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    Ann Rostow: When Will It End?

    By Ann Rostow–

    When Will It End?

    It’s another week of nonstop anti-GLBT state legislative news, as “Don’t Say Gay” bills begin to litter the country. They’re not all as bad as the one just signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida. But they all echo the same theme, the idea that parents and/or lawmakers should be able to shut down any reading materials or class discussion that veers from the straight and narrow. Families have a mom and dad, with one or more cisgender children, and that’s that. Interestingly, some are starting to point out that this Father Knows Best type family inherently reflects the banned subject of “sexual orientation,” specifically heterosexuality. Perhaps some same-sex parents will use the new Florida law to sue their school district for violating the new statute in this manner. 

    But this barrage of antigay and anti-trans lawmaking and rhetoric fits into a larger picture. At the same time, we have the attacks on any discussion of race in history class or civics. We have the new assertion that schools cannot make white children feel uncomfortable by examining our country’s racial past. I also noticed the headlines, as usual from Florida, where the Department of Education rejected 54 out of 132 math textbooks that “incorporate prohibited topics or unsolicited strategies.” 

    Say what? The New York Times said the prohibited topics included “social-emotional learning and critical race theory,” although just how a grade school math text could reach these topics is not completely clear. The Times had one example, however, of a problem that was illustrated by cartoon animals helping each other cross a bridge, and another that showed a lonely animal movie star. That particular program aims to make math more accessible to children through stories that also “build self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, and social awareness and relationship skills.” Too much for Florida, it seems.

    Let’s not forget the direct attack on women represented by the various anti-abortion bills, many with no exception for rape or incest. These too are not just a swing to the right on the charged issue of abortion, but they’re part and parcel of the larger attempt to push the clock back to the patriarchal world of the 1950s, before feminism, before the civil rights act, before “gay liberation,” before the full range of modern progressive thought.  

    All of this fits into the disturbing mentality of QAnon, of “Dark MAGA,” of the men who dress up in combat gear and play with guns. You may or may not have seen the trailer for Tucker Carlson’s “documentary” The End of Men, which bemoans the (quite serious) decline in testosterone that has been dropping globally about one percent per year for two decades. While scientists point to several overlapping factors, (including plastics pollution, obesity, lower activity levels, and perversely fewer smokers) Carlson has his own odd viewpoint. I haven’t seen his movie, but just from the trailer and press reports, we know that the ills of today’s politically correct culture are to blame and that the problem can be addressed with some kind of infrared laser treatment for your genital area. Meanwhile, the trailer itself is a weird montage of homoerotic images, shirtless white guys with gleaming muscles climaxing in a scene where a naked man stands on a rock while his junk gets zapped by the aforementioned laser. 

    When will reason and nuance return? Is there a silent majority of normal people shaking their heads at this insane cacophony? Or is everyone actually going crazy? It’s hard to tell. 

    Captain Picard to the Bridge!

    Before we continue, I must return to one of my recent pet peeves. I know I’ve complained about this not too long ago, but the peeve has reemerged demanding to be stroked and fed. 

    It’s the damned comets!

    Once again, the headlines tell us that a comet in on the way. But not just any comet. This one is the biggest ever seen. “Massive, record-breaking comet is hurtling toward Earth,” says The New York Post. “What happens if the largest known comet collides with Earth?” wonders BigThink. (Hint: it’s not good.) “NASA spots huge comet heading towards Earth,” says YouTube. The Daily Beast warns: “The Most Monstrous Comet Ever Known Is Headed Straight for Us!” 

    This comet, however, is going to miss Earth by the same distance that separates Saturn from the Sun. I’m not an astronomer, but that sounds like a fairly large safety zone, does it not? Headed straight for us? Perhaps it is, in the same way that a giant speeding train en route from the East Coast is heading straight for us right now! What happens if we were to step in front of the train? We’d die! (Cue: crazed feminine scream.)

    The reason this annoys me so much is that it’s a slap in the face to journalism, even to tabloid journalism. The idea that this giant comet could possibly hit Earth is simply not true. It’s a bald-faced lie. And the actual truth is evident in the story itself, yet the headline writers deliberately choose to mess with us. To be sure, most serious papers were far more circumspect, but even National Geographic could not resist: “One of the largest comets ever seen is headed our way.” 

    Freedom Is as Freedom Does

    I have an interesting lawsuit to tell you about now that I’ve wasted half my column complaining about the times in which we live and ridiculous scare tactics. On April 25, the High Court will hear oral arguments in the religious freedom battle between assistant football coach Joe Kennedy and the Bremerton (Washington) School District. To me, this is like the Mississippi abortion case in a way, since it seems impossible that the Court could rule in favor of Kennedy without trashing several clear-cut precedents. 

