The Watering Hole, Monday, March 30, 2015: Indiana Wasn’t First, Connecticut Was, But Not For The Reasons You Think

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Indiana Governor Mike Pence made headlines this past week when he signed into law Indiana’s version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Proponents say the bill is necessary to protect the rights of Christians to practice their beliefs freely. There is a growing belief (entirely misplaced IMHO) on the right that Christians who wish to discriminate against certain customers on religious grounds are being denied the right to practice their religion under the First Amendment. Opponents say that’s precisely why the bill should not be passed, because it will be used as an excuse to discriminate against the LGBT community on alleged religious freedom grounds (even though there’s no evidence that Jesus said to discriminate against “teh gays”, but we’ll get to that later.) The opposition has been calling for a boycott of Indiana ever since, and there is speculation about how this would affect the NCAA March Madness Men’s Basketball Tournament, whose Final Four competition is to take place in Indianapolis, Indiana. The NCAA says it isn’t sure right now. (Fun Fact: Indianapolis is one of only four state capital names that begin with the same letter as their states. Can you name the other three? The answer is at the end.) The push for the boycott spread to other cities, as the mayors of Seattle and San Francisco joined in the boycott. The news came that Angie’s List, based in Indianapolis, announced it was cancelling its $40-million headquarters expansion project because of the RFRA.

Writing for The Washington Posts’s column, The Fix, Hunter Schwarz observed that nobody has been calling for a boycott of the nineteen (possibly more) states that previously passed some version of the RFRA. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), there are nineteen states that have passed some version of the RFRA. How did there get to be so many states passing what some see as an unconstitutional law? Simple, the Supreme Court said that the National RFRA passed in 1993 could not be applied to the states. Wait a minute, you mean there’s a National RFRA? You might be wondering when the Republicans got that first discriminatory bill through, and which Republican president signed it? One of the Bushes, right? Wrong. It was passed in 1993 by a Democratic-controlled Congress (my now US Senator Chuck Schumer introduced it), and signed into law by a Democratic President Bill Clinton. Was anybody calling for a boycott when Clinton signed the National RFRA law? No, and there’s why. It had nothing to do with protecting the rights of Christians to discriminate against gay people back then. The rights of Christians to practice their religious beliefs, yes. Sort of. But not the ones you’re probably thinking about. Actually, Jesus really had nothing to do with the story at all. Let’s step into the Way Back Machine.

The First Amendment says that Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion (which means for those who wish otherwise that The Bible can never be the foundation of our laws, as that would constitute establishing a religion), nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Technically, this meant that your state could still pass a law respecting establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Until the Fourteenth Amendment came along, which says

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

This meant that no state could pass a law which violated your rights as a citizen of the United States. Or so you would think. It took a long time before the Incorporation Doctrine was applied to guarantee that states could not violate your gifts under the Bill of Rights, which are not the only rights you have. (Apparently there is debate over this doctrine.) But from time to time the question would arise, “Can the government compel someone to do something that violates that person’s religious beliefs, or can the government prohibit someone from doing something that is part of that person’s religious beliefs?” At what point, in other words, is the government prohibiting the free exercise of religion?

For a long time, religious objectors only got exemptions to laws if the statute provided for them. Judges could provide common law exemptions, but these could be overridden by state laws. The right of a clergy to keep confessions confidential was an exemption provided by state laws. Things changed in the early 60s. The blog The Volokh Conspiracy explains:

But then in Braunfeld v. Brown (1961) the Supreme Court seemed to suggest that the Free Exercise Clause might sometimes constitutionally mandate exemptions. And in Sherbert v. Verner (1963), the Court expressly adopted the constitutional exemption model, under which sincere religious objectors had a presumptive constitutional right to an exemption. Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) reaffirmed this, and the period from 1963 to 1990 is often labeled the Sherbert/Yoder era of Free Exercise Clause law.

Of course, a constitutional exemption model can never simply say “religious objectors get an exemption.” A wide range of generally applicable laws — murder law, theft law, rape law, and so on — must be applicable even to religious objectors. Even as to more controversial cases, such as bans on race discrimination in education, or generally applicable tax laws, the Court has found (even under the Sherbert/Yoder regime) that religious objectors’ claims must yield.

To distinguish cases where religious objectors win from those in which they lose, the Sherbert/Yoder-era Court used what it called “strict scrutiny” when the law imposed a “substantial burden” on people’s religious beliefs (e.g., when it banned behavior that the objectors saw as religiously compelled, or mandated behavior that the objectors saw as religiously prohibited). Under this strict scrutiny, religious objectors were to be given an exemption, unless denying the exemption was the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.

But while the strict scrutiny test in race and free speech cases was generally seen as “strict in theory, fatal in fact” (Gerry Gunther’s phrase), almost always invalidating the government law, in religious freedom cases it was “strict in theory, feeble in fact” (Larry Sager and Chris Eisgruber’s phrase). The government usually won, and religious objectors won only rarely.

Then in 1990, the Court changed course: In Employment Division v. Smith, a 5-Justice majority returned to the statute-by-statute exemption regime, and rejected the constitutional exemption regime. So long as a law doesn’t discriminate against religious objectors, but generally applies to people regardless of their religiosity, it’s constitutionally valid. If religious objectors want an exemption, they need to go to the legislature. (This is an oversimplification, but let’s go with it for now.)

But before going with it, a little more background on the Smith, because it’s important to understand how it has nothing whatsoever to do with a business discriminating against someone based on religious beliefs. [From Wikipedia]: “The Court upheld the state of Oregon’s refusal to give unemployment benefits to two Native Americans fired from their jobs at a rehab clinic after testing positive for mescaline, the main psychoactive compound in the peyote cactus, which they used in a religious ceremony. Peyote use has been a common practice in Native American tribes for centuries. It was integrated with Christianity into what is now known as the Native American Church.” (See? Not the kind of Christians you were thinking about.) Back to the blog for more of the story.

