Tag Archives: natural

Shielded Native American sites thrust into debate over dams

A little-known federal program that avoids publicizing its accomplishments to protect from looters the thousands of Native American sites it’s tasked with managing has been caught up in a big net.

The Federal Columbia River System Cultural Resources Program tracks some 4,000 historical sites that also include homesteads and missions in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Now it’s contributing information as authorities prepare a court-ordered environmental impact statement concerning struggling salmon and the operation of 14 federal dams in the Columbia River Basin.

A federal judge urged officials to consider breaching four of those dams on the Snake River.

“Because of the scale of the EIS, there’s no practical way for us, even if we wanted to, to provide a map of each and every site that we consider,” said Sean Hess, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Pacific Northwest Region archaeologist. “There are some important sites out there that we don’t talk about a lot because of concerns about what would happen because of vandalism.”

Fish survival, hydropower, irrigation and navigation get the most attention and will be components in the environmental review due out in 2021. But at more than a dozen public meetings in the four states to collect feedback, the cultural resources program has equal billing. Comments are being accepted through Jan. 17.

The review process is being conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, an umbrella law that covers the well-known Endangered Species Act. Thirteen species of salmon and steelhead on the Columbia and Snake rivers have been listed as federally protected species over the past 25 years.

But NEPA also requires equal weight be given to other laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act, which is where the cultural resources program comes in. Among the 4,000 sites are fishing and hunting processing areas, ancestral village areas and tribal corridors.

“People were very mobile, prehistorically,” said Kristen Martine, Cultural Recourse Program manager for the Bonneville Power Administration.

Some of the most notable sites with human activity date back thousands of years and are underwater behind dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Celilo Falls, a dipnet fishery for thousands of years, is behind The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River. Marmes Rockshelter was occupied 10,000 years ago but now is underwater behind Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River.

“If we’re breaching dams, it would definitely change how we manage resources,” said Gail Celmer, an archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon ordered the environmental review in May after finding that a massive habitat restoration effort to offset the damage that dams in the Columbia River Basin pose to Northwest salmon runs was failing.

Salmon and steelhead runs are a fraction of what they were before modern settlement. Of the salmon and steelhead that now return to spawn each year, experts say, about 70 to 90 percent originate in hatcheries.

Those opposed to breaching the Snake River dams to restore salmon runs say the dams are an important part of the regional economy, providing irrigation, hydropower and shipping benefits.

Meanwhile, several tribes said they are better able to take part in the review process than they once were.

“Tribes have not had much opportunity to participate in these things because they didn’t have professional staff or trained people,” said Guy Moura of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state, noting the tribe employed four people in its cultural resources program in 1992 but now has 38. “With growth in size, there also came the evolution of what was being done.”

The tribe at one time had a large fishery at Kettle Falls, on the upper part of the Columbia River, but it was inundated in the 1940s behind Grand Coulee Dam. Dams farther downstream on the Columbia prevent salmon from reaching the area.

Also among the 4,000 historical sites is Bonneville Dam, one of 14 dams involved in the environmental impact statement. Bonneville Dam is the lowest dam in the system at about 145 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River. It started operating in the 1930s and became a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

89 percent of voters back GMO labeling

By an overwhelming margin, U.S. voters say consumers should have the right to know if their food is genetically modified, with 89 percent in support of mandatory GMO labeling, according to a new national poll.

Nearly the same number of consumers would like to see the labels in an easy to read format. 

The survey by The Mellman Group confirms previous polls that found heavy support for GMO labeling. The new poll shows labeling is supported by large majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents, as well as people with favorable or unfavorable views of GMOs. Overall, 77 percent of respondents were strongly in favor of labeling. 

The poll, commissioned by a coalition of consumer and environmental groups, comes at a timely moment. In Congress, some lawmakers want to add a provision to the omnibus spending bill that would block states from requiring GMO labels for produce and processed food, as would the so-called DARK Act passed by the House last summer. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration just approved the sale of genetically engineered salmon — which grows to maturity twice as fast as normal salmon and is cobbled together from the genes of different species — but the FDA will not require the salmon to be labeled. Other key findings of the poll include:

• About 88 percent would prefer a printed GMO label on the food package rather than use a smartphone app to scan a bar code.

