Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On Monday, stand tall for the rights of all!

I just sent this message to everyone I could think of. If you are within a day's drive of Harrisburg, you should be at The Rally for All Families at the state capitol rotunda at 1pm, a rally in opposition to Senate Bill 1250, the marriage amendment.
Dear friends,

Yesterday's Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Senate Bill 1250, the marriage amendment, left me angry, amused, and mystified. It was a raucous affair with one witness claiming that marriage came "up from the ground" and supporters of the bill hooting and hollering and chattering throughout most of the hearing. Opponents of this ridiculous idea were there, and we’re thankful for that. Unfortunately, supporters of the bill outnumbered us.

The hearing was a reminder of this simple fact:


The Pennsylvania Senate needs to feel the pushback. They need to know that we’re not going to stand quietly by while they waste the people’s time on this divisive legislation.

Will you join us at 1pm on Monday at the state capitol rotunda? And bring friends!

Your senator needs to hear from you, and to that end, there will also be a lobbying training at 11am on Monday. We'll let you know where it will be by the end of the week.

I find it offensive that a renegade band of senators would use our state constitution to restrict rights and turn an entire community into second-class citizens, even though 65 percent of Pennsylvanians support civil unions for same-sex couples while just 27 percent oppose. Constitutions are for protecting and expanding rights, not restricting them.

See you Monday in Harrisburg!


Andy Hoover

Community Organizer/Legislative Assistant
American Civil Liberties Union of PA
Don't mourn. Organize.


The Value All Families Coalition presents…



State Capitol Rotunda
Harrisburg, PA

May 5, 2008 at 1:00 P.M.

Lobby Training at 11am
Training Location: TBA

For more information, including transportation, contact:
Equality Advocates Pennsylvania
(215) 731-1447 x 10
or visit

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Who is abstaining anyway?

The first year of college is kind of like a geography and sociology lessons, mixed into one.

“Tennessee borders Georgia?” incredulous Californians ask me.

“You’ve never been to a mall?!” We exclaim at the girl from New York City.

Soon, we become each other’s reference. I am the one who knows everything about barbeque, but the girl from Buffalo is the one to go to if you need to find out about winter weather.

But there was one place where I didn’t expect to become the expert.

We were sitting around one day at lunch, when the subject of sex ed came up.

“Yeah,” I say casually, “In my high school it was all pretty bad, but the guy who talked about the Diamond Zone was the worst.”

“The Diamond Zone?”

“He told us that ‘too far’ was anything that was in our Diamond Zone - the area from your chest to your hips. And if a boy touched you there, he was stealing from your husband.” I assumed that while my friends may have not ever met Diamond Zone guy, they had surely been exposed to similar speeches.

“WHAT?!” I looked up from the cafeteria’s excuse for meat loaf into the shocked stares of kids from California, New Jersey, New York, and Colorado.

“Oh… yeah. We never actually learned about condoms.”

I quickly found myself in the minority.

Suddenly, I became the girl with the abstinence-only stories. Later that week, I sat down at the table and a girl looked at me and said, as if asking for a particularly horrific ghost story, “Tell me more about the Diamond Zone.”

Apparently, in some parts of the country there aren't abstinence speakers talking about saving your carnal treasures. Kids don’t get in trouble for handing out condoms before prom. And it’s down-right weird to be asked to sign a virginity pledge when you’re in the eighth grade.

But at my all-girls private school, this was all normal. And if the well-funded groups fighting for abstinence-only prgrams were to be believed, it is also necessary.

Indeed, these groups can produce evidence to show its effectiveness. Recently, a group of health experts testified on sex ed before congress. Also on the panel? Two experts arguing against comprehensive sex education and for abstinence-only until-marriage programs. One oft-cited study used to combat the facts about comprehensive sex education comes from the right-wing Heritage Foundation. The report claims that abstinence-only sex ed was working, due to the evidence that abstinent teens are more successful in life than non-abstinent teens.

One of the sources for the Heritage Foundation report was this study about abstinent teens being better students and generally more successful. To believe abstinence groups, abstinent teens come from abstinence programs, because, after all, “sex education programs… focus, almost exclusively, in encouraging youth to use condoms.” This fact is simply untrue.

So wither the abstinent teens? I cannot turn to my own studies, being an under-funded eighteen years old and an abysmal math student, but I can turn to my own experiences.

