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Everything old  is new again, alas

Updated: March 18, 2012 8:16AM

So the Chicago City Council wants to ban noisy spectators, forbidding “cheering, yelling, clapping, foot stomping, whistling, booing or jeering” and allowing members of the public to be cleared should any of those outbursts occur.

They needn’t worry much about cheering.

We have a strong American democratic tradition of open meetings, a government that does not hide behind closed doors, and now we’re going to scrap that every time somebody whistles? How long before an aldermanic stooge planted in the back begins every council meeting with a catcall, as a pretext to give the public the bum’s rush?

And they’re doing this ... in order to .... help me here ... do what? Reduce the chance that somebody protesting the G-8 Summit will start jeering? And that’s worth turning City Council into a star chamber?

The proposal comes from Ald. Richard Mell. Isn’t he the same guy who stood on a table and shouted during the turmoil that followed Harold Washington’s death? He’s going to teach us about polite public behavior? Along with Ed Burke, Mr. Back Room?

In Richard J. Daley’s time, they had what were called “the rulies” — public employees who filled up the public gallery on the clock, paid to sit there and not be unruly. There was literally no room for dissent. I thought that was a relic of a repressed, vanished era. Now that time seems to be coming back.

Exhibit B, illustrating how everything old is new again, alas: In 1963, there was a lengthy debate over whether public money should be used to pay for birth control for unmarried women on public aid in Illinois.

A panel was formed to study the issue — the Illinois Birth Control Commission. Its chairman was State Sen. Morgan Finley, a telling choice, since not only had he denounced contraception for those on public aid as state-approved sin, but also he pushed a law that would have made giving birth to an illegitimate baby a crime, with guilty mothers eligible for up to five years in prison.

All the officers and most of the 15-member panel were Catholics, and when a certain spunky tabloid pointed this out, Finley said that doing so threatened turning Catholics into “second-class citizens” and said that they could deliberate important social issues as well as anybody else.

You might think that you know how this turned out, but you don’t.

The commission was charged with evaluating “the legal, social, moral, financial and health aspects of a state-financed birth control program for all public aid recipients.”

It heard testimony and studied the issue for well over a year. In May, 1965, Finley and his commission issued their ruling: Contraception should be provided free by the state to poor women. Doing so went against their own beliefs, he noted, but that wasn’t the final consideration. “Although some members may have personal objections to a birth control program, I just support it as a legislator elected by the people of Illinois,” Finley said. “This program is good for the State of Illinois. It is strictly voluntary. No birth control supplies will be given unless a mother requests them.” The Illinois legislature followed their recommendation.

That situation was slightly different than what we face now — the state paying for contraception versus Catholic institutions being required to support health care offering it — but the idea of dividing public necessity from personal religious scruple seems far scarcer today than it was 50 years ago.

During testimony, one commissioner quoted Boston’s Richard Cardinal Cushing:

“I as a Catholic have absolutely no right in my thinking to foist through legislation or through other means, my doctrine of my church upon others,” the cardinal said, backing — incredibly — a similar policy in Boston, adding, “It is important to note that Catholics do not need the support of the civil law to be faithful to their religious convictions.”

Fifty years ago, both the faithful and church leaders were at least occasionally thinking about the rights of others. Now they are pressing institutional rights while disregarding the needs of people who work for them, opposing health care, one of the church’s historic strong suits. It seems to be working in the short term. The long term is a different story, and if you look at the arc of history, you know how this will end.

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