Thursday, December 31, 2015

What does the future hold for Niagara County schools?

Last week, the New York State Education Department updated a portion of its website that provides data regarding the make-up of student enrollment in individual school districts. The database breaks down everything by gender, race, disabilities, economics, and grade levels.

I took a long look at the information that applied to my school district, Royalton-Hartland. To me, the real take home from the report was the sharp decline in enrollment in my school system, which is, undoubtedly, an outcome of an aging local population and all of the young people moving out-of-area or out-of-state for greener pastures economically.

What specifically caught my attention was how, in recent years, the grade levels dropped off to numbers below 100 students.

For the 2014-2015 school year, the sixth through twelfth grades saw a peak enrollment of 128 and a low of 100, averaging out at 115 students per grade. Those are what you would consider relatively normal numbers for Roy-Hart, even harkening back to my 1993 graduation when there were over 120 people in my class.

It was the kindergarten through fifth numbers that I found concerning, as they were incredibly low by my school’s standards. The average for those six grades in the 2014-2015 school year was 90 students. Compared to sixth through twelfth, that's a drop of 25 students per class or 22%. That statistic is scary in itself, but it’s nothing compared to the concern elicited by the enrollment numbers for last year’s kindergarten class: 79 students.

We are not alone in that regard. I took a look at the numbers for a few other districts in Niagara County and, comparing apples to apples, found these disturbing declines in average class size for sixth through twelfth versus kindergarten through fifth in the 2014-2015 school year: Barker 23%, Wilson 21% and Newfane 12%.  

Obviously, student enrollment is on the decline not only at Roy-Hart, but across the county, and it's trending badly. We are, without a doubt, heading into an educational crisis. The thing is, we already experienced one (and we are, for most districts, still in one) as an outcome of the revenue losses of the Great Recession when sports and arts were cut, and superintendents, resources and even students were   shared across districts.

But, the crisis that we will be feeling over the next 5 to 15 years will far rival what we just experienced. As these kids age into high school and classes are smaller, untold numbers of teachers will lose their jobs, portions of facilities will be made obsolete, sports teams will have unsustainable rosters, and the way that we’ve been always been doing things will change dramatically. Students, parents and whole communities will have to change their expectations, even their identities. It will be a major culture change and, for many, an uncomfortable one.     

The writing is on the wall, so, in the coming years, don't scratch your head when school boards and school officials have to make different, interesting and difficult decisions concerning budgets, services and consolidation. As a matter of fact, right now is the time when you as a parent, taxpayer or concerned citizen should be preparing for that by asking yourself a question that school boards are already asking themselves: What will the future hold?

From the 04 January 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers


Last week’s installment of this column looked at the various heavenly sights that the backyard astronomer can enjoy in 2016. I noted that it will be a relatively quiet year in that regard, with 2017 more than making up for it.

But, that doesn’t mean the skies will be devoid of amazing things in ‘16. Now and for the next few weeks is the perfect time -- really the only time over the next 14 months -- that local skywatchers can catch a comet in their binoculars.

Comet Catalina was only recently discovered (October 2013) by the Catalina Sky Survey which uses two telescopes in Arizona to scan the heavens for comets, asteroids, and near-Earth objects for, among other things, those items that might pose a collision threat to the Earth.

Comet Catalina isn’t one of those threatening items because at its closest, on January 17th, it will still be 67 million miles from Earth. That far away, and as small as it is, the comet will not be visible to the naked eye. But, a hobby telescope or a good pair of binoculars should be able to bring it into view.

Right now you can find it in the morning pre-dawn skies, but as we get closer to the 17th it will gradually become an overnight sight. Over the next few days it will be easier to find than it will be later in the month because it can be find very the near orange-hued Arcturus, which is the fourth-brightest star in the sky. Arcturus will be low in the eastern sky after midnight, but it goes high to the southeast sky before dawn. The star is an easy find, but if you need help in finding Arcturus, use a planisphere or refer to any numerous sky maps online.

