Students and their allies marched in downtown Fresno last month to demand better educational opportunities.

Progressive News Briefs

By: Mike Rhodes

The Separation of Church and State

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has warned Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin that sectarian prayers used to open Fresno City Council meetings are unconstitutional and against both federal and state law.

In a letter sent to Swearengin on February 8, FFRF attorney Rebecca Markert said, “The Fresno City Council cannot, under current federal and state law, permit any prayers that contain references to an explicit deity.

The prayers currently given during Council meetings impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the Council is endorsing not only religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over other faiths.”

A review of the Fresno City Council 2009 Video Archive from the Fresno.gov Web site by members of the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics (CVAAS) has shown that the prayers used to open City Council meetings have all referred to Jesus Christ, or are given “in the name of Christ” or “in Jesus’ name.” The City Council’s preferential treatment of one religion over all others is a reproach of religious equality that ostracizes Fresno citizens who hold non-Christian philosophical or theological beliefs.

The Supreme Court has found that prayers before legislative bodies are permissible only in narrow circumstances. The Supreme Court has ruled that nonsectarian, nondenominational prayers are allowed. The legislative body in question is not allowed to select the officiant based on any impermissible religious motive.

The CVAAS encourages the Fresno City Council to discontinue prayers at the start of its meetings. Failing that, the CVAAS asks the Council to start using nonsectarian prayer in accordance with state and federal law, and abiding with the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States of America.

About the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics: The CVAAS encourages teaching positive secular philosophy and rational scientific inquiry throughout the Central Valley. The CVAAS supports the separation of state and church and urges members of the secular and skeptical communities to join or to form affiliated rational organizations.

For more information about CVAAS and for upcoming calendar events, see the CVAAS Web site at www.cvaas.org.

Kern County Residents Win Greater Protections for Schoolchildren from Dangerous Pesticides

Members and other advocates for stronger protections from dangerous pesticides are celebrating the establishment of new buffer zone rules around schools in Kern County. Kern County residents are also calling on local agencies to ensure enforcement of the new rules and asking for even stronger measures to protect the health of children and communities from hazardous pesticides.

“Protecting children’s health must be our first priority,” said Hector Garcia, secretary of civic action with the Committee for a Better Arvin, a local community group. “As parents, now we can rest a little easier knowing that many toxic pesticides won’t be allowed as close to our children’s classrooms. We applaud the leadership of Ruben Arroyo, Kern County agricultural commissioner, in making this happen.”

Kern County community groups have been calling for stronger county-wide buffer zone rules in order to protect the public from the dangers of pesticides that drift away from their target and poison nearby workers and communities.

Advocates welcome the new rules, which prevent any application of restricted-use pesticides at a school site or within one-quarter mile of a school in session or during school-sponsored activities when children are present. Previous buffer zone rules around schools in Kern County were limited to one-quarter mile only for aerial applications of restricted-use pesticides. This change follows the victory of community groups two years ago in successfully pushing for stronger buffer zones around schools, homes and labor camps in Tulare County.

“‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is a basic concept that we teach children at a young age,” said Teresa DeAnda, Central Valley coordinator for the statewide coalition Californians for Pesticide Reform. “Schools should be a safe place for kids to play and learn, not a place where they are at risk of being poisoned. It’s refreshing to see a county agency taking steps to practice simple common sense and prevent problems before they start.”

To be even more health protective, Kern County community groups and other groups statewide recommend that buffer zones should ideally extend at least one mile around all residences, school bus stops, businesses, day care centers, occupied labor camps, hospitals, health clinics, nursing homes, fields being tended by workers and environmentally protected areas (such as wildlife preserves).

“Kern’s new rules are a good first step, but we need to start running,” said Gustavo Aguirre, director of organizing at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Delano. “We can’t delay when it comes to the health of children. Buffer zones must be expanded to include all places where people live, work, pray and play. We will not rest until our children and communities can breathe clean air, free of pesticides.”

Children are more at risk of adverse health effects from pesticide exposure because their bodies and brains are still developing. Studies have linked pesticide exposure in children with learning disabilities, behavioral problems (specifically attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), lower IQ, and decreased verbal comprehension, visual perceptual reasoning, memory and mental processing speed.

A study conducted by the California Department of Health Services and the Public Health Institute in Oakland showed that children whose mothers lived near applications of certain organochlorine pesticides during the first trimester of pregnancy had a 6.1 times greater chance of developing autism spectrum disorders.

Approximately 90% of the pesticides used in California are prone to drifting away from their intended targets and can easily reach nearby homes, schools and businesses. Pesticide exposure can cause immediate poisonings, with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, dizziness, difficulty breathing and rashes. Long-term exposure to pesticides can cause cancer, reproductive harm, respiratory or nervous system damage or damage to children’s development.

For more information, contact Teresa DeAnda, 661-304-4080, or Tracey Brieger, 415-215-5473, who are with Californians for Pesticide Reform.

