Court Clerks, Public Law, and Personal Opinion

Monday, January 14th, 2013

(By NCrissie B)

According to the religious news website Charisma News, the religious legal group Alliance Defending Freedom are advising court clerks in Maine, Maryland, and Washington on how to not issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples. Under the loaded headline “Gays Can’t Force Christian Clerks to Issue Same-Sex Licenses,” Ann Carroll writes:

Three new legal memos advise municipal clerks in Maine, county clerks in Maryland and county auditors in Washington that provisions in state law allow them to delegate responsibility for issuing the licenses to deputies or assistants who don’t have conscience-based objections to issuing the licenses to same-sex applicants.

“No American should be forced to give up a constitutionally protected freedom, nor should any American be forced to give up his or her job to maintain that freedom,” said ADF Senior Counsel Austin R. Nimocks. “Religious freedom is paramount to every American, including those issuing marriage licenses. They can perform their job without violating their conscience.”

(Hat tip to Slate‘s Jillian Rayfield.)

Let’s start with the headline. This isn’t a question of whether “gays” can “force” Christian clerks to issue marriage licenses, any more than heterosexuals “force” those clerks to issue marriage licenses. State law sets the requirements a marriage license. Court clerks simply acknowledge that a couple have met the state’s requirements … as a matter of public law.

That last clause matters. The requirements for a marriage license are a matter of public law. A court clerk acts as an agent of the state, and his/her duties are prescribed by public law, not personal opinion. A court clerk may devoutly believe that women should not work outside the home, but he/she cannot refuse to accept a plaintiff’s filing of a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination in hiring. The clerk does not ‘approve’ that lawsuit; he/she simply acknowledges that the plaintiff has correctly completed the forms necessary to open a case. The clerk’s personal opinion on that lawsuit, and the underlying law, is irrelevant.

Likewise a court clerk’s personal opinion on marriage equality is irrelevant. Verifying that a couple applying for a marriage license meet the state’s age, residency, and other legal requirements is not a matter of “conscience.” It’s purely an administrative function. Court clerks don’t ‘approve’ marriages licenses any more than they ‘approve’ lawsuits. They make sure forms are completed correctly and supporting documents are in order. Although some states allow court clerks to officiate civil weddings, clerks are not required to officiate any wedding, for any couple.

To take this “conscience clause” to its logical conclusion, imagine you’re a court clerk and Ralph Rich walks in with an envelope with fifty $100 bills. He’s there to pay the property taxes on Rich Manor, and his tax bill is $5000 for that quarter. Rich Manor is a big place, it seems. Your religious beliefs include Jesus’ admonition that “the man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” There are homeless people in your county and your religious beliefs say Ralph should let them live at Rich Manor.

“I can’t accept the five thousand dollars as payment in full on your quarterly tax bill, Mr. Rich,” you say. “My conscience requires that you also prove you’re housing as many homeless people as Rich Manor can hold.”

“But that’s not in the county or state tax code!” Ralph says.

“There’s the public law,” you reply, “and then there are my religious beliefs, which are paramount and protected by the First Amendment.”

I’ll go out on a limb and guess the Alliance Defending Freedom wouldn’t help a court clerk who tried that … not even if the clerk were willing to refer Ralph to someone else in the office whose “conscience” would not be “offended” by accepting the payment required by the county and state tax laws. Nor should they.

The people of Maine, Maryland, and Washington have spoken, through their legislatures and through their ballots. As agents of their state governments, court clerks have no right to impose their religious beliefs on citizens who come in to file lawsuits, pay property tax bills … or ask for marriage licenses.

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (

WP Comments on Judicial Elections, Religion in Politics, the Energy Independence Sham, and the Link Between Crime and Lead Exposure

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

gasoline lead crime


In It’s a Smart, Smart, Smart World, Nick Kristof celebrates the fact that humans have gotten more intelligent over the past century.  In response to Mr. Kristof’s reference to the removal of lead from gasoline playing a role in such increase in intelligence, Winning Progressive explained that the removal of lead from gasoline and paint is also credited with helping to significantly reduce crime over the past few decades”

I was glad to see you identify the removal of lead from gasoline, which occurred only thanks to the strong advocacy of environmentalists, public health professionals, consumer safety groups, and others in the 1960s and 1970s, as playing a role in increasing levels of intelligence.

