Friday, February 14, 2014

Ministry of Religious Discrimination

Time for another reply to a recent bit of nonsense by Terry Hurlbut on his Conservative News and Views blog.

Actually, just about everything he writes on that site is nonsense, and there are better uses for time than trying to keep up, point-by-point, with the firehose of not-even-right posted there each week.  This one touches on issues I've been discussing with family lately, so I thought it was worth commenting on here.

The post in question touches on the imaginary "Silent war on religion" mentioned in a speech by Bobby Jindal, and in particular, whether institutions have a right to sidestep legal requirements, or to deny employment or service to customers, based on the religious beliefs of the owners.  I touched on this in a recent post about the Little Sisters of the Poor, but there are some additional considerations in what Jindal said.

To recap my points from the Little Sisters case, a nation that values individual privacy, liberty and freedom of religion should not allow any business or group to deny others equal treatment under the law over a religious principle, when the setting is not a place of worship.  

If you want to run a hospital or nursing home, even if that's part of your religious mission, you're engaged in a service that can be offered outside of the religious context.  If I want to receive Catholic Communion, then I have to go to a Catholic church and follow their principles to participate in something only that religion can provide.  If I need a nursing home for a family member, I can obtain that service without having to conform to a religious doctrine first.  Since there's nothing inherently religious in the nature of operating a hospital or nursing home, there's no justification for using a sponsoring group's religious constraints to deny legally-required benefits to employees of different faiths when the benefit has nothing to do with job performance.  The Little Sisters have no right to intrude on the privacy of their employees to cherry-pick birth control coverage as something to be denied when the law says otherwise.  They don't get to deny spousal health-care coverage for couples only married at city hall, even if this is considered adultery in the Catholic faith - where's the line to be drawn then?

Jindal mentions also mentions the pending Hobby Lobby case,  which is even weaker than the Little Sisters case because the owners are deeply religious, but not a religious organization.  The same principle applies - if you're running a secular business, then you have to comply with civil laws regardless of your personal religious beliefs.  Could a fundamentalist refuse to hire qualified women for open positions because their religious views consider a woman's place to be in the home raising children and serving the husband instead?  Can spousal benefits be denied to anyone who didn't get married in an approved religious ceremony?  Can I fire an employee (a "servant") for working a second job on the Sabbath when my business is closed, since that puts me in violation of the Fourth Commandment otherwise?  Most reasonable people would say no to these examples, but that's exactly what the principles of Hurlbut and Jindal allow.

Then you have the cases of bakeries and wedding  photographers who were found to be in violation of the law for refusing to accommodate customers when same-sex weddings were involved.  Once again, if you run a place of public accommodation, then you have to accommodate everyone equally under the law when they are asking you to perform the same services you offer to others.  If you're a devout Christian baker, then making a wedding cake for a divorced person remarrying for the second or third time, or a couple getting married outside the Church, is really making the couple an "adultery cake", per the direct policy of Jesus Christ.  You don't see bakers or wedding photographers pre-screening customers for religious compliance over adultery, so picking same-sex marriage as the "red line" for refusal of service is hypocritical, arbitrary, and yes, discriminatory.  It's not about religion, it's about prejudice.

A point made by Terry in his piece is that you can get around this separation of religion and business by focusing on the definition of "ministry", and he & Jindal cite a case where a religious school's dismissal of a teacher was upheld because teachers in a parochial school are considered agents of ministry. That argument only goes so far, though, no matter how much Terry would want to extend the concept.  If my fast-food restaurant prints Bible verses on the cups and napkins to "spread the faith", does that make the restaurant a ministry, and by extension, the cashiers and fry cooks are now ministers because they help support the enterprise?  I went to a parochial school for grades K-4, and church services & daily prayers were part of the experience because my parents chose that for me.  That's a lot different than running a place of public accommodation where you are obliged to serve whoever walks in the door equally regardless of their faith.

