The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) based in Madison, Wisconsin is pushing back against a new coalition, “Stand up for Religious Freedom,” led by the Pro-Life Action League and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, that is leading a nationwide rally June 8 to “stop the HHS mandate.” The religious groups oppose a provision in the Obama administration’s new health insurance law that requires most private health insurers cover FDA-approved prescription contraceptive drugs and devices, including the “morning after pill.” The Department of Health and Human Services’ so-called mandate includes an exemption for religious employers who object to contraception, and the rule does not apply to any churches, but that doesn’t go far enough for these organizations, which are trying to block all financial assistance with contraceptives. Moreover, the Catholic Bishops have introduced into Congress the so-called “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” which goes even further than banning financial help with contraceptives. The Bishops’ bill would allow any private employer with a “religious or moral objection” to veto coverage for specific treatments for employees. For example, an employer who is a Jehovah’s Witnesses could bar coverage of emergency blood transfusions for its employees, and a Southern Baptist or Mormon employer could deny prescription birth control to its single, female employees.
This three-page document dated November 15, 2001, from Philip Morris’ online corporate document collection, argues that the federal government would be better off diverting funds from the U.S. Department of Justice’s 1999 lawsuit against the tobacco industry to concentrate on the fight against terrorism. The strategy leverages the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. as a reason to stop the government’s investigation into the major American tobacco companies’ decades-long conspiracy to defraud the American people about the links between smoking and disease. On November 29, 2001 (just days after this document was written) the investigative organization Center for Public Integrity revealed that then-House Majority Whip and tobacco industry ally Tom DeLay (R-Texas) had done the bidding of the tobacco companies by quietly inserting a clause into the Financial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 (a bill rushed through Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks) shielding U.S. tobacco companies from foreign lawsuits that alleged cigarette smuggling and money laundering.
A slew of major media outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and CNN reported on a speech that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave on May 31 in front of the shuttered offices of Solyndra, the California-based solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt after taking a $535 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy — but they all failed to check on whether what Romney said in his speech was true. Referring to Solyndra’s government loan, Romney said, “An independent inspector general looked at this investment and concluded that the [Obama] administration had steered money to friends & family, to campaign contributors. This building — the half a billion dollar taxpayer investment — represents a serious conflict of interest on the part of the President and his team. It’s also a symbol of how the President thinks about free enterprise. Free enterprise to the President means taking money form the taxpayers and giving it freely to his friends.” But Romney’s statements are a bald-faced, easily-verifiable lie and it took days for the major media covering the speech to fact-check Romney’s statements after media watchdogs called them out.
An NBC investigative team has exposed historical and financial ties between many of the supposedly independent groups actively opposing Proposition 29, a measure to increase California’s tobacco tax by $1.00 per pack, and the tobacco industry. Collectively, groups against the measure have spent $46.7 million so far — over four times more than the amount spent by groups supporting the measure. Much of the money to oppose the measure came from cigarette makers Reynolds American and Philip Morris, laundered through groups that are seemingly independent from the industry, like Americans for Tax Reform, the Small Business Action Committee and the California Taxpayers’ Association. Tobacco industry documents now available on the Internet reveal these groups have historically received significant financial support from Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and the Tobacco Institute. Political analyst Larry Gerston commented, “These kinds of transfers of money increasingly take place under a very dark shadow.” The strategy of burying tobacco industry involvement in ballot measure campaigns is revealed in a 1998 proposal by a political consulting group that worked for the Tobacco Institute on another cigarette tax fight.