A growing body of science shows that the removal of lead from gasoline and the removal of lead paint from houses has also played a key role in the dramatic drop in crime that has occurred throughout the US over the past 30 years.

Lead is a neurotoxin that damages or hinders the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which provides humans with impulse control. When that area of the brain is damaged or underdeveloped, people become more aggressive and impulsive. By reducing lead exposure, we’ve reduced such prefrontal cortex damage and, according to a number of convincing studies, helped create the 30-70% drops in crime experienced throughout the country.

Of course, more work remains to be done as many houses, especially in older and poorer neighborhoods throughout the country, still have lead paint that is impairing childrens’ development. Every dollar spent on lead paint removal is estimated to save $17 to $221 in societal costs. But the fiscal scolds have succeeded in slashing the CDCs lead paint prevention budget from $29 million to $2 million for 2013.

In Social Science Palooza III, David Brooks provided a seemingly random sampling of the findings of recent social science research.   Winning Progressive commented on one such study, which found that state court judges in Washington State hand out harsher sentences in criminal cases as the judges get closer to election day:

Evidence that judges hand out harsher sentences around election time provide yet another reason why judges should be appointed, not elected.

The election of judges undermines the judiciary and our system of government in two ways. The first is that, in our system of checks and balances, the judiciary is supposed to serve as a check on the power of the other two branches. One of the critical checks that the judiciary provides is making sure that the other two branches do not unjustly trample the rights of groups that are not in the majority. But if judges are elected, they become just as susceptible to majority will as the executive and legislative branches are and, therefore, judicial protection of the minority becomes largely a non-starter.

Secondly, courts lack any real enforcement power for their rulings, except what comes from the moral authority they gain from being seen as independent and neutral arbiters of the law. But if judges are ruling with an eye out for their next election, they aren’t engaging in such neutral enforcement of the law and their credibility goes out the window.

While our federal court system, with its lifetime appointments, is far from perfect (see, for example, Bush v. Gore), it is widely understood to be a fairer and more professional forum than state courts. And part of the reason is that most state court judges are worried about re-election.

In The God Glut, Frank Bruni interviewed former Senator Bob Kerrey, who is a rare agnostic public official, and addressed  concerns about increasing officially sanctioned religious proselytizing at the West Point military academy, as reported by former West Point cadet Blake Page.  Winning Progressive offered some thoughts on the role of religious belief in politics:

I am a technical agnostic (I don’t think there is a god, but I don’t have enough faith to be able to definitively say that there absolutely is not a god), but I readily acknowledge that religious belief does and should play a role in politics for many people.

For example, religious belief has always been a prime motivator of the civil rights movement, the social justice work of people like Dorothy Day, and of groups opposed to war and the death penalty. In many, many areas, religious belief has been a force for social good. I am motivated by secular humanistic values, but if other people are motivated by religious belief to help society, that’s great.

Where problems arise is when people try to use politics to impose their religious beliefs to limit the rights of others, whether it is on issues of choice, marriage equality, or access to contraception. If you don’t believe in gay marriage, then don’t have one, but don’t try to use the power of the state to prevent other people from having them.

And certainly we shouldn’t be using government to indoctrinate people in religious faith. That is especially so when it comes to the military. History has shown us time and time again that the combination of religion with military power is a dangerous mixture. Let’s make sure we don’t go any further down that road here.

In American Bull, Roger Cohen offers a significantly misguided argument that increased domestic natural gas and oil production will create energy independence for the US that will lead to a geostrategic shift by ending the “political dependency and expediency” that results from our reliance on Middle East oil.  Winning Progressive responded as follows:

Mr. Cohen, I hate to rain on your parade, but this whole energy independence thing is mostly a sham.

