The privilege of birth

The Patriot News: Area teens struggle with U.S. citizenship test

If American teens had to pass the same test to remain in the United States that immigrants must pass, many would face finding another country to call home.

Based on the results of The Patriot-News’ unscientific sampling of 10 high school-age youths, it appears our world would be a far different place.

I have to admit that I missed one question, the 13 original states. I added Vermont and Maine and realized 15 just wasn’t right.

I do take issue with the social studies teacher quoted here, though:

That’s why Mark Zeigler, who teaches social studies at Camp Hill High School, was not surprised to hear how local teens struggled with the test. It was not something they had been cramming for.

Zeigler agreed that the questions used in the test are very reasonable and the type of things kids ought to know, but he isn’t certain they measure knowledge that would be of real value to them as adults, or to a new citizen.

“The way we taught history in the past really doesn’t do democracy any good. If we just teach facts, that does not equate to more voters, more participation,” Zeigler said.

Today, the educational approach emphasizes more concepts and broad strokes of knowledge. The idea is to give students an understanding of the whole democratic process, not just a collection of facts.

I agree with the teach that concepts and broad strokes are important, but the facts in this test are part of understanding the concepts. How can you understand how government functions if you don’t know the three branches of government? It’s no wonder The Hostiles get away with attacking the judiciary. How can you understand elections if you don’t know about the Electoral College? How can you understand modern day foreign relations if you don’t know our three enemies in WWII? (I started college with the intent of being a history teacher and ended up with a minor in history, so this is near and dear to my heart.)

This has a serious impact on the way public dialogue is carried out in this country. Besides the attacks on the judiciary, this lack of knowledge also comes into play when people try to claim “majority rules.” Actually, the Founders recognized that majorities could be tyrannical, which is why they set up the system the way it is. It’s why Christianity is not the official religion of the country and English is not the official language. If young people (and plenty of older folks, too, sadly) don’t get this, we are heading down a dark path.

Andy in H-burg

Posted in Uncategorized

Thankful for victories

Last week the 2005-06 legislative session wrapped up in Harrisburg, and we are hyped to report two victories. These were not the “we beat back a horrible bill” type victories. In fact, bills supported by the ACLU of PA passed the legislature.

First, in legislation championed by Senator Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), the Assembly passed SB 669. Court interpreters will now be in all Commonwealth courtrooms across the state, a recommendation made in the 2003 report by the PA Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System. Here are some words of wisdom on the issue from ACLU-PA lobbyist Larry Frankel, courtesy of WITF-FM.

This bill now awaits the signature of Governor Rendell.

Second, as discussed previously at SF, the Innocence Commission of Pennsylvania has been established. The commission will take the nine DNA exonerations in Pennsylvania, examine them, and determine remedies for assuring that innocent people are not convicted of crimes. Senate Bill 1069, The Innocence Commission Act, passed the Senate unanimously in April but hit a roadblock in the House Judiciary Committee. On the second-to-last day of the session last week, Senator Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) introduced Senate Resolution 381 to establish the commission under the Joint State Government Commission, and it passed unanimously. Because it went the resolution route, approval from the House and Governor is not required.

It sure is nice to win, rather than not lose.

Andy in the HBG

‘Tis the Season

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas around the ACLU office here in Pittsburgh; our first round of holiday cards just came in the mail. The messages range from ‘You Will Burn in Hell’ to ‘Go Back to Russia’ (?), but thankfully they all end with a hearty ‘Merry Christmas.’

Apparently there is an orchestrated campaign among some churches to inundate ACLU offices with holiday cards, as if we are vampires who recoil from religious iconography. To be honest, though, I don’t want to totally denigrate the card campaign. They often are very pretty cards, and we use them to decorate the office for the holidays. Still, please feel free to share with your friends and family that the ACLU is absolutely, positively NOT against Christmas.

Personally, I’m still trying to convince my 90 year-old grandmother, but unfortunately she believes Bill O’Reilly more than she believes me. Maybe it is just hard to take someone seriously when you used to change their diapers. I bet Bill O’Reilly’s grandmother didn’t trust him either.

