India’s Battle for Same-Sex Love

By Sandip Roy

Five judges on India’s Supreme Court are hearing a challenge to a law that criminalizes homosexual sex — Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced by British colonial authorities in 1861 and kept on the books in independent India.

The Indian government told the court, which began hearings last Tuesday, that it would leave it to the wisdom of the judges to decide whether Section 377 violates fundamental rights to life, liberty and personal security as long as it does not get into broader issues like marriage, inheritance and adoption. But these are inevitable. Menaka Guruswamy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs against Section 377, argued that it was love that needed to be “constitutionally recognized” and not just sex.

Social media and newspapers are filled with conversations and reports about Section 377, but L.G.B.T. life in India has long bypassed the law. Last week I got a message about “Pink Coffee,” a gay get-together at a cafe in Kolkata. A few weeks earlier, Varta, a local nonprofit, introduced an online database of L.G.B.T.-friendly therapists, doctors and legal aid providers in India. Days later I went to the regular gay dance party at a luxury hotel in the city.

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How the National Prayer Breakfast plays into the indictment of an alleged Russian spy

By Tara Isabella Burton

Last week, under the guidance of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the Department of Justice indicted 12 suspected Russian intelligence officers, accusing them of interfering in the 2016 presidential election. This week, arrests continued. Maria Butina, a Russian graduate student at American University and gun rights activist, was accused of “acting as an agent for a foreign government.”

Yet according to the Department of Justice affidavit, one of the most striking elements of Butina’s case was the venue she allegedly chose to exert influence: the National Prayer Breakfast, a longstanding Washington tradition. The event has been attended by every president since Eisenhower and has about 4,000 attendees — influential policymakers and foreign dignitaries alike — annually.

At the 2016 and 2017 events, Butina allegedly met with unnamed American officials and “very influential” Russians, and seems to have successfully attempted to broker meetings between figures in these groups.

It’s striking when you consider that something more insidious than prayer is understood to be taking place at the breakfast, according to Jeffrey Sharlet, an associate professor of literary journalism at Dartmouth College.

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More than half of white evangelicals say America’s declining white population is a negative thing

By Eugene Scott

Few demographic groups consistently poll more conservatively than white evangelicals.

On multiple issues, the most pro-Republican Party demographic group takes some of the most conservative positions on abortionsame-sex marriage and immigration.

But another topic where white evangelicals have repeatedly expressed their conservative views is diversity. And a recent poll is the latest reminder that large numbers of white evangelicals don’t view America’s increased ethnic and racial diversification as a positive thing.

More than half — 52 percent — of white evangelical Protestants say a majority of the U.S. population being nonwhite will be a negative development, according to the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic.

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Hypocrisy, God, and the Originalism of Judge Kavanaugh

By Andrew L. Seidel

Brett Kavanaugh is an originalist in the mold of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas. Originalism is one of the main reasons the Federalist Society approved him for its shortlist of judges and why the National Review endorsed him: he has “repeatedly taken conservative stands and fearlessly defended his textualist and originalist philosophy.”

But what does it mean to be an originalist? Despite its name, originalism is a fairly new judicial philosophy, rising to prominence about 30 years ago. It has plenty of critics, and for good reason, but rarely does an originalist judge demonstrate the hypocrisy of originalism as completely as Brett Kavanaugh did in a 2010 opinion involving atheists suing Chief Justice John Roberts over presidential inaugurations. To understand how hypocritical that opinion was, we first have to understand what it means to be an originalist.

What does it mean that Kavanaugh claims to be an originalist?

Originalist judges claim they are just sticking to the dry text of the Constitution, which doesn’t change except through a stringent amendment process. They claim to define the words in that text as the framers of the Constitution would have defined them at the time. In their mind, judges who don’t follow this philosophy are activists, legislating from the bench and harming our constitutional system.

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Jupiter has 10 more moons we didn’t know about — and they’re weird

By Alexandra Witze

Astronomers have discovered 10 small moons orbiting Jupiter, bringing its total to 79 — by far the most moons known around any planet. One of the finds is an oddball that moves in the opposite direction from its neighbours.

Together, the moons help to illuminate the Solar System’s early history. The existence of so many small satellites suggests that they arose from cosmic collisions after Jupiter itself formed, more than 4 billion years ago.

