Alabama Lives Matter!

Alabama lives Matter!  But you wouldn’t know this to be true if you consider the actions and behaviors of our state legislators or governor.  It is time for the people of Alabama with a united voice to rise up and tell our state legislators and our governor that their behaviors and actions are placing Alabama lives in harms way.  Case in point is the continual blockage of medicaid expansion by the State’s Senate and House Republicans as well as Governor Bentley, who ironically is a medical doctor who should know his Hippocratic oath.  The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, allows for the expansion of Medicaid to cover those individuals who 1) do not qualify for current medicaid provisions in their state by raising those eligible for Medicaid to 133% of the federal poverty level and 2) covers those individuals who although are working do not meet the eligibility threshold of the Affordable Care Act.  In Alabama that would cover an additional 300k lives.

The Senate recently passed a resolution forbidding Governor Bentley from expanding Medicaid in the state. It is now before the House and it is presumed it will come up for a vote this coming week.  Governor Bentley has opposed Medicaid expansion since the passage of the federal act against the best interests of the people he is elected to serve. However, in recent months he has indicated that he may finally expand Medicaid because doing so would increase revenue into the state and help meet the budgetary shortfall.  Notice however, he is not thinking of doing this because it would save Alabamian lives but rather his administration.

Every year up to 700 lives, that is 3 lives every two days, are lost because they were unable to get timely treatment for medical conditions resulting in their death.  It has been argued by Governor Bentley and others that no one will be denied health care in Alabama. However, Emergency rooms are not treatment centers for devastating diseases like cancer or diabetes.  Women cannot get mammograms in an emergency room visit. Emergency room care is not preventative treatment. And Governor Bentley of all people should know this; his behaviors in response to this life and death crisis is unconscionable.

The cost of providing emergency room services as treatment centers is causing hospitals in poorer economic regions of Alabama to close.  Since 2011, the first year that Governor Bentley could have expanded Medicaid in the state, 10 hospitals have closed.  There are 12 additional hospitals in the state that are expected to close in the next 12-24 months.

Bullock County in Alabama is one location under the threat of losing their only hospital.  This county has 33% of the population below the federal poverty level and the average income for a family of four is $23k.  It has the highest illiteracy rate in the state at 34%. Its unemployment rate is currently at 7.1%, not the highest in the state per county but significantly above the state rate of 5.8%.   The actions of the State Senate reveal their attitude that the individuals and families of Bullock County are throw-away people, regardless of race. Their lives are not worth saving to our elected officials.  This is the same Senate that passed a resolution declaring the personhood of the human fetus (they have been moving towards legislating this theological and religious doctrine into law). We need to tell them their actions regarding Medicaid Expansion are immoral and violate their own self-professed values for the sanctity of life.  With poverty this high, the people living here are not going to be able to travel an hour plus to a hospital in a bordering county for emergency care let alone treatment for life threatening diseases.  Alabama Lives Matter and it is high time that our state legislators not only know it but act accordingly.

Governor Bentley has campaigned on a promise to create jobs in Alabama.  He has spent millions of dollars courting international businesses to set up shops in Alabama and has marginal success but not as much success as Medicaid Expansion would have. According to a study by the University of Alabama, 30,000 new jobs would result from the expansion of Medicaid.  The Federal government would pay 100% of the expansion cost for the first three years and then reduce that support to 90% in 2020 and thereafter. 30,000 new permanent jobs, not temporary jobs with no benefits like Mercedes is offering in Vance, AL but permanent jobs that have a huge impact on our economic viability as a state. It is projected that over a period of six years the states gross domestic product would increase by $17 Billion and workers’ earnings by $10 Billion.  Job creation through Medicaid Expansion literally saves lives but apparently Governor Bentley doesn’t understand because he has refused to expand medicaid.  Alabama Lives Matter!

Governor Bentley does not need the approval of the State Senate or the State House to expand or deny Medicaid Expansion.  He could begin saving lives today by signing the executive order to expand Medicaid.   He could do the right thing even if the motive is ensuring his party’s continued control of the legislature and not  for the least of his brothers and sisters in Christ. He is going to need encouragement to do so and needs to know that Alabama Lives Matter regardless of their religious convictions.