• Just 17 percent say they have ever scanned a bar code to get information, and only 16 percent sat they have ever scanned a “QR” code.

• If bar codes were used, more than 80 percent say food companies should not be allowed to use the app to gather information about shoppers.

“Americans have yet again expressed an overwhelming desire to know what’s in their food,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “Shoppers want to see clear labels on food packaging that tell them if products are made with genetically engineered ingredients without having to use confusing codes or smartphone apps. We hope lawmakers hear consumers’ call for meaningful, mandatory national GMO labeling.”

“Everyone needs information to make informed food choices, not just those who have smart phones,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “There is no acceptable substitute for mandatory on-package labeling of GMO food.” 

“GMO labeling via QR code technology is unworkable, threatens privacy and is discriminatory since more than a third of Americans, many of which are low-income or live in rural areas with poor internet access, don’t own smartphones,” added Lisa Archer, food and technology program director at Friends of the Earth. “FDA’s approval of GMO salmon makes it all the more urgent that Congress require mandatory, universally accessible GMO labeling that any consumer can read on the package when they’re choosing what to feed their families.”

“QR code labeling discriminates against the poor, minorities, rural populations and the elderly. They are a completely unacceptable substitute for clear, concisely worded on package labeling,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety. “The right to know is a right for all, not just those who can afford it.” 

“This is yet another poll that shows broad and deep support for clear GMO labeling at a time when the issue is more important than ever,” said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It. “Food manufacturers and lawmakers should work together to give Americans a more transparent food system by crafting a non-judgmental, mandatory GMO labeling system that is easily found on the packaging.”

Honey honey, how you thrill us

It’s succulent and sweet, dripping golden from the spoon. Its viscosity causes it to move in slow motion and its natural colors sparkle in the sun. It both brightens the palate and strengthens the body.

There is nothing quite like honey, the result of natural processes and hard labor on the part of busy bees everywhere. Although a small part of the agricultural industry overall, honey plays a valuable role in nutrition, according to Andy Hemken, owner of Hemken Honey Co., which commercially produces honey from 530 hives near Big Bend and helped install and maintains the observation beehive at the Milwaukee County Zoo. 

“Honey is a natural sweetener that easily absorbs into the bloodstream,” says Hemken, also the former president of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association. “Athletes can use honey before, during and after competitions because it’s a pure carbohydrate that doesn’t take time for the body to digest.”

In addition, honey is a natural sweetener and emulsifier, acting as an effective thickening agent for sauces and dressings. It is a natural cough suppressant and humectant, meaning that it attracts and maintains moisture, which makes it a go-to ingredient for many skin care products. 

Bees produce honey as they extract nectar from flowers, which they inject with enzymes to break it down into simple sugars that are stored in the cells of the honeycomb. The pollination of the flowers is actually a happy byproduct of their efforts, according to the National Honey Board, a trade organization based in Firestone, Colorado.

Once in the comb, rapid fanning by the bees’ wings causes much of the nectar’s liquid to evaporate, which leads to honey’s viscous texture. The honey is kept and stored as food for the bee colony, although beekeepers, known as apiarists, also harvest and sell it as an agricultural product. 

In the end, the small amounts of pollen that find their way into the honey are most often filtered out as the honey is heated and refined to remove impurities. Honey may eventually change color, and its aroma and flavor may fade, but as a food product it can last for decades.

Until recently, Wisconsin was among the top 10 honey producing states. The state fell to 15th place in 2014 after a brutal winter destroyed a significant number of hives along with native vegetation on which the bees depended, according to a National Agricultural Statistics Service report.

Wisconsin honey production fell 21.2 percent to $664 million compared to 2013, the report said. It was the largest decline since 1999, when production declined more than 30 percent, but was the first time Wisconsin dropped out of the top 10.

An estimated 55 percent of the state’s hives were wiped out between October 2013 and April 2014, according to a state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection study. A continued loss of forage area also has affected production by the state’s honey colonies, which now number roughly 53,000, a decline of 10 percent in 2014.

