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Free Inquiry

Volume 18, Number 3
Summer, 1998

The following articles are from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 3.

Mexican Red Cross Opposes Condom Use

by Stephen Macoff

An inhumane Red Cross? It seems like a contradiction in terms. Yet the head of the Mexican Red Cross has announced his opposition to the use of condoms for birth control and AIDS prevention and has halted the agency's fight against the disease, which is now threatening epidemic proportions in Mexico. This move is, of course, a radical departure from the policies of the International Red Cross.

At a recent press conference, Jose Barroso Chavez, director of the Mexican Red Cross for 12 years, explained his views and said that condoms have "a failure rate of up to 40% [in preventing disease], and the proof of this is the fact that every day there are more people infected." But in offering this figure, he misconstrued a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. The study was done to determine the effectiveness of improperly used condoms. Actually, the CDC says that a great deal of research shows that properly used condoms have an effectiveness rate of 94% to 100% in preventing transmission of HIV/AIDS. The study that Barroso refers to actually concludes that there is a need for better education on how to correctly use condoms and that latex condoms were superior to other types in disease prevention.

Ironically, a Mexican Federal law, the Norma Oficial published November 22, 1993, states that condoms are approved for use in protecting against both fertilization and the transmission of sexual diseases and that ten international health organizations say that condom effectiveness is between 85% and 97%.

Some have found Barroso's rationale for his views disturbing. "We have many needs," he said, "and if ten thousand people die of AIDS but there are a million that suffer respiratory or digestive ailments, I believe it's more important to help the million than just the ten thousand." He noted that "There is a great pressure from international organizations, especially from the United Nations, to promote birth control and avoid the demographic explosion." He stated that this is a contradiction because "Mexico is one of the most under-populated countries of the world."

What's really behind Barroso's opposition to condoms? There is little doubt about that, observers say: It's his strong Catholicism. It's not surprising then that attending the press conference was Jorge Plaencia, Commissioner of Health of the Archdiocese of Mexico. Regarding condoms, Plaencia added that it's necessary to promote "other values, such as protecting life through fidelity and continence."

Many have questioned both Barroso's actions and motives. "There is a need to separate religious beliefs from facts," says Patricia Lopez Zaragoza, President of the Mexican Ethical Rationalist Association (AMER), an organization dedicated to the diffusion of reliable information concerning science and society. "People should know that he [Barroso] is a member of a right-wing secret society of the Catholic church known as the Knights of Malta."

Fallout from a Bible Course

by Don Boydston

In Florida, the Lee County School Board's approval of a Bible indoctrination course provided the fertile ground for the introduction of other radical religious initiatives in Lee County schools. Members of the Lee County School Curriculum Advisory Committee, dominated by appointees of the Christian extremist members of the School Board, have proposed that Creationism be given the same level of scientific acceptance as evolution in science classes.

In a related development, a religious anti-choice group calling itself "Freedom to Learn" has announced it wants to teach about the "damages, the bleeding, etc.," of abortion in history, sociology, and biology, and "an assortment of classes," in Southwest Florida public schools. It announced its intention to form "Teachers for Life" chapters in public schools to teach and distribute material and books about abortion.

Florida Bible Class Fails Legal Test

by Jo Ann Boydston

On February 25, 1998, seven plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the People for the American Way Foundation reached a settlement with the Lee County, Florida, Board of Education on a "Bible as History" course in the county's public high schools. Andrew H. Kayton, ACLU Florida Legal Director, called the settlement an important success for the ACLU, one that "could set an important precedent on the constitutional use of the Bible in U.S. public schools."

The controversy over teaching the Bible - as literature or as history, the Old and/or the New Testaments - began early in 1996 when a local volunteer for the North Carolina Council for Bible Curriculum suggested the "Bible as History" course to the Board of Education. At a six-hour meeting in March, dozens of speakers, including ministers, rabbis, and imams for local churches, synagogues, and mosques, objected strenuously to having the district offer such a course. The Board approved it, however, by a 4-1 margin. Specifics of the curriculum were to be worked out by a 15-person committee appointed primarily by the Board and, therefore, heavily weighted with Religious Right members.