To see the comet, you have to be away from the lights of Lockport or anyone of our numerous hamlets (like Gasport or Newfane) and out in the countryside. Catalina won’t look as magnificent as she does through professional telescopes or any of the photos you see on the internet. Instead, she will appear as a fuzzy patch of white light with maybe a little aquamarine tinge to it. You might even be able to see its tail.

While a fuzzy blob doesn’t sound very exciting, it’s a something to be appreciated nonetheless. We don’t get too many comets in our lifetimes that are visible with binoculars or eyes, so it’s something that should be taken advantage of every time. And, if you can drag your kid out of bed early enough before he or she has to get ready for school, it’s an excellent real-life learning experience that compliments what they might be hearing about in science class.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he’ll be showing the comet to his early-rising four year old. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 31 December 2015 East Niagara Post

Thursday, December 24, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: What 2016 will bring for the backyard astronomer

The chances are that if you live in rural Eastern Niagara County you’re a backyard astronomer of sorts. You might find yourself outdoors on a cool, clear winter night marveling at the countless stars in the heavens. In the summer months, you probably sit around campfires in your backyard yelling “did you see that?!” to your family and friends whenever a meteor streaks across the night sky.

There’s something innate, some primeval, about the interest, the love affair, with the nighttime skies. The universe is fascinating, awe-inspiring, and even relaxing – after a day of hustle and bustle and going in a hundred different directions, it’s always comforting to look skyward, see that vastness and realize that we and our human experiences are but tiny, inconsequential blips in the whole scheme of things.

We backyard astronomers like to maximize this appreciation, because, far too often, Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with us. The Niagara County skies are some of the cloudiest in the United States, thanks to the Great Lakes and the prevailing southwesterly winds that drive the moisture from Lake Erie before it hits a brick wall of cold air created by Lake Ontario, creating the abundant clouds.

So, any time that we are blessed with a clear night, we like to take advantage of it. And, we always hope that it happens when some celestial event is taking place. To help you plan for that in 2016 -- and to give you the signal to start praying to God to ease up on the cloud machine a little bit -- here’s a look at some of the nighttime sights on tap for next year…


Unfortunately, observers on the Niagara Frontier won’t get to see any lunar or solar eclipses, either partial or full, in 2016. But, we’ll more than make up for it the next year: skywatchers are pumped for August of 2017 when a full solar eclipse will take place in the US, the first one in 38 years. When that event happens, we won’t be on the center line (which runs from the Carolinas to Oregon), but we will see two-thirds of the sun covered by the moon.

Northern Lights

The aurora borealis or northern lights are more abundant when the sun’s face is covered with sunspots and it is emitting all sorts of flares and other solar energy. In recent years, the sun hasn’t been too eventful as we are on the down slope of the 11-year sunspot cycle – some space weather enthusiasts believe that it might even be something worse than that recurring cycle’s trough and we might be heading into a prolonged period of a quiet sun.

Either way, the northern lights won’t be very common -- you might even call them downright rare -- for our latitude again in 2016 (we aren’t as lucky as northern Canada where they are bathed by the green glow most every night). In 2015 there were less than a half dozen aurora events that were visible from the Lake Ontario shore and we might see more of the same in 2016 unless the sun wakes up and belches some energy our way.


2016 will be a slow year for readily-visible comets (those you can see with naked eyes, binoculars or common backyard telescopes). The only one we have a chance to see is Catalina. During the first half of January, you will be able to see her but only as a small fuzzy dot through your binoculars. You will have to look east before the sun rises. This map should help you track Catalina: (link)

The year 2017 will be a different story as we will be graced with three comets that can be seen with binoculars and one of them might even become visible to the naked eye.

