Thursday, December 18, 2014

Address Opposing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act


At the request of students from Adrian College, I was asked to speak at a protest on the Capitol steps in Lansing in opposition to the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (HB 5958) on December 16, 2014 during the waning days of the lame duck session of the Michigan legislature.  The following are my comments (you may also see a video here, or listen to an mp3 version here).
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Everywhere we turn today, politicians seek to justify the unjustifiable. “Corporations are people,” they tell us. “We need more bombs and so we must cut school lunch programs.” “The best way to fix our faltering economy is to double down our investment into the banks that got us here in the first place.”

And now we hear a new claim. With House Bill 5958, our legislators tell us, “Government must not burden people and businesses when choosing to exercise their religious beliefs, regardless of the consequences of that action on others.” Convincing us of the sincerity of such statements, especially given their inherent contradictions and the tremendous potential for and mischief by those taking advantage of such claims as these, presents a daunting challenge.

And because the task raises such difficulties, they must call on the greatest authorities to lend credence to their arguments. So, you hear many politicians today referring to the founders of this great nation. They quote Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and others as proof of the righteousness of their cause.

They carefully sift through mountains of books to find just the right quote – even if they must take that quote completely out of context. When the founders stood mute on a subject, they tell us what the founders were really thinking. When those tactics fall short, they shout words like “Freedom!” and “Liberty!” confident that they can rely on our patriotism and our trust in the democratic process that they act in our best interests.

And when all else fails, they wait until the dead of night. They skulk in the shadows of the halls of government until after the electorate has spoken. They wait until the time when everyone looks forward to family gatherings and singing joyous praises.

Then, they slink from behind their desks. They quietly announce a hearing – or bypass the process of a public hearing altogether – and pass whatever laws please them. They do this because they know, were it not for the distractions of the holidays and our everyday lives, we might hold up our hands and say, “Wait a minute…I don’t understand what purpose this proposed bill serves.” After months of hibernation, they race through the lame duck session because they are afraid that we might have the time to read proposed bills and share our opinions. They feverishly plunge through this window because it is too late for us to voice our discontent at the ballot box with politicians whose terms will end shortly.

Perhaps the legislatures populated by our founders operated with a similar lack of transparency. But, I doubt it. It was Thomas Paine, who wrote in his landmark work Common Sense that the faithfulness of those elected to serve in public office “will be secured by the prudent reflection of not making a rod for themselves.” In other words, our elected officials should not rule over us like tyrants, but should engage with us in dialogue and informed debate.

Later, Paine specifically talks about the nature of America. “This new world,” he writes, “hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster…” So clearly, Paine would not have dreamed of a legislature using the tactics of a tyrant to pass laws abridging the rights of those who fear religious persecution.

Our ancestors came to this land because people used religious beliefs to hurt, to imprison, and even to kill them. I understand the corruption of religion by those who wield it as a rod to punish others. My grandmother Theresa fled her home in Europe for committing the sin of divorcing her abusive husband. For this act of self-preservation, the church deemed her unworthy and excommunicated her – a punishment that meant death; for she was now shunned by employers, shop owners, and landlords. Staying meant homelessness and starvation because she believed in her right to live free.

My grandmother met the man who became my grandfather here in America. He, too, had fled Europe because the Serbian army would routinely cross the river into his hometown and conscript young men to fight the never-ending religious conflict in the Balkans. No matter how many times the military dragged him to kill people who believed in God differently, he defected and returned home.

A century later, people still die in that region because of their religious beliefs. Governments that claim to fight for independence, for self-rule, for self-determination, use that fight as an excuse to rape and murder those who are different. A simple carpenter, my grandfather understood the corruption of freedom by those wielding it as a rod to kill others. So, he made the perilous journey here to America, where he could believe freely.

After years of struggle, my grandparents raised a family. My father honored his parents and cared for them in their later years. After my grandmother died, my grandfather’s life became simple again. He would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee and playing solitaire all day. He believed he would soon rejoin his beloved Theresa in Heaven and was content to await his death patiently.

One night, my parents hosted a prayer meeting. The minister of our church spoke about the evils of card playing. Finally, my father asked our minister if he believed that my grandfather would spend eternity in Hell for the sin of playing solitaire. When our minister answered “yes,” my father threw him out of the house and we never returned to that church.

