Power to the People

By Phil Plait | November 13, 2007 1:45 pm

So I just came back from the Cannon building, which is where Congresscritters in the House keep their offices. I was with a fellow Boulderite and a staff person from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It was an interesting experience, though brief.

The building is not far from the Capitol, of course, but it’s a big ol’ marble rectangle, and not terribly pretty.

We wandered down the corridor (it’s easily 100 meters long) to the office of Representative Mark Udall (D- CO) of Colorado’s second district, which includes my home of Boulder and a whole passel of mountains to the west. There were the requisite pictures of the mountains and other Boulder locales on the walls, but also two nice shots of a Shuttle launch, a reminder that Udall is pro-space and pro-science.

We met with Stan Stoss, Senior Legal Counsel for Representative Udall (it’s far more common to meet with staff rather than the Congressfolks themselves). We discussed a proposed bill, H.R. 1431, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. Sounds nice, right? Who would object to religious freedom? The problem is, as it stands the bill would open the door to employees proselytizing to others at the workplace, refusing to do important work if they hold religious objections (like pharmacists not dispensing certain drugs), and more. Basically, the bill, essentially an update of Article 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is overly broad. The sponsors (including both Dems and Repubs) have their hearts in the right place, but have made this bill too fuzzy, allowing civil rights — a defensive freedom — to be used aggressively and reduce the rights of others (for example, the right not to be proselytized at).

I personally think the whole bill is misguided, elevating the rights of the religious over the secular. While I do think people have the freedom to believe what they want, it is critical that their rights not be any different than those who are not religious. It smells to me like a wedge issue, a way to sneak in legislation that sounds like it increases rights, but actually reduces them.

The meeting with Mr. Stoss went well, I think. He was attentive, and grilled us a bit on what we thought of the bill, and how we thought it would affect people. The bill has been floating around for some time (a few years, in fact), and may make some progress this year, and he said he was grateful we brought it to his attention.

All in all, it was a nice, quick, and efficient meeting. If there is some topic, some subject that concerns you about government, I would encourage you to seek out your representatives in Congress. But there are some lessons learned: make sure you understand the topic you’re discussing; the staff members of Congress (and the elected officials themselves) can be very sharp, and may put you to the test. Remember, they take their jobs very seriously — as well they should — and know that what they recommend to their boss may affect millions of people. So know your stuff.

Also, be polite and friendly! That goes a long way. Say that you are a constituent, of course. And this sounds corny, but be honest, be earnest, and don’t be afraid to speak your mind.

This government is still by, for, and of the people. That’s us. Exercise your rights! I heard over the weekend that just a few letters to a state legislator swayed their vote on a proposal. It may be a little more difficult to do that on the national level, but it’s still possible. Go ahead: make a difference.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Politics

Comments (41)

Links to this Post

  1. Alias » Power to the People | November 13, 2007
  2. Yokimbo » The Bad Astronomer on | November 14, 2007
  1. Kevin

    Good for you, Phil. its always something I wanted to do, go to washington and get up in my congresspersons grill.

  2. Darth Curt

    I can understand that prosolyting can be annoying or even offensive to some, however, would you take away my right to invite a coworker to my son’s baptism or to our Church’s Christmas Choir Festival (and I mean doing the inviting during office hours)? I’m just curious. Does non-prosolyting in this context go that far?

  3. ozprof

    Hi BA,

    I very strongly disagree with you on this one. This legislation is desperately needed. As the situation currently stands, there is no protection for an employee’s religious beliefs, or lack there of.

    Having lost employment before because I refused to work on a holy day, this is something that I take very seriously. No person should be placed in the situation where they must either honour their beliefs, or lose their employment. This is not freedom of worship! This is legislation that must be passed!!!!

  4. Mc Atilla

    I’m with ozprof on this, my god tells me that I should only work two days a week and wear a big hat. I can’t tell you the trouble this causes me with the heathens in HR.
    Also they don’t serve me my required food of beer and chips in the works cafe everyday.
    And don’t get me started on the scene when I sacrificed the obligatory goat in the car park…. Some people are just so blinkered.
    :-)

  5. Redx

    Darth Curt, no, you should not receive additional special protection from your employer, simply because your actions, against some sort of assumed company policy, are religiously motivated.

    If you make a big enough ass of yourself inviting co-workers to your son’s bat mitzvah that it causes you to get fired, you don’t deserve special protection.

