Saturday, July 19, 2014

Searching for Edward Snowden

A recent Wyoming Tribune-Eagle headline was intriguing. “Embarrassing government records can stay hidden,” described a Wyoming Supreme Court holding that the public records law doesn’t really mean what it says.

What is this thing that public officials have about keeping their work secret from the voters?

The Court’s decision permits public officials to hide public documents upon which they rely in reaching public policy decisions. Having served in both the legislative and executive branches of Wyoming’s state government, I can assure you that these sorts of documents are among the most critical if the public wants to really know why certain decisions were made and just who participated in making them.

That raises a question “Where is an Edward Snowden when we need him or her ?

Edward Snowden became, for many, a pariah, a traitor to his country, and a hunted man in exile. The most powerful forces in the most powerful government in the world issued hunting licenses for Snowden. If anything, he’s become a metaphor for the consequences of severe truth-telling.

Remember the Pentagon Papers? Daniel Ellsberg was the “Edward Snowden” of his day. Ellsberg released them to the New York Times, revealing for the first time that the U.S. had secretly bombed Cambodia and Laos, illegally enlarging the scale of the Vietnam War. The papers also revealed the fact that our government knew the war was unwinnable while they continued sacrificing the lives of young men and women.
For his truth-telling, Ellsberg was charged with several felonies including conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property. Those charges were dropped when it was learned that other secret operations under the Nixon administration included burglarizing Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.

Wyoming could use an Edward Snowden or a Daniel Ellsberg.

Admittedly the issues are not so consequential nor the sort of international sensations involved in the classified material Snowden released. The release of Wyoming’s secrets would not send the truth-teller to Moscow, Rawlins or Lusk. Yet they matter.

The court says officials who may be embarrassed if we actually know how they reached a decision and with whom they consulted along the way can hide the truth. The ruling creates a game of cat and mouse. The court sided with cats who fear embarrassment if their deliberations were known to the mice. (Note: That fear hasn’t deterred the legislature form doing some pretty embarrassing things.)

Wouldn’t the objectives of an educated electorate benefit if we knew what went into making the otherwise inexplicable decision to allow the fracking of oil and gas wells in Fremont County, which led to the severe pollution of underground water supplies? The public would likely be shocked to know the candidly partisan matters upon which legislators and the governor agreed in conspiring to deny 18,000 Wyomingites health insurance by refusing to expand Medicaid.

When this and other columns issued public records requests for emails discussing the decision of the University of Wyoming to rid the campus art the energy industry didn’t like, we learned that public officials were saying one thing privately and other things publicly. When that happens, we should know.

Now our Supreme Court has given them protection from public disclosure. If the truth-tellers tell only the “truth” they are required to tell by law and court rulings, the public will never learn the real truth. Snowden and Ellsberg are extreme examples. Their truth-telling violated the law but so did the secret activities of those public officials who were embarrassed by the disclosures.

The impacts must be balanced. History has proved that public officials make better, more accountable decisions when they fear their actions may appear on the nightly news or the front page of a newspaper. Secrecy is an impediment to good government especially when the quality of government depends on a well-informed electorate.

Public office-holders who “fear embarrassment” are in the wrong vocation. But they won’t fear embarrassment if the Wyoming Supreme Court’s word is the last word. Where is an “Edward Snowden” when we need one?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hobby Lobby 1- America 0

How did contraceptives become a religious freedom issue? Logic would dictate that those who oppose abortion for religious reasons should support contraceptives as one means of avoiding unplanned pregnancy. But logic left the building about the time that Barack Obama entered it.

Today “religious freedom” includes the “right” of corporations to impose fringy religious beliefs on its employees. The “Hobby Lobby rule” resulted from that company’s objection to an Obamacare provision requiring insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Hobby Lobby (HL) has no objection to insurance coverage for drugs enabling their male employees to have an erection lasting up to four hours before seeking medical treatment. But they have religious objections to women using prescribed medicines to prevent pregnancy resulting from those erections.

HL’s full page 4th of July ad in this and hundreds of other newspapers nationwide reveals their ultimate objective. It’s not that much different from those of the Taliban. The Arabic word "Talib" describes those who seek religious illumination, a rather tame way to describe those who force their religious views on others. The Taliban uses violence. HL uses the five ideologues on the high court.

