Equal protection: it’s what we do here at the ol’ USA

The first time I wrote about gay marriage rights here was more than four and half years ago  (“Equal justice for all: the gay rights tide has turned,” Oct. 15, 2010) and the kernel of the argument was already formed:

We can proclaim not to understand why people are homosexual, or embrace a religious belief that homosexual activity is a sin, but none of that matters in a tolerant, secular, civil society.  The experts can’t say why a person is sexually attracted to one gender or the other.  And it violates the rights of due process and free speech guaranteed to each American in the Constitution to treat someone differently because of their sexual orientation just as it would to treat them differently because of their gender or their ancestry.


You don’t have to “understand” gay people any more than you have to “understand” people of a different race or a different religion.  You only have to understand that these people are Americans like you, who believe in American rights like you do, who want to enjoy American freedoms like you do…

This week, history: a 5-4 decision from the Supreme Court of the United States in Obergefell v Hopkins takes its place alongside the great civil rights and civil liberties decisions of American jurisprudence.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of all Americans to civil marriage, and all its advantages and protections, be they heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual.  As far as the civil law is concerned this isn’t about sex: it’s about equal treatment under the law.

Homosexual conduct is no longer a civil crime in this country, and thus is no reason to withhold the full rights and exercise of citizenship from homosexuals.  Homosexual conduct is objectionable within many organized religions, to be sure, and virtually all of the opposition to extending the right to marry to gays and lesbians has come on religious grounds.  For the most part I don’t question the sincerity of that religious belief (although it would be prudent to account for the cynical exploiters, primarily from the political realm).

But that’s beside the crucial point, which is that, in this country, civil law is not answerable to religious law.  The First Amendment guarantees that we each and all get the freedom to practice our religions, but also guarantees that none of those religions wields authority directly over civil society.  The Constitution protects us from any majority that would try to force one or another religious doctrine onto everyone—because the Constitution takes religious liberty for all just that seriously—and guarantees that all men and women deserve equal treatment under law.  Despite the nearly hysterical dissenting opinions of some of his colleagues, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision didn’t create a new right; it reminded us about a right that’s been there all along…and my friend Mr. Jefferson recognized the rationale by which Kennedy connected the dots (and Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph reminded via the Twitterverse) long ago:

Obergefell does not mean that First Amendment protections of religious liberties are at risk, despite what you’ve heard.  Some of that reaction is well-intentioned misinformation; most is hot air from right-wing politicians and conservative religious extremists who need a boogieman to scare their supporters into donating money.  (I’m looking at you, Governor Abbott—thanks, Evan Smith for the Tweet-tip.)  In either case, they are wrong.  Religious organizations are exempt from this ruling, as they are exempt from many other laws, like, say, tax laws.  As Lisa Falkenberg put it in this morning’s Houston Chronicle, this ruling has no applicability to individuals in their private lives or to private religious institutions: “It does not keep anyone from judging, or hating, or even just politely refusing to acknowledge gay people.  No court ruling has ever told a pastor whose wedding he or she can bless.  That hasn’t changed.”

It is possible to believe in the religious sacrament of marriage and still accept this court’s decision on civil marriage rights for homosexuals.  Michigan Representative Justin Amash, a Tea Party/Libertarian/Republican, made the point quite nicely this week on Facebook:

Throughout history, different cultures have defined marriage according to their own customs and practices. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists do not share identical views on marriage. In fact, significant differences regarding marriage exist even within Christianity.

What makes marriage traditional is not its adherence to a universal definition but rather that it is defined by personal faith, not by government. For thousands of years, marriage flourished without a universal definition and without government intervention. Then came licensing of marriage. In recent decades, we’ve seen state legislatures and ballot initiatives define marriage, putting government improperly at the helm of this sacred institution.

Those who care about liberty should not be satisfied with the current situation. Government intervention in marriage presents new threats to religious freedom and provides no advantages, for gay or straight couples, over unlicensed (i.e., traditional) marriage. But we shouldn’t blame the Supreme Court for where things stand.

