Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Be Careful What You Pray For

Sarah Ruden in Salon points out that if Hobby Lobby doesn’t have to be compelled by the government to pay for something they say violates their religious beliefs, why do people who object to war have to pay for the military?

The upshot of the ruling is that Hobby Lobby and other businesses with conservative religious owners do not need to pay for what the Affordable Care Act mandates as full coverage for family planning. The public interest in affordable and accessible healthcare is not compelling enough to override the private belief that contraceptive methods including (but apparently not limited to) the IUD and the morning-after pill are murder. Well, I’m a pacifist, and I say that warfare is murder, and I don’t want to pay for it; and in recent decades the public interest in my paying for it hardly looks compelling.

Quakers have a long history of refusing to pay taxes for the military, and many of them have gone to jail for their beliefs.  Is it too much of a leap to say that now there’s precedent for those of us who would not want our money to go to war to be able to choose not to pay for it?

I’ve made this argument before in a different context.  Being gay and being denied various benefits because of that, why should I pay all of the taxes I owe if I’m to be denied the things I’m paying for with them?  If I had a partner here in Florida (hope springs eternal) and I wanted him to have the spousal benefits of marriage such as property inheritance, he couldn’t have them.  Up until last June, thanks to the Supreme Court overturning DOMA, he would have been denied survivor’s benefits from Social Security.  But still, I don’t have the full and equal protection of the law that straight people have, so why should I pay full fare?  It’s like paying for a first class ticket but ending up in coach next to a screeching baby and an air-sick cat.

All SCOTUS rulings have unintended consequences, but this Court seems to be particularly short-sighted in their ruling, Justice Ginsburg’s dissent notwithstanding.  The harsh reality is that the courts have never sided with the view that an individual’s rights are more compelling than what they deem to be “the greater good.”  Unless, of course, you’re crafting for Jesus.

HT to Gray Lensman.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Didn’t See This Coming

Oh, gee, no one could have predicted that when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and their right to corporate religion that it would have unforeseen consequences, now did they?

No, we’re not talking about a Christian college objecting to signing a paper.  We’re talking about something like this.

Lawyers for two Guantanamo Bay detainees have filed motions asking a U.S. court to block officials from preventing the inmates from taking part in communal prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The lawyers argue that – in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision – the detainees’ rights are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The motions were filed this week with the Washington D.C. district court on behalf of Emad Hassan of Yemen and Ahmed Rabbani of Pakistan. U.K.-based human rights group Reprieve said both men asked for the intervention after military officials at the prison “prevented them from praying communally during Ramadan.”

[...]

“Hobby Lobby makes clear that all persons – human and corporate, citizen and foreigner, resident and alien – enjoy the special religious free exercise protections of the RFRA,” the lawyers argued in court papers. 

In its controversial Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the contraception insurance coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – violated the rights of “closely held for-profit corporations,” if a company’s owners object to birth control on religious grounds. The court, which decided the case 5-4, said that the mandate “substantially burdens” the corporation’s exercise of religion in violation of RFRA.

Did we miss that part of the ruling that says RFRA applies to Christians only?

Maybe the Supreme Court should have listened to this guy.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hobby Lobby’s Slippery Slope

Gee, no one could have predicted that once the Supreme Court granted religious rights to corporations, the parade of bigots would line up behind the idea that it’s okay to discriminate because being nice to everyone makes the Baby Jesus cranky.

This week, in the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court ruled that a religious employer could not be required to provide employees with certain types of contraception. That decision is beginning to reverberate: A group of faith leaders is urging the Obama administration to include a religious exemption in a forthcoming LGBT anti-discrimination action.

Their call, in a letter sent to the White House Tuesday, attempts to capitalize on the Supreme Court case by arguing that it shows the administration must show more deference to the prerogatives of religion.

“We are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need,” the letter states.

I’ll save you the trouble, Mr. President:  No, and piss off.

I’ll take it a step further.  Any non-profit corporation — and that includes churches — that claims a religious exemption as an excuse for bigotry and discrimination should not only not get it, they should lose their tax-exempt status.  Hate all the people you want and don’t hire whomever you don’t want to hire because they’re gay or atheist, but don’t expect the rest of us to pay for your shit.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Bitter Pill

The consensus among the commetariat about yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case seems to be a collective “Well, it could have been worse.”

Yes, the court could have decided that for-profit companies have the same religious rights as a person — much as they did in the Citizens United case, giving free speech rights to corporations — but instead narrowly found that closely-held companies — those that aren’t publicly traded, basically — could, on contraception only, get away with dictating to their employees what kind of birth control they could use.  But still telling us that it could have been worse isn’t much consolation, and the ramifications go far beyond just some Christians who don’t know much about IUD’s but know a hell of a lot about minding the way other people spend their money.