The best and brightest meteor showers

The Quantrids meteor shower will be the first of the year, peaking on Jan. 3 and 4. The second quarter moon will dull all but the brightest shooting stars, but the output will be good enough that you should see a few per hour. The best time to look is after midnight towards the constellation Bootes.

The Persieds meteor shower never ceases to amaze, throwing some really bright meteors out there. This year it will peak on Aug. 12 and 13. On both nights the waning moon will set around midnight, making for some excellent dark sky viewing (after midnight is always the best time to see these streakers anyways). Look towards the constellation Perseus to see them in their full beauty.

Unfortunately, due to timing in 2016, some of the other consistent showers (like December’s Geminids) won’t make for great viewing due to full moons or nearly full moons.

New moons 

If you are serious about stargazing, you will mark on your calendar every date on which there is a new moon. Basically “no moon,” the new moon ensures there is no moonlight robbing your skywatching experience, meaning you have full visibility of the stars, the Milky Way, meteors and more. You typically have decent dark sky viewing for three days on either side of the new moon.

New moons will occur on Jan. 10, Feb. 8, March 9, April 7, May 6, June 5, July 4, Aug. 2, Sept. 1, Oct. 1, Oct. 30, Nov. 29, and Dec. 29, 2016.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where cloudy nights consistently frustrate the stargazer. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 24 December 2015 East Niagara Post

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The federal bank of eminent domain

Eminent domain is a power of the government that is tacitly recognized in the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution which reads, "…nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." Over the course of our nation’s history that ability to force the sale of land for common good has been abused. It’s not uncommon to hear horror stories of municipalities basically stealing homes for corporate, not public, benefit and the federal government taking away precious ranchland and transforming it into an idled preserve.

Sometimes, the only thing that prevents the government from further abusing this power is money. If it doesn’t have it, the supposed fair trade for land cannot take place. Some members of Congress, though, are trying to change that by creating a perpetually well-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The LWCF was created in 1964 and is the primary source of funding for federal land acquisition for the purpose of conservation and/or recreation. It also provides grants to state and local governments for the same. Using a variety of funding methods (taxes) its annual authorization has been set at $900 million since 1977. But, that cap has been met only twice during the program’s history because it’s not a true trust fund in the sense that the $900 million in taxes collected do not have to be given to LWCF. The funds are typically diverted by Congress for other purposes. Case in point: Last year, the LWCF received just $300 million.

In federal budget negotiations that just ended days ago, the LWCF was reauthorized for another three years and the fund is guaranteed $450 million for next year. Many Congressmen are looking to overcome that regularly-occurring budgetary obstacle with, of course, new means of taxation that would fully fund to $900 million the LWCF every year and, at the same time, make a permanent account for it. Under that scenario, the government will have nearly-limitless reserves to buy up land that it sees as being necessary to the betterment of the environment or the advancement of outdoor pursuits.

This sounds all well and good, but it should be noted, though, that government is a primary stakeholder of land in our country. The federal government owns in excess of 640 million acres while state and local governments own another 200 million acres, accounting for almost 40 percent of the nation’s landmass.

Despite such earthly possessions, the government wants more. That’s because the control of the masses is most easily attained through public ownership of property. Think about your frustrations as a homeowner whose property rights have been tempered with onerous building codes and property taxes. Now, imagine that heartache and stress magnified a thousandfold by being a one-time property owner who was forced out of possession of land through eminent domain. Just ask anyone who has lost land in such a manner to the government; the monetary "rewards" of the mandatory sale (which are often below market value) never make you whole in the pocketbook or in the heart.

With the green movement as mainstream as it is and a good percentage of the population willing to abandon human progress for the perceived benefit of Mother Nature, environmental concerns, rather than the ages-old reasons for eminent domain (like roads, municipal complexes, urban renewal), will dominate the reasoning for federal and state land grabs. That said, rural landowners will now be in the crosshairs as it is they who have the lands and habitats (forests, grasslands, waterways) that are so prized by the environmentalists. This will have a major impact on economic activities like logging, farming, and ranching, just as it will on regular folks who want to enjoy personal liberty on their own lands.

