Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Where to from here?

I’m angry. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

A Florida Circuit Court judge (read: trial court judge) has just ruled that the Florida law barring gay couples from adopting is unconstitutional.

I’m not angry about that. That I’m glad about.

No, I’m angry that a lawyer in Orlando who’s allied with the losing side called the judge an “activist judge.”

Let me translate: “activist judge” means “sour grapes.”

Now I’m a lawyer and I don’t like it when a judge rules against me, but it happens. It’s happened to me a lot, especially in my own family law case where three separate judges and a lawyer-arbitrator have each ruled against me. I believe the evidence would prove to any impartial observer that these rulings reflect a shocking degree of gender-based bias but at least the severity of the rulings have been decreasing.

The Religious Right though is something else.

You would think that these people are somewhat chastened by the repudiation they suffered at the polls this past Election Day, but no. They still think they have a god-given right to inject their religious into the civil sphere and subject the rest of us to their theocratic lunacies.

These people are dinosaurs. Perhaps they haven’t heard about the meteor that just hit them. It’s called Barack Obama.

But Obama is just an agent of a larger phenomenon. It’s called The Youth. They are not a monolith but in general as a group they are not buying into their parents’ tired old prejudices.

I wrote about this in a prior blog but in this week’s New Yorker Hendrik Hertzberg encapsulated it very nicely in a piece entitled Eight is Enough. He writes:

“California’s gay activists and their straight allies, judging from their online postmortems, have begun to direct more criticism at themselves than at their opponents. They were complacent: early polls had shown Prop. 8 losing by double digits. Their television ads were timid and ineffective, focussing on worthy abstractions like equality and fairness, while the other side’s were powerfully emotional. (Also dishonest—they implied that gay marriage would threaten churches’ tax exemptions, force church-affiliated adoption agencies to place children with gay couples, and oblige children to attend gay weddings—but that sort of thing was to be expected.)”

I realized the gay leadership was incompetent when I was working with the “No on Prop 8” campaign last spring, going out to shopping centers to sign-up people to pledge not to sign the Prop 8 petition.

I asked for a copy of the Prop 8 Petition I was supposed to ask people not to support. Can you believe the anti-Prop 8 campaign didn’t have one to show me?

And they didn’t want to debate people who said they would support Prop 8.

So I ignored them and I got some of the people who said they would support Prop 8 to change their minds. One was a Jewish poli-sci professor and another was a young black man who had bought into all the biblical nonsense. I let him have it. Of all the people who should have supported gay rights, blacks as a group voted most strongly to further oppress another oppressed minority. Shame on them.

The anti-Prop 8 leadership had to know the Prop 8 proponents were going to pull out all the stops in a last-minute media lying blitz but they did nothing to stop it. Rather than wage an aggressive pre-emptive campaign to confront the Religious Right and nip their lie campaign in the bud before they could gain any traction, the gay leadership pussyfooted around, waging a let’s-be-nice campaign that was a sure loser. It wasn’t until the day after the election they started doing what they should have been doing a month before the election but by then they were literally a day late and tens of millions of wasted dollars short.

As Hertzberg points out, gay (and I feel safe including all LGBT) rights will prevail but I’m angry the loss on Prop 8 will remain a blot, not just on the Religious Right but on the LGBT leadership that failed its constituents.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What will we ever do about religion?

It’s becoming increasingly clear that religion is the Great Divide, the issue that will make or break us as a species.

Election Night saw Progressives rejoicing across-the-board -- except on the issue of same-sex marriage. Voters in California, Arizona and Florida, who had otherwise voted relatively progressively, skewed to the Right over this sex-driven issue.

Why? Religion. They blindly followed what their church leaders told them – that the Bible (Christian or Jewish – take your pick) commands us to adhere to a strict gender binary – male or female, with no room for anything in-between.

Frankly, I can’t imagine anything more useless than studying theology, not even a business school education (which can be summed up, “buy low, sell high”.) I’m from the Richard Dawkins/George Carlin school on this. Religion is a quaint idea and while I respect anyone’s right to believe in something I personally regard as nonsense, what-the-fuck do I really know about the existence of a deity? I’m just a human, an insignificant mortal to whom no deity has deigned to reveal him/her/itself (I’m covering all the bases – don’t want to piss him/her/it off, just in case he/she/it really does exist) so I’ll suspend judgment on the existence of a deity and just get on with my life, unencumbered by time-wasting theological debates.

But religion is humanity’s answer to a really thorny problem. We’ve fought uncounted battles and slaughtered each other in appalling numbers over whose invisible man-in-the-sky is the real deity, when the answer is “none of the above.” Amazing.

