Challenging Assumptions

I was recently removed from a Facebook discussion after I challenged a cherished axiom of social/political/theological juncture.  (And no, it wasn’t about immigration.) I have also noticed that when I blog about anything that hints at scrutinizing accepted talking points, the traffic drops to nothing. People don’t even read just to say, “What an idiot.” When I want hits, I write sentimental schmaltz. Critical thinking is not a particularly popular pastime.

So what sorts of challenges are unwelcome? How about the one that most recently made me persona non grata.

Ever since Engel v. Vitale was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1962, prayer has become increasingly banned in public schools. What began as a ban on school-sponsored prayer during educational time eventually led to the decision in Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), that student-led, student-initiated prayer at high school football games violates the Establishment Clause.  By extension this covers any student-led student initiated prayer at any school function.

Because Engel is a flawed example of judicial activism, it is bad. If prayer was constitutional for 171 years, it doesn’t suddenly become unconstitutional. This is just like the three-prong test of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) that sets out the requirements of any legislation that touches upon religion. If three prongs weren’t necessary before 1971, they don’t somehow become necessary afterwards. Any cases based on Engel and Lemon (like Santa Fe ISD) are, ipso facto, flawed.

To this point, I no doubt have my cheering section of politically active, conservative Christians behind me. This is, after all, pretty standard Strict Constructionist, Original Intent stuff. However, I think there is a need to re-evaluate, not the legal arguments, but the moral arguments that have become a popular extension from them.

As I mentioned above, I had my comments removed from a Facebook thread. This happened after I challenged the following statement: “Morals declined when we took prayer and God out of school.” (Being removed from a discussion is nothing new to me. I’ve even been thrown out of an entire conservative Facebook group for holding a minority opinion on an issue.)  This proposition has become as much a part of the warp and woof of Christian conservativism as the legal analysis of Engel and its progeny. How dare I question the unquestionable. Yet that is exactly what I do.

I do this for two reasons. First, and most simply, because the truth matters. Second, and perhaps more controversially, because, as I addressed in another instance on this blog less than a year ago, conservative Christians have succumbed to sloppy scholarship.

I do this from two sources of evidence. First, it is worth examining school-sponsored prayer in state education outside of the United States. Second, there is the issue of the historical record and proximate cause.

I bring to this discussion seven years of experience as a teacher in the state schools in England and Wales. As recently as 1998, it was statutorily re-affirmed that in state schools all pupils must take part in a daily act of collective worship unless their parent has requested a waiver. The acts of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.” Not only that, but children are also required to attended Religious Education lessons throughout the entire course of their compulsory education. The majority of these RE lessons must also be based on Christianity.

With that experience, and over a decade of living in conservative rural England, I can assure you that the continuation of prayer and even of Christian education in state schools has done nothing to slow the decline of morals, of the young or the not-so-young, in the United Kingdom. Robert Bork once wrote that America is slouching toward Gomorrah. If the United Kingdom sought to pursue the moral standards of Gomorrah and its sister city Sodom, it would be an upward move. These two ancient conurbations of sin are veritable Cities Set Upon Hills compared to the morality of Sceptred Isle.

But what of the possibility of an actual causal link between Engel and moral decline? This raises a couple of related questions. First, did the removal of the content have an effect? What was the nature of that content in 1962?

We first have to recognize that in 1962, prayer in school wasn’t particularly widespread across the United States. It was actually at its peak in the 1920s, though it had been ruled out in quite a few states before or shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Along with mandatory Bible reading, it was the subject of considerable litigation in the state courts, sometimes upheld and sometime overturned, based on state constitutions.

Even though it was patchy across the US, what was the content of prayer in schools in 1962? Let’s look at the prayer that was ruled unconstitutional in Engel. In New York, the following prayer had to be recited by a school official each day: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” After Engel, that one sentence was no longer recited publicly at some point during the day. It that enough to send the nation into a moral tailspin?