Under the guise of preventing voter fraud — a virtually nonexistent problem in Florida — the state of Florida is demanding tens of thousands of American citizens provide proof of citizenship to the state in person or lose their right to vote. Acting on a directive from Governor Rick Scott, Florida’s secretary of state sent letters to 180,000 voters to be stricken from the voter rolls unless they prove to the state that they are, in fact, citizens. Recipients were told they must attend an administrative hearing in person to provide proof of their citizenship. The list includes many people falsely flagged as non-citizens, including 91 year-old Bill Internicola, a World War II veteran who won a Bronze Star for bravery, and Maureen Russo, a 60 year old business owner who has been a registered voter in Florida for 40 years. ThinkProgress estimates that more than 20 percent of the voters flagged as non-citizens in Florida are actually full-fledged citizens. The massive purge of voters by Florida’s Republican administration comes at a time very close to the impending general election this fall, giving falsely-accused voters minimal time to correct the records. The purge also disproportionally affects Democrats. Two thirds of the supposed non-citizens on the purge list live in Miami-Dade County, which leans heavily Democratic. In response to information that legitimate citizens are being targeted for purging from the voter rolls, Gov. Scott defiantly vowed to intensify his efforts to remove voters from the rolls.
If your local TV news broadcasts are all starting to sound the same from channel to channel, it’s because they are. A sneaky form of media consolidation is happening all over the country called “covert consolidation” in which different local TV newscasts use the exact same stories, the same video, same scripts and the same viewpoints, but do it under different “brands.” Covert consolidation occurs when a number of TV stations in the same area are owned by a single corporate entity. Broadcasters between the multiple stations will share their news operations to save money. Covert consolidation not only circumvents Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules regarding ownership of stations, it also eliminates independent local journalism and the competition and diversity between stations that are the basis of a healthy democracy. Covert consolidation has been documented in 83 of the nation’s 210 news communities throughout the U.S. as TV stations across the country quietly merge newsrooms to cut costs — all at a time when broadcasters are already making record profits. Covert consolidation is also a factor blocking minorities and women from owning and operating TV stations. Big media companies are using loopholes and backroom deals to get around FCC rules prohibiting media consolidation. To draw attention to the problem of covert consolidation, FreePress.org has created an interactive map showing which stations across the U.S. are consolidated, and the severity of the consolidation. FreePress also offers a free “Change the Channels” tool kit (pdf) people can download to document and record media consolidation in their areas, and instructions for exposing covert consolidation in your own local community.
Main source: FreePress/SaveTheNews.org, May 29, 2012
The retail internet behemoth Amazon.com announced it would cut its ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) after activist groups delivered a petition signed by over a half million people asking the company to ditch the conservative organization. The petitions were delivered at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting in Seattle, Washington. They filled seven bankers’ boxes, and were collected by ColorOfChange.org, People for the American Way, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and other progressive groups. Amazon.com joined ALEC in 2011, and worked with them on tax issues. Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako stated that “…[W]e’ve decided not to renew our participation in ALEC, in part because of positions that group took on issues unrelated to our business.” She did not say what the issues were. At the meeting, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also promised to spend $52 million to improve working conditions at its warehouse facilities, including retrofitting them with air conditioning. ALEC is the legislative bill mill implicated in spreading legislation like the “shoot first” law that led to the Trayvon Martin case, voter ID laws that block people’s access to the ballot box, school voucher bills that direct taxpayer money to private and religious schools, and other controversial legislation that has been sweeping the country state by state.
A former billboard company employee in Tallahassee, Florida has revealed that billboard companies intentionally poison trees that block their billboards from view. Robert Barnhart, a former crew chief for Lamar Advertising, stated in court filings that he was instructed to poison trees located on private property not belonging to Lamar if they were too big to be pruned or cut back, and blocked Lamar’s boards from view. In a court filing (pdf), Barnhart states he was instructed to wear nondescript clothing without any logos, drive to the area of the offending tree in a truck without Lamar logos, park several blocks away from the offending tree, walk over, use a machete to hack into the root system surrounding the tree’s base and pour herbicide onto the roots. The herbicide was kept in containers marked “AC Cleaner.” Barnhart said he was instructed to do this at least seven times. The actions violate numerous laws and constitute criminal mischief, trespassing, and violation of environmental laws regarding dumping of poison on land. After Barnhart provided his employer with a written objection to the offensive practice, he was subsequently threatened with termination and then fired. It wasn’t Lamar’s first such offense, either. In 2010, Lamar was found liable for trespassing and killing 83 trees along Interstate 84, and in 2009 Lamar was ordered to pay about $182,000 to a couple in Ohio for killing 34 trees on their property to improve views of their billboards. Lamar owns approximately 146,000 billboards in 44 states.