You see, I realized a funny thing when I was forced to rehash my high school sex “ed” horror stories. A lot of these kids, from Berkeley, California to New York City, were virgins. Never forced to make an abstinence pledge or told to protect carnal treasures, they were healthy, happy students in a good college, pursuing business, law, or health, blissfully unaware that groups such as the Heritage Foundation would see students given condoms, as they were, as sexually deviant high-school drop-outs.

In contrast, whykNOw abstinence, the delightful panderer of fear and misinformation at my school, produced a graduating class of 100 girls that, by the end of the summer, had already yielded three pregnancies. Safe sex, to many of my classmates, meant “pulling out.” In addition, girls often clingingly protected their virginity, while giving “blow jobs” to casual crushes, not realizing that oral sex carries risks as well.

In fact, the only thing I knew about oral sex in high school was that, according to my horrified health teacher, “that boy will want you to put his penis in your mouth.” That was it. I don’t even remember being told that you could catch an STD from oral sex.

The preachy fear of my high school’s abstinence program did little more than keep the ignorant in the dark and temporarily fuel promises of “purity,” the majority of which will later be broke, without contraception and with huge guilt.

When abstinence groups quote statistics, they might want to think about where their abstinent teens come from.

Marshall Bright is an undergraduate intern at the Duvall Project

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mixed messages

While I adamantly believe it is the sole right of a woman to make the choices about her body, I have also always been able to understand how a reasonable person might object to abortion.

But the problem is there seem to be so few reasonable people whose objection is just about abortion. All too often, these are the same folks who take ridiculously strident views (One really has to wonder what's really going on in their heads) about women's sexuality.

For instance, often they're the ones behind the drug counter who want to be able to deny a woman access to her birth control - Bill Maher calls them "activist pharmacists" - due to their own personal religious objections.

And since we're already quoting Bill Maher, here's his response to those people who would deny their daughters vaccinations that could prevent a deadly form of cervical cancer because they fear it would lead to sexual promiscuity.

And of course, let's not forget those esteemed Pennsylvania lawmakers who last fall tried to stand in the way of regulations that would have guaranteed rape victims (rape victims!) access to emergency contraception at hospitals across the state.


So, it is refreshing and perhaps worth celebrating the fact that our freshman U.S. Senator supports a bill that would restore college student access to low-cost birth control.

From a Planned Parenthood news item:
After months of lobbying by Planned Parenthood staff, and a groundswell of grassroots support for affordable birth control, Senator Bob Casey, Jr. has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Prevention Through Affordable Access Act (S. 2347). Since January 2007, college health centers and safety net providers lost their ability to purchase low cost birth control as a result of a legislative oversight. This has caused birth control prices to skyrocket to up to 900% for some women! A no-cost legislative fix has been introduced in both the House and Senate to combat the problem, and there is hope that these vehicles will move in the coming weeks.

The news item encourages people to write Sen. Casey a letter of support.

Hooray for the sanity in this measure. As has been shown time after time, improved access to birth control means fewer unwanted pregnancies, which means fewer (Say it with me) abortions. After all, that's supposed to be what they're fighting for.

Lauri in York

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Harold and Kumar shout out to the ACLU

This weekend is the opening of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. The ACLU gets a shout in the clip below.

Andy in Harrisburg


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Search for open records director held in secret

That sounds like a headline from The Onion. Pennsylvania's new open records law is a good thing. It puts the burden of proof on the government to show why a record should not be public, rather than on the person making the request to show why it should be, which is how we did it in the past. And it creates an agency for dealing with open records requests.

But this makes me laugh.
Six people interviewed for the post, but (Rendell spokesman Doug) Rohanna didn't name the candidates.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, who sponsored the open-records legislation, said he is troubled by the closed process used to identify potential candidates for the executive director's job.

He noted he saw no advertisement for the job.

Only in Harrisburg.

Andy in The Twilight Zone, errr, Harrisburg


Friday, April 18, 2008

Kitzmiller Redux

Some folks just refuse to get it. Earlier this year, Florida's Board of Education revamped its science standards to fully include the teaching of evolution and rebuffed creationist attempts to hijack the wording to make them more intelligent-design friendly. And, for a bit, it seemed like folks down there understood that the teaching of religion has no place in public school science classes.