The people signing the Declaration of Independence were making a statement, so there was no problem with them mentioning religion in the document as was the custom of the time.  However, these same men were not to that far removed from times and places where the quality of life (or even your life itself) would be at risk depending on what colony you lived in and the religious practices of the people in power.  When the time came to actually draft the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, they enshrined freedom of religion as an individual right, not a group or government right.  That's why the one key mention of religion in the Constitution was to declare that there would be no religious test to hold Federal government office.  An atheist could be president if the voters will it, and that's exactly what the Founders intended for a nation where individual freedoms matter.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Bluster and Bunnyholes, Part 2

When I wrote the first post in this theme, I said that Part 2 would focus on Terry Hurlbut and his Conservative News and Views blog.  I'll get to that completely in the near future, but thought this would be a good time for a related sidebar.

Last week we had a much-hyped debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, with much written about it in the media and on any number of blogs & opinion sites.

Now Terry is the friend of a fellow creationist named Walt Brown, who developed something called the Hydroplate Theory to scientifically back up a strictly literal interpretation of the Genesis account. Dr. Brown has published his theories in book form, made them available online, and weighs in now and then on Creationsist matters through interviews with Terry on CNaV.

Following last week's debate, Terry put out the predictable review by Dr. Brown, who criticized Ken Ham for not using enough Hydroplate "science" to convincingly win over the Nye crowd in the debate.

The interview led to the inevitable repeat of Dr. Brown's written and phone-based "Debate Challenges", and this is where we get back to Bluster and Bunnyholes.

Dr. Brown likes to portray himself as a scientific maverick with ideas that are so radical they will never be seriously considered by mainstream science and given a fair hearing.  That's just a cop-out, and like so many others in Creationist circles, he's pretending that scientific truth can be debated into acceptance.  He's been asked to submit his work to peer-reviewed journals and let the scientific community work as it does with all proposals, conventional or radical.  He refuses to do this, and instead insists on debates, as if truth can be established by argument alone.

His debate proposals have the appearance of being sincere, conforming with good scientific discipline, and open to criticism, but when you get down to the specifics it's just a facade.  The specific conditions are controlled by contract, and a third party gets to edit the record.

That's not how science works, and Dr. Brown knows it.  He and Terry simply want to pretend that a process they control is the same thing as true independent review, and proudly declare that Dr. Brown's work must be solid because no one's dared to take him up on his challenge.

The answer to that point is simple. Anyone with the intelligence to discuss and properly evaluate scientific theories is smart enough to see when a game is being rigged, and wise enough not to take the bait.

The bluster is all on Dr. Brown's part - if he's willing to respond to written criticism in a strictly scientific debate format, how is that any different from the peer-review process, which allows him to thoroughly respond to any questions and challenges?  The Bunnyhole is where he runs when he knows he won't fare well in a forum where he can't control the conversation or the record, directly or indirectly.

If I'm wrong, Dr. Brown, then please show me the submission of your work to a peer-reviewed journal in mainstream science and I'll apologize here right away.

Little Sisters, Big Issues

This post is in response to an essay on the Conservative News and Views blog regarding the pending Supreme Court case with the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The short version is that RoseAnn Salanitri, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, believes that religious freedom in the USA includes the right of groups to claim that their religious principles justify overriding civil law, even when the group in question is not directly engaged in operating a place of worship.

The Little Sisters run a nursing home operation, and do not want the health care plans offered to their employees to include birth control coverage as required under the Affordable Care Act.  What makes their case interesting is that they're declining the option to apply for a direct-coverage waiver for this requirement, because they consider that anything short of prohibiting birth control coverage for their employees, directly or indirectly, is the same as condoning birth control.

The thought that the government is somehow forcing the Little Sisters to endorse contraception by not allowing them to block it as a covered benefit, paid by others, is what they regard as an imposition on their religious freedom.

Let's recap that, because it's important.  The Little Sisters believe that if you work for them in their nursing home, then they have the right as your employer to decide what is and isn't covered under your health insurance plan; it doesn't matter that the plan is run by a third party, it doesn't matter if there's no cost to them for the benefit to be covered, and it doesn't matter if the benefit is required by law.  If they object to the benefit on religious grounds, that is reason enough and anything else is religious persecution.

