Know Your Charity: Some of the Best Sounding Names Might be Frauds

Know Your Charity: Some of the Best Sounding Names Might be Frauds

This week the Federal Trade Commission announced enforcement actions against four charities with great names: Cancer Fund of America, Children’s Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, and Breast Cancer Society. The complaint charges the charities and their top officers with wasting nearly $200 million of donations.

The attornies general of 50 states including Pennsylvania joined the FTC in announcing enforcement actions. However, as the New York Times noted, “Given the charities’ reputations, some questioned why the action announced on Tuesday had taken years. … William Josephson, a retired partner at the law firm of Fried, Frank, said it was important that the FTC waited to take action until all states were on board. ‘You need to keep these charities from re-incorporating elsewhere’ said Mr. Josephson, a former leader of the New York State Attorney General’s charities bureau, noting that he had seen charities that had been shut down in New York reestablish themselves in New Jersey.”

Pennsylvania has a charitable solicitation law with requirements for annual filings with the state and a procedure for the public to access some of that information, by mail or on line. <>  From time to time an enforcement action by the state makes the news, but it is usually a civil action to shut the fraudulent charity down and garner a penalty, usually not too large.  The statutory criminal remedy is cited in just three decisions of courts of record in Pennsylvania, the most recent dated 1962.

The events this week were no exception. Two of the four charities charged have agreed to a settlement under which the charities will be dissolved and key officers will be barred from fund raising. The announced actions and settlements are civil, not criminal enforcement.

Common sense tells us to utilize the state charitable bureau information services to learn more about the charities we consider supporting. However, even that caution is no panacea. The FTC lawsuit charges the four charities with falsifying their financial documents.

A further difficulty is the interpretation of information on file with the state. Accounting and reporting methods utilized are themselves far short of transparent.

Most major charities also publish an accounting of their fundraising, spending and distributions annually, composed for the use of the general public. These statements are usually accompanied by an explanation to help those who are not versed in public accounting.

Let’s Get the Government Out of Holy Matrimony

In the debate about gay marriage rights, the silent thousand pound gorilla in the room is the religious element. For five hundred years the religious institution of marriage has caused governments serious headaches.

England was once a Catholic country, united in its beliefs and ruled by the Catholic Tudors. Then Henry VIII sought separation from his wife of many years, Catherine of Aragon, who provided him with daughters but no son to take the throne. Henry could not convince the Pope to annul his marriage vows, however. So in 1530 he banished the Papacy and created the Church of England with himself as its head. There remain in Britain today both Anglicans – the official state religion – and Roman Catholics (along with other religions). In parts of Ireland, where Henry VIII was born, the relations between them are barely better today than they were at the inception.

In Israel Jews are married by an Orthodox Rabbi and non-Jews by clerics of other religions. The marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew was unavailable, a problem typically solved by travel to Cyprus for the wedding. On the couple’s return to Israel, the marriage is recognized by the government. Israel now offers civil union without a religious ceremony. But the complexity of this mixed system of government and religion persists.

Civil marriage exists throughout the United States, and no religious element needs to be included in the marriage process. Yet we continue to use the freighted term marriage throughout, starting with the “marriage license.” And words have power.

Let us separate church and state! Instead of arguing about whether the state should offer marriage to gays, let us have states offer only civil union, whether it is available for both hetero and gay couples or not. The sacrament of marriage would come only from its original sources, rabbis, priests, ministers and other clerics, who carry out a religious ceremony. Continuing with the system as it functions today, the celebrant of a religious marriage could be authorized to include the grant of a civil union. A civil union bestowed by a public official acting for the state would not include the term “marriage” at all.

Who should qualify for a civil union, and how constitutional due process or equal protection apply, would remain to be discussed and debated. Government generates many abstract concepts that legislatures and courts interpret: the income tax, immigration and naturalization, “entitlements” and the social “safety net,” and many others. These concepts are challenged, debated and decided without engaging religious fervor.

A debate on the appropriate breadth of civil union without the silent gorilla would invite more meaningful discussion. At once the debate about gay marriage would refocus where it should be: in defining the scope of civil union, what are the state’s interests and what are the participants’ interests. There would be plenty to argue about, but we would have banished the gorilla from the discussion!

Consider as well the ancillary issues that come up today: has a baker the “religious freedom” to deny an order for a wedding cake from a gay couple? Can a reception hall, a public accommodation, refuse on religious grounds to hold the celebration of nuptials of a gay couple? The list is endless as fertile minds find new ways to protect their conception of marriage. These issues could be avoided, or at least simplified, if the state and religion do not mix. And that would benefit all concerned.