But after they were unable to sway the majority of BOE members, the defeated creationists turned to Florida lawmakers, many of whom have little knowledge about science or educational issues.

Now, "academic freedom" bills are being introduced in the legislature and it looks all so familiar. The Florida Citizens for Science organization is following the fight closely and offers this account of what's really going on: Politicians are once again trying to sneak religion through a backdoor, this time under the code words of "academic freedom." Also, the Sun-Sentinel has a great story on the dishonesty and evasiveness of the bill's primary sponsor:
Opponents have voiced concerns that Storms' bill will open the door to teaching religious-based theories, like intelligent design, in public school classrooms. But Storms, one of the Senate's most conservative members, repeatedly refused to answer questions on whether that could happen.

Her only reply: teachers could discuss a "full range of scientific views."

Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City, frustrated at her answers, later said: "We could have stuck bamboo shoots under her fingernails and she wouldn't have answered."

On Monday, ACLUPA's legal director Witold "Vic" Walczak was in Florida at the invitation of the state's ACLU and science organizations. As someone with more than a little experience with this issue, Walczak warned lawmakers that the bill is a "litigation magnet."

According to Wes Elsberry, posting on the science blog Panda's Thumb, Walczak said not only does the bill invite religion into the classroom, it also makes it impossible to take it out. If passed into law, it would give teachers the authority and right to teach whatever what they wanted, including their personal religious views. The school district would then be caught in a no-win situation. Should they prevent the teacher from religious proselytizing to students during the school day, the teacher would be able to sue the district under this law of academic freedom.

Should the school district ignore the teacher's behavior, parents who object to the teacher's religious bullying would be within their rights to sue the district under the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. And we up here in Pennsylvania know how that would likely turn out.

Walczak said at the press conference that, just as he and others involved in the Kitzmiller case were able to convince a conservative judge that intelligent design was merely repackaged creation science, "We will be able to do the same in Florida when teachers use the same religious anti-evolution arguments in classes."

Let's hope folks listen.

Lauri in York


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What they're saying about the marriage amendment

It ain't good. You may notice a theme.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
When it comes to the continuing attempt to make the Pennsylvania Constitution explicitly say that marriage is between one man and one woman, it is hard to say what is worse -- the obsession or the waste of time.

Can we now assume that the Legislature has adequately addressed the issues important to most Pennsylvanians? For example, has it taken all the steps needed to reform itself? Has it enacted comprehensive property tax reform? How about equitable funding for education?

The answer, of course, is "no."

The Beaver County Times.
We know, we know. Despite soaring gasoline prices, skyrocketing home heating oil costs, escalating grocery bills, a tanking economy, Wall Street gyrations, home foreclosures, the fifth year of the Iraq occupation and a fascinating presidential Democratic primary, gay marriages and civil unions are what everybody has been talking about.

The Morning Call of Allentown.
The committee's hasty decision also was a waste of time. Regardless of the personal feelings or religious training of Judiciary Committee members, the Senate has more pressing issues before it. There are unfunded repair and maintenance needs for the state's roads and bridges, the unresolved pursuit of a more equitable way to adequately fund the public schools and a series of problems with the law regulating casino gambling that ought to have higher priority, to mention just a few. But the Judiciary Committee would move gay marriage to the top of the list.

The Lancaster Intelligencer Journal.
To listen to some local politicians this year, the two biggest problems facing Pennsylvania are gay marriage and denying gun rights to people who want to pack heat while taking a leisurely walk through county parks. Welcome to fantasy land. In fact, Pennsylvania faces a mountain of problems, but some legislators and legislative candidates seem more interested in spreading ideology than in solving problems.

The York Dispatch.
If any timely words of wisdom could be imparted to the state Senate in this time of partisan sniping at the state and national level amid concerns over healthcare reform, highway maintenance and onerous
property taxation, they would be: Stick to important business. But as usual, such caution is wasted in the political wind. So the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, with a pile of important issues on its plate, in a 10-4 vote decided it was time to amend the state Constitution by banning gay and lesbian marriage — and halt those looming threats to civilization, civil unions, in their tracks.

(Hat tip, Equality Advocates.)

The reputation of our state legislature has taken a beating in the last three years. To recap, in 2005, the legislature gave itself a pay raise at 2am (that is not an exaggeration) the night that it went out for summer break in a bill on which the public had been given no notice. In the ensuing outcry, a state Supreme Court justice was not retained at the polls that fall because voters felt the court had worked too closely with the legislature on the pay raise. (Judges got a raise, too.) This was the first time since the start of retention votes that a justice had been ousted.

