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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Kiss Heard 'Round the World

It was the “kiss heard ‘round the world.” Michael Sam celebrated being drafted by the St. Louis Rams by kissing his partner.

The best moments in sports aren’t only those times when a hail Mary pass wins a playoff game, or a walk-off home run wins the All-star game, or a three-pointer at the buzzer takes your team to the Final Four. Sports’ best moments are those times when players, coaches, or owners use the power of their positions in our culture to move the needle on the social justice barometer toward justice.

Michael Sam is a 261 pound, 6 foot 2 inch, first team All-American linebacker from the University of Missouri. Cameras were rolling as Sam heard from the Rams. He had become the first openly gay man to ever be drafted by an NFL team.

He celebrated as nearly all the 248 college players drafted ahead of him celebrated. He kissed a person he loved. Only this was his partner, a white male. A same-sex interracial relationship. That kiss will move the needle on the social justice barometer.

My guess is that many of the same people who are troubled by interracial relationships are the same ones troubled by same-sex relationships. People who have a problem with a black person kissing a white person should have gotten over it long ago. Those who have a problem with two persons of the same sex showing affection need to update their prejudices.

Moments like that kiss cause us to rethink prejudice. There have been many such moments in sports history.

The night before he was murdered, Dr. Martin Luther King said, "If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, ‘Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?’ I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.

“And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.”

Neither would amateur or professional sports stop there. They would proudly hover over Berlin, watching Jessie Owens win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics games and crush Hitler's delusions of Aryan supremacy.

And they wouldn’t stop there. They’d watch Jackie Robinson break baseball’s color barrier and earn his place in the Hall of Fame.

If you were taking, as Martin Luther King said, a “panoramic view” of sports history, you’d also take mental flight through the turbulence wrought by Cassius Clay’s refusal to be drafted. He relinquished the World Heavyweight Championship rather than serve in the immoral Viet Nam War. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Clay, later Muhammad Ali, said poignantly. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

But you wouldn’t stop there. Indeed, you’d watch Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise that black glove fisted salute during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

But you wouldn’t stop there. You’d have to come to Laramie to watch the University of Wyoming attempt, unsuccessfully, to crush the dreams of 14 black athletes. During the civil rights movement, they asked to wear black armbands during a football game to protest racism. Instead everyone from the coach to the governor attacked these student athletes and threw them off the team.

The “Black 14” made a louder anti-racism statement than would have been the case if UW had quietly acquiesced to their reasonable request.

What matters most is that what they and the others accomplished didn’t stop there.

Dr. King said, “I’d turn to the Almighty, and say, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I’ll be happy.” King lived only a few more hours, but his journey continued and how he’d have enjoyed that kiss.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Easier to fire teachers?

Some say it ought to be easier to fire teachers.

Indeed, much time and money could be saved if governments didn’t have to wrestle with that pesky thing called “due process.” How much quicker the Environmental Protection Agency could make new rules? Consider how much money could be saved if criminals didn’t have due process. When local governments want to build on private property, it’s due process that takes time and costs more money.

A choir of “reformers” want to make it easier to fire teachers. A California court reignited the debate over whether teachers should be able to earn tenure when it held that state’s law unconstitutional. It’s not been that long since the Wyoming state senate narrowly defeated legislation repealing our tenure law.

What is “tenure”? Plain and simple it’s due process. Tenure is an assurance that once a teacher has passed a probationary period, he or she cannot be fired without cause. That probationary period in Wyoming is three years. After that, teachers are entitled to know the reasons for which the employer wants to deprive them of their livelihood. The employer must have actual evidence of inadequacy. The targeted teacher is entitled to a fair hearing.

Some think that asks too much of school boards. Some believe it should be as easy to fire someone in the schools as it is in much of the private sector. Employers in most private, non-union employment work “at-will.” They can be fired without notice and without cause. Poof. Your career and your livelihood can go up in smoke and you have no recourse.

Which of those two options sounds un-American to you?

