Category Archives: Personal Autonomy

Freedom to Oppress

A week or so ago, I shared the questions on my Law and Policy take-home final, and a couple of commenters wondered whether I would share student responses.

Although I won’t share others, I was struck by one student’s essay on the second question, which involved the principle of religious liberty. The question read:

The First Amendment protects religious liberty. Over the past few years, Americans have engaged in heated public debates about the nature and extent of that liberty. Some people argue that requiring employers to provide health insurance that includes contraception, or requiring businesses like florists or bakers to serve same-sex customers, is a violation of the religious liberty of those whose religions teach that contraception or homosexuality is a sin. Others disagree. What is the proper definition of “religious liberty”—that is, how far should the free exercise of religion extend in America’s diverse religious landscape? What religiously-motivated actions can government legitimately limit, and what are the justifications for those limits?

This student suggested that many people confuse “freedom” with “freedom to oppress,” and went on to explain the difference.

I hadn’t seen it phrased quite that way before, but I think he’s on to something.

I thought about his essay when I read in the Washington Post that Vice-President Mike Pence had told participants at a World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in D.C. that “no other faith group faces more persecution than Christians,” and lauded Trump’s recent RFRA-like Executive Order.

Mike Pence shares a definition of “persecution” with other fundamentalist believers that beautifully illustrates my student’s observation: “persecution” in Pence-speak goes well beyond the actual mistreatment of Christians abroad; for him, “persecution” has always included the inability to use the coercive power of the state to impose his particular version of Christianity on others here at home.

Think of the horrors: the nasty courts have prevented public schools from requiring (Christian) prayer in classrooms occupied by children of diverse faiths, and have upheld the teaching of science, rather than the Christian doctrine of Creationism, in public school science classes.

Those same courts have required government to recognize marriages by sinful same-sex couples  (who can now file joint tax returns, just like real married couples), and they’ve insisted that when retail establishments open for business, they actually do business with anyone willing to pay for their merchandise.

These “persecuted” Christians must live under a legal regime that accords Jews and Muslims and Hindus and atheists the same civil rights that bible-believing Christians have! A society where stores like Target can allow transgendered people use the bathroom when nature calls! A society that allows women to follow their own religious and moral beliefs about reproduction, rather than the Word Of God as Revealed to Mike Pence and his fellow fundamentalists.

I’m sure it is only by the grace of their God that these poor, persecuted Christians can continue to live here.

I would completely understand if they moved en masse to somewhere like Ghana or Uganda, where the government understands the threat posed by homosexuality and uppity women. But of course, the inhabitants of those countries are black, and a lot of  Pence Christians aren’t too sure God likes black people…

 

The Worst-Case Scenario

Okay, thanks to some despicable behavior by the self-styled “moralists,” and millions of Koch brother dollars, Neil Gorsuch is now the newest Supreme Court Justice. So–aside from occupying Merrick Garland’s seat and a worrisome tendency to favor the arguments of corporate and “religious” litigants– what is the worst thing that can happen?

He manages to get Roe v. Wade overturned.

What would happen then?

Several red states would immediately pass laws making abortion illegal, something the Constitution currently prevents. Other states, however, would leave the decision where it belongs– with the woman, her family and her doctor. Women living in states prohibiting abortion– those who could afford it– would travel to states where it remained legal, and would have their abortions there. Others would go back to the remedies available in the “good old days”–coat hangers and dangerous “potions”– and many of them would die or become sterile.

Hopefully, there would be groups formed to raise money to cover the costs of poor women’s travel to states where abortion remained legal. We might expect the war on Planned Parenthood to abate somewhat–or at least devolve to the states– since the national anti-choice movement wouldn’t have Roe to kick around any more.

The political tsunami, however, would be the most interesting consequence of such a decision.

Survey research confirms that substantial majorities of Americans do not want to see Roe overturned. They may or may not support a woman’s choice to terminate her pregnancy, but they are appropriately leery of allowing government to dictate that decision. It is only a rabid anti-choice constituency that has maintained the political potency of reproductive choice as an issue. (I have a sneaking suspicion that most of these folks believe overturning Roe would end abortion in the U.S. It wouldn’t–it would simply leave the issue up to the states.)

Research suggests that anti-choice citizens are far more likely to be single-issue voters than pro-choice Americans. But that could change once a right that has been taken for granted is revoked. Pro-choice voters–especially women, who are already more likely to vote Democratic– would be more than irate; they would blame the GOP for the loss of reproductive liberty, and would be very likely to vote in even greater numbers against a party that so vividly demonstrated its contempt for women’s right to self-determination.

Anyone who participated in the Women’s March on Washington–in the nation’s capital, or in any of the multitude of other venues–and looked out over the sea of “pussy hats,” saw the signs being carried and heard the passionate speeches being made–understands the extent of the fury that would be unleashed by a Supreme Court  retreat from Roe v. Wade. Anti-choice activists have been a (generally marginal albeit important) asset to theocratic Republican candidates, but the pro-choice legions that would erupt after such a Court decision would create political blowback of massive proportions.