For one thing, we are not nearly as directly reliant on oil from the Persian Gulf as people think. 38% of our oil already comes from the US. Another 20% comes from Canada, and 7.5% comes from Mexico. That’s 65% that comes from North America, compared to only about 12% that comes from the Persian Gulf. So, it is hard to see how increasing the portion that comes from the US to 50% would lead to any major change.

Second, with regards to price and the need to stay involved in the Middle East, it doesn’t matter all that much where we get our oil from because the oil market is an international one. As such, major changes in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere will impact our oil prices even if we aren’t purchasing directly from countries there.

Finally, what we need to be focused on is reducing our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels regardless of whether it is domestic or foreign. If we achieve “energy independence” simply by drilling, fracking, and mining more, the impact on the climate and the environment will be disastrous. Instead, we need to be prioritizing efficiency, and the development or renewable sources of energy. If we don’t, any energy independence “victory” will be hollow and short-lived.


Weekend Reading List

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

For this weekend’s reading list, we have an analysis of conservative efforts to use school textbooks to indoctrinate children in conservative fantasies, President Obama’s recent economic speech in Ohio, and historical overview that the Founding Fathers did not found the US as a “Christian Nation,” a report about the expense of housing more than 125,000 elderly prisons in prisons in the US, and a call from former-Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold to reverse Citizens United.


How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us - The story of how, given the large grade school student population in Texas, that state’s standards for school textbooks are typically followed by other states,  and of how conservatives have actively worked to take over the Texas Board of Education, which decides the state’s standards, so they can promote their right-wing agenda in our nation’s school textbooks.

Remarks by the President on the Economy – the transcript of President Obama’s campaign speech last week in Ohio in which the President laid out in detail his support for progressive economic policies, and explained how Mitt Romney is offering nothing more than a repeat of the failed policies of George W. Bush.

The Truth About Religion in America - an historical overview of how the Founders did not establish the US as a “Christian Nation” or base the country on “Christian values.”

At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly – a report on the rapid rise in the number of people in prison in the US who are over the age of 55, from 8,853 in 1981 to 124,900 today, largely because of the implementation of harsh sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s.  Each such prisoner costs $68,270 per year to house (double that spent per prisoner under the age of 50), and continues to be held even though recidivism rates are very low for the elderly.

The Money Crisis - an essay from former Senator Russ Feingold explaining how Citizens United has corrupted our political system and how a pending case regarding a Montana state ban on corporate financing of campaigns gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to fix some of the damage done by the misguided Citizens United decision.

How the Media Propagates Fake Conservative Controversies

Monday, September 12th, 2011

Continuing their strategies of capitalizing politically from 9/11 and of riling up their base with fake controversies, conservative activists have ginned up outraged over the purported exclusion of clergy from the 9/11 commemoration in New York City and the alleged exclusion of Christians from the Washington National Cathedral 9/11 commemoration in DC.  Normally, we here at Winning Progressive would not cover this right-wing non-troversy, as we do not want to amplify the efforts of conservative activists to raise more money off of 9/11.  However, we feel it useful to address the New York Times article discussing this issue – entitled “Omitting Clergy at 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest” – as it is a textbook example of how the media propagates  right wing talking points and controversies.

The article in question is basically a conservative opinion piece masquerading as shoddy journalism.  Key flaws include the following:

First, the article treats the controversy as being factually based rather than simply a “controversy” ginned up by conservative activists.

For example, the article talks of clergy being “omitted” from or “not included” in this year’s 9/11 commemoration.  But this year’s commemoration was consistent with every previous official city commemoration.  The event consisted of family members of the victims of 9/11 reading the names of those who were killed, interspersed with moments of silence at the time that each World Trade Center tower was struck and fell, and also for when the Pentagon was struck and Flight 93 crashed.  In other words, the ceremony is about the people and families who were victimized on 9/11, not a religious event.  Portraying such an event as a religious controversy has nothing to do with the facts, and everything to do with the desire of conservative activists to find controversies where there are none.  The article makes some reference to actual facts, but does so in the he-said, she-said style that provides the reader with little way to know what the truth is.

