Saturday, October 28, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Atheist Wins Victory in Libel Suit Against Minister

SAN FRANCISCO —The California atheist who took a challenge to the pledge of allegiance all the way to the Supreme Court won a legal victory yesterday in a related libel suit he brought against a Christian critic.

A California appeals court ruled that the litigious atheist, Michael Newdow, may proceed with his lawsuit against a self-described interdenominational minister, the Reverend Austin Miles.

Dr. Newdow said Rev. Miles defamed him in a 2002 Web column that alleged that the atheist committed perjury when he told a federal court that his daughter sustained "emotional damage" by being forced to recite the pledge in school. Dr. Newdow denied ever making such a statement in or out of court.

Rev. Miles acknowledged mistakes in his reporting but asked that the libel suit be thrown out under a California law that provides for early dismissal of lawsuits about matters of public controversy. However, the appeals court held that Dr. Newdow showed the required likelihood that he would prevail if the case went to trial. Rev. Miles "used the word ‘perjury' no less than six times and unmistakably asserted that Newdow had committed that offense," Judge Paul Haerle wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. "It is elemental that a charge of perjury, a crime, is libelous per se."

Judge Haerle also noted that a widely discussed Supreme Court case from 1991, Masson v. New Yorker, established that misquotation can give rise to a libel claim. Rev. Miles was represented by lawyers from a Michigan-based Christian legal group, the Thomas More Law Center. They argued that Dr. Newdow needed to present "clear and convincing evidence" of the libel, but Judge Haerle said that only evidence of "minimal merit" was required at this stage.

"Newdow got over the first hurdle in a long race," an attorney for Rev. Miles, Edward White III, told The New York Sun yesterday. He said the decision did not assure that Dr. Newdow would win the case if it goes to trial. Mr. White also said he would consider asking the California Supreme Court to take up the dispute.

Dr. Newdow, a Sacramento-based emergency room physician and attorney, said he was pleased with the ruling but was still debating whether to press the case against Rev. Miles. "I don't think I'm going to have trouble winning. I just don't know if he has anything, or if it's worth my trouble to go after," Dr. Newdow said in an interview. "This is a guy who lies constantly. It's a constant theme."

Dr. Newdow also faulted the Thomas More center for representing Rev. Miles pro bono. "Why would they put in $50,000 to defend a guy who violated the Ninth Commandment? Just because I'm an atheist and he's a Christian?" Dr. Newdow asked. "Why would they defend a liar?"

"This is a First Amendment issue," Mr. White said. He said Rev. Miles didn't deliberately lie, but simply misunderstood public information he found about the pledge case. "Where Rev. Miles made his error, as he admitted, was that it was his understanding that all documents filed in court are filed under oath," Mr. White said. Dr. Newdow said he believed Rev. Miles's column affected the handling of his 2004 Supreme Court case by becoming fodder for a question Justice Kennedy asked about the crusading atheist's relationship with his daughter.

The court ultimately overturned a 9th Circuit ruling in favor of Dr. Newdow. Five justices said that, as a divorced parent, he had no standing to bring the case because he did not have custody of his daughter. Three other justices rejected the suit on the merits, ruling that the Constitution is no bar to a pledge using the words "under God."

Dr. Newdow has two new suits pending before the 9th Circuit. One uses new plaintiffs to make the same argument against use of the pledge in public schools. The other suit challenges the use of the words "In God We Trust" on American currency.



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Saturday, October 21, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor charged with molestation of boy

HERNANDO, Miss. - A former Mississippi pastor who is now serving at a church in Tennessee has been charged with molestation of a boy over a four-year period in DeSoto County, authorities say.

Maj. Don Gammage, chief of detectives for the Olive Branch Police Department, said the Rev. Jack Price was arrested earlier this week in Fayette County, Tenn.

Price, 53, is the former pastor at Fairhaven Baptist Church in Olive Branch. He is presently pastor at Ebenezer Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Mason, Tenn., authorities said.

Price was returned to Mississippi on Tuesday.

