Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Church vs. State in Arkansas: Atheist Furor Rages Over School Trip to Church’s Production of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’‏

When one thinks of typical War on Christmas targets, Charlie Brown is, perhaps, the furthest catalyst to come to mind. Yet the popular cartoon character is at the center of an atheist-led battle in Little Rock, Arkansas, against the popular play and its production at a local house of worship.

The controversy commenced when some teachers at Terry Elementary School sent letters home to parents regarding taking first and second-grade students to see “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at Agape Church, KARK-TV recently reported. While the event isn’t school sanctioned, local atheists are outraged that educators are planning to take children to see the play, which includes religious themes.

“We’re not saying anything bad about Charlie Brown,” Anne Orsi, a lawyer and vice-president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (ASF), told KARK-TV. ”The problem is that it’s got religious content and it’s being performed in a religious venue and that doesn’t just blur the line between church and state, it over steps it entirely.”

A concerned parent, who wishes to remain anonymous, contacted Orsi’s group and explained her concern over the letter and the stage production. In the end, she has decided to let her daughter attend, citing fears that she may face criticism and be targeted for a refusal to see the show. Orsi said that the choice non-believing parents are faced with is unfair.

If their children are kept away from the church production, she contended that they “will be singled out as being different from the majority.” The non-believing attorney dubbed the scenario “awkward” and “unacceptable.”

A portion of the letter sent home by teachers can be read, below:

    “This production will expose your child to the amazing world of theater productions and enhance your child’s creative imagination in the area of dramatic arts. . . . This production does expose your child to Christianity through some of the songs and scenes. (If you prefer your child to not attend the program they may stay at school and be allowed to sit in another classroom. Please let your teacher know if your child will not be attending).”

According to the note, the play will be at 10 a.m. on Dec. 14. Kids whose parents wish to allow them to attend will need to pay $2 to cover their transportation. Because the event is being held on a school day and is taking place inside a house of worship, non-believers are, naturally, up in arms. However, they deny waging a war on Christmas — or religion, for that matter.

“Those who stand up for the rights of children to be free from coercion aren’t making war either on religion or Christmas,” ASF spokesperson LeeWood Thomas said in a statement. “Rather this is a case of a church forming an alliance with local government to violate religious freedom.”

The church, too, put out a written statement, explaining the importance of the production to the community as a whole.

“We hope the complaint or question of a few does not override the opportunity for everyone,” it read. “This production also included a food drive for area pantries, and we hope that purpose is not lost as well.”


We're being persecuted claim Oxford University Tories as they plead for same equal rights as ethnic minorities and gays

Tory students at Oxford claim they are being persecuted and are demanding the same equal rights as gays, the disabled and ethnic minorities.

Young Right-wingers at the university's Corpus Christi College have accused political opponents of name-calling, personal abuse and intimidation because of their views.

The members of the Junior Common Room (JCR) say they are 'often actively isolated, personally attacked and made to feel unwelcome.'  They want to create a new position on the college's equal opportunities committee so they can air Conservative opinions without being victimised.

Students claimed they needed the same rights as minorities who are 'often perceived as being subject to prejudice from society,' it was reported in the Sunday Times.

The initiative came after the Tories were taunted by rival students from other parties as they watched the U.S. presidential elections on television in the JCR

The paper says they were called 'haters of gays' and 'rape apologists.'

Third-year student Samuel Roberts, 21, had proposed a motion calling for more protection. He told the Sunday Times: 'It made an atmosphere in which I felt uncomfortable.'

While Stephanie Cherrill, the president elect of the association added: ' There has been a deterioration inn the attitude of several JCR members towards people who are right of centre.  'It is my strong belief that this poses a threat to the atmosphere of intellectual discussion as well as to the welfare of members who may feel victimised.'

Their cause was not helped when Joe Cooke, a recent president of the Oxford Conservative Association, reportedly upset students as he arrived in a Rolls Royce wearing a silver suit and carrying a silver-topped cane. [A silver suit is hardly conservative.  Just bait for the Left.  I used to bait the Left myself when I was a student.  Their resultant displays of pomposity can be amusing  -- JR]

The association meets Sunday evenings for 'port and policy' talks where fortified wine is readily available.

Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson studied at Oxford and were members of the controversial Bullingdon Club.

Ed Miliband led a campaign against rent rises in 1991 when he was member of the university's Labour Club as a 21-year-old.

Lord Waldegrave, the former Tory health Minister went to the college.

But today's students claim they are made to feel unwelcome on the campus -  a view shared by Conservatives at other universities.

In Nottingham, it was reported, that the Tory group claim they have problems with the students' union and find it difficult to get even a meeting room.

At Glasgow University, Tory students fear disruption for the second year running of their £35 a head annual St Andrew's dinner.   It has the oldest university Conservative association in Britain and this year's guest speaker is former Defence Secretary Liam Fox.


Where have all Britain's students gone?

Manic regulation largely to blame

Middle-ranking universities, including those in the top Russell Group, have thousands of empty places, putting their future at risk

It is yet another case of the squeezed middle. The vice-chancellor of Liverpool University has this week joined fellow heads of middle-ranking academic institutions in complaining that they have thousands of empty places as a result of government reforms designed to free up the market in higher education admissions. Revealing a shortfall of 11,500 students this year at Russell Group universities, Sir Howard Newby said empty lecture halls are the "unintended consequence" of policy changes.