To the extent that Americans across the political spectrum view government marriage as authoritative and unlicensed marriage as quaint, our laws must treat marriage—and the corresponding legal benefits that attach—as they would any other government institution. So, while today’s Supreme Court opinion rests upon the false premise that government licensure is necessary to validate the intimate relationships of consenting adults, I applaud the important principle enshrined in this opinion: that government may not violate the equal rights of individuals in any area in which it asserts authority. (emphasis added)

The civil right of marriage is open to all Americans.  We must be diligent about making sure that the implementation of this decision protects the First Amendment rights of those with a religious objection to same-sex marriage, keeping in mind that it doesn’t give them the right to ignore the law.  And while we’re at it we should work on getting rid of the laws which still permit discrimination against gay Americans in the areas of housing and hiring and other aspects of day to day life, and any other laws that violate anyone’s right to equal treatment.  Because we’re Americans, and that’s what we do.

Dear Ted Cruz,

I was going to write you a short note to congratulate you (I guess) for becoming the first officially-announced candidate for president…in a primary season whose first election is still more than a year away, for a general election even more distant than that.  But we both know that I wouldn’t have been sincere, so I didn’t do it.  I know how you hate the phoniness that’s unfortunately so typical of politics, and God knows I don’t want to add to it.

I think I understand why you announced when you did—to try to get commitments from big money donors before they sign up with Jeb, and to capitalize on any remaining Tea Party fervor that hasn’t just naturally bubbled off since November.  I take it you feel that was worth the chance, even if it flies in the face of the fact that in recent times the first person to announce does not end up winning.  And I guess I understand why you announced where you did—forsaking stages in both the nation’s capital as well as your state’s capital, and even your hometown here in Houston, you chose a setting deep in the heart of the Christian extremist movement to say loud and clear, I am here to be the president of Born Again America and the rest of you better watch your step.

What the hell, it’s your campaign…do it however you want.  I will note that while you have the advantage of at least being an alternative to another Clinton, or yet another Bush—a not insubstantial advantage, to my mind—you are also following in the footsteps of Barack Obama by aiming for the top after having barely dipped your toe in an elective office.  Your hubris is showing, buddy, and I imagine they had something to say about that back at Faith West Academy and Second Baptist.

Can you win?  There is so much time before anyone casts the first vote that actually means something, and so many unknowns that could go one way or another during that time—and that’s both the known unknowns as well as the unknown ones—it’s impossible to say.  So sure, I guess you could win…and I could finally break 80 on the golf course.  I can get you the names of some folks who can help quantify that possibility for you, if you’re interested.

So as you set off on this adventure, no doubt intensely secure in your belief in yourself, I’d suggest looking out for this one way that you might be able to expand your appeal: try to be less of an asshole.  It couldn’t hurt.

It’s a shame to think that I think like this

But, I do: I was surprised—pleasantly surprised—to see the headline “Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich Defend Mandela Against GOP Critics.”

My new senator hasn’t impressed me much, not during the campaign last year or since he’s been in office.  He’s been unapologetic up to now at toeing the ultraconserative Tea Party line, pandering to some of the least “American” elements in American society…the very people who are criticizing him now for his glowing praise for Nelson Mandela: “He endured decades of imprisonment and steadfastly continued his fight for equality.  And, when justice prevailed in his battle against apartheid, and Mandela was elected president of his nation, he nobly chose reconciliation instead of retribution — a legacy for which he will be remembered forever.”  Cruz is even making the trip to South Africa for the Mandela memorial as part of a congressional delegation.

When I saw the headline I thought, “Cruz disagreed with the right-wing fringe?  Did I read that right?”  Sure enough…and now it turns out that, not only do I share an opinion on an issue with Ted Cruz, but I have to add a new exercise to my workout: fighting the urge to jump to conclusions.

Furlough Journal: Lunatics, yes…fringe, not so much

Happy Columbus Day, which is the last day I can sit home doing nothing and still get paid during our partial government shutdown, now about to begin its third exciting week!  I used some of the time today on Twitter keeping up with developments in Washington as the Senate leaders took their turn at not only resolving the shutdown but avoiding a potential government default later this week when the debt ceiling is expected to be reached.  Good times.

The proximate cause of the shutdown that started October 1 was the inability of Congress to pass a law, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep all of the federal government departments and agencies fully funded and functioning; they pass a CR to extend funding at the prior year’s budget levels because they are totally incapable of passing a new budget—been that way for years now.  As noted at the time (Furlough Journal: Blaming the guilty, 10/2/2013) , this shutdown can be credited to the extremist Republican members of the House who were holding a gun to America’s head demanding concessions from the president on the Affordable Care Act.  Plenty of conservatives who oppose Obamacare were and are critical of the tea partiers for using this tactic at this time, for being oblivious to political reality.

