Tag Archives: Morality and Politics

Monday’s Mtg: What is religion’s proper role in U.S. politics?

We haven’t done a meeting on religion in a while, so I thought a topic on religion’s role in politics would make for a nice, wide-ranging discussion. It also gives us a partial reprieve from the constant bombardment of Trump Administration news.  (Partial because he is rolling out many policies that are favorites of the religious Right and that could alter the role of organized religion in politics in substantial ways.)

Obviously, for lots of reasons religion has always been very intimate with politics in the United States and is going to stay that way. Almost two-thirds of Americans say religion is either important or very important in their daily lives. By placing limits on any particular sect’s political power, the 1st Amendment arguably encourages healthy competition among religious POVs for political influence. Our high (until now!) immigration levels ensure religion stays popular and vibrant. Voters are going to keep rewarding politicians that affirm their piety and justify policies in religious terms, and people of faith will keep boldly organizing to see their values represented in politics.

Still, might this be changing in the 21st century? As you know secularism is on the rise, especially among young Americans. About one in five U.S. adults say religion is not important to them, a three-fold increase in just 20 years. Public support for explicitly faith-based politics/policies has been trending (very slowly) downward. The religious Right is not what it used to be, and the religious Left never seems to organize effectively.

On the other hand, religious conservatives are the foot soldiers of the Republican Party. They voted in droves for Donald Trump and are about to be rewarded handsomely for helping to put the GOP in complete control of the federal government and of 33 state governments. Trump’s outrages may be energizing religious progressives. They are especially outraged over his immigration policies and – maybe – they can unite to oppose the coming large cuts to the social safety net.

The following discussion questions are among the things we could discuss on Monday. I will start us off by summarizing the major changes Trump is making to appease the religious Right. Some are big deals. Then, we can debate any of my discussion questions or anything else related to the role religion does or should play in our political system.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Public: What role does religion play in forming Americans’ political beliefs and influencing their votes and political participation? à What role “should” it play? à Is religion’s influence over our politics waxing or waning?
  2. Partisans: How powerful and comparable are the religious Right and Left these days?
  3. Politicians & Policies: How big a role does religion play in politicians’ decision-making and policymaking?
  4. Issues: What are big current issues re
    1. Free exercise / religious liberty?
    2. Govt establishment of / support for religion?
    3. Discrimination against, for, or by religious Americans?
    4. Specific policy areas; e.g., repro rights, health care, immigration, education, foreign policy?
  5. Future: Will religion’s role in our politics decline or increase? Why/so what?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

The Public, religion, and politics –

Religious Right and Left movements –

Trump and hot issues –

NEXT WEEK: Is U.S. global leadership collapsing?

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Monday’s Mtg: Will America’s Death Penalty Fade Away? (inc. Props. 62 and 66)

On November 8, Californians may abolish the state’s death penalty. Proposition 62 would ban capital punishment outright, including retroactively by converting all 746 prisoners on death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If Prop. 62 passes, we would become the 21th state to ban capital punishment outright. Four other states have governor-issued moratoria on executions.

But, it’s not a done deal in CA. I have not checked how 62 is polling yet.  But, a similar proposition failed in 2012, although by just a 52-48 margin. Also, death penalty proponents thought of a clever tactic this time around. They qualified a rival proposition, Prop. 66, to address the worst procedural problems in our state’s death penalty process. By increasing the number of defense lawyers eligible to represent death row inmates and reducing the number of permissible appeals to help speed up the decades-long (and thus arguably cruel and unusual) process, Prop. 66’s backers hope to split the queasy-about-it-all vote and stop repeal.

How big a deal would death penalty abolition be in California? Yeah, it’s the Left Coast. But, some serious people are starting to argue that the USA is near a tipping point on the death penalty. The number of U.S. executions has been declining for years (only 28 in 2015). Botched ones keep making big news. The 2016 national Democratic Party platform called for outright abolition for the first time. Nebraska just became the first red state in modern times to end the death penalty. One major recent poll showed nationwide public support for the death penalty has fallen below 50% for the first time.

On the other hand, 51% does not magically change policy (okay, except on the ballot in CA). I’ve read that the Supreme Court has never had more than two justices willing to declare that capital punishment inherently violates the 8th Amendment’s cruel and unusual standard. Absent such a ruling, abolition will remain a state-by-state issue, guaranteeing the death penalty’s survival for a long, long time, at least in deep red states.

