Across Alabama, local judges are openly defying a federal judicial order to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The New York Times reported yesterday that 44 of the state’s 67 counties were not granting licenses. The state is a checkerboard where gay and lesbian Alabamans are locked out of full citizenship across vast swaths of the state based on the whims of local officials.
As many observers have pointed out, this week’s events make Americans recall the state’s historic resistance to federal court orders striking down segregation. But they show us an image of the future, as well — or at least the future as the far right would have it.
Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s distortion of religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case, some state legislatures are considering bills that would allow government officials to decline to perform marriages that offend them religiously. A number of states are also considering legislation to let people exempt themselves from anti-discrimination and other laws if compliance would offend them religiously. While misleadingly framed as protecting religious liberty, these bills are really intended to allow discrimination and to let conservatives impose their religious beliefs on others.
So what would America look like if we allowed such massive holes to be poked in laws that are supposed to protect everyone? What if lesbian and gay couples were legally treated as outsiders in their home communities, had fewer legal rights than anyone else in those communities, and had to travel anywhere from another neighborhood to another county to find a bakery willing to make a cake for them, a hotel willing to rent them a room for the night, or an employer willing to grant them spousal employment benefits? What if a woman’s ability to find adequate healthcare depended on finding an employer and a pharmacist with compatible religious beliefs? What if people’s basic rights varied depending on where they were, and upon the prevailing religious beliefs of people in the area? What would such a religiously balkanized nation look like?
It would look a lot like Alabama does today. And it would be ugly.
For decades, the far right has fought tooth and nail to impose their religious beliefs through government fiat. They have fought to prevent gays from marrying, to prevent women from exercising reproductive choice, to have public schools indoctrinate other people’s children with their own religious beliefs — the list goes on. And when they fail at changing the laws to match their religion, they seek exemptions from those laws in the name of “religious liberty.”
As People For the American Way Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery has written in his most recent report, that isn’t what religious liberty is about. And it isn’t a vision of America that is true to our founding principles.
What color is the sky on these folks’ planet? They’re not possibly from this planet.
Alabama lawmaker announced Thursday his desire to erect a monument to the Ten Commandments at a county courthouse, arguing that the religious moral code deserves a memorial for “historical” reasons and that the proposal “has nothing to do with religion.”
Tim Guffey, a Republican county commissioner in Jackson county, Alabama, told AL.com that he would like to create a monument to “historical documents” at a courthouse in downtown Scottsboro. The hypothetical monument would feature the Bible’s Ten Commandments beside reconstructions of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“What I’m trying to do is erect a monument of historical documents,” Guffey told AL.com. “It’s the Constitution, the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence. I feel like that’s what this country was founded on. These documents helped America become the greatest country in history.”
Guffey did not elaborate as to why the suggested monument wouldn’t include other famous historical legal codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, the English Magna Carta, the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, or even the U.S. Bill of Rights, all of which have been cited by scholars,U.S. Congress, and even U.S. Presidents as deeply influential to the creation of America’s justice system. Instead, Guffey argued that the Ten Commandments were uniquely important to the construction of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“The Ten Commandments is a historical document (in this context) and it has nothing to do with religion,” he said. “It shows that these founders had great beliefs in God and the Ten Commandments and His Word and it helped them get to the point where they were. And I feel like taking that document out, if that document wasn’t there to guide them, then our Constitution wouldn’t be what it is today…But I don’t see how I could do the other two and not do that one and be truthful about it.”
Conservatives have long contended that the legal perspective of America’s Founding Fathers was almost exclusively grounded in Christianity, often arguing that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are supposedly inherently “Christian” documents (this despite the fact that Thomas Jefferson, the chief author of the Declaration of Independence, hadcomplex and often deeply ambivalent views on the Bible and religion). But Guffey’s insistence that the Ten Commandments be respected as a historically influential code appears to be part of a new trend among conservatives to appeal to history when introducing explicitly Christian symbols into public spaces. Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, recently developed a four-year curriculum for public high schools that casts the Bible as, among other things, a book that shaped America’s legal framework — including the Declaration of Independence. The curriculum, which has already been approved by an Oklahoma school board, would ostensibly be taught from a secular perspective, but Green said in a April 2013 speech that he hopes the course will teach students that the Bible’s impact, “whether (upon) our government, education, science, art, literature, family … has been good.”