But the Hobby Lobbyists have the same goal. Their ad dredged up out-of-context founding fathers’ quotes to support the claim that the US is their kind of religious nation. Interestingly they omitted any quote from Thomas Jefferson, the intellectual “father” of our nation. He expressed his concerns in the Virginia Act Establishing Religious Freedom.

[God] chose not to propagate (religious views) by coercions, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”

Jefferson knew “religious freedom” when he saw it. What Hobby Lobby seeks is not religious freedom but religious coercion. On a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court opened an era of propagating narrow, minority religious beliefs using the coercions against which Jefferson warned.

Anti-contraceptive religion is not mainstream American religious doctrine. Even so, according to the Supreme Court, a closely held corporation may impose its religious beliefs on its serfs regardless of how fringe those beliefs are. What’s next? What about the fringe fundamentalists who believe the apostle Paul was speaking against integration and interracial marriages when he wrote in 2nd Corinthians 6:14, "What fellowship hath light with darkness?"

Do you think the five ideologues on this Court will feel the same when a Muslim-owned corporation requires female employees to wear veils?

Back to contraceptives. How did contraceptives become a cultural and political dividing line?

In 1968, after Pope Paul VI condemned abortion, the pontiff added a condemnation of contraception. “Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.”
That raises the question of whether Hobby Lobby’s insurance includes “direct sterilization” through vasectomies. And it raises other issues, like why on a planet increasingly characterized by the unsustainability of population growth does any church still feel compelled to order adherents to go forth and multiply?
Two decades after Pope Paul’s directive, the Vatican released the "Vademecum for Confessors" which states, "The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception.”
We had that debate in the 60s. Those who thought contraceptives were intrinsically evil lost.  Those who saw contraceptives as a way of halting unplanned or unwanted pregnancies and controlling population growth made the more persuasive case. Religious beliefs as lived out on this issue are almost unanimous. Those who oppose the use of contraceptives are a tiny minority.  The Guttmacher Institute says, “More than 99% of women aged 15–44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method.”
The religionists could not make their case from the pulpit of the church. They turned to the bench of the courtroom. Soon they’ll return to the courts to further propagate their cause by coercion. The Taliban could learn a lot from these folks.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Humans make nests, God makes Hornets

The second president of the United States was a Christian…well sort of. Born to a Puritan family, John Adams converted to Unitarian Universalism. His beliefs were rooted in Jesus’s teachings but his adherence to UU views denying the Trinity and questioning the divinity of Jesus was controversial.

Adams once said, “Ever since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate a free inquiry? Touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your legs and hands, and fly into your face and eyes.”

In our times, many of those nests have been disturbed. The hornets of church dogma fly into the faces of those who see things differently. Twenty-first century church wars are front-page stories.

The Mormons excommunicated Kate Kelly, founder of a women’s group, because her organization staged demonstrations to permit women to join the faith’s lay clergy. The harsh punishment is obviously designed to send a message in the hopes of putting a quick end to the nest disturbing.

The Methodists recently defrocked Frank Schaefer for presiding at his son’s same-sex wedding. On appeal, a higher authority reversed the decision, putting Schaefer back in the pulpit. It’s uncertain what disturbed the nest most, the wedding or the appellate decision.
Church wars over marriage equality rage throughout most denominations. The Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly June vote to allow Presbyterian ministers to preside at same-sex weddings will unfortunately mean the exodus of some members. The differences on this issue are irreconcilable for many. Just as the Presbyterians lost congregations when it voted to ordain gays and lesbians others may leave in the wake of this decision.
This isn’t the first issue to initiate church wars. Social issues have walked through the church doors and sat in the pews or stood at the pulpit since the nation’s founding.
The Revolutionary War was a struggle for freedom and independence for most Americans. But for many church members it created a conflict between loyalty to what became the United States and their oath to the King of England. More than half the colonial Anglican priests gave up their ministries rather than violate their promise to serve the King.
Next came slavery. Mainline Protestantism tried, without success, to deal with slavery. Some denominations voted to excommunicate members who bought and sold slaves. Methodists found such rules unenforceable and withdrew them.
Virginia Baptists denounced slavery. Kentucky's Elkhorn Baptist Association tried to draft a resolution against slavery in 1791 but it proved a hot potato and the association dropped it.
Presbyterians in New York and Philadelphia called for members to gradually end slavery in 1787. In 1818, anti-slavery preacher George Bourne insisted on slavery's cessation. Like Rev. Schaefer, Bourne was defrocked.