As for the Washington National Cathedral commemoration, the three days of events involved an interfaith benediction that was run by the Episcopal Church, held at a synagogue, and included leaders from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim faiths.  The real objections of the Christian conservatives is not that Christians were excluded, as they were not.   Instead, it is that Christianity was being represented by a branch of the faith that they do not agree with, rather than by, for example, Southern Baptists.  The article mentions this distinction towards the end, but only after providing the clear idea, unsupported by the facts, that clergy, and especially conservative Christian clergy, are being excluded from 9/11 commemoration ceremonies.

In addition to questionable coverage of the facts, the NYT article parrots the flawed contention that there used to be little controversy over the role of religion in public life:

The second Sunday after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York clergy members of many faiths joined elected officials at Yankee Stadium in a city-sponsored memorial ceremony that melded the sacred and the secular, replete with flags, prayers and tears.

Ten years later, any consensus that existed about the appropriate role of religion in public ceremonies marking a monumental American trauma has fallen apart.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has come under attack by some religious and political leaders for not including clergy members as speakers at Sunday’s official ceremony at ground zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

. . . .

In a nation of unprecedented religious diversity, the United States once managed to navigate religion in public life with relatively generic acknowledgments of the sacred — a tradition often referred to as civil religion.

Ten years ago, the event at Yankee Stadium and a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral attended by President George W. Bush were conducted in that tradition, and they were held with no controversy to speak of. But now, Professor Wolfe said, “the civil religion, those informal kinds of agreements, can’t work if everyone is going to be litigious.”

This is utter nonsense.  The article’s framing plays into the conservatives’ attempts to pretend that religion was not a problematic issue in the US until people purportedly started trying to exclude Christian conservatives. But that suggestion has virtually no basis in reality.  The reporter seems to have forgotten that less than a year ago conservatives created a religious controversy when they tried to prevent a Muslim community center from being built in the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory in lower Manhattan.  And the purported acceptance of “civil religion” in the US ignores the long history of religious faiths of all stripes, often aided by organizations like the ACLU, having to struggle to get even their basic religious freedoms acknowledged.

Next, the NYT article features a lack of balanced coverage, with seven paragraphs of text and quotes from conservatives at the Family Research Council, Fox News, Rudy Giuliani, and this divisive statement from Richard Landes of the Southern Baptist Convention:

The planned ceremony only proved that New York was the “epicenter of secularism,” out of step with the rest of America.  “We’re not France,” he said. “Mr. Bloomberg is pretending we’re a secular society, and we are not.”

By contrast, a total of one paragraph was dedicated to faith leaders who do not object to New York City’s 9/11 commemoration:

Some prominent religious leaders, including Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, have said they were not troubled by the format for the commemoration at ground zero.

Finally, the article includes a bit of conservative religious bigotry that, amazingly, is quoted without comment:

The controversy was fueled this week on Fox News when Gretchen Carlson, co-host of “Fox and Friends,” said that because of “political correctness,” the cathedral had included “fringe groups” like Buddhist nuns in the prayer service, but not Baptists.

“We’re going to have a Buddhist nun, which we didn’t even know existed,” she said.

An article seeking to educate its readers would have noted that there are two to four million Buddhists in the US and that nuns have played a role in Buddhism since almost its founding.  While it is not surprising that a Fox New commentator would be ignorant of those facts, the New York Times should not be helping to spread that ignorance.

If you’d like to help make sure the New York Times stops amplifying fake conservative controversies, contact the paper’s Public Editor and the reporter who wrote this story, and urge them to provide balanced coverage that educates their readers about what is actually going on, rather than simply parroting the latest right-wing outrage of the day.

Why We Should Question the Religious Beliefs and Associations of GOP Presidential Candidates

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

This past weekend, GOP Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann held a rally in which she made the latest in a long line of truly batty religious statements, claiming:

I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.

