Category Archives: Public Policy Issues

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Religious Freedom Restoration Acts

A lot of news coverage recently has focused on discriminatory laws in Indiana and Arkansas restricting services to legally married same-sex couples and pending legislation in other states. Most reports have ignored the fact that LGBT people can be denied employment and housing in the majority of states. Gays and lesbians can be fired simply because of their sexual orientation without any protection from discrimination. Federal legislation, dubbed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), has been pending since 1993 that would add LGBT as a protected class similar to the other classes of people cited prior laws.

In common practice, fewer gays and lesbians are being fired in spite of the fact that is legal to do so because businesses and other organizations have found that to be damaging to their images if they discriminate. It’s simply bad business practice if you want to recruit and keep good employees, including many straight allies. But that doesn’t excuse the practice that still exists among some companies, and particularly churches, who still discriminate based solely on sexual orientation. Some church-related colleges recently have been in the news because of their discriminatory practices. They claim their religion protects them from claims of discrimination because of their belief that homosexuality is a mortal sin and therefore all homosexuals are unworthy of employment. Of course, some people go even further and say that all LGBT people are worthy of death, imprisonment, or at least physical and mental abuse.

In those cases where such acts of violence occur, some states are including LGBT people along with race as a categoryin their hate crimes laws. Basically those laws impose additional punishment if the motive to a crime can be proven to be the result of a person’s hate of another individual and not just a crime of passion. Such situations are very hard to prove in court and probably offer little protection or deterrence. So-called “bullying” laws against abuse of LGBT youth have been much more effective in that they impose responsibilities on teachers and administrators to act when bullying occurs rather than to ignore it.

Some would say that all this proves the point that you can’t legislate morality, and where discrimination and abuse exist in the name of religion you simply have to wait until time brings about the change in the public’s beliefs and perceptions about homosexuality. Public opinion is changing along with the laws that have decriminalized homosexuality and legalized same-sex marriage, but the radical right is still a holdout in the cultural changes of recent decades. Their hatred of Obama because of his race is re-enforced by his support of LGBT issues. The politics of fear mongering has been successful through the ages, and as long as you continue to tell the big lie it works. It only unravels when the lies are revealed. The radical right group LGBT people with Muslims and Jews and other people they hate and justify their hatred in the name of religion. Their religion, however, is the antithesis of Christianity and everything that Jesus preached. In reality what they want is a theocracy similar to Iran when the majority can impose their religious beliefs and practices on everyone so that there is no freedom of religion and the state and the church are one. Our founding fathers learned from the abuses in Europe of those practices and set America on a course to separate the two. Thus we have the hypocrisy of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

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Marriage Equality

The NC Policy Watch Critical Conversations Forum on August 7th featured Chris Brook, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, Jen Jones, Director of Communications and Outreach at Equality North Carolina, and Shawn Long, one of the plaintiffs in one of the court challenges to the North Carolina discrimination amendment One.

Mr. Brook observed that the law typically moves very slowly, but this has been an exception with Supreme Court and 20 Appeals Courts’ decisions in a short time. There are three district courts in NC, and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals includes the southeastern states. The recent decision by that court in the Bostic case was specifically in regards to rescinding the Virginia state law banning gay marriage.  A footnote in that decision refers to the NC Amendment One. Four cases have been filed in NC to repeal Amendment One and are pending in district courts.  If the Supreme Court remands the decisions of the various Appeals Courts, then gay marriage could occur quickly in NC, but if they accept the appeals it may not occur until 2015 – 2016

Ms. Jones noted that Equality NC has partnered with the ACLU to “tell our stories” so that in addition to legal action there is a convincing case in public opinion and political action with the NC General Assembly. In NC there are no safeguards on job or housing discrimination against LGBT people, and resolving the marriage equality issue doesn’t protect LGBT people from job or housing discrimination, including public accomodations.  The issues also include discrimination in the schools.

Foster parenting and adoption are extremely difficult for LGBT couples.   Marriage Equality will not be the solution because other discriminatory laws will still be effect.  NC is one of 29 states that do not have non-discriminatory job protection laws. Legislation has been introduced in NC for the past 8 years without bringing brought to a vote.  In NC 17 counties and 12 cities have non-discriminatory policies.