    To make a long story short, Coach Kennedy is a devout Christian, intent on praying in public on the 50-yard line after football games. He does other things, but this is the issue under review at the moment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that Kennedy, who works for a public school, is a state employee and not allowed to make a spectacle of himself blathering to Jesus in the middle of the field (or words to that effect). Not only is he violating the government’s religious neutrality, but his activities can also be considered coercive, since many of his players join him—some because they also are thankful to Christ, but others because they want to stay on the coach’s good side and feel pressured to tag along. 

    No one suggested that Kennedy give up his First Amendment right to bow his own head in thanks or say a little prayer as a personal gesture of faith. The school district even offered to provide a private spot for him to pray by himself, but this was not enough for the man, who refused to modify his ritual and who chose not to renew his contract in 2016. Kennedy then sued the district, and his case reached the Supreme Court in 2019. The four conservatives found the case “troubling,” but agreed that the petition was premature as there was further fact finding needed. The case went back through the lower courts with the same result, but this time when presented with the petition for review, the justices decided to take it on. 

    The case is fairly simple. Kennedy was not told to refrain from praying. He was told to refrain from praying on the 50-yard line after football games, at a time when the stadium was filled with students. Just the fact that he had the access and authority to position himself mid-field right after a game reflected his status as a school employee, and public-school employees work for the state government. Yet read what Sam Alito wrote back in 2019 when he first encountered the matter:

    “What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith—even when the coach is plainly not on duty. I hope that this is not the message that the Ninth Circuit meant to convey, but its opinion can certainly be read that way.” 

    Again, no one said the coach had to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith. As usual, Alito creates his own frame of reference out of whole cloth and we can likely expect him to let his personal opinions run amok with little constraint from established constitutional law. Thomas will follow suit, and if 2019 is our guide, we can expect Gorsuch and Kavanaugh along for the ride. 

    If one more justice agrees, what will stop public school teachers from holding Christian prayer sessions before class? What about a prayer group in the lunch room? Why would these sorts of situations be any different from Coach Kennedy’s performances? And what of the Jewish kids, the atheists, the Muslims? What of the gay or trans kids who will know, instinctively, that a fundamentalist teacher isn’t a friend? 

    By the way, Justice Breyer doesn’t retire until this summer, so Justice Jackson will miss this one. I’m also reminded of the cartoon that shows a football player crossing the goal line, raising his finger to the skies in gratitude, calling, “Thank You Jesus!” Meanwhile, up in Heaven, there’s Jesus, staring intently at a soccer game on TV. 

    Give Me Faith

    Let’s see … what else. I vaguely remember the case of Nicholas Meriwether, a professor at Shawnee State University who refused to use respectful pronouns for a transwoman student. The man was disciplined by the college. He sued and after his case was dismissed by the lower court, he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. There, a trio of Trump and Bush judges determined that there was nothing wrong with Professor Meriwether’s behavior, and indeed, no harm came of it and it was not discriminatory. 

    Really? This despite the fact that transgender students are protected against bias under Title IX of the Education Amendments of whatever year that was. (1978? 1973? I always have to look it up but I’m not doing it today.) Even though Title IX protects on the basis of “sex,” and not “gender identity,” the High Court ruled two years ago, in Bostock v Clayton County, that sex discrimination inherently includes gay and gender bias. This decision has not stopped conservatives from, um, simply ignoring the Supreme Court and shrugging off the opinion because it was issued in the context of Title VII’s ban on workplace sex discrimination rather than Title IX’s identical ban in public schools and colleges.  

    Now, since the case has been sitting on the lower court’s docket for a while, the college has decided to settle the case by handing over $400,000 smackers to Meriwether, who doesn’t deserve a penny, in my view. Once again, Christian faith is the dominant factor as Meriwether claimed his religion required him to use masculine pronouns and call his student “Mr.” X. I went to Episcopalian schools from kindergarten to senior year and I must have forgotten the obligation to insult and demean people you work with out of self-absorption and pique. 

    That said, I skipped chapel on many occasions so I may have missed those particular lessons. For several years, I attended the famed National Cathedral School for Girls, where we were required to go, not just to chapel, but to full on Cathedral services where I would slither down onto the floor of the tall pews and lounge on my classmates’ feet eating candy. Alternatively, a few of us would escape to the “Bishops Garden,” a maze of boxwood with big bushes to hide in and several wishing ponds where we would wade in to collect loose change. Periodically, when we collected enough, we would traipse into the “Herb Cottage” and buy Callard and Bowser licorice with handfuls of wet coins, much to the disapproval of the women behind the counter. In eighth grade, I was expelled for smoking marijuana in the Cathedral basement and it was off to the next Episcopalian school. Ah, youth.

    Published on April 21, 2022