The Limits of Freedom of Religion

Since the Supreme Court pronounced that a corporation can have religious rights, a number of new cases have been emerging, seeking to stake out broad additional territory.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the Court found that a closely held business corporation had religious rights, and could deny its employees contraceptive health insurance coverage called for under the Affordable Care Act. But that ruling may be only the beginning of a new chapter in the law of religious freedom under the First Amendment.

A few years ago the Pennsylvania Department of State, the agency that processes incorporation papers, refused to accept an application for the title “I Choose Hell Productions LLC” because it contained blasphemy. The Department rested its refusal on a law against blasphemy in corporate names, and argued in support of the law that the public should not be exposed to inflammatory language. The federal court hearing the case ruled that the law was an unconstitutional effort to advance religion.

But what about a law that is entirely neutral – that does not deal with religion at all? Polygamy is unlawful across the board, even though a few religions allow it. A law against cruelty to animals will be effective against animal sacrifice if the law is conceived and worded neutrally, and not as a reaction to a particular religion.

Simons Looking back by Stevie

A Jewish lesbian wedding in Colorado. Photo by Steve Crecilius.

However, in Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation for profit could avoid complying with a provision of a totally neutral law – the Affordable Care Act – to provide insurance that includes benefits for contraceptives, if the owners of the business have a religious scruple against use of the abortifacient medicines at issue. Since then, it has been open season on religious exemption claims.

Several states have extended to gays the protection of their laws against discrimination in employment, housing and commerce. In Colorado, a cake baker refuses to prepare wedding cakes for LGBT weddings. The baker justifies his refusal on grounds of his religious beliefs. A gay couple challenged the refusal before the state human relations agency and won. The baker is appealing to a court from agency’s the ruling against him.

In New York, a catering hall that usually handles weddings refuses to rent out for gay weddings. A gay couple who were refused a booking complained to the New York State human relations agency and were successful. The wedding hall is appealing to the state courts.

What is the right answer to these cases? The traditional response is rendering up to Caesar: Those who engage in commerce must accept the burden of the laws that cover matters such as trade and employment. The newly emerging answer may be that individual religious scruples are protected, even in the commercial marketplace.

As a minority, Jews might prefer the new and enlarged version of the First Amendment protection of religion. Maintaining our religious practice without any accommodation is certainly very difficult at times.

Or we might conclude the opposite. Consider that the baker might have anti-Semitic “scruples” along with his belief against gay marriage. The wedding hall could prefer not to accept events that bless a marriage without mentioning the Christian sacraments.

Large urban centers have plenty of bakers and wedding halls, but other areas, where few Jews live, may also have few of these services. Should the views of such services’ owners – even the sincerely held religious views — exempt the businesses from the anti-discrimination laws of their states or of the federal government?

As the new cases move along, we will find out.

Sony Pictures’ Lesson on Free Speech

Freedom of speech and expression is one of the highest U.S. values, constitutionally protected from interference by our government. Indeed, it is the very first provision of our Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court today, under Chief Justice Roberts, stands firm on free speech, at least most of the time.

Just a couple of years ago the Court struck down a federal law making it illegal to claim war medals not actually earned. And federal law limiting corporate spending on elections was struck down in the highly controversial Citizens United case. There the Court chose the right of free speech over the statutory goal of protecting against the corrosive power of money in elections. In his new book, Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution, Harvard professor Laurence Tribe credits the Roberts Court with a strong bias toward free speech.

But even the Roberts Court can be frightened into suppressing rights of free expression: Since 9-11, our government has implemented bans against the provision of “material support or resources” to any terrorist group. An American human rights group sued to confirm its right to assist humanitarian activities in Kurdistan and Tamil. The groups through which it funneled aid had bloody histories and were designated foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department. The government argued, and Justice Roberts agreed, that humanitarian aid could unintentionally free up funds to be used for terrorism. The Court upheld the law.

In November, Sony employs found this threatening message on their computer screens.

In November, Sony employs found this threatening message on their computer screens.

[Read more…]

Are Perelman Teachers Against Religious Freedom?

church_and_state_montage2[1]The American Federation of Teachers is taking its battle with the Perelman Jewish Day School board to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington, D.C.

