Thursday, March 15, 2012

Katherine Stewart Exposes the “Good News Clubs”

“Bible Study” Group Really a Way to Convert Kids to Fundamentalism

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The Jesuits used to have a saying, “Give us a child until he is seven, and we will have him for the rest of his life.” But these days, according to activist and author Katherine Stewart, it’s evangelical Protestant Christians who are putting that old saying into practice, throwing out a wide net so they can follow St. Peter’s admonition to be “fishers” not only of adults but children as well. Stewart originally ran into this effort three years ago in Santa Barbara, where she and her husband Matthew suddenly encountered an organization called “The Good News Club” that wanted to set up what a so-called “nondenominational Bible study” group at their seven-year-old daughter’s grade school.
Using her skills as an investigative reporter, Stewart checked out the “Good News Clubs” and found they were far from the “Bible study” groups they claimed to be. They are actually a program of an organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), founded in 1937, whose declared mission, according to Stewart, “is to produce conversion experiences in very young children and thus equip them to ‘witness’ for other children.” The Good News Clubs started in the 1990’s and in 2001 won a case at the U.S. Supreme Court that, Stewart said, gives them almost unlimited power and legal authority to function in schools at any level they want, anywhere they want, and teach whatever they want regardless of the desires of the school board, administrators or parents.
Stewart found that the CEF, the parent organization of the Good News Clubs, “has a very specific and deeply Fundamentalist agenda,” she explained. At a CEF convention she attended, “the speakers railed against ‘the homosexual agenda’ and attacked women’s reproductive freedom.” In her book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, she described CEF as committed to “the conversion of schoolchildren … on an industrial scale,” and said that at their convention “I can’t help but feel that I’m at a conference for a multinational corporation determined to use every managerial tool available to expand its conversion operations and maximize efficiency.”
When she spoke in San Diego March 4, at an event sponsored by the newly reorganized local chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Stewart explained, “I don’t have a problem with kids expressing faith in school. I do have a problem with [Good News Club members] thinking their religious beliefs are endorsed by the school. The Good News Club’s purpose is to give children the impression that their school endorses their particular faith. … They make an effort to present themselves as ‘broadly Christian,’ but the people behind CEF don’t consider that most people who call themselves ‘Christian’ truly are Christian.”
Stewart found that out the hard way when she went to the CEF convention and was asked what church she and her family attended. “Episcopalian,” she rather shame-facedly answered — and the person who had asked her the question then said, in a tone of voice Stewart described as “disparaging,” “Is that a Bible church?” Another person Stewart met at the convention confided in her, “My son is homosexual,” in a tone of voice that communicated her own shame, and when she added that her son was living with a male partner, she said, “It almost put me in the grave!”
The Good News Clubs are only part of a broad-based effort on the part of CEF and other organizations like it to win the next generation for their particular brand of Christianity, Stewart explained. “Another initiative is Campus Alliance, a coalition of 40 religious groups that relies on ‘peer evangelism’ to get kids to convert their peers,” she said. “Every Student, Every School, a project set to debut in 2013, seeks to establish full-fledged evangelical ministries in the public schools and target the kids. They are encouraged to ‘adopt a school’ [and get children to] hand out religious literature to their classmates. … The California School Project pairs high-school students with college-age adults.”
One of the quirkiest aspects of the constellation of radical-Right religious organizations Stewart described is that some of the groups in it are newly formed, while others are branches of organizations that have been operating for decades. “The Lifebook Movement,” she said, “is a project of the Gideons International” — founded in 1899 and best known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms — “and they’ve tried to distribute Bibles on school campuses, with mixed success. They hit the jackpot with tracts that look like teen writing” — dumbed-down versions of the Bible with printed “handwriting” in the margins, ostensibly the handiwork of teenagers themselves — “that they get teens to distribute to other students. Since 2007 they have distributed two million tracts.”
According to Stewart, the Good News Clubs “have less to do with ‘Bible study’ than with religious indoctrination. The real purpose of the Clubs is not to teach the kids who enroll, but to use those kids to recruit their peers.” What the Clubs are for, Stewart said, is to set up a sort of daisy chain of conversion. Parents authorize their children to join the clubs, either because they’re believers themselves or they’re tricked into doing so by the club’s false claim to be “nondenominational.” The children in the clubs then talk up Jesus and the Fundamentalist brand of Christianity they learn there to other children in the school, often so stridently that Stewart calls it “faith-based bullying,” and those children in turn go home and badger their parents to attend a Fundamentalist church. Despite the radical Right’s rhetorical commitment to “family values,” Stewart said, the Good News Clubs “aim to convert many children away from their parents.”
Stewart’s book tells a story of how this works “on the ground.” At the Vieja Valley Elementary School in Hope Ranch, California, a six-year-old Good News Club child named Ashley approached her first-grade classmate Chloe, whose parents were Jews, and told her, “You can’t go to heaven.” When Chloe protested, Ashley said, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.” Their teacher overheard the exchange and, when class resumed, used it for a so-called “teachable moment” on the need for children to accept each other’s (and their families’) differences in religious beliefs. A hurt Ashley replied, “You mean they lied to me in school?” Ashley said that she’d learned the lesson that only Christians can go to heaven right there in school, and “how can they teach me things that aren’t true?”