In our society, believers have grown emboldened to believe the rules by which we play as a nation (our federal and state constitutions) allow us to inject personal religious beliefs into the civic discussion. What about the Establishment Clause to the First Amendment? -- “Never heard of it!”

I have to believe the California Supreme Court will rule that the various challenges to the Prop 8 vote are meritorious and it will strike the Prop 8 result. I don’t believe two-thirds of the California Assembly or the State Senate would let Prop 8 be submitted either to the voters or to their representatives in a constitutional convention. With the passage of time, as younger people join the roll of voters, a new LGBT-friendly majority will increasingly define the electorate, especially once the people learn about the full extent of the Prop 8 campaign of lies.

But in the meantime, what do we do about religion?

As it stands, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that the state shall not establish any religion (the Establishment Clause) and everyone is free to practice his or her own religion (the Free Exercise clause.)

The latter has spawned a curious corollary – the tax deduction for religion. It’s enshrined in Sections 170(a)(1) and 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC, or “the Code”.)

Section 170 reads as follows (in pertinent part):

Sec. 170. Charitable, etc., contributions and gifts
(a) Allowance of deduction.
(1) General rule. There shall be allowed as a deduction any charitable contribution
(as defined in subsection (c)) payment of which is made within the taxable year.

Section 501(c)(3) lets a charity avoid paying tax on the income it receives. Religious organizations (like churches) qualify for 501(c)(3) treatment so long as they stick to religion and stay out of things in the civil sphere, like politics.

The question now being hotly debated (and the subject of the many post-election street protests) is whether churches that advocated for Prop 8 overstepped that line.

I think the answer is a no-brainer: Of course they did.

Here’s how the deal works:

My neighbor pays tax on his income. But he doesn’t pay tax on money he gives to his religious organization of choice (his church.) And unlike just about any other recipient of money, the church doesn’t pay tax on its receipt of that money nor does the donor pay a gift tax on the transfer. The result is a tax-exempt flow of cash to the church.

The church doesn’t pay any other taxes either. If it burns the fire department will come out to quell the fire and if there’s a disturbance the police will respond. But the church is exempt from local taxes that would pay for these kinds of things. There’s more but you get the idea.

So who picks up the tab for this subsidy? You guessed it – the rest of us – you and me, whether we believe in their religion or not. Why?

The religious folks have come to believe that this tax subsidy is their right under the Free Exercise clause, that if they’re taxed like the rest of us it’s somehow an unconstitutional imposition or restriction of their right to practice their religion.

Of course it’s not. We’re just asking them to pay their own way without asking us, those who don’t share their religious beliefs, to pick up their tab. They’re still free to indulge their irrational religious beliefs to their hearts’ content. They just have to obey one little law, a quid-pro-quo for this privilege of being tax-exempt – stick to religion and stay out of the public sphere.

But that’s a problem for them. Their religion seems to tell them they have to go out and make their business everyone else’s business. Their god tells them so.

So if their god tells them to discriminate against gay people they feel the entire society in which they live must also obey their religion’s commandment. They believe their religion has got to be everywhere – not just in their churches but in all the businesses their churches might engage in, like hospitals. And not just in their private religious schools but in the public schools that are supported by taxpayer dollars, money collected from people like me who don’t believe in their religion or its curious ideas. They believe it’s their right to inject their religion into areas where the law has been clear – “This is a religion free zone.”

They want to be free to discriminate against people who don’t share their religious beliefs. They don’t want to have to hire them – not just in their churches but everywhere else, even though our laws are increasingly telling them they can’t do that, not in non-religious enterprises.

They’ve convinced themselves (by listening to their clergy, whose ignorance on this is truly appalling) that this country is a Christian country, that the Founding Fathers said so. They ignore and refuse to acknowledge any documentary evidence, proof really, that the Founding Fathers said no such thing, that in fact they said just the opposite. It’s maddening, infuriating.

What’s the solution?

I don’t believe it will ever be possible to disabuse these people, or all of them anyway, of their belief in the Invisible-Man-in-the-Sky. Not gonna happen. Irrational belief in stuff like this may be programmed into our genes, that maybe the ability to believe in a deity conferred a survival advantage on early humans.

Think about it. Early hominids emerging into consciousness were defined in part by their ability to think not just in the present or even the past but into the future, and when they did one of the very first things they realized was that each and every one of them was going to die. They saw it all around them. Animals do too but animals don’t make the logical step into realizing maybe they are next. Humans did, and it probably came as a big shock.

