Posts tagged equality

A victorious night for marriage equality

Until last night, marriage equality had never been approved in America as a statewide ballot measure. It had only ever been put into place by a state legislature or court ruling. 

But then came last night, when voters in three states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington State*) OK’d proposals to legalize marriage for same-sex couples, and voters in a fourth state (Minnesota) rejected a proposal to ban it. 

In effect, Americans voted “no” on two separate questions. 

These measures partly concerned the separation of church and state, asking voters, "should the government endorse a specific religious view on marriage?"

But they also hit on more deep-seated values such as fairness and equality, asking voters, "should the government treat certain Americans differently?" 

Last night, at least in regards to marriage, Americans answered both of those questions in the negative. They rejected the idea that religious belief should form the basis for public policy on marriage, and voted for the government to treat all citizens the same. 

These votes are further signs that the momentum is shifting. An increasing majority of Americans believe consenting adults should be able to love and marry as they wish. Which means the real question now is not “can marriage equality happen across the United States?” but “how long will it take?” 

*Edit: votes are still being counted in Washington State. 

Most Americans OK with gay relations

For the third year in a row, polling shows that a narrow majority of Americans consider gay and lesbian relations morally acceptable. The data comes from Gallup, which calls the result the “new normal” in public opinion on the issue.

As you can see on the following two charts, American attitudes on the morality of gay and lesbian relationships have essentially flipped between 2001 and 2012, and track well with American approval of same-sex marriage.

The war on women

By Michael De Dora

On Saturday, April 28, I will speak before an expected crowd of thousands in New York City as part of a nationwide effort led by the organization Unite Women to help raise awareness on the recent attacks on women’s rights and urge those who care to get politically engaged. The movement is endorsed by a wide range of groups, such as the Center for Inquiry, Americans United for Separation for Church and State, Catholics for Choice, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

I have noticed that many people — mostly secularist and liberal religionist friends — who would normally support women’s rights have not embraced the term “war on women” and avoided the movement fighting under its banner. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they don’t actually think there is a war going on, or maybe the language strikes them as inflammatory (it is, a bit) and they don’t like conflict.

Well, I think there is much evidence to support to the term “war on women,” and I think it’s a mistake to avoid the current conflict. So, I would like to briefly outline major anti-women legislative actions in the hope that, by the end my essay, those who have been sitting on the sidelines will decide to join tens of thousands across the U.S. on April 28 in working to combat such actions, or else get involved in some other way.

The foremost evidence for the “war on women” is found in recent attacks on reproductive rights by the religious right. In fact, these attacks alone could quality as a war on women. State lawmakers set a record in 2011 for the most anti-reproductive rights provisions enacted in a single year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Legislators introduced more than 1,100 provisions last year, and enacted 135 of them. To help put this in perspective, 89 such provisions were enacted in 2010, 77 in 2009, and only 34 in 2005. Unfortunately, this pace has not slowed much.

The measures include, but are not limited to:

  • “Personhood” proposals that would allow states to completely outlaw abortion, and even emergency contraception. These have had success in states such as Virginia and Oklahoma, and are now being pushed in Nevada.
  • “Fetal pain” laws – now in place in Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama – that ban abortion after 20 weeks;
  • Laws that require physicians to perform ultrasounds, and then show and describe the image of the fetus to the woman asking for an abortion;
  • Mandatory waiting periods – some as long as 72 hours – between ultrasounds and abortions, which negatively impact women who are poor, without transportation, and/or live in rural areas. Keep in mind that 87 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion clinic.
  • New regulations on abortion clinics, regarding things like the amount of space in janitorial rooms, and other requirements, which make it physically or financially impossible for many abortion clinics to remain open.
  • Efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides a wide range of critical reproductive health services to women across the U.S.

As I’ve previously written, these attacks are wrong on several fronts. There are no serious philosophical arguments in favor of extending the full range of moral or legal rights to embryos and fetuses. We do not grant such rights to mere “human life,” such as small collections of cells, but to beings that have at least some degree of sentience, self-awareness, or agency. Fertilized human eggs clearly lack all three, as do fetuses until at least 28 weeks, if not later. Moreover, the “fetal pain” argument is moot, as only 1.4 percent happen after 21 weeks, and women who receive late term abortions usually do so because of health reasons (in which case the interests of the mother, a fully grown human being, win out) or difficulty in setting one up (thanks to anti-reproductive rights efforts!).

Furthermore, religious doctrines simply have no place in public policy. They are either untrue or too specifically sectarian for law in a pluralistic society – or both. In sum, women ought to have access to full reproductive health care, and the privacy to make a decision over her body with her doctor.