There is some good points made by people who know the law trade far better than I do about what this ruling means, including Eric Loomis at LGM and Kate McDonough at Salon.  From the latter:

To sum it up, five male justices ruled that thousands of female employees should rightfully be subjected to the whims of their employers. That women can be denied a benefit that they already pay for and is guaranteed by federal law. That contraception is not essential healthcare. That corporations can pray. That the corporate veil can be manipulated to suit the needs of the corporation. That bosses can cynically choose à la carte what laws they want to comply with and which laws they do not. Each specific finding opens a door to a new form of discrimination and unprecedented corporate power. If you think this ruling won’t affect you, you haven’t been paying attention. If you think these corporations are going to stop at birth control, you’re kidding yourself.

(By the way, it should be noted that not just women use birth control.  I may be gay, but I do know that men have a part to play in the reproductive process, and their lives can be impacted by making it harder for people to have access to contraception as well.  Also, the pill isn’t just for birth control.  There are a number of other medical reasons for taking it.  That tidbit of news seemed to escape the grasp of Justice Alito et al.)

The Republicans are rejoicing, not just because this is seen as a smackdown for Obamacare and a win for their Religious Reich handlers, but because now they can campaign on preserving the sanctity of corporate faith and family values.  Yeah, that will really win with the womenfolk vote.  Going into the elections of 2014 and 2016 embracing the morals framed in 19th century era patriarchy will win the day, I’m sure.  As Steve Benen notes,

Congratulations, Republicans, you’ve won your big case at the Supreme Court, and positioned yourself this election as the 21st century political party that supports restrictions on contraception access. The party saw a political landmine and decided to do a victory dance on it. We’ll see how this turns out for them.

 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Minimum Qualifications

The Constitution requires that members of the House of Representatives be at least 25, citizens for seven years, and residents of the states which send them to Congress.  That — and a shitload of money — are all you need to be a Congressperson.  Sadly, the Constitution does not require that members actually comprehend the Constitution itself.

Jody Hice, a Baptist minister and talk-radio host, is running for Congress in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District as a stern defender of the First Amendment and religious freedom. But that freedom does not apply to those of the Muslim faith.

“Although Islam has a religious component, it is much more than a simple religious ideology,” Hice wrote in his 2012 book. “It is a complete geo-political structure and, as such, does not deserve First Amendment protection.”

So the First Amendment applies only to the right religion: Christianity.  The rest are all just heathens and shouldn’t be here anyway.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dark Victory

Marco Rubio doesn’t think climate change is man-made; it’s nature’s way, he says, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) responds:

It’s insane, but that’s what passes for political discourse these days. It’s a complete rejection of facts, evidence and logic – the “Endarkenment.”

Not as insane as this guy:

Christian Post blogger Michael Bresciani writes this week that changes in the climate are indeed taking place, but not due to human activities such as fossil fuel emissions. Instead, he says extreme weather is the result of “homosexuality, abortion [and] general sexual preoccupation,” which according to Bresciani is bringing about the End Times and the coming of the Antichrist.

Well, now we know what passed for political discourse in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Stalking Your Pray

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that it’s not unconstitutional for a town meeting to begin with a prayer.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that a town in upstate New York had not violated the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian and who sometimes used distinctly sectarian language. The prayers were ceremonial, Justice Kennedy wrote, and served to signal the solemnity of the occasion.

The ruling cleared the way for sectarian prayers before meetings of local governments around the nation with only the lightest judicial supervision.

[...]

Justice Elena Kagan said in dissent that the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”

She said the important difference between the 1983 case and the new one was that “town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens.”

She did not propose banning prayer, Justice Kagan said, but only requiring officials to take steps to ensure “that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”

Town officials in Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, said members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the opening prayer. In practice, however, almost all of the chaplains were Christian. Some prayers were explicitly sectarian, with references, for instance, to “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”

I don’t think anyone expected this particular court to rule any differently, and while it is annoying that yet again the majority of this court seems to be of the attitude that if it’s okay with the white Christian men it’s okay for the rest of us, it’s not the assault on the First Amendment that some are making it to be.

I think it’s a bit of a Pyrrhic victory for the god-botherers: the Court is basically saying that the opening prayer is ceremonial, like the Pledge of Allegiance, and has no impact whatsoever on the business before the town.  Folks pay polite attention to the chaplain while they’re trying to find the mute button on their cell phone and promptly forget anything the cleric said.

If I were one of those people that believed prayer is a holy moment of communion with the Supreme Being and deserving of sacred solemnity, I’d be pissed off that the Supreme Court thinks it’s little more than a brief addition to the agenda wedged in between the announcement of the meeting of the finance committee and the community bake sale.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Trading Punchlines

Sarah Palin stirred up some dust with some Christians with her waterboarding-is-baptism-for terrorists line.  They’ve started a petition.

This is what we’ve come to in America: A former candidate for vice-president can equate torture and Holy Baptism, and one of the nation’s most powerful political lobbies erupts into cheers and applause.