I remember when my daughter came to this realization. She was ten, and she was greatly disturbed.

I had to laugh – not at her but with her because I was her age when I had the very same epiphany. I told her as gently as I could it was ok, that it happens to everyone but that what’s important is to live the life you have as fully and as meaningfully as you can.

One thing I didn’t tell her was that death is part of God’s plan or that any deity had anything to do with it.

But not everyone can deal with this very disturbing fact with such objectivity. The idea that we can’t know what happens after we die, that maybe the lights just go out, that this is it, it’s over and there is no tomorrow – that’s too much for most people. They have to believe that they continue, somehow, somewhere. And they have to believe they’re not alone, that there is a god who loves them and won’t let the terrible things they see and hear of happening in the news each and every day happen to them.

People who don’t believe in a hereafter suffer a multitude of ills. We all know we’re going to die but it’s an easier pill if we know it isn’t The End. I often find myself tempted. I too want to believe but my intellect holds me back. I know I’d probably be happier if I could believe. I’ve tried, really I have, but belief just never happened. The best I can do is admit I’m too insignificant to know. I don’t know why but the deity has just never deigned to speak to me and sorry but I just can’t take anyone else’s word for it, especially if that person or those persons are long, long dead. I adopt their virtue of humility and avow that I’m just too insignificant to know. That’s the message of Job. But still I pledge to “do the right thing” even if I now there is no deity who will judge me when I die and I won’t fear eternal damnation because I don’t believe in him/her/it. I will try to die content knowing that on balance I lived a good life simply because something inside me unrelated to a belief in a deity tells me it’s the right thing to do, that I simply feel good doing the right thing, period.

If I do hope for the existence of a deity it will be so that I may meet that entity and it will then disclose to me the secrets of creation, including quantum mechanics and maybe integral calculus. If there is no deity and the lights really just do go out, that’s ok too. I will be swallowed-up by the Cosmos, whatever that is. There may not be a deity but there is an order to the Universe. Einstein told us so. That’s enough for me.

But I digress.

The flood of Christian (including out-of-state Mormon) money that defeated Prop 8 was subsidized by the rest of us. The dollars themselves were not tax exempt but they were propelled by the voices of their clergy whose livelihoods and employment are tax-exempt, so IRC sections 170(a)(1) and 501(c)(3) were instrumental in defeating Prop 8.

The answer is to get rid of the tax deduction for religion – all of it. Level the playing field. People would still be free to practice their religion. They just would not get a free ride out of my pocketbook to pay for it.

At the same time we should get rid of all the other deductions, like mortgage interest. Get government out of the business of making value judgments about which activity is right and which is wrong. No more incentives, at least not tax-fueled. As the Right would say, let the market decide. That will take care of 90+ percent of all the tax complexities. Keep a graduated tax structure so that the poor are not taxed on money they need just to survive and those who have the most pay the most. That’s not socialism -- it’s how it was in 1913 when Congress enacted the income tax and it persisted until World War II.

But that’s another essay for another day.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Prop 8 -- the day after

On November 4th Proposition 8 won and for the time being same-sex marriage is no longer an option in California. Voters in Florida and Arizona passed similar state constitutional anti-gay marriage bans, signaling that sex and gender-based discrimination remains the major national culture war hot-button issue.

Another California ballot initiative, Proposition 2, was for the humane treatment of farm animals. It won with 63.3% of the vote – nearly two full points more than Obama’s margin of victory in the California popular vote. By contrast, only 52.2% California voters voted against same-sex marriage. It was a closest margin of any of the twelve California ballot initiatives. Sadly, more people seem inclined to accord rights to animals than to fellow human beings.

Timing is everything.

312 years after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, a Catholic was elected president in Protestant America. Forty-eight years later, we look back on that election and wonder what the big deal. But John Kennedy’s religion was a major issue in the 1960 election. I remember. I was eleven years old and I canvassed my neighborhood for Kennedy.

Try to imagine any attempt ten years ago to limit factory farms and afford some measure of protection against cruelty to animals we eat – it wasn’t gonna happen.

Somehow, sex-based prejudice is harder to end. Why? Probably because of religion. Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders perceived same-sex marriage as an existential threat and banded together to kill it.

The Religious Right got away with lying to Californians (and Arizonans and Floridians) about same-sex marriage. I’ve heard telling that Prop 8 proponents were calling and telling same-sex marriage supporters that a vote for Prop 8 was a vote for same-sex marriage – just the opposite of the initiative’s clear language. At the same time, California voters rejected the McCain/Palin campaign’s massive lies about Obama and the agribusiness lies.