Fortunately, many of the aforementioned reproductive rights laws have been struck down in courts as clearly violating the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, and several later decisions. Yet while attacks on reproductive rights merit serious consideration, lawmakers have taken much broader political action against women that provides stronger evidence for a “war on women.”

Consider just these five examples:

  • A large number of Senate and House Republicans opposed the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides women greater legal avenues to pursue equal pay lawsuits (which are unfortunately all too necessary);
  • Some Republicans have said they will continue to work to repeal the law;
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently repealed the state’s equal pay act, charging that it could “clog up the legal system.”
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott (who we’ve discussed here before) last week vetoed $1.5 million in funding for state rape crisis centers.
  • And Senate and House Republicans are currently holding up the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Equality is among the most basic of moral ideas, so it would seem uncontroversial to state that men and women ought to be treated equally, and that we should act to reverse situations in which this is not the case. As evidenced above, apparently many elected officials do not accept this proposition. They should be ashamed of themselves. 

Of course, many of those prosecuting the war on women are women. Consider the statements and positions of just a couple female lawmakers or political leaders across the U.S: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minnesota), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Yet whether or not all women agree with these actions, they are negatively affecting all women. First, it is hard, if not impossible, to predict how one’s feelings might change regarding abortion depending on the circumstances, such as threats to the mother’s health or severe birth defects. Even the wife of Rick Santorum, who believes abortion is always wrong, apparently took advantage of her legal access to abortion-type services. As such, I think it helps everyone to keep abortion accessible, and let people decide if they would like to partake or not. Or else you get horrible stories like these. Second, the attacks on outfits such as Planned Parenthood have an impact not on just reproductive health, but on the overall quality of a woman’s health. Yes, Planned Parenthood performs reproductive services, but they also provide a wide range of health services, such as cancer screenings, regular check ups, contraception coverage, STD-related work, and more. Lastly, we live in a bad economy in which we all have lesser choices, and most women fewer choices than men merely because of their sexual orientation. Their choices become even fewer when they lose control of their reproductive systems and are subjected to unfair economic situations.

All of this is why I think one can reasonably argue there is an ongoing social phenomenon that could be described as a war on women’s rights. It doesn’t matter whether the war is being waged by the religious right or by economic conservatives, or whether these lawmakers are doing it to distract from their lack of solutions for real political problems. It is happening. The question then becomes: what should we do? I think there are two answers. 

Increasing the scope and turning up the volume of the conversation on women’s rights is an important first step, and the Unite Women marches and rallies on April 28 will help. But if you can’t make it on April 28, there are plenty of other things you can do. Write letters to the editor. Write and comment on blog posts and online news articles. Attend local hearings and public forums and voice your opinions. Post links to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and whatever other social networks you use. Do whatever you can to spread the message.

But that is not enough. A majority of Americans could agree about reproductive rights and sex equality, and yet a small group of lawmakers could still work to pass opposition measures in Congress and statehouses across the U.S.

This is why we need not just social action, but also political action. Sign up for and fill out action alerts as much as possible (here, here, and here) and let lawmakers know that you oppose or support pending legislation. Call, write, or schedule meetings with them to state and explain your views. Write federal agendies when comment periods are open on federal regulations and rules. Hold them accountable. Tell them that they should either support your views, or face the prospect of looking for a new job next election.

You might think that all of this is relatively inconsequential, but that is not true. The more that elected officials hear from you, the more they have to consider your points of view. Remember, they want to keep their job. Also, the more that the public hears the logic and reasons for reproductive rights and sex equality, the greater the chances those who agree might get involved, and those who don’t — either they sit on the fence or lean right — might actually learn something and shift their views. Which means that politicians might have to consider your viewpoints sooner than they thought.

The kinds of social and political action I’m discussing here does not take as much time as you might think, and there is no guarantee anyone else will take up the cause. Simply put, a couple moments of your time could make a difference.

So, yes, there is a war on women — but we have the power to fight back. If you’re near New York City on April 28, please join us. Or, if you live in a different part of the country, visit UniteWomen.org to connect with a march in your neighborhood. Or, if you can’t make any of the events, take some notes from above and get involved. Anything less would leave reproductive rights and sex equality to the religious right and economic conservatives. And we’ve seen the damage they can do.

Note: this entry is also posted on Free Thinking.

What’s next for Proposition 8?

Yesterday, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that California’s ban on same-sex marriage, under the law Proposition 8, was unconstitutional. Proponents of the measure have vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court (though they first need to request the court that issued the decision to reconsider its ruling). But will the Supreme Court accept the case?

On Talking Points Memo, a couple legal experts speculate that it will not:

Several California law professors speculated to Talking Points Memo that this “narrow” focus of the ruling could mean that the Supreme Court will decline to hear the case, since the ruling is so limited to California.