As usual, Palin’s remarks are already making international headlines, once again portraying Christianity as a religion of hatred and violence. But this time, let’s show just how many Christians are appalled by Palin’s twisted misrepresentation of our faith.

Dogs:fleas.  Pass the popcorn.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

But Not For Thee

I was wondering when this would happen.

In a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban, a liberal Protestant denomination on Monday filed a lawsuit arguing that North Carolina is unconstitutionally restricting religious freedom by barring clergy members from blessing gay and lesbian couples.

The lawsuit, filed in a Federal District Court by the United Church of Christ, is the first such case brought by a national religious denomination challenging a state’s marriage laws. The denomination, which claims nearly one million members nationwide, has supported same-sex marriage since 2005.

“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.

The denomination argues that a North Carolina law criminalizing the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license violates the First Amendment. Mr. Clark said that North Carolina allows clergy members to bless same-sex couples married in other states, but otherwise bars them from performing “religious blessings and marriage rites” for same-sex couples, and that “if they perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they are subject to prosecution and civil judgments.”

The United Church of Christ is joined in the case by a Lutheran priest, a rabbi, two Unitarian Universalist ministers, a Baptist pastor and several same-sex couples. They said the state’s marriage law “represents an unlawful government intervention into the internal structure and practices of plaintiffs’ religions.”

This has been one of the points about marriage equality that I’ve made here many times before: banning same-sex marriage violates the religious freedoms of a number of denominations, including the Quakers, who recognize and welcome all people and who perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.  (In the case of Quakers, it’s called “Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Marriage.”  Mazel tov.)  It’s about time someone took it seriously.

This did not sit well with the sniveling bigots.

But Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, which opposes same-sex marriage, derided the legal action as “the lawsuit of the week filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina.”

“It’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs,” Ms. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.”

“Revisionist”?  Seriously?  The United Church of Christ is the descendent of the original colonists who came here in the 17th century to escape religious persecution, as did the Quakers.  In other words, to get away from people like Ms. Fitzgerald.

And who the hell is she or anyone else to sit in judgment on what exactly are someone else’s Christian teachings?  She and her group are perfectly happy to dictate religious terms to the rest of the world, secular or not, but not let anyone else inform the world that not all Christians are homophobic dictators.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Throwing Cold Water

While it got a huge laugh at the N.R.A. convention, Sarah Palin’s line about waterboarding being a baptism for terrorists didn’t sit well with folks who actually do baptisms.

Baptism is a sacrament whereby one enters into the Christian community.  In Christianity it has its roots in the Gospels.  So the first question is:  why would Sarah Palin want to force terrorists to enter the Christian community?  Baptism represents, to Christians, the grace of God.  Why does she want to compare God’s grace to punishment and torture?

The second question is:  why would she want to equate a sacrament of Christianity, one universally acknowledged as one of two hallmarks of Christian practice among Protestants as well as Catholics, to torture?  Why does she want to make the sacred profane, except for her own self-aggrandizement?

Because that’s what she’s in for, plain and simple.  She doesn’t care at all about the real meaning of a sacrament; chances are she wouldn’t know one from a load of hay.  She never learned the lesson they teach in kindergarten: you don’t have to believe in someone else’s faith to respect it.  She went for the cheap laugh and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else.

HT to ntodd.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Rubber The Wrong Way

Cardinal Timothy Dolan on where women can buy contraceptives:

“Is the ability to buy contraceptives, that are now widely available — my Lord, all you have to do is walk into a 7-11 or any shop on any street in America and have access to them — is that right to access those and have them paid for, is that such a towering good that it would suffocate the rights of conscience?” Dolan said in an exchange uploaded by Raw Story. “I don’t think so. I hope the Supreme Court agrees.”

This from a guy who, if he lives up to his vows, never bought a rubber in his life.

Or perhaps this is what he tells his priests when they’re getting ready for choir practice.

His Eminence was speaking on TV last Sunday about the Hobby Lobby case — he wants them to win — and getting just about everything wrong.  The case is not about having contraception paid for by Hobby Lobby, nor is it about over-the-counter methods like condoms.  It’s about a person’s right to have access to healthcare without the interference of holier-than-Christ employers.

The more women have access to birth control, the fewer abortions there will be.  I hear the Catholic Church has a view about that.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Reading

Crossing Christie — Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker profiles the governor of New Jersey.

On April 1st, Chris Christie, the beleaguered Republican governor of New Jersey, attended a celebrity roast, in Newark, to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Brendan Byrne, the state’s governor from 1974 to 1982. “He’s an inspiration,” Christie told the audience, referring to Byrne, who won reëlection against long odds, because he has “shown that political comebacks can actually happen.”

Christie sat on a long dais with five former governors and five local comedians, listening to the guitarist John Pizzarelli sing an ode to the state: “I may leave for a week or two, but I’m always coming back.” Christie was seated next to former Governor Thomas Kean, a longtime supporter, but he did not say hello or shake his hand, and he glared at the comedians as they delivered their lines. “You scare the shit out of me,” Stewie Stone said to Christie during his routine.