"We had been investigating the allegations for about a month," Gammage said Wednesday.

Price is charged with touching a child for lustful purpose, a crime under Mississippi's molestation law.

District Attorney John Champion said conviction carries a maximum punishment of 15 years for each count, plus a fine of up to $10,000. Champion said the normal procedure is to only charge a single count when dealing with a child as a witness.

"That way, you specify the beginning and ending dates and everything between those dates is admissible. If you charge multiple counts, then you must present evidence about each and every specific date charged. That's tough," he said.

Gammage said the alleged molestation began in September 2000 and continued periodically through September 2004.

"There were multiple instances over this time period in Olive Branch. We're working with other agencies to see whether additional instances of molestations occurred in other places," he said.

The boy was 11 when the molestations began and they continued until the youth was 15, Gammage said.

"We only became aware of the situation in September when we received a complaint from the boy's mother," Gammage said. "She only learned of the situation then."

Gammage would not say where the molestations took place or the circumstances in which they occurred.

Price served as the pastor of the Olive Branch church several years ago. Gammage said he had been gone from Fairhaven for about three years.

Price was held Thursday in the DeSoto County Jail under $100,000 bond.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

An interview with author Sam Harris

Across the world, religion is at the root of violent confrontations. Here at home, religious dogma threatens vital stem-cell research and the teaching of evolution in schools.

A new wave of atheists --- including biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett --- has emerged to champion rationalism. Leading the charge, in books and lectures, is Sam Harris.

Harris, who is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience ("when," he says, "I can step away from my day job as an infidel") is putting a fresh, positive face on atheism. His first book, "The End of Faith," has reclaimed a spot on the New York Times' paperback best-seller list, while his new book, "Letter to a Christian Nation," is on the hardcover Top 10.

In contrast to screaming television antagonists, Harris is disarmingly polite as he lays out his case. He's so reasonable that on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly ends an interview with him by instructing viewers: "Buy the book."

If they do, they will find a clear, concise, and logical argument --- and it may clash with everything they hold sacred.

Scrutinizing the Bible or the Koran, Harris doesn't pull punches. He believes we can do a lot better than to live our lives according to the wisdom of men who thought the world was flat. And he doesn't gloss over the violent passages of either book.

Harris believes we waste a great deal of human energy on what he believes issupernatural nonsense. Beyond that, he warns, in an age of chemical weapons and suicide bombers, blind adherence to ancient mythologies could bring the end of civilization.

He finds "elements of reasonableness" in the Bush administration's "war on terror," and while he has harsh criticism of the president, he says that liberals need to recognize the danger posed by Muslim extremists.

In a recent interview, Harris discussed all that. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

City: How does your study of neuroscience inform your views about religion?

Harris: If you want to understand the human mind, you have to know something about the brain. There's no question that religion emerges from deeply ingrained cognitive traits: a desire to understand our circumstance, a desire to predict the future and to have our belief order our experience in a way that is useful and confers emotional, behavioral, and ultimately adaptive advantages for the species.

There is clearly an evolutionary explanation for the tools we have cognitively, and this is being studied at the level of the brain. You could certainly argue in evolutionary terms that religion has served an important purpose, if not for ourselves in the immediate past, for our distant ancestors. It probably allowed large groups of people, larger than kin, to cohere. It does not seem far-fetched to say that any group tightly bound by its religious dogmas would have had advantages over groups that were not.

But you can't move from an evolutionary explanation like that to argue that religion is useful now. In fact, I think it's one of the principal impediments to developing a genuinely sustainable global civilization at this point.

What do you hope to accomplish with your new book?

I think it's worth focusing on our indigenous problem of right-wing Christianity. I couldn't let Islam go unmentioned, and my criticism is against religious faith in principle, but I think some emphasis on the problems posed by the political empowerment of the religious right in our country is definitely warranted. It also reflects the response I got to "The End of Faith." It was not a surprise that most of the criticism I got was from rather committed Christians.