Ms. Salinitri picks up on this and takes it to the extreme.  If the Little Sisters don't prevail on this issue of "religious freedom", then we're heading down the slippery slope of Mt. Godwin to being hauled away to a concentration camp by anti-religious forces.


I wrote to Ms. Salinitri several weeks ago on this but never received a reply, so I'll put my thoughts out here for anyone else to reply to, including her.

Like RoseAnn, I see this as a clear issue of religious freedom, but from the exact opposite side in terms of whose religious freedom needs protection.  The Bill of Rights was focused on defining and protecting those rights at the personal level, not the group level, and when we're talking about a secular activity like operating a place of public accommodation the rights of the individual come first.

If we were talking about running a church or whether the Little Sisters could prohibit what members of their order can and cannot do, that's their right because the context is how they worship.  Running a nursing home is different - no matter how valuable the service is, it's still a secular service that can be provided by anyone regardless of faith.  Even if the religious mission of a groups drives "why" they run a business like a nursing home or hospital, the businesses themselves are not places of worship and being a member of that faith is not a condition of employment.

If you want to be a cook, janitor or bookkeeper at their nursing home they cannot refuse employment based your faith, along with your race or gender.  They aren't seeking to do that, but they are seeking to impose a faith-based denial of medical-plan benefits their business' employees are entitled to under U.S. law.

That approach is wrong for four reasons.
  • First, it is an unwarranted intrusion between an employer and the privacy & personal medical decisions of the employees, which have no bearing on the execution of the jobs they are being hired for.
  • Second, entities like the Little Sisters are not operating churches or similar places of worship, but are religious groups providing services that are essentially secular in nature.  
  • Third, the rules for when and how the tenets of a given faith should apply to medical coverage provisions are completely arbitrary, and can put the quality of medical care at risk.  Can a nursing home run by Jehovah's Witnesses forbid coverage for blood transfusions?  Can an employer specify whether you can give a hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate instructions?  What about conditions like ectopic pregnancies, where religious influences restrict treatment options in some countries?
  • Finally, there is a lack of consistency in the decision of the Little Sisters to object to the contraception provision of the ACA on religious grounds, while not making a similar issue of other behaviors even more clearly banned by their Catholic faith.  Frankly, this is just cherry-picking a single issue while ignoring others that have been and still are condoned.
Let's look at these issues in more depth.

Regarding privacy, to what degree should an employer be allowed to pry into your personal life, and the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship, as a condition of employment?  No one is forcing the Sisters themselves to use a given benefit, but they are passing judgment on the morals and lifestyles of their employees by assuming that the only medical use of contraception is for family planning.  I have one friend who uses the pill to control uterine cysts, and another who uses an IUD to stabilize the frequency & severity of her menstrual cycle.  Both of these women are happily married and have already had three children each, and are using these options for medical treatment rather than for family planning.  Why should they be denied coverage for these medical treatments in a health care plan that other women would be covered for under the law, when the only objection the Little Sisters have is an assumption about lifestyle?  Should an employee have to surrender her privacy to an employer to appeal denied coverage?

As for the second point, the Little Sisters are not running a church, and unlike their Order itself, they are not requiring one to be a devout, practicing Catholic as a condition for employment in their place of business.  If you don't have to be a devout Catholic to be a cook, janitor or bookkeeper at their facility, how is it not an infringement on the staff's freedom of religion to have the employer deny them a legal, covered healthcare benefit based on a religion they don't practice, when the coverage has no bearing on job performance and comes at no added cost to the employer?  This isn't about Hobby Lobby deciding that they won't be open on Sundays or that they won't sell Hanukkah decorations - those are legitimate business decisions related to the business itself.  The policy comes from Catholic nuns employing others who may not even be Catholic.  Denial of a legal benefit based on religion, when religion is not a condition of employment, is against the principles of the First Amendment.