I cannot count how many examples I’ve seen of charts, graphs, and tables marking the decline in morality since the Engel decision. The interesting thing is that they don’t chart back before 1962 to indicate trends already in the making and unchanged by Engel or its progeny. And of course they don’t demonstrate a direct causal link between the removal of a one-line prayer and the rise in violent crime, sexual promiscuity, music piracy, or whichever evil they are attempting to emphasize. Generally they are based upon the self-evident statement that such evils are what happens when God is removed from public schools. A little circular reasoning goes a long way.

I will finish by going to the heart of the matter. Did “we” (through Supreme Court justices appointed by three different Presidents before almost all of us were born) take prayer or God out of schools? I know I prayed in school long after Engel, which was decided two years before I was born.  Prayer is, after all, talking to God. And can anyone remove God from a school or any place else? On the other hand, how many kids were actually praying when a teacher or principal recited “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country”? Or was it form over substance?  Can the acts of Supreme Court justices confer collective responsibility upon anyone, not to mention lives not yet in being?

In the UK, God is mentioned everywhere in school and He gets his own lessons, yet almost no one acknowledges Him. In the US, He is not officially mentioned and churches (other than liberal Protestant denominations) continue to grow. He is more openly acknowledged in the media and in politics than in 1962. There are more open visible followers of Jesus amongst young people in America than ever before. In trying to make a connection between the virtually symbolic act of removing prayer from schools and the abundance of sin, there has been ignorance of the fact that grace has much more abounded.

Would it be nice if we returned to the practice of a content-free, one sentence, ecumenical prayer in public schools each day? Perhaps. Is it going to stem the dishonesty, violence, fornication, or whatever other ills we identify in our young people or in our society? No. That takes real prayer. That takes changed hearts and changed lives.

What It Was All About

On this, the 150th anniversary of the second day of the War Between the States, let us pause to reflect what it was all about. But this has been done so many time before, you say. Yes, but we still take opportunities like great round number anniversaries to reflect. However, it is also relevant because of the various civil wars currently raging in the Middle East. It is further relevant because of the cadre of newly elected officials in Washington who align themselves with the Tea Party movement.

The War of Northern Aggression, or as it is sometimes called, Mr. Lincoln’s War, was about one thing. Political self-determination. There is no question that the issue of slavery divided the country, but the war wasn’t about what divided the country. It was about what to do with a divided country. And it is all well and good to look back with 20/20 hindsight and make the moral judgement that the lives of 600,000 men and boys was worth the speeding up of the emancipation process, thus laying the groundwork for the hostility of many whites toward blacks for the next hundred years. However, justifying the war by the result does not explain why it happened in the first place.

Mr Lincoln was only interested in one thing. His single goal was to save the Union. A friend reminded me recently of his letter of August 22, 1862 to Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I don’t believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be error; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

The turn of phrase “save the Union” sounds very noble, but what does it mean? It means that people who freely chose to associate themselves in a particular political arrangement were no longer free to change that arrangement. They bound future generations in perpetuity.  In Mr Lincoln’s view, the Constitution abrogated to words of the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Mr Lincoln had no regard whatsoever for the consent of the governed. The men of the Confederacy were not anarchists.  They had lawfully constituted and constitutional state governments. This was not good enough. Thousands upon thousands of young men were marched to their deaths to restore the national authority – to enforce at the point of a bayonet that Washington DC, not Montgomery or Jackson or Little Rock or Nashville or Austin or Richmond, was the source of civil authority.

This was made all the clearer during the so-called Reconstruction, when the Southern States, which according to the Northern States had never (and could have never) left the indivisible Union, were run as military departments. Their constitutional governments were suspended until such a time as it was determined that they had been re-created in the way the victors demanded.

Since this time, the power of the national authority has been steadily increased. The Supreme Court often gets the blame for this, but all the branches of government have played their part. Almost every day I come across provisions in the U.S. Code that should be left to the States. And those who decry the executive acts of the Obama administration overlook decades of incursions and usurpations of state sovereignty but administrations of both parties.

