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I’m not a cop, but I played one yesterday. On the final night of the 9-week Citizen Police Academy that I’ve been attending, 30 participants paired up, suited up in bullet-proof vests and utility belts, loaded up with fake guns and were led through two role-play exercises.

[Note: In light of recent headlines, like the one about the Oklahoma reserve deputy who killed a suspect, I want to emphasize that Citizen Police Academy is NOT a reserve force or anything like it. We don’t get certified. We’re not deputized to do anything. We just learn about what police do.]

That being said, here’s what we did as pretend police last night…

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Former Vice President Al Gore will meet with Congressional leaders today to propose the Scientific Freedom Restoration Act. The purpose of the bill is to ensure that science, scientific research, and evidence-based policies receive the same consideration given to ideas, school lesson plans, laws and policies based on religious teachings and beliefs.

Since beginning his crusade against human-created climate change, Gore has been repeatedly criticized by climate-change deniers, who claim that the Earth is only 5,000 years old and that God alone is responsible for all climate events.

Provisions of the proposed bill include:
-The restoration of the term “science” in all elementary, middle- and high-school textbooks.

– A “Flat Earth” clause, imposing penalties on holders of FCC licenses for presenting, in news reports, religious-based ideas as being equivalent to scientific evidence.

-Prohibition of discrimination against scientists and lay people who espouse facts. [This provision is intended to prevent businesses–particularly in Indiana–from refusing to serve people who accept the validity of science.]

“Enough, already, with the crazy, religious arguments against climate change,” said Gore today at a press conference. The rest of his statement could not be heard over the stampede of reporters hurriedly departing when their Twitter feeds suddenly lit up with the announcement that Jesus Christ was about to make an appearance on the Washington, DC Mall.

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I am troubled by Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA] for the obvious reason—that it is apparently going to be used to discriminate against people in the LGBT community [and who knows who else], But there' another, less discussed reason, too: RFRA represents another instance of the absurd special exemptions and preferences America grants to religion in general, and religious organizations and beliefs in particular.

Religious institutions don’t pay property taxes—even though many sit on some of the most valuable land in their communities. Our tax laws enable people who donate money to religious organizations to treat them as tax deductions. You can donate a chunk of land to a religious organization and take that as a tax deduction, too.

More subtly, we treat religious officials as though they have some kind of special moral authority and wisdom. We address them, in non-religious settings, with their religious titles. They receive special tax breaks [known as “parsonage”] on their income and church-supplied housing. We begin governmental meetings with prayers, and we invite clergy to lead them, thereby further institutionalizing a role for religion in our legal and political system.

All of this special treatment and—pardon the pun—reverence for religions, their beliefs and practices, and their anointed leaders–has become part of the fabric of American culture. Yes, I understand the primordial American impulse to protect religion—as a part of the founding principles of our country. But I am pretty sure that the founders did not intend for “protection” to evolve into what we have today: the elevation of religious belief above enlightened thought.

What I see in the RFRA is the radical notion—now institutionalized—that religious belief trumps everything—even the principles of fairness and equality. This law represents a major step backward, threatening to undo the hard-won battles for human rights that have helped America evolve into a more enlightened country.

And please note that in Indiana’s RFRA, it is implicit that the religious beliefs being protected are those of one religion only: Christianity—and possibly only fundamentalist Christianity. I doubt that the people who passed Indiana’s RFRA would want to apply its religious exemptions to people who have Muslim beliefs. That idea is not explicity stated in the law, but we all know that it’s there, between the lines.

The hypocrisy is, well, beyond belief. The same people who push for laws like the Orwellian-named RFRA claim that we are in danger of seeing Sharia law imposed on our country. Sharia law, in their view, would be a terrible thing: the imposition of radical, fundamentalist Christian beliefs, on the other hand, would be wonderful.

None of this is breaking news. We have been overtaken, politically, by radical right-wing notions, many of which have their basis in religious beliefs—and much of their support comes from politicians elected by people with radical religious beliefs.

There’s far too much emphasis, in our culture and in our politics, on prayer and belief, and not enough on evidence-based fact and rational thought. We would be a better society if scientific organizations and scientists received the same special exemptions and exaltation as religion.

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For the past 30 years, “We can’t afford it” has become the mantra of city councilmen, state legislators and even U.S. Congressional representatives.

But there is something terribly wrong with the fact that the “we can’t afford it” argument has become a staple of government at all levels.

