Recently in Legal Issues Category

Kent Hovind in trouble again


I haven’t got time to investigate further, but Hovind watchers might be interested that Mr, Hovind (Dr. Dino) has been charged with filing a lien on property that had already been forfeited. Or something. A Forbes columnist, Peter Reilly, suggests that the government is piling on, and I suspect he is right; you may read about it here.

Acknowledgement. Link provided by the truly indefatigable Dan Phelps.

A couple months ago, Richard Hoppe and I blogged about the lawsuit brought by a creationist group against the state of Kansas, alleging that teaching real science to students violates the First Amendment by “indoctrinating” them with ideas that might make them question their religious training. State officials today filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit, which you can read here. It’s a very strong motion–the most important parts are pages 28-43–so I don’t have much to add. Kansas is clearly in the right and deserves easily to win this motion. More at the NCSE’s site.

Co-blogger Richard Hoppe noted a few weeks ago that a group of creationists in Kansas have sued the state’s Board of Education for teaching evolution in public schools on the theory that such teaching “endorses” a “worldview” which is tantamount to a religion, as prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As our NCSE friends observe, courts have consistently rejected the argument that science is a “religious worldview” which the government is prohibited from endorsing. But there’s another…shall we say, innovative…aspect to the complaint. It alleges that teaching evolution violates the right of school children not to be indoctrinated. For instance, on p. 27, the complaint alleges that teaching evolution violates the rights of students because it “imbues them with a religious belief that is inconsistent with the beliefs their parents have sought to instill in them,” and “imbu[es] them with a religious belief that is inconsistent with their [the students’] existing religious beliefs.”

But they also ruled that cDNA sequences may be patented. The argument is something like this: DNA is found in nature, hence not patentable. But cDNA, or DNA stripped of its introns, is not found in nature, hence potentially patentable. See Adam Liptak’s article in The New York Times.

The outcome means (or seems to mean) that Myriad Genetics will no longer have a monopoly on testing for the breast-cancer genes, BRCA-1 and -2. Liptak suggests that competition will now drive the cost of such tests down from the present price of around $3000. Myriad’s stock nevertheless had gone up at the time of Liptak’s report.

SCOTUSBlog is running a symposium on the case of Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, which presents the question of whether human genes are patentable. I blogged about the case when the Federal Circut upheld the patent.

According to an article in the Pasadena Star-News, Jet Propulsion Laboratory has finally won the wrongful termination lawsuit filed by David Coppedge. NCSE has posted the judge’s decision here. You may see an interpretation of the case here.

JPL Prevails in Lawsuit


While the final decision hasn’t been written, the judge in the Coppedge v. Caltech and JPL case has made an order for a final ruling in JPL’s favor.

In his wrongful termination suit, Coppedge claimed he was demoted in 2009, then let go for engaging his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design and for handing out DVDs on the topic while at work. Intelligent design is the belief that life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone.

Save Siccar Point!


rocksdontlie.jpg I recently acquired the new book “The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood” by David Montgomery. It’s a splendid read, and very much applicable to the readership of Panda’s Thumb. The book has some excellent pictures and discussions regarding Siccar Point in Scotland, “…celebrated as the place where Scottish farmer James Hutton discovered geologic time..” Siccar Point graces the cover of Montgomery’s book.

Just last Thursday, I cited Siccar Point in a lecture on the Flood for our new social studies class at New Mexico Tech in Socorro. (See slides 56-58). I have resolved to visit Siccar Point - it’s on my bucket list.

That’s why I found this announcement from the Facebook group “Save Siccar Point” to be quite disturbing. They are alarmed that developers are “ruining the geological mecca of Siccar Point, the location of Hutton’s unconformity.”

More info here:

From the site comes this urgent plea:

The deadline for objections has been extended to 23 September 2012 - the day before the application is considered. If you want to lodge an objection you have some time to do it. Please don’t forget!

It still not too late to object…keep them coming.

You can object by email if you want. Here’s how:

  1. In the Subject Line put “12/00929/FUL Objection Comment”
  2. Add your comment in the email body
  3. Send your email to [Enable javascript to see this email address.] or [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

If you want to CC anyone else into your email, you might want to consider:

  1. Scottish Natural Heritage: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]
  2. Scottish Environmental Protection Agency: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]
  3. Crown Estates: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]
  4. Dunglass Estate: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

I have sent along my objections - will you?

(Don’t forget to be polite!)

Back in my post Who is turning the screws on Todd Wood, the creationist biologist who opposes Tennesee’s new monkey law? I noted how it was odd that Todd Wood, one of the only non-delusional professional creationists in existence, first put up an open letter to the governor of Tennessee opposing Tennessee’s crypto-creationist “academic freedom” bill, and then mysteriously took it down a few days later.