My father, an engineer, had designed our church building. He literally helped build that congregation. He raised his children in its Sunday School. I remember singing “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” during Sunday night services. But that same church used its religious belief to damn my grandfather.  So my father understood the corruption of restoration. He saw firsthand how a church could roll back the clock to a time when religion was routinely used as a rod to condemn others to perpetual flames and torment.

By the time I became a dad, I chose not to believe in the God of my father or my grandfather. My children went unbaptized. And I raised them in a Unitarian Universalist church, where they learned to respect all religious beliefs and to honor the spiritual path they would choose for themselves.

As a Sunday School teacher, I learned the history and heritage of famous Unitarians, like John Adams, who once wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson:
We have...a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity...[Some say] I have renounced the Christian religion...Far from it. I see in every Page, Something to recommend Christianity in its Purity and Something to discredit its Corruptions…The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.

Don't kill. Don't cheat. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't envy your neighbor. In fact, love your neighbor. Love your neighbor as you would have your neighbor love you. Nearly every religion preaches this basic golden rule. Love everyone. Do not love only those who believe as you do. Do not withhold love from those who do not meet your approval. Everyone. No exceptions.

So I understand the corruption of laws that claim to restore religious freedom. Laws like HB 5958 are not an act of religion, bringing us together in common purpose and principle, but an act of division. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not an act of freedom, relieving us of governmental intrusion into our souls, but an act of invasion. This proposed travesty of a law is not an act of restoration, renewing hope for a people suffering daily oppression, but an act of destruction.  This so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a corruption of religious freedom; a corruption of our democratic principles; a corruption of the core tenets of our human community; and a corruption of the very soul of our state.

I have the great good fortune to be married to a wonderful woman. Jody serves as advocate for victims of sexual assault at the Underground Railroad, a women's shelter in Saginaw. She wanted to be here with me today. But her commitment to serving others, and my commitment to support her work, superseded our personal desires. John Adams, my Unitarian ancestor, spent many years apart from his love. To our great good fortune, they left behind a collection of correspondence exhibiting not only their devotion to each other, but also their shared commitment to justice, equality, and freedom.

Abigail and John wrote often of this new nation and of the true meaning of words like “freedom.” In one letter, Abigail wrote:
How difficult the task to quench the fire and the pride of private ambition, and to sacrifice ourselves and all our hopes and expectations to the public [welfare]! How few have souls capable of so noble an undertaking! How often are the laurels worn by those who have had no share in earning them! But there is a future... reward, to which the upright [person] looks, and which will most assuredly be obtained, provided [that person] perseveres unto the end.

You here today know about sacrifice. You have given up your time and energy to be here and to have your voices heard by your elected officials. You here today understand working toward the common good and the noble undertaking of guaranteeing freedom to all people. You here today see too clearly how those charged with guaranteeing our freedoms wear the shriveled laurels earned by catering to special interests, by pursuing power over others, and through the self-righteous delusion that they know the one truth.

Because Abigail Adams was right – there is a future reward. Moreover, we need not wait patiently until we die to receive that reward. We can unite as one people. White or black – whatever our skin color – we can unite. Woman or man – whatever our sexual orientation or gender identity – we can unite; Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox…Muslim, Jew, or Sikh…Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain…Agnostic or Atheist – whatever our religious beliefs – we can unite; Americans all, regardless of our documentation or ethnic heritage – we can unite.

We can unite to fight for equal justice under the law. We can unite to provide affordable access to health care for all. We can unite to protect our decisions on when to have children, when not to have children, and how to parent the children we have in safe and healthy communities. We can unite to ensure that every person has equal access to a quality education and a job paying a fair and living wage. We can unite to protect our planet from those who would plunder its resources and from practices that threaten our existence as a species through global climate change.

And by standing united against the corruption of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we guard our right to believe or not to believe what we want in regards to religion. We oppose the sanctioning of discrimination against people on the basis of religious beliefs. We support the freedom of religious practice, so long as that practice does not harm others.

