Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Reading

Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder, Except… Valerie Tarico in AlterNet on the violence inherent in religion.

The year 2015 has opened to slaughter in the name of gods.  In Paris, two Islamist brothers executed Charlie Hebdo cartoonists “in defense of the Prophet,” while an associate killed shoppers in a kosher grocery.  In Nigeria, Islamist members of Boko Haram massacred a town to cries of Allahu Akbar—Allah is the greatest!  Simultaneously, the United Nations released a report detailing the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in the Central African Republic by Christian militias, sometimes reciting Bible verses. On a more civilized note, Saudi Arabia began inflicting 1000 lashes on a jailed blasphemous blogger—to be doled out over 20 weeks so that he may survive to the end. In media outlets around the world, fierce debate has erupted over who or what is responsible.  Is monotheism inherently violent? Is religion an excuse or cover for other kinds of conflict? Are Western colonialism and warmongering in the root of the problem?  Do blasphemers make themselves targets? Is the very concept of blasphemy a form of coercion or violence that demands resistance?  Is killing in the name of gods a distortion of religion? Alternately, is it the real thing?

Each of these questions is best answered “yes, and” rather than “yes/no.”

With the possible exception of Buddhism, the world’s most powerful religions give wildly contradictory messages about violence.  The Christian Bible is full of exhortations to kindness, compassion, humility, mercy and justice.  It is also full of exhortations to stoning, burning, slavery, torture, and slaughter.  If the Bible were law, most people you know would qualify for the death penalty. The same can be said of the Quran.  The same can be said of the Torah. Believers who claim that Islam or Christianity or Judaism is a religion of peace are speaking a half-truth—and a naive falsehood.

The human inclination toward peacemaking or violence exists on a continuum. Happy, healthy people who are inherently inclined toward peacemaking focus on sacred texts and spiritual practices that encourage peace.  Those who are bitter, angry, fearful or prone to self-righteousness are attracted to texts that sanction violence and teachers who encourage the same. People along the middle of this continuum can be drawn in either direction by charismatic religious leaders who selectively focus on one or the other.

Each person’s individual violence risk is shaped by a host of factors: genetics, early learning, health, culture, social networks, life circumstances, and acute triggers. To blame any act of violence on religion alone is as silly as blaming an act of violence on guns or alcohol. But to deny that religion plays a role is as silly as denying that alcohol and guns play a role.  It is to pretend that religions are inert, that our deepest values and beliefs about reality and morality have no impact on our behavior.

From a psychological standpoint, religions often put a god’s name on impulses that have subconscious, pre-verbal roots. They elicit peak experiences like mystic euphoria, dominance, submission, love and joy. They claim credit for the moral emotions  (e.g. shame, guilt, disgust and empathy) that incline us toward fair play and altruism, and they direct these emotions toward specific persons or activities. In a similar way, religions elicit and channel protective reactions like anger and fear, the emotions most likely to underlie violence.

The Odds of Marriage Equality — Garrett Epps in The Atlantic on the Supreme Court’s capacity to surprise.

I have many vices. I have been known to wager a dollar on those poker-hand coffee cups, and to go all in with deuces in the pocket. But I also once drew five aces and still lost; since then, prediction is not one of my bad habits. I’m not going to predict, then, what the Supreme Court will do with the same-sex marriage cases now that it has put them on this year’s docket. But if I were a bookie, I’d make marriage equality an odds-on favorite. It has been less than two years since Windsor v. United States, but it seems like a decade. Court after court has struck down bans on same-sex marriage; the “traditional marriage” camp has begun to seem like the enemy in Sun Tzu’s Art of War—exhausted, bewildered, devoid of hope or spirit. Take the decision under review in today’s grant of cert. The Sixth Circuit upheld the ban. But Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s opinion might generously be called listless. A famously bright and resourceful conservative was unable to muster a single serious argument why marriage equality was actually a bad thing; he was reduced to feebly protesting that it would be better for gay people themselves if they were to gain their rights through politics rather than law.

There’s not much there from which to fashion a last-ditch defense of  “one man, one woman.” Prodded by the federal courts, the nation has already decided. For the Court to affirm Sutton’s opinion would seem almost akin to reversing Brown v. Board of Education.