  6. Some sort of religious nondiscrimination legislation is needed, but not one so vague as to permit unwanted proselytization (as opposed to offers to come to social events; “come to my kid’s christening” is a lot different from “HAVE YOU HEARD THE GOOD NEWS FROM THE LAWD-AH?”). Right now the current bill is sorely lacking in that regard, and it’s better in this case to have no law rather than amend an insufficient law due to a lack of precedent to overturn.

    Still, nice to see someone saying our system actually works for a change. I suppose it comes down to most people grumble but don’t actually do anything, and our system requires active parcipitation.

  7. SteveT

    ozprof,

    You say “No person should be placed in the situation where they must either honour their beliefs, or lose their employment.”

    I must disagree STRONGLY with that statement! I will go so far as to say it is 100% wrong! If your job typically involves activities that might be forbidden by your religion, then you shouldn’t have that job in the first place. It is up to the individual to find a job that is not in conflict with their beliefs, as opposed to changing the job to suit the individual.

    Let’s take pharmacists as a good example of this idea. The typical job of a pharmacist is to dispense properly prescribed drugs, and provide professional consultation when needed. Period. End of job description. Nowhere in the job description is there a part about providing moral guidance on the proper limits of birth control! So just fill the damn prescription and keep your opinions to yourself! Don’t like it? Too bad! What did you expect when you started pharmacy school?

    Would it be OK for a cab driver to never pick up people with dark skin because his religion tells him not to do so? How about a firefighter who wouldn’t put out a fire because the house was owned by a Jew, or a homosexual, or someone else his religion told him was inferior?

    Where does such madness end? If someone is breaking into my house, do I have to remember to call the Presbyterian police department, since the Lutherans won’t help me?

    God save us all from such a world!

  8. Darth Curt

    @Redx. I really hope you are saying all that tongue in cheek, mainly because a Bat Mitzvah is for girls. Having said that, I was talking along the lines of what Centipede said. No “ass making of”… just a quiet invitation, which if accepted or declined will not change the business relationship between. I am concerned that a law stating that there shall be no religious discussion in the workplace would not allow me to share special religous events with coworkers… though I suppose I could invite them outside of work too.

    I suppose there are some out there that are so Diety-phobic that even a simple invitation would come off as borish and loud.

  9. Mark Schindler

    BA said, “While I do think people have the freedom to believe what they want…”

    I used to think this as well. That changed on 9/11. The problem is people ACT on their believes. As Voltaire said, “Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

    What’s the answer? I don’t know. Certainly studying astronomy and gaining the “cosmic perspective” is a start.

  10. Rich

    Don’t forget the example of the creationist science teacher who gets to opt out of teaching evolution because it violates his/her religious sensibilities.

  11. Sorry for going off topic but I think this could interest you, Doctor:

    Call for USAF to reopen Project Blue Book

    Apparently oil depletion, climate change, and radical ideological entrenchment across the globe aren’t worrisome enough; now people want us to waste more time looking for little green men.

    Little green men stealing our oil, heating our globe, and giving aid to terrorists.

  12. > Don’t forget the example of the creationist science teacher who gets to opt out of teaching evolution because it violates his/her religious sensibilities.

    Actually, I had one of those. The guy was a total Holy Roller, on public access cable and everything.

    Funny thing is: we got to the evolution chapter, he said that he disagreed with it on religious, not scientific grounds, and he taught it. And taught it well. And never mentioned his objection ever again and steered the class away from debate saying “it’s a personal choice of faith, not a matter of science.”

    He’s a good guy.

  13. Jari34

    If that bill passes, does that mean I could convert to Buddhism and get a job at a slaughterhouse so that I can get paid to sit in a corner and catch up on my reading?

  14. We need to distinguish between religious belief and behavior inspired by that belief. The former is an absolute right and is sancrosanct. The latter is neither, it is just behavior. Behavior is subject to the sanction of the law.

    Taking things to the extreme is always useful. So, would we allow a revival of Azec religion to practice child sacrifice? Would we allow an anti-science cult to ignore a requirement to be vaccinated in the face of an epidemic?

    To get to one specific, pharmacists who feel that the dispensing of certain drugs run counter to their religious faith should be free to stop being pharmacists. As long as they are licensed pharmacists, they should not be allowed to pick and choose what they sell based on their own religious beliefs. That’s an act rooted in religious discrimination.

  15. Phil,

    You said “(for example, the right not to be proselytized at).”

