March 04 - 17, 2007

This column will provide links to, plus quotes and summaries of, on-line articles that might be of interest to the Infidel community. Because is concerned with educational issues, the articles selected will help to inform and enlighten readers as well as entertain them. In order to conform to "fair use practices," only small segments of the articles will be quoted. One caveat: to read the entire linked article, readers may have to subscribe to on-line versions of newspapers or magazines.

Let's begin this week's news summary with an opinion published in the NY Times, regarding the Freedom from Religion Foundation's law suit against the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives, heard before the Supreme Court:

Soon after taking office, President Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and faith-based offices in departments like Justice and Education. They were intended to increase the federal grant money going to religious organizations, and they seem to have been highly effective. The plaintiffs cited figures showing that from 2003 to 2005, the number of federal grants to religious groups increased 38 percent. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and several of its members sued. They say that because the faith-based initiatives favor religious applicants for grants over secular applicants, they violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government support for religion.

These are profound issues, but because the administration challenged the right of the foundation and its members to sue, the courts must decide whether the plaintiffs have the right to sue in this case before they can consider the constitutionality of the faith-based programs. An appeals court has ruled, correctly, that the plaintiffs have standing.

Read the complete Times article here...

As a follow-up to this story, here is a succinct analysis of what is at issue in the law suit, from the relatively new web site "Talk to Action," which describes its mission as "a forum for discussion, that is focused with unparalleled intensity on the rise of the Christian right as a social and political force - and on what those who are opposed to that movement can do to counter it."

The case dates to 2004, and while the issue before the court is somewhat narrow, the litigation is definitely an example of people taking action to stop the steady religious takeover of government-funded service programs. According to White House figures, $2.15 billion in taxpayer funds went to faith-based institutions in 2005.

The case arose from a challenge by FFRF, a Madison, Wisconsin non-profit organization. The group has brought nine legal actions to challenge faith-based funding and violations of the Establishment Clause.

[All of the legal documents can be found on the FFRF website, but linking is difficult. Put this site into a browser and follow the internal links:]

Ordinarily, taxpayers have no right to go to court to challenge government funding in court, say, for example, if you don't want your tax dollars to go to the military -- out of luck. You're supposed to replace your Congressional members instead. But there is a tiny exception, permitting lawsuits when the support is for religious funding. The precedent comes from a Supreme Court case from 1968 which pointed to deep fear by the founders of government abuse of its spending power for religious ends. It's under this exception that FFRF sued.

The government would like to plaster over this exception, and the Freediom from Religion Foundation is trying to hold it open and use it to challenge the president's rampant "faith-based" funding programs.

Read the full story here...

Changing the subject to climate change, here are concerns about the tragic effects we can expect on human populations, struggling to survive with drastically diminished resources. From David Ignatius's op ed in the Washington Post, in which Ignatius makes special reference to a study by futurist Peter Schwartz (with a link provided to Schwartz's study):

What Schwartz discovers with his stress-testing makes climate change even scarier: The world already is precarious; the networks that maintain political and social order already are fragile, especially in urban areas; the dividing line between civilized life and anarchy is frighteningly easy to breach, as the daily news from Iraq reminds us. We look at the behaviors of butterflies and migratory birds as harbingers of climate change. But what about early effects on human beings? "The steady escalation of climate pressure will stretch the resiliency of natural and human systems," writes Schwartz. "In short, climate change pushes systems everywhere toward their tipping point."

Read the Post article here...

If we want a new generation of scientists who can help solve the enormous problems we'll face in the near future, we might look to a "teacher of the year" in New Hampshire, Carolyn Kelley, who says that getting students interested in science means having "rigor, relevance, and relationship" in the curriculum. From The Christian Science Monitor:

As policymakers seek the formula for improved results, they might do well to take a peek into classrooms like Kelley's. She grabs students' attention by connecting her lessons with daily news revolving around biotech issues such as stem cells and forensics. The classroom – inhabited by fish tanks, pictures of exotic frogs, and an inflated green alien sporting a lab coat – practically vibrates with energy. Above each student hangs a unique squiggly model of the protein that represents his or her name translated into DNA code.

