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“Sympathy For The Devil Worshipers”: SCOTUS Struggles Not To Become De Facto Prayer Editors

It’s easy enough to be in favor of a “nonsectarian” prayer before a legislative session — some invocation of a higher power that theoretically doesn’t exclude anyone (besides atheists, that is) — but what exactly does such a prayer sound like?

That was Justice Samuel Alito’s question during oral arguments at the Supreme Court Wednesday morning in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, and it got to the heart of the court’s basic discomfort with cases asking it to decide whether specific government-sponsored prayers cross the constitutional line and “establish” religion in violation of the First Amendment.

In Greece, a town of just under 100,000 in western New York, town officials invite local clergy to offer a prayer before monthly town board meetings. The prayers may technically be given by anyone, but for nine years they were exclusively Christian, many using language such as “in the name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.” Two residents sued the town under the First Amendment.

Standing before the court, the residents’ lawyer, Douglas Laycock, suggested that a nonsectarian prayer would be satisfactory. Justice Alito wasn’t so sure.

“How could you do it?” Justice Alito asked. “Give me an example of a prayer that would be acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus … Wiccans, Baha’i.”

“And atheists,” Justice Antonin Scalia added. “Throw in atheists, too.”

Mr. Laycock reminded the justices that atheists were already out of luck based on the court’s prior decisions. Then, riffling through his documents, he suggested, “The prayers to the Almighty, prayers to the Creator.”

“To ‘the Almighty,’” Justice Alito said skeptically. “So if — if a particular religion believes in more than one god, that’s acceptable to them?”

Justice Scalia, often impatient in religion cases, couldn’t resist. “What about devil worshipers?”

Over the laughter of the courtroom, Mr. Laycock said meekly, “Well, if devil worshipers believe the devil is the almighty, they might be okay. But they’re probably out.”

And so it went, the justices trying in vain to determine what sort of prayer, if any, would be sufficiently nonsectarian, and who should be responsible for making that determination. None of them seemed to relish the idea of playing at prayer editor.

As the argument progressed it was increasingly difficult to discern any grounds on which to justify legislative prayer other than the fact that it’s something we’ve always done — which was the basis for the court’s ruling upholding such a prayer in the Nebraska legislature in 1983, when it last considered the question.

Lawyers for the town leaned heavily on that ruling, but several of the justices seemed uneasy with its rationale. “The history doesn’t make it clear that a particular practice is okay going on in the future,” Chief Justice John Roberts said. “We’re not going to go back and take the cross out of every city seal that’s been there since, you know, 1800. But it doesn’t mean that it would be okay to adopt a seal today that would have a cross in it, does it?”

The question answered itself, and was a reminder of how much the country’s religious makeup has changed over the past two centuries. Justice Alito emphasized the point in returning to his earlier concern about workability. While the U.S. may once have been “98-percent-plus Protestant,” he said, today “there are all sorts of other adherents to all sorts of other religions. And they all should be treated equally, and — but I don’t — I just don’t see how it is possible to compose anything that you could call a prayer that is acceptable to all of these groups.”

Mr. Laycock agreed, and reached the inevitable conclusion to that argument. “We cannot treat everybody, literally everybody, equally without eliminating prayer altogether.”

But there is an alternative to “eliminating” prayer — a moment of silence, which is what the town of Greece did for years without complaint. It allows everyone to pray exactly as they wish; it even makes room for the atheists and devil worshipers.

For some — including several members of the current court — a “silence only” policy is surely a step too far. But it would be a reasonable compromise in a pluralistic society, and for justices who don’t want to become de facto prayer editors, it’s a bright line on an otherwise blurry canvas of conflicting tests and standards that have rarely satisfied anyone.


By: Jesse Wegman, Editors Blog, The New York Times, November 6, 2013

November 9, 2013 Posted by | Constitution, Religion, SCOTUS | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Highlighting The GOP’s Worst Qualities”: For Democrats, Raising The Minimum Wage Is Good Policy, Better Politics

As Congress considers raising the minimum wage for the first time since 2009, Democrats have a golden political opportunity to pressure congressional Republicans on an issue that splits the GOP’s base — and highlights the GOP’s worst qualities.

The battle is currently being led by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who have crafted a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, up from the current level of $7.25. The bill, titled the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, would immediately raise the minimum wage to $8.20 an hour, then to $9.15 an hour after one year, $10.10 an hour after two years, and tie it to the Consumer Price Index thereafter.

