The Ethical Dilemma: Hurricane Sandy Help and More Wedding Advice

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? In the spirit of the New York Times “The Ethicist” or Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” Humanist Network News is proud to introduce “The Ethical Dilemma,” an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at All inquiries are kept confidential.


Helpful Helping: I hope this question is not too late. When there’s a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, I always intend to help immediately, and it seems like charities claiming to do that spring up overnight. I know some are better than others in terms of working effectively, and some are scams, but I’m not sure how to sort them out. How can I zero in on the best ways to help without spinning a lot of wheels researching? 

–In a Hurry to Help


Dear Hurry,

No, you’re not late at all. While  attention may have moved on to more recent crises, many people are still desperate–homeless, jobless, destitute, disoriented–in the aftermath of Sandy and other disasters in the past year and beyond. Although the lights may be back on and life has bounced back for many, others are still waiting for decent shelters and funds to rebuild or regroup. Often the storm itself is only the beginning of a long struggle to some semblance of normal life, and the people hit hardest are often those who were in the worst shape to begin with.

Kudos to you for the impulse to rush in with a helping hand when disaster strikes. But picking through all the pitches can be daunting, and scam artists arrive along with the first responders. Thanks to the Internet, however, you can quickly identify highly-rated organizations or check out ones you’re not sure about through watchdog agencies such as Charity Navigator, Guide Star, Great Nonprofits, The Independent Sector, etc. For instance, Charity Navigator has a page devoted to key organizations addressing Hurricane Sandy as well as tips for giving in times of crisis

When it comes to throwing a lifeline to people in desperate straits, the overriding goal is to speed help where it’s needed, as long as it serves everyone regardless of religion, nationality, race, etc. While grassroots organizations like food pantries and shelters can have immediate life-saving impact in their communities, national and global entities are able to mobilize quickly to collect and distribute aid wherever it’s needed. 

If you don’t live close to a disaster area, sending money is usually the most efficient way to help. It may not be cost-effective to pack up and ship your dusty canned goods, extra blankets and old coats, and you can’t be sure if those things will really be useful. And flying across the country to personally clear debris is a grand gesture but probably not the best use of your money or time. For checkbook charity, it’s better to send more money to fewer organizations than small amounts to several. Despite the oft-cited mantra, “every little bit helps,” contributions of just a few dollars actually can result in a net loss against administrative costs. So unless you’re texting a donation, send gifts of at least $20 to make a positive impact.  On the other hand, if you have more time than money, even if you are far away, you might be able to join a group in your area making fund-raising phone calls or shipping out survival kits.

Another thing you can do wherever you are is put pressure on politicians to fund massive rebuilding efforts for whole communities that are falling off a physical as well as fiscal cliff, and to address environmental factors that may underlie recent and future disasters. 

Gay Religious Marriage: I am a gay man who loves my religion even though its more fundamental components shun homosexuals and treat women as second class. For nearly 10 years I have taught in a moderate religious school on the middle and high school levels, and several years ago I came out by announcing that my partner and I got married in a nearby state that had already legalized same-sex marriage. I wear a wedding ring and sometimes bring my husband to events where I work. To my great relief, there has been no fallout regarding my job among the leadership or congregation, which recently voted to give women full equality. But in a newspaper story where various local religious leaders were asked their opinions, my boss said he would not perform a same-sex wedding because he never had before and he was too close to retirement to start now. I am very disappointed by his position. I’m also wondering what happens when a same-sex couple in the congregation wants to get married here.



Dear Unceremonious,

Whether a member of the clergy is willing to perform same-sex weddings is a decision up to that individual and the group’s directors, which may or may not be influenced by the inclinations of the congregation. If the spiritual leader refuses and there’s an uprising among the members, the leader might have to change stripes or find another job. On the other hand, the same thing could happen after officiating at a same-sex ceremony if that goes against the grain of the congregation. In some groups, a substantial number will be disgruntled either way. So your leader is taking the safest position by declining on the grounds of his traditions (which may actually be a cover story for a deeper objection).

Should a same-sex couple in the congregation push this leader to perform their ceremony when he has publicized his reluctance? While it’s commendable to take a stand for equal rights, religions are not about equal rights (or equal rites). And why would anyone want to mar their moment with an unwilling officiant? The pair could take their business to someone more enthusiastic, religious or secular (such as a humanist celebrant); graciously allow the old-time religion guy to finish out his career (or at least his contract) without a confrontation; and then lobby for a replacement who can comfortably embrace all loving couples. 

Now that you are out, be happy there’s no problem with continuing where you are as a teacher and participant with your spouse. While it’s curious why you are so devoted to a tradition that does not generally accept your sexual preference (which could be just about any religious tradition), that’s your choice. Meanwhile, you are doing everyone a service by serving as a role model for diversity in your religion generally, and particularly for the young people who are its future.