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“An Unabashed Bigot”: Should We Go Picket Fred Phelps’ Funeral?

Now that the Rev. Fred Phelps is dead, decent people are being tested. The conundrum is, should we picket Phelps’ funeral?

Phelps, of course, was head of the Westboro Baptist Church – though it seemed less of a house of worship than a home for institutionalized hate – which is known for picketing funerals, especially those of fallen U.S. soldiers. Was he antiwar, and protesting the deaths (or service) of members of the military who lost their lives in war? Oh, no – there was not even the pretense of behaving badly in the name of advocating for a more peaceful world. Phelps was an unabashed bigot – and in his mind, according to the church’s own website, God was punishing soldiers and basically all of America for the nation’s increasing acceptance of its gay and lesbian citizens. Phelps and his cohorts picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man beaten to death because he was gay; the group picketed the funerals of Elizabeth Edwards (who surely went through enough stress in life) and of Michael Jackson.

But it was the military funeral demonstrations that were perhaps the most galling. There were families, understandably distraught over the loss of (often) very young people who died in the line of duty, and all Phelps could see were the rightful victims of God’s wrath. The picketers would carry signs saying “God Hates Fags,” among other appalling epithets.

The Supreme Court ruled that the picketing – in the case of a military funeral, at least – was acceptable under First Amendment tenets. It wasn’t an endorsement of the harassment (and it was, indeed, harassment), but a statement that we don’t quiet people who want to be heard in this country, no matter how offensive their views are.

It would be tempting to turn that concept back on Phelps and whatever loved ones he might have. It might feel satisfying to disrupt his own funeral, carrying signs that say “God, and people of faith, and people who have no religion at all, hate bigots.” It might be cathartic for people who believe in Hell to discuss openly, in front of mourners, what kind of accommodations Phelps will have in eternal fire. Phelps refused to let gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people live lives of dignity; he refused to let service members be mourned and buried with honor, and he interfered with the basic right of human beings to say peaceful good-byes to those they have lost. Why should he be given any of those considerations now?

The answer is because Phelps is dead, and with him, hopefully, is some of the poison he distributed. Behaving decently isn’t about the impact on people who may or may not deserve our decency. It is a practice that by definition must be exercised without discrimination. The reason we should not picket career hater Fred Phelps’ funeral is simple: because we are not Fred Phelps. We need not mourn his death. But neither must we endorse his bigoted and destructive tactics by continuing his tactics.


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, March 21, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Bigotry | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Suspending Preschoolers?: Troubling Pattern Of Zero-Tolerance School Policies That Disproportionately Impact Minority Students

There’s nothing especially surprising about the notion that some kids will get into trouble and face school suspensions. But the fact that in the United States, thousands of preschoolers get suspended, and the pattern disproportionately affects African-American children, is very surprising, indeed.

A staggering new report released by the Department of Education and the Justice Department on Friday highlights a troubling pattern of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that disproportionately impact minority students in general, but also trickle down to the nation’s youngest students.

Overzealous enforcement of school discipline policies and all of the negative outcomes associated with them are often framed around older children and middle and high school students, but the government’s report shows just how deeply the disparities extend.

The entirety of the report is online here.

“This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain,” U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said this morning. “In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed.”

Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, told the AP, “I think most people would be shocked that those numbers would be true in preschool, because we think of 4- and 5-years-olds as being innocent.”

“Shocked” is certainly the right word. Trymaine Lee’s report included this remarkable statistic: “While black children represent only 18% of preschool enrollment nationally, they make up 42% of students suspended once and nearly half of students who are suspended more than once.”

Let’s also not overlook the consequences of such punitive measures.

Jamelle Bouie had a good piece on this.

Suspensions lead to more absences, as students become disconnected from the school. In one study of 180,000 Florida students, researchers found that just one suspension in ninth grade can drastically reduce a student’s chance of graduating in four years. What’s more – compared to their white peers – black teenagers are more likely to be stopped by the police and arrested for drug possession, despite similar rates of drug use.

