Category Archives: Legal nonsense

Are we solving problems or creating divisions?


Sensitive selling

When shopping for others, it is always wise to be sensitive to their needs. But in our sensitive, touchy-feely world, sensitive selling is also important. Sensitive selling is very big in the world of ideas (you can take classes on emotional intelligence), and is also a mainstay in animal shelters, where pet seekers often go through a more rigorous screening process than what is required for renting a home, much less marriage.

But sensitive selling has now reached the retail world. Not only is this store concerned about your needs, it is also concerned about the sensitive nature of the products being sold.

The sensitive nature of the product and the needs of the customer are both important

This camera store is concerned, apparently, about the feelings of film. Photo by Lawrence I. Charters

Things sent to me: politics and religion

The First Amendment to the Constitution is often cited to mean all sorts of things. It is a lengthy sentence, but just a sentence:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The first clause, up to the first comma, makes a simple sentence: Congress (and by extension any other government body) can make no law regarding the establishment of religion. Nothing for any given religion, nothing against any religion: no law.

The second clause, up to the semicolon, causes massive confusion: or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. OK, the government can’t write a law preventing the free exercise of religion. This is often cheerfully misunderstood by groups that claim Congress (or the Courts) have “banned” Christianity from schools. No — the Courts have held that the first clause still applies: if a school district sets aside a time of prayer, they are, in fact, acting as a government body to regulate religion, which is banned by that very simple first clause. The free exercise of religion requires no law; any student is free to pray any time they feel like it, most often before tests.

The rest of the sentence is very important, but not to the current wave of political rhetoric that complains about religion being taken out of Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or schools, or political gatherings. There is no law requiring you to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and include the clause mentioning “under God” which was added to the Pledge in 1954. Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge in 1892, was a Christian Socialist and didn’t think it necessary).


Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist. (Sign held by one of the Occupy Wall Street protesters.)

There is no particular religious connotation to Thanksgiving; yes, the Pilgrims were thankful that the Indians didn’t let them starve, but there is no requirement to celebrate Indian animist beliefs. There is no attempt to take religion out of Christmas; it is an overtly religious holiday, and the government neither tries to add anything religious to it or take anything religious away from it.

Before you advocate prayer in school, give some thought to what the First Amendment means, and the implications of changing it.


Be careful what you wish for when you attempt to politicize the First Amendment.

No electronic devices

Absolutely none. No cameras, no microphones, no recorders of any kind, no wrist watches, no cell phones, no hearing aids, no pacemakers, no thermostats — nothing. This courthouse in Virginia is lit by candles, heated by coal, and uses talking jurists for ventilation.

Absolutely no electronic devices in courthouse

If it runs on electrons, they're forbidden. iPhone photo by Lawrence I. Charters.

Plain language

The U.S. government is on a plain language campaign. This isn’t the first; several decrees have gone out, dating back at least to the Civil War, suggesting, pleading and even demanding that those in government use plain language. Now, thanks to the Plain Writing Act of 2010, it is law.

But what is plain writing, and what does it cover? The Act defines such terms:


In this Act:
(1) AGENCY.—The term ‘‘agency’’ means an Executive

agency, as defined under section 105 of title 5, United States Code.

(2) COVERED DOCUMENT.—The term ‘‘covered document’’— (A) means any document that—

(i) is necessary for obtaining any Federal Govern- ment benefit or service or filing taxes;

(ii) provides information about any Federal Government benefit or service; or

(iii) explains to the public how to comply with a requirement the Federal Government administers or enforces;
(B) includes (whether in paper or electronic form) a

letter, publication, form, notice, or instruction; and (C) does not include a regulation.

(3) PLAIN WRITING.—The term ‘‘plain writing’’ means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

That seems plain enough, almost. But not as plain as this:

Bananas described as curved yellow fruit

Curved yellow fruit, 40¢

It would be harder to get plainer.