Now that the bill has passed (although the governor decided not to sign it, a small (very small) victory for all the science and education organizations that opposed the bill), Wood has put up another post both (a) explaining what happened to the letter and (b) explaining in much more detail the problems with the law and with the whole misbegotten creationist/ID strategy of trying to get their stuff into the schools through political means rather than the responsible way of convincing the scientific community.

Josh Rosenau wrote up a good commentary. Short version of what we learned in Wood’s post:

1. Wood says he took the letter down of his own free will. He said, “I can make my own decisions to take down a blog post that in retrospect doesn’t meet my own quality standards.” Confusingly, though, Wood didn’t say what was lacking in the letter. Wood certainly didn’t change his position on the bill, which if anything more negative and less diplomatic now than it was then.

2. Although Wood claims no one turned the screws on him, I think it is pretty clear that the creationist lobby tried. This is Wood’s summary of what one of his friends told him:

I know that law is not my expertise, so when I get a letter from a trusted friend saying that my opinion is “legally and politically naive” I listen.

Actually, Wood’s letter was legally and politically canny in many ways. The only way it was naive was in the statements that the law was unnecessary for creationists and that it would have no effect on education, but presumably that was not the naivet� that Wood’s presumably creationist friend was talking about. The law is necessary if you want to increase the teaching of creationist/IDist B.S. in Tennessee public schools.

Then, even more incredibly, Wood reports that John West of the Discovery Institute – yes, the Discovery “we’re not creationists, especially not young-earth-just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck creationists” Institute – apparently circulated a letter to Bryan College employees lambasting Wood for daring to be a creationist with an independent voice who doesn’t think creationism should be pushed in the political arena before it succeeds in the scientific arena:

Back to my own experience: I took my letter to the governor down less than 24 hours after I put it up, and a few days later, a staff member at the college passed along a letter from John West of the Discovery Institute trying to drum up some resistance on the Bryan campus to my opinion. As far as I know, his efforts had zero effect on campus, since I didn’t hear from any other person on campus about it. In his letter, West described me as “one cranky self-described ‘creationist’ who seems to get his facts from Panda’s Thumb.”

I guess Todd Wood, young-earther and professor at William Jennings Bryan College, isn’t creationist enough for the Discovery Institute’s John West! And that’s quite something.

I suppose that I should mention that I had absolutely no direct information, apart from the removal of Wood’s open letter, that the Discovery Institute’s screw-turning shenanigans were going on when I wrote:

Did someone at Bryan College object to a creationist going off-message? Did someone at the Discovery Institute get worried about the influence that a Tennessee-based professional creationist opposing the law would have, and call up Bryan College or Wood himself and start harassing them?

According to Wood, this sort of thing wasn’t the cause of him taking down the letter – but nevertheless exactly these sorts of attempts were actually made! Am I psychic, or do I just know how these guys operate? We report, you decide.

Now that’s chutzpah


Over at the DI Media Complaints Division/Department of calling young-earth creation scientists ID proponents and then pretending that ID isn’t creationism relabeled, David Klinghoffer has commented on the previous PT post on Coppedge v. JPL and the various suggestions and speculations that I and others made in the discussion. As is par for the course, Klinghoffer mischaracterizes clearly labeled speculation as definitive conclusions, says we’re meanies, yadda yadda.

But that’s not what’s interesting. What’s interesting is Klinghoffer’s description of Coppedge and his lawyer, William Becker. According to Klinghoffer, they are almost in opposition to each other – both in attitude and on the witness stand, of all places. Becker seems “impatient” and “frustrated” with Coppedge on the stand. Why exactly? It’s hard to say. Klinghoffer chalks it up to Coppedge’s “sheepish hesitancy” and “tendency to digress”.

Klinghoffer also mentions that Coppedge is suffering from severe headaches, which the media indicates has been delaying testimony. And Klinghoffer recounts an event Klinghoffer personally witnessed in which Becker almost got into a fist-fight after dinging another guy’s car with his door.

Klinghoffer spins all this to illustrate the “shy” and mild-mannered nature of Coppedge – says Klinghoffer,

It made me wonder if Coppedge isn’t too bashful to offer a proper evangelical pitch for anything. Think about it. “Pushing” your ideas on anyone, as distinct from diffidently offering them a DVD and making a note in your diary if they liked it or not (as Coppedge did), requires a fearless nerve, a certain cheekiness. In Jewish terms, chutzpah.

Coppedge doesn’t have chutzpah in his DNA.

Now, an alternative interpretation of all of this is that Coppedge is turning out to be a weird dude, his case is coming apart at the seams, and Becker is mad and frustrated because he knows this, which would mean that years of work will go down the drain, and, worse, there will be no compensation of legal fees. I have no strong opinion about this possibility, it could be wrong, but it seems at least as plausible as Klinghoffer’s interpretation.