There is no evidence that making firing easier will improve educational outcomes. Does anyone really think that eliminating due process will attract good people to the profession? It was education reformers decades ago that determined job-security through tenure was a necessary reform to lure good people into low paying teaching jobs.

Today’s “reformers” have made the teaching profession difficult enough with their other “reforms.” Now some want to add job-insecurity to the mix. Of course blaming teachers and making it easier to get rid of them relieves decision makers of their responsibility to focus on building teacher capacity.

Eliminating due process assumes that those who have the power to deprive others of their livelihoods are competent and can be relied on to act in good faith. That is not always a reasonable assumption.

Some years ago, a non-tenured teacher in Converse County, Wyoming was fired. Without tenure the teacher had no recourse but the courts. She explained to the judge that she had been fired for complying with state law. The law with which she complied required her to report child abuse. She did. The alleged perpetrator made trouble for the teacher. The school board fired her. The court agreed with the school board. Without the due process protections of tenure, she lost her career because she complied with the law and sought to protect a child.

Perhaps too many people are too old to remember Sydney Spiegel. Sydney was a Cheyenne teacher, one of the best. But he was an outspoken opponent of the war in Viet Nam and other things. The Laramie County School District No. 1 board of trustees decided to rid themselves of Mr. Spiegel. But Sydney had tenure, which entitled him to due process. Eventually that process brought the school board and Spiegel before the Wyoming Supreme Court. They found the teacher’s rights had been violated and Sydney got his job back with back pay.

That case deterred school boards in Wyoming from acting capriciously in a great many future cases.

The fact is that it is not impossible to fire bad teachers. The only hurdles are that the school board must have good reasons to do so and be able to back them up in front of an independent hearing officer with evidence. Yes, it takes time and effort. But protecting the rights of Americans always has.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Finding meaning

After studying law for three years and practicing for nearly twenty, I attended seminary. After three years of theological studies I was ordained. I find remarkable similarities in the interpretive tasks of both professions. Judges and theologians both deal with venerable documents, hoping to keep them alive.

Courts around the country, including Wyoming’s, are engaged in what’s called constitutional construction, interpreting words written decades ago to decide whether same-sex couples may marry.

Many Christians are attempting the same, giving theological meaning to words contained in older texts, i.e. the Old and New Testaments.

Our Constitution governs affairs of people living in far different times than when it was written. The Constitution decides questions not asked of its original drafters.

The 14th Amendment for example reads (in pertinent part), “No State shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

It originally answered the question of whether states could deny civil rights to blacks following the Civil War. Its drafters never considered the possibility it would be employed to allow people of the same-sex to marry. Yet, courts interpreting the 14th Amendment find it grants gays and lesbians the same right to marry historically extended only to heterosexuals.

Construing the meaning of the Constitution from generation to generation is how our democracy survives. Construing the meaning of scripture from generation to generation is how Christianity survives.

Interpreting the Constitution is the job of highly educated judges. Likewise, honest scriptural interpretation requires training and education. There are two ways interpreters approach the task. Exegesis means “to lead out of.” Exegesis requires objective analysis of the words, the language, the times, and the culture in which they were written.

Eisegesis is a subjective, non-analytical reading. Eisegesis means “to lead into.” Interpreters begin with their own opinions and lead the text to support them.

Judges looks first to the words of the framers of the Constitution. Exegetes look first to the words of Jesus. But Jesus was silent about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Perhaps his silence is the loudest of all messages.

Many same-sex marriage opponents rely on six of the approximately 31,000 verses in the Bible to make their case; two in Leviticus and two each in Paul’s letters at 1st Corinthians and Romans.

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”  (Leviticus 18:22) Eisegetes end with those ambiguous words. Exegetes begin with their authors, the ancient Hebrews. None is around today to ask. We must rely on scholars. Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, a prominent, conservative Jewish scholar, was a leading authority on Leviticus. His book “Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics,” asks, “Does the Bible prohibit homosexuality?”

“Yes,” Migrom wrote, “but the prohibition is severely limited.” It doesn’t include lesbianism and applies only to Israel. “It’s incorrect to apply this prohibition on a universal scale.”