At the height of the hypocrisy is the support for self-determination in other countries by a government that refuses to follow its own Constitution and limit itself to specifically delegated powers. This is the legacy of the War Between the States.

Catching Up on Things I’ve Missed

I just read a wonderful Bible story that I had never read before. It is an Old Testament story that is referenced twenty-eight times in the New Testament, from Matthew all the way through to the Revelation. It is a picture of the Father’s only Son who find a Bride – a Bride who becomes part of the Father’s household. It is about prayer, worship, healing and spiritual warfare. It is about so much more.

The story is found in the book of Tobit. It has been read by Christians throughout the ages. Most Christians considered it a part of Holy Scripture for 1500 years. At the time of the Reformation, certain influential Protestant leaders decided that the Old Testament books that had originally been written in Greek rather than Hebrew should be set to one side. Not thrown out of the Bible, but clumped together at the end of the Old Testament. Calvin and Luther did not consider then canonical, but Luther’s Great Bible of 1539 and the Geneva Bible of 1560 included them, as did the King James Version.  In fact, every Protestant Bible included them into the 19th century.

Why, then, have they fallen into disuse by Protestants? Even those whose did not consider them canonical considered them “profitable to read,” as Luther put it – profitable enough that they printed and bound them together with the rest of Scripture. (Luther also considered Hebrews, James, Jude and the Revelation to be New Testament deuterocanonicals – of less value than the rest – but did not exclude them from his translation in the end.)

They originally fell into disuse in the late 18th century, so that when there was a paper shortage in the United States in the early 19th century, they were not printed in many Bibles. It is much later that the idea that they were Roman Catholic books and therefore unworthy of Protestant consideration crept in. That being said, the Anglicans have continued to use them as worthy reading and some are included the Lectionary to be read in services. But for many Protestants, there has been an assumption that the 66 books now contained in most Bibles is the way it has always been.

Despite my best intentions, I have not read all of these deuterocanonical Old Testament books. (“Deuterocanonical” means second canon, a term which could equally be applied to New Testament books that had a harder time of getting into the canon in the first place and were considered doubtful even by some Reformers, as noted above.) Despite their use in the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles, I’ve not given them due attention.

As a result, for 47 years I missed out on the wonderful story of Tobit and Anna, Tobias and Sarah, Raguel and Edna, and Raphael. I think I may go read it again.

The Sound of Silence

It was covered by Fox, but not as a major story. It was also buried in the ABC News.  But CNN, MSNBC/NBC News, CBS? Nothing. Breitbart? Nothing. Redstate.com? Nothing. After Arizona’s SB 1070, there was a general uproar for other states to follow suit. Now that Utah has, nobody’s saying anything.

Utah passed HB  497, with the same sort of enforcement provisions as Arizona’s SB 1070, except that it focuses on felony and serious misdemeanor suspects. It passed with strong support in this conservative state with Republican super-majorities in both houses. So where is all the flag-waving and cheerleading we have come to expect for such measures?

Utah even got innovative and the same overwhelmingly Republican legislature also passed HB 116. That’s the guest worker program for undocumented aliens. As I recall, a lot has been said about Washington in general, and the administration in particular, not dealing with the immigration issue, so it is up to the States to fill the gap. Isn’t this what everyone wanted? A solution by conservative state legislators to deal with all the undocumented workers?

When I saw that this legislation had passed, I thought that when or if I blogged about it, I would be lost in the thunder of all the bigger louder voices. It now appears I will be lost to the deaf ears of apathy.

Parsing the Tennessee Sharia Bill

First it was Oklahoma and the Save Our State amendment. Then there was the more subtly worded South Carolina Senate Bill 444 and Georgia’s House Bill 45.  Oklahoma, South Carolina and Georgia (and there are probably other states at this point) are trying to prevent the courts of their states applying sharia law. A pointless vote-getter. And a legislator can hardly vote against these ridiculous measures without then being accused of supporting jihad.