Unbridled use of pesticides also has taken its toll on bee populations, both in Wisconsin and the rest of the country, Hemken says.

“The bees are dying,” says Hemken, who notes that nationwide bees pollinate an estimated $19 billion worth of crops each year in the process of gathering nectar. “This is a serious problem.”

Hemken and other apiarists sell bee packages, each generally consisting of one queen and 6,000 worker bees, to other growers in an attempt to slow the bee population’s decline. Last year he sold more than 1,000 such packages, and he knows beekeepers who sell many more.

Wisconsin beekeepers also are working more diligently with owners of prairies, orchards and, in Hemken’s case, several pumpkin patches to maintain pollination relationships that aren’t threatened by pesticide usage that could be fatal to the bees. 

Focusing bee populations on specific varieties of blossoms also helps cultivate the varietal nature of honey, Hemken says.

There are about 300 varietal honey types in the United States, according to Hemken. “Southeast Wisconsin is a good spot for honeybees because there are so many flowers.”

Hemken’s favorite is honey produced from the blossoms of the tupelo tree, native to southern Georgia and the Florida Panhandle. The resulting honey is almost white or lightly amber, with a mild favor and pleasant aroma. Unlike some other honeys, tupelo honey doesn’t granulate.

“Buckwheat honey also is really good and has a strong, individualized taste,” Hemken adds. However, “it’s hard to find locally produced buckwheat honey.”

Other popular types include alfalfa honey, which is light both in color and flavor; avocado honey, with a dark color and rich, buttery taste; blueberry honey, imbued with a natural blueberry flavor; clover honey, which comes in a variety of flavors and colors based on the type of clover the bees visited; and orange blossom honey, which boasts the distinctive flavor and aroma of its namesake flower.

The most often seen type, wildflower honey, is really a catchall for honey made by bees that have foraged far and wide, grabbing whatever nectar they could find from whatever flowers they came across.

“My bees are rascals and they go everywhere,” Hemken says. “Wildflower honey is generally the result.”

Popular foods taking on new hues without artificial dyes

Mozzarella cheese at Panera restaurants won’t be as glaringly white.

Banana peppers in Subway sandwiches won’t be the same exact shade of yellow.

Trix cereal will have two fewer colors.

Food makers are purging their products of artificial dyes as people increasingly eschew anything in their food they don’t feel is natural. But replicating the vivid colors Americans expect with ingredients like beets and carrots isn’t always easy.

In fact, General Mills couldn’t find good alternatives for the blue and green pieces in Trix, so the company is getting rid of those colors when the cereal is reformulated later this year. The red pieces — which will be colored with radishes and strawberries — will also look different.

“We haven’t been able to get that same vibrant color,” said Kate Gallager, General Mills’ cereal developer.

The shift away from artificial dyes represents the latest chapter for food coloring in the United States, which has had a rocky history. As recently as 1950, the Food and Drug Administration said children became sick after eating an orange Halloween candy that contained a dye. The agency eventually whittled down its list of approved color additives after finding several had caused “serious adverse effects.”

Now, more companies say they are replacing artificial dyes with colors made from fruits, vegetables and spices, which are widely considered “natural,” although the FDA doesn’t classify them that way.

But these present more challenges than artificial dyes.

In addition to costing more, colors from fruits and vegetables can be sensitive to heat and acidity. And since they’re used in higher doses to achieve boldness, tweaks to other parts of recipes may be needed. Such adjustments can be tricky for companies that manufacture on massive scales.

Still, companies want to court people like Heather Thalwitzer, a 31-year-old homemaker in Melbourne, Florida. Thalwitzer avoids artificial colors because she wants her 6-year-old son to eat quality food and she said red dye has been linked to “mania.”

She has tried alternatives like naturally colored sprinkles from Whole Foods, which her husband thinks taste like fish. But she can get along without such products. One year, she made cupcakes topped with a single blueberry for her son’s birthday.

There are times when Thalwitzer makes exceptions, such as when her son is at a friend’s party.

“I’ll let him have the birthday cake,” she said. “But I’ll cringe.”

