Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Women and Dignity

Our society treats women as second class citizens. Objectification in the media constantly barrages us with the message that women are primarily sexual objects. Our failure to prevent sexual assault, domestic violence, rape and trafficking of women is a stain of deep shame on this nation. Advocates of smaller government will stop at nothing to insert their laws deep into the most intimate parts of women’s bodies, while at the same time derailing every attempt to provide those same women with adequate health care.

On Tuesday, April 29, advocates for women will gather in Lansing in recognition of Michigan Equal Pay Day. Equal Pay Day marks how far into the year a woman must work, on average, to earn as much as a man earned the previous year. Because women earn less than men, they must work longer for the same amount of pay. The latest national data indicate women’s median annual earnings for full-time work was 77 cents for every dollar men made (Michigan has the seventh widest gap at 74 cents to the dollar).

http://www.freep.com/article/20140409/BUSINESS06/304090026/equal-pay-women-salary-wages

Women, on average, earn less than men in virtually every occupation and this is true even in female-dominated occupations. Women of color face an even larger wage gap. As chronicled in the AAUW study “Graduating to a Pay Gap,” sex-based wage disparities start with a college-educated woman’s first job when compared to men with equivalent degrees. The gender wage gap not only continues during her career, but shows an increase over time.

The first two principles of Unitarian Universalism affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Therefore, I believe that every person possesses equal worth and that I am called to advocate for just and loving treatment in order to guarantee every person’s dignity. So in America, where worth is typically determined by the marketplace, my religious beliefs state that a just and equitable society should pay women and men who perform the same jobs equally. Equal pay for me, therefore, is a religious principle.

But this issue extends far beyond a matter of merely how much less women earn less than men for the same work. This issue strikes at the core of the American family and the economic well being of our children. Today, one in three Americans live at or below the poverty line, and almost 70 percent are women and children. That means 42 million women in this nation of unprecedented bounty are barely surviving economically, and the number of working poor is steadily increasing. A new study, “The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink,” illustrates many of the attributes of our unequal system of worth.
  • Women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, concentrated in jobs that tend to be labor-intensive.
  • Women also do most of the care work for children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women devote more than 110 million hours a year to unpaid interactive child care, more than double that of men.
  • According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, women over the age of 65 are twice as likely to live in poverty as men of the same age.
We know that these statistics hold true even here in Midland, where 53 percent of families with children under the age of 5 and headed by women are below the poverty level. For families headed by women with older children, 45 percent live in poverty.

So what can you do to advocate for dignity for women in the area of pay equity? Several bills to strengthen Michigan’s laws about pay equity are in Legislative Committees awaiting action:
  • SB 296/HB 4516 provides wage transparency for similarly situated employees
  • SB 297/HB 4519 increases penalties for wage discrimination based on gender
  • SB 298/HB 4519 strengthens the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to make it clear that sex-based wage discrimination is illegal under Michigan law and incorporates the equal pay factors into the act
  • SB 299/HB 4517 establishes a pay equity study commission to examine the scope of the issue in Michigan and provide technical assistance to employers
Rep. Stamas and Sen. Moolenaar need to hear from people who support women’s dignity in the workplace and in our communities. And wear red on Equal Pay Day on April 29 to symbolize that women’s pay is “in the red” compared to men’s pay.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Hypocrisy and Hobby Lobby

Recently, the Supreme Court heard the case of a privately-owned corporation wishing to impose the religious views of its owners on its employees. On its surface, this case is about contraception and whether one believes in the morality of birth control. At the next level of understanding is the debate over whether “religious freedom” guarantees one the right to practice one’s religion when doing so imposes one’s own religious beliefs on others.

But, this case is not really about either of these important debates. The Hobby Lobby vs. Sebelius case is about hypocrisy — the hypocrisy running all too rampant in our society today.