That said, we must reach out to Congress and ensure that LWCF does not grow out of control. Sure, public ownership of land is a good thing (for instance, every community deserves a park, and the Adirondack Park is an awesome gift to the world) but there can be too much of a good thing. We are reaching a tipping point where, someday within the next two decades, government will own half the land in the country -- and that’s not a good thing for liberty.

From the 28 December 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Friday, December 18, 2015

A better world through the rules of children

If you venture at all onto social media or turn on the news, you’d be hard pressed to believe that we are in the holiday season. Turmoil and hate are everywhere: many alleged Christians are openly calling for unmentionable acts against all Muslims for the acts of a small terror group that co-opted Islam; blacks are railing against whites (and vice versa); the poor are railing against the rich (and vice versa); and we have a man leading in the presidential polls by appealing to, and breeding, the lowest common denominator.

The love and eternal hope that should dominate the season – and every day outside of it, for that matter – just isn’t there. People are choosing instead to take darker paths. All of these actions, and so much more, are all quite disconcerting for this is not behavior you would expect out of grown adults.

And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the supposed maturity of adulthood isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

I've often found that the simple rules that we suggest to, even demand of, children to govern their lives and their behaviors are timeless and ageless expectations that should be applied to adults, too. Our companies, families, communities and world would be better off were we to govern and lead all of them with the pure innocence and unconditional love that children have in their worldview.

For instance, take the succinct Scout Oath: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”

The Scout Law that accompanies it is: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”

Those rules, which millions of boys have memorized and are charged to live by, are pretty impressive standards. Their call for moral clarity knows no boundaries – not for nations, race, creeds nor social standings.

They are rules that I strive to live by and rules that I often tell business and community leaders that they should follow. It’s good to have some sort of moral compass in what one does personally and professionally. Even a Godless society can be a good one if people learn to carry themselves accordingly -- if someone doesn’t believe in a god, expectations of pristine behavior can be had, whether they occur organically or are learned.

More often than not, good behavior yields good results for good people. That’s the way the fates, the gods, the very nature of the universe seem to work. Those who approach their lives – and the lives of others -- with dignity, class, etiquette, and love seem to succeed in life and work.     

And that is underlying tenet in the life lessons that we as adults try so often to instill in kids – be it through parental guidance, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, our churches or our schools.

But, it’s damaging  -- and damning – to our world that those same adults do not practice what they preach. If the rules of children are known to count for something, then why do we abandon the simplicity of childhood upon becoming of legal age? Why do we say one thing to the young and do something entirely different?      

Life is too short to live miserably and with disregard to those going through it with you. We’re all in this together. Always remember power of the Golden Rule, something so useful, so important, so potent that in some way, shape or form it can found in every religion on Earth: “Do unto others as you as you would have them do unto you.”

The simplest rules always make for the best rules.  If they are good enough for our kids, then they are certainly good enough for us.

 From the 21 December 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, December 17, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Tips on feeding birds this winter

A few readers have sent me emails in recent weeks looking for suggestions regarding feeding birds in the winter. Those are good questions to ask, because done properly, bird feeding can give you hours of enjoyment and some special insight into the life of songbirds. If done poorly, bird feeding can cost you too much money, bring in unintended feathered pests, and spread disease.

Here are some reflections on my experiences and preferences…

Mixed seed

Mixed seed is the most common type of birdfeed out there. You can find various mixed bird seeds for sale almost anywhere, from grocery stores to hardware stores.

I used to have a traditional feeder in my yard that was used to deliver this stuff, but three years ago I completely ditched the use of mixed seeds. I am much richer for it – both in terms of my finances and my bird watching experiences.