So, what will happen? Here are some questions we might want to get into on Monday evening, plus some background readings that focus on the chances of abolition. (We did a meeting on whether capital punishment should be abolished in 2014.)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Props: Discuss merits of Propositions 62 and 66.
  2. Arguments: Why do people support death penalty (e.g., vengeance, deterrence, religious belief, inertia)?   Why oppose it (morality/religious, cruel/unusual, racial disparity, cost…)?  Is there a difference between the reasons people cite and their real reasons? What would it take to change people’s minds? Your mind?
  3. Public & politicians: Why has public opinion changed? Will it keep moving against the death penalty? What might it take to reverse or accelerate that trend? What incentives do lawmakers have to take risks versus avoid this issue?
  4. Courts: Will SCOTUS ever ban the death penalty outright? On what basis? Or, will it keep slowly restricting its use (minors, intellectually-disabled, murders only, etc.)?
  5. Alternatives: Can the “machinery of death” (Justice Blackman’s phrase) ever be reformed enough to eliminate its inequities? Regardless, would either side ever be satisfied?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Oct 24): The other 15 ballot propositions, or maybe we’ll just read War and Peace instead.

Monday’s Mtg: Do Government Anti-Poverty Programs Work?

This month marks the 20th anniversary of federal welfare reform. The 1996 law drastically limited assistance under the U.S. govt’s largest welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Since then, a lot of other changes have been made to our anti-poverty safety net. Yes, TANF was gutted, but other programs have been created or expanded to make up the slack, and the whole system is now better targeted to incentive work and to reach the truly needy.

Still, perhaps welfare reform’s main accomplishment was political. It de-weaponized welfare as a high-profile, partisan issue in American politics. Rising poverty and inequality levels may bring it back, but it hasn’t yet. And if it ever does, most Americans will be just as easy to manipulate as before because few of us know anything at all about this part of government. For example, did you know that

  • The biggest and most effective ant-poverty programs by far are Social Security and Medicare?
  • Govt spending per poor American has gone up in recent years – not down as most progressives think?
  • Benefit levels are pretty paltry, and the biggest poverty programs do incentive work – contrary to what most conservatives think?

Given these and many more public misconceptions, I thought it might behoove us to devote an evening to taking a big picture look at how the government combats poverty in America and how effective it is.

I am a bit pressed for time this week (inc. finding you good, analytical links). Here are some discussion questions I will use to guide our meeting on Monday, and some background readings on anti-poverty programs and their effectiveness. My opening remarks will describe the largest federal and state govt anti-poverty programs and make a few points on the issue of effectiveness.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What are the main federal/state anti-poverty programs? How much do they spend and who gets benefits?
  2. What is their purpose? How is aid targeted and conditioned? Temporary v. permanent help? Cash v. non-cash benefits?   “Making work pay” v. helping non-working poor?
  3. (BTW: Why are there so many poor Americans, anyway?)
  4. Effectiveness at…
    1. Reducing poverty and helping the helpless?
    2. Targeting the “right” people.
    3. Incentivizing work?
    4. Keeping social cohesion.
  5. Problems with…
    1. High program costs.
    2. Dis-incentivizing work.
    3. Subsidizing low-wage employers, like Wal-Mart.
    4. Minimizing fraud and abuse.
  6. Past and future:
    1. Did welfare reform “work?” For whom?
    2. Future alternatives to / expansions of poverty programs.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

How much do we actually spend reducing poverty?

  • It depends what you count as “welfare” and exaggeration is common. Recommended.
  • A conservative group counts up the total.
  • [Update: Is entitlement spending for lazy people growing out of control?  No, it is not: 91% of entitlement spending goes to the elderly (50%), the disabled (20%), or the working poor (20%).  Only 9% goes to non-working, non-disabled adults.]

Impact of anti-poverty programs –

Conservative POV –

20 years after welfare reform:

Worldwide Poverty –

Next Week (Sept 5):  Will President Obama’s Achievements Endure?

 

Monday’s Mtg: How Far Left Will the Democratic Party Move?

