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Archive for March 2015

Diversity and Discrimination on Campus

A Message from the Executive Director
Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Dear Friends,
Do you remember all those cliques in high school? I do.

I can tell you straight off the bat that I was not in the cool group. I wasn’t even close. This was in spite of my 1980s perm, which is forever memorialized in my high school yearbook photo. (And while I’m on the subject, let me just say that I refuse to take responsibility for that choice. It was a global phenomenon, people.)

Whether your high school memories make you smile or cringe (or maybe both), I think we all like to believe that those times are in the past. Being “cool” shouldn’t have mattered so much then, and it certainly doesn’t matter now, right?

I have three words for you: high school reunion.

Someone I know just might have gone on a diet and bought a new outfit before her last high school reunion. She’s not proud of this. Just saying.

In all seriousness, recalling those days just makes me even more grateful that schools now seem to actively recognize the negative impact of cliques and the desperate need to be “cool.” If you have school age children, as I do, no doubt you have attended innumerable events where administrators and teachers hail the virtues of individuality, speaking against groupthink, bullying, and cliques.

I appreciate these events. I especially love it when schools go further to inspire kids by giving them handouts or booklets with lists of people who refused the lure of conventional “popularity” and ended up doing amazing things for our country and our world. These are great stories!

If high schools are now all about individuality and diversity, colleges claim to be even more so. I challenge you to find a college or university website that does not have a prominent section on its website expounding the values of diversity and the steps they are taking to ensure that their campus represents the broadest spectrum of individuals.

But, in a twist that is really heartbreaking, there’s one kind of diversity that certain campuses do not want: religious diversity.

By now, you might have heard about the incident at UCLA. A Jewish student ran for a position on student government. The student-faculty panel discussing the issue spent 40 minutes questioning whether a religious person could be unbiased. In other words: this student’s ability to do the job was directly and explicitly challenged on the sole basis of her religious practice.

Wow.

UCLA later apologized, but this public (and transcribed) discussion revealed something we should all find disturbing. It is becoming acceptable to seriously consider whether religious people are capable of high-level thinking.

Regrettably, this is not an isolated incident. Things like this are happening at colleges all over the country.

Take our clients, the wonderful and enthusiastically Christian ministry Chi Alpha. Chi Alpha is a group at California State University (Stanislaus campus) that recently had to cancel 15 events on campus because—and, please, read this slowly because I guarantee you will think it makes no sense—CSU says that Chi Alpha cannot expect its leaders to be Christian.

That’s right. Chi Alpha welcomes anyone, and I mean anyone, into their group. Christians, non-Christians. But they naturally expect the leaders of a group that engages in Christian worship and small-group Bible studies to be, well, Christian.

Chi Alpha is part of a national organization, Chi Alpha National. It’s the student arm of the Assemblies of God, one of the ten largest churches in the U.S. In 1953, Chi Alpha was founded as a way for college students to gather, learn about Christianity, worship and live out their Christian faith together.

At CSU Stanislaus, Chi Alpha has been recognized for over 40 years. But suddenly, just this fall, campus administrators informed Chi Alpha that their group was guilty of “religious discrimination.” Their crime? Asking their leaders, who lead Bible study and worship, to be Christian. As a result, they were locked out of their reserved meeting space and shut out of parts of campus life open to all other student groups.

A Christian group wants its leaders to be Christian. Is this really so odd? Fraternities limit their membership to men. Young Democrats and Young
Republicans groups on campuses expect their members to be respectively Democratic and Republican. And the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance can require its leaders to be feminists.

The list goes on, as it should. Why would any organization want a leader who doesn’t agree with its mission? It’s a recipe for self-destruction. It’s nonsensical. Nobody operates this way.

So why does CSU think it can do this to Chi Alpha? The answer is because they are strong-arming religious student groups. If a group refuses to give in to this ridiculous charge of “religious discrimination” simply for asking their leaders to believe in their mission, the school will pull its charter. It will prevent the group from taking part in campus life the way all other student groups do.

How’s that for valuing “diversity?”

CSU has changed its mind several times about what would make Chi Alpha palatable enough to be allowed on campus. But the long and short of it is this: no religious organization should be required to abandon its beliefs in order to exist at a public college.

Educators say they value diversity. They say they value individuality. They say they value the strength it takes to bow out of being conventional or “cool.”

But it’s pretty hard to say a place like CSU Stanislaus is walking the walk when it slaps groups like Chi Alpha with severe restrictions simply because of their religious beliefs.

Colleges are places where young adults should gain the skills to navigate through their adult lives in a truly diverse country and world. They don’t need to be “protected” from other people’s views—they need to learn how to interact and coexist with each other, not shut each other out.

