Friday, August 29, 2014

Utah's "Polygamy Ban" Struck Down

Back when Utah was originally trying to join the United States it was mostly settled by Mormons, many of whom practiced polygamy. As a condition of statehood, Utah was required to ban the practice, not only in terms of granting multiple marriage licenses but also in terms of prohibiting "cohabitation" between unmarried individuals.

Due to this history, Utah was until recently the only state where it was actually illegal for unmarried people to live together. This ridiculous law has finally been overturned. The case originated with the polygamous family of Kody Brown, stars of the reality television series "Sister Wives." In 2010, the state of Utah investigated charging the family with bigamy under the cohabitation statute, which led to the current ruling.

Federal Judge Clark Waddoups in December struck the section of Utah’s bigamy statute that can be applied when someone "cohabits with another person" to whom they are not legally married. Utah law made such a union a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Waddoups said the ban violated the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution. Waddoups let stand the portion of the statute that prevents someone from having more than one active marriage license.

In the final portion of his ruling Wednesday, Waddoups found the Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman violated the Browns’ constitutional rights when he oversaw a 2010 investigation into whether the Brown family was committing bigamy. At the time the Browns lived in Lehi. They have since moved to Nevada. Buhman eventually decided not to file criminal charges, but Waddoups said the investigation stifled the Browns’ rights to free speech, religion and equal protection.

So thanks to this ruling Utah's laws regarding these issues are finally in line with the rest of the country, and it only took them 120 years. This just goes to show how moral panics, such as that surrounding Mormon polygamy in the 1880's, can have long and far-reaching effects. It's always better to cut such nonsense off at the source if doing so is in any way possible.

It should be noted that you still can't legally marry more than one person in Utah, just like you can't in any other state. But this ruling means that Utah can no longer prosecute people based on their living situations.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mullet Cult Convictions Overturned

Remember the Mullet Cult? Amish bishop Sam Mullet and his followers, members of an Ohio group called the Bergholtz community, were convicted of hate crimes for several attacks in which they cut the hair and beards of fellow Amish who wouldn't defer to Mullet's authority. On appeal, a panel of judges has overturned their convictions, on the grounds that prosecutors failed to demonstrate a "religious motive" for their crimes.

A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel sided with arguments brought by attorneys for the Amish, convicted two years ago in five attacks in 2011. The attacks were in apparent retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced the authoritarian style of Sam Mullet Sr., leader of the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio.

In a deeply divided decision, two of the three judges on the panel concluded that the jury received incorrect instructions about how to weigh the role of religion in the attacks. They also said prosecutors should have had to prove that the assaults wouldn't have happened but for religious motives.

"When all is said and done, considerable evidence supported the defendants' theory that interpersonal and intra-family disagreements, not the victims' religious beliefs, sparked the attacks," the judges wrote.

They said it was unfair to conclude that "because faith permeates most, if not all, aspects of life in the Amish community, it necessarily permeates the motives for the assaults in this case."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fear the Yoga Demons!

So it looks like the whole "yoga is demonic" trope is still alive and well. Here's an article about a Catholic woman named Priscilla who was supposedly possessed by demons at her yoga class. The story is so outlandish that I first thought it was some sort of parody, but after looking over the rest of the web site I'm not so sure. I suppose there's a fine line between satire and true religious fanaticism.

At any rate, according to "well-known deliverance minister" Stella Davis, Priscilla's story began when she was going through a divorce. A friend suggested she try a yoga class to deal with the stress and her fate was sealed. The class was completely secular with no religious references, and she prayed to Jesus and Mary to keep her safe. Still, her faith offered no protection and she was quickly possessed, which caused her life to completely fall apart. Davis reports arranging a "deliverance" for Priscilla, which quickly turned into a scene straight out of The Exorcist.

Suddenly, a sound emerged from Priscilla’s mouth, like the hiss of a snake.

“You can’t have her, she’s mine!” the voice shouted. “I took her. You gave her two deformed children,” it said in reference to Priscilla’s children, both of whom have special needs. “I got in through yoga,” the demon announced, then continued his diatribe. “You cannot take her from me. She’s mine. You’ll never get rid of me and even if you do, I’ll get back in.”