And we stand united to defend the wall of separation between Church and State described by Thomas Jefferson. For he acknowledged that the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience was that no legislature should pass laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Jefferson wrote that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions,” and that depriving people of their civil rights on the basis of religious beliefs will “corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage.”

A people united will never be divided.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Truth and Meaning: One Question


A crisis looms on our horizon. How we cope with that crisis will depend on your answer to a simple question.

Ignore the media hype. Disregard the irrelevant facts. Set aside unrelated events that may sway your judgment. Look at the evidence yourself and answer one simple question.
  • Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, is playing alone in a park with a toy gun. Someone calls 911 to report seeing Tamir and even says it is probably just a toy gun. Minutes later, a police car roars up to within just feet of Tamir and two seconds later he is dead. Did Tamir Rice deserve to die?
  • Eric Gardner is selling single cigarettes for 50 cents — a petty crime. A few minutes later, he is surrounded by police. One puts Eric in an illegal choke hold. Eric gasps time and again that he cannot breathe. In just minutes, he lies on the sidewalk dead. Did Eric Gardner deserve to die?
  • Michael Brown fits the description of a person reported to have stolen some cigarettes and scuffled with a clerk. Michael is walking down the street with a friend. An altercation ensues with a police officer, the exact facts of which are disputed. Even assuming the worst case scenario, Michael grabbed unsuccessfully for the officer's gun and then ran away. A minute later Michael is 30 feet away, hands visible with no weapon. The autopsy reports show bullet wounds in his arm, two to the chest that indicate he was falling forward, and the kill shot to the head at an angle indicating that he was nearly on the ground. Did Michael Brown deserve to die?
I have skewed no evidence. I have included nothing in these scenarios about the neighborhoods, the police officers themselves, community relations with the police, national media coverage or subsequent investigations. In the case of Tamir Rice and Eric Gardner, video records reveal the events in real time for anyone to watch. Disregarding all of the irrelevant noise surrounding these tragedies, did Tamir, Eric and Michael deserve to die?
 
Whether you are white or black does not matter. Whether you are Republican or Democrat does not matter. Whether you are young or old, straight or gay, man or woman, rich or poor — none of that matters. Did Tamir, Eric and Michael deserve to die?
 
If you ask yourself that question, and your answer is no, then you are ready to explore the coming crisis in our nation. You are ready to objectively examine the research and data. You are ready to set aside the punditry and editorializing and look at the reality in America for yourself. And when you do, you will see our deeply embedded systems of structured poverty, institutionalized racism and the impacts of privilege in our society.
 
This is painful work. If you are white, male, straight, middle class, you will be tempted to feel shamed — your initial reaction will be that you are being accused of something you did not do. That is a natural reaction, but I encourage you to move through it quickly. Privilege is not the problem. The problem is that too many people with privilege do not acknowledge its benefits and do too little to level the playing field for all.
 
Once you have answered the question and read the research, imagine how you would feel if you were a black man in America today, 50 years after the Civil Right Act supposedly launched us into a post-racial society. Imagine that you are the mother or father of Tamir or Michael, or the wife and children of Eric. If you can put on those shoes and walk in them for just a short time, then your feelings of shame and guilt will quickly evaporate. They will disappear because you will want to do something. You will want to change things so that the senseless ending of young lives stops.
 
Yes or no?
 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Guide to Holiday Conversations


You find yourself at a family gathering. On your right sits Uncle Harold, who voted twice for Nixon, Reagan and Bush (senior and junior). On your left sits your Cousin Gloria, the Prius-driving, recycling, public school teacher. You uncomfortably count the seconds before someone raises a contentious topic. In anticipation of that moment, here is your holiday guide to surviving inevitable conflicts, and to build bridges of love and understanding.

Immigration
Uncle Harold starts. “We need to ship those illegals back where they came from. Emperor Obama should wait for Congress to protect American jobs and keep our borders safe from terrorists, drug dealers and freeloaders.”
Cousin Gloria retorts. “Our ancestors were undocumented aliens who came here and slaughtered the indigenous peoples. No one made them go through years of red tape and expenses. No one broke up our families and deported people without due process.”
You: “We are a nation of immigrants, and people around the world have long viewed America as a land of freedom and opportunity. We can find a way to provide a more efficient path to citizenship while still providing reasonable security at our nation’s borders.

