Religious Freedom and Judge Roy Moore

(I was asked to speak at the No Moore Rally today at the Alabama Supreme Court Building in Montgomery, AL.  Judge Roy Moore was being tried on six out of seven ethics violations when he urged Alabama Probate Judges to disobey US Supreme Court Ruling on the constitutionality of Same Sex Marriage. Here is what I said.)

We have been standing here for quite some time now awaiting the verdict that Judge Moore is found guilty of violating the Supreme Court orders to enforce marriage equality in this state. Judge Moore believes that he is above the law of the land.  He believes he is called to impose his brand of religion onto the citizens of this state. He believes that his brand of religion is the one true faith, that he has the pure and unadulterated interpretation of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. That all other interpretations of these sacred texts are heresy and therefore should be purged from the state of Alabama.

However, Judge Moore does not live in a country where only one religion is declared the official government religion.  Where only one interpretation of that religion is sanctioned. Where other religions are persecuted.

The United States does not have an official government sanctioned religion.  Here we have religious pluralism and the promise of religious freedom for all religions to not only be practiced but to have their rituals protected and recognized by the Government. This protection is found in our nation’s most sacred of texts, a text that Judge Moore vowed to uphold in his role as judge.

From the Declaration of Independence:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Preamble of the Constitution of the United States. We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Constitution of the United States, 1st Amendment:  Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Constitution of the United States, 14 Amendment, Section 1.  All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

It is from these documents that I stand here today to proclaim that my faith, which teaches me to love one another, no matter who you are or whom you love is to be respected under this constitution.  My religion, while a minority religion in the state of Alabama, has under the US Constitution the legal and moral authority to have its marriages recognized by the government of these states.  This right has been denied the members of my faith and other faiths for decades.  It was a right that was finally recognized by the Supreme Court as being fully constitutional.

Roy Moore and his ilk want to deny people, who do not agree with his religious faith, their rights as citizens of these United States. The followers of his religious faith are not hindered in any way by the practices of those who follow another faith or who follow no faith, just as my faith is not hindered in any way by the practices of his.  Where hindrance occurs is when followers of his faith demand that I and others adhere to his faith tenets.

In countries where there is one sanctioned religion his approach would be legal but here in the United States all people are free to practice their faith.  All people have the right to pursue happiness.

But here is thing; Judge Moore’s faith doesn’t even follow the tenets of his religion. His professed religion is Christianity.

Jesus declared that for his followers, and I am reading from the King James version, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Judge Moore violates this commandment. He is not loving his neighbor.  His behaviors show no respect for the diversity of his neighbors.  His behaviors show only contempt which goes against his very faith which insists on following the author of love, by doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I feel sorry for Judge Moore.  I do.  Truly.  I feel sorry for him because he has no love in his heart.  He has walled himself off from knowing the freedom that divine love gives to each of us when we are willing to be embraced by that love.  He is afraid. And in his fear, he attacks others who have found the freedom that love bestows.

That love for one another is expressed in the Christian Scriptures of Galatians 3:28. Here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

We do not need to be afraid of each other any longer because when love is present, when love is placed at the center of our hearts, the need to separate us into categories falls away.  The desire for ensuring mutual respect of our differences rises to the fore.

But Judge Moore has not experienced the very redemption his Christian faith teaches him.  Redemption is more than just reciting a few words on a page.  And the Redemption I am talking about is not just in the life to come, but redemption in this life. Freedom in this life which our founding parents of this nation in their wisdom codified into law—the redemption of being able to have life and the pursuit of happiness.  He does not know this redeeming love.  He only knows hatred for others who not only are different than he is, but have found happiness and love through that difference.

He is going to need a bit of a nudge from today to be told once again, that he does not have the right to enforce his hatred onto the citizens of Alabama.  He does not have the right to impose his version of Christianity onto the citizens of Alabama—who have found the power of love through other Christian denominations, through Judaism, through Islam, through Buddhism, through Baha’i, through Sikhism, through Taoism, through atheism, through humanism, through Jainism, through Wiccan, through indigenous faiths, and yes, even through my faith, Unitarian Universalism.

