How did natural phenomena become known as 'Acts of God'?

News-DemocratFebruary 14, 2014 

With all the people who have hissy-fits over the separation of church and state, why do public schools seek "Act of God" waivers as a way to use extra snow days without having to make them up? I find it amusing that schools want to ban God, yet now rely on him to bail them out. -- C.E., of Edwardsville

Forget the secularists and humanists. Have you ever wondered how God himself feels about being blamed for causing tornados, blizzards and other catastrophes that leave death and destruction in their wake?

I mean, how would I like it if I were omnipotent and people kept referring to massive disasters as acts of Schlueter even though I hadn't purposely singled out any particular person or town with my wrath?

Yet "Act of God" is a term that has been firmly rooted in legal circles for more than a century as a way to simply define events beyond the control of man. As early as 1864, the case of Tennant v. Earl of Glasgow in England set it out this way:

"Circumstances which no human foresight can provide against, and of which human prudence is not bound to recognize the possibility, and which when they do occur, therefore, are calamities that do not involve the obligation of paying for the consequences that may result from them."

As a result, insurance companies often issue contracts that stipulate their obligations might be waived in the event of lightning, floods, earthquakes or sudden illness.

Conversely, a frozen water pipe that bursts may not be an act of God, because the owner of the building probably should have been aware of the cold weather and taken steps to insulate his plumbing system.

"... when the loss occasioned is the result in any degree of human aid or interference, or if an act of human negligence contributed to the injury ... it cannot be considered the act of God," it was ruled in the U.S. case of Woodruff v Oleite Corp. in 1922.

Of course this can create problems well beyond your amusing contradiction. When used in a legal case, it could be argued that judges and lawyers know the phrase is not meant literally, much like when people say out of frustration, "The gods are against me."

But as pointed out in the 1962 case of Goldberg v. R. Grier Miller & Sons, "(J)urors do not know this and when judges charge that a reputed accident may have been an act of god, there are many juror who may be so awestricken by the concept of a divine manifestation that they cannot give to the facts the down-to-earth, tangible, mathematical analysis and deliberation for a secular verdict."

Perhaps that's why some states such as Oklahoma and North Dakota have used "irresistible superhuman cause" instead. Maybe that would help avoid any misunderstandings between God and man, too.

"Man in his finite mind cannot pass upon the wisdom of the infinite," the 1962 Goldberg case ruling went on to state. "There is something shocking in attributing any tragedy or holocaust to God.

"In any event, no person called into court to answer for a tort may find exoneration ... by asserting that it was not he but the Supreme Being which inflicted the wound and the hurts of which the plaintiff complains."

(For much more, go to www.duhaime.org and search for "act of God.")

What year did Riedel's restaurant move to Belleville and what year did it change its name? -- B.T., of Belleville

A landmark for years at the old East St. Louis Howard Johnson's on State Street, Riedel's literally moved lock, stock and building in 1978 to 1001 North Belt West in Swansea.

But when a last-minute investment plan fell through, the restaurant turned off its stoves for the last time at 11 p.m. Aug. 4, 1994. It reopened the following year as Papa Rizzo's, but after defaulting on $1 million in loans, it, too, was shuttered in September 1998.

Another four years would pass before John Schieppe bought it in November 2002 for his third Schiappa's location. But citing poor walk-in traffic, Schieppe closed the restaurant end of the business in August 2007.

Today's trivia

What winter sport made its debut at the Summer Games?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: As of Friday morning, two Norwegian cross-country skiers share honors as the most decorated Olympic athletes in history. During the Winter Olympics from 1992 to 1998, Bjorn Daehlie picked up an even dozen medals -- eight golds and four silvers. But Ole Einar Bjorndallen, who turned 40 late last month, equaled that feat in Sochi when he took gold in the sprint. He has seven golds, four silvers and a bronze. And he now has a chance to take the lead, especially in the relay in which he has won two golds and a silver in past Winter Games. The USSR's Raisa Smetanina tops all women with 10 while Apolo Ohno (8) and Bonnie Blair (6) lead all U.S., athletes.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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