Demolishing the “Wall of Separation”

They can because, starting in the 1980’s, an increasingly Right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has chipped away at the “wall of separation” between church and state famously called for by Thomas Jefferson until it threatens to collapse into rubble. They did this in a series of rulings in cases brought by Right-wing organizations like the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) — a deliberate attempt to create a Right alternative to the American Civil Liberties’ Union (ACLU) — the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), Christian Legal Society, Rutherford Institute and Pacific Justice Institute. Along with the political arms of the radical religious Right, Stewart said, these legal groups have pushed a version of the history of America’s public schools so effectively that even many progressives and other opponents of the radical Right have bought into it.
According to the radical Right’s version of history, America’s public schools were bastions of religious instruction and Bible belief until the early 1960’s, when a series of decisions by the most liberal U.S. Supreme Court in history banned mandatory prayer in public schools and therefore supposedly “took God out of the schools” and replaced Him with what radical-Right activists call “the ‘religion’ of secular humanism.” The truth, as Stewart explains in a chapter of her book called “A Wall of Separation,” is that starting in the early 19th century, as America shifted from a system in which most schools were church-run to one in which children were guaranteed a free education at public schools, bitter conflicts arose as to what, if any, religious beliefs would be taught — and by the end of the 19th century most everyone had agreed that the only way to stop these wars was to keep public education resolutely secular and let parents decide what, if any, religious instruction to give their children.
“By the time the Supreme Court took up its landmark cases on the subject,” Stewart wrote, “official, school-sponsored prayers at the start of the school day were really the last vestige of the once substantial presence of religion in the public schools. Many schools and indeed many states had in fact abandoned the practice on their own. Less than half the schools in the country had prayer, and prayer was in the vast majority of cases limited to five minutes at the beginning of the school day. Contrary to the Right-wing myth, the Supreme Court cases on school prayer in 1962 and 1963 were easily decided, receiving the support of eight of the nine justices, including three of the four conservatives.”
According to Stewart, the reasoning in the school-prayer cases revolved around three points. The first was what, in the words of then-Justice Hugo Black, was the clear meaning of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another.” The second was the belief that school prayers were an especially insidious “establishment of religion” because they created social pressure on non-believing children to go along. “Nonconformity is not an outstanding characteristic of children,” then-Justice Felix Frankfurter noted in one of the school-prayer opinions.
The third was the idea that teaching any lesson from a particular religion in the public schools would effectively discredit children or families who believed differently. As Justice Frankfurter wrote, any activity that “sharpens the consciousness of religious differences” among schoolchildren “causes precisely the consequences against which the Constitution was directed when it prohibited the government common to all from becoming embroiled, however innocently, in the destructive religious conflicts of which the history of even this country records some dark pages.”
