, actually smaller than a single pixel of a photo.  The image was taken with a narrow angle camera lens, with the Sun quite close to the field of view.  Quite by accident, the Earth was captured in one of the scattered light rays caused by taking the image at an angle so close to the Sun."  Dr. Carl Sagan was quite moved by that pale blue dot in the photograph.

In 1994, Dr. Sagan published Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

I want to read a couple of pertinent excerpts from that book, not only in honor of Dr. Sagan’s recent birthday, November 9, but also as we share in the recent atrocities that continue to wrack our tiny planet and ALL OF HUMANITY, all seven-plus billion of us, not just in Paris, or Beirut, or Syria, or in Nigeria, and just yesterday in Mali, or in a movie theater in Lafayette, or a community college in Oregon, or at a historically black church in South Carolina, but everywhere on our pale blue dot.

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here, that's home, that's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.  
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.  
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.” 

And one more excerpt . . .

Ann Druyan [Dr. Sagan’s wife] suggests an experiment: Look back again at the pale blue dot . . . . Take a good long look at it. Stare at the dot for any length of time and then try to convince yourself that God created the whole Universe for one of the 10 million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust. Now take it a step further: Imagine that everything was made just for a single shade of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision. If this doesn’t strike you as unlikely, pick another dot. Imagine it to be inhabited by a different form of intelligent life. They, too, cherish the notion of a God who has created everything for their benefit. How seriously do you take their claim?”

Saturday, November 7, 2015

NOSHA members sending donations to HSL!

NOSHA is collecting donations to help the Humane Society of Louisiana in their efforts to rebuild and recover from the horrific fire that destroyed their Tylertown shelter building. Animals lost their lives or are recovering from injuries and several employees lost  many personal belongings and will struggle with getting back on their feet.

We are encouraging members to donate via our website and we'll donate in the name of all secular humanists from our organization. Go to our website and look for the link at the top of the page under our banner (you can't miss it!)

All donations are accepted and appreciated no matter how small, so don't feel like you can't donate if you can't give a huge amount. Every bit adds up! You will receive an acknowledgement from PayPal that you can use if you itemize for your taxes and all monies from this link will go to the Humane Society. It is one way to help homeless animals and the people who work to make our community a more compassionate place for our furry friends in their time of need.

Thank you to everyone who has already stepped up!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Natural, Wild and Free

"Considered by many to be the as the father of wildlife
management and of the United States' wildlife system,
Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher,
educator, writer and outdoor enthusiast"
From The Aldo
Leopold Foundation
At the October NOSHA meeting featuring journalist Bob Marshall on the status of the Louisiana coast, Board Member Rita Premo read excerpts from Aldo Leopold’s seminal collection of essays on wildlife management and conservation, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949).

From the Foreword
“Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture. 
That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.”
“Such a view of land and people is, of course, subject to the blurs and distortions of personal experience and personal bias. But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings. 
Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free."
 From the final chapter
“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense. 
The "key-log" which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Shelley Segal Rules The PinChurch

Just call it another in a long list of “Only in New Orleans” quirks: book and produce professional musical acts in venues whose primary entertainment attraction is something other than live music. Like a bowling alley, for example—and call it “Rock ’n’ Bowl”; or a pinball parlor snuggled in a nondescript white shell of an abandoned church in a nondescript suburban neighborhood— and call it “PinChurch.”

Mike Perry’s PinChurch and Mystic Krewe of the Silver Ball project is not yet on the scale of Rock ’n’ Bowl, but his dedication to creating a special place is undeniable. He’s gone to great lengths to furnish the interior of the former church with audio-visual equipment, a stocked kitchenette, and pinball machines—lots of them (I stopped counting at 45)— lining the walls: Domino, Jet Spin, Funhouse, Slick Chick, Mystic, Grand Slam,300, Cyclone, Attack from Mars, and, of course, Wizard, to name a few. And all are set for “free play,” which I learned after slugging the slots with a few of my own quarters.


A performer coming into a venue competing for attention against the bells, flashing lights, and whistles and whizzes would necessarily need be confident with her talent. And Shelley Segal was up to the challenge.

Shelley is known by many in the atheist and freethinking community as the Australian singersongwriter- stylist who single-handedly assumed the role of the musical voice for the community with An Atheist Album released in 2011, and has been touring and spreading the message since making appearances with Dan Barker of FFRF and Richard Dawkins. She grew up in a Jewish family in East Melbourne that attended Orthodox sex-segregated services; and her disillusionment with the religious life eventually found a way of expression through her music.

The song “Saved” is a defiant objection to those that would impose the morals of their religion on others, and those that accept it without question “…You think that suffering is/ A part of a great plan/ That’s been devised/ I wonder, I wonder, I wonder, I wonder/ What it will take for you to open your eyes,” the lyrics written over a reggae rhythm alternating between major and minor key. Her voice is powerful, clear, controlled emotion. She incorporates musical styles taken from jazz, Indie Rock , American folk, and Bossa Nova; and writes ballads and poetic anthems that mesh artfully with her interesting guitar chordings.

Shelley is on tour promoting her latest EP Strange Feeling. At this evening’s performance, she was accompanied on several numbers by Dale on electric bass and host Mike, who also happens to be a very capable drummer.

The few from NOSHA who were fortunate enough to get tickets for the event enjoyed the delightful Friday evening experience—the PinChurch is worth the the visit in itself, but even in a house rockin’ with 50 clanging pinball machines, one felt a presence of a greater power in the person of Shelley Segal: the silver ball was no competition.

