Humanist mayor in the U.S ditches bible and takes oath of office over the constitution.

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When Franklin, North Carolina mayor Bob Scott was sworn into his second term this week, the self-identified Humanist decided to honor his belief in the Separation of Church and State. Scott was not sworn in on the bible, but instead took his oath on a copy of the Constitution.

Scott said that he “decided to take my oath holding a copy of the Constitution because there is so much controversy surrounding separation of church and state. I am a firm believer in keeping religion and government separate.”

“Many of the old ways of doing things are gone,” he added. “The attitudes I expect to never hear expressed are ‘we ain’t never done it that way before,’ or ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,’ or ‘we have always done it this way.’ I want to make sure that everyone on this board is always free to say ‘let’s try it,’ or ‘here’s a new way to think or do something.’”


After a successful first term, Mayor Scott promised to bring change and innovation to the town of 3,800 on his second time around.


Saudi government lied about the number of deaths in stampede. It now stands at over 2,400.

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The estimated death toll from a stampede at the hajj three months ago surpassed 2,400 on Thursday, widening the gap with Saudi Arabia’s publicly announced figure and raising new concerns about why the kingdom has not yet reported its own inquest into the disaster.

The latest figure, 2,411, reported by The Associated Press, was based on what the agency described as its updated compilation from state news reports and official remarks from 36 of the more than 180 countries where pilgrims had traveled from. If confirmed, the toll would make the stampede the worst in the history of the hajj, the annual five-day pilgrimage that Muslims aspire to complete at least once.

The A.P. and other global news agencies, including Reuters and Agence France-Presse, have been periodically increasing their estimated death tolls since the Sept. 24 stampede, based on the same general methodologies of compiling official figures from the victims’ home countries.

The Saudis, by contrast, have asserted almost from the beginning that 769 pilgrims died in the stampede, which took place about three miles east of Mecca, when crowds became trapped on narrow streets. While the Saudi king, Salman, ordered an immediate investigation, there has been no update on its progress.

Maps showing where more than 700 people were killed in a stampede near Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Nor has there been any clarity from the Saudis regarding the initial contradictory accounts of what happened. Some officials at first appeared to blame the victims saying they did not follow instructions, but witnesses described exits closed inexplicably that might have induced a panic.

A virtual news blackout on the disaster has prevailed in Saudi Arabia’s news media since.

The king’s presumed successor, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayaf, is head of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the hajj. The finding of any negligence could cast aspersions on him.

Political experts and historians have attributed the Saudi response to the ruling family’s sensitivity over its self-appointed role as the guardian of the holiest sites in Islam, as well as its enormous investments to accommodate millions of religious tourists.

“It is deeply embarrassing for the Saudis to acknowledge that they mishandled the hajj arrangements since King Salman’s formal title is ‘the custodian of the two holy mosques,’ ” said Bruce O. Riedel, of the Brookings Institution. “Their competency is in question.”

Nearly all of the victims were from countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, is believed to have lost at least 464 pilgrims, the most of any country, and the disaster has constituted a major new irritant in the countries’ relationship. Others with casualties exceeding 100 include Mali, Nigeria, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan, according to The A.P. and other estimates.

Jon Gambrell, the Dubai-based A.P. correspondent who reported the latest tally, said by telephone that the toll was derived from state news reports and data from officials of the home countries.

“It was a mix of us calling sources and relying on official media,” he said. “The Saudis haven’t said anything — they say their investigation is ongoing.”

Saudi officials in Riyadh, the capital, could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

Toby C. Jones, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Rutgers, said he was not surprised at the Saudi reluctance to give information on what could be a catastrophic case of negligence.

“They want to say it’s a technical problem, that order broke down because the victims were unruly,” Mr. Jones said. “But what if the opposite were true — that the Saudis haven’t created a safe environment for the hajj? For the Saudis to be open and honest about what happened would require them to admit it’s not a technical problem at all.”


Is Mark Zuckerberg’s new charity a thinly-veiled tax shelter?