But even if Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote seems foreordained, he must choose between the rights of gays and lesbians—an issue on which he has fashioned a historic legacy—and the prerogatives of the states, about whose “dignity” and honor he has often rhapsodized. He might be tempted to split the baby by holding for the states on the “celebration” issue but for the challengers on “recognition.” (The Court’s grant of review was careful to split the two questions.) That is, he might say, a state could refuse to perform marriages itself, but could not refuse those legally married out of state the benefits of marriage under state law.

But the temptation will be fleeting because that dog won’t hunt. In Kennedy’s Windsor opinion, he wrote that the federal government’s refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages “humiliated” not only gay couples but their children. The children of couples who seek legal marriage in-state would be no less humiliated by their parents’ inability to marry than those of couples who married out of state. Once the issue becomes “the children,” we have probably entered the endgame.

That’s still not a prediction. This Court has shown a tremendous capacity to surprise. But if anybody wants to put down money on the states in the new case of Obergefell v. Hodges, please look me up. I will be the guy with the coffee cup and the careful poker face.

A President and a King — Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker on how Barack Obama wrestles with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

…Yet six years in the White House have vastly complicated Obama’s relationship to King. They are two of the three African-Americans who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. (The first, Ralph Bunche, was awarded the prize in 1950, for negotiating a truce between Jews and Arabs in 1949.) When King accepted his award, in 1964, he began his speech by questioning his worthiness as a recipient, since the movement he led had not yet achieved interracial peace:

I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.

Obama opened his acceptance speech, in 2009, on a similarly self-effacing note, stating that he had barely begun his Presidency and his achievements were few. But then he departed from King’s reasoning. There is such a thing as just war, he said, under circumstances in which force is used in self-defense, is proportional to the threat, and, “whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” He continued:

I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.

A moral crusader and a Commander-in-Chief grapple with different prerogatives. King was never tasked with national defense; Obama’s election was contingent on a belief that he could keep Americans safe. Some observers nevertheless find it difficult to square elements of Obama’s foreign policy—drone warfare and its civilian casualties—not only with King’s concept of civilization but with the President’s own criteria for just warfare. Cornel West railed against the decision to use King’s Bible at Obama’s second swearing-in. “The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King,” he said, “becomes a moment in political calculation.” Still, the King who denounced the triple evils of militarism, racism, and materialism would likely hail next week’s address, in which the President is expected to touch upon normalizing relations with Cuba, immigration reform, and providing free education for students at community colleges—along with the Administration’s efforts to prevent voter suppression, the cause that animated the Selma campaign, fifty years ago.

Beneath all this lies the irony that, nearly six years after the Cairo speech, Obama is less able to deploy the moral capital of civil rights, at least in the Middle East, not only because he is now established as the face of American authority but also because many of the battles that King fought have still not been resolved. Racism remains an Achilles’ heel. The protests in Ferguson, New York, and beyond were watched by a global audience, and, as during the Cold War, America’s domestic troubles become fodder for a morally compromised foreign power to deflect attention from its own failings. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei took to Twitter to highlight the seeming contradiction that such actions were taking place under a black President. He tweeted, “Racial discrimination’s still a dilemma in US. Still ppl are unsecure for having dark skins. The way police treat them confirms it.” In spite of Obama’s debt to the civil-rights movement, the ideal of American exceptionalism is only as valid as the standing of people who have just as often been seen as exceptions to America.

Doonesbury — Hear that?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

We Will Know By July 1

From SCOTUSblog:

Taking on a historic constitutional challenge with wide cultural impact, the Supreme Court on Friday afternoon agreed to hear four new cases on same-sex marriage.   The Court said it would rule on the power of the states to ban same-sex marriages and to refuse to recognize such marriages performed in another state.  A total of two-and-a-half hours was allocated for the hearings, likely in the April sitting.  A final ruling is expected by early next summer, probably in late June.

The Court fashioned the specific questions it is prepared to answer, but they closely tracked the two core constitutional issues that have led to a lengthy string of lower-court rulings striking down state bans.  As of now, same-sex marriages are allowed in thirty-six states, with bans remaining in the other fourteen but all are under court challenge.

Although the Court said explicitly that it was limiting review to the two basic issues, along the way the Justices may have to consider what constitutional tests they are going to apply to state bans, and what weight to give to policies that states will claim to justify one or the other of the bans.

It is anybody’s guess how they will rule, but my gut tells me, as I said before, that they will narrowly rule in favor of marriage equality.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

That Ship Has Sailed

Now that Florida has made the number of states that recognize same-sex marriage an even three dozen, perhaps it’s time the Supreme Court weighed in on the matter.