Bachmann’s statements, combined with Rick Perry’s close association with dominionism and the New Apostolic Reformation, which seeks to accelerate the day of the rapture, raises the important question of how carefully voters and the media should scrutinize the religious beliefs and associations of people running for elected office.

Last week, the New York Times‘ Bill Keller wrote a column urging that we more carefully scrutinize the religious beliefs and associations of the various Presidential candidates, and set forth a series of questions that he was posing to the campaigns of Bachmann, Perry, and other GOP hopefuls.  The response from the right has been to contend that the religious associations and beliefs of these candidates are largely irrelevant and overblown by the media and/or that the association of candidates like Perry and Bachmann to dominionists is no different than President Obama attending Jeremiah Wright’s church.

As a general matter, Winning Progressive has a bit of sympathy for the response of conservatives to in depth evaluations of the religious beliefs of GOP political candidates.  Faith, or lack thereof, is an extremely personal issue and people generally should have the right to keep their religious views private and shielded from the prying eyes of the media and society if they wish.   In addition, our Constitution includes a clear prohibition on religious tests for public office that we should be careful not to effectively undermine.

But the conservative objections to religious questions and false claims of equivalency between the religious beliefs of conservative candidates and those of progressive candidates misses a critical point.  Namely, that any expectation of privacy about religious beliefs that a candidate may generally have disappears when those beliefs dictate policy decisions in ways that directly restrict the rights of other Americans or impact our foreign policy.  As for equivalency, far too often it is religious views on the right, not on the left, that lead to policies that restrict such rights.

The key issue here is that the GOP base includes a very large contingent of religious conservatives that any Republican candidate who wants to get the party’s nomination must bow down to.  And such courting of the religious conservative base leads GOP Presidential candidates to support policies that would restrict the rights and opportunities of others.  For example, in an effort to get religious conservative votes, most GOPers:

* oppose stem cell research, which could help lead to cures for numerous horrible diseases

* oppose marriage equality and other rights for LGBT Americans

* are engaged in a wide-ranging effort to restrict a woman’s right to choose

* engage in a frightening level of deferral to Israel in part motivated by the belief that a war between Israel and Arab nations is necessary for the end times

* work to undermine science by teaching religious theories about creationism in the place of science

On the other side, it is hard to think of even a single area of policy where progressives seek to restrict the rights of others on the basis of religiously motivated beliefs.  While religious values help to motivate many progressives to fight for policies to help the poor, reduce economic inequality, protect the environment, etc. they do not lead to policies that involve restricting the rights of immigrants, LGBT Americans, etc. or dictate our nation’s foreign policy.

In short, the religious beliefs and associations of conservative political candidates matter even while those of progressive candidates typically are not worrisome because it is conservatives who are seeking to use religion as either the reason or the excuse for restricting the rights of other here at home and abroad.  If Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and others want to stop having to answer questions about their religious beliefs and associations, they should stop supporting policies that would effectively impose their religious beliefs on others.

WP Comments on Hell, Peace in the Middle East, and the Budget

Monday, April 25th, 2011

Here are our latest NYT comments on Hell as a bad way to motivate people to do good things, the Israel/Palestine dispute, and the importance behind the debate over the budget deficit.  Help spread these progressive ideas by using the links at our Letters to the Editor Campaign center to write a letter to your local newspaper.

My comment on Ross Douthat’s NYT column A Case for Hell, which argues for a return to a belief in Hell:

I am an agnostic, so I would say that the solution to the issue you raise is that there is no heaven or hell, rather than saying that belief in heaven compels a belief in hell.

But I’d like to challenge your thesis that a belief in hell makes life more human, presumably because hell makes us realize consequences of our making bad choices and, therefore, pushes us in the direction of doing good.  The problem with that thesis, of course, is that the world was a far worse place when belief in hell was much higher than it is today.