Shawn Long observed that we are all part of the same big melting pot, and all we want is for our family to have the same rights as others. The organization Marriage Equality USA has a video on their web site addressing the rights and needs of LGBT families.

The 2012 decision of the United States Supreme Court held that restricting U.S. federal interpretation of “marriage” and “spouse” to apply only to heterosexual unions, by Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), is unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, because doing so “disparage[s] and … injure[s] those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.” This decision invalidated state laws on this issue, and in every subsequent challenge the DOMA decision has prevailed. It already has become part of the regulations in the Federal Executive Departments and agencies, and it is only a matter of time before it prevails in all states.

In response to a question from the floor about the backlash from the rush of marriage equality decisions, the legal and public opinion tactics of the right have focused on the impact of these decisions on the religious liberty of individuals to practice their religious beliefs that may exclude LGBT people from receiving goods and/or services. Where those exceptions have been challenged, they have been held not to be valid.

 

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What Religious Freedom and What is Discrimination?

The recent Supreme Court decision regarding the rights of Hobby Lobby have echoed throughout public opinion, with defenders on the right and critics on the left. The 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that there shall be no laws passed that would abridge on the freedom of religious expression. The courts have a long history of cases of how to interpret that amendment: how absolute it is and when the public interest overrides it. The courts therefore have held that there are some limits to religious activities but have been more open in terms of religious beliefs. The debate is when the right to believe what you want comes into conflict with the impact of how your expression of those beliefs may impact the rights of others. Does the amendment allow you to discriminate against others based on your religious beliefs? The courts generally have said that does not apply in terms of voting rights, employment, etc., but have been more circumspect in terms of property rights.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not mention LGBT people as one of the protected classes, and the current argument about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is that some versions allow for exceptions based upon religious beliefs. In other words, if I believe that it is OK to discriminate against you because you’re gay or lesbian or transgender, then I’m allowed to do so because my rights trump yours.

The narrow debate over religious beliefs and expression ignore the context in which the 1st Amendment was written. At that time the common situation in most countries was that of an official state-sanctioned religion. Everyone was required to observe the practices of the official religion and pay taxes to support it. In many European countries that is still the case. In England, there were narrow exceptions for dissenters who were allowed to practice certain aspects of their beliefs as long as they didn’t conflict with the official religion.

The founding fathers said that there must be a separation of church and state and that no one religion may be the official church of the state and that everyone must be allowed to establish his or her own church and to practice the dogma of that church. They did not want a theocracy such as exists in Iran. So we have Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and hundreds of Protestant denominations that function within the US without restrictions. Churches are exempt from paying taxes although religious individuals are not. The debate sometimes has focused on exactly what constitutes a church. If I have a congregation of 10 people who meet in my house, is that a church? What if a church operates a business? (See the following article from the Advocate: Advocate Commentary )

Because the federal government cannot impose laws upon our religious expression does that mean that churches, religious-supported organizations such as hospitals, schools, and universities are free to discriminate? What about corporations, which the Supreme Court has now declared to have the same rights as people, although some folks interpret to mean that legally they are real persons rather than some artificially contrived legal construct. If you carried that to its logical conclusion then you might say that corporations are exempt from paying taxes if that is the religious belief of their board of directors. In the Hobby Lobby case the exception was made because they were “closely-held,” i.e. privately owned rather than public corporations. Well, once you start unraveling the legal strings then the whole system collapses.

It is not my intention to debate the Hobby Lobby case since I am not qualified to comment on the legal arguments. In my opinion when religiously based organizations try to stretch their exemptions from federal laws too far then they weaken the entire structure of separation of church and state. When they claim that they are without exception above the law, then that rationale weakens the concept of the rule of law in this country.

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Knocking Over the Tables of the Money Changers in the Temple

My Twitter feed each day is filled with reports of people using religion to justify their racism, homophobia, jingoism, and neo-Nazi beliefs and actions. These reports challenge and chastise these people correctly for their abuse of the name of God and ask that people shame them or even boycott them. I know that Jesus expressed his anger at the abuse of the rituals of the Temple by the moneychangers who took advantage of the pilgrims. He noted that they profited from religion without understanding its intention.

But that was in a different culture and time and before the proliferation of mass media, and I wonder if giving these crackpots notoriety is the best way to deal with them. Don’t they seek media attention to spread their messages, and even if we condemn them aren’t we in effect helping to spread their messages? Why not just ignore them, or at least not give them free publicity?