Just five months earlier, Christie had won a sweeping reëlection, securing nineteen of New Jersey’s twenty-one counties, sixty per cent of the vote, and endorsements from Democratic officeholders. He won fifty-one per cent of the Hispanic vote and twenty-one per cent of the African-American vote. His plan was to shed part of his Jersey persona, and perhaps a few more pounds, and begin in earnest the transition from state politician to Presidential candidate.

But the past was catching up with him. In September, an unusual incident had occurred in Fort Lee, the small town on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. Without warning, the number of access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s toll plaza had been reduced from three to one. The lanes were closed for four days, and the resulting traffic jams caught the attention of several Democratic legislators. They opened an investigation and eventually accused the Christie administration of engineering a plot to punish the town’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for his failure to endorse Christie’s reëlection. The accusation seemed so ludicrous that Christie belittled a reporter for asking about it. “I moved the cones, actually, unbeknownst to everybody,” he said during a press conference in early December. But on January 8th an e-mail surfaced showing that Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, had instructed David Wildstein, who was the Governor’s second-highest appointee at the Port Authority, the agency that runs the bridge, to engineer the gridlock. Months of scrutiny and withering criticism followed, and Christie’s approval rating fell twenty points.

Christie had spent the week before the Byrne event trying to repair the damage. He hired lawyers who, on March 27th, released a report declaring that he knew nothing about the plan and placing the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. The next weekend, Christie flew to Las Vegas and met with Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing billionaire who is looking for a Presidential candidate to fund. Christie managed to offend Adelson, who is a major supporter of the conservative Likud Party, in Israel, by publicly referring to the “occupied territories,” a term to which Adelson objects. (“Occupied territories” is common parlance among both Democrats and Republicans, but Christie, fearful of losing Adelson’s favor, apologized.)

The Newark roast wasn’t going well, either. The speakers aimed much of their fire at Christie. “You knew whose ass to kiss,” Stone said, referring to Christie’s trip to Vegas. “ ‘Whatever you say, Sheldon! Whatever you say!’ ” Vince August, a New Jersey judge turned comedian, noted, “It really is an honor to be standing next to what could be the next President of the—.” He shuffled some papers on the lectern. “I’m sorry, these are the wrong notes. I’m doing a roast next week with Jeb Bush.” Even Byrne got in a dig, about Christie’s waistline. “Somebody referred to that bronze statue of me that’s in the courthouse,” he said. “Actually, that was supposed to be Governor Christie, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for all that bronze.”

Joy Behar, the former co-host of “The View,” was even more pointed. “When I first heard that he was accused of blocking off three lanes on the bridge, I said, ‘What the hell is he doing, standing in the middle of the bridge?’ ” After another barb, Christie interrupted her. “This is a Byrne roast,” he said. He stood up and tried to grab her notes. The audience laughed awkwardly. “Stop bullying me,” Behar said as he sat down. Christie said something out of earshot and Behar responded, “Why don’t you get up here at the microphone instead of being such a coward?” Christie stood up again and moved in front of the lectern as Behar retreated.  “At least I don’t get paid for this,” he said.

Christie sat down and Behar continued, though she was noticeably rattled. “I really don’t know about the Presidency,” she said. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”

Before the bridge scandal, Christie was known as a governor who transcended New Jersey’s reputation for toxic politics and toxic dumps. He took on the exploding costs of the state’s pension system, reformed property taxes, and worked with his opponents in the legislature, and he provided decisive leadership after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. But the scandal hinted at a darker story line: that Christie’s barrelling style, and the dealmaking that had secured his rise through New Jersey politics, might as easily undo him.

Stuck In the Middle — Andrew O’Hehir in Salon takes on both sides in the religion vs. science debate.

Karl Marx’s famous maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, can apply just as well to the history of ideas as to the political sphere. Consider the teapot-tempest over religion and science that has mysteriously broken out in 2014, and has proven so irresistible to the media. We already had this debate, which occupied a great deal of the intellectual life of Western civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was a whole lot less stupid the first time around. Of course, no one on any side of the argument understands its philosophical and theological history, and the very idea of “Western civilization” is in considerable disrepute on the left and right alike. So we get the sinister cartoon version, in which religious faith and scientific rationalism are reduced to ideological caricatures of themselves, and in which we are revealed to believe in neither one.

Young-earth creationism, a tiny fringe movement within Christianity whose influence is largely a reflection of liberal hysteria, is getting a totally unearned moment in the spotlight (for at least the second or third time). Evangelist Ken Ham of the pseudo-scientific advocacy group Answers in Genesis gets to “debate” Bill Nye the Science Guy about whether or not the earth is 6,000 years old, in a grotesque parody of academic discourse. Ham’s allies, meanwhile, complain that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new “Cosmos” TV series has no room for their ludicrous anti-scientific beliefs. If anything, Tyson’s show has spent a suspicious amount of time indirectly debunking creationist ideas. They seem to make him (or, more properly, his writers) nervous. Not, as Ham would have it, because somewhere inside themselves these infidels recognize revealed truth, but because religious ecstasy, however nonsensical, is powerful in a way reason and logic are not.