On Friday, Supreme Court justices will meet in private to consider whether to act on cases that could provide a nationwide answer on whether same-sex marriages must be allowed. On the same day, a federal appeals court will consider bans in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“It’s an incredible confluence of events,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “It’s the culmination of many years of work.”

The marriages in Florida and the potential for a constitutional decision by the Supreme Court this year reflect the rapid advance of the same-sex-marriage movement and a remarkable change in public opinion. When the court heard oral arguments about California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013, only nine states and the District allowed such unions.

Hey, see that smudge of smoke out there on the horizon?  Yeah, that’s the Love Boat heading out on the Sea of Love.

But then we don’t want the Supremes to get too far ahead of themselves.  After all, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia are still working on the idea that slavery is bad.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back/Looking Forward

The tradition continues:  it’s time for my annual re-cap and prognostication for the past year and the year coming up.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

– Despite the terrible roll-out and start-up of Obamacare and the opportunity it handed the Republican campaign strategists, the healthcare law will not be as big an issue in the 2014 mid-terms that all the Villagers say it will be.  By the time the campaign hits the final stretch, the law will be so entrenched that even the people who claim they hate it — even though they support what it does — will have a hard time trying to run candidates who promise to repeal it.  Still, the GOP noise machine and Tea Party hard-core is locked in on re-electing their safe base and the morning after the 2014 mid-terms will show a House still in the hands of the GOP and the Senate closer to 50-50.

I got most of that right: Obamacare was not a campaign issue but I didn’t count on the Democrats running away from it like it was an Ebola-soaked sponge.  The Republicans didn’t win the Senate so much as the Democrats lost it.

– Immigration reform and gun control will go nowhere because it’s the same Congress we had in 2013 and they didn’t do jack-shit.

Too easy, more’s the pity.

– By December 31, 2014 it will be a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton will be running for president.  Joe Biden will play coy with the Villagers about running, but in the end he’ll demur to Ms. Clinton.  The Benghazi! non-scandal will be long gone except for the nutsery who still think Barack Obama was born in Kenya.  The GOP will be lining up its merry band that includes Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, and just for laughs, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee.  President Obama’s approval numbers will be back up in the 50% range.

Nailed that one.  Even the GOP House report says Benghazi! is a nothingburger, and President Obama’s approval numbers are going up.

– Florida Gov. Rick Scott will lose his re-election bid to Charlie Crist, the newly minted Democrat, and Marco Rubio’s star will be as faded in GOP national politics as Pauly Shore’s is among Oscar voters.  He’ll pick up a primary challenge from the far right, but he’ll be safe in 2016 because the Democrats have nobody to run against him.

– Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan, and Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania will all face tough re-election campaigns, but Mr. Kasich and Mr. Snyder will probably squeak by.  Mr. Corbett is out, and just for laughs, the people of Maine will toss their gaffe-prone Tea Party guv Paul LePage.

Still pissed that Florida and Maine re-elected those clowns.

– The national economy will continue to expand and the drive for the living wage movement will take hold.  The unemployment numbers will finally get below 7.0% and stay there.

Yeah, that was an easy call.  The minimum wage is going up all over the country.

– Marriage equality will spread to more states as more cases based on the ruling by the Supreme Court in 2013 are heard.  Indiana will vote on a ban on same-sex marriage in November 2014, and it will lose narrowly. But same-sex won’t be the law of the land yet, and I predict that unless the Supreme Court issues a sweeping ruling, Texas will be the last hold-out.

– The Supreme Court will rule 5-4 that Hobby Lobby or any for-profit non-religious corporation does not have the right “to deny its employees the health coverage of contraceptives to which the employees are otherwise entitled by federal law, based on the religious objections of the corporation’s owners.”

Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that marriage equality would take hold like it did this year.  Thirty-five states now allow same-sex marriage, many based on rulings by courts that hold that banning marriage equality violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution.  There are several cases that are making their way to the United States Supreme Court.  But the court may have tipped its hand.  In October the Court declined to take action on five cases submitted for hearing during the 2014-2015 session.  This allowed the lower court rulings that struck down the bans in those states to stand.

Feh on the Hobby Lobby ruling.

– This will be a rebuilding year for the Detroit Tigers now that Jim Leyland has retired.  They’ll do respectably well and may even win the division again, but it’s time for a breather.

Yep.

– Fidel Castro will finally hop the twig, and the slow thaw between the U.S. and Cuba will begin as the generation that is as old as Castro continues to fade away.