Now it is Tennessee and Senate Bill 1028. And once again, it is legislators who know nothing about the thing they are trying to legislate against, but this time with a new twist. Tennessee is doing something different. SB 1028 makes it a felony to support sharia. And it’s not subtle about it at all. Muddled and unconstitutional, but not subtle.

Tennessee needs to be saved from the perils of sharia law on the verge of engulfing the state. Apparently. After all the bill starts off with “The threat from terrorism continues to plague the United States generally and Tennessee in particular.” Tennessee is plagued with the threat from terrorism. In particular. No doubt. Not since the Battle of Stone’s River has sponsoring Senator Bill Ketron’s home of Murfreesboro been under such a siege.

By paragraph 3 we learn that “sharia is based historically and  traditionally on a full corpus of law and jurisprudence termed fiqh and usul al-fiqh, respectively, dealing with all aspects of a sharia-adherent’s personal and social life and political society.” So sharia deals with all aspects of a “sharia-adherent’s” personal and social life. The other name for a “sharia-adherent” is “Muslim”. Just so we are sure of how comprehensively the bill defines “sharia-adherent”, in paragraph 2,  it is described as a “legal-political-military doctrine and system adhered to, or minimally advocated by, tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of its followers around the world.”

And all of them want to plague Tennessee with terrorism and overthrow the government.

“The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities constitutes a conspiracy…” (Paragraph 11)  “The knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government and the government of this state through the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions by the likely use of imminent criminal violence and terrorism with the aim of imposing sharia on the people of this state.” (Paragraph 13)

Nowhere in the bill is “foreign sharia authority” defined. However sharia is defined as “any rule, precept, instruction, or edict arising directly from the extant rulings of any of the authoritative schools of Islamic jurisprudence of Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, Ja’afariya, or Salafi”.  This is the equivalent of saying “any interpretation of the Bible by any pastor or Bible teacher, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist…”

So being a Muslim constitutes a conspiracy and is prima facie evidence of that conspiracy to overthrow the US government – and of course the government of the plagued state of Tennessee – by criminal violence and terrorism. But I am curious about this “likely use” of imminent violence. Is the violence likely or imminent? If it is imminent isn’t it a bit more that likely? But when it comes to Muslims, who has time to worry about things like this? Tennessee is in the midst of a plague, after all. (Evidence of the plague usually takes the form of, “I hear told someone even saw a woman wrapped in one of them funny scarf thangs at the Family Dollar in Smyrna t’other day. Sakes alive! She might’a had a bomb under that thang.”)

I could parse out all the statements in the thirteen paragraphs of findings that, if enacted, the Tennessee General Assembly will have found to be true about sharia and sharia-adherents, but because they are repetitive while also managing to be occasionally contradictory, it would take more space than you have patience. If you are a member of the Tennessee General Assembly and voting for this bill, things like repetition, contradiction and violation of the First Amendment aren’t going to stand in your way.

I will, however, point out that in paragraph 9, there is a reference to the “jihad groups identified by the federal government as designated terrorist organizations pursuant to § 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act”. On the other hand, the bulk of the bill sets out procedures for the Tennessee Attorney General to designate “sharia organizations” so that anyone who is associated with them can be prosecuted and liable for all sorts of civil causes of action. If the federal government has already designated jihad groups – a task for which they expend considerable federal tax dollars on extensive covert operations – why does the Tennessee AG need to do the same? And if the members of these organizations are already subject to federal law, why does Tennessee need to step in?

Now I wish this was just a looney bill introduced by a lone ranger legislator. Every legislature gets some of those every session. Those sorts of bills grab a newspaper headline and then die quietly in committee without a hearing. Unfortunately in this case, there are three Senate co-sponsors, the chairs of the Education, Transportation and Judiciary committees, the last of which has the bill under consideration. Ketron is the GOP Caucus Chair. And like the legislation in the other states, it has a companion bill in the other chamber, in this case sponsored by Rep. Judd Matheny. It has twelve co-sponsors, including the chair the State and Local Government committee.

And finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the goofiest bit of legislative drafting I’ve seen in a long, long time. It goes back to that definition of sharia. “‘Sharia’ means the set of rules, precepts, instructions, or edicts which are said to emanate directly or indirectly from the god of Allah…” The god of Allah? What is the god of Allah? “The god Allah” maybe. I can allow that some people think that Allah, as worshipped in Islam, is a different god than God as worshipped in Christianity, rather than just a erroneous understanding of God. And I understand that most American Christians are completely clueless that Arab Christians call God “Allah” because that’s the Arabic word for God. And most are Islamo-illiterate enough that they don’t know that Muhammad came up with Islam after lots of contact with Judaism and Christianity and in essence derived his idea of God from them and his intent was to worship the God of Abraham. But “god of Allah”? Is this the god that this Allah putatively worships? Who knows? Probably not even the real author of this legislation, David Yerushalmi, a self-proclaimed expert on Islamic law.

Yerushalmi has contended in the press that the bill does not prevent Muslims from practicing their religion – you know, that old First Amendment thing. This only raises the question of why this legislation was so appalling poorly drafted – so vague and contradictory – even if the intent is supposed to be more narrow.

Just like there is no case of sharia having been applied by any judge in any court in the US, there is no instance in which Tennessee, its government or Constitution, or Ellie May down at the Family Dollar have been harmed by sharia-adherent jihadists or could be harmed in such a way that having the state attorney general proscribe anyone or any group would make any difference whatsoever.

Learning About Friendship – Part 2

So I learned what a friend isn’t. At the end of the day, that’s not so important. I also learned (or at least was reminded of) what a friend is. That’s more important. Again, Facebook, for all its inherent faults, helped me along.

Last week, I saw someone I knew from 15 years ago had finally given in and join Facebook. Now I wouldn’t say I’d been best buds with this particular person, but we were well acquainted. We were in the same church, so not surprisingly at one time we saw each other on at least a weekly basis. Though not a lawyer, he had, in his professional capacity and as a friend, referred clients to me in past. I saw that he was FB friends with at least five other friends of mine, so I threw my usual caution and lack of self-confidence to the wind and sent along a friend request. Over the next few days I saw that he added lots of friends.

That’s when it was clear that even though I hadn’t been officially ignored, I wasn’t going to be one of them. Then there’s that little twinge of embarrassment, a bit like when you greet somebody in the street and they look at you and blank you. That has happened to you, right? And then the twinge becomes a cringe, while you remind yourself that it isn’t the the same as putting out your hand to shake someone else’s just to have them keep theirs firmly in their pocket. I withdrew my friend request, as if that gave it some modicum of dignity.

Now this was one those things where you don’t see it coming, but on the other hand it isn’t a total surprise. It happened some time back with another friend. I’d known them a bit longer. Closer to 20 years. Even used to go over to their house every week for food, fellowship and Bible study. We use to hang out with a lot of the same people from church. Though they did end the once-a-week thing rather abruptly, as far as I knew we were still friends. So there they were on Facebook and already FB friends with the same bunch of people, so I thought this was a no-brainer. I had bet they’d be glad to know how I was doing and I really wanted to catch up with them. This time I didn’t have the chance to withdraw. They deleted my request without a lot of pause. It’s times like these when I wish Facebook had the programmed savvy to keep from continually popping up an alert telling me that I should add them because we have so many friends in common.

So what does this have to do with real friendship? Even if you love me, you are probably ready for me to get to the point.

