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


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 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.