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Open Letter to Derek Kilmer, WA-6

derek_kilmerToday is Veterans Day here in the U.S., which means (among other things) that I’ll usually get a lot of email from local polticians about supporting veterans.   That poses no problem for me, but one from Derek Kilmer, who represents Congressional District 6 gnawed at me a bit.  The text of his letter his hardly suprising given that he is a Democrat, and very far away from controversial.

What does bother me is something that happened almost a year ago, when he voted down the creation of non-theistic chaplains in the armed forces.   So I decided to say something about it.  Given that this is local politics, a little of my personal politics outside of atheism may shine through here, but I think this is important enough to the show that it’s worth a minor infraction of our usual editorial policy.  Anyway, here’s the letter:

Representative Kilmer,

First and foremost, congratulations on your reelection.

I recently received an email from your election offices regarding Veterans Day, and the way Americans can more fully support them.   While I agree that more could be done, I find your own support of the men and women who choose to serve our nation is somewhat lacking.

I would like to bring your attention back to an Armed Services Committee vote in July of last year.   Specifically, an amendment to the 2014 National Defence Authorization Act which would have provided for non-theistic chaplains.  The debate was– to put it mildly– incredibly insulting to atheists and secular humanists who serve in the armed forces.  It came as no shock to me or to many others who think as I do when all of the Republicans on the committee voted the amendment down.

On the other hand, to find my representative– who I had previously supported– voting it down came as a blow.  To me, and to millions of others, this is a cut-and-dried issue of rights.  Specifically, the rights recognized in the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.

Perhaps you don’t see the purpose of a non-theistic Chaplain, but frankly, that should be irrelevant.   Even a cursory glance at organizations like the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers would show that atheists and freethinkers themselves see the need, and that need is repeatedly ignored.

It leaves me with the distinct impression that you believe that only some servicemembers are worthy of our support.   I can’t imagine that this is an impression you would feel comfortable with– I certainly am not, which is why you have since lost my support as a voter.

I ask you to reconsider, and take positive steps to show you understand your previous error, and stand for the rights of all people who have chosen to be part of the military.  Consider starting a dialog with the MAAF about the best way to proceed.

Thank you for your time.

Sam Mulvey
Tacoma, WA

I asked for a response, and if/when I get one from his office, I’ll be sure to share it with you. For completeness, here’s a copy of the email I received:

Friends,

Today we celebrate the men and women who have served and are currently serving our nation.  Our nation is stronger, our freedoms more secure, and our futures brighter because of the sacrifices made by the men and women who serve and their families.

On this day, we do more than celebrate and recognize that service – we say thank you.

But our words of thanks are not enough. Today is important, but it is our actions the rest of the year that will truly give meaning to our words of thanks.

Great challenges exist.

No veteran who has fought for this country should have to fight for a job when he or she returns.

No service member should have to worry about having someplace to sleep and a roof overhead.

All veterans must receive the benefits that they have earned. Backlogs at the Veterans Administration are inexcusable.

We live in a great nation, made greater by the men and women who serve our country. Let’s all take a moment to say thank you to all those who have served and to their families. And let’s all commit to rising to the challenges we face, together.

Sincerely,

Derek Kilmer

 

 

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Sam is Exhausted, Talks About Pierce County Adventures

LAPTOP_STARKING5 did a follow up story, but got a few things wrong, especially regarding the amendment to the budget preventing this from happening again.  It did not pass.   We’re expecting to see something from the Tacoma News Tribune soon, we’ll see how that goes.

Here’s a podcast with an exhausted take on how it went down today.    Talk to you Sunday!

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Pierce County Council Meeting TODAY

cefAs we mentioned in Sunday’s episode, the Pierce County Council is giving $7,000 to an organization called Child Evangelism Fellowship.   The meeting to further discuss the 2014 budget is happening today at 3:00 PM at the County-City building here in Tacoma (Google Maps link).   The meeting is on the 10th floor, in room 1046.

Ask an Atheist listener Robert notes on his blog that Pierce County has been giving money to Christian organizations for years, including one camp on Anderson Island which will recieve $15,000 if this budget is approved.

Meanwhile, the Humanists of Washington has also posted a press release condemning the allocation.   Not eactly suprising, given the leadership.

Included in this post is a podcast with more information about tomorrow.   Talk to you soon!