Abortion
Cousin Gloria: “This is my body and the government has no business invading my privacy and interfering with my health care. My body, my choice.”
Uncle Harold: “You are murdering tens of thousands of babies every year and I don’t want my tax dollars supporting godless groups like Planned Parenthood.”
You: “Everyone wants to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. But being pro-life also means educating our children about sex, and providing them with contraception. We should care about every child by supporting loving families that need help. Every child should receive an equal shot at the American Dream.”

Gay and transgender equality
Harold: “God condemns these abominations. I love the person, but homosexuality and the choices people make to tamper with God’s creation are sins.”
Gloria: “You hate LGBT people. You have no right legislating our bedrooms. Your bigotry just encourages bullying and violence against gays.”
You: “As Americans, we believe in freedom and equality. The research seems to show that sexual orientation is determined at birth. So while I respect people’s religious beliefs, I also support equal rights for all people on the basis of differences that we cannot control.”

Health care
Gloria: “Insurance companies are heartless and greedy. Because of them, thousands of people die from lack of adequate insurance. And now you want to take away the safety net of the Affordable Care Act.”
Harold: “Obamacare is fiscally irresponsible and forces people to pay more for their insurance, and to change doctors with which they have developed long relationships. We should let the free market do its job.”
You: “I know families who cannot afford medical insurance. If we can’t fix Obamacare, then we need to come up with a program that serves everyone, because all Americans deserve access to quality health care.”

Religious freedom
Harold: “America is a Christian nation and no one should be forced to do anything that violates their beliefs.”
Gloria: “Employers have no business discriminating against people who don’t share their religious beliefs. These so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills are nothing but legalized bigotry.”
You: “No one has the right to infringe on another’s religious beliefs. But government determines who needs protection from unlawful discrimination. Religious freedom should be a protective shield, not be a sword used to hurt others.”

Gun control
Gloria: “How many more children need to die to support your right to buy machine guns and to carry rifles into my grocery store?”
Harold: “The founders wrote the Second Amendment to protect us from tyranny and it is my duty to protect our nation, as well as to protect my family from harm, whatever the cost.”
You: "Everyone has a right to defend themselves from harm. Everyone also has the right to walk the streets free from the fear that some deranged gunman won’t open fire on them. We need to sit down and find common sense solutions to protect all Americans’ rights and to reduce the gun violence in our country."

Gloria: “Fascist!”
Harold: “Communist!”
You: “Both of you stop it! Name calling will get you nowhere. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and free the prisoners. Can’t we set aside our partisan differences and agree on these noble goals — not just as Christian goals, but goals that all Americans can agree upon?”

I hope this helps you survive the holidays, as well as what is sure to be another new year of social, economic and political turmoil that will not end until the great mass of centrist thinkers takes back the moral middle of America.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Fear of Flying


Most us have experienced the lunacy that is airport security in the 21st century. Scans and X-rays, rubber glove pat downs, removing shoes and belts, tiny shampoo bottles. My blood pressure rises whenever I think of the enormous expenditure of time and energy from millions of travelers dealing with our fear of flying.

And yet, I can buy a gun at a garage sale without a background check. I can stalk and kill an unarmed child and claim I was standing my ground. Our police are beating and killing people without facing any substantial consequences.

All of this fear. And while we are so focused on perceived threats to our liberties, another far more insidious force chips away at the bedrock foundation of our nation's principles. Under the guise of so-called "religious freedom" bills, such as Michigan's H.B. 5958, legislators and advocacy groups are seeking to destroy the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion.

Bryan Fischer, spokesperson for the American Family Association, now claims that the Constitutional protection only applies to Christian religions and that states can discriminate against non-Christians at will. In a classic slippery slope diatribe, "If First Amendment Isn't Just About Christianity, We Have to Allow Satanism," Fischer writes that "most Americans, even educated ones, do not understand this basic fact about the First Amendment: that by the word “religion” in the First Amendment, the Founders meant only the various expressions of Christianity." And despite the fact that such attempts have often been rejected or overturned at the federal level, he argues that the "regulation of every other form of religious expression is reserved to the states, who then have complete latitude to restrain or permit religious expression as they see fit."