-Lisa in Pittsburgh

Guest Blogger: Paula Cochran

Paula Cochran is a member of the board of the Central Susquehanna chapter of the ACLU of PA.

All deserve to be treated fairly
What makes you queasy?

Marriage can mean a man and a woman making a lifetime commitment and the possibility that the relationship will produce offspring. Yet, we don’t take a marriage licence from those who choose not to, or find they cannot, produce offspring. Just as we do not take a marriage licence from those who adopt because they lack a shared genetic make up with their child (and yes, we do consider it their child). Nor do we deny marriage licences to those who divorce and choose to remarry, once, twice or three times.

A letter to the editor in The (Sunbury) Daily Item recently stated that the writer can “understand gays and lesbians entering into economic interdependence” though the thought of gay couples “engaging in some form of physical union” makes him queasy. Yet, there is no legal requirement for heterosexual couples to assure their choice of “physical union” won’t make the rest of us queasy. And who would get to decide which forms of “physical union” qualify as queasy and thus, make one ineligible for a marriage license?

At least fifty percent of Americans grew up in a family where the parents got divorced. In my family there were three. All heterosexual marriages and divorces, I might add. Anti-gay marriage advocates believe that legalizing gay marriage will destroy the definition of family, which they define as “a stable, two-parent, male-female home.” Yet the divorce rate in the US hovers at around 50% for first marriages, 67% for second marriages and 74% for third marriages. Almost 50% of children live in a single parent family and another 30% live in either a step or cohabiting family. That means 68.7% of American youth live in a nontraditional family already.

If gay marriage becomes legal will it mean heterosexual marriages will fall apart and we’ll find 68.7% of our children living in non traditional settings? No. We already have that. Will it mean that marriage will no longer “imply procreation?” Or do moral, responsible, stable, two-parent, male-female heterosexual couples only have sex for procreation but gay people do it just because it feels good? Now I’m beginning to feel a bit queasy.

So, what would be the consequence of gay marriage? Gay people would get the same legal benefits heterosexual couples get. It’s not a moral or ethical question. It’s a legal question. That question is: Do all people, by law, deserve to be treated fairly?

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

Family Planning means No Birth Control.

From an editorial in last Saturday’s Boston Globe:

BY NOW, Americans might expect President Bush to appoint an opponent of abortion to a key public health position in his administration. But to name an opponent of family planning to oversee the nation’s family planning program is perverse even by the standards of a government that doesn’t much believe in government.

Marblehead gynecologist Eric Keroack’s appointment as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs in the Health and Human Services Department exemplifies the concerns of women’s health advocates who have long warned that the antiabortion movement will not stop at abortion. Dr. Keroack oversees a network of “crisis pregnancy” centers across Massachusetts, where staffers not only try to talk women out of having abortions, but also oppose the use of contraception, even for married couples.

The Washington Post’s editorial on the appointment noted:

To put it simply, the Bush administration’s choice to direct the federal effort to make contraceptives available to low-income women works for a group that doesn’t support using contraception. What comes next — a science adviser who doesn’t believe in evolution?

Well, pretty much.

And unlike the ambassador to the U.N., this position does not have to be confirmed.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

Ah, sweet irony

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear that there is a lot of misinformation about the ACLU out there. One that continually pops up is an email that claims the ACLU is trying to get rid of crosses on graves in Arlington. It’s been around for years, and never seems to die. (You can see it on, a great site that debunks urban myths like this one.)

The truth is that personal gravestones in federal cemeteries are chosen by the family of the deceased, and not by the government. The ACLU fully supports the right of these families to express their religious beliefs.