Meetings of the curriculum committee - composed of clergy, parents, political activists, and Bible literalists and dominated by Bible supporters - were lengthy and acrimonious, producing personal attacks and ethnic slurs, such as the statement that those who opposed the course were "Jews and others who you wondered if they had any religion at all."

In the summer of 1997, after having met frequently for a year, the committee decided to adopt the course originally suggested, one developed by Elizabeth Ridenour, a former real-estate agent, and her Greensboro, North Carolina-based group, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools.

Once the curriculum had been adopted, Board Chairman Douglas Santini, who strongly supported the Bible class, accused Lee County Superintendent of Schools Bobbie D'Alessandro of dragging her feet in starting the course. Many citizens in the community rallied to D'Alessandro's support, but she finally acknowledged that the harassment and intimidation by Board members made it too stressful for her to continue; the Board bought out her contract in February 1997. Meanwhile, the Lee County School District attorney also resigned under pressure in January, after pointing out that the planned Bible course "plainly contravenes the Constitution." His stand was vindicated when the Board's new attorneys advised them that the Old Testament course could result in a successful legal challenge.

In December 1997, the ACLU filed suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of seven Lee County parents and other taxpayers, claiming the course as planned - both Old and New Testament segments - was unconstitutional because it was religious and not secular in nature, as defined by the 1963 Supreme Court ruling. The Board of Education was represented by Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich then ordered the Lee County School District not to implement the New Testament course based on the North Carolina curriculum, and, while agreeing to let the Old Testament course be taught, ordered that it be monitored by videotaping. The Old Testament "Bible as History" class began on January 22, 1998.

On February 25, 1998, the plaintiffs and the Board of Education finally reached a formal settlement on the Bible course. The Board agreed to pay the plaintiffs' attorneys $95,000 and to redesign the class, developing course content based on the college-level textbook entitled Introduction to the Bible. Rather than using the Bible as a "textbook," the Introduction to the Bible leaves interpretation to scholars; the book deals with the formation of the Bible, biblical criticisms, and sources of information concerning such issues as the life and teachings of Jesus. Judge Kovachevich asked to retain jurisdiction in case problems arise in actual implementation of the settlement.

Videotaping continued until March 11, when Judge Kovachevich signed the final settlement and ordered subsequent classes audiotaped up to the end of the present course. The plaintiffs and their lawyers are reviewing the tapes of the Old Testament classes in order to ensure that the approach in the course was secular rather than religious. The Board of Education also announced that students who take the new course must also take either world history (already required) or a comparative religion class (long offered without any takers).

Mark Ehman, a parent and plaintiff in the suit against the Board of Education, as well as a member of the committee to develop the new course, believes the class will now use a proper approach. Ehman said of the settlement, about which he clearly has mixed feelings, "We proposed the settlement and it's a compromise. I think that basically, though, the course is now on sound academic ground and sound constitutional ground."

Paying the Piper

by Andrea Szalanski

Fifteen years of scare tactics against abortion clinics and their patients have added up to $85,000 in damages that Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League must pay to their victims.

Several abortion clinics sued the militant groups in federal court in Chicago under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law (RICO). They charged that fear and violence were being used to try to shut down clinics.

The groups' leaders were named in the suit, although Operation Rescue's Randall Terry settled by agreeing not to engage in criminal activities against abortion clinics or belong to any organization that does. He already owes $169,000 as the result of similar lawsuits and will pay $15,000 and be reinstated as a defendant if he reneges.

Science on the Offensive

by Andrea Szalanski

No longer content to have schools refrain from teaching creationism, scientists are calling for educators to make sure their students understand evolution.

The National Academy of Sciences says evolution should be taught in public schools as "the most important concept in modern biology." It elaborates its stance and gives teachers tips on presenting the concept in a new guide entitled Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science.

"There is no debate within the scientific community over whether evolution has occurred, and there is no evidence that evolution has not occurred," says the NAS. Still, many students receive "little exposure" to evolution. The guide points out that evolution is vital to understanding such processes as how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.

The guide tells teachers to grade their students on their understanding of evolution, not their acceptance. It helps them dispel misconceptions about evolution, such as humans are not descended from apes but that they share an ancestor.

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