~Marty Bankson

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The NOLA Science Cafe: An Exciting Experiment

The St. Charles Parish Library in Luling, Louisiana, just upriver from New Orleans, has something unique: a planetarium. The planetarium is a 42-seat theater that projects images of our solar system and points beyond in a digital dome above and around the seating. The Director of the project is Jason Talley, also known as “The Planetarium Guy,” gave the presentation for the second Science CafĂ© presentation at the very un-planetarium-like Neutral Ground Coffeehouse on Danneel Street.

Jason’s resume of over ten years of “informal, science education experience” was evident with the upbeat and informed presentation “14 Billion Years Since the Big Bang” that about 30 people had come to hear. The basics of cosmology, the Big Bang theory, the age and the expansion of the Universe were explained in lay terms and with demonstrations using a stactic-y radio and a balloon for props.

NOSHA member Jenny Lola Smith was there with her daughter Minka and her friend Alice, whom Jenny described giving the typical 11-12 year-old response: “That was SO cool!” and “I remember that from Cosmos, but it never gets old hearing about it!” Asked which of the demonstrations impressed them the most, Minka said she liked the radio with the static, which is, in part, the reception of radiation left over from the Big Bang.

She also liked the illustration of the expansion of the universe with galaxies marked on the outside of a deflated balloon expanding farther apart as the balloon was filled up. Her companion Alice liked the PowerPoint illustration about the oldest light in the Universe and how we can measure the time and distance by the spectrum of visible light waves.

By any measure, this second Science Cafe was a success if it did no more than inspire these two bright and inquisitive minds.

Talley is the Director of the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium. With over ten years of informal, science education experience, he has lectured on a wide range of space and earth science topics to audiences of all ages.

He has served in various informal educator programs such as NASA's Solar System Ambassadors and Earth Ambassadors. Talley believes we gain a better understanding of ourselves through learning about our cosmos and looking to the stars.

~ Marty Bankson

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Looking for NOSHA volunteers -- Sign up today!

After a busy year or so, it's time to re-energize the NOSHA committees. First, we should thank those who have been active in our community projects and various other activities! We would not have been as successful without those of you who are dependable and real supporters of NOSHA. Your interests translated into rewarding events that many people have enjoyed!

We've had quite a year! We had excellent participation in activities like the Second Harvest Food Bank and Save Our Cemeteries. And who can forget our tabling at the State Capitol bringing awareness to non-believers in June. It was a good first effort and we'll be sure to do it again during the spring legislative session in 2016.

Second, because people move on to other things, schedules change and there might be some people who would like to get involved, we are looking forward to knowing who is out there who might like to lend a hand. Our committees are as follows:

  • Community Projects 
  • Darwin Day 2016
  • Special Events (Solstice parties, members-only activities, etc.,)
  • Legislative "Watch Dogs" (Monitor important bills and encourage action)
  • Krewe of the Evangelical Pastafarians 2016

And we're open to suggestions if someone has a particular interest they would like to pursue. Please help NOSHA stay strong in our community by giving a little time to something worthwhile.

You can sign up online here.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Interview of the Summer: The Benjamin-Robinsons!

On the Monday following the Friday the Supreme Court handed down its decision removing legal restrictions against same-sex marriage, Earl Nupsius Benjamin and Michael Robinson exercised their newly-sanctioned right, and became the Benjamin-Robinsons, the first such couple to marry in Louisiana. During the process of getting the license and completing the nuptials, the pair had become the face of the new reality that swept gender restrictions on marriage from Louisiana and twelve other states that had resisted change.

They appeared in local and regional news coverage from Friday through Monday, and were interviewed on CNN’s New Day Sunday Morning. They were unable to get the license in Orleans Parish Friday, probably due more to bureaucratic bumbling than theocratic finagling or other conscious opposition. On Monday they were advised that licenses would begin being issued that day in neighboring Jefferson Parish, and the beginning of the end of their fourteen-year struggle for fairness was at hand.

This interview was completed in two sessions, the first part was done in person, and the second by telephone.

Marty Banks How did the time pass from Friday until Monday—was it more like an eternity or an eye blink?

For me, yeah it did go quickly, but that is only because there was so much going on. There were people calling and emailing and texting and congratulating. We were on the phone with people and we were talking with the Forum for Equality because we knew they were doing things behind the scenes as far as working with lawyers, strategizing. They asked how far we would be willing to drive to get this marriage license, and we were like wher-ev-er. So we knew they were getting things in place and it kept us excited and anxious—they seemed to be convinced we could get this straightened out before this week was over. So that gave us a lot of hope, so yeah, it didn’t seem like time was going by at a snail’s pace.

I also had a paper that was due, so I contacted my professor to let him know that “hey, there was not going to be any way I was going to turn this in today.” He gave me an extension until Monday, so with all this going on and that paper needing to be completed, it went by fast.

And by Sunday morning, we were on CNN. We got up at 5 that morning because we had to be at the studio at 6:30 for a live broadcast on New Day. Once we left there, we started getting texts and requests for interviews.
Times Union

How did you plan to deal with it this time, whether you might have to wait days or weeks before you got a license?

We were just going to deal with it, go with the flow. Probably take the opportunity to do more interviews, to push their hand, to proceed with what needed to be done to get the license.

But we did have one strategy: I work in the building where the license is issued, where Vital Records is. It was going to be easy for me stop down on my way to work every day—“Hey, you got my license today?”—we were going to tag team them all day long…..that was Monday morning, and we would take turns, asking, checking.


What kind of assistance did the Forum for Equality give you?