Fidel is still alive, but Alan Gross is free and diplomatic relations are being restored.  About time, too.

– We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

Losing Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both by their own hand, made this year especially painful.

– Personally, life will continue at its gentle pace in good health and good spirits.  In September I will turn 62 and begin the first steps towards eventual retirement, but that won’t be for a long time yet.  I’ve already started on my paper for the William Inge Theatre Festival in March, and I continue to write and produce blog posts.  My parents are happily settled into their “life enrichment community,” and I hope to visit them this summer.  I might even get a smartphone this year, but don’t bet on it.

I’m already working on my paper for the William Inge Festival in April, and I had two one-act plays produced, including one entitled A Life Enriching Community, thanks to my visit to my folks in Cincinnati.  No, I don’t have a smartphone.

Now the predictions:

– Now that we have a Republican House and Senate and a president who isn’t running for re-election, get out the popcorn, and I mean the good stuff.  The GOP will try to do everything they can to destroy the legacy of Barack Obama, but they will end up looking even more foolish, petulant, infantile, and borderline nuts than they have for the last two years, and that’s saying something.  Repeals of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and recharged attempts to investigate Benghazi!, the IRS, and the VA will be like the three rings of Barnum & Bailey, all of which President Obama will gleefully veto.  As Zandar noted at Balloon Juice, “Over/under on when a Republican declares on FOX that Obama’s veto is  “illegal”, Feb 8.”

– Hillary Clinton will announce that she is running for president by March 2015 at the latest.  Elizabeth Warren will not run, but Bernie Sanders, the Gene McCarthy of this generation, will announce as an independent and become a frequent guest on MSNBC.  Jeb Bush, after “actively exploring” a run in 2016, will announce that he is running and quickly fade to the single digits when the GOP base gets a taste of his views on immigration and Common Core.  He may be popular in Republican polls, but those people don’t vote in primaries.  The frontrunners for the Iowa caucuses a year from now will be Rand Paul and Chris Christie.

– The war in Afghanistan is officially over as of December 2014, but there will be U.S. troops actively engaged in combat in what is left of Syria and Iraq in 2015.

– The U.S. economy will continue to improve at a galloping pace.  The Dow will hit 19,000 at some point in 2015 and oil will continue to flood the market, keeping the price below $60 a barrel and gasoline will sell for under $2 a gallon, and finally wages will start to catch up with the improving economy.  I blame Obama.

– The Supreme Court will rule that bans on same-sex marriage violate the Constitution.  They will also narrowly uphold Obamacare again.

– The embargo against Cuba will end on a narrow vote in the Senate thanks to the overwhelming influence of Republican donors who see 11 million Cubans starving for Dunkin Donuts and car parts and don’t care what a bunch of domino-playing dreamers on Calle Ocho think.

– The Tigers will win their division again.

– We will lose the requisite number of celebrities and friends as life goes on. As I always say, it’s important to cherish them while they are with us.

– I technically retired on September 1, 2014, but my last day at work will be August 30, 2019.  (It’s complicated.)  I’m planning a return trip to Stratford this summer — more on that later — and I’ll get more plays produced.  I will finish at least one novel in 2015.

– And of course, the usual prediction: One year from now I’ll write a post just like this one, look back at this one, and think, “Gee, that was dumb.” Or not.

Okay, readers, it’s your turn.  What do you predict will befall us in 2015?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reasons To Hope

Supporters of Obamacare were understandably concerned when the Supreme Court announced that it would review a challenge to the law this term.  The law has already been through one round with the Court, winning in 2012 by one vote, and now the opponents hope to gut it to the bone in this go-round.

Brian Beutler has come up with eight reasons why he believes the justices will not overturn the law, ranging from the legal — the case against it is weak — to the political.  He makes a good case on all eight points, including the fact that while the Court is supposed to be above politics (yeah, right), Chief Justice Roberts and the conservatives on the bench know that killing the law would infuriate private insurers, hospitals, and make the world miserable for Republicans who would have to face the millions of voters who suddenly find themselves either without insurance or unable to afford it.

As Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936) — in the person of Mr. Dooley — noted in 1900, “No matter whether th’ Constitution follows th’ flag or not, the Supreme Coort follows th’ iliction returns.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

ACA Life Support

It is not a good thing that that Supreme Court has agreed to review a case that could basically rip the legs out from under Obamacare.

Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog:

The Supreme Court, moving back into the abiding controversy over the Affordable Care Act, agreed early Friday afternoon to decide how far the federal government can extend its program of subsidies to buyers of health insurance.  At issue is whether the program of tax credits applies only in the consumer marketplaces set up by sixteen states, and not at federally operated sites in thirty-four states.

[…]

By adding the case to its decision docket at this point, without waiting for further action in lower federal courts, as the Obama administration had asked, the Court ensured that it would rule on the case during the current Term.  If it decides to limit the subsidies to the state-run “exchanges,” it is widely understood that that outcome would crash the ACA’s carefully balanced economic arrangements.

Via Scott Lemieux at LGM:

People with strong stomachs can look at Jonathan Adler, in his palpable excitement about millions of people about to be stripped of their health insurance, claiming that this case is about…deferring to Congress. The fact that not a single member of Congress involved in passing the ACA has believed at any time that the subsidies were not available on federally established exchanges and the interpretation of the statute saying otherwise is nonsensical on its face renders this rather dark comedy indeed.

In other words, what amounts to a typo in the law could — and with this court it’s entirely possible — crater it.

And even if they don’t, it will not be the end of attempts to kill the law.  Remember, the same fanatics who have been fighting against a woman’s right to reproductive choice are fighting this law.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Beginning Of The End

Looking at some of the reactions to the Supreme Court’s non-decision on marriage equality by the anti-equality folks — outragejudicial activism by unelected judges, a violation of God-given rights, and so on — tells me that the battle for same-sex marriage is coming to the end the way I thought it would: by the slow inexorable march, state by state, court battle by court battle, until finally the freedom to marry is as ordinary as any other exercised right.

The losers are outraged because they believed that they had the right to encode their bigotry and religious prejudice into law.  They also have gone over the top because they hear the distant approach of oblivion.  It won’t happen overnight; history tells us that overcoming pride and prejudice (h/t Jane Austen) takes a long time.  But they know the jig is up and the anti-gay movement will in time become as relevant and forceful as the temperance movement.

This may not be the solution some of us wanted: a firm holding from the Supreme Court that the Fourteenth Amendment, contrary to Sen. Cruz’s assertion, does guarantee equal protection under the law and that marriage, established as a fundamental right in cases going back generations, should be available to all citizens regardless of genitalia.  Those who criticize the Court for not taking up the case should understand that in order to do so they had to have conflicting rulings: a ruling for and a ruling against.  So far no federal bench has sided with the anti-same-sex side, therefore there’s no decision to make, and they let the lower courts rulings stand.  In baseball, it would be called a walk-off: there’s no need to have the final out when the winning run has scored and the other team has no more at-bats.

They’re going to go out in the same way they came in, though.  They will grift the foolish and the fearful of their money and hope to hang on to their cash while desperately finding some other line of work.  They know that the lies they tell and the fundamental misstatements about the make-up of our government are meant only for their pigeons.  They carry on about “unelected judges,” knowing full well that the federal judiciary doesn’t face the voters for a very good reason: they — at least it is to be hoped — should not be swayed by political or financial ambition (even if that concept has been put to the test by the current Supreme Court).  Judicial activism is clearly in the eye of the beholder.  These same people praised the genius of the Court when it decided that corporations themselves can hold religious beliefs and that a checkbook is the same thing as a soapbox; two decisions that legal scholars of every stripe agree were outside the scope of the original cases.  And while appealing to heaven and the Almighty make for some thunderous rhetoric and get the money flowing, using a religious argument to enforce an untenable violation of the Constitution should automatically disqualify it from consideration.

A federal court could rule against marriage equality and that could set up a hearing before the Supreme Court.  But yesterday’s move basically opened the door and hundreds of couples have already tied the knot in places such as Virginia, and Utah (!); states that up until yesterday morning did not have marriage equality.  Even the losers concede that undoing those bonds would be impossible.

This is not the end.  Florida still has the ban — for the moment — as do nineteen other states.  But it is only a matter of time, and I’m not talking years.  It will be months, perhaps weeks now.

Monday, October 6, 2014

SCOTUS: Not To Decide Is To Decide

The United States Supreme Court has basically legalized marriage equality in 30 states without having to rule on it.  Via TPM:

By declining to take up gay marriage in the current term, the Supreme Court left intact lower court decisions legalizing gay marriage and cleared the way for same-sex marriage in 30 states and the District of Columbia.