What can you do?  If you are able come to the State house on Tuesday, April 28.  Moral Monday is having a rally outside the State House at 12 Noon and SOS is having a press conference and prayer vigil on the 3rd floor at 12:30 PM.  We need you to voice your desire to save lives in Alabama by expanding medicaid. People are dying because our state legislature prefers playing political games rather than addressing the needs of the people of this state. This needs to stop now.  Our silence on this issue is condemning lives to death.

Bring this issue to social media. Social media today has become a viable means to create news stories in the mainstream press.  This is a life and death issue that needs to be on the minds of every Alabamian.  Repost this blog on your Facebook pages and Twitter. Post other stories about medicaid expansion on Facebook and Twitter as well. If you or a loved one are among the 300K in Alabama falling in the gap without medical insurance tell your story of emergency room visits not being a mode of treating illnesses like cancer and diabetes.

Tweets can be sent to @GovernorBentley with the #AlabamaLivesMatter and #ExpandMedicaid  and #alpolitics .  The #AlabamaLivesMatter will track how many  the tweets this campaign sends out.  The hashtags ExpandMedicaid and alpolitics will place these tweets before those who are following this issue in Alabama and elsewhere.  Here are few examples:

@GovernorBentley save 700 lives this year by signing on to #ExpandMedicaid #AlabamaLivesMatter #alpolitics

@GovernorBentley Create 30K jobs #ExpandMedicaid #AlabamaLivesMatter #alpolitics

@GovernorBentley #ExpandMedicaid and save 12 rural hospitals from closing #AlabamaLivesMatter #alpolitics

You can also tweet House Speaker Rep. Hubbard  @SpeakerHubbard using these same hashtags and encourage him to  do the right thing regarding medicaid expansion and not pass the Senate resolution to block Medicaid.  Look and see if your state senator or representative is on Twitter or Facebook and let them know that Alabama Lives Matter.

Lives are at stake. We need to send the message loud and strong that Alabama Lives Matter and we will not be silent any longer.

 

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The Theological Doctrines of the Alabama State Legislators

We live in a country that was founded on the notion of religious freedom in the broadest sense.  Unlike the Diet of Torda in 1500s Transylvania, religious freedom was extended not just to the Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians but to all expressions of faith and non-faith. This country early on determined that there was to be a wall of separation between the government and the people in regards to the practice of religion.  The government was not in any way to endorse or promote a specific religious belief above all others.

Welcome to Alabama.  Where our elected officials flout their religious doctrines as supreme above all others.  Chief Justice Roy Moore has made it a quest to make Alabama and the United States a Christian nation branded with his version of Christianity.  He has not once but twice in his terms as Chief Justice promoted his brand of Christianity in the State.  The first time was his insistence to have a statue of the Ten Commandments in the State Court House.  He was removed from office for that battle.  He is now, once again at odds, with the federal courts regarding his refusal to honor a Federal Court order to commence same sex marriages in the state.  Based on his past flagrant disregard for Federal Court Rulings, I predict he will continue his ban on same sex marriage in the state if the Supreme Court rules that the ban on same sex marriages is unconstitutional in June of this year.

He has support for his actions in the State House.  The Republican controlled house has submitted bills and resolutions that suggest that the Alabama State Legislators are operating on a Theological doctrine of how they view not only their role as legislators but also how they view the people of Alabama.  Last year the Health Committee passed a resolution that they believed that Life began at Conception and therefore the bills they were going to pass would reflect that belief.