You point out that everyone is already an atheist in one way or another; no one believes in Poseidon anymore. Do all Christians understand this?

Amazingly, they don't. It strikes them as utterly preposterous that anyone could compare the God of Abraham to a dead god of Greece or Rome or any other god. What seems an apt, accurate, and devastating analogy to secular people seems like a non sequitur to Christians. It's also strange that I now get hate mail from people who actually believe in Poseidon.

Christians think there's something about the Christian tradition and the contents of the Bible that puts the God of Abraham on a completely different footing epistemologically. It's a sign that it's very difficult to see your circumstance with fresh eyes when you've been taught from the moment you acquired language that the word "god" means something robust, intelligible, and beyond criticism and these other words are names of mythical figures.

For many people, the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina --- not to mention the Holocaust --- raise the question of what difference God makes.

In terms of the obvious examples of God's failure to protect good human beings, moderates basically respond that they would never expect God to make decisions of that scale. They don't have an interventionist God in mind. Then they resort to notions of mystery and the inscrutability of God's will. It's almost a kind of agnosticism.

Fundamentalists bite the bullet and tell you why they think God is angry and victimizing these specific people. Occasionally they'll resort to notions of God's inscrutability when the evil being done is so patently at odds with the notion of a benign and omnipotent God.

When you talk about little girls getting crushed by farm equipment, they tend not to say God is punishing us for supporting gay marriage and abortion. Even they are somewhat chastised by how ludicrous it is to suppose that a good God was overseeing accidents of that sort. It's odd. It seems to me to be utter disproof of the notion of an omnipotent, loving, and moral God.

The standard line is that religious extremists cause problems. You believe religious moderates are also problematic. Why?

Religious moderates insist that we respect people's religious beliefs no matter how unreasonable and divisive they are. We respect this basic claim that it's legitimate to organize your life around the contents of a single book. This mode of discourse gives immense cover to fundamentalists.

We really can't call a spade a spade when it's religious dogma getting people killed, because moderates want their faith claims off the table of criticism. And they also want raising their children to believe they are Christians, Muslims, or Jews to remain off the table. The other problem is, by virtue of being moderates, they don't understand the degree to which fundamentalists and extremists are moved by their theology.

They don't take their theology seriously; therefore they're rather perversely the least able to understand that people really do fly planes into buildings because they think they're going to paradise. People really do live in the Christian West with this expectation that Jesus is going to come down and Rapture them and their families into the sky in a few years.

I know many good people who say religion gives structure to their lives and links them to generations past.

We can get our structure without pretending to know things we don't know. If false certainty were a good principle of structuring one's life, it would take five minutes to conjure a religion better than Christianity or Islam in terms of structuring lives and creating happy, non-neurotic, peaceful people. You could simply take the best things from these religions and jettison the rest. You'd have a better dogmatism to live by, but it wouldn't suggest that this dogmatism were true.

What if a religion said: "Treat everyone well, don't lie, raise your children to excel in science and mathematics and if you don't do that, you're going to be tortured for eternity by a green-headed demon"? This would be a benign religion to spread when you compare it to the jihadist lunacy that goes on under the name of Islam or many of these end-time beliefs that animate Christianity at the moment.

This would be a good religion, yet it wouldn't lend the slightest bit of credence to the claim that there's a demon who's going to enforce its precepts. People would recognize that immediately. It's based on this false notion that you can believe things simply because they're useful. You should only be able to believe things because you have reason to believe that they're true. Usefulness and truth are quite distinct. We can get our useful structures without deluding ourselves about the nature of the universe.

Some say religion supplies a moral foundation. Religious groups are at the center of charities, soup kitchens, and other good causes.

Even if religion made people good, it would not provide the slightest evidence for the specific claims of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. It's a non sequitur to say this grants some credence to the claims of religious people.

But I think you can argue that it's not as useful as is being alleged. It's not a good basis for morality, because real moral concerns have to be focused on questions of the suffering of conscious beings. The moment you focus on suffering, you see that many of the moral concerns religious people press have nothing to do with morality.

