Have we learned nothing from Comstock?

Have we learned nothing from Comstock?

Have you even heard of Anthony Comstock? I didn’t learn about him in classes in American history, and never heard the name until I became involved in the atheist and freethought movement. Anthony Comstock was the champion of a set of regulations that made it illegal to send “obscene” materials though the mail.

What qualified as “obscene?” For starters, and for the purpose of this post, any information or objects having anything to do with contraception were forbidden from being sent though the mail by the Comstock Laws. For the crimes of distributing educational materials about birth control, such notable women as Margret Sanger and Elmina D. Slenker were arrested and/or imprisoned. The laws also banned anyone from sending materials having anything to do with sex or sexuality, whether it be porn or medical information. Many others faced arrest and persecution and the shutting down of their magazines and newspapers.

Anthony Comstock was the founder of the eerily named "New York Society for the Suppression of Vice."

The Comstock Laws were passed in 1873, and while they have not been officially repealed they have time and again been crippled due to being found unconstitutional. However, comstockery still pops up its ugly head from time to time in American law and politics.

This is a quote from an apparently approving article in Harper’s Weekly in 1915, where Anthony Comstock’s views and those of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice are described:

If you allow the devil to decorate the Chamber of Imagery in your heart with licentious and sensual things, you will find that he has practically thrown a noose about your neck and will forever after exert himself to draw you away from the “Lamb of God which taketh away sins of the world.” You have practically put rope on memory’s bell and placed the other end of the rope in the devil’s hands, and

though you may will out your mind, the memory of some vile story or picture that you may have looked upon, be assured that even in your most solitary moments the devil will ring memory’s bell and call up the hateful thing to turn your thoughts away from God and undermine all aspirations for holy things.

Let me emphasize one fact, supported by my nearly forty-two years of public life in fighting this particular foe. My experience leads me to the conviction that once these matters enter through the eye and ear into the chamber of imagery in the heart of the child, nothing but the grace of God can ever erase or blot it out.

Finally, brethren, “let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.” Raise over each of your heads the banner of the Lord Jesus Christ. Look to Him as you Commander and Leader.

Then, as now, the excuse and justification for limiting the liberties of others comes down to religious belief.

Later in the article, here are the words of Comstock in describing the effects of birth control in response to the questions of the interviewer.

“But,” I protested, repeating an argument often brought forward, although I felt as if my persistence was somewhat placing me in the ranks of those who desire evil rather than good, “If the parents lack that self-control, the punishment falls upon the child.”

“It does not,” replied Mr. Comstock. “The punishment falls upon the parents. When a man and woman marry they are responsible for their children. You can’t reform a family in any of these superficial ways. You have to go deep down into their minds and souls. The prevention of conception would work the greatest demoralization. God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down that fear you bring worse disaster than the war. It would debase sacred things, break down the health of women and disseminate a greater curse than the plagues and diseases of Europe.”

Compare this to Santorum’s words.

Santorum pads his opinion by saying he supports Title X from a “governmental perspective” but quickly says that birth control is “bad for women and bad for society.” Implicit in his statements is the idea that sex for any reason other than procreation is sin, and that couples who try to avoid pregnancy when they have sex are avoiding their responsibilities. These are purely religious ideas and nothing based in the realities of human experience.

These are the kinds of motives and ideas behind “abstinence only education” (harkening back to the Comstock idea that educational material about sex is obscene). Also the recent push to allow employers to block insurance coverage of contraception in the name of religious freedom, along with the attempt to do anything possible to prevent women’s voices from being heard in the hearings. There is nothing new here, and nothing that should be surprising to us if we know a bit of American history. Those who would take away our freedoms almost always do so under the guise of good and morality and responsibility, but those ideals are not what is at stake. Let’s take care that history does not repeat itself and take women’s rights back over a century in the process.

Sources and More Information:

Stamping Out Indecency, The Postal Way — A article on the Comstock Laws, and their effects and continuing influence.

Comstock Laws — Women’s Health Encyclopedia

VIOLATING POSTAL LAWS.; A WOMAN ARRESTED FOR MAILING OBSCENE MATTER. — New York Times Article on the arrest of Elmina D. Slenker for distributing “obscene” materials though the mail. I recommend reading it, just for the shock of how they talk about her immoral ways and absolve her husband of all the wrongdoing and shame of her actions. The sexism and condescending tone of the article is breathtaking.

The Birth of the Pill — Article on the history of birth control and the effects of the Comstock Laws.