They did everything, except legal counseling. They had reached out to us the week before and told us this was about to take place, and asked if we wanted to be a part of it, what the strategy would be the day the decision came down. So we got a lot of guidance from them— when to move, who to have conversations with, sometimes even what to say. They were really key in giving us those fundamentals and basic talking points around the issue.

The other thing FFE did was to set up the Judge Paula Brown to marry us. There was some background work that had to be set up for that to take place. We knew that once we got the license, there could be a problem getting a judge to marry us, and getting married was our intention. So that detail about getting a judge that would perform it was important. We would really like to thank Sarah Jane, Chris, and both Johns, and I know there were many others who worked tirelessly. Jackie, all of them. The did the heavy lifting.

We have marriage rights now, but we still have some ways to go on other issues. LGBT individuals can still be fired from their job and discriminated against in housing. So when marriage rights are complete, this battle must go on with the other issues that need to be talked about.

We know that race and sex orientation aren't choices, but religion is. As a member of NOSHA, Earl, it could be assumed you are an atheist or at least agnostic on matters of religion. When or how did you decide that atheism was a choice or a viewpoint that seemed to make more sense for you?

It was a long process. I think I became an agnostic in 2004. I was raised a Southern Baptist, and I started to come to terms with there was no…I couldn’t find any validation in the Bible anymore; where it related to me, validated my existence, particularly being a gay man. So I just began to study a lot, and over the period of a couple of years, I came to the understanding I was really an atheist, and the only reason I was an agnostic was because I was try to cling to, or make sense of what I had been taught as a child, and give it purpose and meaning in my life. 

But as I began to think about my experiences —I never saw any hocus-pocus stuff— when I became emotional in church I began to see it for what it was: just emotions attached to an experience. But when started to think about what slaves went through—and I thought there was no relief—that was 400 years of pain. When you think about it, 400 years of pain, and all that time I’m hearing people say God works in mysterious ways. God may not come when you want, but he's always on time. That didn’t fit anymore, it didn't make sense anymore, and I was not going to tarnish what my ancestors went through with a BS religious belief. At that time about in 2007, I came to the understanding that just was not for me, and it just fell away….just like that, it fell off. I can’t do this anymore and I need to remember these individuals and remember the pain they went through and use that information to live the best life I can live.

How do you two deal with the diversity in religious belief and non-belief, in view of the fact that you, Michael, are Christian?

That’s a good question. Sometimes we have discussions, sometimes heated debates, about our different belief systems —we’ve even debated about what he believes is even a belief at all; down to the nitty-gritty of describing the words of how we interpret this whole thing. It’s been a journey for both of us. I don't have any issues with him being atheist. I respect him for living by his convictions. The only thing I wanted for Earl, or anybody, was just to have peace within themselves. As long as he has that, it doesn't matter if he is a believer or not. I describe myself as a Christian, and that is the easiest description, but probably not the most accurate.

Earl would probably describe me as an agnostic I still describe myself as Christian because I was led to enlightenment through the teachings of Jesus Christ. But some principles that Christians live by I don’t always agree with those. It allows us to have good conversations that would not be possible if I adhered to the strict letter of the law. I am more open-minded. I don't allow placing blame and judgment.

So if you don't go by the strict interpretation of the Bible, you don't accept what it claims are what marriage is supposed to be?

It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s just that some use the texts to express bigotry and make judgments against others. I have reconciled in my heart what God tells me about …it’s a very personal thing…I can validate from scripture that God loves me as I am ….but I still have to be responsible, as a Christian, as a gay Christian, I can’t go having sex with everybody, I have to respect my body as a temple. To me there are two different things: religion and faith. And religion is man-made. Greatly flawed. We try to live perfectly and it is not obtainable, so people want to classify and put you in groups. We have corrupted what should be: the spirit of love.

Earl, growing up black and gay in post-Jim Crow Louisiana, in what is nearly the 
geographical center of the Bible Belt must have had its challenges, to say the least. Were there times when you doubted yourself, or even disliked what you were?

Growing up black and gay starting with my pre-teen days, I was very uncomfortable. When I was twelve, I was coming to terms that I was gay. I remember one day I went home and went into the bathroom and cried out to God as I looked in the mirror and told myself to say I was gay and I couldn’t say it; but then finally did and became overwhelmed with emotion. From the age of 10 to 19, I was very unsure of myself. Even though I presented a facade of confidence and most people believed I had it together, there were a lot of times I was really unsure about myself. My religion, racism, and being gay played a tremendous part of that discomfort. I had many experiences that made me feel like I was a second class citizen. I know this is post-Jim Crow, however growing up in the 1980s and 1990s—I grew up in Grambling, but went to school in RustonRuston is about 50-50 black and white, but whites really ran the town. You felt it and you knew it. For example, one day I went to school with a lot of change in my pocket. Some money came up missing. The teacher accused me, saying “You did it! You did it!” Another time I remember talking about Miss Louisiana with some white friends and I remember them saying there will “never be a black Miss Louisiana, never.” I remember that to this day. I know those kids got that from their parents. Another time I got into a verbal altercation with another student and he called me a n****…and I had never been called that before… we didn’t even use the word in our house. The teacher just shrugged it off and told me to “get over it”. 

Just the institutional and structural racism that existed inside the educational system, you could feel it. 
And later in high school, people start picking up that you are gay, and that just added to it. I remember a teacher, out of the blue, she just came up to me and started apologizing. I asked what she was apologizing for, and she said it was for treating me in a certain way. It wasn’t until later that I processed what she had done; and what she had done was treating me differently for being gay rather than black. She was a drama teacher and you would think would do better with dealing with this type of students, but she really didn’t. So, I could really see that both my race and sexual orientation had shaped how I was perceived as not fully acceptable to others.

