Indiana tries the “freedom of religion” ruse

The Thinker by Rodin

States are starting to learn that while they have the power to legislate against people they don’t like, it’s generally not a good idea to use it.

The latest case in point, of course, is the State of Indiana. Its governor Mike Pence recently unwisely signed into law a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”. It essentially gives both individuals and businesses the “freedom” to tell someone they don’t like to piss off in the name of their freedom of religion. Interviewed Sunday, Governor Pence poorly tried to defend the law. He claimed it was misunderstood, and that it was virtually the same as a 1993 federal freedom of religion law with the same name.

The federal law was never intended to allow organizations to discriminate based on freedom of religion. However, the Supreme Court has had some interesting interpretations of the law. In 2006 it ruled that the law did not apply to the states, so it is curious that Pence would use the federal law to defend his state’s law. And in 2014 it ruled in the case of the Affordable Care Act that it allowed “closely held corporations” to not include contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Presumably this logic was okay because earlier in its widely reviled Citizens United decision, the court decided that since earlier courts had declared corporations were people then corporations could not be prohibited from giving unlimited sums of money to political campaigns because free speech could not be constrained.

At best, Indiana’s law is distantly related to the federal law. Indiana’s new law is allowing anyone including any corporation, business or institution to declare that its religious freedom gives it the right to deny service to anyone that it finds violate their religious beliefs. This is in effect anything they choose to declare as a religious belief. The primary targets of the law, as documented by the photos of bigots behind the Governor Pence when he signed the law, are anticipated to be gays, lesbians and transgender people. Essentially the law is a license to discriminate collectively by both individuals and non-governmental organizations under the guise of freedom of religion.

The howls of protest were immediate and appear to be unrelenting. Angie’s List is one business threatening to move out of the state. Apple CEO Tim Cook decried the law in a Washington Post editorial today. Connecticut won’t let its employees travel to Indiana because it doesn’t want to even indirectly be associated with their bigotry. The NCAA is wishing it had time to move the Final Four playoffs to a different city. These are just some of the most notable responses to the law. There are plenty of others easy enough to find if you scan the news.

While Indiana is hardly the only red state to pass a law like this (Arkansas recently enacted something similar, and is getting a backlash), the track record for these laws suggests only foolish states would pass laws like these. You may recall that Arizona passed its own version of this law a few years back, to howls of protests and a huge loss of business. Eventually, they saw the light and repealed the law. It’s not hard to predict that within a few weeks Indiana is likely to do the same. No matter how right they think they are in their convictions, the national scorn and more importantly the loss of economic opportunity in the state will force a change of heart. Right now there is talk of an amendment to the law, which probably won’t change its substance or satisfy any of its critics.

In general, red states seem to be continually refighting the Civil War, just via its state legislatures, and this Indiana law is the latest skirmish. It all comes down to one thing: they think certain “better” people have license to make the “worse” people miserable. Their successes are principally a result of the tacit or explicit approval by the Supreme Court when these laws come up for review. One recent success was the court’s overturning of aspects of the Civil Rights Act that required federal approval of voting laws in principally southern states. The rest of America, and actually much of the south itself, has rejected bigotry. The reason many southern states haven’t caught on is because voting districts are so heavily gerrymandered that the citizens cannot speak with sufficient force.

Aside from the obvious bigotry, what drives most of us nuts about Indiana’s law is that these legislatures don’t understand that your freedom of religion does not give you the right to restrict other’s freedoms. Freedom doesn’t work that way. In fact, this is the antithesis of actual freedom. If you can allow a baker to not sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because it is against his religious beliefs as he interprets it, the same baker could refuse to sell one to a mixed race couple using a similar rationalization. A closely held bus corporation could say that their religion requires blacks to sit on the back of the bus, or to not allow any blacks on their buses. God is telling them so! “Freedom of religion” could selectively trump any sort of public law, which would render these laws unenforceable. Yet a law must apply uniformly or it is not a law. Instead it becomes no more than a hope that everyone will play nice.

Certainly freedom gives everyone the right to be a bigot. No one can control what you believe, although law can regulate your actions. Employers cannot discriminate in employment based on lots of criteria including sex and race and that includes closely held corporations with deeply religious CEOs like Hobby Lobby.

What’s clearly going on is that freedom of religion is being used as a proxy to effectively change laws that otherwise could only be changed via a process of law. If we really want to deny blacks their voting rights, it has to be done legally. And our Supreme Court apparently believes onerous voter ID laws are constitutional exercises in the legitimate power of the state because it’s not 1960 anymore. It thus effectively legalized bigotry in that instance.

In reality, no state or jurisdiction has the right to pass any legislation that exempts anyone from uniform application of the law. It’s so important we created a constitutional amendment specifically to require this: the 14th amendment. Legally it is clear: the 14th amendment specifically applies to all the states, which means that if a state grants the freedom to one group to effectively oppress or discriminate against another group, it is not just a violation of the law, it is against our constitution.