The wall of separation began to crumble, Stewart argued, in 1981, when eight of the nine Supreme Court justices ruled in a case called Widmar v. Vincent that it was unconstitutional for a school to ban meetings of a religious group on campus if it allowed secular groups to meet there. The reasoning behind this decision, Stewart said, was that religion was merely a form of “speech” and therefore could not be restricted under the First Amendment guarantee of “freedom of speech.” Stewart quoted the one dissent in the case, by Justice Byron White, which argued that under the majority’s ruling “the Religion Clauses would be emptied of any independent meaning in circumstances in which religious practice took the form of speech.” In other words, if religion is already protected under the free-speech clause, the First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise” of religion is redundant — and the Establishment Clause is meaningless.
In the next 30 years, according to Stewart, three people would work to widen the crack in the wall opened by Widmar into a giant gateway for inserting religion into the public schools. One was Jay Sekulow, a Right-wing legal strategist and co-founder of the ACLJ. The other two were Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who joined the Supreme Court in 1986 and 1991, respectively, and gave Sekulow and his colleagues two virtually certain votes for any case expanding the reach of religion into the schools. In 1987, Sekulow won a Supreme Court ruling that the Jews for Jesus organization had a constitutional right to pass out tracts in airport terminals.
Stewart describes a succession of cases — Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District, Rosenberger v. University of Virginia and the 2001 decision that specifically legitimized the Good News Clubs, Good News Club v. Milford Central School District — that expanded the idea that religion is just another form of speech and extended it to schools. In his majority opinion in Milford, Stewart wrote, Justice Clarence Thomas “essentially destroyed the postwar consensus on the separation of church and state.” A concurring opinion by Antonin Scalia took special aim on the idea that religious activity in the schools would put peer pressure on students with minority religious views to go along with their classmates in the majority; religious peer pressure, Scalia wrote, “when it arises from private activities … [is] one of the attendant consequences of freedom of association.”
According to Stewart, the stated intent of Thomas’s and Scalia’s opinions in Milford “was to place religious programs on a par with non-religious programs in the competition for after-school resources. In reality, and as a direct result of the illogical structure of their thinking, the effect of the decision has been to elevate religious groups to a supercategory that enjoys a substantially greater degree of access than any other kind of group.” The Good News Clubs and their sponsor, CEF, have essentially used Milford as a legal bludgeon against any school district that dares to offer resistance, Stewart said, and their success — according to a fact sheet from CEF’s Web site, in 2010 Good News Clubs met in over 3,000 public schools in the U.S. and reached over 133,000 children — has led to further efforts by the radical Right to foment peer-to-peer evangelism at America’s public schools.
“The idea that ‘it’s O.K. if kids do it’ is so accepted that religious leaders are publishing books with titles like Reclaim Your Schools,” Stewart said. “Many people think religion in schools is restricted to certain areas of the country, but religion pervades public schools in all areas of the country.” Stewart learned that when she and her family moved to New York City and enrolled their children in the local public school — which on Sundays actually became a church, under a program that made school facilities available to religious organizations for out-and-out worship services, and what’s more offered them virtually rent-free.
“I decided to attend the church at my school,” Stewart recalled, “and the pastor said, ‘Pray for the children that they come to know Jesus.’ I learned that the church was occupying our school four times a week and they were paying no rent [just the cost of janitors to clean up afterwards]. Ours was one of over 150 schools in New York City that also existed as houses of worship. In public-school classrooms I heard the pastor promote an anti-Gay ministry run by his church and a prayer that America’s government would be taken under God’s dominion and control.”