Evaluating that perception also gave me a clearer picture of the god that really isn’t there for me. You hear often within the African-American experience of how spiritual we are, and when you look at the amount of praying that we do, our devotion and faith, but for that, we still have this huge amount of poverty and inequality. And for me that was a huge disconnect. And so for me at around 30 I started to take a look at that and see that hmm, this is a mythology. It’s mythology and it doesn't work for me and I no longer want to be a part of it. And it fell away.

The politicians courting the Religious Right seem to be coming up with all of these rules about how this state, and Mississippi and Texas are going to “interpret” this ruling and set their own conditions for its implementation. For example, Louisiana Governor Jindal says that any clerk of court that has a deeply-held religious belief against same sex marriage will not be forced to issue a license. What’s up with all these politicians?

We’re listening to the idiotic, discriminatory and reprehensible comments that Donald Trump makes. They are always targeting another group, so they play the different communities against one another— when these groups could be stronger together instead of in opposition.

We have been taught that we need to be separate, for whatever reason, and that diversity is more than just cultural, and something that has some deeper moral value. I think we all should start embracing what makes us different, whether we are white or black, gay or straight, or atheist or Christian.

And to the point, it is one thing to agree with this, but we are at the point where the majority group, the white, need to take ownership of the fact that, in being white, there is a certain amount of privilege that you have, and in order for things to get better they need to have conversations about this privilege. Your privilege comes at a cost to people who look like me, sound like me. I’m not trying to take anything from you, I just want the same opportunities, the right to work hard as well. A lot of politicians telling you we are just trying to take what is yours.

No, we just want a fair playing field. No one has ever wanted to have those conversations. It’s not about blame, it’s just what happened and how we resolve it. The politicians are taking advantage of many people that are poor and don't have much education and make them feel better by giving them a voice or some code language that says “I am with you! We are one, and that’s the other people, they are trying to take what you have.” No, someone is pulling the sheets over your eyes. At the end of the day, they don’t really care about the poor white anymore that the black.

Michael It’s kind of like that conversation about the Confederate flag. I don’t think it needs to be destroyed or anything, but that it just needs to go into a museum so that we can remember our story. Give a historical reference for why it was important at that time—that it still means heritage to some people—it’s offensive to enough people that it’s only fair that we move away from things that are divisive and find things that bring us together. Adding to what Earl said, it’s also the privilege that comes with being heterosexual, and I think that is the next conversation that needs to happen. I’ve been reading the comments online since this started and I’m hearing a lot of heterosexual bias. 

Straights don’t understand that some of their comments are offensive when they are trying to be cool—it’s kind of like the white person that says I have a lot of black friends. And they say things like—well, why do you have to call it “marriage?” In other words you want it to be separate, but equal? They don't even realize they are repeating the same things that we have learned don’t work. I think they need to acknowledge that there is a privilege that comes with being heterosexual. A privilege that keeps them from having to think about the things we are forced to think about that we shouldn’t need to. But because these conversations are happening, I think it is starting to create a better country.

The interview was completed several days later, with Earl.

We talked about privilege-white privilege, heterosexual privilege. Would comment on the privilege owned by Christians in this country?

In the United States, Christians have a tremendous amount of privilege. I believe about 70% the population in the US is Christian and 80% of Congress is Christian, the people that represent us. You can see they have a significant amount of power, as a result of that power they get to affect policy and laws, they get to set the tone for how they think culture should look or is shaped.

Privilege, of a sort, of the non-religious has also recently been brought into the discussion. This month’s Humanist from the AHA is has several articles inspired by a panel group session the association convened at its annual convention. The panel group was on the subject of humanists and the black community, in particular, #BlackLivesMatter. Do you as a humanist, and looking at it from both sides, think that humanists may also be complacent and rest on privilege that keep them from real-time involvement or just the simple act of reaching out to our black neighbors?

Yes, I know as humanists we are a microcosm of society, and sometimes overlook minorities and fail to reach out to other groups. We think we are doing a good job of it, but we really aren’t. I’m glad they took that issue up in the magazine, because now I know my humanist brothers and sisters are thinking about the ramifications of their actions involving all human life, not just focused on learning science but also thinking about those social justice issues that effect all of us.

To quote Monica Miller, in her article “Outlaw Humanism” from the magazine, advises that “Humanists….must get beyond our obsession with deconstructing belief in a god…What does a humanism look like that gets beyond its position on ‘gods,’ ‘belief,’ ’theism,’ and ‘religion’ in order to address the mess, social evil, and death that humans have created?’

Yes…I know for a fact that there are many African-Americans in New Orleans, in Louisiana that do not subscribe to religion, but yet they participate in those routines because they have no other place to socialized or network. So, if a humanist organization would re-direct its efforts from trying to deconstruct religion and focus on the social justice issues within their community, they would increase their numbers tremendously, particularly in the African- American community.
The thing the church has over us is the fellow-shipping —I think Jerry DeWitt has a very good idea about that: I think that is more attractive to those people who want to leave religion but don’t want to leave those cultural elements like that fellowship they find in the church. Sometimes we want to get so intellectual, but not everyone is like that—it might even turn people off sometime because they are not at that level or just don’t get it. Some don’t even like to talk about things like morality on a deeper level, which I think is very interesting, but not everybody wants to hear about that. They just want to hear about day-to-day life, how does it affect me. For example, Michael thinks all we do is try to convert people, or ridicule people, Being a scientist though, he does like discussions about science.