The GOP has used the issue of abortion to turn out a relatively small but very intense constituency in election after election.

If Roe is gone, the national GOP will no longer be able to rely on the issue of abortion to generate turnout, or to obscure or outweigh the party’s retrograde positions on other issues. If decisions about the legality of abortion devolve to the state level, the passions will also devolve. Some states will respect women’s right to autonomy, some will not. But in the absence of Roe v. Wade, abortion would lose its potency as a national right-wing wedge issue.

And Democrats would solidify their position as the party protecting and promoting women’s rights.

Republicans should be careful what they wish for.

 

 

Welcome to the Resistance

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a “Women’s Rally for Change,” along with the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood and the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor. The purpose was to discuss how to resist the coming assault on women and minorities, and to answer the increasingly common–and increasingly urgent– question: what can I do? What specific actions can I take?

The Rally was promoted only by Facebook posts; organizers hoped a hundred women might attend. We were stunned when five hundred women crammed into a space meant for far fewer, and another four hundred had to be turned away. (Future events, in larger venues, will be posted to a Facebook page established in the wake of the event: Women4ChangeIndiana.)

Several people who could not attend have asked me for copies of my remarks, so I’m posting them here. (Regular readers of this blog will find much of what follows repetitive….sorry about that!)

_________________________

We are facing divisions in this country unlike anything we’ve seen since the 60s, or maybe the Civil War. If America is to emerge reasonably intact, we need to look honestly at what just happened.

The ugly truth is that most of his voters saw Trump’s bigotry, misogyny and authoritarianism as features, not bugs. They didn’t overlook his appalling behaviors—those were what attracted them. They applauded his repeated attacks on “political correctness” and routinely told reporters that what they liked about him was that he “tells it like it is.”

The attitudes most predictive of support for Trump were racial resentment and misogyny—not economic distress.

Clinton won the popular vote, but because the Electoral College gives greater weight to votes from rural areas, she lost the Presidency. This is the 2d time in 16 years that the person who won the most votes was not elected.

The next few years are going to be very painful. Americans will lose many of the protections we have come to expect from the federal courts, probably for the foreseeable future. Economic policies will hurt the poor, especially women and children, and exacerbate divisions between the rich and the rest of us. A Trump Administration will abandon efforts to address climate change, and will roll back most of Obamacare. There will be no immigration reform, and God only knows what our foreign policy will look like. Worst of all, Trump’s normalization of bigotry will play out in a variety of ways, none good.

Sandy asked us to focus our comments on issues affecting women—but when you think about it, all of these issues will disproportionately affect women and children. And by far the worst for women is something we can’t reverse through legislation at some future time—a return to cultural attitudes that objectify and demean us.

So – what can we do, sitting here in overwhelmingly Red Indiana?

As individuals, beginning right now, we can support organizations that work to protect women’s rights, civil and reproductive liberties and public education, among others. A friend of mine and her husband, who stand to benefit from Trump’s proposed tax cuts, have decided to donate every dollar they save by reason of those cuts to organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. We might start a local “pledge my tax cut” campaign.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is focus on local efforts to ameliorate the effects of likely federal actions. Most of the innovation and action on climate change, for example, is happening in cities, and it is much easier to influence local policy than state or national legislation. Those of us worried about the environment can make sure our cities are at the forefront of urban environmental efforts. There are other policy areas where—depending upon relevant state law—cities can mitigate the effects of federal action or inaction. Since the election, for example, several cities have decided to become Sanctuary cities, protecting undocumented people.

We can and must work to create inclusive and supportive local civic cultures that work against misogyny, bigotry and intolerance. We are already seeing a substantial increase in racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, and we need to create a civic environment that strongly discourages bigoted attitudes and behaviors. Cities have ready-made partners in those efforts, in arts organizations, civic and religious associations and the business community. I hereby volunteer to help mount a campaign focused on encouraging a welcoming, inclusive, respectful civic environment.

And if  the new Administration really does establish a Muslim registry, we all need to register as Muslims.

In the longer term, we have to reform America’s election system. The first order of business is to get rid of the Electoral College, which favors rural voters over urban ones and generally distorts the democratic process. The person who gets the most votes should win the election. We should work with groups like the League of Women Voters to get Indiana to sign on to the National Popular Vote Project, to oppose gerrymandering and to make voting easier, not harder.

We also have to defend our public schools and improve civic education. “We the People” or a similar curriculum should be required for High School graduation. Trump made all kinds of promises that he could not constitutionally carry out. Perhaps recognizing that wouldn’t have mattered to the kind of people willing to vote for him—but it might have.

