Tuesday, December 21, 2004

We Wish You A Merry Whatsit

T’is the season to be secular – and litigious.

In Kirkland, Washington, a high school principal this year refused to allow a production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” because Tiny Tim, the character in the tale who melts the stony heart of Scrooge, was incautious enough to pray, “God Bless everyone.”

The “G” word rarely has been in favor among secularist censors, and this year was no different.

On most occasions, one may expect an eruption of righteous anger when books are banned by school systems that object to ribald language or offensive messages. When Huckleberry Finn was dumped from libraries by timid administrators unnerved by the “N” word, a tortured cry went up from defenders of the First Amendment.

But not this time.

Florida and New Jersey school districts have banned Christmas carols altogether, perhaps fearing the litigious American Civil Liberty Union lawyer hiding under the school nurse’s bed.

In Somerville Massachusetts, the mayor formally apologized to those offended by a press release that called the town “holiday” party a “Christmas” party. “Holiday,” incidentally, is an abbreviation of “holy day” which, one supposes, might well offend the mayor of Somerville. But perhaps the connection had escaped the mayor, the word “holiday” having been sufficiently secularized.

People, not all of whom are religious fundamentalists, are beginning to notice that the new puritans are mostly secularists driven to banning books, plays and music by ACLU phobia.

Friends of the First Amendment may suppose -- wrongly – that the ACLU would be on the side of musicians and book readers whose constitutional liberties are constricted by the new puritans and against the gathering tide of secularists that eventually – It’s only a matter of time; already this year mayors have banned the playing of (italics) instrumental (end italics) versions of carols – may take to the courts to prevent churches from ringing their bells on Sundays, lest the sounds disturb the peace of slumbering atheists.

On some occasions this year, Christians have refused to be thrown to the secular lions.

When Jim Basey, president of The Downtown Denver Partnership, refused to allow carolers in the annual Parade of Lights, Faith Bible Chapel retaliated by sending 1,000 carolers to the parade route an hour before the event. The carolers entertained the crowds by singing to them such banned tunes as “Joy to the World” and “The First Noel.”

Faith Bible Chapel had applied for permission to include a float of carolers in the parade and was refused because, Basey explained, “Our policy, which we have applied consistently for years, is to not include religious or political messages in the parade -- in the interest of not excluding any group.”

Come again?

How is it possible to enforce a policy of non-exclusion by excluding Christian groups and denying them a place in the parade?

So all embracing was the parade committee’s policy of non-exclusion that it had approved a float sponsored by Two Spirits, an American Indian group that considers homosexuality to be holy, prompting critics to charge that the committee had violated its own rules.

While partnership member Susan Rogers said the policy prohibited “overtly religious symbols,” thus disallowing Christmas hymns and “Merry Christmas” signs, Basey had issued the following contradictory statement: "The parade includes performances of Christmas songs, and parade participants saying 'Merry Christmas,' 'Happy Hanukkah,' and other holiday greetings.”

This is the stuff of which litigation is made. So, the good people of Denver could not have been too surprised when former U.S. Attorney Mike Norton, the husband of Colorado Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, said he would be happy to represent Faith Bible Chapel in a lawsuit against the parade committee.

Some Christmas far down the road, people may be ashamed to play Scrooge to Tiny Tim’s exuberant “God bless everyone.” The media, traditional defenders of the First Amendment, may someday realize that the authors of the Bill of Rights could not have intended to grant in one clause of the First Amendment a right that was abolished in the same amendment. And someday policies will not be established that exclude Christians bearing tidings of great joy during Christmas because parade organizers “do not wish to exclude any group.”

Someday all this will come to pass, and the secular lion will lie down with the religious lamb.

But not this year.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Michael Ross, Governor Jodi Rell and Norman Patiss' Strange Delusion

Norman Pattis, a defense attorney in New Haven has weighed in on Governor Jodi Rell and the Michael Ross case.

What is it about the death penalty, other than its finality, that makes anti-death penalty proponents vacate their craniums when they begin to think about it?

“Michael Ross was sentenced to death almost two decades ago,” Pattis wrote in a recent op-ed column, “and his case has bounced through the court system for more than a decade.”