"Unfortunately, a lot of students get turned off of science in elementary and middle school, and you just don't see a lot of American students going into science and engineering," Kelley says. "If you can show students how science is so relevant to their lives, they really grasp onto it. I'm graduating students every year that go on to science careers."

Read the complete Monitor article here...

Speaking of science, there's a gorgeous slide show of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn available on the Arizona Daily Star web site:

See the slideshow here...

And here is a "movie" of Saturn's rings available on the NASA web site:

Enjoy the video here...

Here is one last science article, regarding the so-called "God" particle, as reported in New Scientist:

On 9 December last year, as John Conway looked at the results of his experiment, a chill ran down his neck. For 20 years he has been searching for one of the most elusive things in the universe, the Higgs boson - aka the God particle - which gives everything in the cosmos its mass. And here, buried in the debris generated by the world's largest particle smasher, were a few tantalising hints of its existence.

Conway first revealed the news of his experiment earlier this year in a blog. Experimental particle physicists are sceptics by nature, loath to claim the discovery of any new particle, let alone a particle of the Higgs's stature, and in his blog Conway dismissed hints of its existence as an aberration, just as many other supposed signs of the elusive particle have proved to be after closer examination. The tiny blips in Conway's data have so far simply refused to go away.

What's more, using data made public last week in a second blog, another team of researchers has independently seen hints of a new particle with similar mass. Both results may yet be dismissed, but the coincidence is striking, and is one that is getting physicists excited. If they have found evidence of a Higgs particle, then it points towards the existence of a universe in which each and every particle we know of has a heavier "super-partner", an arrangement of the cosmos known as supersymmetry.//

Read the article here...

Here's a story that isn't completely surprising, given that children are often eager to throw-off parental rule, but according to this report, originally published in the Wall Street Journal, some children of secular parents are now embracing religion, and even careers in the ministry, in opposition to their parents' desires. This story was republished in my hometown newspaper, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal:

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll used to be the Big Three of rebellion. Some families are adding religion to that list.
An increasing number of teens and young adults who were raised in nonreligious or nominally religious families are getting swept up in religious fervor. This is creating a complicated and sometimes painful family dynamic.

The parents of 16-year-old Kevin Ellstrand are self-described secular humanists who shun organized religion. Two years ago, Kevin says, he "started following Christ with all my heart." He has taken a missionary trip to Mexico and participates in a weekly Bible study group.

In a time when many teens are having sex and taking drugs, his parents mostly consider his piety a blessing. They get upset, however, when Kevin explains that he doesn't believe in evolution. "To me, this is appalling," says his mother, Karen Byers, who has a doctorate in strategic management and was raised a Methodist. "We get into arguments, and voices get a little louder than they should." Kevin says: "I don't want my parents to go to hell for not believing in God. But that is what's going to happen, and it really scares me."

Kevin's father, Alan Ellstrand, director of M.B.A. programs at the University of Arkansas business school, says he respects his son but is saddened that he has such worries. "I'm sorry that's the byproduct of his religious studies," says Ellstrand, who grew up Unitarian.

Read the full story here...

No, the story below didn't come from The Onion, but rather from the Chicago Sun Times, proving once again that real life is often stranger than fiction:

NEW YORK -- A dominatrix was arrested on prostitution charges at a suburban estate that she leased from the rabbinical school next door, and school officials faced the unusual prospect of having to cleanse the building once the whips and chains are gone.

''Once everything is out, there has to be a spiritual cleansing,'' said Rabbi Samuel of the Orthodox Khal Adas Kashau yeshiva. ''We won't go close to that place until they move out. No, no, no -- heaven forbid.

Read the rest of this story here...

The Talk of Lawrence