ACLU Tells Fresno City College That Anti-Gay Preaching by Health Professor Doesn’t Fly

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Fresno City College last month demanding that the school ensure that all its health science classes teach unbiased and medically accurate information. According to students at the college, lectures by a professor, Dr. Bradley Lopez, who teaches an introductory health class, often present religiously based and anti-gay views as “science” or “fact.”

“I feel very let down by my school,” said Jacqui Mahaffey, a 24-year-old student who took Lopez’s class. “I signed up for health science because I was interested in the subject, but what I got was hateful lecturing based on Professor Lopez’s personal beliefs. I am in school to learn, not to be indoctrinated with one professor’s religious views and anti-gay beliefs.”

The ACLU letter includes several examples of Lopez teaching sectarian views and personal bias as “fact.” In recent lectures, Lopez

* Presented a slide listing “homosexual facts,” including that homosexuality is a “biological misapplication of human sexuality” and said that the “recommended treatment” is “psychological counseling” or “hormone supplements.”
* Presented LGBT people as a burden on and/or threat to society, claiming, for example, that anything but a heterosexual union provides a “one-sided foundation for raising children.”
* Presented Bible passages as “empirical” evidence that life begins at conception in support of his assertion that abortion is murder and “the leading cause of death in this country” (because there are more than a million abortions a year).
* Followed a slide on climate change in a presentation on “environmental health” with a slide containing a Biblical quote about the world ending in fire and said “that is the real global warming we should be worried about.”
* Repeatedly referenced the Bible and used it as a teaching tool, for example, assigning as homework a question as to Jesus’
genetic makeup.

“The college classroom of a state school should be a welcoming environment for all students, and courses, especially health courses, should be based on objective and medically accurate information, not religiously based bias,” said Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

“While Professor Lopez is free to talk about his religious beliefs outside of the classroom, Fresno City College has an obligation to protect its students from religious indoctrination and anti-gay bias presented as ‘science’ or ‘fact.’ Professor Lopez’s health class fails students in both regards.”

The letter sent by the ACLU charges that because the classes are being taught at a publicly funded college, Lopez’s lectures violate federal and state constitutional protections guaranteeing the separation of church and state. To satisfy its legal obligation to combat anti-gay bias, the letter also urges the school to mandate accurate and unbiased health instruction.

The ACLU’s letter is available at www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights/fresno-city-college-demand-letter. For more information, contact Rebecca Farmer at 415-621-2493 ext. 374.

Last Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Fresno is Closed and the Owner Arrested

Rick Morse
Rick Morse, the owner of the Med Mar medical marijuana dispensary, is another victim of the drug wars being carried out against the people of this community.

On February 9, police arrested Rick Morse, the owner of Med Mar, the last medical marijuana dispensary in Fresno. Morse was arrested for violating a court order, which closed about a dozen dispensaries in January.

The city’s ordinance on medical marijuana dispensaries severely restricts their ability to operate legally. The ordinance says that dispensaries must comply with both state and federal law. Medical marijuana is legal under state law but illegal under federal statutes. In January, a judge issued a preliminary injunction, closing the dispensaries until the issue could be heard in court.

All but one dispensary, Med Mar, shut down. Shortly before his arrest, Med Mar owner Rick Morse explained why: “It appears there is some confusion in the ordinance. It says medical marijuana dispensaries are allowed as long as they comply with state and federal law. I assert that we are complying with state and federal law.”

Morse’s son Brandon spoke to the media about his father’s arrest. He said, “This morning my father was illegally arrested by the City of Fresno. They executed an unconstitutionally void warrant for his arrest. Today, my father peacefully went with the authorities and as of 12 noon he has started a fast for justice. I have joined him in this fast and we are asking people from across the city to pray for him.”

Some medical marijuana patients outside Med Mar the day it was shut down spoke about the arrest but preferred to remain anonymous. Patient No. 1 said that “as soon as they close that it affects everyone that needs medical cannabis. It’s not just me. You’ve got thousands of people in Fresno now. Who are they hurting? They’re hurting people that have legitimate medical reasons for this. They are saying their agenda is more important than a medical agenda? We are not breaking any laws. They are the ones that are breaking the law. They shouldn’t be arresting him.”

A second medical marijuana patient outside Med Mar had this to say: “This makes it to where people that are sick, that have been proven to be sick by their doctors, they can’t get their medicine. So, how does that help the City of Fresno, keeping people that are sick and that are in pain from getting their medicine?”

Morse was released on bail the next day, but the future of medical marijuana dispensaries in Fresno is uncertain. The court order to close the dispensaries, while a hearing on the legality of the City of Fresno ordinance is pending, is in effect and anyone violating that order is subject to arrest. It could take months or years before the legal issues and appeals are decided.

  • Mike Rhodes is the executive director of theCommunity Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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