Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
Going undercover at crisis pregnancy centers

You've seen the billboards up and down the state: "Pregnant and scared?"

Well, Dania Flores wasn't pregnant but she was a little bit scared the first time she visited a crisis pregnancy center. A recent high school graduate, she was working undercover, posing as a pregnant teen to gather intel on these operations, which have but one goal: to prevent abortion.

Last year, Flores visited 43 crisis pregnancy centers around California, many in impoverished parts of the Central Valley. She was recruited by NARAL Pro-Choice California to help bolster political support for a law that would force crisis pregnancy centers to inform women that they might be entitled to state-funded support for all reproductive health services, including prenatal care and abortion.

In an interview Monday at NARAL's office here, Flores told me she did not record her visits, which would have violated California law, but recorded herself immediately after most visits, sometimes in the car, while the details were still...

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Fight against vaccination bill finds ally in ACLU

The anti-vaccine moms began lining up in the hall outside the state Senate hearing room at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, two hours before the doors opened. Some had babies strapped to their chests, others sat on the floor with small children.

They had arrived from Oakland, from Santa Cruz and from Sonoma. They were protest veterans now, having trekked to the Capitol two, three, four other times to raise their voices against a law that would bar most unvaccinated children from classrooms. Most wore red.

"I'm so emotional about the possibility that this is over and I can finally rest," one said.

"My daughter asked, 'Mommy, are you going to fight the Evil Empire again today?' " said another.

"I was going to post on Facebook, 'Whose sex life is gone?' " joked a third.

The moms laughed, knowingly.

"If they kill the bill, we have closure," said Oakland chiropractor Eileen Karpfinger, a mother of four. "If not we keep going."

There was no closure for the anti-vaccine moms, who cling to the belief, despite...

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Almonds, the demons of drought? Frustrated growers tell another story

It's not clear exactly when almonds became the scapegoat for the California drought.

Maybe it was last August, when the Atlantic posted "The Dark Side of Almond Use," implicating the tasty little nut in every environmental crisis from bee colony collapse disorder to the struggles of the state's Chinook salmon population.

Or maybe it was in February, when a headline in Mother Jones blared, "It takes how much water to grow an almond?!" (Profoundly misleading answer: 1.1 gallons per nut.)

Since then, the almond's culpability for you name it — our depleting aquifers, our sinking topsoil, the heartbreak of psoriasis — has become an article of faith among finger-wagging pundits and environmental activists.

Oh, yes, they may admit, our snowpack is negligible because of a dearth of rain, but the real reason we are suffering our yellow lawns, unflushed toilets and shorter showers is because rapacious farmers with dollar signs where their souls should be insist on growing almonds.

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In drought-stricken California, grass is greener on painted lawns

Some people look at a real estate crash and think: doom. Some look at a drought and think: more doom.

But two of the worst calamities to befall California in the last decade have turned out to be very, very good news for Jim Power, a 45-year-old mortgage broker whose business imploded in 2007.

"I was up real late one night watching 'Nightline,'" he told me, "and there was a story about a guy in New York that was painting lawns, and I said, 'What a great idea!'"

Soon after, he launched "LawnLift" (Tag line: "It's like a facelift for your lawn!"). Now he is a leading purveyor of lawn paint for homeowners, hoteliers, wedding planners and others who won't give up their natural lawns, but can't bear the look of drought-stricken grass.

When Power started, though, he had no thought for the drought, which was years away. His business was squarely aimed at real estate agents trying to unload foreclosed homes. After foreclosure, banks shut off utilities. Yards wither.

"Curb appeal," that oft-mocked...

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Two fired preschool teachers in Thousand Oaks: not Christian enough?

There was nothing in their employment record to suggest that veteran preschool teachers Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara deserved to be fired in 2012 by Little Oaks School.

The two were described in court records as "capable" and "competent," with "no discipline history."

In 2009, Little Oaks was bought by Calvary Chapel, a Thousand Oaks church led by the Rev. Rob McCoy, a conservative Christian with political aspirations.

Over the next few years, the school transitioned from a secular tradition to an explicitly religious one: Mandatory chapel service. Prayers before snack and lunch. Art projects revolving around religious themes.

Teachers were expected to go along with the program. Neither Serrano nor Guevara had a problem with that.

But teachers were also expected to provide the school, starting in 2012, with a "pastoral reference," essentially a religious loyalty oath, signed by each teacher's pastor.

Serrano, 55, a Protestant, and Guevara, 65, a Catholic, were not regular church-goers....

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Pot farm a template for strapped Indian tribes -- or a cautionary tale?

It's quiet this time of year in Mendocino County.

The marijuana plants are still tiny, so the air is fresh and unmarred by the skunky smell of ripe weed. Day workers have not yet invaded the area in search of lucrative work trimming the county's famous resiny buds. "Helicopter season" — when skies thump with the sound of cops hunting down illegal "grows" — is months away.

Still, pot is very much on the mind of Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

Right now, sitting in his cluttered office, he's concerned about a new venture involving a local Indian tribe, the Pinoleville Pomo Nation; a Kansas company called FoxBarry that helps Native American tribes develop for-profit ventures; and United Cannabis, a Colorado company that develops strains of pot.

The Pinoleville marijuana farm could be the first large-scale medical pot cultivation and distribution enterprise on tribal land in California, if not the country.

The tribe would devote 2.5 acres of its 99-acre rancheria to the venture, which...

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