His remarks add a new dimension to the crisis that has been mounting since the introduction in September of tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year for undergraduates. Official figures have revealed a decline of more than 50,000 in those starting a degree this autumn compared to last year. But Sir Howard is now pinpointing which institutions are being most affected by this huge shift - and the challenges they may face to keep afloat.

His warning follows other public interventions by vice-chancellors, including those at Southampton and Sussex. Two interlinked aspects of the Whitehall reforms are being criticised by these heads of long-established universities that sit between the elite of Oxbridge, Durham and certain London colleges at one extreme, and the former polytechnics at the other.

The first bugbear is a deregulation that now allows those institutions at the top of league tables to take as many applicants with two As and a B at A-level as they want. Previously, there was a cap on numbers of such high-achievers at each university - known as "controlled numbers" - which ensured a more even spread.

The second - called in the opaque technical jargon so favoured by educationalists "core and margin" - has seen Whitehall shift 20,000 places away largely from universities in the middle, which still charge the maximum £9,000 tuition fees, and redistribute them towards those, usually younger, institutions where student costs have been pegged at less than £7,500.

"We have consistently argued," says Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the 24-strong Russell Group of universities that includes Liverpool, Southampton and Sussex, as well as Oxbridge, "that giving more places to institutions charging lower fees would neither improve quality nor enhance student choice." While she would not confirm the figure of 11,500 quoted by Sir Howard Newby, she concedes that the changes to the controlled-numbers policy mean that "Russell Group universities have had fewer places to offer to students with grades below AAB."

What used to happen was that central government dictated how many undergraduates each university could recruit annually. Within their allocation, each university was free to decide what grades they would demand from each candidate. That might be three As at Oxford or two Bs and a C elsewhere. As of this academic year, however, the number of places a university can fill with grades it sets itself has been cut by an average of nine per cent - in the case of Southampton, the number of students they can admit with grades below AAB has gone down to 1,500 out of 5,500. If they exceed that number, they face a new regime of fines.

Overall, this means that AAB students have become the target for every Russell Group university wanting to maintain its numbers. Competition is fierce for these stars (especially in a year when the number getting top marks at A-level has gone down slightly, despite government assumptions that it would go up).

Universities accustomed to demanding three As or better seem to have done rather well. Under the new rules, their numbers are no longer controlled, and they can take more of the best-qualified students. Bristol announced plans to increase its student intake by 600 in anticipation of a rush of AAB applicants.

The dilemma this causes middle-ranking universities has been set out in stark terms by Professor Michael Farthing, vice-chancellor of Sussex (ranked 21st in the top-30 league table compiled by The Complete University Guide). AAB candidates, he has complained, are being snapped up by "a few self-declared elite institutions, able to rely on historical brand prestige to attract applications".

At the other end of the scale, the newer universities report that their proportion of AAB students - usually about 10 per cent on highly regarded courses such as architecture at Oxford Brookes or marine biology at Plymouth - has held up. "These students tend to come to our universities for specific courses that we do very well," says Libby Hackett, chief executive of the University Alliance, which represents newer higher education institutions. "And so they are not going to be tempted to go elsewhere by the new freedom that has been introduced."

Professor Don Nutbeam, vice-chancellor of Southampton (15th in The Complete University Guide), reports that this year his numbers have fallen by around 600 - just under 10 per cent of the annual intake. Unable to attract sufficient high fliers with AAB, and forbidden from taking as many with Bs or even the odd C as used to be possible under the old controlled-numbers arrangement, Southampton has lost out.

Which is the logic of the market that has been introduced. If you are going to pay £9,000 per year, you may as well go to the best university that will have you. And if the level of fees is the major issue, you head to newer universities where they tend to be lower. But if it is working to the advantage of students, this market is leaving some institutions exposed.

"If universities can't recruit enough high-calibre students," says Dr Piatt, "they risk losing funding. But if they recruit too many students who haven't got AAB, they risk substantial fines." They are between a rock and a hard place.

Others go further in their criticisms. "The fact that there are fewer students at universities this year," says Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, "represents the predictable failure of the Government's attempt to create an artificial market for the most highly qualified students. It was premature of the Government to extend its AAB policy before measuring its impact. It looks like the triumph of ideology over evidence-based policy-making."

The pressure on middle-ranking universities is such that some have even resorted to offering inducements to potential AAB applicants for next year, including non-means-tested bursaries, a guarantee of accommodation, or even a free laptop to get them to commit to going there rather than be lured away by a more august rival.

"As universities adapt to the new system," laments Hunt, "nobody would complain about better bursaries for students, but those considering university should be attracted to the courses that best suit their talents, not by financial incentives".

And so there is growing pressure on the universities minister, David Willetts, to adjust the system introduced this year to remove the perceived bias against the squeezed middle. Government plans for the next admissions round in 2013 include reducing the AAB threshold to ABB. "We hope that this will go some way to improving the system," says Dr Piatt, but others feel it is necessary to go further to eliminate the distortion.

One suggestion is that it could be set at BBB - which would potentially benefit middle-ranking universities at the expense of former polytechnics. And if another government goal, of making A-levels more rigorous and ending grade inflation, is to be achieved, BBB may become a more appropriate benchmark for the most able students.

There is no consensus about what should happen next, but most agree that something must change. "This," said Professor Nutbeam when he raised his concerns, "is a wake-up call for the entire university community."


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