The Green family sells products for a living. They pay employees a compensation package to work in their stores and sell their products. And the Greens want to control how those employees spend the money they earn because of the Greens’ so-called Christian values. But let’s examine how the Greens act upon their religious values.
  • Hobby Lobby imports billions of dollars of products from China, a nation that doesn't allow its people to have the freedom to worship freely, where workers are routinely exposed to dangerous situations for low pay, and where persecution of Chinese Christians is increasing. And although the one-child policy was technically lifted, abandonment and selective killing of female babies continues. Forced abortion is still a regular practice in China. See http://www.usnews.com/opinion/leslie-marshall/2014/03/26/hobby-lobbys-china-hypocrisy
  • Documents filed with the Department of Labor three months after the Greens filed their lawsuit show that the Hobby Lobby 401(k) employee retirement plan held more than $73 million in mutual funds with investments in companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices and drugs commonly used in abortions. Hobby Lobby makes large matching contributions to this company-sponsored 401(k), even though there exist several boutique mutual funds that specifically screen companies that are not in line with their client's religious beliefs. See http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/04/hobby-lobby-retirement-plan-invested-emergency-contraception-and-abortion-drug-makers
  • The main drugs in question in the case brought before the Supreme Court are the emergency contraceptives Plan-B and Ella.One huge problem with this situation is that up until 2012, Hobby Lobby provided them as part of their insurance plan. Only when they realized that Obamacare was going to mandate this coverage did they suddenly become interested in not providing these drugs. See  http://www.reddirtreport.com/prairie-opinions/hobby-lobby-provided-emergency-contraceptives-they-opposed-them#sthash.uukZXFjI.dpuf
  • Hobby Lobby's CFO Jon Cargill, and an affiliate company, Crafts Etc., are the two single biggest donors to the National Christian Foundation, an organization that backed groups advocating in favor of Arizona's anti-gay bill — the Center for Arizona Policy and the Alliance Defending Freedom. This action displays not just a desire to engage in a religious practice, but a concerted effort to reach out and support overly discriminatory laws. See http://www.salon.com/2014/03/27/hobby_lobbys_secret_agenda_how_its_secretly_funding_a_vast_right_wing_movement/
So, in other words, when it increases their profits, the Greens readily set aside their vaunted Christian values in favor of the almighty dollar. The only religious value ultimately important to the Greens is the worship of wealth and the desire to impose their political views on others.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Newspeak

Truth and Meaning: Newspeak

Some of my favorite books are dystopian novels — stories of future worlds that see themselves as utopian, but are in fact nightmarish perversions of society. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian government and fundamentalist religious dogma. 


Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell, presented the concept of Newspeak — a controlled language created by the state as a tool to limit freedom of thought. Newspeak made obsolete concepts that posed a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality and peace. Any form of thought altering from this narrative construct was classified as "thoughtcrime."
Students of dystopian fiction see all too frequently the creeping influence of Newspeak in our language today, represented by euphemisms that hide a sinister agenda. We hear these phrases everyday in our media, but rarely see them called out for their real meanings.

Traditional Values — “Traditional” or “family” values are touted by people seeking to impose their definition of values on everyone by claiming that those values are somehow inherent or natural. It does not matter that facts do not support their claims. They simply shout louder and make up new facts that do seem to support their position. The most important value to many advocates of “traditional values” is privilege — the unearned right to deny freedoms to others that they take for granted and use to their own advantage.

Pro-Life — A “pro-life” advocate opposes reproductive freedom, from sex education to birth control to family planning to abortion, even when medically necessary to save the life of the woman. A “pro-life” advocate often cares only about bringing every fetus to term, regardless of the circumstances into which a baby is being brought, and without regard to the future health and well-being of the child, the mother, or the family.  “Pro-Life” is synonymous with “pro-birth” and “anti-choice.” The agenda of the pro-life movement is not to improve the welfare of children, but to control the reproductive lives of women.

Small Government — An advocate for small government is often really a classist who opposes public support of the poor and middle class while favoring government welfare for the wealthy. The small government advocate opposes civil rights for the underprivileged, but supports unabridged freedom for the privileged classes in society. They oppose any attempt to regulate guns, conservative speech, lobbying and campaign finances, but support the complete regulation of voting by the poor and minorities, access to reproductive health care by women and the ability to discriminate on the basis of one’s personal religious belief.

When the purveyors of Newspeak proclaim their beliefs as immutable truth, it is up to us to challenge their assumptions and to let them know that they do not speak for all Americans.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Finding Hope

Truth and Meaning: Finding Hope

This seemingly endless winter has made me sensitive to the despair many of us are struggling with. This week, I faced my own sense of despair when I attended the first Truth and Justice Tuesday event in Lansing, sponsored by the Prophetic Voices interfaith collaborative. I support their work, but find their approach lacking a sense of urgency. As an impatient activist who appreciates the need for agitators to rattle the cages of status quo, I find their approach too passive.