Skechers, the maker of those roly-poly “toning shoes” that were a big craze back in 2010, will shell out $40 million to settle charges that it deceived consumers with phony claims the shoes conferred health benefits like weight loss, muscle strengthening and butt toning. Back in 2010, fitness footwear companies like Skechers, Nike and Reebok raked in about $1.1 billion from the “toning shoe” market by charging between $100 and $200 a pair for the shoes. Skechers controlled about 60 percent of the market, and Reebok had about a 33 percent share. The companies created demand for the shoes by running ads that falsely claimed they would help wearers “shape up while you walk” or “get in shape without setting foot in a gym.” The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleged that the shoe manufacturers fudged studies and statistics to make claims about the shoes that they could not support. Last September, Reebok agreed to pay $25 million to settle charges that it deceptively advertised roly-poly shoes with names like TrainTone, RunTone and EasyTone. The companies are paying the millions of dollars into a fund to which shoe purchasers can apply for a refund. If you bought Reebok toning shoes, you can click here to apply for a refund. People who fell for Skechers “butt toning” shoe ads and bought them can keep an eye on this website to get refunds when the account it set up.
Main source: Advertising Age, May 16, 2012
An anonymous women’s prayer group sent an email to Mikey Weinstein, the founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), in which they promised to pray for women who work for MRFF or who are related to Weinstein to get incurable breast cancer as punishment for the organization’s activities. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation works to ensure that all members of the United States Armed Forces get the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom to which they are entitled by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Doing this sometimes requires that MRFF point out when fundamentalist Christian programs and activities step over the line of separation of church and state. This has earned MRFF some powerful detractors, and while hate mail is routine for the organization, this email was particularly misguided. The authors of the email specifically named the women they would target in their prayers, saying (note errors are in original)
“Our prayer circle has never failed to achieve our hosts granting of the scripture we pray. for direct intervention against you as you are a true demon to America. Luke 9:1 We will not stop our prayers until you stop the evil you do with Lucifer on a daly basis. Luke 9:1 But not against you Mickey. We know by your internet site and your book who it is to be. Now for our prayer, we pray that the women who work in your MFRR and the women in your family will befall fast moving breast cancer which can not everbe cured.” The email then listed the names of 14 women associated with MRFF. The last line of the email stated, “[K]now that we pray and pray hard all the days until you stop your destruction of our American army and accept Christ Jesus as Lord and join His army.”
The MRFF says that the organization’s “significant base of Christian supporters often shares their horror at the actions” of fundamentalist Christians like those who wrote the email “that give all Christians a bad name and awful reputation.”
Throughout his 16 years in the Colorado state legislature, former Colorado Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon saw first-hand how corporate money is killing government, and it alarmed him. Gordon saw legislators failing to represent the people who elected them, and instead represent the big money donors who kept them in office. Now Gordon is on a mission to change our broken system.
Ken Gordon came of age in Michigan during the U.S. war in Vietnam. The experience of the war impressed upon him the need to become active when you see something terrible going on around you. “Clearly government was doing something awful,” he says of the Vietnam war, noting that between one and two million people lost their lives because of America’s military involvement in Vietnam. Gordon did everything he could to help end the war: he marched in anti-war rallies in Washington and in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The wave of anti-war protests that swept the country eventually pushed the American government to end the war, and the experience showed Gordon the power people wield when enough of them get behind a cause.