Well, the Democrats seem united, and with a clear strategy, too. As you know, it’s pretty typical for a party’s presidential nominee to tack to the center after the convention. But, it seems the Dems really are going to try to take advantage of the GOP nominating a nut job for president by moving both leftward and rightward at the same time.

As everybody knows, Bernie Sanders’ surprising success resulted in a party platform that is farther to the left than it has been in living memory. As we’ll discuss on Monday, it’s generational changeover that are driving this bus. Millennials are very liberal (or just incoherent?), on both social and economic issues. The Republican Party has no idea how to appeal to young people and the Dems are trying to cement their loyalty for a generation.

But, the Dem convention made it crystal clear (in that showy and repetitive way party conventions do) that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party wants to expand the Obama coalition, not just replicate it. They are making a play to peel off college-educated White moderate voters from the GOP, a group that’s been loyal to the latter since roughly the Reagan era. If they can pull it off over a few back-to-back elections, the Democrats will have pulled off a rare, historic political realignment that could last decades.

Except…how can the Democrats go in both directions at once? Even if they do so successfully this electoral cycle, can it last? Can the Dems satisfy the growing progressive sentiments of Democratic voters and pick off the low hanging fruit of an increasingly extremist GOP without flying apart from the internal contradictions?

I suggest we grope for tentative answers to these questions the same basic way we did last week when we discussed the future of the Republican Party. In brief opening remarks, I will try to lay out how the basic building blocks of the Democratic Party are changing: Its leadership, institutions, and voting blocs. The “emerging Democratic majority” that was confidently predicted in a well-known 1999 book hasn’t actually emerged in a stable form. But, it might, helped along in the near-term by Trump and in the longer-term by other factors that created Trump (last week’s discussion) and within the Democratic Party (this week’s).

Obviously, the future is too contingent to predict with much confidence. But, I think we can have another great discussion like the one we had picking over the GOP’s bleached bones last week.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What does “progressive” mean right now? Policies: Econ + social issues? Rhetoric? Abstract beliefs like size/reach of govt? Inclusiveness? Exclusiveness?
    –> Is Left/Right too simple a way to describe our politics, or at least many voters?
  2. How liberal are Dem right now, in terms of their (1) elected officials and (2) voters? Has the Party really been moving rapidly leftwards recently?
  3. If so (or if not), why? Leaders, institutions, voters, events?
  4. Is it permanent?
    –>  Will the forces moving Dems leftwards last? Will new trends emerge?
    –>   What about countervailing forces, including the GOP response?
    –>  If Dem coalition gets bigger, must it get more centrist?
  5. Ought: What do you think the Democrats should do (morally + strategically)?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Movement leftwards so far –

  • On economics, both Obama and Dem electorate have moved left.
  • Conservative POV: Really, really left on everything.
  • Wrong. As this graph shows, Dem elected officials even in the House have moved only a little left since 1980. It is House Republicans that moved far to the right.

The future Democratic Party will be…

Next Week (Aug 8):  Is Obamacare working?  What comes next?

Monday’s Mtg: When Is War Justified?

It’s a particularly apt time for us to discuss the moral justifications for war. Monday is Memorial Day, sure, and for several years we have been agonizing over whether there is a moral imperative to intervene in Syria’s civil war and/or use U.S. ground troops to destroy ISIS.

But, several recent developments sweeten the pot for us.  Today (Friday) President Obama visited Hiroshima, and he  offered no apology for the atomic bombs.  Just last month the Catholic Church decided to formally abandon (wow) its long-standing Catholic Just War Doctrine after a 3-day meeting convened by Pope Francis.  That doctrine lays out the conditions under which a war may be started and conducted and still be moral. Francis is said to be working on a new encyclical on war and violence which will bring doctrine “closer to Christ’s teachings.”  And, of course, on any given day Donald Trump tells cheering crowds that he would revive torture, murder terrorists’ families, and just annihilate all of our enemies without regard to the moral costs to innocents or to us.

The exact details in Just War Theory are, I figure, up to Catholics to decide for themselves. But, I thought the Just War Doctrine would serve as a nice stepping off point to explore the moral justifications of war more generally because the moral questions the Doctrine seeks to answer are the same ones we wrestle with any time we contemplate use of military force.  As was noted when we debated the causes of modern wars last year, armed conflict in the 21st century is evolving in some important ways. I ask you: Do the moral justifications for war need to evolve with it, to better reflect a new century of stateless terrorist networks, hybrid revolutionary-terrorist-criminal group like ISIS, failed states, cyber attacks, and drones?