Smith was broadly condemned, both by the Left and the Right. That coalition has since largely fallen apart, but it was strong back then: In 1993, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gave religious objectors a statutory presumptive entitlement to exemption from generally applicable laws (subject to strict scrutiny). “Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person . . . is the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.” The vote in the House was unanimous, and in the Senate was 97-3.

RFRA was meant to apply to all branches of government, and both to federal and state law. In City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), the Supreme Court held that RFRA exceeded federal power when applied to state laws, but didn’t touch it as to federal law. Since 1997 (and in some measure before), about a dozen states enacted similar state-level RFRAs as to state law, and about a dozen more interpreted their state constitutions to follow the Sherbert model rather than the Smith model.

Therefore, the rule now is that there is a religious exemption regime as to federal statutes (under the federal RFRA), and as to state statutes in the about half the states that have state RFRAs or state constitutional exemption regimes. Religious objectors in those jurisdictions may demand exemptions from generally applicable laws that substantially burden the objectors’ practice, which the government must grant unless it can show that applying the laws is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.

All of that was written prior to the decision in the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell. Professor Volokh explains a bit about how the RFRA is supposed to be interpreted.

In interpreting the terms of RFRA — such as “substantial burden,” “compelling government interest,” and “least restrictive means” — courts look to Sherbert/Yoder-era Free Exercise Clause case law. The “findings” section of RFRA states that “the compelling interest test as set forth in prior Federal court rulings is a workable test for striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests” (emphasis added), and cites Sherbert and Yoder favorably. And the whole point of RFRA was to “restor[e]” a body of rulings that were overturned by Smith — rulings that recognized a constitutional right to presumptive exemptions from generally applicable laws.

Unfortunately, this body of preexisting case law is not terribly broad or deep. As we’ll see later, for instance, it tells us less than we’d like to know about what counts as a compelling interest. But what counts as a substantial burden is somewhat clearer; we’ll see this in more detail in a later post, but for now, note that the following all constitute a substantial burden:

1. The government’s compelling someone to do something that violates his religious beliefs, or prohibiting someone from doing something that is mandated by his religious beliefs.

2. The government’s denying someone a tax exemption or unemployment compensation unless he does something that violates his religious beliefs, or refrains from something that is mandated by his religious beliefs.

3. As to state and federal constitutional regimes, it’s not clear whether the above also applies when the objector’s conduct is merely motivated by his religious beliefs (e.g., the objector thinks it’s a religiously valuable thing for him to stay home on the Sabbath, rather than a religious commandment) and not actually mandated by those beliefs. The federal RFRA, many state RFRAs, and RLUIPA expressly apply to “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by … a system of religious belief.”

4. The beliefs need not be longstanding, central to the claimant’s religious beliefs, internally consistent, consistent with any written scripture, or reasonable from the judge’s perspective. They need only be sincere.

Recall, though, that a finding of substantial burden on sincere religious beliefs simply shifts the burden to the government: The government may still justify the burden by showing that applying the law to the objectors is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.

As I said before, all of that was before the Hobby Lobby ruling. My first thought was that Hobby Lobby couldn’t argue that they had these rights under the RFRA because Hobby Lobby is a corporation, not a person. It turns out that I was wrong. Title 1, Chapter 1, Words denoting number, gender, and so forth:

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise—
words importing the singular include and apply to several persons, parties, or things;
words importing the plural include the singular;
words importing the masculine gender include the feminine as well;
words used in the present tense include the future as well as the present;
the words “insane” and “insane person” shall include every idiot, insane person, and person non compos mentis;
the words “person” and “whoever” include corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals;
“officer” includes any person authorized by law to perform the duties of the office;
“signature” or “subscription” includes a mark when the person making the same intended it as such;
“oath” includes affirmation, and “sworn” includes affirmed;
“writing” includes printing and typewriting and reproductions of visual symbols by photographing, multigraphing, mimeographing, manifolding, or otherwise.

And Justice Alito did indeed say the RFRA applied and that Hobby Lobby had standing as a person based on Title 1, Chapter 1. And despite the fact that Hobby Lobby was wrong in their beliefs, and despite the fact that they really weren’t sincere in their claims since they offered birth control coverage in their health care plans right up until the ACA became law, Hobby Lobby was granted their exemption. But that case had nothing to do with a business trying to deny services to people based on their sexual orientation. How did we get there by the time Indiana became the 20th state to pass their own RFRA?