So, if Mr. Fischer has his way, existing state nondiscrimination clauses will disappear for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, those who do not identify with any religion, and others. That group alone constitutes more than one-quarter of Americans — more than 85 million people. But why stop there? I doubt that Mr. Fischer has any intention of protecting faith traditions he doesn't consider "legitimately" Christian, such as the Church of Latter Day Saints and even Catholics — after all, only one signer of the Declaration of Independence was Catholic. Perhaps Mr. Fischer believes that our Constitutional guarantee to freedom of religion is reserved for the Protestant minority in this country.

The Founders of this great nation intended for every citizen to have the right to believe as they wished and to practice their religion in their own way. They intended religious freedom to be one of our country’s fundamental values. But that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm others. H.B. 5958 will allow people to take advantage and put their religious beliefs ahead on the common good. H.B. 5958 could allow individuals to decide that nondiscrimination laws, child abuse laws and domestic violence laws don’t apply to them. H.B. 5958 opens up local governments to expensive lawsuits from those who claim they have a religious right to ignore any municipal laws.

Other states with similar legislation have already seen individuals and groups use religious freedom as justification for all sorts of behavior, some of it criminal. For example, police officers have used religious freedom as an excuse to refuse orders they claimed offended their personal religious views. A police officer in Oklahoma asserted a religious objection to his community policing duties at a mosque, claiming a “moral dilemma.” Pharmacists in many states (including Arizona, Montana and Wisconsin) have used religious freedom as a defense for refusing to dispense daily birth control. A pastor helped kidnap a child in Virginia from her legal guardian and cited religious freedom as his legal defense. In New Mexico, a local religious leader cited the state religious freedom statute when he appealed a conviction for sexually abusing two teenagers. A federal judge just held that a state religious freedom law prevented the Department of Labor from fully investigating possible child labor law violations because the individual under investigation said that his religious beliefs forbade him from discussing those matters with the government.

One of our most important values is treating others the way we want to be treated. Legislation like H.B. 5958 will add another fear to our lives by putting individuals' religious beliefs ahead of the common good. Call your legislators and tell them to vote "no" on H.B. 5958. Tell them to keep the true flag of religious freedom flying as the Founders intended. And tell Bryan Fischer of the American Fear Association that he does not speak for Americans of faith.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson


I am overwhelmed with sadness as yet another young black man's life is snuffed out and the killer excused by a system determined to maintain a status quo of injustice. After the first few sentences of the press conference last night, I sat in front of the television saying, "oh no, here it comes again."

Absolutely nothing sounds right about this case. If Michael Brown was a suspect of a crime, how does he reach the car before the police officer emerges? Why would a man suspected of shoplifting wrestle for a gun, get shot, run away, and then come back towards the police officer? Why was deadly force ever on the table once there was separation between the two? After shots have been fired in the car, how can eyewitness accounts of the fatal shot be so conflicting as to be completely ignored? Why does a prosecutor spend months creating reasonable doubt (the job of the defense in a trial), and then do everything possible to prevent a grand jury from finding probable cause for even an indictment? If Michael Brown was standing accused of shooting a police officer, how long would it have taken for the grand jury to return an indictment for murder?

If this were an isolated incident, I could be tempted to dismiss it as inconclusive and to give a law enforcement officer the benefit of the doubt. But this is no isolated incident. Given the way this society systematically imprisons black men and given the quickly growing numbers of people of color shot dead by police under questionable circumstances, any reasonable person must start asking questions. How would this event have changed if Michael Brown had been white? Would events have been different if the officer were wearing a camera? Whatever other evidence exists, if two credible witnesses testified that the shooting was questionable, why is the officer not being charged at least with involuntary manslaughter?

Yesterday, after the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Police Chief Calvin Williams said, "Guns are not toys, and we need to teach our kids that. Our community needs to understand that." No, Chief Williams, our police need to be taught that using deadly force against a 12-year old playing in a park is never acceptable. Instead of constantly blaming victims - especially those of color - our society needs to make radical changes to its out-of-control gun culture.