What I would like to discuss is Klinghoffer’s statement that Coppedge ain’t got no chutzpah. Klinghoffer concludes:

It looks like the trial in Coppedge v. JPL has finally started after many, many delays. The Discovery Institute appears to be attempting to milk it and spin it for all it’s worth – and of course they are accusing the “Darwinists” of doing this. The reality, though, is that we don’t know anything more than what can be gleaned from the news reports and DI propaganda (and the court filings, if anyone is brave enough to dig through that tedium), and the various evolution folks have said relatively little about it as a result. JPL hasn’t released very much information – probably a good plan. But links, discussion, etc. welcome in this thread.

The headline says it all. See here for the latest article by Adam Liptak in the Times. To put it as briefly as possible, the Court seems to think that a tax expenditure is not an expenditure. My earlier posting on the topic is here.

Thanks to Jim Lippard for lighting a fire under me.

Y’all remember how, years ago, Casey Luskin and the boys were calling Judge Jones a plagiarist because the final decision in Kitzmiller drew a lot of language from the briefs? I pointed out at the time that, well, that’s what briefs are for. Now here’s an article in Political Research Quarterly that uses software to find that even the U.S. Supreme Court draws a lot of language from the briefs filed by the parties in any particular case, thus reaching the unremarkable conclusion that “there is a connection between the language of the parties’ briefs and the language of the opinions, which means that parties have the potential to influence the law.” For most of us, it’s nice to know that court opinions show the judges actually read the briefs. But for Luskin & Co., it’s doubtless evidence of just how huge the Darwinist plagiarist conspiracy really is.

Tax credits for religious schools?


According to an article by Adam Liptak in yesterday’s New York Times, the Supreme Court has just heard arguments relating to an Arizona law that gives a tax credit for contributions to private “tuition organizations.” Mr. Liptak puts it succinctly:

Dawkins sues own webmaster


I have not seen this in the New York Times yet, so I guess it is not Real News, but evidently Richard Dawkins (or the Richard Dawkins Foundation) is suing his webmaster for alleged embezzlement. Dawkins alleges that the webmaster, Josh Timonen, embezzled nearly $400,000, which appears to be most of the money earned by an on-line store that Timonen operated on behalf of the foundation. Timonen has posted a reply here. I also noticed a discussion at the James Randi Educational Foundation and a short article on Pharyngula. The question of who owns certain intellectual property promises to have very interesting consequences. All I know. Thanks to Abigail Smith for the tip.

Freshwater: The defense goes fishing


And it’s not Freshwater or Hamilton holding the rod and reel.

The defense in Freshwater v. Mount Vernon Board of Education, the federal suit John Freshwater brought against the Board of Education, several administrators, and several Board members, recently issued a series of subpoenas to people ranging from Nancy Freshwater’s physicians to a couple of private citizens. While the former is arguably relevant to the case, the latter are not. Part of Freshwater’s claim in his suit is the adverse effect on his wife and loss of consortium, so her medical records are potentially pertinent. However, in at least two cases, the defense is clearly on a fishing expedition that among other things has chilling implications for the First Amendment rights of the recipients.

More below the fold

A couple weeks ago, the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (the best podcast there is, by the way) covered a horrific story about an Australian couple who tortured a woman after a psychic led them to believe that she was responsible for a theft they had suffered. Their attack on her was really godawful. But then the Rogues got to talking about whether the psychic was herself criminally or civilly liable for her part in the affair, and much of what they said was incorrect. I thought it might serve as an interesting “teaching moment,” but as it has less to do with creationism than with woo in general, you can read more over at Freespace.

Luskin, laws, and lies


Casey Luskin has an article in the Liberty University Law Review which he claims isn’t about Intelligent Design creationism, but is instead meant to show how “zeal for Darwin encourages certain violations of the Establishment Clause.” It will come as no surprise to anyone that Luskin’s argument is flimsy, his evidence illusory, his readings of the case law distorted, and the overall effect essentially a fun-house mirror version of First Amendment law.

Luskin’s thesis is that criticizing Intelligent Design creationism = attacking a religious viewpoint. He combines this with an insistent denial that ID is a religious viewpoint, which is an amusing effort to stick to the Discovery Institute party line, but is not, strictly speaking, illogical. His position is that, if we assume the fact (which is a fact, but he assumes, rather than believing it) that ID creationism is a religious viewpoint, why, then, it violates the First Amendment to disparage it: “Sylvia Mader’s 2007 introductory biology textbook, Essentials of Biology…plainly communicates that ID runs counter to the factual scientific data,” he writes. “If she is correct that ID is a religious viewpoint, is it appropriate for state schools to use her textbooks that unambiguously claim ID is empirically wrong?”