Groupthink impoverishes our culture and weakens our democracy. CSU should recognize this. Maybe once they do, they will see that reinstating Chi Alpha would demonstrate an honest commitment to diversity.

Sincerely,
kristina

Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director

The Green Room, The Timex and the Feathers!

A Message from the Executive Director
Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dear Friends,

Last week, Pastor Robert Soto and I went to New York City to talk to the Wall Street Journal and to film Fox’s John Stossel show. Pastor Soto is our client, a Native American feather dancer whose feathers were confiscated in 2006 by covert Department of Interior agents.

Last week, the government returned Pastor Soto’s feathers—with a warning that no one else can use them, or charges may be pressed against him and those using them. (Sound like something out of the satirical newspaper The Onion? Yes, even the editors at the Wall Street Journal think so…but I get ahead of my story.)

Even though Pastor Soto has traveled to many parts of the world while performing his feather dance, he had never been to New York City. So, of course, we walked to Times Square, where we both stood in awe.

Pastor Soto went all Texan by talking to random people in Times Square. Ever the caring man, he asked them where they were from and why they were in NYC. I chuckled as I watched people’s reactions to his probing. For him, it was a natural part of his visit to connect to other people. By contrast, I think most of the New Yorkers he encountered found this unsettling. (To clarify: I love both New York and New Yorkers, I just think they are not into random tourist chat!)

The next morning, we met at the Dow Jones building where the Wall Street Journal and the Fox studios are co-located. We were escorted to the lobby elevators and then proceeded to the 17th floor, where we walked into a space filled with rows and rows of glass-encased offices filled with reporters and editors, each busily typing at their paper-stacked desks.

We sat in a see-through modern conference room with lime green designer chairs. I listened while Pastor Soto spoke to the Journal editor about his feathers that were confiscated. Two of the feathers had been given to him by the daughter of a woman he visited while dying—he had held her hand as she took her last breath. Two others had once belonged to an American Indian who had deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and for whom Pastor Soto had prayed. Most of them he had had for dozens of years.

I confess, though I already knew the stories, I was moved. These are not just any feathers. Not only are they sacred to Pastor Soto’s tribe, they are symbols of Pastor Soto’s ministry and the deeply important human relationships he has built through it.

His stories about the meaning of the feathers reminded me of items that are meaningful to me. I thought of my father’s inexpensive Timex watch. It was the only one he could manage to put on by himself when Parkinson’s Disease made it impossible to wear the one with the leather strap.

He had loved his other watch: a simple gold Cartier with a white face, black numbers and a brown leather strap. He had worn a similar one as a young man in Cuba but had had to leave it behind when he escaped. As Cubans went into exile, when Castro took over, they were stripped of anything of value at the Havana airport. In exile, after he raised us, after he paid for my siblings’ and my college education, he had saved enough to buy himself another Cartier. Every time he looked at it, it reminded him of his victory over exile. Little did he know that he would have to give it up once again, this time to the ravages of illness.

After his funeral, my mother gave me the Timex. I framed it. And it sits on my nightstand. It reminds me every morning and every night of his perseverance and self-reliance, even when a simple task—like putting on his watch—became impossible for him. It reminds me of his courage at the hospitals and then at the hospice. It reminds me to fight harder every day.

The watch, unlike the feathers, is not a sacred part of a religious ceremony, but it is deeply meaningful to me and I would like one of my kids to have it when I die. I dare any government official to try and take it away. I would go totally Cuban on them.

When Pastor Soto dies, in contrast, he expects the government will take his feathers back. He cannot even leave them to his own son.

I could not help but feel anger when Pastor Soto methodically explained the odd government stance toward him and his feathers. He explained that large power companies get exemptions to kill eagles, but an American Indian from his state-recognized tribe cannot pick one feather up from the ground without risking the government pressing charges.

(All of the feathers he owned belonged to birds that are no longer endangered. I assure you, no bird has been harmed in the making of his story.)

A few hours after speaking to the Journal, Pastor Soto and I went to the green room to get our hair and makeup done before the Stossel show. Pastor Soto asked me why it was called a “green room.” I replied that I had no idea—it’s not even green! When the producer came in to get us, though, I decided against asking. I figured we should try to blend in with the other guests at Fox. They seemed to know why it was called a green room.

That afternoon, we taped the show. Can you believe that a Cuban-American woman like me—accent and all—would be on TV sitting next to Pastor Soto, renowned feather-dancer of a Texas tribe, to talk about freedom? Only in America!

Pastor Soto did a beautiful job explaining his case, even bringing two of the feathers that were returned to him. It is days like this that I feel particularly proud of the work we do. Pastor Soto has spent nine years fighting for his rights and now we get to show Americans—in whom I have the greatest of faith—what an injustice it is that the government is violating his rights.