Fifty years ago, I was a blissfully ignorant eight-year old boy who played "soldier" with toy guns. Andy Griffith was the town sheriff in Mayberry. I watched Dragnet and Highway Patrol and knew the police were my friends. But I didn't grow up in Selma. I paid little attention to Huntley and Brinkley reporting about dogs and fire hoses, burning churches, and murdered civil rights activists. Negroes lived in a different part of town - a part of town I never saw.

But now, my eyes see the world through the lens of centuries of oppression. I have tried to put my feet in the shoes of the people of Ferguson and of countless other towns and cities where police violence against people of color takes place. I have held hands - hands of all colors and ages - and tried to change our broken system. Last summer, I stood in solidarity with thousands of others in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

The frightening specter of the 50th anniversary of the events in Selma, Alabama loom heavily on my mind. Fifty years later, African Americans are still dying at the hands of white authorities who aren't even indicted and brought to trial. Poor communities are in deep pain and feeling enormous frustration at the continuing legacy of racial injustice in this country. As Unitarian Universalists and other people of faith, we must condemn the racist practices displayed by law enforcement agencies that mainly targets young people of color in our society, which negates their inherent worth and dignity, and continues the mass practice of institutional racism in our society.

It is time again for us to stand on the side of love to actively demonstrate alongside others who are fighting to change the laws that allow police harassment, which results in violence against communities of color. Every American deserves equal treatment in the eyes of the law. Every American deserves an equal chance to succeed in the most prosperous nation in the history of humankind. Every American should feel confident that police are there to protect them and not to execute them.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Frivolous Waste


During the last week of the recent campaign for District 98 State Representative, Midlanders received a barrage of lurid and sensationalist ads predicting all manner of doom and gloom that would befall Michigan should Democrat Joan Brausch be elected. Republican candidate Gary Glenn worked hard to separate himself from these disgusting tracts of fear funded from groups supporting his candidacy. But it must give one pause that if a candidate cannot control his backers before he is elected, what chance has he to be objective of lobbyists and special interest groups after he is elected.

Now, in his first public pronouncement since his underwhelming victory, our new representative has unveiled his first call to action. Nothing about roads or gas taxes. Nothing about job creation. Nothing about saving our retirees from unfair taxes. Nothing about school funding. And nothing about saving Michigan's traditional families from the scourge of homosexuality and the "gay agenda" he fears so strongly.

No, his first call to action is to request an investigation into the money paid to a consultant by the state. No investigation into the allegations of fraud and nepotism by Gov. Rick Snyder. No investigation into the blatant misconduct of many of the emergency managers given dictatorial power over their cities by this administration. No investigation into the outrageous gerrymandering occurring in recent years. Our new representative's first request is to investigate how the state spent .0002 percent of its revenues two years ago because he doesn't like the reason the government spent the money.

What possible purpose could this investigation serve? The state paid a consultant to do a job, which he did. This same consultant was hired by other states to do exactly the same job. Michigan paid him $481,000 while Vermont — a state with 94 percent fewer people than Michigan — paid him $400,000. The consultant did his job and the state chose not to use his recommendations — much to the detriment of the poor and uninsured. So now Glenn wants to throw more tax dollars away investigating an expenditure already made for a job the state legally contracted, and which was completed.

The only purpose of such a call is not to exhibit any concern for the Michigan taxpayer. The only purpose is to discredit a medical insurance program that Michigan conservatives rejected in spite of the fact that many of our citizens have no access to affordable health care. The only purpose is to attack a program that has provided many millions of Americans with medical insurance for the first time. The only purpose is to bring the Washington brand of Tea Party obstructionism full force to Lansing and grind our government to a standstill wasting time on pointing fingers at nonexistent scandals, while at the same time providing no solutions to the problems that serve the interests of the people of this state.

It doesn't matter that this same consultant also worked on a similar project many years ago. This same consultant was paid by then Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts to design that state's health insurance program — the exact program that served as the primary model for the Affordable Care Act. So it would seem that Glenn and his conservative backers had no objection to the consultant's fees charged to create a system for a Republican governor that has worked splendidly. But when a similar program was passed after a year-long debate and signed into law by a Democratic president, all of a sudden Glenn takes issue with that same consultant working for Michigan to implement a similar program.