Professor Jane Schacter at Stanford Law School told TPM that “the big question” is whether or not the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case, and though at this point it’s “guesswork,” the narrowness of the opinion makes it less likely that they will. “It’s much more grounded in the specifics of the California ruling,” she said. For one thing, Schacter said, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion emphasizes that the right of same-sex couples to marry had been first granted, then eliminated. For another, unlike most other states, California already essentially granted all of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples, just under a different name than “marriage.” This means that Prop 8 was simply about the designation of same-sex unions as “marriages.”

"Those two things are somewhat peculiar to California," Schacter said, meaning that the opinion doesn’t necessarily provide the basis for a nationally recognized right for same-sex couples to marry. "Because of that, the Supreme Court may feel the stakes are limited, and it’s not as necessary for them to get involved," she said.

Even if the Supreme Court does accept the case, how might it rule? On The Huffington Post, Adam Winkler weighs in:

Gay rights lawyers have mixed feelings about an appeal to the Supreme Court. Some were opposed to the Proposition 8 lawsuit from the beginning, fearing what the conservative-leaning Roberts Court might do. In so many cases dealing with high-profile, controversial issues — from affirmative action to the Second Amendment — the Court’s conservative wing has emerged triumphant. If the Court decides against marriage equality in the Proposition 8 case, it will set a precedent that may take decades to undo. Given the evidence of public views moving quickly in the direction of acceptance of LGBT rights, many gay rights activists would prefer to wait a few more years before bringing a marriage equality case to the Supreme Court.

With four Justices expected to vote against gay marriage (Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Alito) and four others expected to vote in favor (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan), how the Court rules is expected to turn on the vote of Anthony Kennedy, the usual swing vote. And that, perhaps surprisingly, buoys the hopes of many in the gay rights community.

You can read more from the Los Angeles Times here.

Equality makes you happy

Morality and happiness are two different domains of study and discussion. The ethically correct belief or action is no guarantor of happiness, nor is happiness a guarantor of ethically correct beliefs or actions. Simply put: ethical people can be miserable, and happy people can be unethical.

Yet these two subjects are sometimes intimately tied to one another. Consider, for instance, a recent essay by Jonah Lehrer in which Lehrer synthesizes a couple studies that suggest humans are happier (happiness) when wealth is more equally distributed rather than less equally distributed (ethics). As Lehrer writes:

The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good — it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better.

Freedom House launches new blog

If you haven’t already heard of Freedom House — in which case you should spend some time here — it is a non-governmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom and advocating for democracy and human rights around the world, and conducts both research and advocacy.

Last week, Freedom House finally launched a blog, Freedom at Issue. It promises to be interesting and important reading, and I suggest adding it to your reading schedule.

Guided by the findings of our surveys and reports, as well as the experiences of our staff members and partners in the field, Freedom House has decided to launch a new blog that will offer comment and analysis on the state of, threats to, and prospects for global democracy. We are pleased to welcome you to the inaugural post of Freedom at Issue.

The name of our blog, Freedom at Issue, has a distinguished pedigree. During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Freedom House published a journal, originally called Freedom at Issue and later Freedom Review, that provided indispensable commentary on the events and trends shaping the global struggle for democracy. It is our hope that this blog will perform a similar function, illuminating internal and external threats to both established and aspiring democracies, offering cross-country comparisons on important themes, drawing on Freedom House’s unique array of research data and on-the-ground activists, and generally stimulating discussion and debate on the broad range of issues that will affect the future of freedom in the world.

NY clerk quits over marriage equality

A town clerk in upstate New York has quit her job in order to avoid having to sign marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, according to news reports.

Laura Fotusky wrote in her resignation letter that she would step down as town clerk on July 21, three days before New York becomes the sixth state to allow same-sex marriage. Her reasoning was based solely on religious belief.

Fotusky was not immediately available for comment, but in her letter, dated July 11, she said she believes the Bible takes precedence over man-made laws.

"The Bible clearly teaches that God created marriage between male and female as a divine gift that preserves families and cultures. Since I love and follow Him, I cannot put my signature on something that is against God. … I would be compromising my moral conscience if I participated in the licensing procedure."

The extent to which the government should recognize religious objections to same-sex marriage has been a topic of heated debate. While most state-level same-sex marriage legislation exempts private religious groups from performing marriages, it also requires government employees to follow the law (this is the case in New York). As explained by Gov. Andrew Cuomo:

Cuomo … told reporters that he agreed with Fotusky’s decision to resign because government workers have a responsibility to enforce the law.

"When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose the laws," Cuomo said.

Fotusky is the first clerk in New York to resign over objections to same-sex marriage (a town clerk in Syracuse has also cited religious objections, but said she will follow the law). I expect more government employees wil voice their objections, but given the poor state of the economy, I think most people will swallow their morals and continue doing their job.