The correct answer is, yes, it’s perfectly constitutional and perfectly appropriate–but of course, to Luskin, the answer is no: “Students who support scientific creationism would thus hear that their ‘set of religious beliefs’ is not only an ‘arbitrary faith,’ but that they are not using their ‘God-given gifts to reason and to understand’ in the way God intended. While many might agree with such arguments, religious neutrality forbids the government from attacking, opposing, and disapproving of such a ‘set of religious beliefs’ in this fashion.”

This is false. The neutrality requirement in the First Amendment forbids the government from taking a position on the truth or falsehood of a religious doctrine in religious terms, but it may take a position on any matter on areligious or non-religious terms. That is, the Constitution forbids the government from endorsing or propagating or censoring the doctrinal truth of a religious proposition, but it does not forbid the government from endorsing or propagating the factual truth of a proposition, even if those propositions turn out to be the same in content. It does not forbid the government from reaching a conclusion, and stating or endorsing that conclusion, from secular premises, even if that conclusion happens to clash with someone’s religious view. Government may not take religious positions, but it take secular positions that happen to clash with positions endorsed by a religious viewpoint.

This ought to be plainly obvious. Some people, for example, believe that AIDS is a punishment sent from God to scourge sodomites, or that blacks are inherently inferior to whites, or that ancient Indian tribes descended from Israelites and fought wars in chariots, or that earthquakes express Vulcan’s displeasure at man’s hubris.* The First Amendment forbids the government from taking any official doctrinal positions on these matters–but it does not forbid, and could not possibly forbid the government from teaching that, in fact, AIDS is caused by a virus, that blacks are not inferior to whites, that American Indian tribes have no relationship to the Israelites and lacked chariots, and that earthquakes are caused by geological activity. The First Amendment does not forbid the government from saying that there is no documentary evidence (or no fossil evidence or no eyewitness evidence) for P, even though P falls within a religious doctrine–and the Amendment cannot sensibly read to require this, because it would make all communication and all activities impossible. The most arbitrary claims would be insulated from challenge, and each person would have a heckler’s veto over government’s actions–the more irrational and mystical, the better.

To put it a bit more technically, if proposition P can be supported by religious argument R and also by secular argument S, government is entirely within its constitutional authority to take an official position on P on the basis of S. In fact, it’s even entitled to throw people in jail for P. But it may do nothing whatsoever on the basis of R. It may not support or oppose or endorse it. That’s why the government can make it illegal for people to use intoxicating drugs–even if they do so for religious purposes–but why it may not prosecute faith healing, even though faith healing is obviously fraudulent bunk.

Now, let’s play “name that logical fallacy” (to steal from our friends at the Skeptic’s Guide): “[E]ither ID is a religious viewpoint that is unconstitutionally opposed, inhibited, and disapproved when this textbook is used in public schools,” writes Luskin, “or ID is not a religious viewpoint and is thereby fair game for all forms of government-sponsored attacks, disparagement, hostility, as well as endorsement.” This is all very clever, no doubt–it is, as Lincoln once said, the kind of logic whereby a horse chestnut turns out to be the same thing as a chestnut horse. It’s the fallacy of the false dichotomy. In fact, ID is a religious viewpoint masquerading as a scientific theory–it is a religious position which is layered in factually untrue or arbitrary assertions. Government is entirely free to denounce the factually untrue statements and explode those arbitrary assertions. No, it cannot say that God does not exist, and it cannot say that man was not created by God through some guided process. On that, Luskin is correct. But government violates no law when it says (and rightly) that there is no factual basis for ID’s scientific claims.

It’s amazing that Luskin can get 88 pages out of this silliness–even if it is through Liberty University. But the bottom line is this: government may inhibit (short of censorship or compelled speech), oppose, and disapprove of any factual proposition whatsoever–including factual propositions that religious groups have taken a position on–so long as it does so from a secular background.

*–Update: I feel so bad. Vulcan was not the god of earthquakes; that was Poseidon/Neptune. I did not mean to denegrate, oppose, or disapprove of this non-materialistic explanation of earthquake generation, and I sincerely apologize to all members of the Supreme Council of Ethniokoi Hellenes.

Chris Comer loses appeal


We received the following announcement from the National Center for Science Education and reproduce it with permission:

The New York Times reported a week or so ago that Arizona State University had paid damages to an Indian tribe for misuse of DNA that had been collected by a University researcher (here, with further analysis here). The tribe claimed that the researcher, Therese Markow, had obtained permission to use the DNA for one purpose but then used it for other purposes. That is, she had not obtained informed consent for wider-ranging research than the original research, which was to study diabetes among the members of the tribe. The Times did not give enough information about the consent given by the Indians to allow a judgment as to whether Professor Markow acted unethically, but she insists that she did not, in part because it is impossible to tell in advance the direction of a research project. Indeed, it is easy to conjecture that the University settled the suit because contesting it would damage its image.

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