For all the problems we face here in the U.S. and throughout the world, we have clearly made significant progress, especially in recent times, in recognizing and respecting basic human dignity.  Belief in hell was much higher in the past, yet at the same time we experienced the Holocaust, the crusades, slavery, a failure to do anything about abject poverty, etc., etc.  Apparently, hell did not do much to make life more human in those times.

The much more effective way to make life more human is to instill in people the realization that the path to true happiness is service to humanity.  An approach to life that focuses on enriching oneself with material goods and monetary wealth is, in the end, a fairly unhappy life, as it simply puts you in an endless cycle in which the “happiness” gained from acquiring something quickly wears off and you have to acquire more in order to feel “happy” again.  By contrast, a life focused on improving your community, helping people in need, taking care of the sick or elderly, and bettering the human condition provides real rewards and benefits that do not go away.

Such focus on service to humanity, which is the core tenet of secular humanism, provides a far more promising route to personal happiness and a reduction in evil behavior than does fear of an imaginary place of brimstone and damnation.

My comment on the NYT editorial President Obama and the Mideast Peace Process, which calls on the President to put forth a plan for peace between Israel and Palestine:

I realize that the history and problems between Israel and Palestine are complex.  But isn’t the solution pretty simple?  Palestinians should acknowledge the right of Israel to exist and give up the right to return, in exchange for a state established on the 1967 borders, with the international community policing the agreement and providing significant aid to establish a functioning government and society in Palestine.

And the way to reach this agreement is to stop encouraging extremists on either side and, as President Clinton did, focus on giving strength to the moderates on both sides who can get such a deal done.

My comment on Paul Krugman’s NYT column Let’s Take a Hike, which focuses on the need for tax increases, such as those proposed in the House Progressive Caucus budget, as a core element of any deficit reduction plan:

First, in response to your question about why, if the deficit is purportedly such a serious problem, are Republicans proposing further tax cuts, the reason is that the Republicans are not serious about reducing deficits.  They intentionally created deficits in order to make their efforts to eliminate Social Security, Medicare, and other core government programs that help average Americans politically palatable.  They haven’t succeeded in that goal and, therefore, Republicans hope to continue pushing the deficit up until they do succeed.

Second, thank for highlighting the House Progressive Caucus budget proposal.  As you note, by asking the wealthy elite to begin paying their fair share again and cutting defense spending and corporate subsidies, The People’s Budget reaches fiscal balance in 10 years, which is far quicker than either Rep. Ryan’s Path to Poverty plan or President Obama’s proposal.  In the parlance than the chattering classes like to use, it is the House Progressive Caucus proposal that is serious, as it uses real numbers and policies to achieve actual fiscal balance without further undermining our middle class or preying on the least fortunate among us.

Third, in addition to the insincerity of the so-called “deficit hawks” (who are really deficit vultures for the reasons identified in my first paragraph above), the other reason that the House Progressive Caucus budget has not received much attention is because it goes against the conventional wisdom peddled by the chattering classes.  That “wisdom” holds that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are necessary, that taxes cannot be raised, that defense spending cannot be touched, and that programs for the middle class, working class, and the least fortunate among us must be slashed.  And the reason those points constitute “wisdom” in DC is that the chattering classes are in economic circumstances that foreclose them from personally experiencing the critical importance of programs like Social Security and Medicare and cause them to worry more about being asked to pay their fair share, and because most of our media enjoys the war porn that creates ratings for their networks.

A final point is that these contrasting visions of our nation’s fiscal future are really about what sort of Country We Believe In, as our President explained in his recent speech on fiscal policy.  Do we want a nation that continues to lavish spending on the military and let’s the richest few percent continue to amass boatloads of wealth while our infrastructure and education system crumbles, security for our senior citizens disappears, and the social safety net is shredded?  Or, do we believe in an America where we can once again have a stable middle class, where people who worked all their lives can have a secure retirement, where our children receive world class education, where our infrastructure system is again the best in the world, and where all are asked to pay their fair share for the cost of civilization?  If you share my belief in the latter vision of America, now is the time to get involved in making it happen.