    Uh, dude, you don’t have that right. When you’re in public anyone can say what they want to you. You also don’t have a “right” to be free from being offended either.

    This is a two way street you know.. how would you like it if the government came in and told YOU , that you can’t tell other people about darwinian evolution, or whatever you believe in.

    What if I, as a creationist, don’t want to hear about your beliefs regarding “origins”.. do I have a RIGHT to stop you from speaking about your belief in primordeal soup in public places?

  16. Republitard McDumbass

    What ever happened to the good ol’ days? Ya know- when people would practice their beliefs in Church and not impose their views on others in the workplace and in public schools etc. Christards are out of control nowadays. Don’t even get me started in regards to the commercialization of the Christian faith. What a damn joke.

  17. Mark

    Darth Curt said: “I am concerned that a law stating that there shall be no religious discussion in the workplace would not allow me to share special religous events with coworkers…”

    Where is this law being proposed? Any such LAW would be clearly unconstitutional. A private employer may make a workplace RULE like this, and you would be free to find other employment if you don’t like it.

  18. joe

    Defintion Proselytism: Proselytism is the practice of attempting to convert people to another opinion.

    “This government is still by, for, and of the people. That’s us. Exercise your rights! I heard over the weekend that just a few letters to a state legislator swayed their vote on a proposal. It may be a little more difficult to do that on the national level, but it’s still possible. Go ahead: make a difference.”

  19. There are limits to every right. The right to free speech does not extend to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, and your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.

    Religious practice, then, is limited at the point where it impinges on the rights of others. Therefore, any practice of religion is allowed, as long as it doesn’t restrict the rights of others to live, to practice their religion, or to recieve the benefits of government.

    Proselytizing at your coworkers is your right (as it does none of these things.) Firing you for disrupting my workplace is my right (as it likewise does none of these things.) A law which proposes to change either of these things is unjust and problematic and should certainly be rejected.

    Firing you for inviting me to your son’s Bar Mitzvah (which I should rightly regard as a not-inconsiderable honor) would likely be illegal under existing antidiscrimination law.

  20. If the religious goons uncork that bottle, they’d better get ready for hearing about evolution, cosmology, chemistry, and plate tectonics where I work at a somewhat louder tone than they. That sword will cut both ways now that atheism has been unsheathed.

    I will work to create atheist and evolution “tracts” just as made popular by evangelicals, but now employed for truth (and made with recycled paper).

  21. MikeJ, if you read what I wrote, this bill applies to the workplace, not the public. I have the right not to be proselytized at when I am at work.

    And the rights of others are limited in public as well. If they get in my face, I have the right to tell them to leave me alone, and if they don’t, then they are harassing me which is against the law.

  22. ozprof, if you refuse to work on a holy day and working on that day is part of the core requirements of that job, then in this country the employer has the right to fire you. I think that is perfectly reasonable.

    I think it is very important that religion not be given any advantages secularism. If you refuse to work on a holy day, then that is a special requirement over someone who is secular.

    Did you tell the employer before you took the job that you would not work on holy days?

  23. RIT_Matt

    I think it is perfectly reasonable for an employer to fire someone over their religion (or any other reason, really). Its the companies money, why can’t they pay or not pay who they want?

    If a company with a religious manager doesn’t hire (or fires) a foaming-at-the-mouth atheist such as myself, he will have to hire someone who probably isn’t as well qualified as I am for the job. He loses! However, the tolerant manager wins out, as he gets my skills, which he considers valuable.

    The above can of course be ignored for the government itself, and for any company that gets a dime of federal money (I wouldn’t mind also going after those fat, tax-exempt churches either: Pay taxes or atheists at the pulpit!)

    But saying to someone who pays there taxes and takes no federal money that you must hire Person A or you must not fire Person B smacks a bit authoritarian to me. It seems any sort of this interference in the workplace leads the government to make decisions that it is eminently unqualified to make, such as “is the person competent at their job”, etc.

  24. autumn

    Yeah, raving atheist here, but Phil, you don’t (unless your workplace recieves government funding or acts as a part of government) have the right not to be annoyed by coworkers. Coworkers are people, and people are annoying. It is only in instances such as those to which sexual harrassment laws apply, i.e., a superior intimidating someone under him (sorry about that), that the civil rights of the employee are being harmed. As others have said, and I paraphrase to fit our little metaphor, I have every right as an employee to call my female boss “sweet-cheeks”, and she has the right to fire, but not sue, me.