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By now you must have heard that Mark Zuckerberg along with his wife Priscilla Chan has pledged to give away 99% of his estimated USD45 billion in Facebook stock to charity. Basically, Mark is giving away enough money to fund one of the world’s biggest charities for the next 45 years. Instead, he is funding his own. Here’s how:

The vehicle for his beneficence will be the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC, a family-run foundation that he controls and through which he will maintain control of Facebook for “the foreseeable future.

Which basically means:

Mark Zuckerberg will transfer ownership of his Facebook stock without paying capital gains taxes. He will also benefit from the possibility that his foundation will live beyond him, with his heirs and their heirs at the helm, untouched by estate taxes.

A Facebook PR, while confirming to BuzzFeed News, said that the initiative is structured as an LLC, and not as a charitable trust

Which means that unlike a charitable trust, which is compelled to spend its money on charity, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC will be able to spend its money on whatever it wants, including private, profit-generating investment.

While charity will certainly be one of the money’s destinations, it will be far from the only one. The money, according to a Facebook SEC filing, will go to “philanthropic, public advocacy, and other activities for the public good.”

One such activity: private investment. A Facebook release this afternoon stated as much.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will pursue its mission by funding non-profit organizations, making private investments and participating in policy debates, in each case with the goal of generating positive impact in areas of great need,” it said. “Any profits from investments in companies will be used to fund additional work to advance the mission.

One more thing about his pledge:

The Facebook founder is not giving away 99% of his Facebook shares all at once. He will be doing it over the course of the rest of his life.

Also, Michael Maiello points out in this Daily Beast piece:

Mark will deduct the fair value of his gift to his foundation from his taxable income in the year he makes the donation. A donor like Mark could realize a tax benefit equal to about one-third of the value of his gift. In this case, he stands to benefit as much as USD333 million, based on the USD1 billion he plans as his first transfer.

Rather than give to existing nonprofits, Mark is doing what other business leaders have recently done. Increasingly siphoning their fortune into their own organisations and this can be problematic.

Alexander C. Kaufman of The Huffington Post explains how:

The desire for control leaves the massive pool of money set aside for charities — about $358 billion in the U.S. last year — divvied between the roughly 1.5 million nonprofits registered in this country. Creating a new organization every time a company or wealthy individual wants to foster change only shrinks the available slices of that pie.

“Just because you were successful in the for-profit world doesn’t mean that nonprofits are a bunch of bleeding-heart idiots that need you to come in and show them how it’s done,” Ken Berger, the managing director of the social-good data service Algorhythm, told The Huffington Post in October. He previously ran the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. “We have one of the most complex and sophisticated nonprofit sectors ever seen. Partnering with others is the best approach.”

To sum up, his money is not going to a charity, but to his own LLC, which will let him evade tax by moving his private assets into a foundation. See, Zuckerberg doesn’t need massive tax benefits to do whatever he wants. He can just do whatever he wants.

But he will get those tax benefits and estate planning benefits and he will be able to give up his stock while holding onto power over his company.

As Michael Maiello in his Daily Beast piece reveals, “when we pay people like Zuckerberg to fund their own foundations, we are really helping the rich and coddled few even as we thank and honor them for their charity.”

Additionally, as Anil Dash writes in his Medium piece, it’s necessary to be critical of Mark’s philanthropic efforts, both past and present, to ensure that this pledge of USD45 billion is put to good use.

That is because the default dispensation of the money will be to waste it.

For example, Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark schools to almost no effect, in a gift that was revealed to have been explicitly managed by Sheryl Sandberg to be timed to offset the negative publicity surrounding the release of the movie The Social Network.

Given that track record, our default assumption should be that this is a similar move, though obviously this announcement being coupled to the birth of their daughter makes such assumptions seem churlish or rude.


Report confirms Britain is no longer just a Christian country.

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Britain has seen a “general decline” in its Christian affiliation and the time has come for public life to take on a more “pluralist character”, according to an official report.