This is a theological statement.  It is a religious doctrine of a specific sect of Christianity.  It is not a universal belief across Christianity nor across other religions. Jews, for example, teach that life begins at birth, the moment that the child draws their first breath akin to the breath of God that was breathed into Adam.  So here we have one example of the State House imposing their religious doctrine unto the citizens of the state.  Recently a public hearing was heard on House Bill 405, a bill that last year passed the house but did not make it through to law, makes it a criminal Class C Felony if a doctor performs an abortion without determining if the fetus has a heartbeat or if the doctor performs an abortion of a fetus that has a heartbeat.  When does a fetus develop a detectable heart beat?  Around 6 to 7 weeks.  When do most women learn they are pregnant?  Around 6 weeks.  The fetus is still in embryonic stage meaning it still looks more amphibian like rather than human.  Given that most women receive confirmation that they are indeed pregnant around 6 weeks, their decision to abort the pregnancy is one of urgency under this bill.  This means that if the woman was raped and becomes pregnant, she may have to live with the painful reminders of that rape for a long time. And in Alabama, the rapist has the right to demand custody and visitation rights.  This bill would negate anyone’s religious belief that life begins when the fetus can be viable outside of the uterus. In fact it declares their religious belief as a false doctrine.

There was another public hearing on House Bill 491 which authorizes health care providers to refuse to perform services that violate their conscience.  This means that a health care provider can refuse to perform an abortion but it also means that if they have an aversion to Transgenders receiving treatment enabling them to live in a body congruent with their gender, they can refuse to serve them as well.  This bill allows for shaming and discrimination against women and transgenders who claim the inalienable right to have control over their bodies. Rights that are taken for granted by cisgender males in our society. Again, it is a very narrow slice of Christianity that sees women’s bodies as not their own but their husband’s as the head of household.

In the state of Alabama, we do not yet have a personhood law that states that the fetus has all the rights and protections that other citizens have but this is the direction the State House is headed and it is a matter of time for such a law to be presented and passed.  HB 405 is the closest to making this claim and it would restrict further the ability for a woman to receive a medically supervised abortion in the state of Alabama. Personhood laws in other states have resulted in manslaughter charges if the woman is addicted to drugs and miscarriages or is unable to access prenatal care and miscarriages.

The doctrinal belief of the Alabama State House based on the bills they have passed and are proposing regarding human life is as follows:  Life begins at conception. Regardless if the conception was through an act of love or through violence, it must be protected at all cost. Any attempt to choose an abortion, regardless of the reason–life threatening to the woman, life threatening birth defect, rape, economic viability–is inconsequential to the shaming and shunning bestowed on the woman by medical providers because their personal religious beliefs trump the woman’s circumstances.  Any attempt by providers to perform an abortion that does not adhere to this doctrine are to be punished with a Class C Felony branding the provider as a criminal to be shunned and faces loss of career.  While not all of these reasons are currently codified as forbidden by law, this is the direction the State house is going and with each passing session they move closer to their goal of enforcing their doctrinal beliefs on the rest of the state. This is akin to the coercive moves the Taliban and Isis have taken where they are in control, though done at a much slower pace so as to be imperceptible to the populous until it is too late. Alabama State House is not afraid to spend millions of dollars of taxpayers money to defend their doctrinal stances, in fact they are poised to do so at every turn and then cry poverty after wasting taxpayers money.

To be clear, religious practice is a very personal and intimate expression of faith that each person has the right to hold but it is not in the purview of any government, federal, state, or local to tell people how they are to practice their faith.  And for the State legislator by passing laws that favor a specific religious doctrine over others is to violate the sacred trust that this country was founded on. In this country where religious freedom is highly valued, no one should have the right to impose their religious beliefs on another.  Not an individual, and especially not any governmental entity or any representative of that government.

It would be one thing if the State House were consistent in their doctrinal beliefs in all of their creation of laws but their doctrine of protecting the fetus at all costs unfortunately ends at birth. Once the child is born, the theological doctrine I have just described is no longer on the table. The actions of the State House are antithetical to the ability of a person to pursue life, liberty, and happiness once the child is born.

On April 21 of this year, the Senate passed a  resolution forbidding the expansion of Medicaid, sentencing up to 700 individuals to death this year because they along with 300K Alabamians fall into the gap between Medicaid and the provisions covered in the Federal Affordable Care Act. Refusal of expanding medicaid will result the closure of some dozen hospitals, many of them located in rural and inner city areas where the majority of Alabama’s poor live.