There is a litany of evidence backing up the value of such a proposal. The current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has lagged far behind productivity growth over the past decades, and falls short of most living wage standards. A worker employed full-time at the current minimum wage would make $15,080 for a full 52-week year, 19 percent below the poverty line for a family of three. As over 100 economists agreed in a June 2013 letter supporting a $10.50 hourly minimum wage, raising the wage “will be an effective means of improving living standards for low-wage workers and their families and will help stabilize the economy. The costs to other groups in society will be modest and readily absorbed.”

Opponents of raising the minimum wage generally argue that such a policy would hurt job growth. “When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) declared in response to President Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage at his 2013 State of the Union address. Contrary to the Speaker’s claim, however, there is little to no evidence that modest increases in the minimum wage actually eliminate jobs.

As strong as the economic case for raising the minimum wage is, however, the political case is even more persuasive. The Harkin-Miller bill has almost no chance of becoming law during the 113th Congress; it will almost certainly be blocked in the Senate, and even if Democratic leadership can round up 60 votes, the bill stands no chance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But the GOP could pay a steep price for killing the measure.

Americans strongly favor raising the minimum wage. According to a Hart Research Associates poll conducted in July, an overwhelming 80 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10, then adjusting it for the cost of living, as the Harkin-Miller plan proposes. The basic parameters of the bill are supported by 92 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and even 62 percent of Republicans.

The poll also suggests that the issue could prove critical in the 2014 midterms. The Hart poll found that 74 percent of registered voters believe that raising the minimum wage in the next year should be an important priority for Congress, and 38 believe it is very important — 51 percent of registered voters would be more likely to support a candidate for Congress who favored raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while just 15 percent said they would be less likely. Furthermore, 37 percent believe that — should Congress fail to raise the minimum wage this year — Republicans would be to blame. Just 15 percent would blame the Democrats.

In the wake of the Republican Party’s disastrous government shutdown strategy, it finds itself in a very precarious political position — especially on the critical question of whether they are actually interested in what’s best for the country. A high-profile act of obstruction to block a minimum-wage hike — a raise that is supported by four-fifths of Americans, and almost two-thirds of Republicans — would surely compound that problem. If Democrats want to paint congressional Republicans as elitists who are out of step with the needs of average Americans, this is how they do it.

On Friday, the Obama administration signaled its support for the Harkin-Miller bill, and it would be wise to be very vocal about that position. If the White House throws its full weight behind congressional Democrats’ efforts, then the minimum wage could form the backbone of an effective economic pitch for the 2014 midterms.


By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, November 8, 2013

November 9, 2013 Posted by | Democrats, GOP, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The GOP Anti-Life Syndrome”: Are Politicians Who Cut Food Stamps And Deny Health Access Truly “Pro-Life”?

When Wendy Davis proclaimed that she is “pro-life” – a description long since appropriated by conservatives opposed to abortion rights – the right-wing media practically exploded with indignation. How could she dare to say that? But having won national fame when she filibustered nearly 12 hours against a law designed to shutter Lone Star State abortion clinics, the Texas state senator with the pink shoes doesn’t hesitate to provoke outrage among the righteous.

Speaking to a crowd at the University of Texas in Brownsville last Tuesday, Davis, now running for governor as a Democrat, made a deceptively simple but profound declaration: “I am pro-life. I care about the life of every child: every child that goes to bed hungry, every child that goes to bed without a proper education, every child that goes to bed without being able to be a part of the Texas dream, every woman and man who worry their children’s future and their ability to provide for that.”

Her argument directly pierced to the contradiction within the right’s “pro-life” sloganeering. So far the feeble answer from the right is that Davis must be “lying” because nobody who supports a woman’s right to choose is pro-life.

But that response is merely a repetition that seeks to evade her deeper philosophical thrust. Whatever anyone may think about abortion, the persistent question for self-styled pro-lifers is why they tend to insist on making life so much more difficult for so many children who have entered the world. The same Republicans – and they are nearly all Republicans – most vocally opposed to reproductive rights are also most likely to cut assistance to poor families, infants and children at every opportunity, from the moment of birth long into adolescence and beyond.

The imperiled Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is only the latest instance of this drearily familiar anti-life syndrome. This week, more than 48 million Americans, including 22 million children, saw their food stamp benefits cut as a temporary enhancement of the program expired. That was worse than bad enough. But next year if the Republicans have their way, the government would cut $40 billion from the program over the next 10 years – immediately depriving four million people of food assistance and then another three million every year.