The justices on Monday did not comment in rejecting appeals from Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. No other state cases were currently pending with the high court, but the justices stopped short of resolving for now the question of same-sex marriage nationwide.

The court’s order immediately ends delays on marriage in those states. Couples in six other states — Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming — should be able to get married in short order. Those states would be bound by the same appellate rulings that were put on hold pending the Supreme Court’s review.

That would make same-sex marriage legal in 30 states and the District of Columbia.

Experts and advocates on both sides of the issue believed the justices would step in and decide gay marriage cases this term.

The justices have an obligation to settle an issue of such national importance, not abdicate that responsibility to lower court judges, the advocates said. Opting out of hearing the cases leaves those lower court rulings in place.

This is great news for marriage equality in those states and sets a precedent for the courts that are reviewing pending cases.  On the other hand, it leaves other states such as Florida still on the side of heterosexism.

By dodging the issue in this way the Court avoids — for now — the process of a hearing and a ruling.  It would be very hard to imagine that once they’ve made this non-ruling and allowed the states to immediately grant licenses to same-sex couples that they would reverse themselves.  Once the genie is out of the bottle, it ain’t going back in without a good reason.

Frankly, I wish they would have taken it up and made a definitive ruling on the scale of Roe v. Wade.  This leaves a patchwork of state laws and rulings on the issue, meaning that the states will be forced to deal with it on their own.  Many states were quietly hoping that SCOTUS would pick up this hot potato so they wouldn’t have to.  But they have just handed it back to them.

That said… Hooray!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday Reading

First Monday in October — This year’s Supreme Court term could decide the marriage equality question.  Adam Liptak in the New York Times:

The Supreme Court on Monday returns to work to face a rich and varied docket, including cases on First Amendment rights in the digital age, religious freedom behind bars and the status of Jerusalem.

Those cases are colorful and consequential, but there are much bigger ones on the horizon.

“I’m more excited about the next 12 months at the Supreme Court than about any Supreme Court term in its modern history,” said Thomas C. Goldstein, who argues frequently before the court and is the publisher of Scotusblog.

In the coming weeks, the justices will most likely agree to decide whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, a question they ducked in 2013. They will also soon consider whether to hear a fresh and potent challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which barely survived its last encounter with the court in 2012.

The terms that concluded with those rulings riveted the nation. Now the two issues may return to the court — together.

“This term could become the ‘déjà vu all over again’ term of the century,” said Pratik A. Shah, a Supreme Court specialist with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is entering his 10th term, and it is one that could define the legacy of the court he leads. Should the court establish a right to same-sex marriage, it would draw comparisons to the famously liberal court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, said David A. Strauss, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

“It is only a slight overstatement to say that the Roberts court will be to the rights of gays and lesbians what the Warren court was to the rights of African Americans,” Professor Strauss said.

Petitions seeking review of decisions in the marriage and health care cases have already been filed. They may be joined in short order by ones on abortion and affirmative action.

“The prospect that every major social issue will collide before the justices may be historic,” Mr. Goldstein said.

The Unlucky Seven — G.O.P. governors who may get the heave-ho next month.  John Nichols in The Nation:

The headlines immediately following the “Republican Wave” election of 2010 focused on Congress, where Democrats lost control of the House. But attention quickly shifted to the states, where a new class of Republican governors, often working with allied legislative majorities, began implementing agendas far more extreme than those of their compatriots in gridlocked Washington.

That extremism has made many of these Republican Wave governors vulnerable in 2014—so vulnerable that billionaire campaign donors and business interests are scrambling to save them. Recent revelations of secret meetings organized by the Koch brothers and secret donations to groups like the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee confirm the connections—and the sense of urgency. But even a massive spending spree may not keep these governors in office.

That’s because what’s good for campaign donors has not been good for GOP-led states, many of which trail the national average in job creation. In some states, such as Kansas, economic stagnation is so severe that moderate Republicans are endorsing Democratic gubernatorial nominees who promise to stop catering to out-of-state special interests and to focus on education and jobs.