Destroying Public Education

Stewart sees the Good News Clubs and the other organizations in the radical Right’s dizzying array of groups pushing religious agendas in schools as merely the opening wedge in a campaign to destroy public education altogether. She noted that in many cases where a Good News Club has installed itself in a school, the result has been a divisive community conflict that pits parent against parent, family against family, and church against church — and, she argued, rather than trying to avoid these conflicts the organizers of the Good News Clubs seem to be pushing them deliberately and reveling in them when they occur. She also pointed to the irony that many of the religious-Right activists pushing a religious agenda on the public schools don’t send their own children there; instead, they send them to private schools or homeschool them.
A quote in Stewart’s book exposes the two-track assault of the religious Right against the public-school system and their fundamental disbelief in the whole idea of offering non-religious education to children. The writer is Reverend Andrew Sandlin, and the article Stewart quoted was published in 1994 in the newsletter of the Chalcedon Foundation — a group of so-called “Christian Reconstructionists” who, among other things, believe democracy is un-Christian and monarchy is the only Biblically sanctioned form of government.
“The attitude and approach of Christians should be that they never expose their children to public education, but that they should work increasingly to expose public education to the claims of Christ,” Rev. Sandlin wrote. “Certain specially selected Christians, in fact, should pray and work tirelessly to obtain teaching and school board and even administrative posts within public education. The penultimate goal of these Christians should be the privatization of these larcenous institutions, and the ultimate aim the bringing of them under the authority of Christ and His word.”

Thursday, March 01, 2012

“A Hell of a Way to Boil Water”:

Anti-Nuclear Activist Ace Hoffman Speaks to Activist San Diego


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved


Nuclear energy is “a hell of a way to boil water,” anti-nuclear activist Ace Hoffman said at an event sponsored by Activist San Diego at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest February 20. Hoffman addressed his talk against civilian nuclear power in general and two nuclear power plants in particular. One was the Dai-Ichi plant at Fukushima, Japan, which melted down March 11, 2011 when a major tsunami shut down the plant’s own electrical supply — including all the power for the emergency cooling and shutdown systems.
The other is the reactor complex at San Onofre in north San Diego County, near where Hoffman lives. The complex contains three reactors, one of which was built in the 1970’s and permanently shut down 20 years later. The other two have been in more or less continuous operation since the early 1980’s — though at the time Hoffman gave his talk they were temporarily shut down — and Hoffman said they’re notorious throughout the U.S. as the worst-run nukes in this country. Hoffman punctuated his talk with references to The Code Killers, an elaborate 74-page book, heavy on graphics and reproduced in full color, which he wrote to expose the dangers of nuclear power in general and the San Onofre reactors in particular.
Hoffman began his talk with a basic explanation of the physics behind nuclear energy and some of the terms involved. “The reason some atoms are radioactive is they have too many neutrons, and they just can’t sustain that level,” he explained. “When you split an atom, you produce radioactive fission products. … You’re creating waste that lasts millions of years, thousands of years or seconds,” depending on the so-called “half-life” (the length of time it takes for half the radioactive material to decay to stable, non-radioactive atoms) of the substance involved.