Major state occasions such as a coronation should be changed to be more inclusive, it said, while the number of bishops in the House of Lords should be cut to make way for leaders of other religions.

The recommendations from a panel chaired by the former High Court judge Baroness Butler-Sloss come in light of major changes in British society.

Only two in five British people now identify as Christian, the two-year inquiry found, while there has been a general move away from mainstream denominations to evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism have overtaken Judaism as the largest non-Christian faiths in Britain.

The Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life (Corab), which compiled the report, includes Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu representatives as well as theological experts.

The proportion of people who do not follow a religion has risen from just under a third in 1983 to almost half in 2014, the report states.

Yet the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as the Bishops of Durham, London and Winchester, automatically take seats in the Lords – with an additional 21 seats reserved for other bishops.

“The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of world views and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England,” the commission said.

Dr Ed Kessler, vice-chair of Corab, told The Independent: “It’s an anomaly to have 26 Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. There needs to be better representation of the different religions and beliefs in Britain today.”

The report also recommends scrapping the law requiring schools to hold acts of collective worship, reducing the number of children given places at schools based on religion, and including non-religious figures on the BBC’s Thought for the Day.

There also needs to be an overhaul of how religious education is taught, it argues. Many syllabuses tend to “portray religions only in a good light … and they tend to omit the role of religions in reinforcing stereotypes and prejudice around issues such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity and race.”

The report’s proposals “amount to a ‘new settlement for religion and belief in the UK’, intended to provide space and a role for all within society, regardless of their beliefs or absence of them,” said Lady Butler-Sloss.

But a spokesperson for the Church of England said: “The report is dominated by the old-fashioned view that traditional religion is declining in importance and that non-adherence to a religion is the same as humanism or secularism.” They added: “Most public opinion is strongly opposed to the marginalisation of Christianity.”

Commenting on the suggestion of reducing the number of bishops in the Lords, Dr Omer el-Hamdoon, spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Britain, said: “Introducing other peers based on their religion would only be a token gesture.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “We have enough religious input in Parliament at the moment from those people of faith who are already appointed. To introduce even more would be disproportionate.”



Gay Men Should Be Ashamed of Slut-Shaming.

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Looking creator Andrew Haigh caught some flak from the gay Internet a few months back when he responded to the scrutiny that many gay men had laid upon his show.

In an interview with Attitude magazine, he criticized many for “making a judgment on two seasons of a show after watching just five minutes, and [turning] it off because somebody was being jerked off in a wood and you didn’t like what that said about gay people.”

As a gay filmmaker, I can relate to Haigh’s frustration, and I would add that gay people are often as dismissive of other human beings in real life as they are of characters on television. Every group is guilty of this, but I think that gay people in particular should ask themselves why their desire to judge outweighs their capacity for empathy.

The second season of my series EastSiders centers around a couple experimenting with opening up their relationship sexually. The first episode actually begins the morning after a couple’s first threesome, as they navigate the awkwardness of making coffee while a stranger takes a shower in the other room. Another episode includes a montage of threesomes as the characters explore their sexuality (and encounter a cavalcade of weirdos in the process).

The show isn’t making an argument for or against promiscuity, but I knew that some would assume that it did, probably because they didn’t make it past the fun stuff to the episode in the STD clinic.

I was prepared for some backlash, given the irreverence with which the subject is approached, but I was surprised to find the majority of the vitriol coming from other gay men. I pulled the following gems from the comments on an Out magazine article about the show:

“Why the hell are you in an ‘open relationship’ to begin with if you’re going to hook up with other guys? so trashy!”

“Sluttiness and having multiple sex partner beside your boyfriend, for me it’s disgusting.”

“If you publicly announce you have an open relationship then be prepared for comments. I think an open relationship is bullshit. Ditto bisexuality.”

“You are a slut.”


