Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The legislature wants to drug test grandparents who are raising their own grandchildren. Shame on them.

In 2003, Governor Dave Freudenthal appointed me director of the Department of Family Services. At the press conference announcing the appointment, Bob Beck of Wyoming Public Radio asked, “What happened to all the people who were kicked off the rolls after welfare reform?” I didn’t know but said I’d find out. I did.

Wyoming welfare rolls dropped by 90% when Congress reformed welfare in 1996. The state received national recognition, but no one knew what happened to all those children and families. Who cared?

I learned they went to work. Welfare reform promised that as you were denied public benefits, there would be jobs with livable wages. Ever heard of bait and switch? It’s when a salesman tells you one thing in order to make a sale but doesn’t deliver. The folks who left the welfare rolls were victims of bait and switch.

They became a forced labor supply for employers who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay a livable wage. They went to work for low wages in jobs with no benefits. Conservatives who said women should stay home and take care of their kids were only talking about upper class women. Poor women, they dictated, needed to get a job. But one job didn’t pay the bills. Many got two, some three.

Heroism in my mind but still, after all those sacrifices, they are subjected to the same old stereotyping and scapegoating. Last spring my successor, Steve Corsi, current director of the Department of Family Services, told legislators 30% to 40% of people who enroll in Wyoming Medicaid come dressed like him, in a suit and tie, driving an Escalade. Corsi said, “There is nothing we can do about it.” The argument had great political appeal. Legislators frothed at the mouth and vowed revenge. Few politicians lose votes beating up the poor. 

But Mr. Corsi’s argument has a big disadvantage. It is not true.

Yet it’s the same kind of uneducated view leading legislators to introduce bills like HB82. The bill’s sponsors include Representatives Lorraine Quarberg and Matt Teeters. They receive thousands in agricultural subsidies while arguing that if you are receiving benefits for the poor, you should not object to having to pee in a cup so that that state can test your urine. Quarberg and Teeters are among the legislators receiving many times more public dollars in public funds than a welfare recipient could dream of.
The real question is whether legislators who think this a good idea, or a DFS director who believes they all drive Cadillac SUV’s, have ever met one of the people they want to drug test. I have. As DFS director I wanted to know who they were, how they lived. I drove across the state, sat with some of them, and heard their stories. BTW, I never saw an Escalade in the driveway. Not one.
But I did meet a lot of grandparents raising their grandchildren, struggling to put food on the table and buy school clothes. Two-thirds of the people who’ll be drug tested under this bill are those grandparents. The other third are mostly disabled. Most, if not all, cannot work and they certainly can’t afford drugs. That’s why when Florida passed this law, they found only 2% of those tested to be using. Their program cost the state far more than it saved.
If those legislators met these people, they’d be ashamed of sponsoring this legislation. The law is probably unconstitutional. A federal judge in Florida ruled the U.S. Constitution protects even poor people from politicians who get traction by requiring them to take drug tests in order to receive federal benefits.
But we shouldn’t have to rely on federal judges. The people voted for all of these legislators because they parroted the magic words. Government was too big. Government, they said, should get out of our lives. What they apparently meant is that government is too big when it regulates business or protects the environment.
But, for some legislators, a government that can’t drug test grandparents is apparently just too small.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Is this the best way to choose a President? I don't think so.

America needs a better way to choose presidential candidates. Let’s go to the heart of the problem. Let’s not nibble around the edges. Let’s make fundamental reforms.

The current primary process leaves no one standing and gives voters no real choice. The debates, Super Pacs, distortions, outright lies and constant, negative news cycle expose the system for what it has become. Our democracy cannot survive this.

The problem isn’t candidates or their consultants. It’s not the PACS and Super Pacs that finance them. The problem is voters who rely on those tactics in making one of the most critical judgments of a democracy. Candidates do what they do because it works. It works because most voters have become lazy.

America has diluted the responsibility of the voter, using slogans like, “It doesn’t matter whom you vote for just so you vote.” Nonsense. Of course it matters. But if voters only know what they hear from candidates’ talking points or 30-second TV commercials, they should not be voting at all.

Voters who fail to educate themselves on the complicated issues of a presidential campaign become sitting ducks for those who have enough money to create the most alluring media. Uneducated voters are prime targets for campaign consultants who know how to push the right buttons, use the most inflammatory words, and develop messages with the intent of covering or altering the facts.

If voters are either unable or unwilling to educate themselves enough to be genuine players in the electoral process, we should change who gets to vote, at least in the primary.

What if we chose party nominees like we choose juries?

Juries make thousands of tough decisions everyday. Unlike the primary process, the jury process assures decisions will almost always be informed and fair. Those jury decisions with which you disagree with are ones the media has targeted with their own spin. Even then, 9 times out of 10, you’d have reached the same conclusion if you’d sat through the trial and actually heard the evidence rather than the media version.

We’d never consider allowing voters to decide the fate of those charged with criminal offenses. That’s the duty of a jury of their peers, carefully chosen and willing to listen to the evidence. Why not require the same for those who choose a president?