“They did not form with the planet, but were likely captured by the planet during or just after the planet-formation epoch,” says Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC. He and his colleagues announced the discovery on 17 July.

Sheppard’s team typically hunts for objects in the very distant Solar System, out beyond Pluto, and sometimes spots planetary moons during these searches. Last year, the group reported two additional Jovian moons. In this case, the scientists were looking for a putative unseen massive planet popularly known as Planet Nine. Jupiter was in the same part of the sky, so they were able to hunt for moons as well.

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Report on clergy abuse in limbo, awaiting decision from Pa. Supreme Court

By Lindsay Lazarski

The Pennsylvania District Attorney Association is the latest group to support releasing the grand jury investigation into decades of sexual abuse and cover-up in six Roman Catholic Dioceses across the state.

The report — the culmination of a two-year investigation by the Attorney General’s office into the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton Dioceses — was expected to be made public last month. But it was delayed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court due to appeals from unnamed clergy members who say their due process rights will be violated by its release.

Identified only by initials, several former and current clergy members question the facts of the report and say the release of the investigation would wrongly damage their reputations.

Attorneys for the unnamed clergy members said they’re not trying to silence the grand jury, but to ensure the accuracy of the report.

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Trump-Appointed Judge OKs Administration’s Attack on Family Planning Funding

By Jessica Mason Pieklo

A federal district court judge on Monday ruled the Trump administration could move forward with efforts to restructure the federal Title X family planning program by prioritizing abstinence programs.

United States District Court Judge Trevor McFadden, appointed by Trump in 2017, ruled the courts do not have the ability to review the proposed changes because they are not a “final agency action.”

“The substantive tweaks to the program priorities and key issues are neither new nor incompatible with Title X, instead they rephrase similar priorities and issues that appeared in prior funding announcements without objection or notice-and-comment rulemaking,” McFadden wrote.

The fight over Title X funding started as soon as the Trump administration took power. In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it was terminating all multi-year grants under Title X. That meant even though competitive Title X grants had been awarded on overlapping three-year cycles, all Title X grantees would need to submit a new application for Title X funds in 2018.

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What Was Maria Butina Doing at the National Prayer Breakfast?

By Katherine Stewart

Does it seem strange that, according to a criminal complaint unsealed on Monday by the Justice Department, a Russian woman stands accused of “acting as an agent of a foreign government” in part because she hoped “to establish a back-channel of communication” with American politicians at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington?

It shouldn’t. As Jeff Sharlet, an associate professor of English at Dartmouth, has pointed out, the National Prayer Breakfast has long offered “a backdoor to American power.” And America’s homegrown Christian nationalists have evinced an admiration for Russia’s authoritarian leader that appears to have grown apace with his brutality.

On Tuesday, Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian whose name was spelled Mariia in court papers, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for the Russian Federation. According to the complaint unsealed on Monday, Ms. Butina’s promotional activities for Russian political interests included attending the National Prayer Breakfast twice.

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Question of the Week – 7/18/2018

The social media videos parodied by the McGill Office for Science and Society are all over platforms like Facebook and Twitter. What’s the most ridiculous or outrageous claim you’ve seen in one of those videos? Were you able to figure out whether it was false?

Our favorite answer will win a copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins.


Want to suggest a Question of the Week? E-mail submissions to us at qotw@richarddawkins.net. (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution

By Matt Wilkins

The only thing worse than being lied to is not knowing you’re being lied to. It’s true that plastic pollution is a huge problem, of planetary proportions. And it’s true we could all do more to reduce our plastic footprint. The lie is that blame for the plastic problem is wasteful consumers and that changing our individual habits will fix it.

Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper. You struggle to find a place to do it and feel pleased when you succeed. But your effort is wholly inadequate and distracts from the real problem of why the building is collapsing in the first place. The real problem is that single-use plastic—the very idea of producing plastic items like grocery bags, which we use for an average of 12 minutes but can persist in the environment for half a millennium—is an incredibly reckless abuse of technology. Encouraging individuals to recycle more will never solve the problem of a massive production of single-use plastic that should have been avoided in the first place.

As an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, I have had a disturbing window into the accumulating literature on the hazards of plastic pollution. Scientists have long recognized that plastics biodegrade slowly, if at all, and pose multiple threats to wildlife through entanglement and consumption. More recent reports highlight dangers posed by absorption of toxic chemicals in the water and by plastic odors that mimic some species’ natural food.

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