Apparently the US government doesn’t share the this belief in religious expression. The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides headstones free of charge to mark the graves of eligible veterans, has refused to move on applications to have the pentacle of the Wiccan faith designated as an emblem of belief. An emblem of belief is included on the headstone only if it is on the list of symbols approved by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This fall the ACLU and Americans United for Separation for Church and State filed separate lawsuits challenging the VA for refusing to move on applications for the Wiccan symbol for nine years. In the meantime, the agency approved additional emblems of numerous other religions and belief systems as a matter of course, usually in a few months. (More information about cases, see the ACLU press release and the Americans United release.)

And we’re the ones who don’t respect people’s religious beliefs?

Sara in Philly

E-Day fallout

People who are concerned about civil liberties and civil rights issues often wonder what they can do. After this last Election Day, it became abundantly clear of at least one action that people can take to preserve our democracy- volunteer at the polls. I’m not talking about the poll watching that the parties organize but the actual poll work through the county elections board. Although this is anecdotal, in just my small circle of friends, I heard of three different incidents in three counties of poll workers doing what they should not be doing regarding identification. In two of the three situations, workers asked for photo ID from voters who had previously voted in that precinct. In the most egregious example, a poll worker in Dauphin County asked a first time voter for photo ID (correctly) and her voter registration card. Fortunately, it was a friend of mine who I happened to see that night before the polls closed. She asked me if that was the right thing to do, I said, “No,” and she went back and voted.

Volunteering at the polls is one small way to help protect the vote.

Andy in H-burg

Fox-y CNN Commentator

Apparently CNN is trying to out-obnoxious Fox News. From a Media Matters post:

On the November 14 edition of his CNN Headline News program, Glenn Beck interviewed Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN), who became the first Muslim ever elected to Congress on November 7, and asked Ellison if he could “have five minutes here where we’re just politically incorrect and I play the cards up on the table.” After Ellison agreed, Beck said: “I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’ ” Beck added: “I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.”

As Media Matters for America has noted, Beck previously warned that if “Muslims and Arabs” don’t “act now” by “step[ping] to the plate” to condemn terrorism, they “will be looking through a razor wire fence at the West” and declared that “Muslims who have sat on your frickin’ hands the whole time” rather than “lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head” will face dire consequences.

The Media Matters has a clip of the interview, and it sounds even worse when you hear it said out loud.

Thankfully Beck prefaced his remarks by saying “No offense.” Whew. Otherwise, Rep.-elect Ellison might have taken them the wrong way.

Sara in Philly

Think Tank Will Promote Thinking

Such reads a novel headline from the Washington Post today.

Apparently this group of crazies “want science, not faith, at core of public policy.”

Concerned that the voice of science and secularism is growing ever fainter in the White House, on Capitol Hill and in culture, a group of prominent scientists and advocates of strict church-state separation yesterday announced formation of a Washington think tank designed to promote “rationalism” as the basis of public policy.

More specifically…

While the speakers at the National Press Club unveiling were highly critical of Bush administration policies regarding stem cell research, global warming, abstinence-only sex education and the teaching of “intelligent design,” they said that their group was nonpartisan and that many Democrats were hostile to keeping religion out of public policy.

No, this is not some sort of ACLU front group–these are real flesh and blood scientists (of the mainstream variety).

Although I was glad to read about this, it is also sad our political climate has deteriorated to needing a think tank for the promotion of ‘science, not faith’ as the basis of public policy.

Lisa in Pittsburgh

And the award for most creative linkage of issues goes to…

I almost choked on my morning diet soda up my nose when I read this headline in the Washington Post: Mo. Panel’s Report Links Immigration To Abortion

Huh? According to the article:

A Republican-led legislative panel says in a new report on illegal immigration that abortion is partly to blame because it is causing a shortage of American workers.

The report from the state House Special Committee on Immigration Reform also says that “liberal social welfare policies” have discouraged Americans from working and have encouraged immigrants to cross the border illegally.

The statements about abortion and welfare policies, along with a recommendation to abolish income taxes in favor of sales taxes, were inserted into the immigration report by Rep. Edgar G.H. Emery (R), the panel’s chairman.

I just hope our own state legislature, which has been looking to take on the immigration issue, doesn’t get any ideas from their colleagues in Missouri.

Sara in Philly