In the earlier segment of the program, before Pastor Soto came on, I debated the ACLU on the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby cases. I have to warn you that that lady who did my hair at Fox may have been an enemy of religious liberty… Consequently, I look like I ran through a windy tunnel. But, in the end, who cares what I look like! Whatever happens, when you watch the show on April 10, don’t focus on my excessively short bangs. That is all I can tell you now.

When I got back to D.C. the next day, I opened the Wall Street Journal to see Pastor Soto’s story featured in the paper’s lead editorial. In case you missed it, I paste it below. The Journal even did a short video on the case.

We all know that religious liberty is a vital right. As I have said many times before, it is not the eccentric uncle of the human rights family. It is the right to search for the truth and live according to it. Wherever that path takes you, one thing is clear: that path must be free of government intrusion.

Sincerely,
kristina

Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director

P.S. Does being a practicing Jew make a college student too biased to run for student government? Shocking question? Perhaps not at UCLA. This week the San Francisco Chronicle published this oped about it, written by our own Adele Keim.

Government Confiscates Eagle Feathers at Native American “Pow Wow”

A Message from the Executive Director
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Dear Friends,

As I write this, after many years in court, the U.S. government is finally returning 46 eagle feathers to our client, Pastor Soto. But, I am afraid, Pastor Soto’s struggles are not over.

Let me tell you his story.

To the credit of the educational system in this country, most Americans are aware that Native Americans have often been treated poorly by this country.

But history books did not prepare me for: “Operation Pow Wow.”

This is the name the government gave to an operation that sent covert government agents into Native American religious ceremonies. Their mission? To look for unlicensed eagle feathers, confiscate them, and fine and press charges (carrying prison sentences!) against those possessing them.

The government claims that two laws protecting migratory birds, including bald and golden eagles, give them the right to do this.

The first question that came to my mind when I saw this was: Are eagles endangered? Turns out no. Not anymore. But the government insists on preserving a rigorous system forbidding the possession of eagle feathers. The laws allow the government, however, to grant countless permits exempting museums, scientists, farmers, zoos, power companies, and others for various reasons.

For example: a farmer whose livestock are being disturbed by eagles is permitted to shoot the birds. Shoot them.

But if a certain Native American religious leader picks up a molted eagle feather from the forest floor for use in a powwow, he is criminalized for violating federal law.

Pastor Robert Soto is an ordained Native American religious leader of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. His tribe is recognized by historians, sociologists, and the State of Texas—but not by the federal government. Federally recognized tribe members can apply for permits to acquire feathers. But Pastor Soto cannot.

Eagle feathers are an essential part of the religion Pastor Soto practices. He has been a feather dancer since he was 8 years old and understands deeply the sacred significance of eagle feathers to his tribe. In his words, they “are a physical manifestation of everything that is holy.” They are so sacred, in fact, that if one falls on the floor while he is dancing, the entire powwow must stop until he has picked it up and restored it to its proper place.

It was during one of these religious powwows that Pastor Soto’s feathers were confiscated—and he was threatened with criminal action.

A federal special agent saw a photo advertising the powwow in a local newspaper. Because the picture showed Native Americans wearing feathers, he decided that he had to investigate. He went to the powwow in disguise.

(I can think of many important things for federal agents to investigate. Covertly breaking up a religious Native American powwow is not something I’d expect to see at the top of the list.)

When the agent saw one of Pastor Soto’s family members, he told him he liked his costume and asked him what it was made of. When the family member said that it was made from eagle feathers, the special agent whipped out his badge, removed the family member from the powwow for interrogation, and seized the feathers. He then accosted Pastor Soto, confiscated his feathers, and threatened him with criminal action.

The special agent didn’t stop there. He went right back into the powwow to find more evidence of heinous law-breaking.

And he found it—guess where!—at a craft booth decorated with dream catchers. The dream catchers were made of dove, duck, and goose feathers found during a nature walk. The special agent confiscated these, as well, and later charged the man who made the dream catchers with a federal crime. (He was convicted and forced to pay a fine.)

The facts are bizarre, but true.

Under the federal law used against Pastor Soto, it is a crime to possess any part of migratory birds found on this list—including their feathers.

If you take a quick glance at the list, my guess is that you’ll be dumbfounded. It doesn’t just include bald and golden eagles. It includes over 800 species of birds, including mourning doves, crows, and Canada geese.

That means my children—and possibly yours, if you’ve ever taken them to a park—violate federal law by picking up common goose or duck feathers and taking them home.

But you don’t see covert agents sneaking around my neighborhood to investigate children collecting feathers, playing with them, or using them in school projects.