THE EVOLUTION OF NATURAL

Part of the challenge with colors from natural sources is that the range of hues has been limited.

Blues, for instance, weren’t widely available the U.S. until 2013. That’s when the FDA approved a petition by candy maker Mars Inc. to use spirulina extract as coloring in gum and candy.

The alga can now also be used in ice creams, drink mixes and other products.

“That was a big thing for us,” said Stefan Hake, CEO of the U.S. division of natural color maker GNT.

At the company’s office in Tarrytown, N.Y., Hake demonstrated how to get blue from spirulina by pouring a liquefied version of it through a coffee filter to isolate the right color components.

The approval of spirulina extract also opened up the world of greens, which can be made by mixing blue and yellow. It turns out plants like spinach brown in heat and aren’t ideal for coloring.

Getting approval for a new color source can take years, but it’s one way companies can fill out their palette of natural hues. In coming weeks, an industry group plans to submit a petition to use the carthamus in safflower for yellow, according to color maker Sensient Technologies.

“It’s just one more that might be another crayon in the crayon box,” said Steve Morris, Sensient’s general manager of food colors for North America.

Sensient also developed a “deodorizing process” to remove flavors from ingredients. That allowed it to introduce an orange for beverages made from paprika.

Morris declined to detail the company’s process. But since the ingredient is not “fundamentally changing the form,” he said the ingredients are still within FDA guidelines of permissible color sources. 

Sensient said three-quarters of its new projects for clients in North America involve natural colors. Globally, its sales of colors — natural and synthetic — comes to about $300 million.

COLORING INSIDE THE LINES

There are seven synthetic colors approved for broad use in foods. But these dyes can be mixed to create a wide range of colors. The colors are made by synthesizing raw materials from petroleum, according to the FDA.

Synthetic colors still dominate in the United States, but some cite a study linking them to hyperactivity in children in calling for them to be phased out. Lisa Lefferts at the Center for Science in the Public Interest also says artificial colors can be used in deceptive ways.

“They mask the absence of ingredients,” she said.

Tropicana’s Twister in Cherry Berry Blast flavor, for instance, list apple and grape juice concentrates, but no cherries or berries. A synthetic color gives it the appearance of having the latter fruits.

Of course, colors also are used to make foods more appealing and send visual signals about the ingredients they contain. Subway says it will stop using a synthetic dye in its banana peppers, but will maintain their bright yellow look with turmeric.

Some say a switch to natural color sources isn’t yet possible because it might turn off customers, although they’re looking into how to change.

“We have to deliver bold colors and flavors, or people will stop buying,” said Will Papa, chief research and development officer at Hershey, which makes Jolly Ranchers, Twizzlers and Reese’s.

Mars, which makes M&M’s and Skittles, said it isn’t yet using the spirulina extract it petitioned to have approved.

Not everyone thinks getting rid of artificial colors hinges on finding exact matches with natural alternatives. Panera is betting people won’t mind that its mozzarella cheese might have a yellowish hue after the removal of titanium dioxide. For cookies with candy-coated chocolates, the natural colors Panera is testing are also duller.

Over time, people will get used to the more muted hues of foods with natural ingredients, said Tom Gumpel, Panera’s head baker.

“You have to remove some of your expectations,” he said.

Outpost opens its first ‘green’ certified market in Mequon

Although its grand opening was less than a month ago, Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative in Mequon — the cooperative’s fourth store in the greater Milwaukee area — is already getting a lot of attention.

“The response has been overwhelming (and) we are delighted,” said one of the store’s 80 new employees.

Located at 7590 Mequon Road, the juncture of Mequon and Wauwatosa roads, the stunning, 16,700-square-foot building is comparable in size to Outpost’s stores on Capitol Drive in Glendale, Kinnickinic Avenue in Bay View and State Street in Wauwatosa.

Even from a distance, the Mequon store’s design savvy is apparent. The building’s multi-textured exterior is constructed of several natural materials — it’s a harmonious blend of wood, metal, lannon stone, brick and glass. Large windows cover a significant portion of the building, and skylights provide additional natural light. Outpost used repurposed materials wherever possible. Some of the wood rafters inside the building, as well as part of the lannon stone exterior, were salvaged from a building that had stood at the site for many years. 