In 1st Corinthians, Paul is clear. “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (NIV)
Clear…unless you read different translations. The NIV doesn’t mention lesbians. The NRSV, among others, doesn’t mention homosexuals. Many scholars believe Paul used the word "paiderasste” in both Corinthians and Romans referring not to committed, responsible relationships between same-sex couples, but to male prostitution.

Paul’s words are even less clear considered in the broader context of all scripture including the words of Jesus. Jesus established a standard for interpreting the 613 scriptural laws. Interpretation of the law, Jesus said, hangs on the Greatest Commandments. Love God and love one another.

Recently 30 faith leaders from across Wyoming came out publicly for marriage equality. Each has studied scripture and reached the conclusion that same-sex marriage does not violate scripture. Judges in many states are answering the legal question, finding bans on marriage equality violate the Constitution.

It’s curious that while using their own profession’s rules to interpret ancient texts, each is reaching the same conclusion.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Death Penalty. How or why?

“Let’s do it!” Those were Gary Gilmore’s final words before the last state-organized firing squad executed him in 1967.

“Let’s do it!” Those are the words of State Senator Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) who proposed returning to firing squads for executions.

Wyoming, like other states, is having a hard time finding the drugs necessary to mix a prisoner’s final cocktail. We saw what happened when Oklahoma experimented on an inmate last month. No one wants that repeated here. And there is a man on death row awaiting the outcome of his appeals. Legislators and the Department of Corrections feel a sense of urgency about finding an alternative.

One alternative apparently not on the table is the abolishment of the death penalty. There are good reasons to do so, but not good politics. It’s easier to tell the voters how to kill someone than it is to explain why the state ought not do so.

The death penalty poses math problems. Legislators are traditionally poor at math. There’s the financial burden passed along to taxpayers, nearly half of whom no longer support executions. Colorado did that math. Capital proceedings require six times more days in court and take much longer to resolve than life-without-parole cases.

Kansans learned that the price tag for death penalty defense costs averaged $395,762 per case, compared to $98,963 per case when the death penalty was not sought. California has amassed a 4 billion dollar tab for prosecution and defense costs, incarceration and appeals since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.

Then there’s the math problem surrounding how often the wrong person is convicted and, at times, executed. Experts believe at least one out of every 25 people put on death row is innocent. Take Todd Willingham. He was executed after a jury found him guilty of killing his three daughters. A Texas judge reviewed the execution, belatedly concluding Willingham was innocent.
No one has ever been able to calculate the cost of executing an innocent person.
Finally, the equation includes the costs of the racial and geographic disparities in the administration of the penalty.
A General Accounting Office report documented victim’s race heavily influences the likelihood of the accused being charged with capital murder and receiving the death penalty. In 82 percent of the studies they reviewed, those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks."
While a slim majority of Americans say they support the death penalty, 85% of all county attorneys have not had even one case resulting in the death penalty in the last 45 years. But other counties make up for that. A report from the Death Penalty Information Center documents that only 2% of US counties are responsible for more than half of the country's executions since 1976.
Despite the financial costs and the inability to administer the death penalty fairly and without bias, legislators are unwilling to end this morally debased form of punishment.
Now the legislature will debate how, not whether, to have the state kill people. It is a safe bet they’ll turn to firing squads. So I have some recommendations for them to consider.
Don’t use hired assassins. Why should low-paid state employees have to do your dirty work? Choose the members of each firing squad using the same pool of names used now to select a jury. Under Wyoming law, you cannot serve on a jury where the prosecutor is seeking the defendant’s execution if you’re opposed to the death penalty.
The firing squad authorization should have the same provision. If you’re opposed to state sponsored killings, you can’t serve on the jury and certainly should, therefore, be exempt from the trigger-pulling pool.
But all other citizens should be eligible. The names in the pool should be drawn only after every member of the legislature who votes for the bill and the governor who signs it have taken a turn at the trigger.
Then we’ll see quick they are to say, “Let’s do it!”.