It is this bedrock principle that the vast majority of Americans are recoiling against in this case, and justly so. “Freedom of religion” here is simply a ruse. Indiana is in the process of getting its butt collectively slapped by fair-minded Americans. I for one won’t visit Indiana or spend one dime there until their disgusting law is repealed.

The Civil War is not over

The Thinker by Rodin

I haven’t been posting book reviews lately because I’ve been focusing on The Civil War. I’m slogging through the last volume of Shelby Foote’s history of The Civil War and with luck I’ll finish it in a month or two. I read it a few pages at a time in the evenings shortly before turning off the light next to my bed.

The whole Civil War is fascinating, appalling, complicated, and messy and much of it was poorly executed. Everyone agrees though that The Civil War reached its ghoulish zenith in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in early July 1863. The town of course is infamous for the bloodiest battle of The Civil War fought in there from July 1-3, 1863. There were over 46,000 casualties and nearly 8,000 soldiers killed in the battle. It was a rare union victory at a time when one was needed, and one of the few battles ever lost by Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

My wife and I toured the battlefield today, about a ninety minute drive from our home. It was not my first visit, having toured it briefly some thirty years earlier. Today we paid Gettysburg a proper visit. The battle may have been horrendous, but at least the National Park Service can say with pride that tourists visiting the battlefield will have a first class experience. Unlike some battlefields, this one has been meticulously preserved. It is not hard at all to imagine what the battle was like. While certain places like the peach orchard are gone, the terrain is still intact and largely undeveloped. Visitors like us can take a driving tour of the battlefield where there are ample opportunities to park the car and look out over the battlefield from various Confederate and Union positions. The only problem getting good views of the battlefield were due to the thousands of monuments on the grounds to various battalions, regiments and soldiers who participated in the battle. The visitor center offers a first class experience for tourists, with a twenty minute film about the battle, followed by a presentation of the huge cyclorama made in the late 19th century by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, and an extensive museum about the battle, its origins and its aftermath. Touring Gettysburg turns out to be a full day experience. It should be hard for anyone but whiny children not to be moved and a bit awed by the experience. There were ample park rangers and people in period costumes to help cement the experience as well. The theater, cyclorama and museum do not come free and cost about $18 a ticket, but it is money very well spent. The tour of the battlefield is free unless you take a chartered bus tour. Most people do it with their cars, but there were some bicyclists and even some people touring the battlefield in Segways. Blue skies and hot but dry air made visiting the park tolerable and even pleasant when there was a breeze.

While Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves, I left Gettysburg realizing that we are still waging The Civil War. We fight about largely the same issues. Back then it was North vs. South, slavery vs. freedom and state rights vs. federal rights. Today it is Red State vs. Blue State. The issues today are not that much different than they were in 1863. Some people, mostly in red states, believe they should have more power than other people by virtue of their place in society, money in the bank, and yes, sadly, based on being white and male and will do their damnedest to make it happen. One of them, Paul Ryan, was picked today as Mitt Romney’s running mate. They have used the last 150 years to erode the gains that were cemented in the 13th and 14th amendment. It came early in the guise of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. Today it comes in the erosion of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision and through blatantly discriminatory voter disenfranchisement laws, such as those in Ohio which gives red counties extended voting hours but prohibits them in many blue counties. See it also at work through gerrymandering of legislative and state districts.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought, in part, to provide a new birth of freedom for Americans, at least according to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But freedom remains unequal and new freedoms are often acquired only by tooth and nail. Sometimes we get them through fiat, such as when the Supreme Court invalidated state sodomy laws. Most of the time they are granted begrudgingly and haltingly, as with gay marriage. So many people who talk the line on freedom want to grant it only to people a lot like them.

When does this game end? Many of us hoped it ended at Gettysburg, or at least at the conclusion of The Civil War. In reality, it never ends because so many people simply don’t want others unlike us to have the freedoms they enjoy. The privileged vs. the non-privileged must seem to them a natural order, and freedom seems unnatural.  At least for the moment, the battle is fought through largely democratic means instead of through horrendous acts of violence that we tuned into today at Gettysburg.

It is a long struggle, but the bloody battle in Gettysburg nearly 150 years ago was sadly just one small step towards true freedom for all.

Next up on our vacation: Philadelphia, where our nation’s new birth of freedom began.

Money is freedom

The Thinker by Rodin

Americans celebrate freedom. Everyone is free, we proudly proclaim. But what exactly is freedom anyhow? Freedom amounts to being able to do what you want when you want to do it. Based on this criterion, it’s clear to me that some of us are freer that others, and those are people with more money. When you have a lot of money, you have the freedom to go backpacking in Tibet. You are probably not going to realize this particular freedom if you are a product of a single-family household and your mother lives in subsidized housing.