Women Without Superstition “No God’s No Masters”: The Collected Writings of the Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, an anthology compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor.

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When “religious rights” conflict with other’s rights

Last week I engaged in a discussion about Christian rights in America with The Warrioress at life of a female bible warrioress. She provided some examples that she believes proves that Christian rights are being eroded in America, though I disagree with her in several places. If you have not been following the blog posts you can read up more about it here: “Are Christians Losing Rights in America” Part 2.

The topic of religious rights and civil rights in general is very interesting to me, and I have done a bit of Googling to find recent examples where Christians have claimed that their religious rights have been violated. I have compiled a list of such examples, and I am seeing a theme.

For my first example: Town Clerk refuses to sign marriage licenses for lesbian couple.

LEDYARD, N.Y. — Rose Marie Belforti is a 57-year-old cheese maker, the elected town clerk in this sprawling Finger Lakes farming community and a self-described Bible-believing Christian. She believes that God has condemned homosexuality as a sin, so she does not want to sign same-sex marriage licenses; instead, she has arranged for a deputy to issue all marriage licenses by appointment.

Gay marriage has been legalized in New York. Since when have clerks had the right to pass their judgement on citizen’s marriages and decide that they will refuse to personally sign their certificate? Would she expect to get a pass if the citizens seeking a license were previously divorced, and it was against her religious beliefs for divorcees to get remarried? Somehow, I doubt it.

Here is my second example: Christian clerk in Macy’s discriminates against transgender woman

The store clerk, Natalie Johnson, is claiming a religious right to discriminate and suing Macy’s for religious discrimination. She is not claiming a right to discriminate against trans people just because they are transgender. No, she is making a very specific point of wrapping her prejudice in religion. Fine. Let’s take her position at face value and look at it.

There are only two approaches I can see to making such an argument: 1) that certain people have more rights to do whatever they want than others, or 2) that rights to engage in certain kinds discrimination supersede any rights of protection from that same discrimination. In the first approach, the only way this sales clerk can make her case is to deny the humanity and equal citizenship status of the transgender person she insists on treating unequally. That doesn’t fly. She has no special, superior citizenship rights because she professes Christianity. Changing one’s sex does not (at least legally) make one a second-class citizen and reduce one to having fewer rights and protections than others. It is reasonable to view both parties as equals in terms of rights and protections.

As the author of this piece notes, the transgender woman in this case has full rights as a citizen, and no one’s religious rights give them the right to treat her as a second class citizen. That includes the right to use to fitting rooms at a department store. And, fortunately, Macy’s agrees.

Christians have also claimed the rights to interfere with other’s medical decisions under the guise of “Conscience” laws. For a brief background and description of “conscience clause” laws, first check the article from USA Today: Conscience clauses not just about abortion anymore. Then, with that in mind, check out this story from early 2011 where a pharmacist used the conscience clause to refuse an emergency order from Planned Parenthood for medication to stop bleeding: Planned Parenthood files complaint against Nampa pharmacist.

Planned Parenthood officials said the complaint states that the pharmacist inquired if the patient needed the drug for post-abortion care. The nurse refused to answer the question based on confidentiality of health information.

According to Planned Parenthood, the pharmacist then stated that if the nurse practitioner did not disclose that information, she would not fill the prescription. The nurse alleged that the pharmacist hung up when asked for a referral to another pharmacy that would fill the prescription.

So, if the woman had an abortion, she should be left at risk of bleeding to death? Or even if she had had a miscarriage, since that was confidential information that the pharmacist has no need to know? When does someone’s religious rights (since this this is at heart what the “conscience clause” is there to protect) allow them to to withhold medication or medical aid to save a person’s life?

Here is the theme I see: Christians are sometimes put in a position of providing a service to people that they believe don’t have a legitimate right to the service they request. In these cases, the requirements of their jobs conflict with what they personally believe God wants them to do. The woman requesting birth control pills can be turned away if the pharmacist doesn’t believe in it. Her right to control her fertility is taken away if the pharmacist doesn’t believe in contraception. Or even more urgently, the woman who has been raped can be turned away when she requests Plan B emergency contraception, because of the moral beliefs of such a pharmacist. A city clerk can put inconveniences in the way of a lesbian couple getting married, because she doesn’t really believe they have the right to do so.

Can a citizen be legitimately deprived of their rights to made decisions for their own life by another person due to of that person’s religious belief? I think not. And is requiring a pharmacist to dispense prescribed birth control pills, or a town clerk to sign the marriage license for a perfectly legal couple mean taking away their constitutionally guaranteed rights to believe as they choose and worship or not as they choose without interference? I hate to say it, but if your religion forbids you to do your job, you should find another line of work.