It went on to announce: “I took her family away from her. I took her job away from her when she was about to get it back. I put the anxiety in her . . . I’m in control now . . .You will never make me leave. I’ll get to her through her kids. . . ” Davis silenced the spirit in the name of Jesus Christ in a calm but firm voice and in a way that led Parker to believe she had done this a thousand times before.

In fact, she had. In the course of her 35 year-old ministry, Davis has had to deliver many people from spirits who infested them through the practice of yoga. “I find it in women, young and older, and also in priests and nuns,” she said. “The reason they come to me is because they can’t find any peace – they have anxiety – they become very angry – and they have to be delivered of these spirits.”

This was the case with Priscilla, who ended up being delivered of more than 17 different spirits that afternoon. And it all began in what seemed like an innocent exercise class.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

That's No Sturgeon

Lagarfljótsormurinn is the Nessie of Iceland. According to folklore, the creature is giant serpent that inhabits Lake Lagarfljót. For awhile now I've been pushing the idea that many of the mythological lake monsters around the world might in fact be very large sturgeons. The sturgeon is a great candidate in many ways - it can grow to a length of more than 20 feet, live for over a hundred years, and is prehistoric and pretty darn weird looking.

An alleged video of Lagarfljótsormurinn has recently been verified by a commission of experts first assembled in 2012, and whatever is in the video could not possibly be a sturgeon. The body is far too long and snakelike. Sturgeons have a large head that tapers back to a tail, and an arched back that can easily be mistaken for a hump, as in most of pictures of Nessie that haven't been debunked. But this one is clearly of something else.

The commission was given the task of determining whether a video of the alleged monster shot by Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf, which went viral, was authentic and whether he was entitled to a prize of ISK 500,000 (USD 4,300, EUR 3,300). “I was told about the commission’s conclusion and I’d like to say that I’m extremely pleased to confirm that the majority of the commission was right,” Hjörtur told

While concluding that Hjörtur’s video was authentic, the commission determined that a photo shot by Sigurður Aðalsteinsson, who had also made claim to the prize money, did not show the actual serpent. Hjörtur shot the footage through his kitchen window at farm Hrafnkelsstaðir in Fljótsdalur early one morning in February 2012.

The video was originally posted on the website of national broadcaster RÚV and, after Iceland Review reported on it, reposted multiple times. The video has now been watched approximately 8 million times and has prompted film crews from abroad to come to the lake in search of the serpent.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Ark Encounter" Jobs for Fundamentalists Only

The saga of Ken Ham's troubled Ark Encounter attraction continues. After failing to raise enough money to receive the large tax incentives for which they were originally approved by the state of Kentucky, Answers in Genesis has applied again for a smaller set of tax breaks. In their new application they once again claim that the attraction will generate revenue for the state and create jobs. But according to a job description on their help wanted web site, Ark Encounter's jobs are for fundamentalist Christians only.

The job description included this statement: "Our work at Ark Encounter is not just a job, it is also a ministry. Our employees work together as a team to serve each other to produce the best solutions for our design requirements. Our purpose through the Ark Encounter is to serve and glorify the Lord with our God-given talents with the goal of edifying believers and evangelizing the lost."

When Ark Encounter was originally approved for much larger tax incentives they were required not to discriminate in hiring. However, it is apparent that Ark Encounter is likely to discriminate against non-Christians. Moreover, Catholics, mainstream Protestant Christians and some conservative Christians who have different doctrinal beliefs are also unlikely to be hired.

The ad has specific religious requirements for employment. These include a salvation testimony, a "creation belief statement" and a requirement that applicants agree with the organization's "statement of faith." This required statement includes articles that imply that fundamentalist Christianity is the only acceptable religion and that denigrate non-Christians non-fundamentalist Christians, and homosexuals (regardless of their theological views).

The really amazing thing to me here is talking about "design requirements." That is, these are the jobs for people who will be building the attraction. How can somebody's religious beliefs possibly effect how they do engineering or construction work? Rail against asshole atheists all you want - and yes, they are out there, and they are annoying - but I've never heard of an atheist company refusing to hire Christians or making them sign some sort of statement denouncing God.