Many of the commenters expressed concern about gay men being viewed as promiscuous. If these commenters desire to combat stereotypes, then I’d suggest they start by not contributing to the stereotype that gay men are catty, bitter, backbiting queens. We all share a common struggle, and I believe we have a responsibility to be kinder to each other than society has been to us. Yes, some people are promiscuous — that doesn’t mean their stories are any less worthy of being told.

Van Hansis and Kit Williamson on Eastsiders

Van Hansis and Kit Williamson on EastSiders.

As LGBTQ people who have been told since we were young that our sexuality is an abomination, I believe we have a duty to stand up against the morality police. Who are we to govern the sexual practices of others? Who are we performing for? Why do we need to criticize others to affirm our own decisions? Do we really want the same societal pressure placed upon our relationships that straight people have to contend with? Just because I’m engaged to my partner doesn’t mean that marriage is right for everybody. Some people might actually be happy being single — that doesn’t threaten me. Today, it seems as though any individual’s expression of sexual desire outside of the confines of marriage is seen as a threat to our hard-earned place in society.

We’ve all heard the counterargument. How are we supposed to convince everyone we deserve equal rights when Larry’s on Grindr every night and Sarah, Kim, and Suzy are raising a kid in a triad? Guess what? Larry is getting laid, and three women throupling isn’t any more of a threat to two men getting married than two men getting married is a threat to a straight couple tying the knot.

Sex is also nobody’s business except for the “sluts” in question. This kind of pearl-clutching recalls the respectability politics of Bill Cosby, and we know just how respectable he turned out to be. I’ve overheard an acquaintance at a bar trashing a friend of mine who occasionally performs in adult films, only to find out that they hooked up later that week!

I can certainly understand why promiscuity fell out of fashion in the wake of the AIDS crisis. At 16, I convinced myself that I had contracted HIV from kissing another guy. It’s not an uncommon story. When my mother found out I was gay later that year, she told me she was afraid I had HIV. I was a virgin.

Growing up in Mississippi, I hadn’t actually met another gay man I wanted to have sex with. And if I had, I would’ve definitely been too afraid to act on it. We’re finally at a place where we aren’t immediately equating sex with death, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. But the fear many of us felt growing up has left scars that have twisted into hatred — hatred of other gay men and hatred of ourselves. As a late bloomer, I certainly did my share of slut-shaming, and I think back on both my bitterness and naivety with deep regret.

Seeing upstanding, attractive gay people profess their love and devotion to one another on TV has certainly helped the movement for equal rights for same-sex couples. But the end goal, for me, is not equal rights for gay couples; it’s equal rights for all people. I want to live in a society predicated on mutual respect and civility, where no one feels ownership over anyone else’s sexuality.

I want to live in a society without slut-shaming, because I can see what it’s done to women. Society’s desire to police female bodies has resulted in employers limiting access to contraception, state lawmakers championing transvaginal ultrasounds, and Republican presidential candidates quibbling over who would make the most severe cuts to funding for the largest provider of women’s health services in the country. This attack on women’s reproductive rights is one of the reasons I chose to include an abortion storyline for Constance Wu’s character, Kathy, in the first season of EastSiders.

We are living in an incredible moment in history. We finally have the right to marry, and public opinion has shifted dramatically in our favor regarding other forms of discrimination. One need only look as far as the national ridicule of Kim “Eye of the Tiger” Davis to see how far we have come.

While there are some extremists who have rallied to her side, a few short years ago her refusal to do her job would have been reported in a drastically different manner, with her personal beliefs weighed equally with the civil liberties of LGBT citizens. But we have a responsibility to look past assimilation and continue to act as leaders toward a more loving, egalitarian society.


The Salvation Army’s History of Anti-LGBT Discrimination.

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In recent years, the Salvation Army has come under fire for its lengthy history of anti-LGBT political maneuvering and other incidents. The church has publicly articulated its belief that homosexuality is unacceptable, stating:

Scripture opposes homosexual practices by direct comment and also by clearly implied disapproval. The Bible treats such practices as self-evidently abnormal. … Attempts to establish or promote such relationships as viable alternatives to heterosexually-based family life do not conform to God’s will for society.