How our state administers Food Stamps also reflects a conflicting doctrine to their doctrine regarding the sacredness of life.  Federal guidelines include employment requirements such as being registered for work but Alabama places added twists to this requirement. Striking employees, even if the strike is justified for better wages that would lift the family out of poverty, disqualifies the household unless the strike occurs after the household applies for food assistance. Food Stamps are not eligible to undocumented citizens.  This stipulation follows the federal but there is a caveat in Alabama–the income the undocumented citizen brings into the household is counted towards eligibility. Alabama legislators have already spent millions defending its hatred of immigrants. Here is their hypocritical stance, Alabama Legislators hate foreigners unless their presence helps keep citizens off the public dole.   And here is something of a catch-22; Social Security Numbers (SSN) are requested for each member of the household in order to receive food stamps.  The provision of SSN is stated as purely voluntary but not providing them disqualifies that member of the household.  If a SSN is a requirement for qualification, then providing it is not a voluntary act; it is coerced.

Apparently, the doctrinal belief of the State House is that each life is precious until it becomes a burden and then it can be ignored or thrown away or incarcerated for slave labor. Alabama has passed more laws restricting the freedoms of its citizens  Their approach to the welfare of the citizens of this state is one of total disregard of their inherent worth and dignity.

And then we have the infamously named HB 56--in its latest incarnation as a Religious Freedom Act.  This bill was created in response to the striking down of the same sex marriage ban by federal court and the upcoming SCOTUS ruling on same sex marriage.  The proponents state this is not in any way an anti-gay legislation because it merely states that clergy and judges (the current people authorized in the state) can refuse to marry anyone for personal religious convictions and not face litigation for doing so.  They claim this is a save people from litigation bill not a codification of religious discrimination against the LGBTQ community.  Clergy have always had the right to refuse to marry any couple for any number of reasons–domestic violence, couple not of their faith tradition, and yes, doctrinal beliefs regarding what constitutes a marriage.  This bill is really aimed at giving judges the legal right to discriminate against those who do not hold their religious convictions regarding marriage.

There is a difference here– marriages performed before a judge or justice of the peace is not a religious ceremony.  It is a civil union.  Regardless of what a judge may personally believe about religious marriage ceremonies, a wedding officiated by her is not under the auspices nor  blessing of her church. It is not a religious ceremony.  It is merely a legal recognition by the state and federal government of a contract between two people. In the eyes of the Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic god, the same sex couple married by the state is not married. In the eyes of the Presbyterian (USA), United Church of Christ, American Baptist god, the same sex couple is married.

So what is this law really about?  It is about a subset of Christianity imposing their doctrinal belief of marriage onto the citizens of the state. It is declaring their doctrinal belief as supreme trumping all others.  Judges have taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state and federal government and regardless if their personal religious convictions place them at odds with those laws be it officiating a same sex marriage or enforcing the death penalty, they are required to do so. They do not have the right to impose their religious doctrine onto the people as an act of shaming and discrimination.

But this is Alabama– where theocracy is well rooted into the archaic 1901 state constitution.

HB 50 Disenfranchises Voters with STDs

State Representative Juandalynn Givan (D-Birmingham) after hearing about a minister in Montgomery who engaged in ministerial misconduct with multiple women from his congregation and had infected several with HIV/AIDS presented a bill in the state house, HB 50, that would increase the penalty for knowingly transmitting a sexually transmitted disease (STD*)  from a Class C Misdemeanor to a Class C Felony. This was a horrible event.  Ministerial misconduct even without the transmission of disease is an act of betrayal of calling and trust from the congregation that alters the member’s lives of that congregation for generations to come. Few denominations have been willing or able to train their leadership in developing healthy boundary skills and effectively deal with the aftermath when those boundaries are broken.  That said, criminalizing transmission is not an effective disease prevention strategy.

The result of criminalizing transmission of STDs only increases the stigma and shame that already surrounds STDs and the behaviors that transmitted them.  It makes it harder for people to come forward to seek testing and treatment because they, themselves, do not want to know and risk the penalty of this law.  This is on the front end of the law.  Once convicted of a felony in this state the person is disenfranchised of their voting rights. More on this later.