Everyone who writes a snarky Internet comment about why the T-Rex couple didn’t make it onto Noah’s ark betrays the same nervousness, and so do earnest Northeast Corridor journalists who rush to assure us that Ham’s elaborate fantasy scenarios about fossils and the Grand Canyon are not actually true, and that we would all find science just as wonderful as religion if only we paid attention. (Such articles strike me as totems of liberal self-reassurance, and not terribly convincing ones at that.) Repeating facts over and over again doesn’t make them any more true, and definitely doesn’t make them more convincing. I suppose this is about trying to win the hearts and minds of some uninformed but uncommitted mass of people out there who don’t quite know what they think. But hectoring or patronizing them is unlikely to do any good, and if you believe that facts are what carry the day in American public discourse then you haven’t paid much attention to the last 350 years or so.

This creationist boomlet goes hand in glove with the larger political strategy of Christian fundamentalism, which is somewhere between diabolically clever and flat-out desperate. Faced with a long sunset as a significant but declining subculture, the Christian right has embraced postmodernism and identity politics, at least in the sense that it suddenly wants to depict itself as a persecuted cultural minority entitled to special rights and privileges. These largely boil down, of course, to the right to resist scientific evidence on everything from evolution to climate change to vaccination, along with the right to be gratuitously cruel to LGBT people. One might well argue that this has less to do with the eternal dictates of the Almighty than with anti-government paranoia and old-fashioned bigotry. But it’s noteworthy that even in its dumbest and most debased form, religion still finds a way to attack liberal orthodoxy at its weak point.

[...]

So on one hand we have atheists whose views would have seemed old-hat under Queen Victoria but who see themselves as representing the apex of progressive modern thought, and on the other we have a modern twist on religion that pretends to be ancient or traditional. Biblical fundamentalism as we know it today is essentially a 19th-century British invention that took root among white rural Americans much later than that. William Jennings Bryan, although revered as a forefather by today’s creationists, would have had nothing in common with them politically and very little theologically. (Bryan would have told you that the Bible was “true,” but he didn’t mean that God created the universe in six literal 24-hour days.) Islamic fundamentalism, the particular bugaboo of Dawkins and Harris, is more recent still, a metaphysical uprising against late modernism and the global force of Western consumer culture.

It would be foolish to deny that fundamentalism is or can be dangerous, but the liberal intelligentsia compulsively exaggerates the danger posed by the likes of Ken Ham or Pat Robertson, who are deemed to be plotting the theocratic overthrow of the republic when in fact they represent a marginalized constituency with little power. Fundamentalists oppose the science of climate change on supposed scriptural grounds, for instance, but on that issue they’re just serving as handmaidens to corporate money and power. In much the same way but on a larger scale, conservatives and government apparatchiks interpret the scattered and disparate actions of al-Qaida and its allies as an apocalyptic threat that justifies secret drone wars, unknowable levels of surveillance and the expenditure of countless billions.

Kathleen Sebelius’s Legacy — Jonathan Cohn at TNR looks at what the departing HHS secretary’s tenure brought us.

Sebelius brought two main assets to her job. She had experience regulating insurers and, as a successful Democrat in Kansas, she knew how to work with Republicans. But what Obamacare needed more was a deft, aggressive manager. Case in point: By all accounts, Sebelius did not grasp the severity of tech problems at healthcare.gov until the day it went live and crashed. If she got the warnings, then she should have heeded them. If she didn’t get the warnings, then she should have appointed people who would have kept her better informed. Either way, that’s a serious management failure.

Still, it’s not as if Obamacare’s implementation difficulties are entirely, or even mostly, the fault of HHS. It’s a typical, if predictable, failure of Washington to demand a fall guy when things go wrong. But responsibility rarely lies with just one person. (That’s one reason Obama resisted calls to fire her.) And this case is no exception.

Implementing Obamacare was never going to be easy. The law is full of compromises that, however politically necessary, weakened regulations and depleted funding that would have made introducing the new insurance system a lot easier. And Sebelius never had the kind of control a chief executive officer would. She was always dealing with a host of other players—from superiors at the White House to underlings at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to Democrats on Capitol Hill to lobbyists for the health care industry. And that’s to say nothing of her war with the congressional Republicans, who were trying actively to sabotage the law through repeal votes, funding cuts, and intimidation of would-be allies.

