Category Archives: Constitution & Controversy

Pay Them No Mind

They must have missed the "Love your neighbor" part of the Bible.

In a striking and unilateral defense of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church today, guaranteeing them the right to picket at military funerals and stage the hateful protests they’re so well-known for.

According to the SCOTUS brief on the case, Snyder v. Fred Phelps et al, the church has a constitutional right to picket funerals and stage their demonstrations, no matter how controversial the message they preach is.

For those of you who are uneducated about the WBC, let me give you a brief primer. WBC is a “church” in Kansas headed by a rapidly aging, hate-spewing ex-lawyer named Fred Phelps. The church frequently pickets military funerals or gay pride events to inform Americans that their tolerance for sin, particularly the “sin” of homosexuality, has put them on God’s black list. You may recognize them from pictures of Midwesterners holding large signs that read, “GOD HATES FAGS.” A little further research on the insane beliefs held by the Phelps’ will show that they believe that more or less everyone person who isn’t a member of their hate-mongering church has been signed up for eternal damnation for some crime or other.

Back to the Supreme Court decision! The court ruled, in an 8-1 decision in fact, that WBC does in fact have a right to say what they want where they want, no matter how much hatred is behind their words. As long as Phelps and friends adhere to the given guidelines for orderly protests/pickets, which they did in the case brought before SCOTUS, they are merely exercising their constitutional rights.

To me, this really brings up a crucial and confusing moral question: Do people have a basic right to say and believe anything they please, so long as it doesn’t bring direct harm to others? The Supreme Court answers that question with a definitive yes, and so do I. The most basic principle of the First Amendment to our constitution is the right to free speech. Even if the only things that a person or a group has to say are hateful, disagreeable, or downright wrong, that person or group has a right to say them.

Now, I’m by no means defending the opinions of the Westboro Baptist Church. On the contrary, I’m saying that, while the opinions that these people hold are utterly despicable and deplorable, they still have a right, in this country, to voice those views. Because our government is made up of so many diverse groups of people, often with diametrically opposite views, and our broader population is even more diverse, it’s impossible to say that any one view should get special treatment. While almost everyone in the country disagrees with WBC, if we were to make a law against them, then we would be institutionalizing the majority viewpoint, rather than an unbiased law. And that’s exactly what the Constitution was meant to prevent… right?

This does bring up one issue though: What if what they say is more than controversial, but outright dangerous? The UK has explicitly banned Fred Phelps and one of this daughters from entering their country, and threatened to exclude any other WBC members who tried to get in. Their reasoning is that the message of hate that the Phelps’ preach has the potential to incite hatred and violence toward gays in the country, and that this is reason enough to keep them well away from British soil. This other side of the argument is a difficult one to deal with. On the one hand, I want to say that I support the rights of all people to say and believe what they choose. But isn’t there a limit? Once a person’s belief starts inflicting terrible emotional harm on others (as WBC does at military funeral pickets), hasn’t it gone too far?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know which way I should lean on this issue. I do, however, have an answer for how to handle the WBC: Minimize their impact. As it is, the WBC makes national news more often than almost any other religious institution (though I would be hard-pressed to say that the WBC is really any kind of religion), even though the church is really only composed of a small core of insanely radical nutjobs. Because they’re so radical and hateful in their message, the church gets an incredibly disproportionate amount of coverage and attention. So, I would say that their power doesn’t come from their message, their signs, or even their protests. It comes from their infamy.

People treat the WBC as an influential force of evil in the States, which to some extent is true. But truth be told, they have almost no real power or influence on peoples’ opinions! The more the Westboro Baptist Church is treated like a force to be reckoned with, the more strongly they’ll voice their repulsive opinions. Counter-protest them when you can, tell your friends who they are, but don’t treat them as if they matter even a bit. The more distress and pain we show because of these peoples’ actions, the more they’ll continue to inflict suffering. So if you ever come across Fred Phelps and his cronies, turn around and pay them no mind, instead focusing on the people they’re trying to hurt. Because we want our children and grandchildren to look back at these people with utter disbelief, and laugh at the idea that someone could ever be so ridiculous.

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The TSA: Privacy, Pat Downs, and Power

A full body scan of an anonymous person at an airport. The TSA official here will not see the actual person scanned, but only an image like this.