When the Native Americans lost their centuries long-held right to use peyote in their religious ceremonies, everybody agreed this was wrong. Before the federal RFRA was passed, Connecticut and Rhode Island had passed their own versions of an RFRA, with the standard being the same as the one Smith reversed. Then Congress passed the RFRA, and in his signing statement, President Bill Clinton even mentioned that the purpose of this law was to reverse the Smith decision, which was about peyote use, not discrimination. This law was written to apply to both the federal government and to the states, so they stopped passing their own versions of the RFRA until the Supreme Court ruled it could not be applied to the states. Then in 1998 Illinois passed its own RFRA, with the language specifically saying it was in response to Smith (and to City of Boerne v. P.F. Flores, the decision which ruled the national RFRA could not be applied to states.) This was followed by Florida‘s RFRA law (which did not mention Smith or Flores), but Alabama‘s RFRA did mention them. BTW, an interesting thing about the Alabama legislation is its language that the bill be “liberally construed to effectuate its remedial and deterrent purposes.” That kind of talk from a very Conservative legislature? The following year saw a state RFRA law get vetoed. Arizona passed its own RFRA, but it was seen by many as being too broadly worded. In fact, the public outcry over how this bill could be interpreted (and the fact that Gov Jan Brewer wanted to address her state’s broken Child Protection System before anything else), led to Gov Brewer issuing a veto. This bill went further than its predecessors in that it contained a section that specifically allowed state licensed professionals to refuse their services to clients based on their own religious beliefs about anything, including sexual orientation. Remember, their beliefs do not have to be accurate, just sincerely held. After Arizona, South Carolina was the next to pass an RFRA. This bill is no more controversial than earlier ones in that it restores the standards put forth in the national bill that was intended to let Native Americans use peyote in their religious rituals. But pending legislation would allow clerks to deny marriage licenses to gay people based on the clerk’s personal religious beliefs. Idaho also has its own RFRA that’s harmless enough, but they also have legislation lending to amend the bill to include the right to discriminate based on bigotry. New Mexico passed just a basic RFRA bill, which declares the government must show a compelling interest in denying a presumptive right on a generic law. Oklahoma, on the other hand, also went pretty far in their RFRA bill, even specifying that nothing in the bill could be construed to “Authorize same sex marriages, unions, or the equivalent thereof.” But they don’t want to stop there, either. They also have bills pending that would allow anybody to deny doing anything for anybody else based solely on personal religious beliefs (however misguided, wrong, or not in accordance with the religion upon which they are supposed to be based.) I’m sure we’ll hear calls for boycotts of the Cowboy Hall of Fame when they pass. There was an eighteen-month lull in state RFRAs before Pennsylvania passed its version called the “Religious Freedom Protection Act.” This one should have triggered calls for boycotts, too, as it not only allows the same kind of personal discrimination based on personal religious beliefs the other bad bills did, but it also appears to directly refute the point of the national RFRA law that overturned Smith so Native Americans can legally use peyote. It would be hard for PA to argue this bill was in response to the Smith decision. Seven months later, in July of 2003, Missouri passed their basic RFRA. It did specify a number of ways in which the Act could not be used, such as supporting a defense to not pay child support, or as an excuse to harm anyone else. I’m glad one of the states thought about that. Their proposed amending legislation would apply religious freedom protection to students. Then things went quiet on the RFRA front for about four years.

In April 2007, the Commonwealth of Virginia showed all those religious bigots how to do it by re-passing a law originally passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786, before we officially became the United States under our current Constitution, weird language and spellings and all. Don’t believe me? After declaring that the following was passed in 1786, here’s the first sentence:

“Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who, being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, have established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical, and even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors, for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though, indeed, those are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet, neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he, being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rules of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere, when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail, if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

As the Break-Up Song says, “They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.” But as fancy and high-falutin’ as this was (and I’ll thank Virginia not to mention my burthens in public again), they still want to amend this law with a specific right to discriminate by saying no one can be denied a state-issued license just because something they refused to do something that “would violate the religious or moral convictions of such person with respect to same-sex marriage or homosexual behavior.” Once again, it’s only the gays against whom “religious freedom” can be sanctioned. No mention of people wearing tattoos, customers at Red Lobster, women wearing clothing made from two different fabrics, or people who work Saturdays, though they should all face the same Biblical punishments as gay people.

It was about another year before Utah passed its RFRA. If you looked at some of the previous links, you may have come across laws regarding religious land use. Utah’s bill took this form, primarily, but it also adds a protection for religious organizations or people acting on behalf of same if they wish to discriminate based on their alleged religious beliefs. Are you noticing a pattern here? In the beginning, the RFRAs were passed to make up for the SCOTUS saying the national RFRA could not apply to the states. And most of the early ones simply said that the government had the burden of proof if they wanted to infringe on religious freedom, such as banning the use of peyote in religious ceremonies like your ancestors did for centuries. But then the bills started to evolve into declarations that you don’t have to do anything that infringes on your religious beliefs, especially if it involves gay people. Again, not all sinners, just the gay ones. It’s hard for me to believe you can justify it as a religious belief when it’s the only such belief you have when it comes to who to discriminate against. More than a year after Utah, Tennessee passed its RFRA, and while it seems on the surface to be the same as the early RFRAs in that it sets the proper legal test for violations of religious freedom, it also defines “substantial burden” in a way that could be interpreted to mean “not all that substantial.” Almost a year to the day later, Louisiana passed its version of an RFRA. Like many of the overly-broad versions, this ones allows a person “the ability to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a sincerely-held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or a central part or central requirement of the person’s religious belief.” The problem I have with this kind of language is the “sincerely-held” part. I don’t dispute that these folks think gay people should not have equal rights. I strongly dispute that it’s their religious beliefs that makes them feel this way. Three years after them, Kentucky passed something they claim to be some kind of RFRA, but it’s very short (compared to the other bills), and doesn’t go into as much detail. The KY legislature overrode the governor’s veto. I think the devil was in the details of other bills that set the parameters for when it’s okay to discriminate. Kansas followed up in July 2013 with its RFRA. As you’d expect from a hard-right state government, they allow people to refuse to act in a way that goes contrary to their supposedly deeply held religious beliefs. And, finally, Mississippi passed an RFRA law in 2014. Not only does it restore the Sherbert/Yoder compelling government interest test, it also has these two gems: 1) “Nothing in this act shall be construed to authorize any government to burden any religious belief.” (Notice they no longer mention “substantial burden.”); and, 2) “Nothing in this act shall create any rights by an employee against an employer if the employer is not the government.” In other words, the government can’t suppress your religious freedom, but your non-governmental employer can. Because unless you’re a business owner, your rights are meaningless.