Guffey expressed a similar belief when explaining the rationale behind his potential monument, telling AL.com, “They don’t teach this at school anymore.”
Alabama has a long history of debates over whether or not to display the list of laws said to be handed down by God to Moses in the biblical Exodus story. In 2001, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore erected a Ten Commandments monument in the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building, a move that ultimately resulted in his removal from office. In addition, members of the Alabama legislature have debated a number of bills in recent years to amend the state’s Constitution and allow for the display of the Ten Commandments on public property. The most recent “Ten Commandments Bill” was introduced in February,passing through the state House of Representatives before halting in the Senate. Lawmakers supported the bill reportedly defended it using a number of bizarre arguments, such as blaming school shootings, patricide, and matricide on society’s failure to display the Ten Commandments in schools and other government buildings.
An earlier version of this piece denoted Thomas Jefferson as the chief author of the U.S. Constitution. Although Jefferson’s ideas undoubtedly influenced the construction of the Constitution, he was actually abroad during the Constitutional Convention, and is more accurately remembered as the architect of the Declaration of Independence.
Democrats nuke the filibuster, Dallas honors JFK on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, and more
1. Frustrated Democrats limit the use of the filibuster
Senate Democrats went nuclear on Thursday, pushing through a landmark rule change preventing the Republican minority from filibustering most presidential nominees. The move, long threatened by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, should break a GOP blockade against President Obama’s cabinet and judicial nominees. Furious Republicans called it a power grab, suggesting the move would further polarize an already sharply divided Congress. [New York Times, USA Today]
2. Dallas honors JFK on the 50th anniversary of his death
Dallas is marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Friday with a ceremony in Dealey Plaza, where he was shot. In past years, conspiracy theoristsunconvinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone have flocked to the plaza on the anniversary. Mayor Mike Rawlings said this year’s events will honor JFK’s life and legacy with “the sense of dignity and history he deserves.” [Star-Telegram, Reuters]
3. Jury says Samsung owes Apple $290 million in damages
A California jury on Thursday ruled that Samsung must pay Apple nearly $290 million more for violating the rival smartphone maker’s patents. A jury last year had said Samsung should pay $1 billion in damages, but a judge reduced the amount by $450 million, leaving Samsung to pay $600 million. The latest decision determined how much more Samsung would have to pay to close this chapter in the rivals’ ongoing legal saga. [New York Times]
4. Yellen takes another step toward confirmation as Fed chair
The Senate Banking Committee on Thursday approved President Obama’s nomination of Janet Yellen to be the next Federal Reserve chairman. The 14-8 vote virtually assured Yellen’s confirmation, as the Senate’s Democratic majority supports Yellen, currently the Fed’s vice chair, as do several influential Republicans. Democrats also revised Senate rules Thursday to prevent the GOP minority from blocking confirmation votes by filibuster. [Wall Street Journal]
5. Skakel gets out on bond
Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel was released on $1.2 million bond on Thursday, weeks after a Connecticut judge vacated his conviction for the 1975 murder of a 15-year-old neighbor, Martha Moxley. The judge ruled Skakel did not get adequate representation in his 2002 trial. Skakel didn’t comment as he left the courthouse. Skakel’s family said his release while he awaits a new trial was a “first step in correcting a terrible wrong.” [CNN]
6. The last three Scottsboro Boys are posthumously pardoned
Alabama’s Board of Pardons and Paroles on Thursday posthumously pardoned three of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers wrongfully accused of gang-raping two white women aboard a train in 1931. Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Patterson were the last of the nine whose names hadn’t been cleared. Their convictions, by all-white juries, sparked protests and helped inspire the civil rights movement. [Reuters]
7. FCC proposes allowing travelers to use cellphones on airliners
The Federal Communications Commission is proposing letting airline passengers on specially equipped flights make cellphone calls at altitudes of 10,000 feet or higher. The Association of Flight Attendants argued that letting passengers talk away on their phones in flight could undermine safety. Tom Wheeler, the FCC’s new chairman, said Thursday that the rules against cellphones were “outdated and restrictive,” and should be reviewed. [Associated Press]
8. London police free three women held captive for decades
British police announced Thursday that they had rescued three women held captive in a London home for as many as 30 years. A man and a woman, both age 67, were arrested as part of a slavery investigation. The London Metropolitan Police said in a statement that officers began investigating the case after the Freedom Charity reported getting a call from one of the women who said she was being held against her will. [Reuters]
9. Latvian mall collapses, killing 33
The death toll from Thursday’s collapse of a shopping mall roof in Latvia’s capital has risen to at least 33, emergency workers said Friday. It was the Baltic state’s deadliest accident, at least since it won independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Rescuers said 35 survivors were injured in the Thursday collapse at the Maxima shopping mall in Riga. Three firefighters were among the dead. [CNN]
10. Eager gamers line up to buy Microsoft’s new Xbox One
Video game fanatics lined up for hours to buy Microsoft’s Xbox One when it went on sale at 12:01 a.m. Friday. It is Microsoft’s first new game console since the launch of the Xbox 360 in 2005. The debut came one week after rival Sony introduced its PlayStation 4. The PS4 is aimed more at hard-core gamers, while Xbox One is intended for a wider audience looking for an all-in-one entertainment center. [USA Today]
Did someone forget to tell the old fella that the Civil War ended in 1865?