Christians debate gay marriage as though it were the question upon which the greatest swing in human suffering is going to turn. But they're arguing based on a conception of morality born of religious dogmatism. It's not born of a real concern for the living reality of human suffering.

Is there any place for spiritualism in the world?

There's no question that people have real experiences that we can call spiritual or mystical, and there are ways to have these experiences. What should be open to debate is what is reasonable to conclude about the universe on the basis of these experiences. If you go into a cave and spend a year praying to Jesus, there's no question that there's a way of doing that that will radically change your experience of the world. You could come out the most loving and compassionate and well-adjusted person around.

But it's also true that a Hindu could go into a cave and achieve the same thing thinking about Krishna. On the basis of those two experiments, you have to admit that the claims of Christianity or Hinduism are not really the best interpretations of the data. There are deeper principles of human psychology and our potential to transform our experience that we have to talk about rationally, in the spirit of science.

If it's done in that spirit, there will be disagreements but always with respect to evidence and argument. The conversation remains open. That's precisely what does not characterize religion. In religion, we have absurd claims to certainty married to incredible passions that get people killed and leave us in a world where if you draw a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad, you can get crowds 100,000 strong seething with rage and calling for the deaths of newspaper editors. It's time we noticed the difference between that mode of discourse and the discourse we demand of every other area of our lives.

Ann Coulter's recent bestseller was titled "Godless," as if that's the ultimate insult. Why do people hate atheists?

I can count on one hand the memes that define this animosity toward atheism. One is they think atheism brought us the Nazis and the Communists and the Killing Fields of Pol Pot. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes of the 20th century. Auschwitz was an expression of reason run amuck. This is where they think these events came from: a lack of faith in God.

There is not the slightest sense in which those events were born of people thinking too clearly about the nature of the universe. People also suggest that atheism is itself a faith, the least reasonable faith: "You can't prove that God's not there, so atheists are making the most outrageous claim."

You write that political correctness has helped to allow forced marriages, honor killings, and loathing of homosexuals to take place in Europe.

It's been disastrous, and this recent canceling of the German opera is another example. It's easy to see why they canceled it. Who wants to sit in the audience wondering whether a bomb will go off? But this kind of capitulation is a bad strategy, given the pretensions to power so many Muslims have in Europe. There's got to be some unified front that all civilized people present.

Essentially it's the Salman Rushdie dilemma. He wrote his book and was hung out to dry by liberal Europe. What there should have been the next day is 100,000 Salman Rushdies. The fatwa would not have been a problem if everyone stood shoulder to shoulder with him.

Given your views about the threat of Muslim extremists, what are your thoughts on the "war on terror"?

There are elements of reasonableness to it, but it's been executed so ineptly that it's almost the worst possible situation. What we've done is alienate --- with some exceptions --- all of our necessary allies. We've allowed the Ahmadinejads of the world to drive a wedge between us and our European allies.

We're doing everything possible, it seems, not to have the entire civilized world form a united front against the genuine enemies of civilization who are, with few exceptions, located in the Muslim world at the moment. I really think it is in some significant sense civilization against the Islamists.

We need to find some way of convincing hundreds of millions of Muslims that the Osama bin Ladens of the world are their enemies. We have to break this reflexive solidarity that many Muslims have simply because they're Muslims. This is really where my criticism is focused; this solidarity born of religious ideology is intrinsically divisive and causing conflict that would not otherwise occur.

So you agree with George Bush about the enemy?

We've elected a president who can't speak, who is animated by his own religious dogmas, who is beholden to genuine religious lunatics in our own culture, and who has been almost perfectly designed to alienate our allies and enrage our enemies. So it's a bad situation. And yet to compound the problem, his critics hate him with such fury that they manage to obscure how genuinely scary our enemies in the Muslim world are.

Unless liberals admit that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they're going to disqualify themselves as protectors of our society and of civilization. To keep harping on the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is a dead end when it comes to dealing with the current reality, which is: we're in Iraq, Iraq now is a center of terrorism, and the fact that it wasn't before we got there is truly irrelevant at the moment. We all just have to get on the same page and realize who the enemy is.