For another perspective, can a Muslim man who does not believe woman should be allowed to drive be allowed to refuse to rent a car to a woman in the United States? See: Allowing women drivers in Saudi Arabia will be ‘end of virginity’ Would it not be the same thing?

In short, your right to belief ends where my right to autonomy begins.

For further reading, see the links below.

Town Clerk refuses to sign marriage licenses for lesbian couple

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/nyregion/rights-clash-as-town-clerk-rejects-her-role-in-gay-marriages.html?_r=2

http://www.truthwinsout.org/pressreleases/2011/12/20852/

Christian clerk in Macy’s discriminates against transgender woman

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erica-keppler/religious-discrimination-macys-transgender-woman_b_1137472.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/07/macys-employee-fired-transgender_n_1133831.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/video/macys-fires-worker-transgender-discrimination-dressing-room-flap-15115740

http://jezebel.com/5866187/employee-fired-for-harassing-transgender-customer-accuses-macys-of-religious-discrimination

Pharmacist “Conscious Clause”

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4425603.stm (Pharmacists ‘denying birth control’)

http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-10-24-conscience-doctors_N.htm

http://secular.org/blogs/lauren-anderson-youngblood/forcing-your-beliefs-others-not-religious-freedom

http://www.care2.com/causes/when-conscious-clauses-can-kill.html

http://www.idahopress.com/news/article_528847ac-1e9f-11e0-8247-001cc4c03286.html

Louisville KY University Hospital Merger with Catholic system limits patient’s choices, especially regarding reproductive choices.

http://www.courier-journal.com/article/20110718/BUSINESS/307180002/Hospital-merger-limits-medical-options-Catholic-rules-will-bar-tubal-ligations-University-hospital

http://www.whas11.com/home/132013243.html

Pew Research Center: Rights of Conscience vs Civil Rights

http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1612/legal-conflict-between-religious-beliefs-and-antidiscrimination-protections-in-health-care

The Bible and Gender Equality

http://www.stopthereligiousright.org/suffrage.htm

EDIT (I thought to add these after a discussion on a previous thread): If you think it is ok to have a religious recital at public schools, you should watch these videos regarding the Smalkowski case. I cannot help but see it as the height of religious privilege, indeed Christian privilege, to think that it is ok to have a bit of religious ritual in a public school when it divides up the students in this way. There is prejudice against atheists in a lot of places, and it is not nice to be outed as the only atheist in school in a small conservative town.

Kicked out of school for refusing to join prayer circle:

The Price of Atheism (ABC 20/20 Interview with Nicole Smalkowski)
Pay attention around 3:14 and especially at 7:20 on.

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Commuting By Bike

I completed my first full trip bike-only commute yesterday. My situation is right for it: I live slightly over 6 miles from my workplace, and am able to stick mostly to residential streets and avoid major car traffic. I also have a YMCA 0.1 miles from my workplace, which also comes in handy for a shower and change of clothes before going into the office. I’m not quite ready to do this every day, but I think I could do 2-3 times a week.

Did you know the bicycle is closely associated with women’s rights? It gave her the ability to move around easily, and was featured in the push to allow women to wear comfortable clothes. It’s much more difficult to ride a bike in a corset after all, since it holds your back straight and inhibits easy breathing. Nor is riding a bike optimal in an ankle length skirt. (see Fashion for the active woman, 1894 style)

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” -Susan B. Anthony (quote borrowed from http://bicycling.about.com/)

And this is not to mention the benefits of the exercise, lessening one’s one dependence on oil for transportation, and chance to spend some quality time outdoors before sitting at a desk in an office all day.

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Highlights from the 2010 American Atheists Convention

Highlights from the 2010 American Atheists Convention

This is the first time I’ve ever been to an atheist (or atheist related) convention. It was quite an exciting time, and I’ve come away with quite a lot of inspiration and ideas. What follows is not quite a full report but rather a skimming over of some of my favorite happenings at AACON 2010. It is also not strictly chronological.

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Observations of an atheist abortion clinic escort…

I hadn’t been in a couple of months, but yesterday I decided to get up early to escort at the clinic. Thursday was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, so the issue of choice and personal freedom was on my mind. After not being there for a while the scene was especially eery, or maybe that was the fog from the river. It’s easy to forget about the gauntlet these women are forced to run in order to go to the doctor.

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