In a witheringly sarcastic post that begins, “You asked for it,” the Transportation Security Administration official blog shows a set of images taken from a millimeter wave scanner, possibly the TSA’s most controversial technology in use today. The machine emits waves at an exact frequency, one at which clothing is not visible to the scanner. So, in effect, the machine performs a “virtual strip search” of the subject. Any contraband that the person is carrying is detected and rendered by the machine, allowing a TSA officer to know whether a person is carrying things they shouldn’t, without the unpleasantness of a pat down. Another technology also in use is the backscatter scanning machine, which is very similar to the millimeter wave scanner.

So, as I’m sure many of us are already aware, there is a lot of controversy about this practice. Many feel as though their privacy is being violated by this involuntary scan, which is pretty understandable. The image rendered by the scanner is a nude one (though some researchers are working on impenetrable undergarments), so whichever TSA officer is sitting in front of the computer screen is able to see any objects that shouldn’t be on the person’s body, such as a weapon, explosives, or drugs. Of course, the officer reviewing these images cannot see the actual person going into the scanner, as his or her office is far away and out of sight of people being scanned.

A little aside – If a person really strongly objects to this scan, they can choose to have a full-body pat down instead. This is much more invasive in a physical way of course, but it saves the person from a visually “invasive” scan. Just thought I’d mention that!

Down to business: Is the TSA overstepping moral boundaries? Have they been allowed to take the nation’s privacy into their own hands to an extreme degree? My answer is no. Well, mostly no at least. While the system currently in place to screen for weapons and other contraband is far from perfect, I think it’s the best that can be expected, at least for now. The images rendered by the scanners can hardly be said to be provocative, so few people should worry about any TSA officials being aroused by their “naked” bodies. Now, I’ll admit this is a pretty feeble point. But worry not! I have other reasons for my thoughts on this.

Ever since the events of September 11, 2001, the US government took on an entirely new, much more aggressive approach to national (or “homeland”) security, especially in the air. The fact that the terrorists who seized the airplanes used in the 9/11 attacks were armed with knives (which they used to kill the pilots) showed that even lethal weaponry can be well-concealed. To me, this really highlights the importance of comprehensive screening of potential airline passengers. Now, I’m not saying that every person hoping to board a plane should be rigorously checked for anything that might be possibly used as a weapon. I am saying though (perhaps in contrast to that oh-so-famous Benjamin Franklin quote about liberty) that sometimes people need to think of the world in terms larger than themselves.

This scan is hardly invasive or offensive, and gives only an vague rendering of the person’s “intimate anatomy.” These images are less revealing and personal than an illustration in an anatomy textbook, and the entire operation is performed anonymously. Now, some propose that this represents the beginning of a slippery slope toward a police state-style security apparatus in airports, and effectively say that it won’t be long before TSA officials are performing public colonoscopies in the pursuit of justice. Besides being a flimsy argument to start with, this assumes that a pattern of ever-more ridiculous security measures is in place, or that there are signs of it. What signs are there? The millimeter wave scanner was implemented a few years ago, and things haven’t changed since.

Even if they did, it would hardly be too late. If Americans are lobbying now for a loosening of airline security, then they could certainly do so again in the future, if more signs of a worsening situation arose. Frankly, there aren’t lives on the line when a person is scanned by millimeter waves. There are when someone slips a gun past security at an airport.

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New Hope for Marriage Equality

Maybe the day when LGBT individuals can have full and equal rights in the US is closer than we thought!

For once, the odds seem to be in gay rights’ favor! A number of recent events seem to be indicating that gay rights are advancing much faster than anyone might have expected only a short while ago.

Over the past months and years of Barack Obama’s presidency, many liberals and gay rights activists have been becoming increasingly frustrated toward the president for what had been his general spinelessness towards issues involving homosexuality. The president had been timid toward this crucial issue for the first half of his presidency, using carefully measured words and precisely articulated yet vague statements to postpone his having to make any kind of real statement on the issue.

But, just recently, there have been a number of crucial developments for gay rights in the States. It’s well-known by now that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy restricting homosexuality in the US Armed Forces was repealed, when President Obama signed the action into law on December 22, 2010. But it hasn’t taken effect yet! DADT is technically still in place. But it’s starting to look like Obama and the current Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, are taking steps toward really taking this ridiculous policy off the table for good.

More importantly though, the Obama administration (and accompanying Justice Department) declared on Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and the attorney general directed the Justice Department to stop defending it in court. In essence, the Obama administration is flatly refusing to defend the law any longer. This has been, I think a watershed moment, both in the advancement of equal rights for LGBT people and in Barack Obama’s presidency. It has come after two years of Obama’s middle-of-the-road attempts at politics and policy, which were a dark disappointment after his promises for “change we can believe in.”