Your books have sold well. Is atheism entering the mainstream?

The idea that 50 years from now we are still going to be a society in which half the people think Jesus is going to come back in their lifetime seems a recipe for disaster geopolitically. Given how our world is shrinking in terms of the scale of communication and the fact that religious provincialism is becoming quickly untenable, I don't think our view of religion can survive 50 more years of modernity. Or we won't survive our views of religion. Something's got to give.

Do you really believe that we will someday look upon our early 21st-century religious beliefs with the kind of horror with which we now look at slavery?

It's an apt analogy. Just look at the recent history of racism in America, the fact that we were lynching people based on a completely un-self-critical embrace of racist hatred. We had Southerners smugly defending their racism, resisting integration, killing blacks, and openly wishing they'd won the Civil War.

It seems to me the South still hasn't come to terms with how they were on the wrong side of that moral argument. But when you look back on our recent history of racism, it seems impossible that we could be racist in quite that way again, given popular culture. I think religion is up for the same transformation as racism. I also think nationalism is going to have to go in pretty short order.

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Youth pastor arrested for molestation

Bay County, Florida, Sheriff's investigators have arrested a local youth pastor and charged him with molesting a child under the age of 16.

David Griffith, 36, of 1961 Sunny Hills Drive in Chipley, was working as a youth pastor at the Cornerstone Family Fellowship at 122 Airport Road, at the time of the incident. The victim claims that Griffith fondled her and rubbed her while on an outing with the youth group.

The victim recently came to family members and told them about the incident, which allegedly occurred this past summer. Family members then made a report to the Bay County Sheriff’s Office who began the investigation.

Griffith was arrested at his home and charged with lewd and lascivious molestation. Griffith was no longer working at the church at the time of his arrest.

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An Atheist Tries Jesus

By Joel Stein

I HAD NEVER BEEN to church before. I mean I'd been inside them for weddings, architectural curiosity and once, in college, to hear some guy play organ so I could hook up with Jenny Hodge. I'm pretty sure God will be cool with that because, as an omnipotent being, he knows how hot she was.

But I'd never sat through a service until I went to Austin, Texas, two weeks ago. This mostly has to do with the fact that I'm Jewish and don't believe in God, and sermons don't have nudity or anything to gamble on. But my college friend, Mike Langford, just got ordained as a pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church, so I felt like I needed to see his gig.

The first thing I noticed about church was how much like PBS it was. The lighting was dim, the speakers talked slowly, the songs were dated, there were a lot of references to reading material and every so often my eye line was interrupted by envelopes asking me to donate money. Also, I kept falling asleep.

I was surprised by how many of the songs and prayers I knew, like the one where I walked through the valley of the shadow of death. I was getting pretty confident until the call and response of Kyrie eleison, when I mistakenly belted out "Down the road that I must travel." It turns out Mr. Mister played pretty loose with their hermeneutics.

In fact, I'd never realized how much of a death cult Christianity is. When we weren't fixating on how awesome Christ's murder was, we were singing about how terrific it was going to be when we bite it. Chipper up, Christians! There's a lot to live for. They're making more of those "Narnia" movies.

Still, there was also a lot of talk about peace and love and some nice meditative time. In fact, it was all going well until the interactive portion. I had foolishly thought that only Catholics did Communion. But it turns out that only Catholics, for whom the Eucharist is more than a mere memorial, do Communion well. Presbyterians use a supermarket baguette for the body of Christ and grape juice for his blood.

I figured just a few people would take Communion; the ones who needed a little extra boost of Christ that week, like a spiritual PowerBar. But every single person in the first row got up to take Communion from Mike. Then the second row. They were serving buffet style.

I panicked. Would taking Communion somehow magically convert me? And even if it didn't, would it be an affront to my lineage, to my people who died refusing to convert during the Inquisition? And wasn't it particularly bad considering it was the night of the most religious Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur? Symbols of the body and blood of Christ seemed like a particularly bad way to break the fast.