Being a humanist, I have hope. I’m an atheist, but I still have hope for the human race. Sometimes you wonder, and it takes a lot of effort to keep the hope alive. And when you see things like this happening—expansion of marriage rights and the validation of the Affordable Care Act—last week was a great week.

When we were in Jefferson Parish waiting to get the license, I saw people caring about us. I didn’t go in thinking people were going to congratulate us, but there were black people, white people, Asian people, and old people—they all congratulated us. They said encouraging things. Human beings, when you remove culture, are innately good. People are basically good, but when you bring in things like tribalism the issues come. It’s when things like xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and poverty come to the forefront and people don't see you or me as the human that we are. If I don't leave you with anything else, I think there is something in us, it may be a survival mechanism, that says we are stronger together and it isn't until issues of lack of resources, tribalism, and homophobia come to the table that our attitudes and beliefs start to help us see each other differently—that we are all stars—and I mean that literally and figuratively. We come from the stars and I’m just a living, walking, breathing star.

We are all just stardust, and it’s just a matter of how it is arranged.


~Marty Bankson

Monday, July 13, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Atheism for Dummies

Dale McGowan's latest book, Atheism for Dummies, is an excellent introduction to a complex topic. While some short introductions to atheism focus almost exclusively on positive atheism (the active assertion that there is no God), Atheism for Dummies describes varieties of unbelief such as agnosticism, religious humanism, and secular humanism. It places unbelief in historical contexts both ancient and modern, dispels many of the popular myths about atheists, and points the interested reader toward additional resources.

The aim of the book is to deliver breadth rather than depth. There are no abstruse arguments about epistemology, philosophy, or theology. Instead, the reader will finish the book with a general understanding of what atheism is and how it came to be. Sections describe atheism through history, major works of the past and present, "being good without God", and living in a society dominated by religion. Although aimed at the novice, even a studied atheist is likely to learn something useful.


Like other books in the "For Dummies" series, this one aims to bring a broad overview to a diverse audience. Its 350 pages of text might scare away some potential readers, but that page count is just a number. The design of the series emphasizes short paragraphs, inset boxes, and lots of white space to keep things readable. The organization of the book also makes it easy for the reader to choose which sections to read, which to skim, and which to skip.

Author Dale McGowan knows what he's talking about. He's also written Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion (2007), co-authored Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief (2009), and edited a volume titled Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics (2012).

Atheism for Dummies, by Dale McGowan. For Dummies Books (2013). ISBN: 978-1118509203.

~ Jim Dugan

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Capitol Day for Freethinkers… What a Concept!

With symbolic baby steps, Louisiana atheist and secular groups entered the Louisiana Capitol on June 7 and set up information tables in the northwest corner of the marble-and mural-embellished Memorial Hall.

Those modest first steps may have resonated more than the nonstop shoe clatter of legislators, pages, and other government groupies scuttling across the buffed stone floors of the grand hall of the building. For the first time, an organized presence of openly anti-religious citizens staked a claim to owning a part of the legislative process, a right to be seen and heard in the people’s house, which until now was the default divine province of fundamentalist Protestant lobbyists and Catholic archbishops.

Although on this day there was going to be no legislation proposed, no lobbying undertaken, or speeches made, secular Louisiana made another small inroad into the consciousnesses of Louisiana legislators, baby stepping. Previous appearances by Jim Dugan at Senate Education Committee hearings on the humorously-named Louisiana Science and Education Act may gave been the first efforts to give a meaningful voice to the secularist viewpoint against religious influence on public policy. At this day’s event, we emerged from the relative obscurity of committee chambers and parked it frontand- center, in the company of the 10-foot white marble statue of Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Bienville, founder of New Orleans.


Through a common Facebook page several Louisiana Atheist groups share, the group was able to get representatives from Alexandria Freethinkers, Winn Parish, and the recently re-organized Baton Rouge Freethinkers (formerly Capital Area Atheists and Agnostics) to join in with the NOSHA representatives from our group to offer information and handouts, and, from the Alexandria group, devilishly tempting packs of Skittles. Several small placards and one poster-sized sign implored passers-by to ASK AN ATHEIST.

The event drew a moderate number of questioners, which, given the budgetary crisis that was in need of being resolved by Thursday, left legislative types little time for much else, should be considered a success. A snapshot of a typical visitor was someone who “just stopped to see what it is all about”…with the “it” being atheism, and the “about” being what the implications are beyond basic non-belief, namely in this statehouse. Several with this line of questioning seemed to be nervously glancing about to see if he was being observed. A few even said they were open minded. Yes!

Activities like Capitol Day, attending legislative sessions, speaking up at committee hearings, and any form of government petitioning are all, by themselves, small steps, but are cumulative and essential to gain more attention and respect if we are serious about affecting positive, beneficial legislation for all citizens, and countering the regressive influence of the religious lobby. So thanks to all who share this commitment and were able to take the time to come.

Participants included:
Alexandria Freethinkers—Kevin Clarkson, Matt Gallagher, Baton Rouge—Katherine Shurik, Angela Adkins, NOSHA—Charlotte Klasson, Jim Dugan, Rita Premo, Beth Deitch, Michelle Abeyta, Marty
Bankson, Avi Velazquez, Winn Parish—Randall T. Hayes

~Marty Bankson

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Science Cafe Serves Up Food for Thought

Local food and restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorrris lists 1401 eateries in metro New Orleans. And that’s not counting franchises or fast food outlets. He will probably not be including one recent opening in his updates—that of a local version of the new multinational concept of  “Science Cafes”. That’s because the fare served there is information, specifically about topics in science, rather than the latest twist on bistro comfort food or arty but bitty portions of nouvelle cuisine.