Sandy asked each of us to identify issues of particular significance to women that we might win at the Statehouse. Given the composition of our legislature, we face an uphill battle, but here are some suggestions:

  • Work with local business and civil rights groups to expand Indiana’s civil rights law to include LGBTQ Hoosiers.
  • Work with Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and other organizations to prevent passage of added restrictions on abortion that more conservative courts would uphold. We’re already seeing that effort in Indiana.
  • Work with advocates for public education to scale back Indiana’s voucher program, the largest in the country, that benefits parochial schools at the expense of public ones.
  • Require effective civic education for graduation from H.S.

If there has ever been a time to be an activist, this is it.

 

“Repealing” Roe v. Wade

On 60 Minutes, Donald Trump evidently claimed that “repealing” Roe v. Wade would be a priority.

Among the many, many things our next President does not understand is how government actually works. He may be surprised to discover that Congress–even one dominated by GOP culture warriors–cannot “repeal” a Constitutional right.

That is not to say that Roe is safe, only that it will take several years and some fairly creative judicial legerdemain to completely reverse current case law.

Here is how it will play out.

Trump will have an immediate appointment to the Supreme Court, and may well have one or two others during a four-year term. He has pledged to appoint a social conservative, and that’s a pledge he’s likely to keep. Once a case implicating reproductive choice works its way up to the Supreme Court, that newly conservative Court will take the opportunity to further limit what previous Courts have confirmed: it is a woman’s constitutional right to control her own body. Perhaps the newly constituted Court will reverse Roe outright, perhaps not–but the effect will be the same.

Reversing Roe entirely would leave the legality of abortion up to the individual states. We would go back to the time–a time I vividly remember– when women who could afford to do so traveled to states where abortion was legal, and a significant number of the women who couldn’t afford to do that died in back-alley, illegal operations.

As my friends at Planned Parenthood like to point out, women didn’t begin getting abortions after Roe v. Wade. They just stopped dying from them. 

The only thing prochoice Americans can do to thwart this cynical and theocratic agenda is work tirelessly to prevent their state legislatures from passing new, restrictive measures that are intended to provide the Court with an opportunity to “revisit” the issue. (Here in Indiana, a State Representative has already announced his intention to submit a bill that would criminalize abortions and punish the women and doctors who participated in them. I’m sure theocrats in other states are equally eager to test the anticipated new boundaries.

Given the number of deep red states populated by religious fundamentalists, the odds of defeating all of these throwbacks aren’t good. So while Trump cannot “repeal” reproductive liberty, he can sure eliminate it.

I think the legal terminology is: we’re screwed.

 

 

Loving, Fifty Years Later

It has been fifty years since the Supreme Court struck down laws against miscegenation–interracial marriage–in the case of Loving v. Virginia. At the time the decision was handed down, sixteen states–all in the south–still had such laws on their books. The anniversary of the decision is being marked by various magazine articles, and a movie about the couple at the heart of the case (aptly named Loving) has just been released.

My students tend to think of laws forbidding interracial marriage as part of a bizarre and distant past. They have enough trouble understanding the hysteria that preceded and accompanied recognition of same-sex marriage, and to them 1967 seems as distant as 1867. Many of us in older generations, however, are painfully aware of the stubborn persistence of such laws well into our own adulthoods.

Loving is a great teaching tool, because it squarely addresses the central issue of public administration and political philosophy: what is the proper role of the state? What is government for? What sorts of decisions are appropriately made by legislatures acting on behalf of popular majorities, and what sorts of decisions represent an unwarranted intrusion into realms that should be left to individual citizens?

Despite the fact that our Constitution was based upon a belief in limited government, America’s history is replete with examples of the tensions between the respect for individual liberties that animates the Bill of Rights, and the desire of moralists to use government to control the behavior of their neighbors.

Back in 2007, I wrote a book called God and Country: America in Red and Blue, in which I examined the religious roots of public policy disputes; in it, I posited that a significant number of our most intractable debates can be explained by a conflict  in worldviews originally rooted in religious ways of understanding reality. It is a battle between those I dubbed “modernists” and those I called “Puritans.”

These differences are far more profound than we usually recognize.

Our contemporary Puritans are philosophical heirs of the early American settlers who came to these shores for a version of liberty that most of us would not recognize. The folks who braved the trip across the Atlantic came for the religious “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wish–let alone live lives based upon those beliefs– was utterly foreign to them. It would be another 150 years until the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment  changed our forebears understanding of liberty to the more libertarian construction  incorporated in our founding documents.

That libertarian construction is based upon respect for individual autonomy–the belief that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit, until and unless they harm the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal right to others.

It can be very difficult to agree upon the sorts of harms that justify government intervention, and there are many good-will disagreements over the propriety of such things as seat-belt laws and smoking bans. But it really strains credulity to argue that your choice of a non-traditional spouse somehow harms me.

Loving reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between issues that government can properly decide, and areas where government doesn’t belong.

Tomorrow, at the polls, most of our contemporary Puritans will vote for authoritarianism and a government that does not respect America’s Constitutional limits. Let’s hope the Modernists outvote them.