The following year nearly one-fifth of the legislature was replaced either through retirement or at the polls. The Senate majority leader and the Senate President Pro Tempore both lost.

In response, numerous reform efforts have been undertaken that have included no more late night legislative sessions and a time period in which legislation must be considered before it can receive a vote, among other things.

While the public's distrust of the legislature is no longer roaring, it still simmers just below the surface.

Which brings us to the state Senate's attempt to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. These guys just don't get it. People out here are hurting. You know all of the problems, so I don't need to re-articulate them. And what they see in Harrisburg is a state Senate that is hopelessly out of touch.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Two VHAC tour talks online

Two weeks ago you heard a lot about the Voices of Hope Agents of Change tour featuring death row exonerees and murder victims' families. Talks by two of our featured speakers, exoneree Juan Melendez and Rev. Walter Everett of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, are now available online at the website of The Verstehen Video Project. Check it out.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Monday, April 14, 2008

File this- sadly- under: No, Duh

As ACLU legislative director Caroline Fredrickson said regarding last week's revelations:
With each new revelation, it is beginning to look like the torture operation was managed and directed out of the White House. This is what we suspected all along.

Truthout links to the articles that report the hardly surprising revelations that top level Bush Administration figures, from VP Dick Cheney on down, were directly involved in policy discussions about torturn.

From Dan Froomkin's piece in The Washington Post:
Discussions were so detailed, ABC's sources said, that some interrogation sessions were virtually choreographed by a White House advisory group. In addition to Cheney, the group included then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, then-secretary of state Colin Powell, then-CIA director George Tenet and then-attorney general John Ashcroft.

At least one member of the club had some qualms. ABC reports that Ashcroft "was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.

According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."

Lauri in York


Friday, April 11, 2008

Citizens in Houston are reeling from the new of two teen pregnancies ending horribly in public restrooms.

The Houston Chronicle first reported on this story, about an eighth grader who didn’t know she was pregnant until she miscarried in an airplane, an event so frightening and horrible to consider, a sympathetic reader can understand the frightened child’s silence.

Yet in the same week, an even more chilling story made headlines: another fourteen-year-old girl gave birth, this time full-term, and allegedly tried to flush it down the toilet.

These events, so tragic and following so quickly, led to a rash of op-eds and discussion. The Houston Chronicle used the stories as a chance to call for comprehensive sex ed, and to bemoan a school district where students can escape never having learned about contraceptives.

These op-eds, however, were not always met with warm response, and one gets the feeling that people were sloughing off society’s responsibility for these events. To the conculsion that “we need to see the next one coming,” someone posted in response: “What's this ‘WE’ stuff? …. This is not society's fault. It is the fault of the girl… the male who impregnated her, and the parents who were not supervising her. That's all there is to it.”

Yet how can we say it is not society’s fault, when society ignores those maligned and mistreated? If we remove societal blame from the picture, we are saying that the happenstance of birth, the accident of parentage, will be the deciding factor in the girl’s life. If we remove societal responsibility, we continue to abandon these children, just like we abandoned these teenage girls.

Furthermore, we (yes, back to “this ‘WE’ stuff”), cannot pretend that sexual activity begins in high school. Students are getting pregnant and getting STD’s earlier and earlier, and we have two responses: plug our ears, insist that it is the fault of the parent/child/rap lyrics/degrading morality of our times, or we can admit that washing our hands of our nation’s children and their well-being is perhaps the greatest immorality of all.

Marshall, Duvall Project

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Something is rotten in the state Senate

It's an election year. It must be time to find some people the state legislature can kick around.

Yesterday the PA Senate passed a bill to restrict the forms of acceptable identification for obtaining public benefits, from unemployment compensation to medical assistance to post-secondary financial aid. It's supporters framed it as a measure to stop those illegal alien invaders from fraudulently obtaining public benefits.

One small problem. Not only did the supporters not show a systemic problem but they couldn't point to a single case of an undocumented immigrant improperly acquiring benefits.

And the people who are most likely to be affected are those who need benefits. Studies show that those most likely to not have government-issued identification are the elderly, persons with disabilities, persons of low incomes, and racial minorities.