In "Ulysses," the agnostic James Joyce debates whether he should have put his principles and his pride aside and agreed to pray with his mom on her deathbed. Lucky for you I don't have the kind of space he had. With just minutes left until my row stood up, I decided that Joyce was an idiot. The whole point of being an atheist is that you don't have to believe symbolism matters.

So I decided I was going to do it, when, with just three rows left, I started to worry that taking Communion would be rude to my new Christian friends. Was I cheapening their religious experience by traipsing through it as a tourist? Basically, would this be bad for Mike at job evaluation time? Hadn't an African Catholic priest once gotten in trouble for letting President Bill Clinton take communion? I tentatively went up and gave Mike a look that I hoped asked, "Is this cool?" and he smiled and let me rip off a piece of baguette and dip it in the juice.

Afterward, he assured me that it was fine for me to have taken Communion. As we stood outside talking to the congregation, I liked how even our shared snack bonded us as a community. The interaction and solemnity was personal and communal at the same time. As the saying goes, you can't ignore someone in the supermarket after reliving the Last Supper with them.

And, as I drove away, I wished I could just make the Kierkegaardian leap of faith to belief in God and be part of it. And I realized that, postmodernist or not, my pride was just as bad as Joyce's. But at least you can understand some of my sentences.

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Monday, October 16, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

True Muslims

A letter to the editor of the Toronto Star:

Liberated from Western shackles

I happen to be a practising Muslim woman who feels totally liberated from the shackles placed on Western women by the expectations of their societies or the "freedom" that their so-called democratic governments bestow on them. I feel no subservience to any man or his rules for I can only (as commanded by Islam) submit to my Creator — God the Almighty. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an atheist, who in her distorted Islamic practices of the past still believes that "Muslims are locked in this mindset of submission, with women subordinate to man." What a fallacy!

Mimi Khan, Toronto
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Sounds like a Christian, no?

Monday, October 02, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Southern Baptist Foundation Scheme in Arizona

Investors Lost Millions in Church Fraud — Executives Sentenced

PHOENIX -- In 1999, Richard Kimsey and his wife, Susan, deposited $100,000 with a Phoenix-based Southern Baptist agency that promised to do the Lord's work. A few days later, the Kimseys' money had all but vanished. And when Richard Kimsey, a Southern Baptist pastor, spoke out against the foundation that had defrauded him, he received death threats, the words "white trash" were painted on his house, and half his congregation abandoned him.

"Money is not the issue," Susan Kimsey said. "This has been a black mark on Christianity as a whole."

The Kimseys were among the approximately 75 fraud victims who testified at the sentencing hearing last week of two Baptist Foundation of Arizona executives accused of fraudulently conducting a mammoth real estate Ponzi scheme while claiming to do God's work.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth L. Fields sentenced William P. Crotts, 61, the former president of the foundation, to eight years in prison Friday and gave six years to Thomas D. Grabinski, 46, the former chief counsel of the foundation. Each was ordered to pay $159 million in restitution after being convicted of one count of fraud and one count of conducting an illegal enterprise.

When the foundation collapsed in 1999, 11,000 victims collectively lost $585 million in one of the largest affinity frauds in the nation. In such frauds, members of a group are defrauded by members of the same group. Church-based affinity fraud, fueled by the last decade's resurgence of interest in Christianity and other faiths, presents a growing crime problem for regulators, said Joseph P. Borg, president of the North American Association of Securities Administrators, an association of state securities regulators.

The Arizona foundation was an official agency of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, which is associated with the largest Protestant denomination in the nation, with about 16 million members.

Thomas D. Grabinski, left, received six years in prison and William P. Crotts received eight years in the Baptist Foundation of Arizona fraud case. Bible-quoting salesmen recruited investors in Southern Baptist churches, and some pastors talked up the investments from the pulpit. The foundation paid above-market interest rates and promised to use investor funds to support Southern Baptist causes such as mission work and services to children and the elderly. Prosecutors said one key marketing device was the use of the word "stewardship," which to many Southern Baptists invokes a biblically ordained responsibility to turn over their money to do God's work.