When you put all of this together, you have a world where African American youth – boys and girls – have vastly higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison…. In other words, we have a status quo that’s nearly designed to deliver the worst outcomes to African American students.

Good for Duncan and the Department of Education for shining a light on the problem. Now it’s time for educators to address these policies in practical, sensible ways.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 22, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Education, Public Schools | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Showing Why The Law Is Working”: The Koch Brothers Are Accidentally Advertising The Benefits Of Obamacare

Some new advertisements attacking the Affordable Care Act actually show why the law is working.

The ads are running in Colorado and Louisiana, two states where incumbent Democratic senators face difficult reelection fights. They come from Americans for Prosperity, the conservative organization backed by the Koch Brothers. And in the spots, a woman makes some fairly sweeping claims about how Obamacare is hurting average Americans: “Millions of people have lost their health insurance, millions of people can’t see their own doctors, and millions are paying more and getting less.”

The statements leave out critical context, as Politifact has observed. But the interesting thing about the ads is their style. The narrator isn’t claiming these things happened to her or, for that matter, to any particular person. It’s all very broad and unspecific.

That’s a change and it’s probably because so few “Obama-scare” stories have held up to media scrutiny. Remember “Bette in Spokane”? House Republicans claimed she had to pay twice as much for her new coverage. Reporter David Wasson, a local reporter with the Spokesman-Review, tracked her down and determined that Bette could actually save money if she bought Obamacare coverage on Washington state’s online marketplace. Then there was Whitney Johnson, a 26-year-old with multiple sclerosis, who claimed that she’d have to pay $1,000 a month for her new insurance in Texas. That didn’t sit quite right with journalist and policy expert Maggie Mahar. Mahar dug into the details and, in an article for, revealed that Johnson had actually found coverage for about $350 a month—what Johnson had been paying previously. Maybe the best-known story is the one of Julie Boonstra, a Michigan cancer patient who said that her new insurance policy was “unaffordable.” A series of reporters, first at the Washington Post and then at the Detroit News, determined that Boonstra is probably saving money because of Obamacare—all while keeping the physicians who provide her cancer care.

The conservatives’ struggle to find more airtight stories might seem mystifying, given that there’s no shortage of people with real and serious complaints about the Affordable Care Act. Quite a few Americans, probably numbering in the low millions, lost their old policies and are now paying more for replacements—usually because the old plans lacked benefits like maternity and mental health or because insurers can no longer avoid the sickest and most expensive beneficiaries. You’ve read about some of those people in these pages. These people are not happy and it’s easy to see why: The president and his allies promised that everybody who liked their olds plans could keep them. But, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik has observed, these stories inevitably have a lot of nuance. These are people who, almost by definition, are healthy enough to have gotten cheap insurance before or make enough money that they don’t qualify for the Affordable Care Act’s insurance discounts. That makes their tales less dramatic.

A better subject for future conservative advertisements might be people with serious, even life-threatening diseases who need access to very specific specialists or hospitals—and are now having difficulty, because their new plans have very narrow networks of providers. But even these stories have mitigating circumstances that media attention would reveal. Most of these people can find their way to comparable, albeit different, doctors and hospitals—and at least some can keep the old ones if they’re able and willing to pay more for it. Also, this kind of thing was a problem long before Obamacare came along. And that’s not to mention the fact that, previously, many of these people lived in fear of losing their insurance altogether.

In short, these stories may generate sympathy but they are rarely the stuff of tragedy. And that’s because of the protections Obamacare provides—which is to say, the very things that Koch-funded right-wingers want to gut.

After all, it’s Obamacare that sets a minimum standard for insurance, so that all policies include comprehensive benefits and set limits on out-of-pocket spending. It’s Obamacare that puts coverage within financial reach of many more people than before, by offering those subsidies and then, for some people, reducing out-of-pocket expenses even more. In the old days, it wasn’t so hard to find tear-jerker anecdotes: People without insurance or with inadequate insurance were filing for bankruptcy, losing their homes, and missing out on essential medicine. Now those stories are less common and, for the most part, they are among people who had these same problems previously. Telling the stories of these people would be a rationale for expanding the Affordable Care Act, not repealing it.