The Mequon store is Outpost’s first LEED-certified building, which means it’s about as “green” as possible. The building has rain gardens to catch run-off, energy-efficient lighting and an herb garden that eventually will yield herbs for the deli department’s salads.  

The pavement in the parking lot is permeable, allowing water to seep into the rain gardens instead of running off onto Mequon Road. Rainwater from the roof goes into underground cisterns and is used for plants on the grounds.

Countertops are made out of paper, and the flooring consists of recycled rubber. There’s even a charging station for electric cars.

Besides making the design as green as possible, Outposts’ directors wanted to create a “warm, inviting environment that has a ‘personal’ feel to it,” said Lisa Malmarowski, the store’s brand and store development manager.  “We wanted the building to reflect a more ‘human-scale’ experience.”

‘I can trust it’

“Hundreds of Outpost’s owners are from the Mequon area,” Malmarowski said, which makes it an ideal place to locate a store. Its members, who number about 19,000, collectively own Outpost. 

It also doesn’t hurt that Mequon is one of the state’s most affluent communities. Outpost offers top-quality products that contain no GMOs and are largely organic. Well-heeled shoppers tend to be more aware of the perks that come with healthier eating, and they’re better able to pay for them.

The new location also gives neighboring communities, such as Cedarburg, Germantown, Menomonee Falls and Brown Deer, accessibility to Outpost. 

Outpost member Lyn Falk, who lives in Thiensville, said she is “so happy to have an Outpost store practically in my back yard.” She admits to shopping at the store daily during its first week of operation. Falk owns her own design business, and she shops for herself and her fiancé. One of the best things about Outpost stores, she said, is that she can “stop reading labels. I don’t have to worry about the ingredients I’m eating,” she said. “If it’s sold at Outpost, I can trust it.” 

Like most Outpost shoppers, Falk said that taking care of her body is a priority in her life. For that reason, she appreciates the store’s commitment to quality food — and also local growers, she said.

And Falk admits to being an adventurous gourmet who enjoys “eating out of the mainstream.” Outpost helps her learn about new foods and methods of preparation, she said. “When I try some of the samples offered at the store,” she said, “I always learn something new.”

Outpost member Mark McCormick lives in Bayside, about half way between the Capitol Drive and Mequon locations. “On days when I’m doing business on the north side of town, I’ll probably drive to the Mequon location and pick up my lunch,” he figures. 

Like Falk, McCormick visited the Mequon Outpost during its first days of operation. Stepping inside was a déjà vu experience, he said.

“The stores are laid out basically the same, so you know exactly where to find what you are looking for,” he explained. 

Bur McCormick said he likes the new store’s “feeling of openness,” which makes shopping “a more relaxing experience.” 

The Mequon Outpost is also different because it’s the first to have a stone-hearth pizza oven and a bar that offers local beer, kombucha and sodas on tap.  (Kombucha is an effervescent drink made from fermented tea.) It’s also the first to have an outdoor, sheltered dining pavilion. 

The store also offers indoor dining at a café, a bar and a community room. The latter can be reserved for meetings, and Outpost staffers are happy to supply the food.  

WHERE TO GO: The Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative in Mequon is located at 7590 Mequon Road. The store is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information about the store and the cooperative, go to www.outpost.coop

Pentagon: Climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’

The U.S. Defense Department in a review released on March 4 says that climate change is a “threat multiplier” and must be considered in future defense strategy.

The reference is the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review and it reads, “Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, …will devastate homes, land and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs.”

The report continues, “The pressures created by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

The report goes on, stating that climate change may increase the frequency, scale and complexity of U.S. military missions and creates a need and an opportunity for “nations to work together.”

The Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development called attention to the passage in the Pentagon report.

IGSD president Durwood Zaelke said, “Secretary Hagel and his team at the Pentagon are climate realists, as they prepare the military to operate in the resource-stressed world of the future, where the frequency and severity of climate disasters continue to grow.”

The Pentagon report also cites a need make sure that U.S. military installations are hardened to deal with rising sea levels and extreme weather.