Foundation executives used their positions of trust to prey upon victims, who had their guard down because they were in church, said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, whose office secured criminal indictments against eight foundation insiders, including Crotts and Grabinski. Six other men have pleaded guilty to felonies in connection with the foundation's demise.

Neither Crotts nor Grabinski was accused of pocketing the money, but prosecutors said the duo hid mounting losses from investors in a frantic effort to keep the foundation afloat.

At the sentencing hearing, victims said they had saved all their lives for retirement, only to lose everything and return to minimum-wage jobs.

"You have given Southern Baptists a bad name," 80-year-old Darrell Tramel told the executives. Tramel, a retired business manager for an auto dealership in Prescott, sold candy at a mall kiosk and worked as a bookkeeper after losing his life savings, about $1.2 million, to the foundation. His wife, June, became a part-time caregiver and pet-store attendant until she developed leukemia in 2001.

Like most victims, the Tramels eventually had about 68 percent of their investment returned. About half of that payback was due to a 2002 settlement with Arthur Andersen, the foundation's accounting firm.

The Tramels and many other victims at the hearing last week said they were as hurt by the betrayal of trust by fellow Southern Baptists as by the hardships they experienced before their money started trickling back.

The majority of Southern Baptist victims in the courtroom wore white ribbons in support of Crotts and Grabinski, depicting them as humble Christians and excellent family men who would never intentionally break the law. Many blamed the state for their losses, contending that if the state had not "shut down" the foundation, Crotts and Grabinski could have steered it to solvency with lucrative real estate investments.

Gary Vroegh, who lost $600,000, said the foundation did him a favor, and he begged for lenient sentences for the executives. "The money belongs to God anyway," he said.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Judge received death threats after ruling on intelligent design

LAWRENCE, Kansas - A judge who struck down a Dover, Pennsyvania, school board's decision to teach intelligent design in public schools said he was stunned by the reaction, which included death threats and a week of protection from federal marshals.

Pennsylvania U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III told an audience in Lawrence Tuesday that the case illustrated why judges must issue rulings free of political whims or hopes of receiving a favor.

In a 139-page decision last year, Jones ruled that the Dover school board intended to promote religion when it instituted a policy requiring students to hear a statement about intelligent design before ninth-grade biology lessons on evolution. He ruled that it is unconstitutional to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

"And if you would have told me when I got on the bench four years ago that I would have death threats in a case like this as opposed to, for example, a crack cocaine case where I mete out a heavy sentence, I would have told you that you were crazy," he said. "But I did. And that's a sad statement."

Jones' ruling drew attention in Kansas, which was involved in a controversy over evolution last year, after the Kansas State Board of Education inserted criticisms of evolution into the state's science standards.

The judge spoke at the University of Kansas' Difficult Dialogues at The Commons series, which includes several speakers who will discuss the evolution and intelligent design debate.

Evolution says species change over time in response to environmental and genetic pressures, while intelligent design says life is too complex to have developed without a designer.

On Tuesday, Jones didn't focus on that debate but instead discussed the fallout, which included the death threats and a verbal lashing from conservative pundits around the country.

He said much of the criticism showed a lack of understanding about the role of judges, who he said should rule based on the Constitution and legal precedence - not on personal whims or political favors.

Jones said many people expected him to rule differently because he is a longtime Republican and was appointed by President Bush.

"These criticisms point at something in the way that both the pundits and the public tend to perceive judges," he said. "It is false, it is debilitating and if unchallenged, I believe it will ultimately tear at the fabric of our system of justice in the United States."

People have a right to disagree with judges, particularly by filing appeals, but the level of debate needs to rise above personal attacks, he said.

"As we spend time, as we did in the Dover case, debating what to put in the science curriculum in our schools, we had better start paying attention to the curriculum of civics and government, as well as history," he said.

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