Does that mean the only option is to do nothing in the face of such outrages? No, but I suggest direct action rather than an automatic, in-direct, and ineffective reaction. Let’s deal with these folks face-to-face, through their pocketbook, or by challenging their supporters. The media loves controversy, so why does there always have to be “another side” of the story? Some statements are just flagrant lies or deliberate mis-information so that they just don’t justify a legitimate point-of-view. When someone maims or kills someone and then justifies their actions because of their beliefs, they’re either insane or evil fanatics. We want to know why people do terrible things and what is their motivation. Well, sometimes there isn’t any —they’re just crazy.

Which raises the issue of how to deal with gun violence, homelessness, as well as racism and homophobia. Trying to deal with the just the symptoms of a dysfunctional society is a hopeless effort, and we must come to terms with the root cause of these depravations. We must create new and effective systems of mental health treatment programs. That will require most than just providing insurance coverage for these treatments; it means new programs that are not just window-dressing but are truly effective in making substantial and permanent changes in people’s lives. The status of mental health treatment programs in the United States is a disgrace, especially so in North Carolina.

So rather than just re-tweet some reaction to an obviously stupid statement or action, get involved in the National Organization for Mental Illness (NAMI) with a local chapter or lobby for public funding of services to get people off the streets and help rebuild their lives. Our local relief non-profit agencies do a good job, but they simply are overwhelmed and don’t have the resources to cope with the vast needs.

Yes, it will require education for several generations to convert some of these misapprehensions of religion, as we saw with the issue of slavery, but it can be done. But the solution requires more than just education, it requires a re-orientation of some people’s basic psychological make-up so that they are in touch with reality and the true nature of humans to love and need one another rather than hate and kill each other.

 

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Too Agitated to work

Late this week the North Carolina General Assembly passed a budget completing its “long” session and headed home.  The Republican majority in both houses with a Republican governor started the session with the attitude “ We won, we can do whatever we want, and you can’t stop us.”  There was little effort at compromise or consensus as the legislators giddy with power for the first time in more than a hundred years stripped the state of nearly every piece of progressive legislation passed in the past century.  In the name of “reform”, they turned the Old North state back to the sleepy backwater that it used to be 150 years ago with repressive laws for minorities and a free pass for businesses.  Between ALEC and Art Pope, the Republicans had a field day.

In protest of what has been occurring, the NAACP and others have staged demonstrations of thousands on the mall behind the Legislative building every Monday evening for the past 12 weeks.  In addition, several hundred people also chose to be arrested to emphasize how strongly they felt the legislators were leading us in the wrong direction.  The Governor and the legislators simply ignored or ridiculed them.  The New York Times and the Wall St. Journal had different assessments of the sessions, but it is clear that a slew of lawsuits will be the most immediate result, including possible action by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The action that most affected me directly was a law that instead of giving me a credit makes me pay a penalty for buying a hybrid car last year.  To me of one the most confusing was the one where the former Mayor of Charlotte, now Governor, signed a law taking the control of the airport away from the city and giving it to an appointed board.  They also tried to take away control of the schools from the Wake County School Board (the largest in the state), but that action failed.

Granted that the Democrats had been in power too long and had more than their share of scandals in recent years, but when you jam on the brakes and make a 180-degree turn in nearly every state policy in less than six months you’re bound to cause some unintended consequences in spite of the best intentions or the most openly aggressive partisan actions.  North Carolina has had a high ranking in many decades in most categories, and it will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in the next couple of years.

I’ve been too busy demonstrating, signing petitions, and attending meetings to do much book promotion although I did have a local book signing the end of June.  I’m running a free promotion this weekend on the Kindle edition of Neither Here Nor There before I close out my exclusive agreement with Amazon and add Smashwords that will also export to several other distributors. I will have some other promotions running in August, and I’m slowly getting some word-of-mouth activity.  The game seems to be getting as many reviews as quickly as possible.