When you go through these laws, it’s impossible not to notice the gradual transition from simply ensuring that the government applied the same legal test to claims of religious infringement that it did before Justice Scalia decided Native Americans had no constitutional right to do something they were doing before we invaded their land and stole it from them, to enshrining the right to discriminate based solely on claims of religious belief. You don’t have to actually believe these things to claim they permit you to deny service to people you don’t like. You just have to say they do, and it’s up to the government to prove why you shouldn’t be an exception to the rule. Despite being members of a Christian faith, the Oregon Native Americans weren’t claiming a right to deny another person their services because of their religious beliefs, they were claiming a right to do something their people were doing long before anyone came along, took their lands, and set up new laws. But the Christians who support RFRAs are undeniably using them to justify treating some of their fellow citizens in ways their Lord & Savior would undoubtedly disapprove (if he ever existed.) Nor can it really be argued that the original intent of the RFRA laws had anything to do with codifying a right to discriminate, yet that is clearly what was being done by Conservative legislatures that passed recent versions. And do not, for a moment, believe that this right to discriminate has anything whatsoever to do with religious freedom or beliefs. I call bullshit on that one. This has nothing to do with Religion and everything to do with Hate. Are any of these businesses who refuse to sell goods or services to gay people because of their religious beliefs refusing to sell their goods and services to any other category of people not living in accordance with Scripture? Are the ones who won’t sell wedding cakes to gay people also refusing to sell wedding cakes to divorced people looking to marry again? Are they open on the Sabbath, when many weddings take place? If there are things your religious beliefs compel you to do but you don’t, then you shouldn’t be allowed to claim your religious beliefs compel you to act in a particular way, especially if that particular way is a trivial aspect of your religious beliefs. It makes a mockery of the free exercise of religion. Nothing in the Christian faith compels followers to treat anyone the way Conservative Christians want to treat gay people, and only gay people. If these so-called Christians want to claim the Bible justifies their actions (a justification not supported by anything in the Constitution), then they should be required to be consistent and apply the same rules to other people they encounter. Or maybe they have to accept the fact that their religious beliefs are inconsistent with their Capitalistic beliefs. You cannot operate any business in accordance with Biblical Law without violating either the US Constitution or federal Civil Rights laws. It was one thing to simply restore the legal test in place before Smith, but as expert on religious extremism Marci A. Hamilton explains, these RFRA bills have gone too far. They are not about protecting religious freedom, they are about protecting religious bigotry. Too many people forget that before the United States came along, every nation had an official religion. And everybody was expected to practice that official religion, sometimes under severe penalty (death), and sometimes under threat of ostracism by the people around you. And, of course, in many countries you were not allowed to even think of practicing another religion. Our Framers said that was wrong. This continent was invaded by Europeans seeking a place to practice their religion their own way, which was a much more extreme version than that practiced back home. They didn’t think their fellow countrymen were religious enough. That’s right. The people who founded what the religious right claims is a Christian nation were religious extremists.

You can visit the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Perils site here.

Oh, and for those breathlessly waiting to find out who rounds out the Final Four of state capital names that begin with the same letter as their states, the other three are:
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(look away if you want to work it out for yourself)
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Dover, Delaware; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Honolulu, Hawaii. How many did you get right? And how many did you get right without Googling the answer? Let us know. Thanks for playing.

This is our daily open thread. Feel free to discuss Religious Freedom, its Restoration, or anything else you wish to discuss.

Sunday Roast: Did I say that out loud?

via Raw Story

The current Bob Jones, who, unfortunately for the rest of us, seem to run in perpetuity, has regrets.  He now allows that gay people should not be stoned, although they are still sinners.

“I take personal ownership of this inflammatory rhetoric. This reckless statement was made in the heat of a political controversy 35 years ago,” Jones said in a statement. “Upon now reading these long-forgotten words, they seem to me as words belonging to a total stranger—were my name not attached.”

“I cannot erase them, but wish I could, because they do not represent the belief of my heart or the content of my preaching. Neither before, nor since, that event in 1980 have I ever advocated the stoning of sinners,” he added.

In other words, “I can’t believe I said that out loud.”

But, looking on the bright side, since it seems that we’re ALL sinners in the eyes of the mythical sky fairy, then that puts homosekshuls on equal footing with the rest of us — hence equal rights for everyone!!  Yay, Bob Jones III!

I’m sure he’s right onboard with the idea…right?

This is our daily open thread — Sorry so late!!

The Watering Hole, Monday, March 2, 2015: How The Right Gets Net Neutrality Wrong

This past Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to change the way the nation’s internet service providers are regulated. After their proposed regulation, Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, is published on the federal register in a few weeks, it will take effect sixty days later. This has some prominent right wing luminaries upset, even though it’s apparent they have absolutely no understanding of what net neutrality is. All it means is that all internet content must be treated equally by the internet service providers (ISPs). Comcast can’t slow down your Netflix streaming video just because they would prefer you use their subsidiary company’s product, Hulu. The ISPs aren’t happy, but you should be overjoyed. Don’t listen to these people.

People like Pat Robertson. Like many Conservatives, Robertson calls the new FCC regulations a “takeover” of the internet, and he adds that this is all part of a socialist agenda to take control of everything. As with most things Pat Robertson says, nothing could be further from the truth. The government is not taking over the internet which it created (and which Al Gore helped bring into the civilian world.) The government is simply making sure no private corporation can take over the internet and deprive you of content that might come from a competitor, or charge you extra to get higher speed internet for some content, and slower speeds for content like the blog you’re reading right now.

Robertson says the government wants to regulate the internet using a law written in 1934. That is false. They are using a law written in 1996 which updated the law written in 1934. He’s also wrong about the PP/ACA being a takeover of the healthcare industry. Conservatives frequently mischaracterize things in order to scare you into thinking something is happening which isn’t. And the goal of the fear mongering is the fear itself. People who are afraid often make bad decisions, and one of those bad decisions is voting for Conservatives.