The point is that unlike with these and a few other individuals,  I have taken the opportunity to offend a lot of people. Usually not intentionally, but nonetheless I am often an idiot. I have made some really bad decisions that have affected the lives of some of my friends.  (I’m glad I have some friends upon whom I haven’t placed any baggage. I’m glad I have some Facebook friends that I didn’t know real well and have gotten to know a bit better. But back to the point of my story…)

There are people who would have good reasons to walk away and not have anything to do with me. They are my friends on Facebook and that’s good, because it is a convenient way to communicate and share thoughts and ideas, keep up with what is happening in their lives, whether big events or daily miscellany. And it’s just one way they remind me that I still matter to them. They are also people that I can pick up the phone and call. They probably know that I would be happy to take their call any time, day or night. Well, probably worried to take it at some times of the night, but more than willing. They can disagree with me on political or theological positions (and I provide lots of opportunity to do that). They can put up with my lack of social skills due to being a bit Asperger or that other kind of person that starts with the same first syllable.

So I suppose who I don’t have as friends just helps me to appreciate who I do have as friends. And that’s a good thing.

A man who has friends must himself be friendly,
But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Learning About Friendship – Part 1

As I was about to start this, I looked back through my blog archives and discovered that it’s been almost exactly two years since I last mentioned this topic.  So two more years of Facebook and I’m still puzzled about what a friend is. The experiences of this week have caused me to evaluate this further.

I’m glad to have met some new friends on Facebook, whether through playing poker or commenting in the same group or forum. However, I’m not so concerned with Facebook friends, per se, but rather what it tells us about the friends we already had and how we deal with the past. It opens a window on relationships so that we might see them in a way we haven’t before.

There was an interesting interaction this week with someone I’ve known for well over 30 years – and one of those rare individuals who had sent me a friendship request on Facebook. We hadn’t seen each other in over 20 years and I knew that our lifestyle choices had diverged significantly since that time. She posted something on her Wall derisive and mocking toward people she had seen protesting at an abortion clinic.

Having mellowed in my old age, I normally let these sorts of thing pass. It’s her Wall, after all. Instead I very mildly challenged it. (And those who know me know the mildness took some effort.) The result was like being a sheep in the midst of hungry wolves, including my old friend. I was essentially told that I was in the midst of a closed society of real friends and I needed to shut up and and go away. The language wasn’t quite as polite as that statement may imply, but then it wasn’t the sort of language I would repeat. And there was plenty of it and from plenty of people.

But then I saw something else. In a different status update, this same friend offered some sort of offhand remark about a food or a film or something rather inconsequential, saying she f***ing loved it. A mutual friend who has known her as long as I have, replied that she agreed, though she didn’t care for the choice of language. Now I’ve seen flame wars in forums and all sorts of bad cyber-behaviour, but what followed was just repulsive. The mutual friend didn’t see much of it, because she took up the first friend’s subsequent generally broadcast invitation for anyone and everyone to f*** off if they didn’t like the way she behaved. After the mutual friend obliged, the first friend posted about her, mocking and belittling her for “defriending” and deriding Christians generally. The hate fest with her real friends that followed, where this mutual friend – who otherwise had never posted anything on her wall – was called the most revolting of names and as a curative for her Christianity was encouraged, in absentia, to engage in certain sexual  practices that are not even physically possible.

But here’s the telling thing. When I wrote privately and gently (yes, some of you would be again amazed at the self-restraint) to this sorry excuse for a friend, wondering why she would treat someone she’s known for so long so badly, she replied that this person “is not one of the people in my past that treated me with respect or was a great friend to me personally.” I thought to myself, why did you bother to be this person’s friend on Facebook? Why would you ask this person to be your Facebook friend and then when they say anything with which you disagree, not just defriend them on Facebook, but attack them and belittle them?

I could understand – just barely – if we were talking about junior high kids, but these are women on the verge of 40 years old who grew up in the same church and went to the same Christian school. This is clearly an example of how online communication allows people to get away with behaviours they would never contemplate in person. I didn’t get a chance to reply, because after writing back and saying she appreciated my point of view she defriended me.  Oh well.

Even at my age I’ve learned a little more about what a friend isn’t. But I’ve also learned more about what a friend is. It’s been a very instructive week.   But I’ll save that for next time.

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