The town board of of Greece, New York (population about 94,000, outside of Rochester) regularly opened its public meetings with Christian prayers. More times than not the prayers contained references to “Jesus Christ, “Jesus,” “Your Son, or “the “Holy Spirit.” But in a unanimous decision issued May 17, 2012, the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the town’s practice violated the U.S. Constitution by favoring one religion over others. Two citizens of Greece, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, complained to the town several times about the prayer practice, sometimes during public comment periods at meetings. When the two pointed out that the prayers impermissibly aligned the town with Christianity, the town failed to respond. Nor did the town respond when one person delivering an invocation in October, 2007 described objectors to the town’s prayer practice as a “minority … ignorant of the history of our country.”
People who buy bottled water pay up to 1,900 times what tap water costs, but get less access to key information about the pricey water than they do for tap water. Big companies that sell bottled water, like Pepsi (Aquafina) and Coke (Crystal Geyser), want you to think their water is special, but refuse to reveal where their water comes from, the methods used to purify it or whether their own testing revealed any contaminants in the water. According to the Environmental Working Group (pdf), the makers of the top ten best-selling brands of bottled water refuse to answer at least one of those questions. Only one — Nestle, maker of Pure Life Purified water — willingly discloses the specific source of its water, treatment method and gives consumers access to a water quality test report. Digging for information reveals that at at least one brand of bottled water, Aquafina, is bottled from a public water source. California passed a law in 2007 ordering bottle water manufacturers to publicly disclose quality information about their bottled water, but as of 2011 only 34 percent of companies were complying with the law. When asked to supply water quality information, the makers of Aquafina claimed it was “proprietary information” that was “not for the public.” Bottled water companies make claims like their water is purely from rainfall, purified by “equatorial winds” (Fiji Water) or can help you live longer, but cannot and do not substantiate these claims. In the mean time, every 27 hours, Americans drink enough bottled water to circle the Earth with plastic bottles stacked end to end. EWG recommends drinking filtered tap water instead of bottled water. Municipalities issue annual tap water quality reports that are always available to the public.
In the wake of the Colorado State Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling (pdf) May 10 that a state-sanctioned “Day of Prayer” violates the state constitution, the National Day of Prayer (NDP) Task Force has started a petition asking Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to “prepare a vigorous defense” against the decision. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which brought the case and won, is fighting back by asking Colorado residents to support the ruling by contacting the governor and state attorney general and asking them not to appeal the Court’s decision. The Court was careful to preface its ruling by saying “Our decision does not affect anyone’s constitutionally protected right to pray, in public or in private, alone or in groups,” but pointed out that religious liberty is “abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer.” Despite this clear statement that no one’s right to pray is in danger, the National Day of Prayer Task Force is spinning the ruling as a threat, saying it “undermines the heritage and tradition of the American people.” Similarly, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) — a Christian organization that tries to encourage prayer in local, state and federal government — portrays efforts to end improper government endorsements of religion as “targeted attacks on religious freedom.” Like the NDP Task Force, the ADF similarly tries to stir up fear by claiming that “those who believe in God are increasingly threatened, punished and silenced.”
The lone Republican legislator responsible for killing Colorado’s civil unions bill voted against it even though his son and only child is gay. Rep. Don Coram of Montrose cast the deciding vote on a 5-4 party line vote May 14. Rep. Coram is the father of Dee Coram, who runs the Coffee Trader, a popular coffee bar in downtown Montrose. Dee Coram has served on a local economic development board, has been active in helping revitalize downtown Montrose and even got an award from the Governor for his work. Dee Coram says his father not only let him down, but also let down the entire gay community. Commenting on his father’s vote, Coram said, “I was told by my grandfather, there’s always a time to lead and there’s always a time to follow. He was given a time to lead, and he didn’t do it. He could have and should have been the deciding vote.” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper called the special session to address the civil unions bill after Republican maneuvering blocked it from coming to a vote in the entire House, where it had enough votes to pass. The bill had already received the approval of three separate House committees during the regular session and had enough bipartisan support to pass in the full House. To kill it, House Speaker Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) assigned the bill to yet a fourth committee — the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee — where he knew it would not pass.