As an extreme example you can even turn the premise around.  Imagine a chain of well-run, high-quality nursing homes owned by a devout Islamic organization.  They hire staff of all faiths, but as a condition of employment they require all hires to sign a contract agreeing to have any workplace disputes resolved under Sharia Law, rather than the secular court system.  This fictional entity could claim that their faith requires this, and that forcing them to follow civil law before Sharia Law is a violation of their group's religious freedom.  Pretty ridiculous, and I can only imagine how this would go over in the Bible Belt.  I don't how the Little Sisters case is any different in principle, though.

The third point overlaps with the doctor-patient privacy issue.  Quality medical care in a free country like ours should allow a physician to apply any legal option or treatment that's in the best interest of the patient, in accordance with the wishes of the patient.  There are Catholic hospitals that require ectopic pregnancies to be treated by removing the fallopian tube rather than terminating the embryo and leaving the tube intact for future pregnancies.  The former is considered acceptable and the latter considered abortion because of semantics; the pregnancy is lost in either case, and yet the "acceptable" option cuts the opportunities for future conception in half.  If I'm employed in a secular job by Christian Scientists, should they be able to prohibit my medical plan from covering blood transfusions because condoning that would be a violation of their faith?  Is the use of a do-not-resuscitate order a violation of pro-life values?

If we have to decide to let these personal choices be driven by person affected by them or the company employing that person, isn't the best default position the one that favors individual liberty?

The final point above ties to one of my strongest objections to the lawsuit.  I can certainly understand the values driving the motion by the Little Sisters, since I was raised as a conservative Roman Catholic myself.  However, why does the concern about compliance with faith and the refusal to condone sin stop with contraception coverage?

The most obvious example is in providing spousal coverage for their staff under the ACA.  In the Catholic context, the only  valid "spouse" is the partner from the first marriage performed in a Catholic ceremony.  Anything else, including remarriage after civil divorce or someone only married at City Hall, would be considered adultery in the Catholic faith.  If the Little Sisters extend spousal coverage in these cases that isn't just turning a blind eye to adultery, but extending material benefits of Catholic marriage to adulterers.

The whole premise of wanting to drop the contraceptive coverage requirement is based on the idea that the Little Sisters should not endorse immoral behavior by making it affordable for their secular employees.  If any of the staff want to obtain contraception they are free to do so, but at their own cost without a subsidy.  That's a very focused, hand-picked example of trying to punish outside-employment behavior, and it's discriminatory because it denies women a benefit over bias regardless of the reasons one might use these treatments.  If the policy was consistently applied, then all claims for all treatments would have to be reviewed for circumstance to make sure that paying for them in part or full wasn't condoning behavior considered immoral, like:
  • Covering the prescription to treat a STD, which is rewarding adultery if the patient is single or married-and-cheating.
  • Covering lap-band surgery, which rewards gluttony.
  • Covering the prenatal care and birth of a child to a couple married in city hall, or to a single unwed mother, which is rewarding that "adulterous" behavior.
  • Covering the chemotherapy for a seriously-ill woman that in turn causes a miscarriage.
We wouldn't condone letting any employer scrutinize our private medical history and then pass subjective moral judgment on what is considered acceptable to cover, but allowing the Little Sisters to prevail in this case is a step in that direction.  This doesn't lead to the vision of the Founding Founders - it actually leads 150 years further backwards in civil rights to Puritan Massachusetts.  The problems of that era drove the thinking of men like Roger Williams and William Penn to define freedom of conscience as a critical right of the individual, not of the state, and not of an employer either.

If individual liberty, privacy and freedom matter, then we should not be saying "We are all Little Sisters", we should be saying "We are all William Penn", and put those words into action.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Misrepresentatives of the People

I was doing my daily reading-over-coffee ritual when this article in The Daily Beast caught my eye:

I've gotten fairly cynical about the motivations of politicians, even the few who I admire, so I had a feeling this was going to be one of those pieces that would push me further down that path.


The author, Michael Tomasky, takes a look at a recent study examining how well legislators understand the degree to which the people they represent support certain policies.