And let us remember that the Affordable Care Act has been a spectacular success. Health care spending by consumers is at its lowest rate in 10 years. More than 10 million previously uninsured Americans now have affordable insurance, driving the number of uninsured citizens down 25 percent in just one year. The second year sign-up period has already seen one million people visit the healthcare.gov web page. And the overall price tag of implementation has come in at $100 billion less than predicted.

So, I offer a counter proposal to Mr. Glenn's call to examine the out-of-context statements of an advisor to the project. Let's take the money that this fruitless display of grandstanding will cost the taxpayers and buy a few tens of thousands of free school lunches; or replace some laid off public school teachers; or fill all of the potholes on I-75; or give a tax credit to a small business owner who will bring 100 new jobs to our region. Let us take the money the state will waste investigating this contract, and put it toward something that will help our citizens, like joining other states that have successfully implemented their own exchanges.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Half-Baked Bigotry


Much ado has been made in the past year about the bakery in Colorado that refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple celebrating their marriage. The baker argued that he exercised his religious freedom in refusing to bake a cake celebrating an act he considered counter to his religious beliefs. This argument makes a mockery of our Constitutional rights by hiding bigotry behind the right to religious freedom.

Here are the salient points:
  • The baker argued that he feels no hatred of homosexuals, and would willingly provide other types of baked goods to gay customers. He would refuse to provide a wedding cake to a heterosexual customer if it was for a same-sex wedding. But this argument is a distinction without a difference. The primary feature distinguishing same-sex weddings from heterosexual ones is the sexual orientation of its participants. Only same-sex couples engage in same-sex weddings. Therefore, it makes little sense to argue that refusal to provide a cake to a same-sex couple for use at their wedding is not “because of” their sexual orientation.
  • The baker candidly acknowledged that he would also refuse to provide a cake to a same-sex couple for a commitment ceremony or a civil union, neither of which is forbidden by state law. Because his objection goes beyond just the act of “marriage,” and extends to any union of a same-sex couple, it is apparent that his real objection is to the couple’s sexual orientation and not simply their marriage.
  • The baker argued that preparing a wedding cake is an expression amounting to protected speech, and that compelling him to treat same-sex and heterosexual couples equally is the equivalent of forcing him to adhere to “an ideological point of view.” But the baker categorically refused to prepare the cake before there was any discussion about what the cake would look like. He was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage. The mere act of preparing a cake is simply not speech warranting First Amendment protection.
  • Regardless of what the cake itself might communicate or not, the act of selling cakes is also not a form of speech; thus, forcing a bakery to sell to a same-sex couple is not compelled speech. Compelling a bakery that sells wedding cakes to heterosexual couples to also sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples is incidental to the state’s right to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (which is the law in Colorado). To say otherwise trivializes the right to free speech.
  • The baker's refusal is distinctly the type of discrimination that the Supreme Court has repeatedly found illegal. It adversely affects the rights of buyers to be free from discrimination in the marketplace; and the impact upon sellers is incidental to the state’s legitimate regulation of commercial activity. Conceptually, his refusal to serve a same-sex couple due to religious objection to same-sex weddings is no different from refusing to serve a biracial couple because of religious objection to biracial marriage — an argument that was struck down long ago in Bob Jones Univ. v. United States.
As a minister, I wholeheartedly support the free practice of religion and I absolutely defend your freedom to believe the religion of your choice. What I find reprehensible, however, is when people use their religion as a shield for groundless hatred and bigotry. If you choose to discriminate against same-sex couples because you oppose homosexuality based on your interpretation of your religion's teachings, then you must apply those same standards to all customers. Are you going to give every customer a survey asking if they are guilty of any of a list of sins you find objectionable? If not, then you are a hypocrite abusing an important freedom that is seminal to the founding principles of this nation.
 
As the Michigan legislature considers adding "sexual orientation and gender identity and expression" to the Elliot-Larsen Act's list of protected classes of people, I call on everyone to make clear to our senators and representatives that we cannot allow people to pick and choose which religious beliefs they want to protect. Whatever your personal beliefs about homosexuality, the state has an overriding obligation to protect the basic civil rights of LGBT people.