The failure of the GOP austerity agenda stands in stark contrast to the success of states where Democratic governors have invested in infrastructure, services and schools. California’s Jerry Brown and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, both of whom replaced Republican governors four years ago, are well ahead in the polls. While some Democratic governors are in tight races, perennially embattled Illinois Governor Pat Quinn edged ahead of Republican Bruce Rauner in a mid-September Chicago Tribune survey, at least in part because of a campaign warning that Rauner would impose on Illinois the right-wing policies that are widely seen as having slowed growth in neighboring Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s Scott Walker began his tenure in 2011 by attacking public employees and their unions and securing a budget that slashed spending on education and public services. He advanced laws restricting access to women’s reproductive health services, establishing harsh voter-ID requirements, undermining environmental protections, and generally rubber-stamping the agenda of corporate-funded groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Walker made big news, but his extremism was hardly unique. Michigan’s Rick Snyder used “emergency manager” laws to dismantle democracy in Detroit and other cities and signed an anti-labor “right to work” law in the home state of the United Auto Workers. Maine’s Paul LePage told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” hired corporate lobbyists to help him rewrite regulations, and intervened so aggressively against unemployed workers that the US Labor Department had to step in. Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett hit all the wrong marks by appointing cronies to key positions, making statements that offended women and Latinos, attacking unions, and scrapping the state’s school funding formula in a move that led to devastating cuts.

Corbett’s misdeeds are so well known that he’s trailing as far as twenty points behind Democrat Tom Wolf, a businessman running as an ardent advocate for public education, a supporter of unions and a champion of manufacturing. Walker, Snyder and LePage are all locked in what the RealClearPolitics “Poll of Polls” ranks as toss-up races, as are Republican Wave governors Rick Scott of Florida, Nathan Deal of Georgia and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

History from Hendrik Van Loon — Charlie Pierce harks back to a storyteller of yore.

In his recent documentary about the Roosevelt family, Ken Burns alluded to a gentleman named Hendrik Van Loon. (At one point, Burns put up the front page of a newspaper with Van Loon’s byline.) The name alone was enough to get our house a’stir. (It is now my third-favorite name in American political history behind Elihu Root and Thurlow Weed.) So, the family Internet sleuth worked dark magic and we discovered that Van Loon was quite the character. Journalist. Author. Early and prolific anti-Nazi. Friend and confidante of FDR. And winner of the very first Newbery Medal (in 1922) for The Story Of Mankind, a young people’s book that delivered exactly what its title said it would deliver. The book was massive, and it sold massively. It was made into a movie starring Ronald Colman and the Marx Brothers, and Van Loon’s family added chapters to the original all the way up into the 1990’s. Van Loon went on to write other formidable doorstops for young folks including The Story Of The Bible and Tolerance. Van Loon did not condescend to the young reader’s allegedly short attention span, as we discovered as the books began arriving at our house this past week. Hendrik Van Loon’s readers were readers for the 15th round, they were.

It turns out that Van Loon is a remarkably discursive, and utterly eccentric, stylist, following his peculiar muse to fascinating and unmapped literary acreages. He has a positive gift for off-the-wall historical comparisons and, occasionally, he appears to be having his readers on. These characteristics, of course, made him an instant favorite at this shebeen, so much so that we have decided to give him his own space in the hopes of introducing his distinctive prose stylings to another generation which, we hope, will imitate them so as to confound their English teachers, baffle the gang at the Educational Testing Service, and raise holy hell with education “reformers” everywhere.

Our debut offering comes from The Story Of The Bible, in which Hendrik points out to his readers that, as far as Tacitus was concerned, the religious fervor of the devotees of a certain itinerant preacher in distant Judea was something of a sideshow, given the major events of the day. Van Loon writes:

The Christ in question had probably been a preacher in some obscure little synagogue in Galilee or Judaea. Of course, there was more than a probablilty that Nero had been too severe. On the other hand, it was better not to be too lenient in such matters. And there the question rested, as far as Tacitus was concerned. He never mentioned the offending sect again. His interest was entirely academic and such as we might take in the trouble between the Canadian Mounted Police and those strange Russian sects which inhabit the western portion of that vast empire of forests and grain fields.

Today’s Assignment: Why Jesus Christ Is Like The Mounties. Discuss.

Doonesbury — Welcome home.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Athesists Need Not Apply

Via TPM:

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court gave its blessing to local governments that want to open their public meetings with religious prayer.

It was a victory for the town board of Greece, N.Y., which stressed that it was fighting not just for Christian prayer but for the right of all people express their views regardless of their faith. In a 5-4 ruling along ideological lines, the Court ruled against the Jewish and atheist plaintiffs, who argued that the practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Less than four months later, the town of Greece has adopted an invocation policy that excludes non-religious citizens and potentially shuts out faiths that aren’t well-established in the town, according to a top secular group.