Spoiler Alert - they don't understand where their constituents stand well at all, and Conservative legislators do it the worst.

Tomasky recaps this nicely (emphasis mine):

"Last year, they asked more than 2,000 state legislative candidates from around the country what they thought the political leanings of their constituents were. Specifically, they asked the candidates to estimate what percentage of the voters in the districts where they were seeking office supported: same-sex marriage; a government-run universal health-care program; the abolition of all federal welfare programs. Then they matched those to existing polling.
Answer? From the authors:
When we compare what legislators believe their constituents want to their constituents’ actual views, we discover that politicians hold remarkably inaccurate perceptions. Pick an American state legislator at random, and chances are that he or she will have massive misperceptions about district views on big-ticket issues, typically missing the mark by 15 percentage points.
What is more, the mistakes legislators make tend to fall in one direction, giving U.S. politics a rightward tilt compared to what most voters say they want."
Not surprising, in a way. But startling. The typical conservative candidate in their survey overestimated the district's conservatism by 20 points. The typical liberal candidate overestimated the conservatism by around 5 percentage points."
Thanks to gerrymandering, there are many districts across the country where the people sent to elected office skew more heavily to the left or the right than a random sample of a state or county. The point of this survey, though, is that even if you're a conservative legislator from a conservative-leaning district, you are likely overestimating how many of the people who elected you actually support certain conservative positions.
This is important, because much of the posturing over the current Federal budget showdown comes from people like Ted Cruz, who claim to be doing the work that the people who elected him are demanding.  Some of them are, I'm sure, but this research shows that the perception they claim drives their actions misses reality by a wide mark.
I'm going to follow up to see if the detailed survey data is available for easy access, and if so I'll post links to it here.  It would be pretty enlightening to be able to look up your legislators and see how well they understand the people they represent (or misrepresent).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Schlafly and Suppression

Just read this piece on voter ID laws by Phyllis Schlafly.  

Amazing that the same people who want to enable the purchase of guns with little or no obstacle "because it's a right" have no problem imposing barriers to vote "because it's common sense". These other nations that are cited for their voter-ID laws all have gun-control laws that would never fly in the USA, so this is a pretty sad instance of cherry-picking the restrictions you want while ignoring the ones you don't.

It's also hypocritical and ridiculous that Schlafly thinks early voting is bad because votes might be cast before all the debates are over. Early voting benefits people who are locked in to their choice and want to exercise that choice as conveniently as possible. Would someone like her really have changed her mind and voted for Obama after seeing a particular debate or campaign ad? Since when did these these "small government" people decide that the government should now have a say in how much time you need to make a well-informed vote? 

The same goes for the "modest fees" and "minimal effort" to get official government photo ID's because others that were fine in the past are now disallowed. Suddenly the people who hate big government and regulations love the idea of government regulations getting between you and your constitutional right to vote. Need to get a government ID? Take a look at how limited the hours of access are for the offices you need to go to in order to get one - in many cases there are no after-hours or weekend access, so while you're free to get an ID, it would mean missing work or school to do so. Even if the fee is five dollars, or just one dollar, how is this not a poll tax in principle when voting was free before?

And finally, notice how Schlafly nor anyone else behind these suppression laws can cite hard evidence showing that the rate of actual proven fraud justifies these laws. In Pennsylvania last year when their voter-ID laws were challenged in court, the challengers statistically proved that tens of thousands of previously-eligible voters would be blocked from voting in 2012 by these changes, while the state could not provide even one actual case of proven fraud as a counter-example.

Anyone who says they believe in upholding Constitutional rights, but then supports the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of actual American voters to prevent hypothetical fraud that has never been shown to happen in a meaningful way, let alone put an election into doubt, is the worst type of hypocrite. They are the cowards who realize that most Americans do not actually share their vision, and instead of attracting votes with better ideas, their choice is to deny votes to their opposition. 