While such statements were recently removed from the Salvation Army’s website, the church has yet to repudiate any of its explicitly anti-gay beliefs. And though these positions may seem to be limited to the group’s internal doctrines, they’ve become a persistent element of the church’s overtly political activities — activities which have negatively impacted the Salvation Army’s ability to provide charitable services, and have aimed to limit the rights and benefits of LGBT citizens in multiple nations.

1986 — The Salvation Army of New Zealand collected signatures against the Homosexual Law Reform Act, which repealed the law criminalizing sex between adult men. The Salvation Army later apologized for campaigning against the Act.

1998 — The Salvation Army of the United States chose to turn down $3.5 million in contracts with the city of San Francisco, resulting in the closure of programs for the homeless and senior citizens. The church backed out of these contracts due to San Francisco’s requirement that city contractors must provide spousal benefits to both same-sex partners and opposite-sex partners of employees. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Love stated:

We simply cannot agree to be in compliance of the ordinance.

In 2004, the Salvation Army in New York City also threatened to close down all of its services for the city’s homeless due to a similar non-discrimination ordinance.

2000 — The Salvation Army of Scotland submitted a letter to Parliament opposing the repeal of Section 28, a law prohibiting “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Colonel John Flett, the church’s Scotland Secretary, wrote:

We can easily envisage a situation where, due to active promotion of homosexuality in schools, children will grow up feeling alienated if they fail to conform.

The Salvation Army of Scotland has never retracted or apologized for its suggestion that homosexuality would be promoted in schools or that children would be encouraged to become gay.

2001 — The Salvation Army of the United States attempted to make a deal with the Bush administration ensuring that religious charities receiving federal funding would be exempt from any local ordinances banning anti-gay discrimination. Church spokesman David A. Fuscus explained that the group did not want to extend medical benefits to same-sex partners of its employees.

The deal fell through after it was publicized by the Washington Post.

2012 — The Salvation Army of Burlington, Vermont allegedly fired case worker Danielle Morantez immediately after discovering she was bisexual. The church’s employee handbook reads, in part, “The Salvation Army does reserve the right to make employment decisions on the basis of an employee’s conduct or behavior that is incompatible with the principles of The Salvation Army.”

Later that year, Salvation Army spokesperson Major George Hood reaffirmed the church’s anti-gay beliefs, saying:

A relationship between same-sex individuals is a personal choice that people have the right to make. But from a church viewpoint, we see that going against the will of God.

2013 — The Salvation Army continues to remove links from its website to religious ministries providing so-called “ex-gay” conversion therapy, such as Harvest USA and Pure Life Ministries. These links were previously provided as resources under the Salvation Army’s section on dealing with “sexual addictions.”

“Without discrimination” — myth or fact? The Salvation Army has recently attempted to counter this perception of the church as homophobic, scrubbing explicitly anti-gay statements from its websites and issuing missives purportedly “debunking” the “myth” of its anti-LGBT stances.

Yet these efforts at cleaning up their image still fail to address the most substantial criticisms of the church’s policies. The Salvation Army states that numerous clients at its soup kitchens and homeless shelters are members of the LGBT community, and that these individuals are served without discrimination. They further add: “The Salvation Army embraces employees of many different faiths and orientations and abides by all applicable anti-discrimination laws in its hiring.”

These statements completely ignore the reality that the Salvation Army continues to maintain anti-gay theological stances, and continues to discriminate against its own employees and their partners. They also neglect to mention that the organization historically “abides” by anti-discrimination laws by way of shutting down services in areas where such laws apply. The Salvation Army has given no indication that it intends to change any of these anti-LGBT policies.

Supporting the Salvation Army this season, whether by tossing your change in their red kettles or donating your used goods to their resale shops, means assisting an aggressively anti-gay church in furthering its goals of discrimination. Would-be donors should consider whether “doing the most good” might mean supporting one of the many other effective and reputable charities that provide for the needy without engaging in anti-gay beliefs, policies, or political activities.