Once upon a time it seems government limited the role of religion in the public sphere. That seems to be over. At least one U.S. Supreme Court justice has declared America to be a Christian nation. Tax-exempt money from religious groups, notably the Knights of Columbus and the Mormon Church, flooded California airwaves with the most outrageous lies to fuel anti-gay hatred to ban civil sector marriages they oppose on religious grounds -- a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

But the same-sex marriage issue isn’t over in California.

How many kids think “democracy” means that a bare majority has the right to dictate to the 49% minority? How many adults? George W. Bush and Dick Cheney do. Barack Obama says he does not.

One of the purposes of any constitution in a democracy is to protect the rights of minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Yet Prop 8 would change the California constitution to allow a bare 50+ percent of the vote to deprive gays and lesbians their right to marry whomever they choose.

The California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court both recognize marriage to be a fundamental right. Therefore, any attempt to deprive anyone of the right to marry anyone of their choosing is a major big deal. It’s not the kind of thing any society would allow a bare 50+ percentage of voters to do to the other 49%. Therefore, in just about every state and the Federal constitution, it usually takes more than a bare majority, usually a 2/3 vote somewhere along the line, usually in the legislature or a constitutional convention.

The California constitution speaks to two manners of constitutional changes – amendments and revisions. Amendments are for minor matters while revisions are for major changes. Taking away someone’s right to marry someone of their choosing is a major change to basic rights and therefore would not be properly by amendment but rather a revision. The procedure is set out in California Constitution  Article 18. The language is anything but straightforward but cases interpret it to require a 2/3 legislative vote to get a measure before the voters who can then pass it by a simple majority vote. Submitting a major change proposal to the voters without a prior ok from both legislative houses is not allowed but that’s what happened.

Prop 8 was put to the voters as an amendment in a simple majority vote without legislative review and 2/3 approval. The day after the election several groups and cities filed for California Supreme Court review to void the result.

Beyond that, the evidence is mounting that Prop 8 proponents relied principally on fraud to make their case. They alleged that same-sex marriage would impinge on religious freedoms, forcing children to learn about homosexuality and accept a homosexual lifestyle.

Lying didn’t work last night for McCain/Palin or for the big agribusiness conglomerates but it did for the Religious Right. And they succeeded in injecting religious considerations into the public sphere. Thus, they were able to bypass the California Supreme Court’s May 2008 ruling that overturned the 2000 California Prop 22 initiative that enacted a law banning same-sex marriage, in part on separation of church and state grounds.

I suppose if I were the Religious Right I would have done the same. Time was not on their side.

Prop 22 was supported by 61% of Californians. Eight years later and that number dropped to 52% and polls were telling the Religious Right that the trend was toward outright majority acceptance of same-sex marriage in coming years as the electorate skewed younger, so 2008 was their decision time. The prospect of an Obama presidential bully pulpit probably fueled their decision as well.

Hopefully, a court challenge will reverse last night’s Prop 8 win and the next anti-gay measure to curtail same-sex marriage will lose decisively, no matter what the deciding forum may be.

Beyond that, one hopes the Obama era will hasten a shift in attitudes about sex-based discrimination, and not just among the young. The first battleground issue may be a fully gender-inclusive ENDA in the next Congressional session.

In September 2007 Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi threw us under the bus. Their given reason was the lack of votes among Democrats, especially the newly-elected “blue dog” (read: conservative) House members.

A lot has happened in the year since then.

Rahm Emanuel masterminded the 2006 Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives by engineering those thirty “blue dog” Democrats' elections in nominally Republican districts. Pelosi/Frank’s excuse was that these people were not transgender friendly. I never saw any report that anyone ever lobbied these people no one has ever explained what if anything our leadership did to educate them. Instead, we’ve been asked to accept on faith that they did.

I’m from Missouri.

In the year since the ENDA debacle a new scientific study from Australia reports persuasive evidence of a genetic basis for transsexuality. Another issued from UCLA, where Prof. Eric Vilain has been reporting this for years. The press increasingly reports positively on transgender issues, particularly regarding tg-identified children, while our enemies are losing traction as they hew to the same tired old arguments based on slanted psychology and religious prejudice. We won a major battle in Montgomery County, Maryland for a trans-inclusive ordinance and fended-off a similar challenge in Gainesville, Florida.

Emanuel has just accepted the post of Obama’s chief-of-staff. He now has seventeen additional Democrats on top of the majority we got in 2006 and at least fifty-six Democratic senators.

Timing is still everything, and now is our time.