Civilian nuclear energy is based on the same atomic fission principle as the first atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan by the U.S. at the end of World War II. A heavy atom of an element like uranium or plutonium is bombarded with neutrons and, if it’s sufficiently unstable to be fissionable, it splits into two big pieces and releases more subatomic particles as well — including more neutrons, which split more atoms and continue the process until a chain reaction is created. In a bomb, that chain reaction is left uncontrolled and the bomb explodes. In a reactor, the reaction is slowed down by so-called “control rods,” made up of an element particularly good at absorbing neutrons, and the splitting of big atoms into smaller ones generates heat, which is used to boil water and turn steam turbines which power generators, which create electricity.
“When you split an atom, you get tremendous amounts of energy and heat, and once you generate the heat, you have to remove it,” Hoffman explained. “There are two kinds of reactors in America, boiling-water reactors and pressurized-water reactors. San Onofre has two pressurized-water reactors. Fukushima had six boiling-water reactors, and what happened at Fukushima was by no means as bad an accident as you can have.” Hoffman explained the difference between the two reactors, pointing out that the assurances of American utility officials that pressurized-water reactors are safer than boiling-water reactors are bogus.
The only difference, he said, is that a boiling-water reactor has two loops — it “boils water that produces steam, which turns a turbine, and then it goes through another loop that cools it again” — while a pressurized-water reactor has a third loop between the other two. Unfortunately, that third loop, called a “steam generator,” is so complex ­— at San Onofre, Hoffman said, each of the eight steam generators “contains 10,000 tubes in a U-shape, 40 feet up and 40 feet down,” with the steam going up under tremendous pressure while the second loop uses the steam to turn the turbines — it adds to the reactor’s complexity and opportunities for failure. Virtually all the problems reported at San Onofre in its over three decades of operation have had to do with steam generators.
Hoffman also warned his audience not to believe the nuclear industry’s hype of a so-called “fourth generation” of reactors, which are, he said, “just pressurized-water reactors with an advance cooling system that supposedly works without power. But if you crash an airplane into it, you have a terrorist attack or embrittlement issues, it’s not going to work.” “Embrittlement” simply means the wear on the pipes that occurs over time, as all that exposure to all that heat and pressure causes the metal the pipes are made of to become brittle and ultimately to disintegrate. Indeed, San Onofre has been shut down several times to replace pipes in the steam generators, and at one point the plant’s manager and primary owner, Southern California Edison (SCE), had the idea of cutting open the containment vessel — the concrete dome the reactor comes in, which is deliberately designed to be breach-proof — to replace all the steam generators so they could keep the plant going.
“There were three units there, and every 18 months they shut down the reactors and plug the leaks,” Hoffman said. “But that means primary coolant is leaking into secondary coolant” — which, in plain English, means that radioactive material is escaping with the water from the supposedly sealed pressurized pipes and ultimately going into the Pacific Ocean, from which San Onofre scoops its water. “At Unit 1 they plugged so many holes, it lost efficiency and they had to shut it down,” Hoffman explained. “Units 2 and 3 were installed in 1983 and were just re-licensed to the 2020’s, and once they got the license they built new steam generators. They were so surprised they were going to run it this long, they had to cut holes into the [containment] domes to install them. They put two new steam generators into each reactor 14 months ago, and then they shut them down for ‘refueling and maintenance’ — to replace the entire pressure vessel so they don’t have leaks of boreated water, which will eat away eight feet of metal.”
And Hoffman said this sort of nonsense is standard operating procedure at nuclear power plants. “In Monticello, Virginia, after 30 years of operation, they realized the bellows on the emergency core cooling system were bolted together, so they wouldn’t have worked in an emergency,” he said. “Instead of shutting down to replace it, they continued running it for eight more hours. At San Onofre it’s called ‘fix on fail.’”