Ah, but just what reality are we, or they, talking about?  You’ve probably seen more and more analysis that argues, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase, that the extremists aren’t interested in whatever “reality” the mainstream members and Congressional leadership are trying to protect and advance; they are out to do what they said they would do when they were elected—shrink the government and fight the good fight against liberals in general and Barack Obama in particular.  To the extent that they are trying to do what they promised they would do if elected and are fighting for a cause they believe in without compromising their principles, they should be applauded.  To the extent that their actions have consequences for their fellow citizens, they should take responsibility and must accept criticism.

Among the chattering classes there’s lately been a lot of effort put into trying to explain the beliefs and the motives and the actions of these extremists, to find an historical precedent for this kind of obstructionism, to give the average American a frame of reference.  To my surprise, a lot of writers are going back to the pre-Civil War South to find one!

Late last month (At this point in the discussion there is really only one question left, 9/30/2013) I wrote about a James Fallows piece in The Atlantic in which he argued that this fight is entirely within the Republican Party and that there’s nothing anyone else can say that will persuade, likening it to “the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward.”  More recently I’ve found a few making the argument that today’s tea party extremists are philosophically aligned with John C. Calhoun and the nullifiers before the Civil War.  Frank Rich in New York Magazine this weekend is just the latest:

The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree.


At the heart of the current rebels’ ideology is the anti-Washington credo of nullification, codified by the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun in the 1830s and rarely lacking for avid followers ever since. Our inability to accept the anti-government right’s persistence is in part an astonishing case of denial.


For Republicans to claim that this cabal of 80 legislators represents a mutant strain—“a small segment who dictate to the rest of the party,” in the words of a prominent GOP fund-raiser, Bobbie Kilberg—is disingenuous or delusional. (Kilberg herself has raised money for Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) This “small segment” accounts for a third of the 232 members of the House Republican caucus. Lunatics they may be, but the size of their cohort can’t be minimized as a fringe in the context of the wider GOP. And they wield disproportionate clout because the party’s so-called moderates let them—whether out of fear of primary challenges from the right, opportunism, or shared convictions that are not actually moderate at all.


…1994 marked the culmination of the migration of the old Confederacy from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift had started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater pried away states from the old solid Democratic South with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and it accelerated with the advent of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to racists at the end of that decade. But for an interim quarter-century after that, the old Dixiecrats were dispersed in both major parties, rather than coalescing in one. The 1994 election was the first since Reconstruction in which the majority of the old South’s congressional representation went into the Republican column.

Rich goes on to make some thoughtful points; it’s worth your time.  So is Charles C.W. Cooke’s de facto rebuttal in the National Review.  Cooke is an opponent of Obamacare who has sharply criticized the extremists for marching into this battle with no plan for how to win, but he’s not ready to cede the nullification argument, pointing out that the Constitution itself separates power in our federal government and no one should be surprised when they are disagreements among people trying to wield power:

To understand the American system is to grasp that our current impasse is by no means exceptional, and, in consequence, that there is little point in wasting time looking around for bogeymen or ghosts when the culprit is there in plain sight. If you want to blame someone for our problems, it should be James Madison, not John Calhoun.


Some progressives like simplistically to claim that America’s two parties “switched places” in 1964 — a trade leading to the predominance of racist white southerners in the GOP eager to burn down the government to get what they wanted. If so, then one has to wonder why the vast majority of funding gaps occurred at the insistence of the good guys in what, by the time the first such gap came along in 1976, was allegedly the New Democratic party.


…if staunch congressional opposition, government shutdowns, and high-profile debt-limit fights are now to be cast as examples of nullification, then Congress has evidently tried to nullify not only the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but also those of Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.


My suspicion is that, as much as anything else, “nullification” is a word that is used consciously and deliberately as a cudgel — especially at the moment, when we have a president who is black. Accusing someone in America of seeking to “nullify” a given power is rhetorically akin to sticking the label “defenders of states’ rights” onto advocates of robust federalism. The accusers do not simply intend to imply that their opponents’ actions are illegal or illegitimate; they mean to taint them with the racism brush…

This is an interesting discussion to be having right now, and it keeps our minds off the latest news about the National Security Agency copying your email contacts list while we twiddle our thumbs and wait for our elected members of Congress to do their damn jobs.