We sometimes celebrate the homeless as free people. Perhaps there is a certain freedom in being a vagabond. You can go where you want but chances are to get there you will have to walk. You had best not walk into certain planned communities, particularly in Sanford, Florida. A George Zimmerman type anxious to try out the Stand Your Ground law may kill you. The homeless are free, but you are likely to frequently go hungry. I understand that the dumpsters behind neighborhood Burger Kings offer al fresco free dining opportunities. Sleep will probably be uncomfortable as you will be outdoors and subject to the elements. You likely won’t be allowed to sleep just anywhere, not even places you would think you would be, like a public park. So be prepared to be rudely woken up at 3 AM and asked to shuffle along, or hauled to a nearby police station and booked for being a vagrant. There you can at least you can get free meals and a warm place to sleep.

For most of us, this freedom is very limiting, and something to be avoided not embraced. In fact, it is a faux freedom. Wild animals have this sort of freedom too, but no one envies them. However, with money freedom becomes tangible. Money can buy you freedom from constant hunger and provide a safe place to call home. With more money it can buy health care and likely keep you out of a whole lot of unnecessary misery. With even more money you can become educated, attract a quality mate and take regular vacations. With yet more money you can take exotic vacations, afford homes in the Hamptons and maybe run for political office.

So in reality freedom is not so much about being free, it is about the how much freedom you can afford to purchase. And that depends on how much money you or your parents have. Consequently, in a nation that values freedom we also value wealth, because the more wealth you have the more freedom you have.

We are also aware that freedom is constrained by law. In many mostly Southern states, your right to vote can be constrained by requiring state issued IDs to be shown at polling places, which curiously affects the poor almost exclusively. Sometimes fewer polling machines show up in predominantly poor neighborhoods as well, making it harder to have your vote count, such as happened in areas around Cleveland in the 2000 election. The consequence of actions like these is to give those with money more leverage to influence laws than those with less money. The rich also have disproportionate resources to influence others politically. This is perfectly legal. In its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court also asserted something wholly absent in the constitution: that corporations have the same rights as people and can give unlimited amounts to PACs. Unsurprisingly then, our government tends to disproportionately reflect the interests of those with money over those without.

Effectively money not only buys freedom, but also allows some measure of being able to take away freedoms from others. Lately the aspiration that all should have roughly the same amount of freedom has been classified as socialism, a strange assertion for a nation founded on the assumption that all men are equal. Make health care available to all regardless of their ability to pay, and poorer people will effectively have more freedom, but in the eyes of many it is an unearned freedom, thus it should not be allowed.

How does one earn more freedom? If freedom is wealth, it happens through acquiring wealth somehow, which can be hard to do without a good education and the right connections. Some time back I wrote about the rags to riches myth. Yet there was one famous president who arguably demonstrated that it was possible to ascend from rags to riches. He was our greatest president: Abraham Lincoln. He had no formal education and never went to law school, yet he became a lawyer and eventually president of the United States. How on earth do you get to become a lawyer with no formal education? At the time it meant convincing the Illinois Supreme Court, which had only recently become a state, that you were competent to practice law. Honest Abe did it somehow.

Rest assured that Lincoln’s tactic no longer works in Illinois or likely in any other state. If you want to practice law, you had best get a law degree and join the local bar association. That of course will require money, and it’s unlikely some benevolent nonprofit will be giving it to disadvantaged inner city youth. Anyhow, if you can acquire a law degree then maybe the Illinois Supreme Court will deign to let you argue before it. Since Abe’s time, Illinois has tightened its standards on who is allowed to acquire higher levels of freedom, and it is generally doled out only to those with the means. In effect, it has cut one pathway that enabled someone to go from rags to riches. There are virtually none left, but the Republican myth remains that there are all sorts of ways to achieve the impossible.

We have created all sorts of barriers to keep people from moving from one socioeconomic level to the next. If it happens at all, it requires superhuman effort. Few of us are supermen, so we are virtually doomed to fail and we will stay in our social class. This seems to be fine for those who are already have wealth. Indeed, they seem anxious to add additional barriers that have the effect of making it even harder to ascend up the socioeconomic ladder. This is done in the guise of welfare reform, reducing or eliminating subsidized housing, and strict time limits to food stamps and unemployment benefits. The effect is to give certain classes of people more freedom than others and through lowered estate taxes give them the ability to extend those freedoms to their children. It also helps ensure a permanent underclass of citizens and keeps a permanent upper class as well.