Where to Put the Waste?

But one of the key problems with nuclear power is what to do with all that waste they generate. Some of it, Hoffman acknowledged, disintegrates so quickly it’s only dangerous for seconds — but some of it remains radioactive for millions of year. Hoffman quoted a figure of 240,000 years for the average length of time the detritus from a nuclear plant remains toxic enough to pose a danger to humans — 200 times the longest-lived human civilizations (the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and the Han Dynasty in China, all of which lasted about 1,200 years). Hoffman said that California has a law in place that forbids any new nukes from being built here until the waste problem is solved, and he’s part of an initiative drive that would require the currently operating reactors to shut down until the waste problem is solved …
… which, as Hoffman noted, is never. “There cannot be a solution to the waste problem,” he said. “We live on a very small planet, and every time you create nuclear waste, there’s no way to get rid of it. They’ve talked about launching it in rockets to the sun, but 20 percent of all rockets fail” — which would mean the radioactive atoms would return to earth via the atmosphere. “You can’t drop it into the ocean because we don’t know where it was going to go. There was a plan for 20 years to bury it at Yucca Mountain” — a natural salt deposit in Nevada, chosen because the theory was that if there were any water around, the salt would long since have dissolved — “but the site was seismically active, there’s water seepage and living things would carry it out.”
Hoffman said that the Obama administration cancelled the plans to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain — which one would have thought he’d have regarded as a good thing. The problem was that in addition to canceling the dump itself, he also threw out the laboriously acquired knowledge the scientists who’d worked on the Yucca Mountain had of just how difficult it is to dispose of any nuclear waste safely. Instead Obama appointed a “blue-ribbon panel” of people Hoffman described as “five to seven pro-nukers,” and their mountain’s labors brought forth a mouse of a recommendation calling for … further study.
“At San Onofre, we have eight million pounds of nuclear waste,” Hoffman said — and in addition to the byproducts of atomic fission, a lot of that waste consists of worn-out parts of steam generators and other plant equipment. According to Hoffman, this gets treated pretty much the same way all the other waste does: it’s put in the so-called “spent fuel pools” — giant pools of water in which they put the used-up uranium that powers the plant sits for five years — and then it’s put into what’s called “dry cask storage.” A dry cask is basically a huge concrete tub, held together by metal beams that, according to a San Onofre whistle-blower Hoffman talked to, are often sloppily welded together. It’s supposed to be a more permanent way of storing waste than the spent-fuel pools but, according to Hoffman, it’s really more dangerous because the waste isn’t in water and the zirconium coating for the uranium fuel rods is “pyrophoric” — that is, it can spontaneously catch fire in air.
Hoffman discussed some of the ins and outs of nuclear power — including the federal law that prohibits state and local governments from regulating nukes on the basis of safety concerns because safety regulation is exclusively the province of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), “and as long as the NRC says they’re safe, they’re going to stay part of the U.S. energy mix.” He also said that San Onofre is “number one in worker complaints” of all the nuclear power plants in the U.S., and one of the fears of SCE and their partners in running San Onofre (including San Diego Gas and Electric) is that “workers will go public [about the safety issues] and get the plants shut down.”
Ironically, despite the title of his book, The Code Killers ­— a reference to the likelihood that exposure to radioactivity can permanently alter the DNA of humans and other living things — Hoffman pretty much avoided the health issues of nuclear power. He also didn’t show the photo he put in his book of how short the sea wall is protecting San Onofre from the beach (which, before the nuclear plants were built, was a popular enough surfing destination that the Beach Boys mentioned it in one of their songs), which is especially relevant because one of the reasons Fukushima’s reactors were so devastated by the tsunami a year ago was that the huge wave overwhelmed a similarly puny little sea wall.
After Hoffman’s speech, veteran peace activist Carol Jahnkow came on to promote a major anti-nuclear event being put on by the Peace Resource Center, Citizens’ Oversight Projects (COPS) and other organizations on Sunday, March 11 — the first anniversary of the tsunami that melted down Fukushima — from noon to 3 outside San Onofre’s south gate on Old Highway 101. Though limited parking is available near the site at San Onofre State Beach, the organizers are recommending that people coming to the event from the city of San Diego travel by the chartered bus the group has arranged for. Seats are $10 per person, round trip, and the buses leave from San Diego at Park Boulevard and Presidents’ Way in Balboa Park or from the Oceanside Transit Center in North County.
For updated information on the March 11 event, please visit and click on “M11 San Onofre Protest,” e-mail or call (619) 820-5321. To reserve seats on the bus, please e-mail or log on to

Queer Democrats Split in 51st District Congressional Race

Rate Ducheny, Vargas “Acceptable” Despite Vargas’ Anti-Marriage Stand


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: L to R: Juan Vargas, Denise Moreno Ducheny, John Brooks