In courtrooms, experts select the jurors. Lawyers, familiar with the facts, question or voir dire prospective candidates for juror. Questions must be relevant to that person’s qualifications to serve. Members of the jury pool are asked about their attitudes, knowledge, leanings, and prejudices. Upon hearing the answers, those who best know the facts choose who will set on the jury and who will be excused.

What if each party chose a small group of people with a depth of knowledge about the issues to “voir dire” the candidates? Anyone who wanted to run could be in the “candidate pool.” No TV commercials, no theatrics, just the candidates and the experts, face-to-face on the issues. A knowledgeable group of persons asking the questions would have only one goal, i.e. identify the candidate best qualified to run against the other parties’ candidates in the general election.

Candidates for nomination would be required to know what they’re talking about. Imagine that! They couldn’t hide behind the masks the media create for them today. The selection process would far better educate voters than what we offer today. There would be no need to raise huge sums of money. Super Pacs would be irrelevant.

Once the parties chose a nominee, all voters, not the Electoral College, would make the final choice from the nominees with the general election campaign publicly financed. Funding should be restricted to amounts restrictive enough to require candidates to actually campaign for office rather than resort to media images and messages.

The current system is an unbecoming charade and doesn’t produce a real choice. We need a change that will restore dignity to our democracy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

From yesterday's sermon at Highlands Presbyterian Church

The last several weeks, the lectionary has focused on lepers and the response of Jesus to them. Why so much emphasis on lepers? There have always been lepers and lepers will always be among us. Jesus wanted us to know how lepers are created and how his followers are supposed to respond to them.

Mark 1:40-45   A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity,* Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy* left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus* could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
The Bible Jesus read was clear. This man, this leper was unclean and unwelcome by Biblical rules…he was violating the scriptural. Jesus was not unaware of that…he knew the rules, he had read the book…he could quote line and verse as well as the next rabbi.

In the 5th Chapter of Numbers Jesus read that “The LORD said to Moses, "Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one having a discharge, and every one that is unclean through contact with the dead; you shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell." And the people of Israel did so, and drove them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.”
In the 13th Chapter of Leviticus Jesus read the rules, “Then the priest shall examine him, and if the diseased swelling is reddish-white on his bald head or on his bald forehead, like the appearance of leprosy in the skin of the body, he is a leprous man, he is unclean; the priest must pronounce him unclean; his disease is on his head.  "The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.”

Lepers were unclean and unwelcome. They were not permitted to come into houses of worship, could not get work, and were ostracized by family and friends.

Put yourself in the leper’s shoes. You are one-day enjoying life as a member of the community and then you see it. Actually your wife or husband sees it first. There was a small red patch on your skin. And then another. You began to feel soreness. It became more and more painful, the number of spots grew. You prayed and prayed it would go away; you covered the spots when you went into public.

But eventually, you could no longer hide who you had become. It was not your fault. You did nothing to bring this on, but the spots had become too many and too large to hide. Everyone could see that by the rules of the church, you had become unclean…and unwelcome.

You are now taking great risk in walking these streets. The scripture has taught everyone that you are not clean, the Bible and men of God all agree…you are to be ostracized. 

But here he is…taking the risk of death by stoning, in his despair…approaching a rabbi. And this rabbi, Jesus, is also violating the clear and certain words of the Bible. God had commanded the people of Israel to marginalize lepers, to exile them and not to touch them.
The luck of the draw is a term we use to describe the force that seems to operate for good or ill in a person's life, events that seem random in shaping our circumstances and opportunities. It’s the luck of the draw that made this man a leper. Through no fault of his own, he acquired this loathsome disease. He didn’t ask for it, didn’t want it, but here he was a leper. The luck of the draw works two ways, for good and for ill.

It’s the luck of the draw that determined I would be a white heterosexual male American Christian living in a world that gives great benefits to white heterosexual male American Christians. Nothing I did, nothing I earned or deserved. Just the luck of the draw.

Isn’t the luck of the draw a precarious, unfair way to determine opportunities and outcomes in life? Actually…it is an unchristian way to determine a person’s value. And that is what this story is all about. It was not the luck of the draw that put that leper in the path of that rabbi on that morning. It was a God who wanted to make clear that a strict reading od the Bible should never lead to hate and marginalization of any of God’s people.

Consider this for a moment. How much does my life change if any one, just one of those descriptors change?

If instead of being a white heterosexual male American Christian…let’s say I drew a different card and was instead a Native American heterosexual male Christian. One change in the cards produces a life so different from the one I was given. Suddenly I find myself on a Reservation like Wind River. I am likely unemployed, living in a shack with no running water, a part of a violent culture where a teenage male is may be more likely to become an addict or be murdered than to graduate from high school.

Again…what if any one of those other descriptors of my life was different? …If instead of being a white heterosexual male American Christian…I was a white homosexual male American Christian…what would the rabbis or priests or preachers say about me then? Or a white heterosexual female American Christian…or a white heterosexual male American Muslim? Or a gay Christian searching for a faith community in which to worship the God of his creation?