He almost got it right. The case has been dribbled through the court system by public defenders who, for twenty years after Ross had been prosecuted and found guilty of murdering four women, strung out the litigation through appeals over the objections of their client.

Ross, who murdered eight women, has said that he wants justice to be done, so that the suffering of the families of his victims may be finally resolved. This may be Ross’ finest hour in a life full of murderous deeds.

Ross, Pattis continues, “has declared a desire to end the fight, and his execution date has been set by judicial decree. On Jan. 26, we will kill him. We will pump his veins full of poison and watch him die. And we will call it justice.”

What would Pattis call the twenty years of litigation that will result in the execution of a sentence passed upon him by three juries?

Jumping off a rhetorical cliff, Pattis wrote, “It is not justice to kill a human being. It is simply killing. And killing accomplishes nothing but satisfaction of rage.

“The governor’s publicity stunt last week (Rell declined to reprieve Ross) announced to the world that this chief executive seeks a new distinction. Let me be the first to utter it aloud: Rell, murderer.”

Pattis, we are to understand, is not enraged at Rell for executing the laws of the state, the whole point of her office. And moral posturing has played no part in Pattis’ op-ed piece. Neither is he is confused for mistaking Rell rather than Ross for a murderer.

The upside of Pattis’ upside-down view of things is that, if Rell is a murderer, Pattis may be willing to go to some pains to see to it that she is spared the death penalty. Perhaps life in prison for Rell would still his rage.

And he is engorged with rage.

Pattis gives Rell an “A-plus in repulsive posturing.” The governor could have reprieved Ross but declined to do so because “she likes the death penalty.”

Rell said she had been moved by a letter written to her by Edwin Shelley, the father of the fourteen-year-old girl Ross had terrorized and murdered after having murdered her friend, April Brunias.

Mr. Shelley, who has been awaiting justice from the state of Connecticut for more than two decades, beseeched Rell not to intervene and wrote to her, “I last saw my daughter Leslie, on Easter Sunday of 1984, and since learning of her death, I have tried to experience the horror and fear she must have felt as her friend April was led away raped and murdered. I cannot begin to feel the feelings of helplessness as she lay tied in the back seat of his car or her fear when he came to get her; perhaps you may, I don't know.”

But we should put all this out of our minds. Rell is, in Pattis’ view, a cheap politician motivated by base political instincts, a woman without courage and – let us not forget – “a murderer.”

Attorney Pattis has had the distinction of having been the first to say it.

Let me be the first to say this about attorney Pattis: His passion for moral posturing has unhinged him, and one may wonder whether an attorney so confused ought to be practicing law. The op-ed piece Pattis wrote – a pointed political and toxic invective aimed at Rell – hopelessly confuses justice with vengeance.

If Pattis wants to understand the difference between vengeance and justice, he will have to think more deeply on the terror that raced like fire through the brain of Leslie Shelley when Ross strangled her and she heard him whisper, “I’m sorry.”

Ross’ eight murders were more vengeful than the twenty years of litigation he has endured.

It may be that Ross now is sorry, repentant enough to want to give to the families of his victims what is due them under the law.

To give to a man what is due to him under the law is the classic definition of justice -- always on the understanding that if the law itself is unjust, the law should be repealed by legislators; it should not be vacated by governors.

Shouldn’t someone provide the definition to Pattis?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Michael Ross, The Death Penalty and Connecticut's Press

In a recent column in the Journal Inquirer following Governor Jodi Rell's public announcement that she would not reprieve Michael Ross' death sentence, the paper's editorial editor, Keith Burris, ventured far out when he wrote that Connecticut had no standing in executing Ross, a murderer who strangled eight women, raping most of them.

"I would not blame the loved ones of any of Michael Ross' victims for killing him, and I would not vote to convict any parent of any one of his victims for doing so," Burris wrote.

"Call it an eye for an eye or a crime of passion. Ross' victims and family have standing.

"I also think Ross is entitled to take his own life. (Go for it Mike.)

"But I do not see how the state does. And I do not see how the state upholds justice if the state kills him."

There is a great deal of confusion here, particularly since Burris wrote in the same column that he agreed with Cardinal Bernardin's notion that the Catholic Church should be "life affirming."

"I agree," Burris wrote, "with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago. He wrote and spoke of a seamless garment affirming life: Anti-war, anti-death penalty, and anti abortion."