I had found that mixed seeds, especially out where I live in farm country, had attracted too many undesirable birds that didn’t have the ability or desire to crack larger seeds but were well-fitted to consume small seeds.  My yard would be besieged by house sparrows, starlings and cowbirds. You don’t really want to feed those birds – the first two species are invasives that have accounted for the decline in native birds while the cowbird survives only by forcing its eggs and young upon other birds, to the detriment of the adoptive parents’ populations (link).

Because of those avian fiends visiting my yard by the dozens, I would go through a whole feeder and a half of mixed seed every day. Over the course of a winter, that could put you in the poor house.

Sunflower seeds

Now, I use that traditional feeder and a tube feeder with large openings to administer sunflower seeds. This keeps the undesirables away, and instead attracts birds you want to see: chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals, and finches of various sorts. The finches have bills built for cracking seeds and eating their contents right at the feeder, while the chickadees and nuthatches have to do a little work to crack them open elsewhere, often using trunks and branches as levers and braces.

There are two types of sunflower seeds on the market – striped and black oil. I prefer black oil seeds because they are much easier for birds to open. Striped seeds are tough and you will find that fewer species and fewer numbers of birds have interest in them. Another plus is that black oil sunflower seeds are cheap – a 40 pound bag will cost you around $20 when on sale and that bag will last quite a while.

I also make it a point to buy sunflower with the shells intact. There are sunflower hearts and chips available on the market, but they can spoil easily in the feeder (even in just a day or two if they get rained on) and will make birds sick.

One drawback to sunflowers is the shell casings that will be left on the ground below your feeders. You will have to rake and shovel them up at least once a week.

Nyjer or thistle 

A simple sock feeder filled with nyjer seed will 
attract many colorful birds to your backyard. (BOB
Nyjer seeds are a type of thistle seed and they are small and expensive…you might find them to cost $1.50 to $2.00 per pound depending on where and when you shop.  But, despite the cost, a 10-pound bag of nyjer will last a very long time. I can make that last most of the winter, even if my yard is frequented by a dozen or so finches on a daily basis.

Nyjer is one of my favorite seeds as the feeders attract some interesting birds – they will bring in goldfinches and winter irruptives from the Far North like the very tame pine siskin (link) and the occasional redpoll.

There are two ways to offer these seeds. One is a tube feeder made of metal or plastic mesh that the finches will hang from and pull seeds from. I used to use mesh feeders but stopped this year because they can be a pain to clean. It doesn’t take much for cracked nyjer seeds to spoil, so any seeds or casings left in the lower basin of a tube feeder will rot and make birds sick unless you clean it regularly (at least once a week).

A cleaner alternative to the tube feeder is the sock feeder. They typically feature a dome under which a sock or two hangs. In that sock you will put nyjer seed and the birds will do as they did with the mesh – hang from it and pull the seeds through the little holes.  The socks can be cleaned easily and not that they need much of it -- they harbor very little disease -- and most feeder kits come with multiple replacement socks.

It takes quite a while for flocks of birds to consume nyjer, so never fill the socks all the way up, even a third of the way might be pushing it. You will have to watch how the birds pace themselves over the first few weeks before you go wild filling the socks.

Year round feeding

Some birdwatchers might be interested to know that I keep my feeding stations going all year. It’s especially enjoyable in May and June when the goldfinches are in full color and in full song. It can make for a very colorful and musical lawn.  Give year-round feeding a try in 2016…you won’t be disappointed.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where up to 10 species of birds visit his feeders every day. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

from the 17 December 2015 East Niagara Post

Thursday, December 10, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Where did all of the pheasants go?

If you are a Baby Boomer or the parent of one, you will remember how extraordinary pheasant hunting was from the mid-1950s into the early-1970s. It was one of the most popular outdoor pursuits on the Niagara Frontier, far rivaling the buck fever you see nowadays when the whitetail deer season opens.

