To accuse is not proof of the truth

The flurry of accusations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the attendant surge in the past few days of the #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport hashtags has resurfaced for me a topic I’ve wanted to discuss, and on this day I’m happy to say that it is a topic which has nothing to do, at least not directly, with the president we cannot shake from the headlines for even one stinking day.  (Today he had to suffer the indignity of having the United Nations General Assembly laugh at him; I admit I enjoyed that very much.)  I’ve had this thought in the past year or so as events have forced the issue of sexual violence against women into public discussion, which is for the good, but now I’m hearing a drumbeat more loudly, more certain and more forcefully stated: the belief that all right-thinking Americans must accept all accusations by women of sexual harassment or sexual assault or rape at face value, without exception and without the need of corroborating evidence.  I’ve got a problem with that.  Let me risk stirring up multiple hornet’s nests all at once.

I have no problem with the protesters who argue Black Lives Matter, because I think I understand what they mean.  They do not mean black lives matter more than white lives (or the lives of any other color), despite the counterargument from some mostly disingenuous people who are trying to diminish the BLM effort.  The protesters are trying to persuade their fellow Americans that despite our country’s clear history of treating black people as less than people—even writing it into our Constitution—an inequitable, ignorant, hateful behavior that continues today, they are appealing to our better angels to persuade us that black lives matter, too.  At least that’s how I understand it.

They’re not saying that white lives don’t matter; they’re not saying that white lives matter less than black lives.  They’re calling attention to the recent string of deaths of black people, mostly young black men, at the hands of law enforcement across the country, in questionable circumstances, to try to make us all see the unfairness which they recognize as part of their daily lives.  The protests grow out of their personal experience, and they’re arguing for a commitment on behalf of all of us to the American ideal of fair treatment for all.  That’s also what the athletes are saying when they demonstrate during the national anthem: they aren’t protesting the song, or the flag, or the military, or the country in general, despite what you hear from the president (listen instead to the many many veterans who acknowledge that the right to this protest is exactly the thing they went to war to protect).  The players are taking advantage of their position in the public eye at that moment to do the thoroughly American thing of exercising their freedom of speech.  We each of us is free to disagree with their methods if we choose.

Now, I’m not saying that women in America have been treated the same way that black people have been treated.  (To any commenters who would criticize me for saying just such a thing, I refer you now to the previous sentence where I say quite plainly that I am not saying that.)  But I think it’s clear that women have been, and still are, treated differently from men in American society—there’s a Constitution thing there, too, of course—and that today they are making another push on behalf of their equality as Americans.  Specifically, they are speaking up on the subject of how, historically and contemporaneously, they have been and still are the victims of sexual violence.

In a society devised primarily by men with laws written primarily by men, in a society in which women were not considered equal citizens to the men, it should not be surprising that the men in charge protected themselves from accusations of sexual assault by women.  We can be ashamed of it, but not surprised.  Women were treated as property, as live-in baby-makers and babysitters and household help, and as “things” to be used by a man for his pleasure.  The men of those times turned a deaf ear to any woman’s protest of mistreatment, knowing that the woman would not be taken seriously and that even if her complaint were believed, well, so what.  The women of the time came to know the likely result of speaking up, and so they didn’t.

In more modern times we like to think that we’ve become enlightened enough not to behave in that way toward women; recent examples abound that prove how wrong we have been to think that.  Even as women became more financially independent of the men in their lives and more able to sustain a public accusation, they knew that the default response of male-dominated society remained to disbelieve and to dismiss accusations, and to find ways to punish the accusers for having accused.

What is changing now—for the good, I believe—is that the public airing of accusations of sexual assault has caused the scales to fall from more men’s eyes, for us all to recognize that this is real and pervasive, and to feel at least a little sick to our stomachs that we’ve closed our eyes to this reality for so long and allowed the women in our lives to suffer.  We’re coming around, as a society, to having our default response to these accusations be to search for the truth rather than to dismiss the charge out of hand.  Yea, America!

What concerns me is those who are filled with the fervor of the rising tide of righteousness who go a step too far and treat any accusation of sexual assault as proof of the truth of the charge.  It’s the right response to take an accusation seriously, and to investigate as we do when any crime is alleged; but it’s not right to assess a guilty verdict and hand out punishment solely on the basis of an unproved accusation.

