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Spotlight on Los Alamos: Scientist practices the social gospel

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By Roger Snodgrass

A few years ago, Carl Newton was one of a handful of people from Los Alamos who publicly defended Wen Ho Lee, a neighbor whose children Newton coached in soccer.“I had a feeling he was being railroaded,” said Newton, who wrote letters to the Monitor, gave an interview on National Public Radio and was the local contact for the Wen Ho Lee defense fund.“There may have been reasons for the laboratory to be upset with him, but there was no reason to charge him with espionage,” he said, recalling Judge James Parker’s excoriating rebuke to the government on Sept. 13, 2000, for Lee’s nine months of incarceration that included “demeaning and unnecessarily punitive conditions.”Although Newton said he never felt ostracized by the community for his position, he was afraid at the time that his phone was being tapped. Since then, that sense of arbitrary intrusion and unwarranted surveillance by the government helped foster an awareness of a country whose civil liberties were beginning to fray.A retired scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Newton is a devoted opera aficionado and patron of music, a father and a former president of the Los Alamos Unitarian Church. Now, he is on a conscientious spiritual journey, as a citizen deeply committed to social justice.He said recently that he has to discipline himself to get more sleep for the simple reason that there is so much to keep awake about.For three years now, he has been cranking up his involvement on the issue of domestic partnerships, working ever more intently on a bill that would offer same-sex couples and heterosexual couples many of the rights afforded to married couples, including insurance eligibility and medical leave.This year the domestic partnership bill, HB9, passed the House of Representatives by a narrow 33-31 vote, with most Democrats supporting and most Republicans opposed. The opponents argued that the bill would harm the “sanctity” of the tradition of marriage.A couple of weeks later, Newton sat in the Senate chamber, listening to a classic debate by the Senate Judiciary Committee that wound up killing the measure’s chances for the session. By a 6-to-4 vote, the committee tabled it.While listening to the two sides argue the case, Newton wrote his own “Message to the Senate,” in which he laid out his personal, theological and ethical side of the argument.“It has been only in the last two decades that I have gotten to know men and women whose nature is not defined simply as straight male or straight female, and who have shared their ways of living and loving with me,” he wrote. “Many have become good friends and many more, whom I have gotten to know through my volunteer work, are admired cultural artists and leaders. I even discovered them in my family – the professional and business woman to whom I was married for 28 years and my educator-daughter whom I’ve loved for 35 years.”Undeterred by another year of setbacks, Newton is studying the issue even more thoroughly and has already begun a series of meetings with local ministers whose churches or statements have opposed the reform of the state’s domestic-partners laws.Recently, he has thrown his support behind Jon Adams, a former New Mexico assistant attorney general, who is one of several contenders for the office held by Rep. Tom Udall in the Third Congressional District.Newton knew Adams when the candidate was a youngster in Los Alamos.He spoke on behalf of Adams at the nominating convention last month and has accompanied him to caucuses and campaign events around the northern part of the state.Adams brought a lawsuit against Don Wiviott, a Santa Fe developer and a rival candidate, charging that more than half of Wiviott’s signatures on a nominating petition were invalid. On Wednesday, Newton attended the hearing when the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling against Adams on technical grounds.The issue for Newton was ultimately about campaign financing and a larger concern about the potential of a wealthy candidate to purchase a congressional seat.“I wanted to get the money out,” Newton said.Preparing notes for a church study group recently, he tried to express the purpose of his life.“My personal narrative of outreach is modest,” he wrote, as he prepared to facilitate a discussion at church. “If my ethical will is to have substance – an effect on others – I must live in pursuit of making the communities I’m associated with more nurturing.”He said he has thought at times about his own death and the inconsequential substance that would remain afterward, “a pitiful amount of minerals,” he said.“And yet the soil itself is nourishing,” he added. “I want to be the soil that nurtures society.”