The shoulders of rural roadways would be chock full of parked cars and factories and classrooms would be empty as families shared Opening Day out in the field. Pheasants were everywhere and in huge numbers; hunters had much success and put many a savory bird on the dinner table. At the peak of the pheasant hunt, New York hunters would harvest a half million ring-necks per year.

That era seems so long ago and almost unbelievable, even mythical, to today’s young hunters. Unless you live in Somerset (where the Department of Environmental Conservation still releases pheasants at Golden Hill State Park and surrounding areas), ring-necked pheasants could be considered rare in Eastern Niagara County. In places where pheasants were once taken for granted and maybe even considered bothersome (there were so many they’d get caught in farm equipment at harvest time) seeing or hearing one is now a “wow!” moment.

So, how did we go from feast to famine in less than 45 years?

There are a few reasons why the pheasant population has dropped by more than 90% percent since 1970. Let’s discuss them…

Factor #1: Loss of habitat

In explaining why were are seeing bears, beavers, bobcats, flying squirrels and more in Niagara County, a recurring theme in Exploring the Niagara Frontier has been the changing landscape in the area. The same factors that have contributed to their arrivals – the loss of family farms and the transformation of fields to forests – have also led to the demise of the pheasant.

Where once stood vast pastures and grasslands for cattle to graze or hay fields to keep them fed through the winter months, woodlots and brushy areas now exist. Pheasants are not woodland birds and needed the wide open spaces and tall grasses to feed and also to raise young.

Farming still ranks as the #1 industry in Niagara County, but those that are still in business use different business methods and grow different crops that are not conducive to pheasants. As the local large farms buy up adjoining smaller farms, they remove the hedgerows that once dominated local fields and the sides of roadways. Those hedgerows once granted great protective cover and roosts for pheasants. At that same time, farmers have gone on to growing corn and soybeans in great volume (crops that pheasants will not hang out in) while cutting back dramatically on hay, alfalfa, and wheat (which would create great pheasant habitat).

Factor #2: The rise of the predators

While the pheasant habitat dwindled away and the protective hedgerows disappeared, there was an explosion in local predator populations. A recent column looked at the rise of chicken hawks (Cooper’s hawks) which would attack chicken-sized birds like ring-necks. The number of red foxes grew substantially as older outdoorsmen got out of trapping and very few young outdoorsmen picked up that trade. And then there’s the coyote: An animal that was rare right through the 1980s is now pretty common on the Niagara Frontier and these large dogs, which had interbred with wolves which some say accounts for their newfound adaptability, cover a lot of territory and consume a lot of small ground dwelling animals including pheasants.

Factor #3: Pheasants were bred for failure

The pheasant was first introduced to New York in 1900 and by the 1940s their populations were self-
sustaining. Those vast numbers across the region at the hunting peak did not need hunt clubs or game
officials to supplement their populations. But, as their habitats dwindled (and therefore their populations as well), the DEC ramped up stocking efforts in the 1970s to compensate, keep people afield, and keep the hunting-related economy going. But, by doing so, they brought the worst traits to the wild.

If you are old enough to remember the Good Old Days, you will recall the large flocks of pheasants that would be found roosting in trees at nightfall. When I look at old family photos and slides from the ‘60s I am always floored by the same.

Think now about your expectations of pheasants. Nowadays, would you ever imagine seeing a pheasant up in a tree? No, you wouldn’t. You’d probably think it was weird.

That’s because the DEC bred the birds to be more ground-dwelling by choosing breeding stock that exhibited those traits and by raising them well into adulthood on game farms with overhead cover like chicken wire and drapes that kept the birds thinking their world was never any higher than 8 to 10 feet off the ground.

This was by design. The DEC did this to make pheasant harvest easier for hunters by keeping the birds at ground level and out of the tree tops.

But, that led to the unexpected consequence of greater harvest by predators, too. When once a fox or coyote might have looked skyward and wondered how they could catch a bird, the birds were basically served up on a platter to them as they became more grounded.