At some point, conservatives will find some tragic stories that are real. It’s a big country, and a complex law, and there are bound to be a few people for whom the new changes work out really badly. But there are also good news stories—lots of them. And while those stories inevitably have complications of their own, some are pretty dramatic. Democrats may not have figured out the politics of Obamacare. But it looks increasingly like they got the policy right.


By: Jonathan Cohn, The New Republic, March 21, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Koch Brothers, Obamacare | , , , , | Leave a comment

“The New Tribalism”: Not That Different From What’s Happening In The Rest Of The World

We are witnessing a reversion to tribalism around the world, away from nation states. The same pattern can be seen even in America – especially in American politics.

Before the rise of the nation-state, between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, the world was mostly tribal. Tribes were united by language, religion, blood, and belief. They feared other tribes and often warred against them. Kings and emperors imposed temporary truces, at most.

But in the past three hundred years the idea of nationhood took root in most of the world. Members of tribes started to become citizens, viewing themselves as a single people with patriotic sentiments and duties toward their homeland. Although nationalism never fully supplanted tribalism in some former colonial territories, the transition from tribe to nation was mostly completed by the mid twentieth century.

Over the last several decades, though, technology has whittled away the underpinnings of the nation state. National economies have become so intertwined that economic security depends less on national armies than on financial transactions around the world. Global corporations play nations off against each other to get the best deals on taxes and regulations.

News and images move so easily across borders that attitudes and aspirations are no longer especially national. Cyber-weapons, no longer the exclusive province of national governments, can originate in a hacker’s garage.

Nations are becoming less relevant in a world where everyone and everything is interconnected. The connections that matter most are again becoming more personal. Religious beliefs and affiliations, the nuances of one’s own language and culture, the daily realities of class, and the extensions of one’s family and its values – all are providing people with ever greater senses of identity.

The nation state, meanwhile, is coming apart. A single Europe – which seemed within reach a few years ago – is now succumbing to the centrifugal forces of its different languages and cultures. The Soviet Union is gone, replaced by nations split along tribal lines. Vladimir Putin can’t easily annex the whole of Ukraine, only the Russian-speaking part. The Balkans have been Balkanized.

Separatist movements have broken out all over — Czechs separating from Slovaks; Kurds wanting to separate from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; even the Scots seeking separation from England.

The turmoil now consuming much of the Middle East stems less from democratic movements trying to topple dictatorships than from ancient tribal conflicts between the two major denominations of Isam – Sunni and Shia.

And what about America? The world’s “melting pot” is changing color. Between the 2000 and 2010 census the share of the U.S. population calling itself white dropped from 69 to 64 percent, and more than half of the nation’s population growth came from Hispanics.

It’s also becoming more divided by economic class. Increasingly, the rich seem to inhabit a different country than the rest.

But America’s new tribalism can be seen most distinctly in its politics. Nowadays the members of one tribe (calling themselves liberals, progressives, and Democrats) hold sharply different views and values than the members of the other (conservatives, Tea Partiers, and Republicans).

Each tribe has contrasting ideas about rights and freedoms (for liberals, reproductive rights and equal marriage rights; for conservatives, the right to own a gun and do what you want with your property).

Each has its own totems (social insurance versus smaller government) and taboos (cutting entitlements or raising taxes). Each, its own demons (the Tea Party and Ted Cruz; the Affordable Care Act and Barack Obama); its own version of truth (one believes in climate change and evolution; the other doesn’t); and its own media that confirm its beliefs.

The tribes even look different. One is becoming blacker, browner, and more feminine. The other, whiter and more male. (Only 2 percent of Mitt Romney’s voters were African-American, for example.)

Each tribe is headed by rival warlords whose fighting has almost brought the national government in Washington to a halt. Increasingly, the two tribes live separately in their own regions – blue or red state, coastal or mid-section, urban or rural – with state or local governments reflecting their contrasting values.

I’m not making a claim of moral equivalence. Personally, I think the Republican right has gone off the deep end, and if polls are to be believed a majority of Americans agree with me.