Don’t listen to people like Rush Limbaugh, either. Limbaugh also thinks the government is trying to take over the internet it once created, but for a completely different reason. He thinks the government wants to ban bullets. I know it just flows so logically. You see, Rush is afraid of ISIS, and he’s afraid because they’re recruiting from all over the United States and Rush says “the government must have control of the Internet if we are to be safe.” (Projection.) Rush thinks the government is going to resort to extraordinary measures to fight ISIS, and that will include the banning of bullets. Except the government is not trying to ban bullets, they are trying to regulate armor-piercing bullets. And they won’t ban the ones that are “primarily” used for sporting purposes, so if a bunch of sovereign citizens decide today is the day the government is coming for their guns, they’ll still be able to shoot them with armor-piercing bullets.

And don’t listen to people like Ted Cruz, either. (It could result in brain damage. For you, not Ted. He’s already gone.) Somehow, Ted has it in his tiny little mind that regulating the internet will deprive you of your freedom.

“We do that fundamentally by standing with the people and not with Washington.”

For all their talk about Freedom, Conservatives still do not understand the concept that our federal government IS “We the People.” Then again, they never liked that from the beginning. It was Conservatives, those heavy on the “States’ Rights” idea (even though the Articles of Confederation proved the concept unworkable), who objected to the first three words of the Constitution. They felt it should have read “We the States.” And they haven’t given up that fight since.

“Washington wants Obamacare. The people want liberty.”

Here, and in the subsequent sentences, Cruz is using the term “The people” to refer only to Conservative Americans, and “Washington” to refer to everyone else. Conservatives do not view non-Conservatives as being “true Americans.” In fact, they see us as the Enemy, much as they did in 1776 when Liberals decided they wanted to explore the freedom of not being British citizens. Conservatives wrongly believe the individual mandate is both unprecedented and unconstitutional. (This despite the fact that President John Adams wrote a law requiring all mariners to buy health insurance, and despite the fact that SCOTUS ruled the law constitutional.) They don’t like it precisely because it does bring us incrementally closer to having Single Payer which, in their minds, equates to a total loss of freedom for everyone. Completely untrue, of course. It would only deny corporations the right to cheat you out of your life savings. But since corporations are not really poeple, that shouldn’t matter.

“Washington wants amnesty. The people want rule of law.”

This is a reference to the president’s immigration policy, announced in the wake of House Republicans refusing to do anything (like pass the bill the Senate did.) It’s not an amnesty program, like the one announced under President Reagan, no matter how many times they say it is. And even if it was, it wouldn’t be unconstitutional because the president has the constitutional authority to grant amnesty. And it’s not illegal, which they’ll learn when the SCOTUS upholds it. They just hate seeing anyone get help from the government. They don’t believe government exists to serve the people of which it’s comprised.

“Washington wants power over the internet. The people want freedom online.”

Conservatives have a hard time believing that anyone in government would want to do something that protects people from unscrupulous corporations. That’s because they believe the purpose of government is to protect unscrupulous corporations from the people. They want ISPs to be able to set up a multi-tier system of various speed options. They want it to be possible for ISPs to block content that competes with their own. The only possible way one could interpret net neutrality as taking away your freedoms is if you think corporations are people with the same rights as people. But to believe that, you would have to believe that corporations should have the right to terminate the existence of a subsidiary corporation still in the process of being created without government interference. IOW, to have an abortion.

This our daily open thread. Thanks to Obama’s FCC, you’ll still have access to this blog at the same speed as the big name corporations get. Use it wisely, and talk about anything you want.

Sunday Roast: Ohhhhh, the poor poor widdle Christians

Seriously, how many ways is this just SO wrong?

These morons are giving “teh gay” so much power in their pitiful little lives, and it’s just pathetic.

OMG, allowing gay people the same human rights that the rest us so precariously enjoy will ruin EVERYTHING!!!!!!!!  If anyone voices an opinion or belief contrary to our own, we won’t be allowed to be “Christians” anymore!!!

drama-queen-i9063

Here’s your damn crown.  *eyes rolling*

This is our daily open thread –No I’m not dignifying the stupid film with commentary.

The Watering Hole, Monday, January 26, 2015: We Can Thank Religion For These Horrible Ideas

It is an indisputable fact that there have been people throughout history who have been motivated by their personal religious beliefs, whatever they may be, to do good things for other people, even complete strangers. It would be nice if the majority of those acts were done out of pure altruism and selflessness, but that is sadly not the case. The religious motivation was often not in the form of a reward for doing good as it was a punishment for not doing good. (Modern studies confirm what astute observers of humanity saw long ago, that conservative people tend to be motivated more by punishment than by reward, and that stupid people tended to think conservatively. So if you want them to do what you say, you make them afraid to not do what you say.) And while you may say, “What difference does it make why they’re helping their fellow humans?”, it’s important to understand that the same source (Religion) that tells them to do good things for people (at least once in a while) also gives them some very, very bad ideas. Alternet’s Valerie Tarico outlines them in more detail, but in short the horrible concepts are: Chosen People, Heretics, Holy War, Blasphemy, Glorified Suffering, Genital Mutilation, Blood Sacrifice, Hell, Karma, Eternal Life, Male Ownership of Female Fertility, and Bibliolatry (Worship of Books.) Religion may even be responsible for the Rape Culture in which we live. I’ll let you read them for yourself, I just want to talk about why a few of these concepts are contrary to the American concept of Freedom.