I left the event feeling…despair. I drove home troubled, struggling to find a reason to ever expect change for a more compassionate society; for a way to a higher ground where no one faces poverty, discrimination, violence and oppression. My colleagues seek hope through prayer. They look for our lost hope by appealing to God for guidance and assistance. And while I recognize the value of prayer, particularly when providing pastoral care, I could not bring myself to pray with legislators who willfully choose power above people, money above morality and regressive thinking above reason.

Like many people, I don’t believe in a higher power that answers prayers or cares about our daily challenges. There may well be a god of some kind, but I believe that we must build Beloved Community here and now with our hands and feet and hearts and minds. A creator would not have endowed us with these gifts with no expectation to use them for the common good. The mountains of snow and ice result not from fate or divine intervention, but simply from an unusual winter. And my sense of lost hope cannot be resolved by prayer, but through working harder to find it and enlisting the help of others to aid in the search.
So, for those who believe in a god, I welcome prayers and the encouragement they provide. But for the rest of us, let me say that I believe hope may be temporarily misplaced, but it is not lost. We may not know where hope hides in our snow-covered landscape, but we can find it. In time, the snow will melt, we will chip away the ice, and we will uncover our lost hope.

When that wave of despair floods over you, ride it out. It is hard — I know — but believe that the fear and pain will pass. We will find hope again and a new spring will dawn.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Religious Freedom?

Truth and Meaning: Religious Freedom?

The news abounds with proposed legislation purporting to defend religious freedom. This raises two important questions: What exactly do we mean when we talk about “religious freedom?” and is religious freedom actually being threatened? I want to draw an important distinction in this debate — the freedom from interference with religious belief and the freedom to act upon one’s religious beliefs.


The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees us that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This provision was later expanded to state and local governments, through the incorporation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The “Establishment Clause” deals with separation of church and state issues, since the presence of any particular religion in public offices or functions, for example, gives the impression of the sanctioning of a state religion. In this case, religious freedom means that people are free from the imposition of religion by the state. The people are not free, however, to act upon their beliefs in a way that imposes those beliefs on the public. The “Free Exercise” clause has been refined many times over the centuries to clarify that the laws are made for the government of actions. Therefore, while the people are free from government interference with religious belief and opinions, government may restrict the ability of people to act on those beliefs if the actions are held to be against the public interest.

For instance, Supreme Court cases have discussed specific religious practices, and ruled such actions legal or illegal. Other times, laws have been passed (such as nondiscrimination clauses in hiring and business practices) that make it illegal to hire or fire someone based on their religious beliefs. In Michigan (according to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976), employers may not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, or marital status.  More than 30 municipalities have since added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list, as well.

But, if you live in Midland, or any other municipality yet to pass such an addendum, you may legally discriminate against LGBT individuals. If the law were to change, however, how would that affect religious freedom? If you believe that homosexuality is an abomination, you remain free to hold that belief. You are also free to believe that racial minorities are inferior, women are incomplete souls, diseased and disabled people are being punished by God, and that divorced people who remarry are living in sin. Nothing changes your religious freedom to believe such things.

You will not be free, necessarily, to act upon that belief in a way that is against the public interest. As a business owner, you are not free to refuse to serve a customer because you don’t believe they are living in a way in which you approve. As a service provider, you do not get to pick and choose clients who meet your judgment of worth and dignity based on your religious beliefs. If you serve the public, you are free from government interference with your beliefs. But the interests of the public override your ability to act based upon your religious beliefs.

If you believe that homosexuality is a sin, then you will always be free to oppose same-sex marriage; to advocate for restricting services to LGBT people; to boycott gay-friendly establishments; and to vote for homophobic candidates for office. When sexual orientation and gender identity become protected classes universally (which they will), you will not be free to act in a way that is injurious to the public interest, and that will include the well-being of LGBT individuals. You will not be free to withhold services from them, fire them or evict them on the basis of their being gay.

