Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In the Name of God

The Golden Compass is the first book in the controversial His Dark Materials trilogy, by Phillip Pullman. The film adaptation, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, will be coming to theaters this December. Even though nobody has had a chance to screen the movie conservative Christian groups such as the Catholic League have gone on the offensive. Bill Donohue, the Grand Inquisitor of the Catholic League is furious because Pullman is allegedly a “militant atheist” who penned his trilogy to encourage impressionable teens to question their faith. Even if the movie softens its content to deal with more abstract conventions, Donohue maintains that it will draw readers to the books where Pullman’s viscous agenda is unchecked by Hollywood executives.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, disagrees. He read the trilogy and met with Phillip Pullman. Dr. Williams sees the books as a direct challenge to dogmatism. While Pullman formally identifies himself as a humanist, he does not have an axe to grind with religion in general but the power structure within organized religion that utilizes fear to instill a sense of conformity and compliance. That’s actually a pretty common trait among atheists and agnostics.

In 1999, Kevin Smith released a brilliant exploration into his own religious background. Smith, a Catholic, examined his faith with a satirical eye and delved into the roots of spirituality. The result was a hilariously clever but poignant movie entitled Dogma. Before Dogma was even released Bill Donohue and his minions were out in force protesting the release of the film and demanding boycotts. Ultimately Smith’s film was not an indictment of religion so much as it was man’s ability to corrupt it. Kevin Smith rarely pulls punches with his writing, and casting Chris Rock as the voice of reason made it difficult for a lot of people to absorb the message but in the end Dogma lets God off the hook and indicts man for the flaws in religion. Of course most of the people who could keep the vulgar content of the movie in perspective and actually get the point were lost when they saw who Smith cast in the role of God.

The problem with people like Donohue is that they refuse to open their minds. It’s OK for Mel Gibson to rake in millions of dollars by cashing in on Christ but the minute somebody challenges the authority of organized religion they call for boycotts. These people behave like spoiled children, throwing monumental tantrums whenever anything doesn’t go their way. There’s no civility or respect, just pigheaded protests. Donohue sometimes goes beyond acts of civil disobedience filing lawsuits and even employing borderline criminal intimidation tactics to force people to comply with his agenda.

Ironically, Donohue is a perfect example of religion gone bad. He’s a blustering, beet-faced bully who spends so much time preaching from on high he doesn’t see the fact that he is the problem. Donohue is all about money, power and control…which is exactly what Jesus took issue with when he threw the merchants out of the temple.

Donohue doesn’t practice Christianity as defined by Jesus. He embodies the sort of imperialistic dogmatism that stigmatizes organized religion. Donohue’s Catholicism protects pedophiles from the criminal justice system because the Church must appear infallible. Donohue’s Catholicism has a high powered legal team. Donohue’s Catholicism spends more time waging a war on the way people express their holiday wishes rather than simply expressing his. Here’s an idea: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Ring a bell? Jesus approached those who denied him with open arms; Donohue, and his ilk, does it with a clenched fist.

The Golden Compass is not an attack on faith at all, it’s a critique of those who exploit faith for personal gain. For centuries religion has been used to control and oppress people. Its purpose was to consolidate power within the confines of the Church hierarchy. The reason Donohue and the Catholic League take it so personally is because no religious institution has been so corrupt for so long. That’s not an indictment of Catholics, most of whom are wonderful people; the problem is with executive branch of the Church headquartered in Rome. For more than a thousand years the Vatican has positioned itself in front of God. Critics of Catholicism believe that Catholics actually worship the Pope and for a number of years that was the case. This is why old school Catholics, like Donohue, refuse to acknowledge the fallibility in their own religion. If the Vatican is flawed so is the entire religion. It’s hard to find another religion that has been so successful at putting God’s reputed power in the hands of a few men. When it happens on a smaller scale, society calls it a cult.

That’s what makes religion dangerous. When people suspend rationality and put their faith in a dogma created by man rather than spiritual concepts they become slaves to dogmatism. That is the basis of atheism. The problem isn’t with God, it’s with man. The Golden Compass is the latest installment of an exploration into the nature of religion. It’s going to ask questions and challenge conventions. If that makes you uneasy you’re on the wrong spiritual path.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Due Process Compromised by Political Aspirations

Shameless self promotion and justice don't mix.

In spite of its many flaws our criminal justice system is superior to most around the world because of the presumption of innocence. Until a person pleads or is proven guilty they are presumed to be innocent. While the court of public opinion is willing to take an arresting officer at his word the court of law cannot.

In the grand scheme of things a misdemeanor charge of solicitation is not a big deal. Greater crimes are committed every day and one could make the case that prostitution is a victimless crime that really isn’t worth fighting. Why invest all that money in vice when those crimes generally involve consenting adults?

Prostitution rarely entails jail time. Public interests simply aren’t served when tax dollars are spent feeding and housing people who buy or sell sex. These cases are of such little importance most prosecutors amend the charges to petty offenses such as disorderly conduct. Small fines are paid and people are sent on their way.

Antonio Henton is a promising young football player for the Ohio State Buckeyes. He’s a third string quarterback who has athletic ability reminiscent of Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. Most people around the country haven’t heard of him because he doesn’t play but in the microcosm that is Columbus he is a celebrity. So when Antonio tried to solicit sex from an undercover officer late one September evening the ensuing arrest was big news.