Furlough Journal: We don’t negotiate with terrorists

There has been a small amount of entertainment value so far from the “partial government shutdown,” and I don’t just mean the fun I’ve had during the time away from the office.  On top of watching my bosses devise legitimate projects we can all work on outside of our government-provided offices and away from our government-provided equipment so no one will miss a check or a part of one, and taking care of my own projects both at home and on the driving range, I’ve had time to consider the silliness that our members of Congress have been reduced to while simultaneously trying to end the “crisis” they created and make sure they won’t be blamed for it once it’s over.

Today, after a failed series of attempts to pass laws to fund small slivers of government operations which proponents argued “everyone was for,” the House passed a bill to guarantee that furloughed workers will get full back pay for the furlough period, whenever it finally ends.  The Senate and the president have also expressed sympathy for the poor, innocent government workers who could be facing serious financial trouble if they start missing paychecks as a result of a standoff that they had no part in starting (or ending, apparently).  But this approach raises an interesting point.

…even as Congress and the White House rallied around the bill, one outside group said it “demonstrates the stupidity of the shutdown.”

Making the shutdown less painful for 800,000 federal employees will encourage Congress and the White House to extend it even longer, driving up the cost, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Ellis said “essential” federal workers who stayed on the job “will feel like suckers because they’ve been working while the others essentially are getting paid vacations.”

Whatever the negative effects of this partial government shutdown are, all of the victims are innocent ones.  Those responsible for the shutdown weren’t aiming at World War II veterans and their memorial in Washington any more than they meant to harm children or poor people or the space program or home loans or anything else.  Regrettably, they don’t care about any of that, because they are hysterically blind to everything but their true goal: the only target of the intransigence on the part of the extremist Republicans in the House is President Obama.  They want to prevent him from implementing his plans, and they don’t care that he’s already won on the health care reform issue three times: in Congress when it was approved, by the people when he was re-elected, and at the Supreme Court when the law was ruled to be constitutional.

One important difference about this Washington pissing contest as compared to those of the past few years (remember “the fiscal cliff”?) is that Democrats are not taking the bait: so far they haven’t given in to any urge to negotiate with the terrorists, and they should be commended for that.  As Dave Weigel reports in Slate, the Democrats have learned a few things lately about how to hold the line.

“Dealing with terrorists has taught us some things,” said Washington Rep. Jim McDermott after voting no on one of Thursday’s GOP bills. “You can’t deal with ’em. This mess was created by the Republicans for one purpose, and they lost. People in my district are calling in for Obamacare—affordable health care—in large numbers. These guys have lost, and they can’t figure out how to admit it.” Why would House Democrats give away what the Supreme Court and the 2012 electorate didn’t? “You can’t say, OK, you get half of Obamacare—this isn’t a Solomonic decision,” McDermott said. “So we sit here until they figure out they fuckin’ lost.”

UPDATE OCT. 6: But Pat, some may say, surely this whole partial government shutdown thingy isn’t as simple as just the conservatives still fighting with the president, there must be more to it than that.  No, there isn’t: they’ve been planning a government shutdown aimed at Obamacare for months and months, and this morning The New York Times laid it all out, including quotes from the proud perpetrators:

To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.


The current budget brinkmanship is just the latest development in a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law, Mr. Obama’s signature legislative initiative. Groups like Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks are all immersed in the fight, as is Club for Growth, a business-backed nonprofit organization. Some, like Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty, both aimed at young adults, are upstarts. Heritage Action is new, too, founded in 2010 to advance the policy prescriptions of its sister group, the Heritage Foundation.


On Capitol Hill, the advocates found willing partners in Tea Party conservatives, who have repeatedly threatened to shut down the government if they do not get their way on spending issues. This time they said they were so alarmed by the health law that they were willing to risk a shutdown over it.


In the three years since Mr. Obama signed the health measure, Tea Party-inspired groups have mobilized, aided by a financing network that continues to grow, both in its complexity and the sheer amount of money that flows through it.       

A review of tax records, campaign finance reports and corporate filings shows that hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised and spent since 2012 by organizations, many of them loosely connected, leading opposition to the measure.

The story is full of details about the groups and people behind the effort, and the enormous sums of money they’re spending to stick it to the president.  Check it out for yourself.