And even if you reject these arguments, here is one that cannot be refuted. As a Unitarian Universalist, the first principle of my religious belief is respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I believe that love between consenting adults is Love, whether that love is heterosexual or homosexual. I believe in our principle that every person deserves justice, equity and compassion regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. So if you were to fire me because I am gay or straight, bisexual or transgender, then you are also firing me because I am a Unitarian Universalist. You are firing me for believing the core tenets of my religious faith — and that is a violation of my religious freedom.

You will always be free to disagree with me, boycott my church, even to hate me. But religious freedom in America does not protect your ability to discriminate against me.

Truth and Meaning: Rationalizing Hate and Discrimination

Truth and Meaning: Rationalizing Hate and Discrimination

“I don’t hate anyone.” I must have heard that sentence at least six times last Tuesday night as opponents to a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance addressed Bay County commissioners. The proposed ordinance would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for all direct employment and services provided by Bay County, including services provided by any county contractors.


“But …” and then would follow the flood of uninformed and irrelevant venom directed at gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender folk. “I don’t believe in discriminating against anyone ...” would immediately precede reasons why Bay County should not protect LGBT people from discrimination.
Well, I have news for you. LGBT people face discrimination every day. They can be fired from their jobs because they are gay. They can be evicted from their homes because they are gay. They can be denied contracts and services because they are gay. And they didn’t choose to be gay anymore than you chose to be straight.

And here is some more news for you. Being gay is not a choice; it is not a “lifestyle.” No one “decides to become a woman one morning” (at least two people trotted that one out in their testimony). Gay people are not pedophiles lurking in public restrooms to molest your grandchildren — the fear mongering about bathrooms came up many times from opponents, despite the fact that the vast majority of pedophiles are heterosexuals.

You don’t get to decide whether you hate LGBT people. If you believe that government should not protect these vulnerable citizens from discrimination — protections you take for granted because of your straight privilege — then you are showing hatred toward the LGBT community. When you trivialize gays, and make stereotyped inferences about their character and morality, then you are showing hatred. When you dismiss the bullying and beating, the harassment and hurt experienced by LGBT folk every day because you don’t choose to see it happening, then you are showing hatred toward them.

And here is some more news. You do not get to twist the life and words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to support your hate. In his convoluted and mostly irrelevant testimony, Gary Glenn painted King as opposing nondiscrimination against LGBT people based on one article taken out of context and the opinion of one of King’s children. In fact, King would have been a champion of gay rights today because of his long-time and close friendship with a gay activist and because of his view of Christianity, says Michael Long, author of, “I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters.” “Dr. King never publicly welcomed gays at the front gate of his beloved community. But he did leave behind a key for them — his belief that each person is sacred, free and equal,” says Long, also author of the upcoming “Keeping It Straight? Martin Luther King Jr., Homosexuality, and Gay Rights.” And despite the views of his daughter, her mother Coretta Scott King, was a vocal supporter of gay rights. One of her closest aides was gay. She also invoked her husband’s dream.

So, to Gary Glenn and the rest of the homophobes who opposed this ordinance, here is some last news. Though King was a Christian minister, he didn’t embrace a literal reading of the Bible that some use to condemn homosexuality. King’s vision of the Beloved Community — his biblical-rooted vision of humanity transcending its racial and religious differences — did not restrict people’s rights, but expanded them. Jesus preached a new covenant — one that rejected the old legacies of division and hated. He preached of a world of love and acceptance, a world that protected the weak and oppressed. Jesus never, ever taught you to hate anyone or to judge them because they are different. Jesus never, ever limited the definition of committed loving relationships to only heterosexuals.

So stop rationalizing your hate because you deny the overwhelming scientific evidence. Stop justifying your discrimination because you need to defend your straight privilege. And stop putting your words of hate and discrimination into the mouths of our greatest champions of love and justice.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Beloved Community: Justice

As Jody and I drove the 750 miles from Midland, Michigan to Raleigh, North Carolina last Friday, we knew that we were engaged in a pilgrimage.  Just as those called to Selma in 1965, we were called to the South again to march for the moral rights of all people, of our society.

So, as we passed into each new state (and went from -7 degrees to 50 degrees!), we stopped to record a sermon for my congregation back home to watch on Sunday morning.  This is part of an ongoing sermon series I have been delivering this year on King's idea of the Beloved Community -- what are the attributes of the Beloved Community, and how can we get there.