Last summer, the school board announced that it would no longer deal with the long-standing teachers union. No specific reasons were given for the action. The board required the teachers to sign up under individual contracts, or lose their jobs.

The case is surprising in several ways:

First, the act of a Jewish institution deals with terminating union representation of its employees unilaterally. Others have written about what Jewish law requires of every employer, including a Jewish educational institution: to treat its employees with fairness and respect, and to bargain with their agent. The Perelman Board action came without any specifics as to why dealing with the union had become burdensome or impractical.

The second surprise is that the NLRB local region has dismissed the case. The action of the NLRB region reflects a centuries-old legal doctrine, the “ministerial exception.”

Under the First Amendment to the Constitution, in order to protect freedom of religion and the independence of religious institutions, courts have decided to abstain from ruling on certain matters involving bodies such as churches and synagogues. The earliest cases 200 years ago involved disputes over church ownership of property.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s first enunciation of the rule was in a case in 1872 called Watson v. Jones, in which a synod of the Presbyterian Church fought a dissident group over ownership of church property. The Supreme Court decided that the church itself would determine the facts and apply church law. The civil courts would not interfere but will accept (and if necessary enforce) that determination.

The third surprise is the breadth that the ministerial exception has achieved through judicial decisions over the years. The original rule developed to include control over the hiring, firing and conduct of ministers. Then it gradually expanded to include all church and synagogue employees who have a religious function (even if they are not technically ministers). Workers sometimes looked to unionization for protection.

However, in a case in 1979, NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, the Supreme Court extended the ministerial exception to teachers employed by the Church in Catholic schools, whether or not their primary role was to teach religion. The Court ruled that NLRB protections are not available to them.

The expansion of the ministerial exception does not work equally well in every circumstance, though. The Presbyterian Church, the Catholic Church and most other large religious sects have internal procedures to address disputes between clergy, laity and the church itself. These internal procedures usually include a fact-finding body and an appeal to a higher authority to review a case.

The decision may be made on the basis of church law, which can be quite different from civil law. Yet the rights of the individual or schismatic group are addressed by formal process.

The Perelman Jewish Day School is not that kind of religious body. It is an educational institution, not a church or synagogue. It is not part of an hierarchical system of oversight. The case of the Perelman board has no process parallel to religious adjudication.

In different parts of the world at different times, the Jewish shtetl had formal structures to resolve disputes, authorized by civil authority. But today, although Jews have the Bet Din, its jurisdiction extends only to those who voluntarily submit to it. The ministerial exception leaves the teachers unprotected.

Furthermore, would an obligation to negotiate with a union actually threaten the freedom to practice and teach the Jewish religion?

The decision in Catholic Bishops of Chicago chose not to consider the possibility of a limited duty to negotiate in good faith, side-by-side with the ministerial exception as to religious matters.

Surely the Perelman board should not have to negotiate tenets of Conservative Judaism such as whether non-kosher food will be consumed on the premises, how the school will teach and practice Shabbat, or what religious holidays will be observed. But negotiating pay and working hours, for example, should not violate any known religious principle, considering that Perelman negotiated with the union for decades.

An NLRB determination on complaint as to whether the Perelman board or the union negotiated in good faith would seem quite achievable, without invading either party’s freedom of religion. The Federation of Teachers may find other legal theories than a frontal attack on the ministerial exception. Or they may argue that some rights of workers can be protected without threatening the integrity of religious employers.

Ari Shavit Presents a New Zionism

september-9-2014-islamic-terrorism-marathon-race-webIsraeli author and journalist Ari Shavit is best known in the U.S. for his personal history of Israel from the nineteenth century to the present day: the New York Times bestseller My Promised Land, published in 2013.

In the book, he traces his family’s engagement with Israel, beginning with the experiences of his great-grandfather, a prominent London lawyer who toured Palestine in 1897. The Zionist saw the growth of anti-Semitism, particularly but not only in Eastern Europe, perceived that Jewish life would be increasingly difficult there, and subsequently relocated his family to Israel.

Shavit’s book follows the same paths as his ancestor across Israel, presenting the modern reality of a land shared unwillingly by two peoples. The principles of human dignity and freedom expressed in historic Zionism, he argues, have been lost in the battles since statehood and the occupation of surrounding lands that has come about.

Shavit spoke at the Adath Israel Congregation on September 18, laying out his viewpoints after the war of the past summer. Shavit was presented by Haddassah to an audience of more than 500 people, who hung on every word.