 

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Public policy issues and the great divide

I’ve started doing the research to rewrite the last chapter of my first book that focused on our broken health care system.  During the decade since I wrote it, we had Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act of 2010.  Some of its provisions are just now going into effect in 2013, 2014, and 2015.  Other provisions have either been rescinded or revoked.  Most people don’t know or understand what’s happening.  Many of the books and most of the publicity surrounding these changes have been partisan or ill informed so it’s difficult to find accurate and impartial information.  I watched an Alliance for Health Reform briefing this week on changes in health information technology and read some reports from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation, but I’m still confused.  See http://www.healthcare.gov

I won’t try to summarize this complex and complicated legislation that includes a lot of regulations that are still being finalized by various agencies.  But it does raise an important question in my mind of why our country has become so polarized on nearly every public policy issue.  We can’t seem to agree or compromise on anything.  The list is long: immigration, taxes, job creation, economic inequality, intervention in foreign wars, separation of church and state, fracking, global warming, gun control, and social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and the rapid growth in our prison population.  Of course, Americans have always disagreed on a wide range of political, social, and religious issues, but we seemed to be able eventually to come together to resolve some of our crises without resorting to war.  We seem more divided now than we have been for 150 years.

The dysfunctional governance and corruption at the federal, state, and local levels have made the people cynical about the role of government in our society.  The creeping tentacles of corporations in controlling nearly every aspect of our lives seems to have occurred without much notice or concern.  Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the oligarchies in the US from those in Russia except that we still have more of a rule of law and a regard for civil liberties.

Historians note that political campaigns always have been full of lies and outlandish claims, but we usually had a period of relative calm between these cycles.  Now the campaigning seems to go on endlessly; perhaps it is because of the need to raise such huge funds for re-election.  No one denies the influence and power of money in our legislative and executive branches, but we don’t seem to know what to do about it except to protest.  We’ve got a zillion petitions and protests, but most people seem to just opt out of the political process and believe votes and their ideas don’t matter.  Perhaps they don’t under the current system, but it can be changed if enough people make the effort to do it.

Like many people I’ve found the political process distasteful because it is so slow and tedious and many times acrimonious.  Too many people don’t even make the effort to vote, so they really can’t complain because they were not involved in the process.  As the beacon of democracy in the world, what has caused us to tune out and become passive recipients of whatever the special interests dole out?  Have the political parties and their leadership become so inept and corrupted that they no longer offer any viable alternatives?

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Moral Mondays

Last Monday was the 7th week of demonstrations on the Halifax Mall of the Legislative complex in Raleigh in which 2,000+ people gathered to voice their complaints against the actions of the new Republican General Assembly and Governor.  Their legislative agenda has been set by ALEC, and is to the right of the Tea Party. I only attended one of the demonstrations because I can’t stand for long periods of time.  I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, which was not published, so I carried it as a poster:

         “The Republican General Assembly is trying to take us back 150 years to the era of the Old South and its repression of minorities and the poor.  Their byline is “we’re open for business,” but that implies that they’re “closed for people.”  Their legislative agenda has a negative mindset that is reactionary.  Instead of “fixing what’s broke” in our system of governance, they’re dismantling it piece-by-piece.  They’re trying to undo every act of progressive legislation to please their corporate parents who dictate their every move.  We have a government for, of, and by the corporations with no concern for the needs or interests of the people. 

        Under the banner of fiscal responsibility they’re using their social agenda to promote class warfare and to further widen the economic and political inequality of the people.  They look backward for solutions to today’s problems, and that reveals a mind-set that is both reactionary and destructive to social order and cohesion.  They are blind to the reasons why people demonstrate against their policies.  It’s time for them to analyze some of their motives and the impact of their arrogant disregard for the common man and woman.”

     I’m usually not active in politics even though I support several LGBT groups, but the extreme radicalism and reckless rapid pace of legislation stirred me to action.  Even the usually non-political North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church submitted a resolution to the Governor opposing their legislative agenda that goes against the social principles of the church regarding the poor.  This radical turn to the right has made the North Carolina Legislature the butt of jokes all across the nation, which is bad for business as well as the economy that is still hurting with a high rate of unemployed.  

     I few years ago a wrote of series of articles on the proposed public transportation plans for the Triangle (which were never passed), but generally I have written about less controversial topics.  The deep political divisions in this country are deeply disturbing to me because we seem to have lost the ability to compromise and produce reasonable legislation.  We’re in a state of gridlock and can’t seem to find a way out.  The churches are engaged in a culture war over the issue of homosexuality while ignoring other critical issues of poverty and homelessness.

Rodney King was right, “Can’t we all work together?”

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