The lack of defined pathways to become upwardly mobile feeds resentment and fosters insular behavior, heightening class-consciousness and dividing us as a society. To understand the brouhaha in Wisconsin, one has to look not at the bottom of the income scale, but at its middle and the brazen power of those at the top to push the middle class further down the income scale by lowering their pensions, making them pay more for their health insurance and not allowing collective bargaining. In effect, through legislation the middle class’s freedom and wealth is being moved to those with more wealth. Ironically, this is classified as being part of a pro-freedom agenda. The reaction by a vulnerable but politically important middle class was entirely predictable. It was fed by cluelessness and a sense of superiority of those with wealth that they know better. Mostly it is due to a fundamental unwillingness by those in power to understand the connections that implicitly bind us.

Some of the wealthy understand this connection. They know that their wealth is predicated on keeping the other 99% hopeful for a more prosperous future. They understand that marginally higher taxes on their income are actually an investment in their prosperity. Moreover, the smartest ones understand that for society to be stable there must be viable economic ladders to move between all financial classes. Most of those ladders have disappeared, mostly between the lower and middle classes, but also between the middle and upper classes. These ladders do not appear magically, or they would exist now. Instead they must be constructed by civilized society. While capitalism helps provide the wealth that makes these ladders possible, they do not occur from largess, but are a result of government.

In truth, upward mobility is what truly drives growth and by extension wealth and freedom. It is in the best interest of the rich to empower the poor and the middle class so their talents can be maximized for the benefit of society. For when that happens, rather than wealth trickling down from the moneyed, it trickles up. All are enriched, all share the benefits of greater connection, and all share in a greater freedom. It is a formula that worked well for America until it was abruptly changed with the election of Ronald Reagan. To become great as a country again we must rebuild these economic ladders. The decline of our country will be marked by the day when we deliberately destroyed these ladders of hope and opportunity.

More Virginia Legislature Madness

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s dangerous when our legislature is in session. It seems they can’t help themselves. Rather than concentrate on boring things like funding roads and education they have to find ways to infringe on our civil liberties instead. And lately they seem to have this thing for women who might actually want to choose when they get pregnant.

It started back in early January with the introduction of HB 1677. Delegate John A. Cosgrove (Republican, naturally) of Chesapeake decided it should be a crime if a woman did not report a miscarriage within twelve hours. She would be guilty of a Class 1 Misdemeanor. In other words after suffering the trauma of a miscarriage, any woman who didn’t have her wits sufficiently together to promptly report the experience would be a lawbreaker. For this “crime” she could spend up to 12 months in jail and pay a $2,500 fine.

I, along with many other Virginians, were outraged. Fortunately we had time to act on this bill before it was presented for an up or down vote. I did my part and contacted my state representative and senator. And thankfully this horrible bill was withdrawn.

But the wingnuts are back. Yesterday the Virginia Senate passed the Devolites Davis bill, SB 456. This is an amendment to a bill submitted by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple. Her bill simply defined contraception as the prevention of the union of sperm or egg or implantation of an egg in the uterine wall. No problem there: this seems like an obvious and straightforward definition.

But our legislature couldn’t leave well enough alone. As the Hampton Roads Daily Press put it:

[Whipple’s] bill would legally define contraception as the prevention of the union of sperm and egg or implantation of an egg in the uterine wall.

Commonly prescribed birth-control pills prevent pregnancy through both means. Abortion opponents who contend life begins at conception insist that denying a fertilized egg the opportunity to attach itself to the womb and develop as a fetus is a form of abortion.

Whipple’s bill and a companion measure by Del. Kristin Amundson, D-Fairfax County, would head off anti-abortion groups’ efforts to classify birth control pills as a form of abortion. That could subject obtaining the pills, intrauterine devices and other forms of birth-control to Virginia’s growing list of abortion restrictions, including parental notification and consent for girls under 18…

Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis’ floor amendment applied a less specific dictionary definition of pregnancy. It was adopted largely along party lines in a 21-17 vote with one abstention.

Rather than take the chance that this amended bill could classify birth control pills as abortion devices Whipple has withdrawn the legislation.

Meanwhile, Delegate Mark Cole introduced HB 1918, which wants to give any fertilized human egg protection. “That life begins at the moment of fertilization and the right to enjoyment of life guaranteed by Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution of Virginia is vested in each born and preborn human being from the moment of fertilization.” Never mind the inconvenient scientific fact that life does not begin at conception. A fertilized egg is a zygote. It cannot grow nor does it divide at this stage. It is inert. It has not even divided once. Conception occurs when the zygote travels into the uterus and implants itself onto the wall of the uterus. It is when the zygote comes in contact with the blood of the uterine wall that energy allows cell division to begin. It is then that something resembling life has actually started.

I hate learning about these things after the fact. But if you are a concerned citizen of Virginia you cannot wait until these stories show up months later in The Washington Post. Their editors there seem to be asleep on these issues. But you can get on the Democracy for Virginia Legislative Sentry mailing list. And be prepared to act quickly before yet another needlessly intrusive bill is quietly voted into law and one more right you’ve always taken for granted vanishes from the Commonwealth.