At its February 23 meeting at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality were unable to come together to endorse a candidate for Congress in the 51st District, the seat incumbent Democrat Bob Filner is giving up to run for Mayor of San Diego. After former state senator Denise Moreno Ducheny fell one vote short of winning the 60 percent of members voting needed for an endorsement, the club rated both her and her principal opponent, state senator Juan Vargas, “acceptable” despite Vargas’s continuing opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples.
The club heard from three candidates in the Democratic primary: Ducheny, Vargas and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent John Brooks. Ducheny scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaire. Vargas scored 97 percent, being docked for his opposition to marriage equality and a legal right for terminally ill individuals to choose when to die. Brooks scored 88 percent, mainly for his support of restrictions on a woman’s right to reproductive choice and his opposition to requiring private companies doing business with the government to offer equal benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Ironically, Brooks claimed to have been inspired to run by the Occupy movement even though his questionnaire answers suggested he was the least progressive of the three candidates.
Since the original online version of this article was published, Brooks’ campaign has provided a copy of his original questionnaire and suggested that his answers were misreported by club officials at the meeting. He answered the question on whether the government should contract only with private companies that offer equal benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex couples, “U.S. companies, yes. Foreign companies, no. [We] do not have the right to push our beliefs on other countries.” He said he would support requiring women seeking abortion to notify their spouses because “I think the partner has a right to know. The woman has the final say, but the partner has a right to know.”
Brooks called the parental-notification requirement for minor girls seeking abortions “a tough question” and said his answer would “depend on the minor’s age.” He said that “the parents should know” if their daughter’s pregnancy was the result of rape or sex with an adult. During the meeting itself, Brooks told the club that he had talked to a person who worked as a Congressional staff member in the 1970’s, who had told him “we’re stepping back” on women’s rights. Brooks added, “The government has no right to legislate to any individual what they can do with their bodies.”
“I am not in favor of assisted suicide,” said Vargas, who used his opening statement to address his disagreements with the club’s issue agenda. “I am a very religious person, a Catholic, but I don’t think there should be any penalty for a physician who decides to assist a suicide.” On marriage equality, Vargas’s ambiguous response suggested he might support the suggestion made by several pundits that the government get out of the business of marriage altogether and allow individual churches to decide whether to marry same-sex couples or not.
“I do believe there’s a separation of church and state, and a very strong one,” Vargas said. “The government should not baptize people or have any involvement with issues you deal with with your own self, your church, your group. I voted against Proposition 8 and I’m totally against the Defense of Marriage Act [the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman] because it’s government deciding what marriage is. I do respect, agree with and accept marriage between Gay and Lesbian people, between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, if a church or a group decides to do it.”
But, Vargas added, “Do I think the government should marry people? No, I don’t. I think there should be a strict separation between government and church. That being said, obviously we do have civil marriages. I voted twice against the [California marriage-equality] bill when it was simply the government marrying people. I wasn’t there for the vote on the Leno bill [which would have given same-sex couples equal access to civil marriage but guaranteed churches the right to refuse to marry same-sex couples], but I would have voted for it because it made the distinction that the government isn’t marrying people, it’s simply recognizing marriage — which I’m in favor of.”
“I did vote for Leno’s bill in 2009,” said Ducheny, “and I continue to support its ideals. I’m proud to have the endorsement of former state senator Sheila Kuehl [the first openly Queer person elected to the California legislature], and she’s helping on this campaign, as she did on my last.” She also argued that “Congress desperately needs more women, especially after last week,” when Republican Congressmember Darrell Issa of North County chaired a hearing on whether the federal government should require private employers who offer health insurance to cover birth control — and no women were invited or allowed to speak.
The first question both candidates got from the audience was on women’s reproductive freedom — specifically the bill pending in the Virginia legislature, since modified, which would have required women seeking abortions to have “trans-vaginal ultrasounds,” meaning probes would be inserted inside them and they’d be forced to listen to sounds allegedly representing the heartbeats of their fetuses. “I’m completely against the bill in Virginia,” Vargas said. “I’m for contraception and don’t think the church or government should be involved.”