NOSHA has teamed up with Delgado professor Dr. Marion Freistadt to bring topics of different scientific disciplines to the general public. It’s an interesting new approach for widening public awareness about the value of having at least a cursory understanding of how science relates to issues in an increasingly complex world. Lectures and discussions are served up for small groups in an informal setting at easily accessible locations.


Freistadt’s educational and professional background is in the biological discipline of virology, the study of viruses. She comes “from a strong traditional academic background with grant funding,” she told me in an email. “I am currently setting out on my own and am therefore seeking a robust partnership of local and national sponsors.”

She is the founder and director of Virology Institute of New Orleans, a nonprofit incorporated in Louisiana, which was established for “Advancing Science Education” .Services provided by the Institute to achieve that end include “Science Cafe, monthly newsletters, the ‘Going Viral’ radio show, enhancement of science literacy, science career mentoring, research funding reform, and virology research”.

On May 12, Freistadt presented to a group of 20-25 at the uber-funky Neutral Ground Coffeehouse with a balanced overview on the topic of vaccines: the different types and how they work to protect from infection; a brief history from the earliest days of the discoveries of Edward Jenner and his discovery of the cowpox vaccine to fight the then rampant smallpox scourge; and Louis Pasteur finding defenses against rabies and anthrax. Her talk included some of the current issues centered around vaccination, and she put into perspective which concerns are legitimate and others that are based more on hysteria and conspiracy theories than fact. Over the years, we have basically eradicated smallpox and polio, and were on the way to ending measles before the recent upsurge in cases—primarily because of misinformation riding on the coattails of the vaccine-as-Autism-cause panic.

Dr. Freistadt’s long-term goal is to have her Virology Institute housed in a geodesic dome similar to the one Buckminster Fuller designed as the biosphere for Expo 67 in Montreal. She says it is “visually educational” because the design mimics the naturally occurring design that many viruses use to package their genome within a three dimensional structure.

More Science Cafe sessions are to be sponsored “in the foreseeable future,” said Freistadt. “The broader mission of VINO is to enhance science literacy….Lots of suggestions, such as astronomy and relativity have been put forward. I am open to many ideas. We are just starting.”

So let’s do lunch. And think about tipping VINO at This fledgling good-cause operation is worthy of our support. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Night To Remember with Psychic John Edward

NOSHA member Mark Zeller (r)  and internationally-
known celebrity psychic, John Edward. 

Earlier this month, I was given the gift of a John Edward event. A good friend of mine wanted me to see for myself the powerful psychic abilities of Mr. Edward, so she bought us tickets. She had seen him once before in Baton Rouge, but had not gone to the additional “after event” on that occasion. So, she splurged and got us both “upgrades” for the extended show where John gets more personal. This was my first live experience seeing a medium doing readings with the audience, and I was curious to see if he could convince me to believe in his abilities, so I humored my friend and accepted her expensive gift. Also, this is my first attempt at writing a blog post, so I ask that you excuse my lack of experience in this and bear with me.

I would like to start my description of the evening with some plain statements of how the event occurred. First, the tickets! They were $150 per person, and the upgrade was another $75 per person. I counted five sections of 80 chairs in the hotel ball room where the event was held, and it was nearly packed, if not sold out. So, I’ll say at least 350 people were in attendance. Roughly half of the audience stayed for the extended show, so I’ll say about 150 people must have ponied up for it. The math tells me that comes out to be $63,750 for three total hours of work before paying anyone or covering expenses. To be a little more conservative, I will round down the total take to $60,000.

Now, John does not do all of this alone. He has what I will call the show director, an aggressive but friendly lady responsible for organizing the crowd and getting everyone checked in. Also, there were at least two other women working as assistants by taking tickets and passing out microphones. I am not sure if the sound man and personal security guard were hired locally, or travel with him, but the two of them had to be paid as well. No catering was required – only the large ball room and 400 chairs. The vast majority of the audience was women, and probably half of them were middle aged and up. I guess it may have been 20-to-1, women to men.


As for John Edward himself, I learned a little about him, too. He is very friendly and likable. He came on stage in jeans and a plain shirt, and if you didn’t already know who he was you would never guess that he is a famous psychic. He explained himself for a few minutes, stating that he has been doing this for 30 years. He assured the crowd that he does not have a gift, but an ability. The gift is from the spirits that communicate with him and pass messages through him. He is married and has children who he evidently calls between the main event and the "after event". He also spoke on positive living, positive energy, chakras, and a bit of astrology. He told his story of discovering his ability as a teen when his mother had a psychic friend come over and give readings. At that time he said he wanted to test this purported psychic with questions, so he did, and was astonished when what she told him was true, even things no one else could have possibly known about him (spooky, right?). He continued by explaining his approach as a teacher, and that he used to show more patience with his audience (my words, not his), but felt he was not being his true self, which is a smart ass (his words). So, he warned us that if we said something stupid, he would call us out on it. And this was in addition to being informed that we could be asked to leave if we were caught using our phones or any recording devices.

The real fun began when five audience members were randomly chosen to ask a question of John. So, scattered about the room were five women who received a microphone, and waited for their turn. However, midway through the questions, John began his readings, and expressed mild surprise that it was happening, because he didn’t think it was time yet. He started by pointing to one corner of the audience, because the spirits were guiding him that way, and he started throwing out clues. I don’t remember specifically what he asked for when he started, but I will give some examples of the questions and comments he offered once the spirits started communicating with him. He used generalities, because the spirits are generally vague. For instance, he said he hears/sees/feels “Karen, Karina, Christy, something with K and R” coming from that area of the room. Then, he waited for responses from the audience affirming someone in that general was, or knew, a Karen, Karina, etc.