Supposedly the excuse for this cruel scheme is to encourage able-bodied adults to work, even though jobs continue to be scarce. But what about the children who will go hungry, thanks to the budget advanced by the “pro-life” House leadership?

Incidentally, these are the same “pro-lifers” who will do almost anything to frustrate the long-sought national objective of universal health insurance. On that issue, one of their favorite complaints is that expanding health care to all will increase the availability of family planning, including abortion. But what of the tens of thousands of Americans who die every year because they lack insurance? Saving their lives is evidently not a “pro-life” priority.

Wendy Davis is right, but perhaps she didn’t go far enough. You see, the other self-serving sobriquet appropriated by the right is “pro-family,” a code term for opponents of reproductive rights, marriage equality, and other progressive policies that actually empower families of all kinds. Again, these same politicians tend to disparage not only Obamacare, but extended unemployment insurance, Social Security’s old age and disability assistance, Medicaid, Medicare, student loans, tuition assistance, family leave, the earned income tax credit, and the entire panoply of successful government programs that help to keep real working families from disintegrating under economic, social, and medical stress.

In fact, Davis might reasonably question whether the minions of the religious right and the Tea Party are even truly “anti-abortion,” although they have long since tried to escape that category.  It is true that right-wingers have tried incessantly (and unsuccessfully) to outlaw abortion. But today they often seek to restrict contraception and effective sex education as well, even though preventing unwanted pregnancies is the most obvious way to reduce the number of abortions.

How would conservatives behave if they honestly wanted to save the family – as House Republicans will now claim when they kill the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, banning workplace bias against lesbians and gays? They might begin by reconsidering their ideological project of dismantling federal programs, long supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, that help families maintain stability, care for each other, maintain healthy children, and advance in each generation.

The real enemies of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for American families are those who seek to polarize incomes, destroy the social safety net, and impose misery on women and children in the name of religious morality.


By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, November 7, 2013

November 9, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Pro-Choice | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Grand Old Party In Reverse”: Christie, Cuccinelli And What The GOP Didn’t Learn In 2012

Elections, the saying goes, have consequences. Of course, some have more consequences than others. Consider the 2012 election – and then ponder this week’s gubernatorial races. You’d imagine that the big nationwide election would do more to jar the GOP than a couple of off-year gubernatorial races. But given the right’s nonreaction to 2012, reality-based Republicans must hope otherwise.

Think back a year. Given the results of the 2012 elections – Barack Obama won re-election by 4 percentage points and 5 million votes; Senate Democrats gained seats, and House Democrats drew more votes (if not more seats) than House Republicans – you would not be faulted for thinking that the GOP was in for a course correction. And, for a brief while, it seemed likely. The Republican National Committee issued a postmortem with a slew of recommendations on how to turn the party around, with a focus on reaching out to female, minority and young voters. Washington pundits declared comprehensive immigration reform inevitable because Republicans had to do something to get on the right side of Hispanic voters. That was then. Now?

“At this point, we’ve gone backwards because of the government shutdown,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “That doesn’t mean we can’t be resurrected in time to do very well in the 2014 elections given the gift of Obamacare. But it’s hard to look at the state of the party today versus Election Day in 2012 and think we’ve made much progress.”

What happened? The party leaders who wanted to adjust to the facts of reality were rolled by the alliance of the tea party and the right wing’s media-industrial complex, which is more interested in whipping up the base (and then fundraising off of it) than what movement conservatives like Erick Erickson derisively refer to as the “‘governing’ trap.” The Republican reboot was lost in a miasma of conservative windmill-tilting that culminated in the ill-conceived, predictably disastrous shutdown.

“They don’t care [about polls], but they need to care,” says Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy. “When you need to pick up as many [Senate] seats as Republicans need right now, you can’t afford to have your brand hurt.” As former Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Virginia Republican, said recently, “You’ve had the diagnosis, and now there’s the denial.”

When asked whether the GOP is better off a year later than immediately after getting trounced last November, one veteran Republican lobbyist offers that sometimes a party has to hit rock bottom. “At some point you have to cleanse your system,” the lobbyist says. “The question is how do you respond when you hit rock bottom?” The twin events of the dismal shutdown and this week’s contrasting gubernatorial elections give the GOP a fresh chance to hit the rock bottom reset button.