More important, the law seems to be working, despite all of those early problems. That 7.5 million figure she announced on Thursday is a genuinely big deal—particularly since, from what I hear, the final number is likely to be even higher. It’s now clear that Obamacare is succeeding in one of its primary goals—reducing the number of Americans without health insurance. The only question is by how much. “Secretary Sebelius took and will take her share of arrows for the initial roll out, but she unquestionably deserves credit for the recent successes,” says one former Administration official. “Her external cool was sometimes a liability, but it helped internally to avoid the finger pointing and to allow the Department successfully regain their sea legs.”

Of course, Sebelius can’t take all or even most of the credit for the Affordable Care Act’s improved performance, any more than she should take all or most of the blame for the law’s troubles. But any accounting of her tenure must include such achievements (and others, like improvements to Head Start and stronger regulations on child care safety). To take one obvious example, Sebelius worked extensively with Republican governors who wanted to expand Medicaid in states with hostile conservative constituencies. Some of those efforts succeeded.

Authorities from one of those states, Ohio, reported on Thursday that more than 100,000 low-income residents were getting coverage through the state’s expanded Medicaid. The announcement came just hours before the news about Sebelius’ resignation broke—and the juxtaposition seems fitting. The memories of Obamacare’s difficult start will certainly linger. But to the millions of people around the country who now have access to affordable medical care, I’m not sure that really matters.

Doonesbury — Thanks for the help.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

No Jews Either

Trail Life USA, the Jesus-freaks’ replacement for the Boy Scouts now that they let openly gay boys — but not leaders — into the troops, also doesn’t allow openly Jewish leaders.

Via Good As You, from Trail Life USA’s FAQ page:

Trail Life USA is a Trinitarian Christian organization with a Statement of Faith that includes those denominations that specifically recognize Jesus Christ as the prophesized Messiah of the Jewish scriptures. There are some groups like “Jews for Jesus” that recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but continue to hold to Jewish traditions and customs regarding feasts, etc. A Messianic Jew could indeed be a leader. However, a person of the Jewish faith would not be able to sign our Statement of Faith. Thus, according to our membership standards, Jewish churches and organizations would be precluded from chartering Trail Life USA troops. And those of the Jewish faith would indeed be precluded as adult leaders based on their beliefs.

What a dull bunch of hateful people.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Megachurch Megabucks

NPR had a two-part story this week on All Things Considered about how churches are basically exempt from not just paying taxes but from any scrutiny by the IRS on how they get their money and what they do with it.

As NPR’s John Burnett reports, no other nonprofits in America – much less corporations – are allowed to generate so much cash with so little accountability.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Because of a quirk in rules by the Internal Revenue Service, the agency has effectively stopped auditing churches for the past five years. Marcus Owens is a private tax attorney in Washington, who used to lead the Exempt Organizations section at the IRS.

MARCUS OWENS: As of now, and in fact since 2009, the IRS has not, to the best of my knowledge, and, in fact, I don’t believe can conduct an audit of a church.

BURNETT: A church is the only type of nonprofit that enjoys special protection from an IRS audit. The Church Audit Procedures Act says a high-ranking Treasury official must sign off if the IRS demands a church’s records. But the IRS has not specified who that official should be. Here’s the catch: Until that happens, there’s no one in the government to authorize a church audit.

[...]

BURNETT: Of all nonprofits, churches face the least scrutiny and oversight. They don’t have to pay federal or local taxes. They don’t have to worry about being audited. And they don’t have to report anything to anybody. It’s reasonable to ask, then, what happens with large TV ministries that are classified as churches? They take in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. They’re as rich as large corporations, yet many of them are answerable to no one outside of the organization.

The reason is simple: no one in the government wants to be accused of religious discrimination, especially against the poor persecuted Christians that dominate the House, the Senate, and every legislature in the fifty states, not to mention the millions of people who carry on about a 0.05% increase in their property taxes but would crawl ten miles over broken glass to give their last dollar to Kenneth Copeland.

Speaking of Mr. Copeland, he lives in a palatial estate that looks more like a resort at Disney World than a parsonage, which is how his property is described on the tax-exempt list.

BURNETT: Copeland is a 77-year-old Pentecostal evangelist from West Texas, renowned for his folksy sermons and extensive personal property. We decided to take our own look at his assets.

Last August, I drove to his ministry complex with Pete Evans, who investigates religious groups for the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation.

So we’re sitting in an air-conditioned minivan on a Sunday morning in the middle of Kenneth Copeland’s empire here, about 20 miles north of Fort Worth. And surrounding us are all the properties that the local appraisal district has taken off the tax rolls. The church and the ministry building together are valued at about three and a half million dollars. Kenneth Copeland’s airport in front of us here is valued at $8.8 million.

PETE EVANS: The property we’re looking at, the hangar, houses two jets: one Cessna Citation, one of the fastest private jets in the world, currently valued at about $10 million. And then they have another jet worth a couple million stored in that same hangar that we’re looking at.

BURNETT: The most impressive building of all is the $6.3 million residence of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, which is exempt from property taxes because it’s listed as a parsonage.