Seeking to “avail itself of the Supreme Court’s recognition” that government prayer is constitutional, the new policy restricts opening remarks to “assemblies with an established presence in the Town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.”

Translation: atheists and agnostics need not apply. And unless the board clerk decides that your faith has an “established presence” in the New York town of fewer than 100,000, you may not deliver an invocation.

I realize that it takes a lot of study of the law and you really have to be good at it to get appointed to the United States Supreme Court, but if the five men who ruled in favor of the town Greece didn’t see this coming, then they’re idiots.

Of course there’s always the possibility that they knew that this would happen but ruled in favor anyway.

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.

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.

 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Judgment Day – Updated

Today is the day that the Supreme Court will hand down two very important rulings.

The Hobby Lobby case will decide if for-profit companies can claim a religious exemption for health insurance coverage they say makes the Baby Jesus cry.

The challenge was brought by the Southern Baptist owners of Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain, and the Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood, a cabinet maker. Both sued for relief from a mandate under Obamacare that profit-making businesses include emergency contraceptives for female employees in their insurance plans at no extra cost. They said the requirement to cover contraceptives like Plan B and Ella violates their religious liberty.

The Court is also set to rule on whether or not public employee unions can basically survive.

The case, Harris v. Quinn, is about the constitutionality of “agency fees” charged by public sector unions to all workers in a unionized setting, even non-union members. These fees are essential to their operation.

The Hobby Lobby case isn’t so much about religious freedom as it is about control.  The healthcare law does not require the employers to pay for their workers’ birth control; it allows the employees to avail themselves of contraception at no extra cost.  But somehow the family that owns Hobby Lobby sees that as the road to the abortion clinic and objects to what their employees can do with their own insurance.

If the Court rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, it could set the stage for any company to claim a religious exemption as the reason for doing anything they want to their employees, including denying benefits to couples — same sex or otherwise — if they’re not in keeping with their personal religious beliefs.

In the case of the public unions, the Court will decide if people who benefit from the unions without having to belong to them should pay a fee for those benefits.  If they don’t, then the unions could go broke.  That’s not something this Court, with its apparent love for the corporate manifest destiny, seems to be too concerned about.

Stay tuned; I’ll try to update the rulings as they come in.

UPDATE: The Court narrowly held for Hobby Lobby in a 5-4 decision, saying that “closely-held” corporations can opt out of contraception coverage based on religious grounds.  Stand by for a bunch of corporations becoming “closely-held.”  All the Republican-appointed justices — who happen to be men — decided for Hobby Lobby; the four appointed by Democrats voted against it, with some powerful dissenting opinions.

In the public union case, the Court ruled that non-union employees can’t be forced to pay fees to the union.

PS: Any guesses on who might be retiring from the Court after this term?  Ginsburg?  Scalia (if only)?

Friday, June 27, 2014

But Not For Thee

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Massachusetts’ buffer zone law around abortion clinics violated the First Amendment.

“The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the decision, concluding that the law violates the First Amendment. “Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks — sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history.”

Oddly enough, the Supremes don’t have a problem keeping their fellow citizens away from them.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, maintains a tight perimeter: “No person shall engage in a demonstration within the Supreme Court building and grounds.”

Supreme Court buffer zone 06-27-14

I think it’s about time someone had a serious conversation with the Court about both irony and hypocrisy.

Short Takes

Droning on in Iraq: Political leaders are looking for someone to replace the current prime minister.

Syria: President Obama requests $500 million for rebels.

SCOTUS: The Court ruled against President Obama’s recess appointments and struck down abortion clinic buffer zones.

Arizona firefighter families sue over deaths.

End of the road for India’s iconic Ambassador automobile.

R.I.P. Howard Baker, 88, former Republican Senator from Tennessee.  Classy guy who couldn’t get nominated in the G.O.P. today.

The Tigers swept the Rangers 6-0 and extend their streak to seven wins.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Short Takes

Dam Close — ISIS is closing in on Haditha Dam, the second largest in Iraq.

Iran is said to be secretly supplying Iraq with weapons.

The Supreme Court ruled against Aereo TV service, saying it violated copyright.

Also, the Court unanimously ruled that cell phone searches by police must come with a warrant.

The N.F.L. has lifted the cap on payments to concussion victims.

Diane Sawyer is leaving the anchor desk at ABC.

The Tigers beat the Rangers 8-6.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tuesday, June 17, 2014