Jews and Arabs have different life narratives that express their conflict, but both have lost sight of their proper goals, Shavit said.

This painful summer marked the longest war Israel has suffered since independence. It brought back the experiences of sirens and of fleeing to shelters, forgotten since the 1970s. For the first time, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were within the reach of the bombs.

Israel’s independence, Shavit said, was the most just revolution of the 20th century. This revolution broke the previous relationships of Jews to both God and country, and provided choices where those didn’t exist before. However well intentioned the early settlers were, they were blind to the Palestinian presence, and vice versa. This failure to cope with reality has led to the present tragedy.

The Middle East, Shavit said, is the worst neighborhood in the world. Israel’s failure to deal with the Arab problem or to create a just society contrasts with the great success it has become. Israelis, who have learned to live in constant danger, have created the most constantly exciting and wonderful society, filled with immensely creative, productive and lively and alive people.

The battle with the Palestinians and the failure of Israel to make peace in past times has produced a violent, fascistic Hamas that oppresses its own people, and today stands in the way of a two-state solution.

The endless occupation and battle with the Palestinians also isolates Israel and undermines its position in the world, moving the state to isolation in the face of 1.6 billion Arabs. Shavit sees the apparent resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe as a result of the endless struggle with the Palestinians.

Shavit noted that the Iron Dome defense was possible only with the assistance of the U.S. He credited the Obama administration with vital support of Israel during the summer war.

Shavit defined four problems facing Israel:

  • the possibility of Iran achieving nuclear power, which he says will lead to a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East, the most unstable part of the world;
  • Arab chaos itself, with governments falling;
  • Regarding the Palestinians, Israel cannot stand pat but all efforts have fallen short and there is little opening today; and
  • past success of Zionism was based on taking the high ground of morality and justice; Israel today has lost that high ground and is undercutting its great alliances.

Shavit said that we must pacify Gaza with a new Marshall Plan. As we enter a fight with ISIS, we ought not to entangle ourselves with the regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia. And we must not allow ourselves to be perceived as part of a great Shiite war against Sunnis – 85% of all Muslims.

Moreover, Israel must renew and redefine Zionism along its earliest lines, built around human rights and justice. Older Jews will continue to support Israel, but younger western Jews, particularly those younger than 30, see the matter differently. Zionism has a good story to tell in the immense success of Israel, but the story has to be rewritten to make it “sexy” for those people too.

After his speech, Shavit was given a standing ovation by the crowd.

Cartoon courtesy of The Cartoon Kronicles.

Where Will Shale Oil Go This Year?


A horizontal drilling rig for natural gas in the Marcellus formation in eastern Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.

How did the oil industry get to tap Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale without a severance tax? Will that change in 2015?

A detailed look at the lobbying effort by Allegheny Front shows the dimensions of the fight:

An investigation by the Allegheny Front and 90.5 WESA found the oil and gas industry spent heavily on lobbying while the state was writing regulations for shale gas. The industry spent $34 million on lobbying in Pennsylvania since 2007, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State’s lobbying disclosure database. That includes a high of $9 million in 2012, the year Act 13 passed. The money was spent by 27 companies that have drilled unconventional wells or are ‘board members’ of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, and five trade associations.

Compare that to the state’s largest environmental groups — who spent about $1.5 million dollars combined in that period — and $330,000 in 2012.

Flogging the oil industry for doing what comes naturally is important but solves only part of the problem. Supervision by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) has been removed from Act 13 by the Robinson Township case in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which restored local zoning control of oil and gas development. This ruling presumably deprived the oil industry of a significant part of their hard-bought legislative package.

The election of Tom Wolf as Governor reopens the oil and gas severance tax topic, and as a result, the question of local zoning versus control by the PUC, or a different body, will be back on the table too. And one reason the oil industry does so well in the legislative process is that the environmentalists are a true Tower of Babel. Their seriously-held positions range from reasonable up to and including extreme back-to-nature advocates.

In searching for useful middle ground, we need to peel away those who hope to cancel Pennsylvania’s and the nation’s amazing good fortune to have uncovered useful shale oil. This resource has changed our position in the world – going from heavily dependent on imported oil, to potentially becoming a major exporter of petroleum and gas. And the shale has changed the economy of much of the rust belt in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Some public, who do not live in shale country, are willing to mail in a check to fight the shale. But realistically, revoking development of the Marcellus is not on the table and will not happen.