He also referenced other common scenarios, such as: someone who committed suicide, someone who overdosed on drugs, a father figure (dad, step-dad, uncle, etc.) or mother figure (aunt, friend, big sister who had to raise you because your real mom died, etc.), someone who works in health care, someone who works in education, someone who died of cancer, and so on and so forth. For every hint at what he was being told from the other side, he would expect a suitable response from the area of the room in which he was being guided. When he did not get a positive response from whomever he was speaking to, he would switch to someone in the immediate area whom did give a positive response. That person would then get to hold the mic until another nearby audience member chimed in with something that fit what John was receiving from the spirit world. This continued for about two hours, as John, who remained on stage, would scan around the room looking for his next reading.

One reading surprised me when the “B” name he was trying to pinpoint turned out to be the family dog who was also at peace with the deceased relatives. In every case, the response from the dead was the same – they chose to speak through John, because it was their way of basically checking in and saying they were alright. He assured one woman, after she told him that she had a tumultuous relationship with her deceased sister, that her sister in fact wanted her to let go, and that everything was alright. He made a bunch of women cry that evening by convincing them he was in contact with their loved ones. John gave comments and details that were general enough to apply to most anyone, but he was clever enough to use more specific examples as they would apply to a situation. It was kind of like a big game of 20 questions, except John was allowed a lot more than 20 questions, and he could start over with another person if he wasn’t getting the right answers. A couple of times he even insisted a person was wrong, thereby forcing said person to think really hard to GIVE HIM A FITTING ANSWER. The man was not revealing anything, the audience was!

The "after event" was somewhat a continuation of the main event, where John came back out and answered as many questions as he could from the audience, as opposed to interpreting messages from the other side. He offered some kind, touchy-feely, new age, positive affirmation ideas for living a good life, and he answered questions about his personal experiences as a medium for the last 30 years. To conclude the evening, he answered a young black lady when she asked what his strongest communication was from the other side. He paused, and asked her age and where she was from. When she told him 38 and Kansas City, he literally jumped for joy and exclaimed “I found you!” It turned out that 10 or 11 years ago he was told by some spirits that he would encounter a middle aged black woman tied to Kansas City, and that he was to train her. Ever since then, he had been searching and waiting to find this mystery woman. So, he told her to see his assistant and give her information so he could contact her. To add to it, her last name was Edwards! Wow! It was very touching, and everyone applauded and congratulated her.

As a final note, I want to say that I am a skeptic by nature, and I only accepted the invitation to this event at my friend’s insistence, and after warning her that it would not change my mind. I did enjoy the show, and I consider it entertainment, if you pardon the toying with people’s emotions aspect. John Edward is a nice fellow on stage, and he entirely gives the appearance of wanting to help people, if you pardon the $150 dollar ticket price and the fact that you probably won’t be picked for a reading. Also, I received a one year membership to his website, and I will be receiving a signed copy of one of his books in the mail for (my friend) purchasing the upgrade to the after event. A small part of me wants to suspend disbelief in this stuff because it feels nice, and it would be nice if it was true, but the rational part of me says it’s just a show. So, if you have $150 to spare, and you want to be a part of mass hysteria, go to and look for him in a city near you. Seriously, he has another 40-something events scheduled this year.

~Mark Zeller

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


April 27, 2015

I could hardly have imaged while planning a vacation late last year that one of the days of the scheduled time off would give me the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to argue the issue of the forthcoming decision on marriage equality before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Well, sorta.

Not actually arguing the case before the justices of the court, of course, but rather "debating" some of the points with a couple of the devoted End Times prophets assigned to take questions after an announced delivery of reams and boxes of petitions signed "by hundreds of thousands", reportedly, to voice opposition to expansion of marriage rights. I came with just one prepared question.

"Is marriage a civil contractual agreement or some sort of religious ritual or oath?" I asked the woman with a big voice and puffy pink insulated ski jacket.

"Marriage is a sacred union of a man and woman blessed by Jesus Christ," was her answer.

"Then you are saying it is a religious affair. So why is it that I did not have to go to a church or any officer of any religious affiliation to get a marriage license, or to have have the ceremony?" asked I, playing a little dumb, a little coy.

"What about the First Amendment, what about the separation of church and state?" I could sense I was getting close to her "final answer".

"The First Amendment shouldn't have been!" she interjected, "God's law trumps man's law!"

Time to redirect. "OK, God's law. So do you believe in Shariah Law?"

"I absolutely do NOT...that's the Devil's religion!" she chimed back, rather indignantly. At this point her bearded, burlap bag robed accomplice told me, in no uncertain terms "This ain't no Mooslum country, it's Cristiun!"

A youthful, self-proclaimed gay man had come up showing an interest to get involved in the discussion and was a welcome reinforcement: It had become apparent that the antagonists had not refined their arguments enough to carry on a keen, reasoned debate, and rather than get myself worked up into a day-long tizzy, I retreated quietly back into the crowd, my day of arguing before the Supreme Court finished, my Mitty-esque flight into the annals of "Equal Justice Under Law" (1) dissolved into the reality of just another day, another vacation.

~by Marty Bankson

(1) Inscription on the frieze of the Supreme Court building.

Photos provided by Marty Bankson.

Monday, April 27, 2015

HB 707 Deserves Our Attention!