Factor #4: The DEC cut back on stocking 

Due to all of the above factors, ring-neck pheasant populations across the state are no longer sustainable. Only a small number of the pheasants harvested each year were hatched and raised in the wild. Now, they have to be grown on a game farm and stocked to give Man the chance to hunt them.

The DEC raises 30,000 pheasants for such purposes each year at the Richard E. Reynolds game farm near Ithaca. It’s a far cry from the past when multiple farms raised them for the state. You will likely remember the John White game farm that was on Route 63 in the town of Alabama. That once booming game farm was decommissioned in 1999.

All of the above factors have proven to be pretty damning to the ring-necked pheasant in Niagara County. It’s actually a little sad as the colorful birds really added to the naturescape, allowed fathers and sons to bond, and put many a meal on the table.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he harvested only one pheasant in his life – and that was way back in 1992. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 10 December 2015 East Niagara Post

Islamaphobia is an ugly disease

Due to the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, it has suddenly become incredibly popular again to bash an entire religion and the 1.6 billion people who follow it. Just take a cursory glance at your feeds on Facebook and Twitter; how many articles, posts and memes have you seen identifying Islam as a religion of hate or calling for the elimination – and even execution – of Muslims? It’s disturbing.   

Too many people, I dare say a majority of Americans, are painting the entire religion with a wide brush-stroke that makes all Muslims seem evil. Rather than attributing the work of ISIS and other militant groups --- which are incredibly small in numbers but large in impact – to a very small minority of morally-bankrupt practitioners of Islam, it’s popular to blame them all.

While most terrorists may be Muslims, most Muslims are not terrorists. Most Muslims are like most Christians – inherently good people, believing in a mostly-peaceful religion, who try to live to standards of morality but have their own personal flaws. In short, they are humans as you and I are trying to be perfect in an imperfect world.

Two Orleans County business owners whom I admire are devout Muslims. Their love of Man far rivals that which I have seen from most Christians. They devote countless time and dollars to improving the lot of life for the impoverished in that deeply-poor county as well as directly helping children from oppressed nations throughout the world. Their sacrifices and commitments are something special, no matter the religion.

Their peers in faith are equally-adept at practicing charity. A 2012 study in the United Kingdom found that Muslims were the most giving of all religious groups, contributing 38% more than Jews, 84% more than Protestants, more than twice what Catholics do, and more than 3 times what atheists give.

They show that Islam is a religion of peace, of love, of hope.

Many non-Muslims choose to believe otherwise, implying that terror organizations represent the mainstream of the religion and that it is a deadly, vindictive religion. While having never picked up the Quaran, they are quick to spout random quotes from Muhammad that say Islam must convert all non-believers and tax and/or kill those who don’t convert.

If other religions practiced such selectivity and total lack of historical context, Christians would be looked as murderous war mongers, too. After all, the God of the Old Testament had the Israelites wipe out and destroy Jericho, Heshbon, Bahsan and numerous other places, indiscriminately and purposely killing women and children because non-believers and those associated with them needed punishment. That’s a heavy body count, one that is overlooked due to the more just people and kinder God mentioned in the New Testament and religious cherry-picking.

It’s silly to classify Christiandom as evil and violent because of those bloodbaths (and those done in the name of Christianity in the days after the Bible), just as it is to do the same to all of Islam. Christians need to look in the mirror – and read their own doctrines – before pointing an accusatory finger at other religions. What did Jesus say about the first stone?

Islamaphobia is an ugly disease and one that unlike disdain for skin color or sexual orientation is left mostly unchecked. It’s allowed to be expressed in the open and very few stand up against it. Even the innocent Muslims targeted by the hurtful chatter and piercing eyes turn their cheeks and take the hate.

Hate…is that any way to treat your fellow man, no matter what religion he practices? Isn’t hate the same ugly emotion that contributed to the deaths of innocents in Paris and San Bernardino?

From the 13 December 2015 Greater Niagara Newspapers