Garbage like this is the reason atheists wind up pressing court cases. It's not just that they're "offended" in some nebulous way, but rather that discrimination against them and members of minority religions is very real and has real consequences. If Ark Encounter gets away with this, you can bet that other fundamentalist organizations will follow.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Poor Oppressed Christians Don't Get Atheists

I suppose you might expect an actor who played a demigod to be down on atheists, but God is Not Dead star Kevin Sorbo demonstrated in a recent interview that he completely fails to understand them. Just as his film suggests, Sorbo seems convinced that the main motivation for atheism is anger with God. He gets as far as realizing that it's illogical to be angry with something you don't believe in, but totally misses the point that this is a strawman constructed by religous folks intentionally designed to make atheists look silly and has little to do with unbelievers in the real world.

“I’m a Christian myself and had to play an atheist. I see the anger of these (atheist) guys on TV and it’s like ‘wow, how do you get so angry at something you don’t believe in?” Sorbo said.

Earlier this year, Sorbo discussed self-professed atheist Bill Maher, calling him “angry and lonely,” before adding, “I did Politically Incorrect a couple of times, and all I can do is feel sad for the guy, because I think he is a very angry and lonely man. Comedy comes from anger anyway. You know, what are you going to say when a guy talks like this?”

In his most recent comments, Sorbo also expressed frustration with atheists who protest localities displaying nativity scenes on public property during the Christmas holidays. “It’s funny how they can get nativity scenes pulled down because they say it offends them but they’re offended by something they don’t believe in,” Sorbo said.

“What offends 90 percent of the country is that they take down nativity scenes but apparently the majority doesn’t have a voice in the country anymore so what are you going to do?”

As I posted awhile back, atheists are as diverse a group as any other. There is a small, vocal minority of "fundamentalists" who do seem to be angry at religion in general and think any form of spirituality is stupid. But most are just regular people who want to be left alone and have their rights respected. This is true of Christians as well. The majority of believers don't spend all their free time whining about how oppressed they are, which means that Sorbo's numbers are way off. Christians make up about 85% of the US population, not 90%. And it's really only the Poor Oppressed bunch who care very much about whether nativity scenes are put up, which reduces the percentage further.

See, I would agree with Sorbo here on the nativity scene issue if what he was proposing was that Christians could put up nativity scenes on public property and members of every other religion could do the same, including atheists who want to erect secular displays. The thing is, though, that's not what the Poor Oppressed Christians want. They want to be able to put up their displays while banning everyone else's. That's what atheists and members of minority religions find offensive. When the Poor Oppressed crowd won't play nice, the only other legal option is to keep anyone from playing at all.

So to the Poor Oppressed Christians who still don't get it, I'll be clear. Most atheists aren't angry to begin with, and the rest of them aren't angry with God. They're angry with you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Poseidon's Fortress

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, a young medical student knelt in his dorm room before a makeshift altar dedicated to the Greek god Poseidon. "Great lord of the sea," he implored, "I ask that you aid me in completing my course of study and becoming a successful doctor. In return, once I achieve that success I pledge to build for you a palatial home that will celebrate your magnificence in all its glory!"

The great god Poseidon was moved by the young student's request, and agreed to render assistance on those terms. The student went on to graduate from medical school with top marks and obtain a prominent position at a hospital in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. Ever mindful of his pledge, the doctor purchased a prime lot on the banks of the Mississippi River, whose waters eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico, and went to work building the promised home.

The trouble was, skills in medicine don't exactly translate to competence in architecture or interior design, and the time was the 1970's. The result was Poseidon's Fortress, a luxury home that's so over-the-top it's hard to believe that it even exists outside of the movies. The ocean motif is everywhere inside and out, and on top of that the living room has its own smoke machine and bank of lasers (!).

I have no idea if that's the real story. In fact, it almost certainly isn't. What I do know is that the home was built by a doctor in Saint Cloud who is now selling it. I also have no idea whether his obsession with Poseidon stems from any sort of deal with the deity, but in terms of explaining this house it's as good a theory as any. Suffice it to say I find many of the design choices pretty inexplicable without some paranormal reasoning.

So let's say you're a devotee of Poseidon and wish to bask in his glory every waking and sleeping moment. Could this be the house for you? Keep in mind that Greek statues only look plain and elegant because over time the tacky, bright colors in which they were painted have washed or worn away. If their original appearance is any indication, Poseidon himself would probably love this place a million times over.