Though the president’s views on gay marriage are hazy and non-committal at best, he has said that his thoughts on the matter are “evolving,” a word which suggests that he’s coming around on this issue. About time! His decision to stop defending DOMA is not only an incredible step forward for gay rights, it’s also a signal that he may be starting to move back toward the more lofty promises of his campaign, and really bring about positive change. It seems like the president has realized that he’s not going to gain the support of conservative voters either way, so he’s made the (probably wise) decision to consolidate his voter base on the liberal side of politics he comes from. Finally, Obama is moving from a half-hearted defender of gay rights to a much more direct and aggressive advocate for progress.

But that’s not all! There’s more! (obscure Dan Savage reference!) The general conservative response to the administration’s decision has been half-hearted and feeble, to say the least. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney have said nothing about it so far, and the strongest politicians’ reaction came from Mike Huckabee, who only said the president’s decision was “utterly inexplicable.” The responses to this support the argument that opposition to gay marriage is fading in the Republican party (thank God!). But why is this happening? One theory that’s been proposed, and I agree, is that our current economic crisis has changed the subject of controversy from social issues to financial ones, so most Republicans’ first concern at the moment is budget-cutting, not “defending traditional family values.”

All the same, conservative religious groups like the Family Research Council have of course given their two cents, insisting that Obama’s decision is simply pandering to gay rights groups. But, in this author’s opinion, things are looking up for gay rights, overall! DADT has been (nominally) repealed, DOMA has been directly challenged by the current administration, and conservatives are putting up less resistance to the advancements of gay rights and marriage equality. And while there’s still a long road ahead, the last few weeks and months have seen gay rights moving forward in leaps and bounds.

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Plastic Bags and the Place of Government

The future of shopping!

I live in Oregon, a state typically known for its environmental friendliness and urban liberalism (centered in Portland of course). I’m pretty proud to be a resident of this wonderful state, especially now that I can be involved in its political affairs (and by that I mean I’m old enough to vote).

Recently, a bill was introduced in the Oregon senate, Senate Bill 536. The bill would ban the use of plastic bags for check-out in almost every retail setting in Oregon, and require stores to charge 5 cents for each paper bag used. The idea of the bill is to encourage Oregon shoppers to bring their own reusable bags more often, not to tax shopping.

Now, I want to say first that I think this is a great idea. Plastic bags have become almost universally symbolic of retail shopping and are hugely convenient, but have a terrible impact on the environment. I think that this bill is a great way to encourage Oregon shoppers to be more environmentally responsible, and it could be another badge of pride for Oregon’s history of environmental care.

But on the larger scale, this brings up an interesting question of how far the government can and should take their control over the personal lives of the governed. This is a question I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. On the one hand, I want to say that the government should keep its paws out of peoples’ personal lives, and let people allow their own morals to guide their decisions. But on the other hand, I think that government has the unique power, opportunity, and most importantly, privilege to help improve the world we live in and improve the lives of the people that live in it.

Now, on some issues, I would say the government has a responsibility to mind its own business. Some of these issues would be things such as sexual expression (regarding most kinds of sexuality; I’m not condoning pedophilia), religious and spiritual values, and a few other very personal decisions and traits. These are the areas of life that government should avoid intrusion into (and incidentally the ones that many GOP lawmakers seem most interested in meddling with). However, there are some areas of our lives that can be bettered by a governing presence in them. There are too many people who view the government as a purely negative, invasive organization whose only goal is the restriction and removal of their civil liberties.

This is a ridiculous and painfully close-minded view of government. This institution was always meant (in America at least) to be a governing body put in power by the people, and there for the betterment of the peoples’ lives. Personally, I believe that good government not only outlines and enforces fair law, but also helps build and support a better and healthier society. Now, most of the time, I think this should take the form of putting laws and legislation into place that prevent wrongdoing, or providing specialized services (such as Medicare or Medicaid) that can’t necessarily be fully provided privately. However, I think there are many circumstances, such as this one, where the government must encourage citizens to act as they ought to. Environmental responsibility doesn’t come naturally (pun intentional) to everyone, though it should, so perhaps the government has a duty to help the people do their duty.