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As many people around the country have recently learned, if you want a fair shake, don’t get ensnared in the legal system of Ferguson, Missouri. The recent DOJ report laid bare not just the institutional racism of the Ferguson Police Department, as well as that municipality’s “revenue-by- cop” scheme for financing city services; it also documented the unfair practices of its municipal court.

This afternoon, the Missouri Supreme Court weighed in, calling for the immediate transfer of all Ferguson municipal court cases to St. Louis County.

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The sad details surrounding the suicide of Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich continue to emerge. But something is missing in the reporting: the gun behind the tragedy.

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Having a Jewish grandfather may be smear-worthy in Missouri politics in 2015.  

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Having missed it during its initial theater run, I finally got to see Citizen Four last night on HBO, the day after it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It’s an exceptional film, both for its powerful subject matter and for its restrained style, and if the Oscar award drives more people to see it, that would be a very good thing.

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Sun Jan 25, 2015 at 04:45 PM PST

"Guns 'n' Hoses" needs a name change

by gloriasb

At the risk of being labeled a wet blanket, I’d like to lodge a complaint against Gun ‘n’ Hoses. The event is an evening of amateur boxing and martial-arts matches, pitting St. Louis police officers against St. Louis firefighters. Since its inception 28 years ago, it has been the biggest source of fundraising for St. Louis Backstoppers, an organization that offers financial assistance to police, firefighters and EMTs killed while doing their jobs.

Whoever came up with the name of the event was quite clever: It’s a pun on the once-popular alt-rock band called Guns ‘n’ Roses. Cute, right?

Unfortunately, the cuteness is no longer appropriate. Here’s why.

The 2014 Guns ‘n’ Hoses was originally scheduled for Thanksgiving Eve. But in late September, the organization announced that it was postponing the event. According to news reports, organizers “were concerned that participants would be weary from working long hours of extra duty”—meaning extra time spent dealing with protests and violence in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown.

The delay is understandable. What I’m wondering about, though, is why—in the aftermath Ferguson, in which a police officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager whose offense was jaywalking—Backstoppers continues to use the name “Guns ‘n’ Hoses.”

It’s a tone-deaf name.

I can understand using ‘hoses’ to symbolize firefighters. But why—with all of the controversy around the police-shooting of Michael Brown—would you want to use “guns” as the symbol for police? If you’re trying to convince the community that police officers are more than just brute enforcers, you might want to de-emphasize the weaponry. The fact that the 2014 event was delayed precisely because of Ferguson should have made someone notice. Apparently, it didn’t. [Do I even need to mention that “Guns ‘n’ Hoses” is sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, whose product has contributed to untold numbers of drunken shootings?]

I understand that, after 28 years, the name “Guns ‘n’ Hoses” has become a brand. But so is Washington “Redskins,” and even that is on the verge of change, because it’s no longer appropriate.

So, Backstoppers, think about it. But be careful what you choose: It wouldn’t help much to change the name to “Shoots and Ladders.”

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Tue Jan 13, 2015 at 09:20 AM PST

Red-light-camera refund

by gloriasb

Sometime between 2005 and 2014, I got nailed by a red-light camera. I don’t remember the date or the time, but I do remember the flash of light as the camera caught me sneaking through the intersection at the last possible moment of the yellow. And I definitely remember getting the bad news in the mail: a violation notice, a picture of my car—complete with a very clear image of my license plate—and a bill for $100.

I paid it, but last week, I got a chance at a reprieve.

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Fri Jan 09, 2015 at 04:16 PM PST

"Selma" is good, but...

by gloriasb

Can I speak honestly about the new movie, “Selma?” I saw it this afternoon, and here's what I took away from the experience...

No doubt, it’s going to get a lot of support for an Oscar. Critics have raved about it, calling it a “must-see.” I agree—it’s definitely worth seeing. A lot of people are going to buy tickets because the subject matter is important—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic, game-changing, 1964 protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Many movie-goers of a certain age—I’m one of them—will remember those events and the people who made them happen—and it will take us back to a time when the courageous struggle for voting rights and equality ultimately brought hope for a better America.

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A member of the Darren Wilson grand jury is suing St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, claiming that McCulloch publicly mis-characterized the grand jury’s deliberations, and asking for an injunction against the prohibition on grand jurors discussing cases. Some people think it’s a frivolous lawsuit. As a former member of a St. Louis County grand jury, I support it,

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