I worry about self-described Christian Conservatives taking political power. I consider them as dangerous to our way of life as any fundamentalist practitioner of any religion because they are making up their religious beliefs. Jesus did not preach a conservative message, so you can’t call yourself a conservative and a follower of Jesus’ teachings. There are Conservatives who have actually said our nation’s laws should be based on The Bible (though they’re usually vague about which one.) In three of his first four terms in Congress, Representative Robert Aderholt (R-AL 4) introduced three versions of a bill called The Ten Commandments Defense Act. (105th, 107th, 108th.) This bill declared that displaying the Ten Commandments on state (or some lower government) controlled property is a right reserved to the States under the Tenth Amendment. The problem here is pretty obvious when you think about it. He wants Congress to declare that States don’t have to obey the First Amendment when it comes to the Ten Commandments, even though the First Amendment states that Congress shall pass no law regarding establishment of religion. The very law he tried to have passed violated the First Amendment, because it was precisely the kind of law the authors of the First didn’t want Congress to pass. And even if you tried to say it was simply “enabling legislation,” it still amounted to establishment of religion. It has nothing to do with the alleged “Judeo-Christian” values upon which this nation was founded (because it wasn’t), it has to do with the fact that the Founders knew what happened to people who didn’t follow the official religion of a nation. They were forced to convert or face imprisonment or death. And there are nations in which that still happens today. The Founders thought that was wrong and that everyone should be free from government interference to practice their chosen religion, and that the worst way to let that happen would be to let the government declare a preference of one religion over another. And a federal law declaring States were free to do that to their citizens (who are also citizens of the United States, and under the Fourteenth Amendment afforded all their federal rights to their state citizenship) would be an Act of Congress that establishes a religion that supports the Ten Commandments. What bothers me more is that back then, his bill had 118 co-sponsors, some of whom have gone on to become US Senators. (And at least one who went to prison, but not for his involvement with this bill. Too bad.)

Another group of which you should be concerned are the Christian Reconstructionists. They have this screwed up view that God does not want governments to be involved in helping the poor. This is as good place as any to start describing why the Religious Right’s (or any other religious group’s) views on government should be null and void. This is the United States of America. Our government IS “We the People.” When we decide we want to help those less fortunate than ourselves, we institute government-run programs to do so. What makes government-run programs superior to private or religious charities is that the government is prohibited from discriminating against people! Private charities can find ways to make sure only the people they think deserve their help get it. If you truly believe people should be free from government interference to practice the religion of their choice, and if you believe people should be free to express any ideas they wish, then you can’t possibly also believe that the United States should be run according to any religious text. Any! The two principles are mutually exclusive. You can’t be free to practice your own religion when the government has decided that one religion is better than another. (I think all the monotheistic ones are bad, with the polytheistic ones not that far behind.) Because many monotheistic religions ban anyone from standing up and saying four simple words, “There is no God.” You would also not be allowed to say, “The entire concept of God is a flawed and silly one. Grow up and take responsibility for your lives here on Earth today.” They would put you to death. And it would be an Eternal Death because the idea of an Eternal Life gives people (especially conservative people, who are not inclined by their nature to want to help other people) an excuse to not live for today, to not live for making a difference to your planet’s fellow inhabitants today. It also lets the government (who is now running your life once they decided that a particular religious text trumps our secular Constitution) oppress you even more because, according to them, if you live a righteous life here on Earth today, no matter how much you or anyone else suffers, you will get your reward when you’re dead. And when they’re telling you that, take careful notice of how they’re getting their rewards today. Lastly, one of the absolute WORST idea Religion has given us is that women are property who must at all times be under some male’s control. This is the driving force behind all anti-abortion viewpoints. When they say it’s just a Biblical thing, they’re wrong. Life does not begin at conception (according to their own Bibles), it begins at the baby’s first breath. This not about “protecting the innocent unborn.” (Were people like Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer innocent when they were in the womb? I’m more interested in how the religious right views things.) If you believe that all people are equal under the law (which is what our Constitution guarantees), then you cannot also believe that men have any right to control women’s bodies. Hobby Lobby’s argument came down to that – Men have the right to control women’s bodies. It had nothing to do with Christian principles, because if it did, they wouldn’t have their products made in countries notorious for their human rights abuses.

Take away these horrible ideas Religion brought us, and maybe there’s a chance Humanity can live in Peace with one another. Nobody was chosen by an imaginary Being to be Its favorite (which several different religions claim.) People who think differently should not be killed for those beliefs (which won’t kill the ideas, anyway) but should be shown in an intellectual manner why their reasoning is flawed. As Tarico points out, if War can be holy, anything can be. Blasphemy is as American as it gets in this country. Glorified Suffering is just masochism made holy. Genital Mutilation is never necessary, nor is it ever justifiable. Blood Sacrifice is just an excuse to kill. Hell is as ridiculous a concept as heaven, when you think about it. (Please do that. Think about it.) Karma is a pretty cynical concept, and a good excuse to do nothing. But if you believe Karma will get back the guy who did something horrible to little children, then you have to believe the kids he brutalized did something to deserve their fate. Are you sick? Eternal Life because Why Live For Today? Male Ownership of Female Fertility because deep down inside them, conservative men are afraid of women because the women might not give them sex if they had to give consent first. And worshiping books leads to censorship of books that don’t support the ones worshiped. None of these concepts is good for Humanity, and all of them are the result of Religion. Please, don’t try to tell me Religion is nothing but good. It is filled with horrible ideas, and the sooner we stop treating them as good ones, the sooner we’ll all be free.

This is our daily open thread. Feel free to discuss Religion, Politics, the separation of the two, or anything else you wish to discuss.

The Watering Hole, Monday, January 19, 2015: Freedom to Misunderstand Free Speech and Religion