Below are some readings on Just War philosophy and these emerging issues in war and morality.  I’ll see you all on Memorial Day evening. A new topic list for June – September will be available.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Catholics: What is Catholic Just War Doctrine? What moral questions does it address and when does it say war can be a moral act?
  2. Laws: How do the international Laws of War and U.S. law permit wars to be started and fought?
  3. Presidents: How did Presidents Obama and George W. Bush do so? How different? What is Hillary’s/Trump’s POV?
  4. Public: Do Americans agree on the moral justifications for waging and conducting wars and their aftermaths? Do conservatives and progressives really disagree much?  Why do they cheer Trump’s bloodthirsty remarks?
  5. You: When do you think war is justified? Self defense only? Defend our allies? Preemptive and preventive war? Stop nuclear proliferation. Humanitarian intervention?  What’s fair in drone use, cyber defense/offense, Gitmo, torture, etc.
  6. 21st century: Do political changes (like terror networks and failed states) and technological developments (like cyber warfare and drones) change the moral calculus / moral limits on war?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

CivCon Mtgs on War:  What causes modern warsISISDid we have to drop the bombs on Japan?

Just War Theory basics:

  • An expert explains it in 2012 at NYT: Part 1 and Part Two. Recommended
    Or, see this 2015 Wash Post explainer: One. Recommended.
  • Much more detail on just war philosophy, if you want it.

Obama and just wars:

  • Obama’s POV on when war is morally justified. Recommended.
  • The Obama Doctrine: An amazingly candid (but optional very long) interview with Obama 3/16 at Atlantic Monthly.

Emerging Issues:

Next Week: Are there better ways to police the police?

 

Monday’s Mtg: From Bundy to Black Lives – When Is Civil Disobedience Justified?

Breaking the law in order to highlight its injustice (one, but not the only, definition of civil disobedience) is all around us these days. In our crowded media environment, many individual acts or organized campaigns of civil disobedience don’t break through to the mass media. But, some that did in a big way are:

  • Black Lives Matter;
  • Occupy Wall Street;
  • Protestors disrupting Donald Trump rallies;
  • Cliven Bundy, et. al., facing down authorities in Nevada and Oregon to protest federal govt land policies;
  • Local government officials (like Kim Davis in Kentucky) refusing to sign same sex marriage licenses;
  • Edward Snowden leaking classified information on NSA eavesdropping programs.

Some of thee efforts involved many legal as well as illegal acts, of course, and some have achieved a lot more than just publicity. Black Lives Matter has had a major impact on the Democratic presidential primary and renewed efforts to reform policing. (We will discuss police reform and oversight on June 8.) The anti-Trump protestors have influenced the Republican presidential primary process, just maybe not in the way they intended. Others either fizzled out (Bundy) or just need more time to grow support (Snowden, perhaps).

The perpetrators of all of these illegal acts done for a higher purpose routinely cite as their inspirations famous civil disobedience actions of the past by abolitionists, civil and women’s rights activists, etc.   As the author of one recent book on the subject puts it, civil disobedience is an American Tradition.

Now, I believe we may be entering a new era of political activism. Why is a subject for another days – many, actually.  But I see this new era as arising from widespread public discontent with our political system and parties, income stagnation, and rapid demographic and cultural change. I think civil disobedience will play a heightened role in our politics because of the Internet and social media.  Even if I’m wrong, the recent big protest movements cited above are well worth a meeting.

My idea here is for us to see if we can identify some universal principles on when civil disobedience might be morally and politically justifiable. We’ll look to our own values and our current political and social environment, sure. But we also can use our history, others’ histories (e.g., from Gandhi all the way to terrorism!), religion, and philosophy. The latter two have been arguing about when civil disobedience is and is not justified for generations. There are many interesting questions we can pose. For example…