The bottom line, so to speak, is that if you want to make a huge fortune without any scrutiny from the government, you can either go into the waste disposal business in New Jersey or you can start preaching the gospel and set up an 800 number with a Pay Pal account.

The fastest way to get the IRS and Congress to look into the megachurch business is to have someone open a mega-mosque and start talking about Allah on cable TV.  They’d be on that operation faster than a second collection.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ghosts of Rulings Past

Today is the day the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether or not private for-profit companies can claim a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act because it would provide contraception to their employees, something the corporate owners don’t believe in.  Religious groups are already exempt from the rule, but Hobby Lobby, a crafts chain owned by very conservative religious people, want in on it too.  (Interestingly, the company was fine with the contraception coverage in their health insurance until Obamacare came along.  I wonder what it was that changed their minds.)

Given the make-up of the court and their previous rulings that have been nearly obsequious to corporate interests, a lot of watchers are understandably nervous that the justices could rule that corporations can have religious views.  That would open an entirely new chapter in corporate personhood, and the consequences — intended or otherwise — could fundamentally change the relationship people have with their employers and corporations have with their customers.  It could also make laws such as the one vetoed last month in Arizona that allowed companies to discriminate against certain customers possible.

As Sahil Kapur explains, it might not be a slam dunk for Hobby Lobby based on previous rulings by the Court written by one of its most conservative and Catholic justices: Antonin Scalia.

In 1990, Scalia wrote the majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, concluding that the First Amendment “does not require” the government to grant “religious exemptions” from generally applicable laws or civic obligations. The case was brought by two men in Oregon who sued the state for denying them unemployment benefits after they were fired from their jobs for ingesting peyote, which they said they did because of their Native American religious beliefs.

“[T]he right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability,” Scalia wrote in the 6-3 majority decision, going on to aggressively argue that such exemptions could be a slippery slope to lawlessness and that “[a]ny society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy.”

“The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind,” he wrote, “ranging from compulsory military service, to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.”

That opinion could haunt the jurist if he seeks to invalidate the birth control rule.

“Scalia will have to reckon with his own concern in Smith about the lawlessness and chaos created by liberal exemptions to generally applicable law,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA. “For him to uphold an exemption now is to invite more of the lawlessness that he warned about.”

The case comes down to what takes precedence in the laws in this country: religious beliefs or the Constitution.  Justice Scalia answered his own question:

“To permit this,” he wrote in Smith, quoting from an old court decision, “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

A ruling is expected by the end of June.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Reading

Supreme Being — Ta-Nehisi Coates on why progressives misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America’s history and present.

​Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America. There is a conservative and a liberal rendition of this tradition. The conservative version eliminates white supremacy as a factor and leaves the question of the culture’s origin ominously unanswered. This version can never be regarded seriously. Life is short. Black life is shorter.

On y va.

The liberal version of the cultural argument points to “a tangle of pathologies” haunting black America born of oppression. This argument—which Barack Obama embraces—is more sincere, honest, and seductive. Chait helpfully summarizes:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era….

Beyond Hobby Lobby — Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones takes a look at what the implications of the Supreme Court case concerning Obamacare vs. corporate religious freedom could mean for other interpretations of the law and Constitution.

…Of course, the case isn’t just about Hobby Lobby. The Supreme Court is using it to address dozens of similar lawsuits by other companies that, unlike Hobby Lobby, object to all forms of contraception. But the inconvenient set of facts here are just one reason why the case hasn’t garnered a lot of support outside the evangelical community. Many religious people are uneasy with the idea of corporations being equated with a spiritual institution. At a recent forum on the case sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Mormon legal scholar Frederick Gedicks, from Brigham Young University, said he was offended by the notion that selling glue and crepe paper was equivalent to his religious practice. “I’m a religious person, and I think my tradition is a little different from an arts and craft store,” he said.

Women’s groups fear a ruling that would gut the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. The business community, meanwhile, doesn’t want to see the court rule that a corporation is no different from its owners because it would open up CEOs and board members to lawsuits that corporate law now protects them from, upending a century’s worth of established legal precedent.

No one seems to really have a sense of how the court might rule. On one side, court watchers have speculated that with six Catholics on the bench, Hobby Lobby has a decent shot of prevailing. But then again, one of those Catholics, Chief Justice John Roberts, is also sensitive to the interests of corporate America. He seems unlikely to do anything that might disrupt the orderly conduct of business in this country and make the US Chamber of Commerce unhappy, as a victory for Hobby Lobby could. Scalia is an ardent abortion foe, but his view of Native American peyote users might incline him to find for the government.