If you’re the type of person who actually gets off his couch and finds out what’s happening in the rest of the world (i.e., the places beyond the reach of your couch), you know that Free Speech and Religious Freedom have been in the news lately thanks to a bunch of murderous thugs who can’t even read their own holy books correctly. (But who can? They’re full of contradictions.) After killers who violated their own religion’s teachings falsely justified their actions by blaming the victims, the public discussion turned to whether or not people have a right to make fun of someone else’s religion. Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Why not? Do the things religions tell you to do make any sense in today’s world? I’m not talking about the general things, like to treat other people the way you would like them to treat you. You don’t need a religion to tell you that. You don’t even need a god to tell you to do it. It’s my own personal “Golden Rule.” No, I’m talking about how God is all-powerful, and he loves us all very, very much, but he lets Evil take over because he gave us all Free Will. It doesn’t quite cut it for me. You’re talking about one psychotic god there. The story as a whole just doesn’t make any damn sense. Admit it. If you’re supposed to live as they did at the time those holy books were written (more on that later), then why are we even close to where we are today technologically? Why don’t we stone people to death today? Why didn’t we back in 1787 when our Constitution was written? Why weren’t all the laws mentioned in Leviticus incorporated into our initial set of laws when the First Congress met? Could it be that we had a thriving fishing industry in New England, and the Framers thought the idea of making shell fish illegal was stupid? And speaking of religious laws, why are there three major religions all worshiping the same God, but doing it in vastly different ways? How can they all be the “One True Religion”? Why were they all started by men who wandered in a desert, where it’s hot and there isn’t enough water? Do you know what that can do to a human’s brain? Why would anybody back then think that what they said made sense? Why would anybody think it does today? But even more importantly, why shouldn’t anyone be allowed to point out how silly this, or any other, entire belief system is?

Religion is an idea. And like all ideas, it should not be accepted blindly without critical thought. If someone walks up to you and says, “You can live forever, but only if you follow these rules,” why would you just accept that without examining it carefully? Why would you believe it’s possible to live forever? I can see the appeal for some of wanting to live forever (I have depression, so no such thoughts go through my mind), but why wouldn’t you want some kind of evidence that proves what the person is saying? Why accept it on nothing but faith? Why accept the stories about the origins of the universe on faith? Wouldn’t you want people who have studied the Cosmos with scientific instruments, documented their findings, compared them with those of other scientists, and came to an intelligent understanding of what really happened to tell you how we got here, instead of just being told, “An invisible, omnipotent being willed everything into existence”? Why is that more satisfying? I simply don’t understand that. Why don’t you live in fear of that same god deciding to just do it all over again? The Covenant, you say? Sorry, God only promised never to destroy the Earth “by flood” again. He didn’t rule out other methods. And I bet this never occurred to you, either: He’s an omnipotent being. He doesn’t have to keep his promises if he doesn’t feel like it. What are you going to do, take him to court? Can I be there when you serve God with a subpoena to appear in court? Oh, and make it the Ninth Circuit Court. That should make things really fun. The point is, all ideas are subject to scrutiny and counter-argument. And reducing the other person’s argument to an absurdity (i.e., a contradiction) is a perfectly valid way of proving that the other person’s opinion is wrong. So it can no longer be used in support of the viewpoint expressed by that person, by anyone. Ever. And remember, if one of the premises of your argument is something with which I fundamentally disagree, you won’t convince me. That’s how argument works. You begin with a mutually agreed upon set of facts or premises. Then you propose what you think is a logical conclusion of those facts and premises. And this is the most important thing that some people don’t get about Free Speech: In the United States of America, the government is not allowed to abridge your freedom of Speech, meaning you can’t be jailed for what you say. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to accept it as a valid argument in support of social policy, such as, say, making our laws conform to someone’s religious text which, in case those folks haven’t noticed, directly violates the first part of that amendment they hold so dear. And something fascinating on that dear amendment later.

So when Pope Francis said, “You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people’s faith, you cannot mock it,” it’s important to understand that he was not speaking for American values. He wasn’t speaking about his own, apparently, either. If you’re going to try to tell me that God will strike me down with a bolt of lightning just for saying he doesn’t exist, then I have the right to point out that I’m still alive after typing that sentence. See? The idea that Religion should be off bounds for satire, mockery, ridicule, what have you, is a suppression of the very idea of Free Speech. Besides, what happens when you try to convert people from one religion to another (assuming you’re not doing it stupidly, like by the barrel of a gun)? You try to convince them they’re making a mistake to believe what they currently believe. (While I would also try to convince them not to believe what you believe, either.) Some people find my arguments against Religion in general to be offensive, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be allowed to make them. I find the concept of Religion offensive. It’s never made clear to its followers that they should never take what they hear as literally being true, and that leads to dangerous people going around killing because they think that’s what will please their gods.

One more thing about your dear First Amendment rights. You’ve often heard the claim made (by both sides, I’m sure, but that doesn’t matter) that our Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech were so important to the Framers (or Founding Fathers) that they were enshrined in our very First Amendment to our new Constitution, a document so revered and so loved, that it was amended almost immediately after it was ratified. (I’m joking about it, but it was a condition agreed to in order to win ratification.) Except those rights were not so important to them as you might think. The 27th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on May 7, 1992. It’s supposed to be a way to ban annual pay raises, so that newly elected Members of Congress couldn’t immediately vote to raise their own pay as soon as they took office. If they did, that law would not take effect until they faced re-election and voters had a chance to punish them for doing so. They got around it some how. But it was first proposed on Sept 25, 1789. It was the second of twelve amendments proposed that day. The First had to do with the number of Representatives guaranteed in the House in order to make sure one person wasn’t representing way more people than reasonable (like, say, 700,000.) It was never ratified, which is a good thing because if we followed the formula in it, our House of Representatives could have as many as 6,186 people in it. What about proposed Amendments Three through Twelve? What happened to them? Well, that precious right to freely practice the religion of your choice and to criticize the government and other stupid people, was actually in the third proposed amendment. It’s only the First Amendment today because neither of the two before it passed by the time it did. And one of those eventually passed to become our most recent amendment. So it’s not really as precious to the Founders as you might think. They were more concerned with making sure you mattered to your US Representative, and that he couldn’t vote himself a pay raise his first day in office. But they somehow still get annual pay raises, which seems to directly violate the precious 27th Amendment.

This is our daily open thread. Feel free to discuss anything you want. It’s your right. Don’t worry. I’ll tell you if it’s stupid.

The Watering Hole, Saturday, January 10, 2015: Poor Persecuted Christians – Not!