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. DEFINITION: What is “civil disobedience [CD]?” How does it differ from passive resistance or non-cooperation?
    a.  Must CD be non-violent? What is non-violence, anyway?
    b.  When does CD become something else, like insurrection?
  2. CURRENT: What major CD movements/acts are occurring right now?
    a.  How have they been justified by their perpetrators?
    b.  Are they helping or hindering budding political movements?
  3. PAST: Are there any major lessons from U.S. history on when civil disobedience is justified? Do all Americans agree on them?
    a. Has it all depended on the object of the disobedience; i.e., on the morality of the goal? What else has mattered?
    b. Has CD ever worked by itself, unattached to a big political movement?
  4. RELIGION and PHILOSOPHY: What do they say about civil disobedience? When is it justified and within what limits?
  5. LAW/GOVT/YOU/ME: Should the law treat acts of civil disobedience differently from ordinary law-breaking?
    a.  What about when there is no democracy or no way to redress grievances?
    b. Is CD ever morally or religiously required?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Movements involving civil disobedience [CD]:

Justifications:

  • MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963. Highly recommended because notice how he justifies taking direct action.
  • Still, civil disobedience involves many thorny issues. Recommended.
  • Civil disobedience in philosophy. A hard read from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Problem with + limits to civil disobedience:

Building grass roots political movements

Next Week: Thomas Jefferson and His Legacy.  Jim Z. will guide us!

Monday’s (3/27/16) Mtg: Is Political Correctness a Real Problem?

Debating the meaning and importance of “political correctness” (PC) is James’ idea. It’s well-timed. Conservatives are practically obsessed with it these days. When they’re not beating up on each other, all the remaining GOP presidential candidates routinely accuse Democrats of failing to honestly face the true causes and culprits of our national problems out of fear of offending someone. Usually that someone is either minorities, foreigners, or the Democrats’ own PC posse.

This is the accusation even on terrorism. Donald Trump: “We’re losing the war on terror because of political correctness.” Ted Cruz, as part of his post-Belgium call to have U.S. law enforcement patrol “Muslim neighborhoods,” said “We need a president who sets aside political correctness [and] tries to deny this enemy exists out of a combination of political correctness and fear. The days of the United States voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we can be are at an end.” I could scare up dozens of similar quotes on most major political topics. I really believe Republicans will try to make political correctness and its allegedly grip on Democrats the main theme of the entire 2016 election. Not kidding.

Still, I think (some) accusations of being politically correct deserve more of a response than sarcasm. Just because the GOP is abusing the term does not mean there is no such thing as PC or that it isn’t a problem – at least in some contexts. A number of progressive commentators have expressed concern about the chilling effects of political correctness on intra-Party debates. President Obama has called out political correctness on college campuses as an impediment to honest, inclusive debate. Regular people complain about PC, too, not just bigots and professional political rabble rousers.

To be sure, other progressives have pushed back hard on the notion that leftists have hijacked honest political dialogue for any reason, much less petty ones. I will take a little time to explain their arguments in my opening remarks Monday night. They are important because there are much larger issues here than just peer pressure over nouns and adjectives. Language is a tool of power, often invisibly so. The terminology we use and feel constrained not to use when we talk about politics or culture (or rights of justice) tends to reflect who has power and who doesn’t. To me, the issue of power is just one of many subterranean aspects of our escalating political correctness war – and nt all of them favor the progressive POV. If we are to take both sides of this conflict seriously (they sure take themselves seriously), then we need to explore these larger issues percolating below the surface.

In my opening, I’ll try to

  1. Explain the traditional meaning(s) of political correctness and, to the extent I grok it, the conservative arguments as to why it’s such a big problem; and
  2. Briefly lay out the arguments people on the Left use to argue that PC is just a slur and an excuse to be rude or biased.

I’m really looking forward to hearing what you all think of this issue.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What has being “political correctness” traditionally meant? Who/what was the label directed at and what actual problems were attributed to it?
  2. CONS:
    1. How do conservatives use the term today? What specifically do they say the term means and what problems do they say it causes?
    2. Do they have a point? Are progressives too quick to argue by accusing others of bad faith or bigotry?
    3. Why is fighting PC so urgent to the Right? Which individuals, institutions, and events are driving this obsession?  Root causes?
  3. LIBS WHO AGREE:
    1. Why do some progressives agree that PC is out of hand?
    2. Who do they say is being harmed by it and how much?
  4. IN DEFENSE OF PC:
    1. Politeness: Is being PC benign, mostly an insistence on respecting people?
    2. Power: Is PC really about trying to broaden our dialogue by dropping labels that bias discussion and perpetuate some peoples’ power and privilege? Are growing diversity and minority power in U.S. society the real story here?
    3. Past: Is PC really worse today and on the Left? Don’t both sides police rhetoric and accuse each other of bad faith?
    4. Offense/defense: Is crying “PC” itself PC, an effort to silence/delegitimize critics? Is it a sword instead of a shield?
  5. ISSUES: Is there anything to the PC accusation conserving terrorism, illegela immigration, etc.?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is our legal system being privatized?