The Republican front group Compass Colorado is running billboards across the state that link President Obama with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The boards show a photo of President Obama alongside photos of Ahmadinejad and, varyingly, three lesser-known Colorado Democratic Congressional candidates: Representatives Joe Mikloski, Sal Pace and Congressman Ed Perlmutter. Above the photos, text says “Higher gas prices YES! U.S. Energy Independence NO!” The boards fail to mention that the U.S. does not buy any oil from Iran. By using their photos and names next to that of President Obama, Compass Colorado is unwittingly giving the three lesser-known candidates a free boost to their name recognition. Compass Colorado is run by Tyler Q. Houlton, who worked as communications director for former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. Tancredo gained fame for his February 4, 2010 speech at the National Tea Party Movement Convention in which he said Barack Obama became president because of “people who could not even spell the word ’vote’ or say it in English.” Tancredo then proposed making people take “a civics literacy test” as a prerequisite to voting. Houlton also worked for Rep. Scott McInnis’ failed campaign for governor of Colorado. McInnis’ campaign tanked after journalists revealed McInnis had plagiarized an extensive essay about water law that a nonprofit group had paid him to write. McInnis blamed the plagiarism on an elderly research assistant and refunded the $300,000 to the organization that paid him. Compass Colorado does not reveal its funders.
Main source: Colorado Pols, May 12, 2012
In a unanimous ruling issued on May 10, 2012 (pdf), three judges on the Colorado Court of Appeals declared Colorado’s state-endorsed “Day of Prayer” unconstitutional. The court found that the Colorado Day of Prayer violates the Preference Clause of the Religious Freedom section of Colorado’s constitution which states, “…[n]or shall any preference be given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.” The Preference Clause is Colorado’s equivalent of the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution. In a 74-page ruling, the Court concluded Colorado’s Day of Prayer is religious in purpose and content, lacks any secular purpose and its only purpose is to advance religion and give “preferential treatment to religion in general.” The Day of Prayer, said the Court, “conveys or attempt to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.” The First Amendment requires all levels of government to be completely neutral in matters of religion. “By requiring this neutrality,” the Court states, “the Preference Clause protects believers and nonbelievers from feeling as if they are ‘not fully accepted within our greater community.’ A reasonable observer would conclude that these proclamations [declaring state-sanctioned Days of Prayer] send the message that those who pray are favored members of Colorado’s political community, and that those who do not pray do not enjoy that favored status.” In April, 2010, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional because it amounts to a call for religious action.
This 1987 Philip Morris brainstorming document is full of bizarre ideas for how to make cigarettes more appealing and marketable to consumers, and how to design cigarettes to help counter the social stigma of smoking. Ideas include making cigarettes that deodorize a room, control appetite, alter consciousness, administer an aphrodisiac, mimic certain drugs, emit insect repellant, control cholesterol intake, serve as a laxative, renew energy, and even –amazingly enough — cure cancer (although ironically this last one was one of the very few ideas that was later crossed off the list).
Page 3 contains a brief discussion of how to lure quitters back to smoking: “Someone suggested talking with quitters to discover how we might recover these consumers…” The document also discusses ways to “turn the tables” on the Surgeon General by making a “healthy cigarette,” and ways to make the pack more attractive and useful. Ideas include making the pack into a smoke detector, an alarm clock, a calculator, a “handy mirror,” a “breatholyzer”, or use microchips to make packs that play tunes, or tell smokers how many cigarettes remain in the pack. Another idea was for a “jolt” cigarette that offered extra-high nicotine. Other ideas included cigarettes that enhance athletic performance and increase lung capacity, or slow formation of wrinkles, a “taco-dorito”- flavored cigarette and a carbonated cigarette that would make the mouth all tingly.