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On the Ohio Holocaust Memorial

The Memorial in Question

The Memorial in Question

If I were to comment on the Ohio Holocaust memorial on aesthetics alone, this would be a very short article. It’s very well done. It is stunning. The depressing theme of the memorial would probably overwhelm me if I went, but even then the artistic merits of it would be obvious to me.

Which makes it a real shame that this memorial has to be on public land, since that means that I feel, as secularists, that we should speak out against its construction.

This is going to need to take some unpacking, because of the social values we have here in America, people are going to call folks like me some really stupid things. But before I do that unpacking, I’ll state my position baldly:

While the Star of David has symbolism beyond mere religion, the meaning here is derived from its status as a religious symbol, and can’t be easily ignored. This very argument has been used by people to defend the Christian cross on public land, with much more nefarious intent. This context should be carefully considered when supporting a Star of David at one location while asking for crucifixes to be removed from other locations. The implication of an unequal standard is obvious.

Moreover, I think the victims of the Holocaust would be badly served if the manifestly larger result of a memorial is ammunition for Dominionists on the move to continue to ostracize the descendants of those victims from the halls of government. Or worse, to consider them only as literal fuel for the apocalyptic fire.

Symbols are one of the most effective ways institutions communicate values to people, and weakening the non-endorsement of religion in order to make a statement that genocide should not be forgotten undermines both messages.

As supporters of the monument are quick to point out, context is important, and I agree. The context of this monument is clearly one of religious entanglement. In Ohio, the government tasked a statewide Jewish Federation with the design process. Governor John R. Kasich declared:

“We need to have remembrance in this Statehouse. And I call on the Jewish community along with our brothers in faith to develop some sort of a memorial that members of our legislature and members of the public as they pass through this great rotunda will be able to understand not just the history of a time when people wouldn’t stand, but the fact that it’s today we must stand against evil.”
Gov. Joh R. Kasich, Ohio

“Brothers in faith” does not have a lot of interpretations that exclude religion. Worse: in a sentence, people without faith are excluded, and the message moves beyond religious entanglement to one of exclusion and discrimination. This should be considered.

If I had it my way, the secular groups I support would fight to keep this memorial off public land while simultaneously looking for a new home for it. The stated values of the memorial are one that should resonate with the FFRF and AA beyond the usual array of intersecting lines we’ve had to deal with. After all, anyone with an understanding of Jewish history can tell you that the uniform of bigotry more often had a clerical collar than a swastika.

..and that’s pretty much it. I’m not a lawyer, a philosopher, or a politician. I’m just someone who wants the 1st Amendment to remain with as few exceptions as possible, because I’ve seen the effect its erosion has had on the country.

Informal Discussion of Arguments

Jewish Culture

Why are we even talking about this? There are Jews, many of them don’t believe in god. Some of them are as staunch antitheists as we are. They have a shared culture. Therefore, there is a secular Jewish culture. This is not difficult.

Anything else is just handwaving.

I would add that part of belonging to a secular Jewish culture would be a personal narrative about their reaction to the religious parts of Jewish culture. But that’s not even distinct, I think a part of belonging to a secular American culture is a narrative about a reaction to Christianity. You’ll find that American Jews have both narratives.

The Star of David as a Religious Symbol

The Star of David may have started out a secular symbol, but it has taken on a religious significance to the point where it is an inherently religious symbol. I think if we’re going to talk about how those symbols began, we’ll have to apply an even standard.

In which case, it’s important to note that the crucifix was originally a method of punishment in the Roman Empire, and had no special spiritual significance. Also, the crescent moon is clearly an astronomical symbol.

Good luck with that.

Holocaust Denial

I really have to talk about this? Really?

Alright, let’s unpack this one, as ridiculous as it is. Speaking skeptically, the evidence for the Holocaust is absolutely overwhelming. Based on Occam’s Razor alone, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

I’m hesitant to bring personal stuff into this, but given that Holocaust denial has already been leveled at me, I feel justified in doing so. I’m an Irish white guy from Chicago, with no familial connection to World War II– I don’t have a lot of family history, and many of my relatives were dead before I was born.

My wife, on the other hand, is a very different story. Her grandparents and their family members, those that escaped, were scattered through Palestine, Argentina, and the U.K. in 1938.

Do I need to spell it out?

This is just “Islamophobia 2: This Time They Hate the Jews!” The people who are going to hate us over this were predisposed to hating us anyway. Being a member of a social equality movement means doing things the majority isn’t going to like.

Just ask someone in the LGBT movement. Or a black person.

 

Rebecca Friedman contributed to this opinion piece.

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