It’s good to see various communities in New Orleans and across Louisiana getting organized against the proposed “Marriage and Conscience Act,” H.B. 707. Reacting to the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same-sex marriage legal, even in behind-the-times Louisiana, HB 707 ensures that the Louisiana cannot enforce any of its state laws regarding discrimination and public accommodation, provided that an individual or business acts out of moral convictions about the institution of marriage. Supporters of the bill reach new lows of disingenuousness when they claim it would not authorize any kind of discrimination. Technically, the bill does not make discrimination legal, but in any practical sense it completely neutralizes state power to act if discrimination is motivated by values attached to marriage. It clearly sends a message that those who wish to discriminate are free to do so.


HB 707 should not be confused with so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs), because HB 707 contains critically different language. It prohibits the state from acting against discrimination that is motivated by “a religious belief or moral conviction about the institution of marriage.” For one thing, HB 707 does not require that religious beliefs be “sincerely held,” as many RFRAs do. Secondly, HB 707 also allows discrimination arising merely from “moral conviction,” rendering irrelevant any argument about what is or is not a “religious” belief. Obviously, “moral convictions about the institution of marriage” is hopelessly vague language, opening the door to all kinds of abuse.

HB 707 might be amended in ways that narrow the basis of discrimination that it protects. One proposed amendment would narrow protection to actions arising from beliefs or convictions “that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.” This would eliminate some problems, though certainly not all. The passage of this particular amendment is far from certain, though, at least in part because it exposes the anti-gay animus that is at the heart of the bill. Such an amendment would raise the odds of an Equal Protection challenge.

Choosing up sides is already well underway. Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the Louisiana ACLU, provided a scathing condemnation of the bill in a letter to The Advocate on April 21st, pointing out terrifying consequences of HB 707 as written. Unsurprisingly, a letter supporting the bill was penned by Reverend Gene Mills, Executive Director of the Louisiana Family Forum, a group notorious for its anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-science, anti-woman activism. More disturbing was a screed from Louisiana’s part-time governor and full-time presidential wannabe, Bobby Jindal, published in the New York Times. It’s an explicitly Christian, anti-liberal and anti-gay hit piece that is also oddly (coming from a Republican) anti-business. Mills and Jindal both try to paint Christians as the true victims of discrimination, and both shamelessly misstate the likely impact of the legislation.

If the backing of Jindal and Mills is not enough to demonstrate the theocratic impetus behind HB 707, one need only look into the background of the bill’s author, recently elected state Representative Mike Johnson, R-Bossier City. According to Wikipedia, Representative Johnson is an attorney, a trustee of the Ethics and Religious Liberty committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, a senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, and a member of the Louisiana Family Forum.

There was a meeting in New Orleans this Thursday (4/24), hosted by a coalition of organizations like Equality Louisiana, Louisiana Progress Action, Louisiana Trans Advocates, and others. The short-term plan is to work to keep HB 707 from getting out of committee, and with legislators worried about business backlash, this could actually happen. Those who are interested should monitor, which will provide updates on the bill’s progress.

You should also let your representatives in Baton Rouge know where you stand. You can look up your elected representatives HERE. The bill will next be considered by the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure, whose members are listed HERE. One of the members of that committee is the author of HB 70, Representative Mike Johnson.

~Jim Dugan

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Kopplin Tries Once Again To Get Senators To Evolve

On April 22nd, Louisiana Senator Karen Carter Peterson and education activist Zack Kopplin again led an effort to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). The LSEA was cleverly crafted to enable teachers and local school boards to bring anti-evolution materials into public school classrooms. It was easily passed into law in 2008, and efforts to repeal it have since become an annual event.

This year’s repeal effort was just a little bit different. While many supporters and opponents signed up to speak, the Senate Education Committee “called the question” quite early, cutting off most of the would-be speakers. The decision of the Committee came down to one vote, which is much closer than usual. But once again, the committee decided to defer the repeal, meaning that the LSEA remains in effect for at least one more year (click HERE to see a video of the 54-minute hearing).


Cheers go of course to Senator Peterson, who introduces the repeal bill each year, and to Zack Kopplin, who organizes support each year. Kopplin has been busy investigating the creationist misbehavior of some Louisiana public schools. His quite damning findings were published on just the day before the committee hearing, and he summarized those findings for the committee. Special kudos go to the Lane family, who testified before the committee, and more importantly, stood up courageously for religious freedom and sound science against the proselytizing and frank creationism at Negreet high school in Sabine Parish. Senators Claitor, LaFleur, and Morrell voted against deferral, meaning that they supported teaching science in the science classroom.

Jeers go to senators Guillory, Walsworth, and White, who once again voted against both modernity and common sense, and to Senator Appell, who broke the tie vote in favor to killing the repeal. Particularly reprehensible was Senator Elbert Guillory’s anti-science tirade. Scientists, he claimed, have too often been wrong, having sometimes believed that the earth was flat and the center of the solar system. According to Senator Guillory, it was scientists who labelled those who disagreed with them as heretics, and had those heretics burned at the stake (click HERE to see a 2-minute video clip). Apparently Senator Guillory is unaware that Ancient Greeks realized the earth was a sphere suspended in space, that scientists accepted the heliocentric model as soon as sufficient evidence had been accumulated, or that it was religious institutions, not scientists, that consigned heretics to the flames. Frighteningly, such non-comprehension of actual history comes from someone with direct power over our state’s education policy.

The situation will probably be different next year. Elections will change office holders and alliances in the senate, and that will likely result in some changes to which senators serve on the Education Committee. It remains to be seen whether or not the result will be a Senate Education Committee with a better grasp of science and science education.