No. What you do see is “Operation Pow Wow.” What you see is federal agents searching for ways to undermine Native American tribes like the Lipan Apache, Pastor Soto’s tribe. What you see is the federal government limiting the religious exercise of some individuals—while granting others free rein to do the same thing for non-religious reasons.

Today the government agreed to return the feathers it confiscated so many years ago. But the fight is not over. If someone else in Pastor Soto’s tribe decides to use eagle feathers, he may still be charged with fines and possible imprisonment.

Neither Pastor Soto nor anyone from his tribe should need the government’s permission to practice their religion—and that’s something we should all agree on.

Sincerely,
kristina

Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director

Strong Women, Including Nuns, Are Role Models!

A Message from the Executive Director
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Dear Friends,

Nothing could stop my mother once she had made up her mind. When she was determined that something was going to happen, nothing could change that—not tears, not begging, not pleading.

And so it happened that my sister, my brother, and I all learned to drive in a 1976 light blue Honda Civic missing all four hubcaps. Worst of all, the car had a manual transmission. To this day, I am sure that I have certain neck issues from the repeated whiplash I gave myself while learning to drive that car. Imagine trying to shift and accelerate, craning your neck to see if the traffic light had changed…and all in Puerto Rico where, when the traffic light turns green, yellow or red, most perceive the light change as merely a strong suggestion to stop, slow, or go.

That Honda Civic was one of my many teenage crucibles.

I was surprised when I got to college in the US and I started hearing a lot of talk about women feeling (and being) powerless. I am sure it’s true in many cases, but I was baffled. I lacked the context for this mindset. My female role models growing up were anything but powerless.

I had my mother, who could whip up a gourmet dinner with two raw shrimp, a cup of rice, and what I’d swear was a pound of crushed garlic when my dad brought home a surprise guest from work, while stopping us kids from acting up with just a single look. I had my aunt Myriam, who, to this day, at 90 years old, effortlessly commands our family events. I had my feisty, petite little sister, who, just a few years ago, unarmed and nine months pregnant, fought and then outran a man who tried to carjack her at gunpoint.

(We’ve all agreed that the driving lessons probably prepared her for that one.)

With this as my background, I have not been at all surprised to learn that it was a young woman who started the largest religious broadcasting station in the world. Not only was she a woman—she was also a cloistered nun!

As the EWTN founder, Mother Angelica says herself (with a loud laugh): “Being a woman in this business is not easy. Being a nun, even worse!”

If you have two minutes, please watch her inimitable style while she talks about her start up network here:

So, when the government announced that the Affordable Care Act contained a “contraceptive mandate’ which made it mandatory for EWTN and other non-profits to provide drugs and devices that violate their faith–and when the government announced that those who would not abide would be heavily fined by the IRS–Mother Angelica’s network was not willing to let it get in the way. Her network wasn’t about to let its ministry flounder or fail because of it, either. So, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, another order of nuns we are representing in a challenge against the mandate, EWTN is fighting the government’s so-called “accommodation.”

We presented oral arguments to the 11th Circuit for EWTN in early February. And back in December, as you may recall, we did the same at the 10th Circuit for the Little Sisters of the Poor. We await both decisions as I write this.

In both cases we argued that the government is not in the business of forcing these non-profits to violate their faith. We argued that the government already exempted millions of Americans from this “mandate” for commercial or other secular reasons. We argued that the government has many other ways to provide these drugs and devices to people who want them without forcing anyone to violate their faith. We argued that the threat of crushing IRS fines was unjust and unprecedented.

Throughout all this unpleasantness and court processes, the sisters remain strong!

I have not asked the sisters, but I bet they had equally strong role models as I did. (And, I bet they learned to drive in a stick shift car too!)

And now, in a world that sometimes feels devoid of role models, they have each become one, along with our other awesome clients Barbara Green of Hobby Lobby and Samantha Jones of our Pledge of Allegiance cases.

These are all women who believe deeply and act passionately. These are women who understand their rights. These are women who have refused give in to an unjust law, no matter many false compromises they are offered or threats of IRS fines they face.

These are women who are not, in any sense, powerless.

And that, my friends, should surprise no one. Least of all the federal government.
Sincerely,

kristina

Kristina Arriaga
Executive Director
How Can You Show Your Support?

P.S. Earlier this week we stood with the Oklahoma-based parents of children with autism and other disabilities. This is the fourth time in three years that these parents have had to fight for their right to access a state scholarship program for disabled children. They had to file a lawsuit against the school district who then turned around and sued the parents for receiving the scholarship. Now a judge has relied on an arcane 19th century provision and ruled that these embattled kids can go to any school as long as it is not “too religious.” Huh? Confused? Don’t blame you. The court is confused as well. Read more about it here.