Monday’s Mtg (2/15/16):What Does “Socialism” Mean Today?

Socialism lives. In the United States. At least as an abstract idea. Bernie Sanders’ no-longer-quixotic presidential campaign seems to be reviving the label’s popularity almost single-handedly. “Socialism” was the most searched for word at the Mirriam-Webster website in 2015, and surveys show public approval of “socialism” is rising fast, especially among Millennials. Go, Bernie, I suppose. And, yet…

A couple of yets. First, Bernie’s version of socialism seems to be more like European-style Democratic social democracy than any of the old-style forms of socialism, in which the government or workers own the means of production. Second, he has yet to flesh out a lot of the details of his version of socialism. Abstract ideas are often more popular than their detailed policies/programs version. (See “conservatism.”) Also, Bernie’s socialism has not yet been subjected to the white hot flame of full on news media scrutiny – or to the supernova of GOP attacks.

Finally, socialism is still a dirty word to most Americans, especially older ones that vote a lot.  Perhaps it even deserves to be or, at least, so many Americans’ objections to a large expansion of government need to be taken seriously by progressives.  (FYI, at the last debate Bernie repeatedly dodged the question of how much he would expand government)

Before any of this extended combat happens, I thought it might be a good time for us to explore what socialism could mean in the 21st century. Bernie’s isn’t the only possible version of socialism, to say the least. Europe alone has 2-3 different varieties of social democracy, not just the Scandinavian model. Asia has its own successful models of what today’s American conservatives would pan as “socialism” in Korea, Taiwan, and (gulp) China. Some socialists still believe that unless concentrated private power is abolished all versions of socialism are just window dressing (see link).

I’m hoping we have a good turnout on Monday, so I will not prepare any lengthy opening remarks. I’ll probably just briefly summarize Bernie’s vision of socialism and briefly compare it to other social democratic systems around the world.

Many of you are big Bernie fans. I urge you to read the links below to make sure you know what he actually stands for and how it differs from the socialism many of us remember from an earlier time.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. THEN: What did socialism used to mean?
  2. NOW: What models of social democracy exist around the world today? How “socialist” are they?
  3. BERNIE: What does he mean by socialism? How does it really differ from
    –>  The policy consensus within the Democratic Party?
    –>  Hillary’s platform?
  4. WHY has “socialism” gained popularity in America? What do you think people think it means?
  5. HOW do American conservatives define socialism and why do they despise it?
    –>  Do they have a point?
  6. FUTURE: What version of socialism in the 21st century could”
    1. Work to solve USA’s problems?
    2. Be popular enough with the public to actually be enacted and endure?

OPTIONAL/SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Is our country’s safety really in danger?

 

Monday’s Mtg: Conservatives’ Religious Freedom of Conscience Movement and the Culture Wars

Happy Religious Freedom Day! January 16 commemorates the adoption in 1786 of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a pioneering law protecting religious faith and practice. Since then, the contours of and limits to religious liberty in our country have, like all other constitutional rights, evolved.

Since the at least the 1960s, state laws often have allowed people to claim an exemption from some secular laws in some circumstances based on their personal religious objection. Conscience clauses are common in education (opt-outs for vaccinations and sex education), health care (refusing to participate in abortions), and in other areas.

I had us discuss this topic in 2013 because conservatives had begun a political campaign to expand the scope of what they term ‘religious freedom” laws into new areas, like marriage equality and LGBT rights. I timed our meeting to coincide with oral arguments in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court case. In that case, the owners of a big craft chain store argued that their first amendment religious liberty included the right to disobey the Obamacare mandate to cover all effective forms of contraception in its employee health insurance plan.