In what sense is it "life affirming" to hold blameless vengeful family members of victims who murder, even if their cause is understandable?

It would render the seamless garment very bloody indeed if the entire culture, along with Burris, would not blame family members of victims "who have standing" when they seek revenge; for, of course, if the society could not blame men for such acts of revenge, neither should it prosecute them.

It is because Ross was not blameless that he was prosecuted and found guilty.

It has become far too easy for those who oppose capital punishment to argue that there is no distinction between murder, revenge and justice. According to this view, the state, in executing Ross, has descended to "state sanctioned murder."

Rell, Burris writes, "believes in retribution." Addressing the media once she had refused to reprieve Ross, Rell said, "This (the execution of Ross) may not deter other killers, but there is a point at which the community must say -- ENOUGH. We cannot let this stand without objection and correction by civil society. We cannot tolerate your crime, or you among us."

Burris found this mode of reasoning "convincing" but adds, "a similar logic justified lynching not so many years ago."

This is specious reasoning, because it ignores reality. In fact and in truth, Ross' path to execution was very far removed from a lynching, as anyone who understands the difference between just retribution and vengeance would attest. A lynch mob does not observe the niceties of justice afforded Ross. And Ross' crimes were very much more like vengeance than Ross' elaborate ( some would say Byzantine) judicial proceedings.

Though reporters regularly insert prior information into new stories as a matter of course, Ross' litigatory record is not included in recent stories, and not because the reader may be familiar with the details; assuredly he is not.

An accurate recitation of the record simply would take up too much space. The years of litigation were freighted with details not reported in recent stories: first a trial during which Ross was found guilty of having murdered four women; then a separate death penalty hearing during which a jury sentenced him to death; then an automatic review by Connecticut's Supreme Court; then an appellate court's decision that the hearing should be re-held; then yet another hearing by a separate jury in which new information was admitted, followed by yet another death sentence -- then more appeals.

Ross confessed to murdering eight women but was tried only for four murders.

Ross had not exhausted his appeals when recently he decided to let justice take its course, at which point the serial killer was reported in many news stories as having "volunteered" to be put to death.

Ross himself does not view it this way.

"I am asking you not to exercise your executive power to grant the temporary reprieve," Ross wrote in a letter to Rell. "First, and most importantly, it is not fair to the families of my victims, who have been waiting for over 20 years (my italics) for justice to be carried out in this case." If Ross is credible, he has trying to prevent appeals for several years because he does not wish to prologue the agony of the families of his victims.

Others -- notably, public defenders that Ross had discharged because they refused to accede to his wish that no further appeals should be filed; "whole garment" journalists who, for some odd reason, do not object strongly or often to late term abortion, disallowed both by the First Estate and Row v Wade; putative Catholic legislators who will follow their church only where they wish to go; critics of Rell too cowardly to take a clear position on the matter and state for the record that they oppose the death penalty for Ross, a failing for which Burris may plead not guilty; thoughtless sentimentalists; and the Catholic Church, which has taken a principled position against the death penalty -- have been responsible in prolonging the agony of, to mention but one name, Edwin Shelley, the father of one of Ross' 14 year-old-victims.

It has been 20 years since Shelley felt the hair rise on the nape of his neck when he saw his daughter's corpse.

"I last saw my daughter Leslie," Shelley wrote in a letter to Rell prior to her announcement that she would not grant a reprieve to Ross, "on Easter Sunday of 1984, and since learning of her death, I have tried to experience the horror and fear she must have felt as her friend April was led away raped and murdered. I cannot begin to feel the feelings of helplessness as she lay tied in the back seat of his car or her fear when he came to get her; perhaps you may, I don't know.

"But as he took her from his car and knelt on her back to cover up the act of rape and murder perpetrated on her friend April, he had the nerve to tell her he was sorry.

"I am hoping and praying that you will rethink your thinking on a stay of execution of Michael Ross."

Having thought through the matter very deliberatly, Rell decided not to intervene. Ross' former public defenders have filed a petition with the court, which should -- Though one can never be quite sure that appellate court justices will see their duty and do it, as Rell has -- be denied, if only on the grounds that discharged attorneys have no standing before the court. And Michael Lawlor, on the legislature's Judicial Committee, wants yet another debate on the issue of capital punishment. The anti death-penalty proponents attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Rell to grant a reprieve so that the issue may be debated yet again in the legislature.