And there’s some hope that the 2013 elections will have the consequences that can finally penetrate the right’s bubble. Mitt Romney might have been challenging Obama in 2012, but he was also stalked by a phantasm of the right – a “true” conservative candidate that could set their hearts aflutter. The far right says “look, Romney wasn’t conservative enough … you need to shut the government down over Obamacare,” according to Davis. A true conservative, the theory goes, would have delivered the victory over Obama that the right wing fully expected right up until Fox News declared the president re-elected last year.

The 2013 elections, while more narrowly focused, present a starker contrast. You have conservative darling Ken Cuccinelli in the purple state of Virginia losing to Terry McAuliffe of all people; and you have New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican who literally embraced Obama last October after Superstorm Sandy, winning by a landslide in a true-blue state. As pollster Ayres said when asked about this scenario last week: “It certainly presents a pair of compelling case studies whose message is obvious to all who are willing to see.”

So where to from here? Two things to keep an eye on: First is the budget battle rerun due in January – to what extent is the Ted Cruz-led conservative cabal able to drive the party into another vain, self-destructive shutdown? Early signs give reason for skepticism. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, has ruled out another shutdown. “Ted Cruz went out and led a parade that he said would be a success … and then he walked down the alley like that character at the end of ‘Animal House,’ marched the whole band into the wall – and then he ran out and had a TV interview,” says conservative activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who adds that the next time Cruz has an idea, Republicans are either “going to throw something big at him” or otherwise politely dismiss him.

A second focus point will be the 2014 primaries. McConnell faces a serious challenge and a slew of other incumbents have primaries as well. “Rest well tonight, for soon we must focus on important House and Senate races,” former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook recently. “Let’s start with Kentucky – which happens to be awfully close to South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi – from sea to shining sea we will not give up.” The latter references were to GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham, Lamar Alexander and Thad Cochrane – all incumbents facing challengers. It’s early to say whether any are credible, says Duffy, “but for a collection of safe incumbents, that’s a lot of primaries.” If the primaries produce few or any upsets, it could mean the tea party’s influence has receded.

“Republicans are only one election and one candidate away from resurrection in 2016,” says Ayres. Time will tell.


By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, November 8, 2013

November 9, 2013 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Thank You For Your Service, Or Not”: Republicans Thank Veterans By Cutting Food Stamps

The next time I hear a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives thank a veteran for his or her service, I’ll hurl.

Veterans Day is on Monday. This year the holiday will come 10 days after cuts in federal food aid demanded by House Republicans go into effect. The cuts mean that 47 million hungry Americans, including almost 1 million veterans, will be even hungrier and more malnourished than they were last Veterans Day.

Mother’s Day won’t be much better because 80 percent, or 37 million, of the food aid recipients are women and children. And for the record, 10 percent or almost 5 million of the recipients are senior citizens.

I hope the House Republican budget guru, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is proud of his handiwork because it’s a callous way of thanking vets for their service. Before the cuts, the average veteran received a little more than $4 a day for food from the feds. Now vets will have to get by on even less. Don’t try this at home, because if you try to eat on $4 a day, you will be malnourished pretty quickly. The GOP went to the mat to get these cuts and now they want even more.

The Republican hostility towards vets is just the latest episode in the sad saga of vets under the GOP. George W. Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney both avoided serving in Vietnam when they were of draft age in the 1960’s. But that didn’t stop the deadly duo from sending more than 4,000 brave young Americans to their deaths in Iraq based on a lie about the existence of weapons of mass destruction there.

If wounded soldiers were lucky enough to make it out of Iraq alive, things didn’t get much better back home. During the Bush/Cheney administration, hospitals administered by the Veterans Administration were poorly staffed and inadequately equipped. The corridors of the “crown jewel” of the military hospital system, Walter Reed Hospital, were plagued with garbage and rats.

The tea party caucus in Congress forced $5 million a year in cuts for food aid. Why? Because the GOP shot down President Obama’s proposal to eliminate $6 billion in federal tax freebies to oil companies and firms that own corporate jets. While millionaires, billionaires and oil company executives fly the friendly federal skies, almost 1 million veterans are still in the desert, fighting hard. This time they struggle in a fight for food in the land of plenty.

Thank you for your service!


By: Brad Bannon, U. S. News and World Report, November 8, 2013

November 9, 2013 Posted by | SNAP, Veterans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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