A few months after we met, SCOTUS ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor. The Court’s reasoning was…innovative, to say the least. It said that the religious freedom of the companies’ owners extends through the corporate veil, all the way to the earned benefits of its employees. Hobby Lobby had the first amendment right, the Court said, to dictate which forms of contraception its health care plan would pay for, solely on the basis of its owners’ personal religious beliefs. Progressives immediately grew suspicious that SCOTUS had opened the door to new corporate abuses of power and/or new ways for conservatives to ignore law they didn’t like.

Don’t worry, said the Court. This ruling really is a narrow one. It applies only to “closely-held” companies and only to the specific forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby’s owners believed were immoral. If in the future other claimants tried to use this decision to make more outlandish religious claims – outlandish in the Court’s eyes, I guess – SCOTUS would not be receptive.

Well, guess what? In March 2016, SCOTUS will hear a new case in which a religious non-profit employer wants out of the Obamacare contraception mandate, too. The Court might use its ruling to open the religious conscience exemption door even wider – perhaps much wider. And it’s not just the Supreme Court. Since Hobby Lobby, congressional conservatives have introduced the First Amendment Defense Act and the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, both designed to protect conscientious religious objectors to federal LGBT laws. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio cosponsored both these bills and Donald Trump just said he would sign the latter. On the state level, GOP-controlled governments have tried to enact similar laws.

You see my motive for this topic revisit. Maybe all of these efforts to expand religious conscience laws to protect lost culture war battles will fade away or be contained by ether the courts or public opinion. (Maybe some are even sensible – we shouldn’t dismiss the whole idea of expanding conscience clauses out of hand, IMO). But, I doubt it. I think conservatives’ conscience clause/ religious freedom movement is major a new frontier of our 21st century culture wars.

On Monday, I’ll open our meeting with a little more info on what conservatives have planned in this area and a bit of the reasoning supporters and opponents use.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What is a religious conscience clause and what is its moral and constitutional justification? Historically, what were their limits?
  2. How did (or, did) the Hobby Lobby ruling change the limits of religious conscience?
  3. How do conservatives want to expand this part of the law? Do their ideas have merit?
  4. Is DavidG wrong: Are conservatives not going to keep the pedal to the metal on this issue?
  5. Are there other ways to split the baby on these tough moral questions; e.g., more federalism, or defining the limits to religious exemptions in a single, federal law?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Solutions to California’s Water Woes (yeah, yeah, it’s raining).

Monday’s Mtg: The Transgendered in America.

Transgendered Americans historically have been among the most marginalized and persecuted among us, and they still are. Yet, slowly, the country is waking up to the existence of transgendered (TG) people and some degree of acceptance is geminating in the mass culture. The actions of a few, high-profile celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox (the Orange Is the New Black actress) have helped to ease the process forward.

Politically, change is in the air too. President Obama’s Justice Department has interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to apply to TG-Americans. Obamacare basically bans discrimination in health insurance. The Pentagon will lift the ban on trans soldiers. The LGBT movement is taking TG rights seriously, including them in the broader struggle. I’ve read articles that say transgender equality is the next frontier of civil rights.

But, it’s a tough sell to millions of Americans. The transgendered are a small, little understood, and historically despised and feared group. Discrimination is widespread and not at all a social taboo in many parts of the country. Bathroom use seems to freak out some people, especially.

My goal for Monday’s meeting is pretty basic, since I do not know much about this subject myself: A little education. Plus maybe it would be useful to discuss how our society traditionally defines gender and the challenge that TG people pose to this definition. The idea that a person has the right to define for him/herself which gender he/she (rather than have it defined for them by the shape of their genitals and society) is the core moral question, is my understanding. I also would like to get into the politics of TG equality, especially in California. I believe our state has been a controversial pioneer in adding TG to anti-discrimination and public accommodation laws.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What does being transgender mean? What other terms are used these days to describe the spectrum of gender ID and sexuality?
  2. How many TG Americans are there, and where and how do they live?
  3. How bad is persecution? Why does it happen? Why does TGs’ existence bother so many people?
  4. How quickly are cultural norms of acceptance changing?
  5. What legal protections exist for the transgendered?  Are any of the political demands of the transgendered community unreasonable? What arguments are made in opposition other than just, “ew, it’s gross?”

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Why are so many people on govt disability programs?