But the fact is, the two tribes are pulling America apart, often putting tribal goals over the national interest – which is not that different from what’s happening in the rest of the world.


By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, March 23, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Blatant Violation Of Civil Rights”: When ‘Religious Liberty’ Was Used To Deny All Health Care To Women And Not Just Birth Control

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear Hobby Lobby’s and Conestoga Wood Specialties’ claims that they should be exempt from their legal obligations to provide a full range of health coverage — in this case, contraceptive care for women — because they object to providing this coverage on religious grounds. Yet, for women who worked for a California private school in the 1980s, this lawsuit must feel like déjà vu. Nearly three decades ago, the Fremont Christian School claimed a similar right to deny health coverage to its female employees, citing its religious beliefs as justification for doing so. Fremont Christian’s case does bear one important difference from Hobby Lobby’s, however, they did not just want to deny birth control to their employees — they wanted to deny all health coverage to many of the women in their employ.

Fremont was owned by a church which claimed that “in any marriage, the husband is the head of the household and is required to provide for that household.” Because of this belief, they had a very unusual compensation package for their employees — though Fremont offered a health plan to its workers, the plan was only available to “heads of households” which Fremont interpreted to mean single people or married men. When a woman became married, she was to rely on her husband for health care.

(In what Fremont described as an “act of Christian charity,” there was an exemption to this rule. A married woman could receive health benefits if “the husband is incapable of providing for his family, by virtue of non-working student status, or illness” though the school also emphasized that “the husband is still scripturally the head of the household.”)

Offering one set of employee benefits to men and a different, inferior package to women is a blatant violation of federal civil rights law, which prohibits employers from “discriminat[ing] against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” While Fremont claimed that their religious liberty gave them a trump card, a federal appeals court disagreed. “Congress’ purpose to end discrimination,” the court explained, “is equally if not more compelling than other interests that have been held to justify legislation that burdened the exercise of religious convictions.”

So could a victory for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cause the courts to rethink Fremont Christian? Probably not. Society’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination against women is widely accepted, even by conservative judges, and Fremont Christian is an extreme case. Nevertheless there is reason to be concerned about what happens with religious employers who push the envelope only slightly less than Fremont Christian School did.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the “First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” But a decision in Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood’s favor would place courts in the awkward position of picking and choosing among religious faiths. What happens to sects of the Jehovah’s Witness faith, who have religious objections to blood transfusions? Or to faiths that object to certain vaccines? Or to Scientologists who object to psychiatry? Or to Christian Scientists who object to modern medical science altogether?

If Hobby Lobby wins, are these faiths now empowered to deny health coverage to their employees as well? And if not, why not? If the Court rules in Hobby Lobby’s favor, it will either need to abandon its longstanding neutrality among religions, or it will need to allow every sect to exempt itself from health coverage laws that it does not want to follow — including, potentially, sects like the one in Fremont Christian. Moreover, Hobby Lobby’s brief argues that any law burdening an employer’s religious exercise must survive “the most demanding test known to constitutional law.” That is not a good position to be in if your employer objects to blood transfusions or mental health care.

Although there is a superficial basis for Hobby Lobby’s argument, they are asking the Court for a massive shift in the law. For decades, the Supreme Court has respected the principle that one person’s religious liberty stops at another person’s body — and this is especially true in the business context. As the Court explained in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” If the law were otherwise, Lee warned, employers could “impose” their “religious faith on [their] employees.”

Any decision favoring Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood will have to drive a massive hole through Lee. The essence of both businesses claims is that they should not have to follow the same health care laws that apply to all other businesses, and that employers should be able to limit their employees’ ability to obtain contraception because the employer objects to its use. But once Lee falls, it is not at all clear what rises in its place, or how easily courts are going to be able to draw a distinction between relatively narrow claims like Hobby Lobby’s and sweeping attempts to deny health care like Fremont Christian’s — not to mention the many grey areas in between.


By: Ian Millhiser, Think Progress, March 23, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Women's Health | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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