The pricetag? 19 million dollars.
"Gas is $3.50 a gallon, there are 250,000 working people who can't afford to get sick and the Senate is more concerned that an illegal immigrant might be applying to Penn State," House Democratic spokesman Bob Caton said.

Oh, but the Senate isn't done finding groups to kick around. Today in Pittsburgh there is a hearing on SB 1250, which would amend our state constitution to ban gay marriage. Now if our senators could just find some gay immigrants, I'm sure they'd be downright gleeful.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Recognition for NOVA special on intelligent design

This is kinda cool. Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial - the Nova documentary about Kitzmiller v. Dover - has won a Peabody. The award is one of the highest awards in television.

Here are the judges' comments:
The centerpiece of this thoughtful, topical edition of NOVA was the recreation, verbatim, of key testimony and argument from a six-week trial in Pennsylvania that served as a crash course in modern evolutionary theory, the evidence for evolution and the nature of science.

Lauri in York

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Things that amaze me

It's late so this will be a short one. But I have a few thoughts, as we have wrapped Day IX of the VHAC tour.

The energy of Walter Everett of MVFHR is incredible. Walt is a retired Methodist minister. Well, actually, he flunked retirement and has a church part-time in Sunbury. He was with us twice last week, driving from his home in Lewisburg to Harrisburg for three events and then home in the evening, a 70 mile trip one-way. Then the next morning he drove another 70 miles or so to State College, did two events, and drove home, leaving Penn State at 9pm.

This week he traveled with us from Scranton on Monday to Bethlehem on Tuesday. After we wrapped in Bethlehem, after three events there, he drove home at 9:30pm, a 2 1/2 hour trip. Today he joined us again in Reading, another 2.5 hour trip, for an evening event at Albright College- where we were joined tonight by Ray Krone- and drove home again.

In between, he tended to one church member who is going into a nursing home and another who is dying.

I've known Walt for three years or so, but this tour has shown me a part of him I was not aware of. His energy is through the roof. Here's a 70-something guy who is telling the story of the murder of his son. He's doing it two or three times a day and then driving home at night to be with his wife and tend to his congregation. And through it all, he's cracking jokes and never shows any sign of irritation. Although, he does keep teasing me about getting lost in Bethlehem. We've done 20 events, we got lost once, and that's the one my tour mates remember.

Rolling Stone called Walt "serene and heartful, without an ounce of bombast." That is certainly true.

The other thing that amazes me is the story of Juan Melendez, and more specifically, the circumstances that led to his exoneration.

A police informant who knew Juan claimed that Juan and another friend committed the murder. The police leaned on the other friend, threatening him with the death penalty, and the guy took a plea bargain and agreed to testify against Juan. The testimony of a police informant and a coerced co-defendant- two men whom Juan said "had criminal records from here to California"- and no physical evidence landed Juan on death row.

The wheels began to turn in his favor when his new attorney discovered a taped confession from the real killer, which had been in the possession of both the prosecutor and Juan's court-appointed attorney since before the original trial. In addition, the prosecutor had 16 documents that corroborated the confession. These documents were not turned over to the defense at the original trial.

What if that tape didn't exist? Juan was sentenced to death on the basis of two questionable witnesses and no physical evidence. If that tape did not exist, Jeb Bush probably would have had Juan executed.

Juan calls the tapes and the documents two of his "miracles." It shouldn't take a miracle to free an innocent man from death row or keep him off death row in the first place.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

On the road again

After taking the weekend off for some R&R, the VHAC tour was back on the road. We loaded up the Mystery Machine and headed to Wilkes Barre and then Scranton yesterday on Day VII. For Day VIII, we're in Bethlehem.

Juan Melendez, the 99th death row exoneree in the modern era of capital punishment, has joined us for these two days. Ray Krone of York County, the 100th exoneree, will be with us tomorrow in Reading and Thursday in Lancaster. Walter Everett is back, representing Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.

Walt Everett and Juan Melendez share a laugh at Monday's event in Scranton.

Harold Wilson and Walt Everett talk with a local television station in Harrisburg.

Lorry Post addresses the audience at Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia.

(L to R) Ashlee Shelton of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Harold Wilson, Dr. Frank Baumgartner of Penn State, and Walter Everett enjoy some ice cream at the famous Creamery at Penn State.

Andy in Harrisburg

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