An Alabama lawyer, Porter calls U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ‘un-American’ and intends to fight in court to repeal tough new gun-control laws passed after Newtown.
The new president of the NRA is a good ol’ Southern boy, who sounds even crazier than the group’s gun-nut mouthpiece Wayne LaPierre.
Alabama lawyer Jim Porter has called U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder “rabidly un-American” and proudly spews the Confederate line on the Civil War.
In a June speech, Porter noted the NRA was “started by some Yankee generals who didn’t like the way my Southern boys had the ability to shoot in what we call the ‘War of Northern Aggression.’ ”
“Now y’all might call it the Civil War, but we call it the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ down South,” Porter said to the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association.
He also advocates training all U.S. civilians to use standard military firearms so “they’re ready to fight tyranny.”
“Every time you take your nephew out to the gun club, every time you take your daughter skeet shooting, every time you take your grandchildren out, we’re passing on the legacy of freedom,” Porter said in the June speech.
Jim Porter says the NRA was ‘started by some Yankee generals who didn’t like the way my Southern boys had the ability to shoot in what we call the ‘War of Northern Aggression.’
He went on to say that fighting for the Second Amendment was “vital to the very fabric of this country.”
“We got the pads put on, we got our helmets strapped on, we’re cinched up, we’re ready to fight, we’re out there fighting every day,” he said to loud applause.
Nearly a year later, Porter — currently vice president of the NRA and chairman of its Legal Affairs Committee — is bent on overturning recently tightened gun laws that states, including New York, adopted after the Newtown massacre.
“At this stage in the NRA’s history, Jim Porter will be the perfect match for president,” said outgoing President David Keene.
“We will have to move to courts to undo the restrictions placed on gun owners’ rights in New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Colorado,” Keene told The Washington Times.
Porter, son of former National Rifle Association President Irvine Porter, will be in Houston on Friday to kick off the organization’s national convention.
On the eve of the three-day event, the country’s latest shooting in a public place occurred just a few miles from where the group is meeting.
Cops said a man opened fire inside Houston’s Bush International Airport on Wednesday afternoon and died in a confrontation with law enforcement officials. Police believe the man shot himself.
Porter, a former Alabama assistant attorney general, is set to begin his two-year term on Monday.
“I am honored to be able to continue their work to ensure that the inalienable rights to keep and bear firearms for the defense of one’s country, family and self is protected for future generations,” he said in a statement.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre will remain the public face of the group.
The outspoken LaPierre has bashed all government efforts to curb gun violence through legislation.
Following the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, LaPierre proposed putting armed guards in every school in America.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.
SELMA, Alabama — Vice President Joe Biden is in Selma this morning for the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the violent 1965 clash between law enforcement and protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a march for voting rights.
Images of the clash in which officers wielded billy clubs and tear gas against protesters helped galvanize support for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Biden will speak at noon at the Unity Day Brunch. He will then join a crowd expected to numbers in the thousands as the group makes the annual symbolic crossing across the bridge.
Biden’s visit comes four days after the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which requires states with a history of discrimination to get Justice Department approval before making any change to election procedure. The case is out of Alabama’s Shelby County. Shelby County argued the South and Shelby County has changed and the oversight is no longer needed.
On March 7, 1965 marchers made it just a few blocks from the churches where they had assembled. When they reached Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by state troopers and Dallas County deputies, some on horseback wielding billy clubs and firing canisters of tear gas into the marchers.