Religious right targets transgender people’s use of public bathrooms

The right-wing leaders behind the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California now want to repeal legislation intended to protect the rights of transgender students to equal access to school facilities, such as bathrooms, and school programs, such as sports teams.

They’ve made repeated claims that boys will game the system and pretend to be transgender so they can invade girls’ restrooms. They’ve dubbed the historic legislation that Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law as the “bathroom bill,” making light of a basic human need and ignoring the consequences of continued discrimination behind the doors labeled for him or her.

“I think just about anybody knows what it feels like to desperately need to use a bathroom,” said transgender civil rights advocate Nancy McCormick of San Diego. “Now imagine living your whole life being afraid to use a public bathroom because you don’t want to be assaulted or arrested or being barred from using a public bathroom because someone says it isn’t for you.”

Jody L. Herman, a researcher with the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, has studied transgender people’s experiences with gendered restrooms and found:

• 27 percent of the transgender people surveyed in Washington, D.C., experienced problems using restrooms at work. In some cases, the harassment was so severe that the person changed jobs.

• 54 percent of the transgender people surveyed experienced physical complications — dehydration, kidney infections, urinary tract infections — from trying to avoid public restrooms.

• 58 percent of the transgender people surveyed said they avoided going out due to a lack of safe public restroom facilities.

• 68 percent said they’d been verbally harassed while using a public restroom.

• 9 percent reported being physically assaulted while trying to use a public restroom.

Herman concluded, “Policies to protect transgender people’s access to restrooms can be understood as policies that are connected to the health and well-being of transgender people.” 

From anti-gay to anti-trans

The Privacy For All Students coalition wants a referendum next year on the California legislation that guarantees K-12 students access to sex-segregated restrooms and other facilities, as well as programs and activities based on self-identification of gender instead of birth gender or transition status.

The name of the coalition is new, but the alliance of the members is not: Many of the same organizations, activists and strategists were behind Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and barred same-sex couples from marrying in California. 

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer led to the overturning of Prop 8 and left the Prop 8 defenders in search of a new cause to rally the far-right and raise cash. The National Organization for Marriage, for one, turned its focus to fighting marriage equality abroad. But NOM also committed to battling efforts to protect transgender Americans and safeguard their rights.

The most prominent battle is taking place in California, where NOM is working with the Capital Resource Institute and others in the Privacy For All Students coalition to repeal the School Success and Opportunity Act or AB 1266, set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

On Nov. 8, the coalition filed petitions signed by voters who want a ballot initiative.

If the measure is certified, a veteran of the anti-gay marriage campaign, Frank Schubert, has been tapped to lead the repeal effort.

In October, repeal advocates rallied outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has had a policy similar to AB 1226 for a decade and reported no problems.

Repeal advocates also have rallied in rural northern parts of the state, including in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, where elected officials disenchanted with state politics have called for seceding from California and forming the new State of Jefferson. Their largely symbolic effort is over economics and agricultural regulations, but some, in challenging government’s reach, have cited AB 1226 as an example of the state going too far. 

John O’Connor of Equality California, a statewide LGBT group, said opposition to AB 1266 is “a predictable move by fringe groups that oppose all pro-equality measures.”

Broad support

Other supporters of the legislation include gay lawmakers Tom Ammiano and Mark Leno of San Francisco, the ACLU of California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, the Transgender Law Center and also statewide parent and teacher organizations, including the California Teachers Association and the California State PTA.

The CTA said it supports the law because “educators see, firsthand, the often humiliating experiences transgender students endure. Transgender students who are denied access to a restroom appropriate to their gender identity often report they avoid using school restrooms at all, which not only places students’ health at risk, but also significantly interferes with the their ability to learn.”

Before Brown signed AB 1226, a transgender student in California filed a complaint with the civil rights divisions of the U.S. Education and Justice departments. The student alleged that Arcadia Unified School District violated his rights by excluding him from using the boys’ restroom and locker room and segregating him from his male peers on an overnight field trip. The complaint said the school rules caused the boy to be subjected to ridicule and to be excluded from afterschool activities.