    That said, I don’t know enough about this particular piece of legislation to make a comment on it specifically.

  25. autumn

    Okay, complicating matters is the idea of “an uncomfortable work environment”. If an employee at the same level of power as you is being annoying, I expect that your rights only allow you to seek redress from above (in the office chain of command, not…never mind), and if none is forthcoming, to be exactly as annoying as your fellow employee.
    The adult way is to speak to the annoyer and attempt to make a deal of some sort, but this is likely to fail, as people are really, really, really annoyingly self-important windbags.

    Best case scenario: I work as a convienience store clerk, thankfully for a family, not a franchise. I am an integral part of my store’s operation, and as such, instead of having to follow the moronic “customer is always right” mantra (actually, the customer is most often a brainless &^$ with no idea that society does not, in fact, exist only to amuse them), I am given a fair bit of leeway in telling &^$$tards that they are &*^%tards, and hounding them out of the store while swearing like a sailor whose rum bottle has been stolen.

    Everybody wins because I have carefully chosen the right work environment.

  26. Quiet Desperation

    >”So, would we allow a revival of Azec religion to practice child sacrifice?”

    No. The child’s rights are protected by other existing laws. Don’t be silly.

    >”The right to free speech does not extend to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre”

    What if there really is a fire?

    Anyway…

    I am totally looking for the biggest Cthulhu statue I can find for my office if this bill passes.

    [Google]

    Oh, YES!!!

    http://www.nethercraft.com/cthulhu.html

    Crap. Now I’m torn.

    61″ HDTV or this thing?

    Something more reasonable:
    http://www.arkhambazaar.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=155

  27. Quiet Desperation

    >”The adult way is to speak to the annoyer and attempt to make a deal of some sort, but this is likely to fail, as people are really, really, really annoyingly self-important windbags.”

    Fortunately, I work in an industry where I can arrange to have them disappeared. :)

    I’m still trying to figure out how to use the Patriot Act to get rid of my annoying neighbors.

    Hey, when life hands you lemons, make a lemon meringue pie. :D

    >”Call for USAF to reopen Project Blue Book”

    The link led me to a story about the origins of chocolate. Which triggered a vast chocolate craving. Thanks. :-

    I meet a lot of USAF folks in my work. They seem pretty level headed. I wouldn’t worry too much about Blue Book getting a revival.

  28. If there really is a fire, shouting “Fire!” is probably still counterproductive. People are stupid.

    More importantly, though, you wouldn’t be trying to defend it as protected political speech under the First Amendment. Trying to notify your fellow citizens of a clear and present danger of being burned to death (note here that Hell is neither clear nor present) is not only your right, but also your civic duty.

    I mentioned it only because it’s a classic example in pop constitutional law.

  29. Sergeant Zim

    QD, I looked at that link too, and I noticed that it said that, “early cocoa was consumed as a fermented beverage made from pulp”.

    I brew my own beer, this got me wondering if I could obtain some cocoa pulp, and create “Aztec Ale” – – hmmmmm… might be a marketable experiment…

    BTW, do you know what American beer and making love in a canoe have in common???

    They are both f*****g close to water.

  30. Wow……that’s all I can say is wow.

    Please tell me that an intelligent rational person really doesn’t believe this statement, “to be used aggressively and reduce the rights of others (for example, the right not to be proselytized at).”

    You’d rather further erode a person’s free speech because you don’t have the testicular fortitude to tell them you’re not interested in hearing about it?

    I think you’d agree that our American school system (in general of course) is lacking in the Math and Science departments. It’s because we (royal we) teach to the lowest common denominator, then wonder why we lag behind.

    Your version of liberty is legislate to the lowest common denominator, and if we actually follow that asinine plan we too will ultimately suffer in the long run.

    I would never oppose a bill that solidifies an American’s right to free speech, even if that person wants to freely speak about something I don’t agree with.

    There are lots of morons out there who believe that CFC’s are directly eroding the ozone layer, I will never take away their right to talk about that even though I know it’s completely wrong. I just tell them they are nuts and it’s usually a short conversation. You should offer the rest of the American Citizens the same right to speak freely about subjects even if they are wrong.

  31. Quiet_Desperation

    >”If someone is breaking into my house, do I have to remember to call the Presbyterian police department, since the Lutherans won’t help me?”

    Monty Python Reference Time!

    Klaus: I’ll call the police.
    Mother: Shouldn’t you call the church?
    Son: Call the church police!
    Klaus: All right. (shouting) The Church Police!