The attack was broadcast on national news programs and reported in newspapers throughout the country.
Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson called a joint session of the Congress where he proposed the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Later that year, 100 years after the end of the Civil War, African-Americans were guaranteed the right to vote.
Seemingly aware that they were outnumbered and fighting an uphill battle, the four liberal justices on the Supreme Court defended the Voting Rights Act during Supreme Court oral arguments Wednesday with a mix of sharp questions, appeals to history, and indirect rejoinders to the more conservative justices.
All four of them participated actively in oral arguments. None was more emphatic than Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
The Obama-appointed justice asked the first question of the day. She hammered Burt Rein, the lawyer representing the challengers, Shelby County of Alabama, over its record of discrimination. The county contends that Section 5 is unfair to its residents and other jurisdictions that it requires to obtain federal pre-clearance before changing their voting laws.
“Assuming I accept your premise, and there’s some question about that, that some portions of the South have changed, your county pretty much hasn’t,” Sotomayor said of Shelby County, which is 90 percent white. “In the period we’re talking about, it has many more discriminating -- 240 discriminatory voting laws that were blocked by Section 5 objections. … You may be the wrong party bringing this.”
“Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?” she asked, wondering why the Court should invalidate Section 5 if, as she argued, any formula would cover Shelby County. “Discrimination is discrimination.”
While Section 5 was taking a beating at the hands of the conservative justices, the four liberal-leaning justices targeted various audiences. Sometimes they played to each other, sometimes to the conservative justices they hoped to sway, sometimes to the future Court, sometimes to the public audience.
Justice Stephen Breyer several times tried to needle the lawyers defending the Voting Rights Act into addressing conservatives’ concerns. Other times, he did so himself.
“The disease is still there in the state,” he said. “Of course this is aimed at states. What do you think the Civil War was about? Of course it was aimed at treating some states differently than others.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took the liberty of knocking down what she viewed as a straw man argument by attorney Rein.
“Mr. Rein, you keep emphasizing over and over again in your brief registration and you said it a couple of times this morning,” she said. “Congress was well aware that registration was no longer the problem. This legislative record is replete with what they call second generation devices. Congress said up front: We know that the registration is fine. That is no longer the problem. But the discrimination continues in other forms.”
Justice Elena Kagan twice said the Section 5 coverage formula has been working “pretty well” when it comes to snuffing out voter discrimination where it’s most likely to emanate. When Rein argued that it’s the courts, not Congress, who should determine whether the coverage formula is legitimate, she sounded shocked.
“That’s a big new power you’re giving us,” Kagan said, “that we have the power to determine when racial discrimination has ended. I did not think we had that power.”
In the final moments of the argument, Sotomayor, apparently taken aback by Justice Antonin Scalia’s statement that Section 5 is a “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” put the question to Shelby County’s lawyer.
“Do you think that the right to vote is a racial entitlement in Section 5?” she asked Rein. When he dodged, she asked him again: “I asked a different question. Do you think Section 5 was voted for because it was a racial entitlement?” He dodged again.
Jim Crow is alive and well — and he has mounted a new attack on the law Martin Luther King dreamed of: the Voting Rights Act.
Today, February 27, the Supreme Court will hear a suit brought by Shelby County, Alabama, which challenges the right of the Department of Justice to review changes in voting procedure. Example: Attempts to cut the number of early voting days, to expunge “illegal alien” voters without any evidence, refusing Spanish-language ballots, have been blocked by the Department of Justice and courts because they have stopped Black and Hispanic citizens casting ballots.
Sixteen states are subject to this “pre-clearance” law, every one with a history of Jim Crow rules such as “literacy” tests — Blacks had to recite the Constitution, Whites “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Dixie moans it’s been picked on unfairly, but the “pre-clearance” states, chosen by an arithmetic formula, include all or parts of the “Confederate states” of California, Arizona, Alaska and New York.
All those above the Mason-Dixon line are on the civil-rights hot-water roster because of a history of hostility to Hispanic citizens. In 2006, for example, the Republican Secretary of State of California rejected 42% of voter registration forms because the names were “unusual” and difficult to type into records! The names, like Chávez and Muhammad, were only “unusual” for Republicans.