My liberalism shows pretty strongly here, I know. I never promised to be bipartisan! But here’s my point: While it may seem questionable to some to put a lot of authority in governmental hands, they frankly have much more power than the average individual. And while it could be argued that private groups (companies) can provide many of these services, these companies would inevitably have the wrong motivation for social good: money. The simple fact of the matter is that organizations motivated by profit aren’t philanthropic by nature. Jumping off from this, some form of government is necessary for what I mentioned earlier, where the government sometimes has to encourage the people to do the right thing. This shouldn’t extend to the private areas of peoples’ lives, such as their sexual or religious or political expression, but the government does have a right and duty, to a certain extent, to regulate the ways commerce is executed.

I like this bill not only because I agree with its sentiment, but because of the interesting point I think it helps illustrate: There aren’t just rights associated with being a citizen of a country, but duties as well, and I think environmental responsibility is one of these duties. Our government not only has a duty to protect militarily, but environmentally, even if in some cases that means from its own citizens.

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Freedom from the State?

Quite the idea, but is it the right one?

Ten years ago, a young man named Jason Sorens published an article in The Libertarian Enterprise, a libertarian web journal (admittedly, one with a tendency toward sensationalism). Sorens challenged his fellow libertarians on their collective failure to elect any libertarian politicians to any federal positions. He also summarized his ideas for a new secessionist movement. His ideas got a large response, and he began organizing what he called the Free State Project. The project’s goal is to inspire 20,000 people to move to the state of New Hampshire, in an effort to turn the state into a kind of bastion of libertarian ideals, and perhaps get more momentum going in the political sphere, at least in New Hamphsire. At the time of this writing, they have 10,641 participants, and 889 of those have actually made the move (this from their website).

I actually heard about this from a Facebook ad for a documentary called Libertopia, which was made to explain the Free State Project and profile some of the key members of it. I watched the trailer for the movie, and it fascinated me, not necessarily because I agreed with all that was said, but because it was just a such a strange new idea to me.

The core idea behind libertarianism is the minimization of the state. Of course, there’s a wide range of specific philosophies and approaches to bringing this about, but all of them focus on this one idea of a small state, if any. Now, I quite like this ideology in theory, but it gets a little (by which I mean a lot) more complicated in practice. Rousseau was famous for saying, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” It’s true that humanity has become tied up and bogged down in an often complex and rigid system of rules and regulations, many of which may seem utterly meaningless. Taxation is particularly odious to libertarian thought, as it sometimes comes across as nothing less than state-sanctioned robbery.

On the one hand, I can agree with these complaints. I agree that there are some areas where government intervention and interference is too strong, especially areas that relate to such personal matters as sexual orientation or religious preference. I think government, particularly the American government, has taken far too much into its own hands as regards gay rights and freedom of religion, with many politicians being elected based on their Christian beliefs rather than their qualifications, and states being as conflicted as they are about the marriage rights of gays and lesbians.

That said, I still think that government is both necessary and proper, even though it often falls short of its obligations and oversteps its restrictions. For one thing, few are the societies or civilizations that last long with no civil government in place and no law but a call for mutual harmony and peace. I feel I should note here that this isn’t a universal principle of libertarianism, but more of a hallmark of anarchism (one of its subgenre). A number of libertarians, particularly minarchists, simply insist on a smaller state, one that more or less only provides physical protection and prevention of fraud, theft, etc.

Now back to the Free State Project! As I mentioned before, I think this is a really interesting and novel idea. The founder, Sorens, noted that this movement is another political migration, in the vein of the Mormon move to Utah or the dispersion of Amish communities. But what’s the right response to it? As I mentioned, I like the idea of an increase in freedom, especially in the areas of religion and sexuality. I don’t think that the state should be minimized almost to the point of disappearance, but I do think it’s possible that American politics is due for a thorough examination, from the ground up. While our representative democracy is a fairly good system, and one that’s definitely much better than the governments in many other countries, I think there frequently is an abuse of power, on both sides of the aisle. The Free State Project might be taking a more extreme approach to fix this than I would, but maybe they have the right idea: A restructuring of state-level government, one piece at a time.

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God & Government

Just as it should be.

“Separation of church and state.” It’s one of those phrases that gets thrown around the political arena endlessly, and permeates almost all talk involving the role of religion in government (and really, vice versa as well).

But what exactly does (and should) this mean? That’s where the conflict starts arising.

The phrase itself isn’t actually found in the Constitution, but instead in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote about said document, in which he praised the American people for building a “wall of separation” between the church and the state in the form of the First Amendment.

A number of conservative Christians claim that “separation of church and state” is found nowhere in the Constitution, but it seems crystal clear that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment doesn’t want the state to influence the church, and especially doesn’t want the church to influence the state, at least outside of the normal voting rights of members of the church. “No law respecting an establishment of religion” seems pretty black and white to me.