    (sirens racing up, followed by a tremendous crash)
    (the church police burst in the door)

    Detective: What’s all this then, Amen!
    Mother: Are you the church police?
    All the police officers: (in unison) Ho, Yes!

  32. Quiet_Desperation

    >”BTW, do you know what American beer and making love in a canoe have in common???”

    Dude. Microbrews. Plenty of good beers here. Last I checked there were over 1200 craft breweries in the US.

    And not all of us like a beer that give one the impression they are drinking an underbaked loaf of bread infused with Essence Of Bitterness, or beers that can double as diesel engine cleaners in shipyards and aircraft maintenance.

    European beers are good solid Socialist beers. That is not a compliment. :) They’re great, thick, turgid places for manly coal miners and fem 58th level government bureaucrats to lose themselves for a while before it’s time for the next soccer riot.

    But I tease the EU. :)

    >”I brew my own beer, this got me wondering if I could obtain some cocoa pulp, and create “Aztec Ale” ”

    They already have it. It’s called “Guinness”. Or at least that’s what it looks and tastes like. And I’ve had it on tap in an authentic Irish pub in Ireland. Didn’t help.

  33. Dave

    People are different. People even think different. Exposure to different views is a fact of life for all of us. As a Christian I think obnoxious bible thumpers are over the top but so are in your face athiests. Basic respect for differing views goes a long way in building office relationships. It would be sad if I wouldn’t be able to invite office friends to a wedding (often a religious event) a baptism or other family event that may have a religious element. If I spent the weekend at a religious event and was asked by another employee how my weekend was it would suck if I had to reply, “ I’m sorry, I’m not able to speak to you about my weekend because it included religious events”. What a great team builder! For some people their religion is part of who they are and to ask them to never mention it strikes at their core.
    I am a pro-science Christian and while I don’t always agree with the BA’s personal views this is a great website with very informative discussion. Thanks all.

  34. Sergeant Zim

    Guiness is a whole different experience. If you have trouble with it, you just aren’t slicing it thin enough…

  35. Sue Mitchell

    If you haven’t already, you really, REALLY need to read this:

    http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/11/08/5093/

    AF vet, David Antoon, took his son to the Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, for an orientation meeting for new appointees.

    He found that the Air Force Academy has turned into “the Rocky Mountain Bible College” having been infiltrated by “Christian supremacists.” There is now one evangelical chaplain per hundred students where once there were three protestant chaplains, two priests and a rabbi in total.

    One chaplain “suggested” that cadets tell their mates they would “burn in hell” if they didn’t receive Jesus as their savior.

    It’s scary stuff – megascary. :-O

  36. Damn. My link didn’t work. *sigh* Anyway, it’s a minor story and the USAF (luckily the same one I kinda worked for) is saying “no, it’s stupid, go away.”

    Still, I’m glad that the link -did- lead to something edifying for everyone. Serendipitous, that. Obviously it’s an Raelian conspiracy trying to prevent me from exposing the truth of their dirty dirty lies (saywha?) by numbing everyone’s mind with sweet, sweet chocolate.

    Mmmmm, chocolate… NO! GO AWAY, BLACK UNMARKED MASONIC RAELIAN HELICOPTER MIND CONTROL BEAM! I REPEL YOU WITH THOUGHTS OF GUINNESS! Mmmmm, Guinness…

    As for the USAFA, I’ll have to ask my ex-roommate’s little brother who’s going through Doolie year whether this is the Gospel (sorry, couldn’t resist) truth.

  37. Quiet_Desperation

    >”Guiness is a whole different experience. If you have trouble with it, you just aren’t slicing it thin enough…”

    The bartender offered some small explosives to deal with it, but I declined. Didn’t want to start anything. It *was* Ireland, after all.

    Really cute bartender. Pure Irish gal. I understood about one out of five words.

  38. The Centipede’s Rules for World Travel:

    #63: Never order an Irish Car Bomb at an Irish pub.
    #63, Corollary A: Or an English one.
    #65, Corollary B: You may be able to get away with it in Scotland or Wales, but don’t press your luck.

  39. KaiYeves

    I was in Washington last May and we met our New York senator, Tim Bishop (Well, one of our New York senators). I told him about how important space was and he seemed to agree, but confessed “I don’t really know a lot about this stuff.”
    So I gave him the address of the Planetary Society website.
    Power to the people!

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