When the 1844 Georgia Baptist Convention appointed a slave owner as missionary to the Cherokee Indians, his petition for approval was denied. Southern Baptists then withdrew and formed the Southern Baptist Convention.

Methodists founded their first anti-slavery association in 1834. When Georgia's slave-owning bishop was suspended, Southerners withdrew and formed the Southern Methodist Church

In the 20th century, the “Red Scare” visited its divisions on American churches. Charges that some churches were soft on communism dated to the Chinese Revolution of 1949, and critics found it easy to apply that rhetoric to antiwar protesters and civil rights marchers.

Church wars were fought over the civil rights movement and the war in Viet Nam.

These issues have political implications. They are also spiritual as they deeply impact the lives of people. Christianity was founded because of divisions with Judaism. Divisions are a part of our spiritual journey, a winnowing process that allows us to grow.

Why should issues that divide Americans not divide the church? Jesus said, “I didn’t come to bring peace but a sword.” He knew truth always collides with dogma and some nests ought to be disturbed.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Waiting on Wyoming-Again!

Wyoming is the only state not participating in the Refugee Resettlement Program. Forty-nine other states are helping our government meet the needs of refugees from all over the world. Why not Wyoming?

The governor’s reluctance to proceed probably has to do with the reaction last spring when he made the suggestion that Wyoming join the other states. The trolls came out enforce suggesting Mead had forfeited his conservative credentials.

Milder comments included, “Anyone bringing in moslem (sic) future jihadi should not be leaders of anything” and “we don’t need WETBACKS in the US. We need EDUCATED PEOPLE, not people who are here to take taxpayer’s money.” Others were, as the governor pointed out, even more racist.

Mead called out the racists, saying they don’t reflect Wyoming values, adding, “Let’s not have the debate in terms none of us would be proud of.” Amen.

However, the best response to their ignorance would be to immediately implement the program. If forty-nine other governors from Red, Blue, and Purple states, have signed on, how much more study is required?

A recent article in “The Wyoming Lawyer,” a publication of the Wyoming State Bar Association, UW law professor Suzan Pritchett points out that even without our participation, refugees are coming to Wyoming. But they’re coming to a state that doesn’t have the framework in place to provide them with the assistance necessary to access health care, job training language training, or housing.

The other states are prepared to meet those needs with access to federal grants for helping refugees become successful, contributing citizens.

Part of the political problem is the unwillingness of some to understand the difference between undocumented immigrants and refugees. As Professor Pritchett explains, “Refugees have been forced to flee their countries because of persecution …and because their governments are unable or unwilling to protect them.

“Migrants, on the other hand, voluntarily choose to leave their countries for a variety of reasons including work, study, and family unification.”

Federal law imposes a high level of scrutiny including medical examinations, security clearances, and background checks on those claiming to be refugees before they become eligible for participation.

Relocating refugees is not simply an act of charity. Most refugees are bright, motivated people who have the ability to improve our lives as well as their own. Manal Elzeen’s story is told on the Office of Refugee Resettlement website. Manal and her family left Sudan to seek asylum in the U.S. She became certified, meeting basic health and safety requirements for child care and immediately began caring for children.  “She decided she wanted to go beyond certification and meet the additional requirements for licensing which includes getting a Child Development Associate credential.”

Bertine Bahige took a long, winding road to Wyoming after arriving in Washington DC, learning English and working at a Burger King. The Casper Star-Tribune told the story about how he “hid under his bed while gunshots echoed throughout his hometown of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He watched a rebel smack his mother unconscious with the butt of a gun.
“Rebel groups fleeing Rwanda invaded the DRC in the years after the 1994 genocide. They were looking for child soldiers and shares of the country’s mineral wealth. They kidnapped 13-year-old Bertine and one of his sisters in 1996. He hasn’t seen his mother or nine siblings since.”
For two years he was forced to serve as a child soldier before escaping and eventually coming to America. He received a scholarship from the University of Wyoming and has become a math teacher in Gillette.

Joining forty-nine other states to provide coordinated services to folks like Manal and Bertine might not make the governor very popular among far-right Republicans. They aren’t going to vote for him anyway.

Americans are still haunted that when we refused to allow 1000 Jewish refugees to enter the country on the SS St. Louis in 1939, a quarter of the passengers died in concentration camps. Maybe this is an opportunity to atone.