In Columbus police often practice a catch and release tactic when it comes to vice. A wayward man will get caught trying to close a deal for a 20 dollar holler and spend 15 minutes wearing handcuffs in the back of a squad car while the police run his criminal record and humiliate him. If he’s got no priors and seems sufficiently deterred from future indiscretions they’ll let him go. No need to ruin a guy’s life over a blow job.

Not too long ago Columbus vice officers busted a full service upscale brothel just outside of downtown. Much ado was made over the operation which had been infiltrated and tracked for months. It was reported that the clients who visited the brothel were high profile businessmen and public figures in the area but prosecutors decided to drop charges against all parties except for the brothel’s owner, Tamara Flory. She was sentenced to a few months in prison and released to probation for the next several years.

So precedent has been set. Prostitution is no big deal but yet Antonio Henton was arrested and it qualified as breaking news. Local channels interrupted regular programming with a crawl that announced Henton’s arrest and temporary incarceration. He spent the night in jail and was arraigned the next morning. That’s where things took an interesting turn.

The only place a person should expect justice is in the court room. The general public will jump to conclusions, police will make mistakes and the media will sensationalize a story to draw more viewers to the 11 o’clock broadcast of the local news. The court is the only place where judgment is not passed until justice is served and the judge is the only person who can see it through. We elect judges to be fair and impartial when others are not.

Amy Salerno is the judge who presided over Antonio Henton’s arraignment. Not surprisingly Henton entered a plea of not guilty and requested bail. Instead of recording the plea and advising Henton of his obligations Salerno lambasted the young college student with an opportunistic diatribe that one can only assume she labored over until the wee hours.

"Mr. Henton: I have to tell you sir that I and many fans and graduates of Ohio State University are very disappointed to see you here today in my courtroom. Considering, sir, the fact that you are an ambassador of Ohio State University; your visibility in the community, you need to keep that in mind, sir. "As well as the fact that you need to show up at court and henceforth you need to conduct yourself and comport your actions according to your status in the community, sir. "I can tell, sir, your head is hung down and you're looking extremely sad. I know you do not wish to disappoint your team members either, sir. I will give you a $2,500 cash or surety bond or appearance bond. Gook luck, sir, both off and on the field. Thank You."

It was a fine lecture and perfectly appropriate if Henton had entered a guilty plea but given the fact that a defendant is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, Salerno’s comments were out of line. In fact, Salerno’s comments seem prejudicial and might very well serve to compromise the prosecution’s case. How can Henton expect a fair trial when his arraigning judge opted to address him in such an inappropriate and unprecedented manner? It would not be surprising to see the case get dismissed before the trial date and if Henton is found guilty it could be overturned on appeal. Salerno should know better.

I’ve been in a courtroom. Like Henton I was arrested for a first degree misdemeanor. Unlike Henton I was able to post bond within minutes and spent only a few hours locked up where as Henton spent the night in a cell and reported to his arraignment in prison garb and handcuffs. I was able to plead not guilty in a shirt and a tie. I did not speak to a judge not did a judge address me. I entered my plea with a paralegal who handed me a paper outlining the rest of the process. While I wasn’t facing charges of soliciting I was sitting next to a man who was and he received the same treatment. So I personally think that Henton was given undue attention given the nature of the charges but I’m not a judge or an attorney so I can’t attest to it from a legal perspective. I just know my experience did not include a lecture from the judge. To be honest, I was disappointed with the assembly line manner in which everything was handled.

Even if Henton’s arraignment wasn’t out of line, the manner in which Salerno addressed him was. It resembled a closing statement after a guilty verdict. Licking County Common Pleas Judge P. Randall Knece agreed in a response to Columbus Dispatch columnist Ann Fisher’s column on the matter. The full text of his email can be read on her blog.

Salerno’s comments reveal a serious problem with our criminal justice system. Salerno is a career politician. She has been walking the streets of Columbus politics for the better part of 25 years. When she realized a prominent Ohio State athlete was on her morning docket she smelled opportunity so she loaded up those Law and Order DVDs and stayed up all night practicing her landmark statement. The only problem is that is was completely out of line for the context of that case. She laid on the heavy drama and played to the cameras, which are a rare fixture in the Franklin County Courthouse, hoping to mine that soapbox moment in November. It was a clear cut case of premature judicial ejaculation. Salerno got all excited about a high profile case and shot her legal wad all over the arraignment. Gross? You bet…a gross miscarriage of justice.

When former Ohio State superstar Maurice Clarett faced the much more severe charges of armed robbery an carrying a concealed weapon his judge didn’t go out of his way to enter a sobering statement during the arraignment. In fact, Maurice didn’t hear such strong words after he accepted a plea and faced sentencing. What compelled Salerno to make such a scene in a much less important setting?

Henton isn’t a menace to society and his crime has no victims. If Salerno sabotaged the case with her ego and Henton goes free people can still sleep at night. If Salerno’s comments end up sealing Henton’s fate and he is found guilty he’ll pay a few hundred dollars in fines and court costs and be on his merry way. The problem isn’t what Salerno did to Henton. The problem is that Salerno has made it clear that our criminal justice system is fragile and that a rogue judge with an agenda can easily compromise the one principal that sets our system apart. Can we trust a judge like Salerno to handle more serious crimes? In the end, Salerno is guilty of a much more severe crime than that which Henton is accused of. We’re fortunate the charges weren’t more severe.

Innocent until proven guilty? It’s not supposed to be conditional.