They may win small tactical battles in states where they control the local government, but time, demographics and exposure of their tactics will inevitably make this right because as Colin Powell and others have observed, these tactics will provoke a backlash. This was attempted in Florida last year, and instead of suppressing the opposition it drew out long lines of patriotic Americans willing to put up with hours of waiting and overcome the obstacles thrown in their path by the GOP. They remembered who did this to them, and in all the other states trying these tactics, the party responsible for them will be remembered too.

Schlafly and her ilk may think that a better America is one where conservatives are armed with guns free of restrictions while new restrictions disarm the votes of those who'd disagree with them. At the risk of being confused for Tea Partiers, I'd suggest that every person who had to overcome new obstacles to vote this year wear something with the Gadsden Flag or the words "Don't tread on me" on it, and use that vote to remove the people attacking their rights from office.Ugh

Friday, August 9, 2013

When Conservative analysis discredits Conservative policy...

There's a pretty good read in Salon showing what happens when objective, Ayn Rand style analysis to manage the self-interest of the free market insurance industry debunks the Conservative policies towards climate change and gun proliferation.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bluster and Bunnyholes, Part 1

Okay, been on another break to deal with life and all the things that go along with it.  I'm a husband and father in a pretty atypical family situation, and that will always be where my priorities lie.

I'll try to do a better job of keeping up with posting, starting with this one.

I've noticed that there's a certain class of conservative that, like my cockapoo, barks and makes a lot of noise, but scurries away if there's an actual chance of a direct encounter.  In the case of the dog, he'll run and hide behind the feet of a protector, empty his bladder, or both.  In the case of some people I've observed, that's a pretty close comparison, too.

A textbook example of this is Ken DeMyer, who goes by more than a few pseudonyms online, but does most of his standout blustering on Conservapedia where he goes by the name "Conservative".  You can find a good recap of his antics in this Rationalwiki article, but the behavior I'm focusing on here is the "bark-and-bail" pattern.

DeMyer is fond of putting out challenges to people that he can spin into victories in his own mind, and claiming that his adversaries are "hiding in their intellectual bunny holes" when he creates an impression that no one's willing to take him up.

The reality is that people are taking him up on his challenges, and instead of backing up his bluster he jumps through hoops to weasel out and try to make any evidence of the exchanges disappear.  There are too many examples of this to get into, but he's fallen into a predictable pattern:

1) Issue challenges from a safe, online forum where he controls whether responses appear or not.
2) When people reply, block the responses from ever appearing, and use wiki/blog tools to erase the record if people find other ways to call him out.
3) Claim victory because "no one is willing to take on the XYZ challenge".
4) Lather, rinse & repeat with any number of topics.

The one other pattern that DeMyer relies on is that he now only issues challenges for people to take on conservatives other than himself.  He used to propose debating people directly, but played the old game of throwing out absurd conditions that no sensible person would accept.  This kept him safe from actually backing up his bluster, and he'd declare that his opposition were cringing in their bunny holes.  Then a handful of people decided to call him out on this and actually meet his conditions, and faced with having to "walk the walk", DeMyer ran like hell instead.

So the tactic that replaced this is simple, but pretty cowardly.  He now challenges people to debate items of controversy with other people instead of himself, and only in rigged forums where he and his friends are in control of editing the outcome.  That's sad enough, but he's taken this to a point where the people he's trying to drag in as his proxies are fed up with it, and want nothing to do with him.

DeMyer is a middle-aged man, and way too old to be picking fights with strangers and then asking his friends to do the fighting for him.  On the other hand, he's also such a ridiculous cartoon character that it's hard to take him seriously, and nobody really does.  The shame is that people like Andrew Schlafly are perfectly content to treat people like DeMyer as useful idiots, letting him fling poo like a monkey all over his "Trustworthy Encyclopedia" as long as he attracts page views.

But if Ken DeMyer is a cartoonish poo-flinger allowed to perform his antics to grab eyeballs, his "bark and bail" tactics would be shunned by anyone claiming to be a highly educated, respectable conservative Christian advocate, right?

But more on Terry Hurlbut and his Conservative News And Views blog in the next part...