Whether anyone in Connecticut's media will be guided by the pleas of Ross or Shelly is, at this point, very much an open question.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Brief Sermon on Lowell Weicker, Roger Williams and Religion in America

It is not at all surprising that former senator and governor Lowell Weicker, the prime mover in the enactment of an income tax that has doubled state expenditures, should now be spending his twilight years in retirement bemoaning – high taxes. Weicker’s entire public life has been wasted in attempts to pound square pegs in round holes.

In addition to high taxes, Weicker also is troubled by what he perceives as a dangerous and possibly unconstitutional religious resurgence in America, an alarming turn towards faith that apparently has not affected public education administrators in Maryland who, eyes cocked in the direction of mischievous suits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, have developed curricula pointedly not mentioning that the Puritans were preeminently a religious people who often thanked God for their good fortune – as was the case during Thanksgiving.

“Too many Americans,” Weicker writes in Northeast magazine, a Hartford Courant publication, “have the view that our nation was founded by those fleeing religious persecution. Not so. That (religious persecution) came later as a result of persecution right here in the United States. Rather, Europeans were tired of paying in taxes and lives for wars declared by kings, and so they fled Europe.”

Well … not so.

The Puritan founders of Massachusetts and later Connecticut were neither war weary nor were they tired of paying taxes. Connecticut was founded by a charter given to the colonialists by the king of England. Neither John Cotton in Massachusetts nor Jonathan Edwards here in Connecticut were anti-royalists. “That,” to quote Weicker, “came later.”

The founding of the country is only incidentally related to religious persecution here, which is not to say that theocrats in Massachusetts did not practice what we might call “religious persecution.”

Roger Williams, a separatist nonconformist, was very much put upon by the conforming religious leaders of Massachusetts. He was tossed out of the state during one of the worst winters in living memory and, were it not for the attentions bestowed on him by local Indians, he would have perished. A man of immense courage, Williams lived to write polemical masterpieces against Cotton, appealed the cause of nonconformism to Oliver Cromwell – who was an anti-royalist -- struck up a friendship with John Milton, compiled a dictionary of the language spoken by Indians, and founded Rhode Island, no mean accomplishments.

But neither Williams nor his persecutors were secularists, and they would have been horrified, as would a Deist such as Thomas Jefferson, by the notion that the founders in penning the First Amendment freed pedagogues in Maryland (named after the blessed mother of Jesus) from dwelling upon the religion of the Puritan founders of New England.

The First Amendment -- which reads in part “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibit the free exercise thereof” – opens a wide door of liberty for religious institutions and prohibits the state from writing laws that would impede religious practices.

The open question rarely discussed secularists is this: If the Constitution prohibits Congress from making laws prohibiting religious exercises, does the constitutional prohibition extend to the other branches of government – governors and courts as well? Are courts that issue edicts driving religion from public places engaging in unconstitutional acts?

During much of his political career, Weicker has labored under the misapprehension that the First Amendment to the US Constitution provided a right of freedom from religion. He has said as much elsewhere. This juvenile notion is a gross misinterpretation of history and a radical simplification of the First Amendment. We know something is wrong when a man, under the influence of such misapprehensions, tells us that the Puritans were not fleeing religious persecution; actually, they were seeking a refuge where they could practice their religion unimpeded by king or parliament.

Williams was a man in whom gigantic virtues laid down and lived peaceably with ferocious vices.

Perry Miller, the most accurate authority on the Puritans, said that Williams was an uncompromising nuisance. But Williams was a magnificent nuisance. He denied the covenant theology prevalent in Connecticut and Massachusetts, practiced topological interpretation of scripture, never forgot a slight or a compassionate gesture and was, as was Jonathan Edwards after him, the wide door of religious liberty that led, after him, to the grand mosaic of the religious faithful that have given us so much and asked of us so little in this land of liberty wending its way under the hand of God.

This is a land unplumbed by secularists and, increasingly, an alien land in our public schools – for which we have to thank men, like Weicker, who posses all of the vices and none of the virtues of Williams.

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