In their never-ending quest to convince the world that they are being persecuted, American Conservative Christians (an oxymoron, as there is nothing conservative about the teachings of Jesus) have taken up the cause of former Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Kelvin Cochran claiming he was fired just for expressing his Christian religious beliefs. There are at least two things wrong with their claims: 1) Cochran wasn’t fired “just” for expressing his Christian views and practicing his religion, and, 2) the views he expressed weren’t even Christian.

It started when Cochran wanted to self-publish a book called, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” As a major civic leader in Atlanta, Cochran was required to get clearances from Mayor Kasim Reed and city ethics officer, Nina Hickson, before publishing the book. He did not, according to the Mayor, and Cochran has disputed that. Though he was given a copy of the book about a year ago, Reed must not have read it because he only became aware of some of the controversial things Cochran wrote in the book in November 2014. Among the views Cochran expressed was that homosexuality was a “perversion.” In addition to suspending Cochran, Reed also told him not to talk about the book or the suspension with anybody, a point Cochran also disputes claiming he was told not to talk to the media, specifically, during the investigation into his leadership. (The investigation subsequently revealed that no one was discriminated against in any way, shape, or form by the Chief’s views. I applaud the Chief for that much.) The Mayor made it very clear that Cochran was not fired for his religious viewpoints. “His religious (beliefs) are not the basis of the problem. His judgment is the basis of the problem.” But some on the Religious Right refuse to see it that way.

Like Todd Starnes, for example. He insists that Cochran was fired just for being “anti-gay,” that the firing was part of a “cultural cleansing.” As Hrafnkell Haraldsson writes in PoliticusUSA, “Isn’t that what the Religious Right’s culture war is all about? Cultural cleansing? Removing all those elements from society the Religious Right opposes? What makes Starnes’ accusation even more hypocritical, not to say absurd, is his claim that “Christians need not apply to public sector jobs” in Atlanta. Of course, as we know, fake Christians like Starnes love the idea of being able to fire gay people for being gay – or not hire them in the first place – a form of discrimination that is still legal in many states. If firing anti-gay people is cultural cleansing, then there is no denying that firing gay people is also cultural cleansing, which means Starnes has no right at all to be upset. And I am a little surprised in any case, since Republicans love to tell us all that none of us have any right at all to a job.” In promoting a petition to defend Cochran, Starnes actually wrote “Equal rights for ALL Americans! The cultural cleansing of our nation must stop!” Except, of course, for non-white, non-Christian, non-males.

Not to be outdone (or made to think intelligently), Erick Erickson falsely wrote that “But the gay mafia is loudly complaining that Chief Cochran, by writing this book, will suddenly now not put out the fires of gay homes, or something like that.” NOBODY has made any such claim. Why would he think such a thing? I can only speculate that it’s just another example of the psychological projection from which many conservatives suffer. It always amazes me that Conservatives will express such open hatred of Liberals because they don’t like the way we think, but then they just assume that we would behave in exactly the same manner they would in a given situation. And, like Starnes, he completely distorts the reality of the situation by claiming, “What Mayor Reed and the gay rights community are saying is that if you work for government you cannot be open about your Christian faith.”

No, Erick. No, Todd. That is not at all what the Mayor is saying. Cochran identified himself in his book as the AFRD Chief, so he was not simply expressing his personal views as an ordinary citizen, which he has every constitutional right to do. By identifying himself that way, he was speaking as an Atlanta City Official, and that was where he went wrong. (Distributing copies of his book to other city employees, some of whom didn’t ask for it, and on city property, was also a violation of the law, and another reason for his dismissal.) Mayor Reed made it quite clear that Chief Cochran was fired for his “judgment and management skills” and that the Chief’s “personal religious beliefs are not the issue.” But Religious Conservatives, who clearly have no understanding of the First Amendment, think that expressing hate-filled views should be totally acceptable because it’s not just a free speech issue, it’s a religious freedom issue. Wrong! You have the right to express your hate-filled views all you want, but it does not mean that I have to respect those views or accept them as valid. I don’t. Jesus never said homosexuality was bad. In fact, he never said the word “homosexual” in his life, and not just because he didn’t speak English, but because the word wasn’t even in use until the 1800s. (BTW, modern Bibles that use the word “homosexual(s)” are making it up. The original language in which the Gospels were written did not use that word.) In fact, there’s a lot that Religious Conservatives get wrong about what’s in the Bible. (And, yes, Starnes attacked Newsweek and Eichenwald for that article, too.)

You have the right to say whatever you want in this country, but you do not have the right to expect that there will never be consequences for what you say. If you’re a public employee, there are standards the public rightly expects you to meet, and one of those is to keep your stupid, ignorant, false opinions to yourself, and to not speak them in your capacity as a public official. Cochran failed to do this. And while I certainly respect the fact that you have opinions which differ from my own, that does not mean that I have to give those opinions, or you, any respect at all. Am I required to respect you or your opinion if you say something ignorant like, “All Mexicans are lazy”? No, I am not. And if you work for me and I hear you say that, I’ll fire you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I have not violated your First Amendment rights in any way. The First Amendment does not protect you from me, it protects you from your government. It guarantees that while you can be fired for saying stupid, ignorant things, you can’t be jailed for saying them. You can say them and remain free. You might find yourself unemployed, but that’s because you couldn’t keep your stupidity to yourself. As for “religious freedom,” it’s hard to argue that when what you say isn’t really a tenet of your religion. The same Bible verse used to condemn homosexuals (1 Timothy) also condemns liars. Does that mean Starnes and Erickson will condemn Fox News Channel? What about George W. “The United States does not torture” Bush? (That was a humongous lie, BTW.) Will you condemn him as virulently and publicly as you do gay people? Somehow I doubt it. Oh, and when the streak of 43 different Christians taking the oath of office to be President of the United States is broken, then maybe we can talk about Christian persecution.

This is our daily open thread. Have at it.