Some of the accusations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh seem more believable than others; inasmuch as they are being made against a nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States, who proclaims his innocence of the charges, they deserve to be investigated to try to determine if they are true or false, and to learn what we can about the nominee in the process.  (BTW, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee: that’s exactly what the FBI does; that’s what it’s there for…put it to work).   Let the system work; there is no reason to rush a vote on this nomination…well, no good reason, anyway.  The GOP proved quite clearly, thank you, when refusing to take any action at all on the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016, that the Supreme Court can get along nicely with one seat vacant.

America’s growing recognition of the ways in which our country has not lived up to the lofty goals of our Founders, and our continuing efforts to make those wrongs right, must continue.  Reaching the ideals of equal treatment under the law and providing a level playing field for all Americans, of being the open and welcoming society of our dreams, will take longer than we would like it to but we’ve got to keep going, keep our eyes on the prize.  But we won’t get there by trashing our belief in innocence until proven otherwise.

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.

(snip)

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.

Get yer red-hot SCOTUS arguments, right here!

The briefs and the arguments for today’s Supreme Court of the United States hearing on the same-sex marriage case are available…go have a read and a listen, and we can all join the High Nine in deciding the case!

This is the stuff of history, kids…don’t miss it.

It’s a good news/bad news Friday

The good news comes from the Supreme Court of the United States, which has decided that it will hear arguments on whether or not same-sex couples have a right to marry. This New York Times story summarizes the cases from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky that are at the heart of an appeal of a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which the High Nine have now agreed to consider.

The court said it will hear two and a half hours of argument, probably in the last week of April. The first 90 minutes will be devoted to the question of whether the Constitution requires states “to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.”

The last hour will concern a question that will be moot if the answer to the The first one is yes: whether states must “recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state.”

This is very exciting: within just a few months we’ll have a ruling from the country’s highest court on whether same-sex marriage is to be permitted in all 50 states, not just the 36 states and the District of Columbia where it is legal now.

Now, the bad news: the Southern Education Foundation believes that “For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families.”  The Washington Post has a good summary of the report.

Half of all public school students in America are poor?  Half?!  (More than half in 21 states; Mississippi at 71% has the highest percentage.)  I find myself surprised by this confirmation of how far the abandonment of our public schools has gone by those who can afford other options.  (Full disclosure: although most of my education was in public schools, I attended and graduated from a private high school.)  A free public education for all was a great example of America’s commitment to a society where everyone has an opportunity to succeed.  We all paid our share for public schools, even those who sent their kids to private school or whose kids had finished school or who never had any kids at all, because it meant a better-educated society and that was a benefit for all of us.

But more and more, people became unhappy with their public school systems.  When the quality of the education declined people got upset that their kids were being cheated out of their futures; in some cases it was court-ordered desegregation that made people unhappy with their public schools.  Many of those who could afford to moved to suburban school districts and took their tax money with them, leaving the city schools with less and less money to spend on teachers and books and buildings.  Which meant even poorer quality education, which prompted more parents to flee, and the cycle continued.

Today people are trying to get voucher laws passed that will in effect allow their school tax money to pay for their kid’s education in private schools, taking even more money out of the system that is the only resort for the poor, the students whose families can’t afford private schools or charter schools or anything other than the old school down the street.

I understand that parents want the best for their children; I get it that despite recent improvements our economy isn’t as strong as it once was and a lot of people don’t have the jobs and income they want and deserve.  Still, I’m saddened at how many people seem to feel that abandoning the greater good for American society—the education of everyone else’s children—is the best way for them to take care of their own.

The inexorable march of justice

Another one bites the dust…

Another one bites the dust…

A federal judge struck down Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage Tuesday, handing gay rights advocates their second legal victory in as many days and striking the last remaining ban in the Northeast.

The state’s laws, which ban same-sex marriages, were struck down as unconstitutional by U.S. District Court Judge John Jones III, who ruled in favor of the 23 plaintiffs whose lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

“We are a better people than what these laws represent,” Jones wrote of same-sex marriage bans in his ruling, drawing comparisons between the civil rights movement and the modern gay marriage movement. ”It is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

(snip)

The ruling, from US District Judge John Jones, makes Pennsylvania the second state this week and 11th state since the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling on same-sex marriage to have its ban overturned in court.  But it’s possible the ruling will eventually be put on hold as it works through the appeals process, which would prevent future same-sex couples from marrying. (The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is urging Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, to not appeal the ruling.)

Jones, like judges in previous same-sex marriage cases, cited the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution and deemed Pennsylvania’s statutory ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional. Unlike many other states, the state constitution in Pennsylvania doesn’t have a provision barring same-sex marriages.

So, where do we stand?

same-sex_marriage_us_map

What’s with Montana and North Dakota?