For complete disclosure before becoming an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith, I was the co-founder of the Interfaith AIDS Ministry of Greater Danbury in Connecticut where I served as executive director for eleven years.  I was also a certified HIV/AIDS prevention educator through the American Red Cross for 15 years. I am also a gay man.  So I believe I come to this topic with some expertise and years of experience in preventing the spread of HIV as well as other sexually transmitted diseases.

What exactly is happening in the state of Alabama regarding STDs? It is no secret that Alabama has some of the highest rates of STDs in the country.  Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis cases are statewide double the national average and in some counties like Montgomery and Dallas, 4x the national average.  It is also no secret that Alabama, like the rest of the south, has among the highest rates of transmission of HIV in the country.

This is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed by our state legislature.  The question is how to address the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases in the state to prevent its spread.

Public Health protocol in stopping the spread of any disease is to find out the population that is most affected by a disease outbreak and to then target that community with prevention efforts that includes broad based education of the entire population about the disease and how it is and is not transmitted.  In Alabama the transmission of HIV/AIDS, already high, has been increasing every year since 2005 in young adults ages 15-29. This group is twice as likely to become infected with HIV than other age groups. Young African American males of this cohort is 10 times more likely to become infected with HIV than “the average Alabama resident” (read White).  In Alabama, African Americans are 7 times more likely to become infected with HIV than non-African Americans. African American females in Alabama are 8 times more likely to become infected with HIV than non-African American females.  I’m curious as to what happened circa 2005 that would be a factor in the upswing of infections.

In December 2011, Governor Bentley  wrote executive order number 26 forming a task force to address HIV/AIDS in the state.  No where in this executive order is the word education mentioned as a priority prevention strategy. And within the state plan that was developed, outside of mentioning the various good work done by AIDS organizations,  only one line mentions the need for education services but it does not indicate how these will services will be developed or what authority this plan has in the development of state budgets.  This is problematic. It reveals a lack of serious commitment by Governor Bentley to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.  His refusal to expand medicaid and to find ways to increase access to medical care in rural areas of the state is troubling to say the least in light of this STD health crisis that affects over hundreds of thousands people in Alabama.

In those states where there is comprehensive sexuality education mandated to be taught in schools there is a significant drop in STDs and HIV/AIDS transmission.  In Alabama it is not mandated and if sex education is taught it is abstinent based only. Further the sexual behaviors of gays, lesbians and transgender must by law be taught as unacceptable behavior and illegal in the state of Alabama.  Rep. Todd has prefiled a bill HB 252 to remove this from the abstinent based curriculum.

According to the Guttmacher Institute review of State Policies on Sex and HIV Education, Alabama is not mandated to offer sex education, it is mandated to offer HIV education.  But here is the caveat, it is only mandated to be age appropriate not medically accurate, not culturally appropriate and unbiased, nor is it mandated to not promote religion.  Parents can opt-out their children from this education. When abstinence is the only approved method being taught STDs will soar.  This is not opinion.  This is a fact proven over and over again in the raw data.

Add to this the factors of poverty in the state. Lawrence Robey, Madison County’s health officer focused on this factor regarding the high rates of infection of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.  “On average, residents in poorer communities are at greater risk to contract and transmit STDs because of substandard public education and transportation as well as smaller tax bases to pay for medical centers and physicians, Robey said. Likewise, wealthier counties in northern Alabama often have average or below average STD incidence.”  All of these diseases and HIV/AIDS are transmitted in exactly the same manner through unsafe sexual practices.

So any effective prevention strategy cannot simply be the tracking, monitoring and treating those infected, which is the primary focus of Bentley’s task force.  It must include comprehensive sexual education that teaches not only how to use safer sexual behaviors such as properly and correctly using latex condoms and dental dams but also relationship building skills including respecting the word NO from potential partners, how to talk about sexual history with a potential partner, and negotiating the limits and boundaries of the relationship. Without an all out concerted effort in talking honestly about healthy sexuality and how to develop positive sexual behaviors that promote health, this plan will and is failing.

Sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase in Alabama.  In 2012, the last year  the Alabama Department of Public Health posted a full year  of numbers of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis infections,  41,042 cases were reported nearly double the number of cases reported in 2004.  As in HIV rates, there is a sudden and sustained upswing in infections beginning in 2005.  What policy changes happened in 2004/2005 that placed thousands of people at risk of STDs?

The four sexual transmitted diseases I have mentioned are not the only ones in Alabama.  HPV is also high in Alabama. There is about a 25% prevalence rate in young females age 15-19 and  45% prevalence rate of HPV in females aged 20-24 in the United States!  The numbers that may already be infected in the state is outlandishly high. This STD is a cause cervical cancer that can be prevented through a vaccine.  This fact alone should result in a public health policy that mandates all adolescents before they begin sexual behaviors are vaccinated. The rates of death from cervical cancer in Alabama is among the highest in the country.  Two issues here.  The first is this is a disease that is now preventable with vaccinations but because of our stigma regarding sexual behavior we are not protecting our children.  The second issue is the access to timely medical care to treat the cancer once it develops.

There are other viruses such as herpes simplex  (HSV) that while not a notifiable disease is sexually transmitted.  There are estimates that upwards of 76% of the American population have this virus.  This infection can cause severe medical complications in a person whose immune system is compromised.  Should 76% of Alabamians be convicted of a Class C Felony for transmitting HSV?  They know they have it, it is those lip cold sores and genital sores that develop on the body from time to time.  Have they disclosed their HSV status to their sexual partners before engaging in intimacy (kissing)?

Rep. Givan’s HB 50 targets those who knowingly transmit a sexually transmitted disease to an unknowing partner with a class C felony.  Given the fact that in this state the disproportionate numbers of African Americans who are living with sexually transmitted diseases but are perhaps too ashamed because of Alabama’s cultural mores surrounding shame and sexual behavior to discuss their illness with potential partners before engaging in sexual behavior makes this bill a disenfranchising law that will potentially remove thousands of African Americans disproportionately from the voting rolls. This felony could be considered to be under the sexual abuse category of those felonies that cannot have voting rights restored after serving the sentence.  I realize disenfranchising voters is not her intent.  As an African American woman, she is painfully aware of the history of voting rights in this state against African Americans.  Her bill is one of enabling others to take revenge on their sexual partners failure to disclose with the unintended consequence of mass disenfranchisement.

The responsibility for safer sexual relationships is on both partners.  I recognize the power dynamics of this particular case and unfortunately it is a power dynamic that is prevalent in many relationships regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  But if we are serious in reducing the spread of sexual transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS then we must, absolutely must, teach and empower women to stand up for their sexual health in relationships. But to do this we must create a culture that is open in discussing sexuality.

Our schools must teach comprehensive, medically accurate, culturally unbiased, and free from religious proselytizing.  Our schools must teach safer sexual relationship in a manner that does not stigmatize or marginalize the LGBTIQ persons in their classes. Rep. Todd’s bill HB 252 must be passed to remove the mandate to send a negative message regarding a minority of our students.  We must de-stigmatize sexual behaviors so we can talk about sex in an open and healthy way with our young people.

My denomination, The Unitarian Universalist Association in partnership with the United Church of Christ developed a comprehensive sexual education curriculum called Our Whole Lives.  It is curricula that is developed around the  core values of self worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusivity. It is an excellent program in teaching healthy sexuality and reducing the spread of STDs and HIV/AIDS. It is just one model of many that provides the resources our young people need in making healthy decisions about their most intimate relationships.

HB 50 is not the solution.  It merely slams the jail house door on the person, nothing more.  It does not curb the spread of STDs.  There is no empowerment of the partner to take control of their sexual health only the taste of revenge which does not soothe the heart; only forgiveness can offer lasting resolution of this pain.  Plus this will disenfranchise potentially thousands of African Americans and others from being able to vote in our state.  HB 50 must be defeated as it serves no healthy purpose.  Todd’s HB 252 must be passed as it will save lives.

 

*the more current medical term is Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) since not all result in disease but because this bill uses the older nomenclature of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) I am also using this term.