Finding a reasonable way out of this case won’t be easy. The litany of bad outcomes has some legal scholars rooting for what might be called “the Lederman solution“—a punt. Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has suggested that the lower courts have misread the contraceptive-mandate cases by assuming firms such as Hobby Lobby have only two choices: provide birth control coverage or pay huge fines to avoid violating their religious beliefs. He argues that while the ACA requires individuals to purchase health insurance, it doesn’t require employers to provide it. If companies choose to do so then the insurance companies must cover contraception without co-pays. Hobby Lobby and the other companies currently suing the Obama administration can resolve their problems by simply jettisoning their health insurance plans and letting their employees purchase coverage through the exchanges.

An employer that drops its health plan would have to pay a tax to help subsidize its employees’ coverage obtained through the exchange or Medicaid, but this option is actually far cheaper than providing health insurance. And if a company doesn’t even have to provide insurance, much less a plan that covers contraception, Hobby Lobby doesn’t have much of a case that the ACA burdens its free exercise of religion…..

Mark Twain, Stand-Up Comic — In an excerpt from The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, Ben Tarnoff tells how Samuel L. Clemens, the writer that defined American literature, became Mark Twain.

…On the evening of October 2, 1866, the Academy of Music swelled to capacity. From the footlights to the family circle, the house was packed. “It is perhaps fortunate that the King of Hawaii did not arrive in time to attend,” cracked a journalist, “for unless he had gone early he must have been turned away.” The fashionable men and women of “the regular opera ‘set’ ” turned out in full. The wife of the current California governor, Mrs. Frederick Low, sat in a box. Even Harte came to show his support. He arrived with “a big claque,” an observer later recalled, almost certainly with Stoddard in tow.

At eight o’clock, the crowd started stomping its feet. When Twain appeared in the wings, they broke into thunderous applause. He ambled forward with a lurching, graceless gait, his hands thrust in his pockets. “I was in the middle of the stage,” he recalled, “staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away.” For several moments he stood silently staring, as the energy in the house ripened to an unbearable pitch. Then the words came: slow and deliberate, quirky and crude—the voice of the frontier, drawing its listeners under.

For seventy-five minutes, they laughed, clapped, and cheered. A “brilliant success,” raved the next day’s Evening Bulletin. Twain met the demands of a “serious” lecture by covering the islands’ economy, politics, history—yet he deftly interwove these with a current of comic tension that kept his audience on a hair trigger, primed to ignite at any moment. An absurdity might slip discreetly into the stream of his story, and then another, sparking laughter that rose and crested just as he suddenly shifted gears, delivering a passage of such heartfelt eloquence that the house fell solemn and silent. This was more than humor: it was “word painting,” said a reporter, a tapestry of anecdotes and images recorded by Twain’s all-seeing eye. He didn’t just make people laugh. As with “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” he brought a faraway place to life.

Ever since Twain first began writing, he had tried to give his words the flavor of living speech. Dashes, italics, phonetically transcribed dialect—these were meant to make readers hear a speaker’s special vibrations, the glottal tics of different tongues. Onstage, he could do this directly, breaking free of the filter that confined his written voice. He could feel out his audience, refine his rhythms. Unlike the spiritualists, suffragists, and fake scientists then sweeping lyceum halls across the country, he didn’t declaim in the usual authoritative style. He took a more intimate tone. He wanted to connect. He gazed at people’s faces. He played with his hair, kneaded his hands. He looked nervous, and dressed carelessly. He wasn’t a smooth performer, and this was the key to his peculiar charm. He didn’t hold himself apart; he talked plainly, unpretentiously. He brought people inside the joke. He made them feel like he belonged to them.

Doonesbury — Speak to me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Religious Freedom Is For Christians Only

A school district in Louisiana ended up on the short end of a court ruling after a judge ruled that it discriminated against a Buddhist student.

The ACLU claimed victory after U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote on Friday ordered the Sabine Parish School Board, which serves about 4,000 students in western Louisiana, to reform its practices in response to the allegations by C.C., a Buddhist student of Thai descent, and his family, the Lanes. The order, known as a “consent decree” agreed upon by the plaintiffs and defendants, was entered as a “judgment in favor of the Plaintiffs,” Foote said.

[...]

The complaint alleged that a science teacher at the school, Rita Roark, told her class, which C.C. attended, that the Big Bang never happened and that God had created the universe 6,000 years ago. She allegedly refused to teach the theory of evolution to the class, saying it was a theory “stupid people made up because they don’t want to believe in God.”

“If evolution was real, it would still be happening,” Roark allegedly said. “Apes would be turning into humans today.”

The last question on a test administered by Roark allegedly asked: “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The correct answer was “Lord,” according to the complaint. But C.C. left the answer blank because he didn’t know the answer. Roark allegedly scolded C.C. in front of the rest of the class for not providing the correct response. After a second incident where C.C. was allegedly disparaged in front of the class by his teacher, C.C. told his mother about the incidents.

Roark also allegedly said during a social sciences class that Buddhism, C.C.’s religion, is “stupid.”

Begin the countdown for Ms. Roark to sue the school board and the ACLU for infringing on her right to freedom of religion.