The federal government, announcing a resolution of the complaint in July, said the district would revise its policies to ensure all students equal access and opportunity.

The student, who has remained unnamed throughout the legal process, said, “(Now) I can focus on learning and being a typical high school student, like my friends.”

The student’s attorney, Asaf Orr at the NCLR, added, “Hopefully school districts will take this opportunity to proactively address the needs of transgender youth through districtwide policies and training.”

Massachusetts and Colorado have statewide policies that offer protections similar to AB 1226, and Maine’s human rights commission has ruled that state law requires schools to respect a student’s gender identity. Communities and school districts across the country, including in Wisconsin, also have improved policies. 

In some of those locations, right-wing groups are challenging the reforms.

In Colorado, for example, three high school girls represented by the right-wing Pacific Justice Institute are alleging harassment because a transgender student is using the girl’s bathroom. PJI attorney Matthew McReynolds says allowing a “biologically teenage boy” in a girl’s bathroom “is inherently harassing.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Family Action, the organization that is challenging the state’s domestic partnership registry, is sounding alarms. In an “alert” to members in late October, WFA president Julaine Appling said being transgender is a perversion and warned, “It’s ‘gender identity and expression’ that has been at the forefront of the so-called ‘bathroom laws’ that have become more and more popular. These are the laws that say public bathrooms are to be re-identified as unisex rather than be what they have been since time immemorial — sex specific and sex exclusive.”

Appling said it is time to “stop making it illegal for people to say ‘no’ to those who are quite honestly perverting the image of God that has been stamped on each human being.”

McCormick said fringe groups such as Wisconsin Family Action distort the facts and ignore the need for protections. “The problem is not with how God did or did not stamp us — which is for each and every one of us to know individually not for Wisconsin Family Action to decide,” she said. “The problem is with those symbols stamped on bathroom doors and rigid rules about gender and segregation.”

Chicago Cardinal George says gay marriage unnatural, threat to human dignity

Chicago Cardinal Francis George opened 2013 with a renewed campaign against equality in Illinois. George and six bishops, leaders of the Catholic Church in the state, released a letter saying legalizing gay marriage is against nature and God.

Illinois Democrats hope to deliver a gay marriage bill to Gov. Pat Quinn this month, possibly as early as next week. The legislation, which could be introduced in the state senate on Jan. 2, is called the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act because the bill does not require religious institutions to celebrate same-sex marriages or their leaders to officiate at gay weddings.

George says the bill ignores basic truths and that gay marriage is unnatural because same-sex couples cannot consummate a marriage.

He writes, “Marriage comes to us from nature. The human species comes in two complementary sexes, male and female. Their sexual union is called marital. It not only creates a place of love for two adults but also a home for loving and raising their children. It provides the biological basis for personal identity.

“It is physically impossible for two men or two women to consummate a marriage, even when they share a deep friendship or love. Does this mean nature is cruel or that God is unfair? No, but it does mean that marriage is what nature tells us it is and that the State cannot change natural marriage. Civil laws that establish “same-sex marriage” create a legal fiction. The State has no power to create something that nature itself tells us is impossible.”

George says if lawmakers enact a gay marriage law “it will be acting against the common good of society. We will all have to pretend to accept something that is contrary to the common sense of the human race,” that the “natural family is undermined” and “human dignity and human rights are then reduced to the whims of political majorities.”

The cardinal urges members of the church to go to a Website – www.ilcatholic.org – for information and updates on the issue.

George, in the letter, also claims that the Archdiocese of Chicago “has consistently condemned violence toward or hatred of homosexually oriented men and women. Good pastoral practice encourages families to accept all their children and not break relationships with them.”

Gay civil rights activists challenged that the cardinal’s assertion ignores basic facts and that George has been a leader in the U.S. church’s attempt to block civil or equal rights for LGBT people and he has repeatedly made anti-gay statements, including one comparing civil rights activists to the KKK.

“I don’t really think the cardinal knows what is natural or unnatural,” said gay rights activist Paul Frazier of Rock Island, Ill., who was considering a organizing a demonstration. “He certainly doesn’t know right from wrong.”