The odds that day were that any leper looking for help from a religious leader would find one who would have him stoned. He was lucky…he ran into the only one who would not! It was the luck of the draw that brought this leper into the path of this special rabbi. Other lepers were on the streets that day looking for help. Other lepers encountered other rabbis. For each it was the luck of the draw.
Imagine this story differently. What if instead of Jesus, the leper had met someone else, a person from the Temple, a person well read in the Scripture, someone who knew the law, knew what was called “the word of God? What if the leper had met a priest or a scribe instead of Jesus?

But…that darned Jesus is always getting in our way. What are we to do with Jesus? He is just fine when he stays on that cross or ascends into heaven but he won’t stay there…here he is walking our streets, violating the law, the scripture some want enforced. Doggone it Jesus, the Bible says what it means and it means what it says.

And here Jesus is…setting a fine example. Here he is talking to one the Bible says God says is unclean. Worse yet, Jesus touches him. Why? He must know better. The Bible prohibits it. What ever are we going to do with this Jesus?

What if…we followed him?

You see, that’s why they call this “the Gospel” or “the Good News.” Jesus changed the conversation. 2000 years later there weren’t supposed to be lepers and others rendered unclean by people of God. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one come to God but by me” he was not saying you have to be a Christian to be saved. Jesus was saying that like him, we must reach out and touch those the community deems untouchable. We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus unless the lepers of our time are comfortable coming to be among us.

With Jesus, it’s not supposed to be the luck of the draw. It’s not supposed to depend on the color of your skin, your sexual orientation, income level, gender or how you come to understand God. It’s not supposed to depend on whether you happen to run into the right rabbi or preacher on the day you need God the most.

This week, I want to ask you as brothers and sisters in Christ to go out of your own circle, go on a leper hunt, find a leper and touch them, speak to them kindly as people of God and followers of Jesus. That is the way, the truth and the life. AMEN

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The state has no legitimate interest in denying marriage equality!

America is on the verge of giving marriage equality to gays and lesbians, a victory for both the Gospel and the U.S. Constitution. Praise God and Thomas Jefferson.

The responses to the Ninth Circuit’s decision on Proposition 8 were predictable. “Liberal, unelected judges” are attacking traditional marriage, screamed one of the presidential candidates.

The LDS Church, a Proposition 8 supporter, responded to the Deseret News, "California voters have twice determined in a general election that marriage should be recognized as only between a man and a woman," Church spokesman Scott Trotter said in the statement. "We have always had that view. Courts should not alter that definition, especially when the people of California have spoken so clearly on the subject."

In this case the right at stake is the right to marry whom you choose. Would the critics have targeted those “liberal, unelected judges” if it had been another “right.” What if Massachusetts voters passed a referendum banning handguns? Gun rights advocates would have been up in arms. They’d expect judges to rule voters cannot pass unconstitutional measures.

And they’d be right.

This isn’t the first time voters’ emotions have been inflamed enough to pass ballot measures violating the constitution and judges have been asked to preserve the constitution against the pitchfork crowd. Colorado voters passed one preventing communities from providing homosexuals with "minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination.”
The Supreme Court ruled the voters couldn’t do that. In Romer vs. Evans, the Court ruled neither governments nor voters have any legitimate interest in denying rights to people based on their sexual preference.
There is nothing new about state and local governments (and sometimes voters) trying to deprive one group of people or another of certain rights. They always have their reasons. The reasons most opponents advance for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples are narrowly religious in nature. They talk about “traditional” or “Biblical” marriage, the purpose of procreation and the historic nature of marriages between one man and one woman.
The ruling says, "Although the Constitution permits communities to enact most laws they believe to be desirable, it requires that there be at least a legitimate reason for the passage of a law that treats different classes of people differently. There was no such reason that Proposition 8 could have been enacted.”

Just as Southern views of blacks were not upheld as “legitimate” reasons to prevent them from voting, your views of the nature of someone else’s marriage is not a legitimate cause to deny that right.

Prop 8 "serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the opinion.

It doesn’t matter whether an unconstitutional law is passed by the city council, the legislature or the voters. Using voters instead of legislators to deny rights does not elevate the result above the US Constitution.
Opponents of marriage equality should understand that lawmakers in a free society cannot use their or your religious beliefs to prop up any law they want to enact. When they do, the “unelected judges” have little choice but to strike it down. In a free society, the courts stand between us and those who would deny us our rights.
Religious beliefs on this issue are not uniform. Many believers think the institution of marriage is best served by allowing people who are in loving relationships to marry regardless of their sexual orientation. We believe the hallmarks of a good marriage, e.g. love, honesty, loyalty, commitment, devotion, all are as much a part of a same-sex marriage as one between a man and a woman.
The Courts teach that if same-sex marriage violates your religious beliefs, take the case to the congregation of your church, not to the halls of our legislature or the public ballot.