So the need going into 2015 is to find a sensible program of oil and gas taxation and regulation that keeps the baby healthy, and the bathwater that comes from shale development healthy too.

Is the US-Israel Special Relationship Altered?

Anyone in Israel who is pleased with Obama’s speech does not completely understand its destructive implications.

— Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

Since Harry S. Truman, every U.S. president has had the opportunity to engage in Middle East war, peace or both. We in the U.S. are result-oriented, giving politicians little credit for “best effort.” We like strong leaders, so the failed peace encounters can only damage the Chief Executive’s popularity.

One might tire of such engagements. Indeed, since both principal parties walked away from the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, less has been said in the U.S. about the problem. In Obama’s major address on foreign policy at the U.S. Military Academy commencement ceremony Wednesday, there was no mention of the Israel-Palestinian “peace process.”

More after the jump.
On Thursday, in the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, commentator Alon Pinkas wrote: “It was an ‘all-inclusive’ speech that President Obama gave yesterday at the graduation ceremony at West Point Academy. All-inclusive, except for Israel and the peace process. Not even as a footnote.”

[Obama] made no mention of “our” Middle East. Not with affection and concern, and not with criticism and frustration. Neither as a U.S. foreign policy objective nor as a U.S. interest. He voiced neither a commitment to the ally Israel nor an aspiration to grant the Palestinians a state of their own. The “peace process” is yet another conflict flashpoint in the world, and the U.S. has grown weary of its failed attempts to mediate and resolve it.

Pinkas added that Wednesday morning, “in an appearance that was broadcast by three networks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all.”

This matters to us, U.S. Jews, as well as to Israel. The perceived centrality of the U.S.-Israel relationship, or the apparent disregard of that relationship, is likely to influence nuclear negotiations with Iran, subtly altering both the Iranian and the American strength of purpose and will. But that is just one likely effect of the failure of talks.

U.S. Jews have little basis today to press their government for re-engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the voice of AIPAC is not likely to be heard to urge a course that the Government of Israel does not want. Israel appears to be satisfied to let matters ride as they are, awaiting a day when a more desirable, or at least more desirous, peace partner may emerge on the Palestinian side.

Although a quiet has settled in for the present time, we and Obama know too well that the problems are unresolved and very unlikely to go away. As Pinkas concluded, “Anyone in Israel who is pleased with [Obama’s] speech does not completely understand its destructive implications.”

Modern Marriage: DOMA Elimination Raises Many Questions

Daylin Leach officiates the marriage between Sarah and Marcia Martinez-Helfman at the Talamore Golf Club in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.

The elimination of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the parallel provision on the Marriage Law in Pennsylvania expand gay rights and bestow important benefits on GLBTQ communities. These include the ceremonial and symbolic element of traditional marriage, and the reduction or elimination of economic discrimination in favor of traditional marriage that continues to exist in some public laws and programs.  

But in addition, this line of cases has broadened the circumstances in which discrimination will be inferred in facially “neutral” governmental action, and has broadened the application of the doctrine of equal protection of the laws, all to the good.  

More after the jump.
Family law, the body of common law principles and statutes controlling marriage, adoption, divorce, support and custody issues, has been a subject of state law. Moreover, the states have been permitted to experiment and apply highly individual approaches in this area.

Until late in the last century, battles over divorce laws arose primarily in state legislatures. For decades, trips to Reno or Mexico had been common parts of a divorce “package.” These days, lawyers fight cases over the question of jurisdiction: If one of two married people travels to a place far from the marital home, is the divorce decree obtained there really binding?

The questions of how marriages formed, on the other hand, had received much less attention. Now with the advent of gay marriage, inevitable adjustments will be made in related norms and practices. Any assumptions about relationships will be revisited.

The traditional polite seating at the meal table — boy, girl, boy, girl — is surely adaptable. Other institutions will take longer to adapt.

As a formal matter, the two paths to marriage — a civil or a religious ceremony — will remain unchanged. Nonetheless, organized religions will face pressure to decide whether they too will broaden their viewpoint and grant sacramental support to gay marriage.

This revolution is surely going to pour over into heterosexual families and relationships. When a marriage — or union — breaks up, many assumptions about custody and support will no longer seem applicable.

Who is responsible for bringing up a baby? The traditional assumption that there will be a breadwinner, and that this role will survive separation and divorce, will seem antiquated. Why should the breadwinner, or the homemaker before divorce continue in that role afterward? If those roles are purely personal elections, need they be permanently binding?