New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg is happy to pre-clear his city’s changes with the Justice Department and has told that to the Court. But once again, as Dr. King said in his Dream speech, in Alabama, the “Governor has his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification” — to nullify the 15th Amendment’s right to vote and to interpose himself between federal law and the enforcement of this basic American right.
And the Southland? In 2000, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris purged tens of thousands of African-Americans from voter rolls, labeling them “felons” when their only crime was VWB: Voting While Black. All — every one — were innocent. And again, in 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott targeted 180,000 voters, mostly Latinos, as illegal “alien” voters. The Governor, when challenged by the Justice Department, cut the “alien” list to 198 but in the end, could only produce evidence against one.
If it were not for Section 5, the pre-clearance law, the purges, gerrymandering and other racially bent trickery rampant in Florida, Arizona (with its profiling and harassment of Hispanic voters) and Alaska with its bias against Native Americans would be so much worse. Without review — and the threat of review — Americans would once again lose the rights that the Constitution promises, won with the blood of our Fathers.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the Jim Crow and José Crow tactics that create long lines of voters of color in Ohio and other states.
Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan signed massive expansions of the Voting Rights Act, tripling its reach. It is time to extend the law’s protections again — to Ohio, to Wisconsin, to everyone.
When every American is protected by the Voting Rights Act review of voting changes, then all of us may be secure that our votes will not be nullified by politicians abusing the voting system to seize office through tactics racist in effect, if not intent.
A half century ago this year, Dr. Martin Luther King shared his dream with America:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
“We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
King’s dream is the American Dream — which no Court should take away. It is a mighty stream which must touch all citizens in every state.
Without “pre-clearance,” the Voting Rights Act is an empty promise — with purged, blocked and intimidated voters having to protest after an election to the very officials elected by the vote thievery that put them in office.
If this Supreme Court removes “pre-clearance” Section 5 on the grounds that it does not apply to every state, then the solution is simple and just: apply pre-clearance to every state. Every American deserves a review by Justice of laws which tell us who can vote — and who can’t.
As King admonished us, we must not be satisfied when we see Black folk, a half century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, stand in line for six hours to vote whether in Miami or in Cleveland.
We petition the Court and Congress to let freedom ring.
I can’t believe that in these economic times for middle class and low income workers, that this exists at all. Are we in France during the 16th century as in… Les Misrables?
In 2010, four residents of Harpersville, Alabama filed suit against several local officials and private prison company Judicial Corrections Services, alleging that they were illegally imprisoned in the Shelby County jail.
The charges were alarming: the four inmates claim low income defendants are routinely denied adequate counsel, are not advised on their constitutional rights and — most egregiously — are saddled with outrageously high fines and bond rates that the indigent have no way of paying.
On Wednesday, Shelby County Circuit Court Judge Hub Harrington handed down his decision, and tore into the defendants:
When viewed in a light most favorable to Defendants, their testimony concerning the City’s court system could reasonably be characterized as the operation of a debtors prison. The court notes that these generally fell into disfavor by the early 1800′s, though the practice appears to have remained common place in Harpersville. From a fair reading of the defendants’ testimony one night ascertain that a more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court practices is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket. Most distressing is that these abuses have been perpetrated by what is supposed to be a court of law. Disgraceful.
Judge Harrington goes on say that defendants appearing before the Harpersville Municipal Court are “subjected to repeated and ongoing violations of almost every safeguard afforded by the Unite[d] States Constitution, the laws of Alabama and the Rules of Criminal Procedure.”
At issue are the fines that JCS is authorized to impose if an individual convicted of a crime is not immediately able to pay the imposed fine. That person is placed on “probation,” and JCS begins to collect an additional $35 fee every day the individual does not pay in full his or her penalty. If the mounting debt is not paid, JCS forwards the case back to the court and the person is imprisoned for “probation violations” with no adjudication.
The ruling, which enjoined the court and JCS from further imprisoning probation violators and added a 30 day grace period for individuals to pay off a court-ordered penalty before JCS begins to charge their $35 fee, highlights yet another problem with states’ growing reliance on private companies to run corrections services.
In Florida, lawmakers who accepted thousands of dollars from private prison companies have passed legislation to expand private prison contracts, in Arizona Governor Jan Brewer acceptedmore than $60,000 from another private prison company in exchange for favorable legislation, and in Pennsylvania, a judge was sentenced to 28 years in prison after it was revealed he channeled hundreds of young people into privately run juvenile detention facilities in exchange for lofty payouts.