And yet, as usual, there’s conflict. The issue from the typical Christian’s viewpoint though, is that God unilaterally supersedes government, no matter what. I hope it’s as obvious to my readers as it is to me that this is an incredibly dangerous way of thinking, at least from the perspective of the general public. The religious right is already adept at insisting that all members of American society should adhere to their definition of what is right. In doing this, they are both invoking and revoking the First Amendment simultaneously.

Let me explain what I mean by this. The religious right (and, to a lesser extent, the majority of the evangelical Christian movement) is invoking their First Amendment right to freedom of religion, refusing to let the government repress their religious expression, which is a good thing. But at the same time, they’re essentially saying that all citizens of the US must respect their establishment of religion. Laws that are brought into being out of religious conviction are inherently un-Constitutional, as they turn the state into a vehicle of whichever religion those convictions sprang from (mostly Christianity).

So many evangelical Christians (I’m sort of zeroing in on this one religious group, I know. I give no excuse for this, having been one in past) have such a strong “God over government” mentality that they don’t hesitate at all in their willingness to trample the rights (and sometimes humanity) of others to do the “godly” thing. In a democracy, disdain for the authority of government in some ways shows a disdain for the rights and authority of the governed, because the authority of said government is derived from the consent of the governed. The laws and protections afforded by the government don’t just reflect the desires of the president or Congress, they reflect the desires and needs of the people under said government. And if the religious right thinks that that government, the one whose job it is to protect religious and ideological minorities (no matter how much disagreement the evangelical Christian community raises), is still beholden to a homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic God (just to give a few religious right examples), then they will stop at nothing to mow down the institutions of that government that they don’t think their God would agree with.


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The NRA’s Stranglehold

The NRA has always been known as a powerful force in American politics. With nearly 4 million members, the National Rifle Association has been ranked as the most influential lobbyist group. Of course, it doesn’t help that America is one of the most gun-happy nations on Earth.

The most basic precept of the NRA’s policy is “the promotion of firearm ownership rights as well as marksmanship, firearm safety, and the protection of hunting and self-defense in the United States,” according to the Wikipedia article detailing the group (yes, I regard Wikipedia as a mostly valid source). According to many members and proponents of the NRA, their purpose is to protect Americans’ “second amendment rights,” which in their minds means the ownership of firearms.

Now, this is America, and people have the right to express their views and ideas in a civilized manner. Members of the NRA have just as much right to endorse gun ownership as members of Planned Parenthood have to endorse proper use of birth control (cue blatant plug for Planned Parenthood). But time and time again, the arguments and ideas of the NRA have been called into question, and we’re beginning to find that other aspects of this group are being called into question as well.

Many proponents of “gun freedom” (a term I just BS‘d into existence) argue that studies have repeatedly shown that gun ownership improves the safety of communities. And, to a certain extent, they’re right. Many studies do seem to indicate that gun ownership reduces violent crime. But in an article recently published in the New York Times, I read of the political machinations piloted by the NRA in an effort to stymie research that might make guns seem, you know, dangerous.

I’d encourage you to read said article, as it will do a lot more than I can to show you what I’m talking about (damn professional journalists). But the gist of it is this: The NRA is using legislative strong-arming to deny funding to the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC). Now, the NCICP was previously responsible for researching the potential hazards of having a firearm in the home, and thus funded research on the subject. Yet somehow, the NRA managed to dig its gunpowder-coated claws into the $2.6 million reserve of money used to do this research, claiming that this kind of research is too partisan (not that the NRA is partisan or anything like that).

The NRA even managed to squeeze this phrasing into an appropriations bill for the CDC: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” (The funds referred to are the $2.6 million, which were restored to the CDC, but specifically designated for traumatic brain injury research.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, unless the NRA has a gun to your head too, you can probably see that the organization that put this “non-partisan” measure into effect via lobbying is about as partisan as one can possibly imagine! In my thinking, it’s a heinous crime that a lobbying group can hold so much sway over legitimate research about gun control. Now, I myself am an advocate of gun control, but regardless of one’s opinion on this matter, one can hardly justify this kind of manipulation of safety research. Whether or not guns in the home have the potential to increase the danger level of the household, research must be done on both sides of the debate.

And really, if the NRA is so sure that guns are the safest thing since the butter knife, then they shouldn’t be getting so worked up about this kind of research. Because after all, who ever heard of a gun killing anybody?


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