“The Virginia bill is outrageous,” said Ducheny, noting that even the voters of a state with as Right-wing a reputation as Mississippi turned down a ballot measure that would have defined human life as beginning with conception. Regarding the controversy over the mandate that insurance companies cover contraception, and the claim by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that this is both morally wrong and a violation of their church’s First Amendment freedom, Ducheny said, “It’s all about employees. You should not be able to deny contraceptive coverage to your employees, zero, zip, whatever.”
While the concerns around Vargas centered mostly on his opposition to marriage equality, Ducheny got critical questions on a number of issues. She was attacked for signing on to major cuts in funding for services to senior citizens, disabled people and others while she chaired the budget committees in both houses of the state legislature. She was also criticized for having accepted funding for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and for having opposed some of the gun-control bills in the California legislature.
Ducheny called gun ownership “a constitutional issue, and [about] getting government out of your house. I think you ought to be responsible. I voted for background checks and against allowing people with a history of domestic violence to own guns. It’s not like one organization tells you how to vote. You vote on each bill as it is, and a lot of times they get really complicated, like the one they tried to pass that said the Olympic training lady couldn’t own a weapon.” Vargas boasted that he had voted for every gun-control bill that came before the legislature while he served there.
Vargas, in turn, got criticized for having turned against single-payer health care in the California legislature this year after having voted for it twice previously. “I had supported it before Obama came forward with his plan,” Vargas said. “I think Obama’s bill should have a chance. If it fails, I’d be in favor of single-payer again.”
Ducheny said she didn’t see a contradiction between hoping the so-called “Obamacare” program works and supporting single-payer. “I support the Affordable Care Act [the official name for the law often derided as ‘Obamacare’],” she explained, “but a lot of the details won’t work out when it’s implemented. California and other states should have the right to move forward with single-payer.”
Ironically, the most vehement challenge to Ducheny came from Lorena Gonzalez, head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, over an issue that wasn’t on the radar screen of most club members: the rights of workers in casinos on Native American land to organize and bargain collectively. Ducheny insisted that she’d always supported the right of casino workers to organize — “that’s why Proposition 1A [which authorized Indian gaming in California] was written the way it was, to include labor ordinances as part of the compacts” [the agreements between the tribes and state and federal governments under which the casinos operate] — but “the problem came in 2006-07 when there was an attempt to rewrite the laws.”
After the candidates left the room, required by club rules, and the members debated the endorsement, Gonzalez continued to attack Ducheny over the Indian gaming issue. Gonzalez claimed that the bills Ducheny supported in 2006-07 eviscerated the rights of casino workers. “If you are a LGBT [Queer] community member and you work at a casino, unless you have a union, you can be fired or sexually harassed,” Gonzalez said. “I like Denise and she is a nice woman, but she was not willing to fight for us on labor issues.” Gonzalez also said the AFL-CIO’s issues scorecard gave Ducheny only 60 percent — the lowest rating for a Democrat in the California legislature ­— while Vargas got 98 percent.
Former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Maureen Steiner tried to defend Ducheny’s labor record. “When you talk about a person’s voting record, the bills are complicated. Every advocacy group has their position, and it doesn’t always reflect the complexity of these bills. Denise carried bills that required [the Indian casinos] to have labor rights.”
“That’s not true,” Gonzalez interrupted ­— ironically evoking memories of Republican Congressmember Joe Wilson publicly calling President Obama a liar during the 2010 State of the Union Address. Later, when another club member asked that Gonzalez be censured for rudely interrupting a speaker, Gonzalez interrupted him, too.
On the club’s first ballot, Ducheny got 38 votes to 25 for Vargas, zero for Brooks and three for no endorsement, winning a majority but falling three percentage points short of the 60 percent needed for an endorsement. Under the rules, both Vargas and Brooks were dropped from the second ballot — Brooks because he had got no votes at all and Vargas because he got the lowest number of any candidate who did get votes. Ducheny got 35 votes to 27 for no endorsement.
Later the club debated whether to rate both Ducheny and Vargas “acceptable” — a lower level of support that gets communicated in the club’s own newsletter and mailings but doesn’t allow the club to raise money or offer volunteers to a campaign. The motion to rate Ducheny acceptable passed on a voice vote without audible opposition, but the one for Vargas ran into opposition over his stand on marriage equality. His acceptable rating squeaked through with 36 votes in favor to 21 against — three points over the 60 percent threshold.
The club also debated some less controversial endorsements, including Rick Reyes and Dave Roberts for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, districts 2 and 3, respectively; Mat Kostrinsky for the San Diego City Council, District 7; and Mary Salas and Pamela Bantouzan for the Chula Vista City Council. And before the endorsement debate, William Rodriguez-Kennedy, former chair of the San Diego County Log Cabin Club — the local affiliate of a nationwide organization for Queer Republicans — ceremonially filled out a voter-registration form to re-register as a Democrat.