Judge Moore, you have betrayed the trust of the state of the Alabama by violating our most sacred creeds as a nation.  Not just once, but twice.  You must be removed from office this day.  And you cannot be allowed to serve a public office again because you have proven yourself as not being able to hold the people’s rights above your own interests and agendas.  Perhaps one day you will realize that Love is Love and that all people have the right to experience love and have that love recognized by the government.

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An Open Letter to Chief Justice Roy Moore

 

29 April 2016

Dear Chief Justice Moore:

As a citizen of Alabama, I am rather disappointed in your press conference comments.  Not only did they portray the events on January 12th incorrectly, they expressed defamation of character of a private citizen.

The facts are Ambrosia Starling did not officiate a wedding on January 12th.  I did.  I am an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist faith and serve the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa. It is part of my religion to honor and bless the covenanted relations that we enter into and with couples that includes the rites of marriage. I do not do mock weddings. To have my faith honored with recognizing the marriages that I officiate is an example of the religious freedom that this country honors and values since the days of the founding of this nation’s constitution.  It is in the Bill of Rights that the government shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or the practice thereof.

Yet, for far too long, this country has forbade my religion’s right to solemnize marriages of same gender weddings and have them recognized by the state.  You say this is not about religion, but it is, Justice Moore.  It is.  By denying equal marriage rights, you are declaring your faith doctrines to be supreme over all religious doctrines and practices and that is simply not the American way in regards to religious freedom. Religious freedom means being able to practice one’s religion without fear of government censure. Not being able to have couples’ marriages recognized by the state is a form of government censure of religion. For you to declare the wedding I officiated a mockery is a show of profound disrespect of the religion I serve as minister. A religion whose American roots date back to the founding of this nation.

The bills being passed under the guise of religious freedom are privileging a certain sect of Christianity.  It does not represent the whole of Christianity nor does it protect any other religions’ practice.  It is sanctioned discrimination against anyone whose faith does not align with this branch of Christianity. This is not religious freedom.  It is religious oppression.

I am authorized by my church and faith tradition to officiate marriages of same gender couples. The marriage I officiated on January 12, 2016, included the signing of the marriage license issued by a probate judge in Alabama. That certificate was filed according to Alabama statutes and a marriage certificate was issued the couple recognizing them as a married couple. If this marriage was illegal and in defiance of your order as you claim, then I would have expected the probate judge to not have issued the license. Further, I would expect that if this was illegal that you would file charges against probate judges who did not follow your order, making every probate judge who has issued licenses accountable to your ruling.  But you have done no such filing and therefore, you have not enforced the law as you claim exists. Why? Because you know you have no authority to overrule the US Supreme Court ruling that lifted the ban on same sex marriages.

But that is not what you stated at the press conference.  Instead you claimed the complaints were an attack on your character. You claimed you were a victim of the media misrepresenting your orders.  Then you made defamatory statements insinuating the mental instability of a private citizen. You are not a licensed Mental Health professional, therefore you have no authority to diagnose or even publicly speculate on the mental health of another person.

As a judge in the attempts to answer complaints on your defiance of a US Supreme Court Ruling, you have once again violated your own profession’s ethics by making these inflammatory statements against a private citizen. It was an attempt to discredit Ambrosia Starling’s and other’s complaints against your ethical conduct.  It was an attempt to inflict injury on Ambrosia Starling’s reputation. I see you.  I see what you are trying to do and it is offensive, not only personally offensive, but offensive to the citizens of this state.

You defended your orders based on the Alabama Supreme Court ruling which by your own quoting the US Constitution at the press conference revealed that it was over ruled by the US Supreme Court. Your own words convict you. Yet, you insist you are in the right. You have shown repeated disregard for the US Supreme Court which ruled that the bans against same sex marriage are unconstitutional.  Your own colleagues of the Alabama Supreme Court do not side with you in this matter. In fact, your colleagues of the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed on March 4 of this year, a challenge to same sex marriages made by some probate judges and a conservative policy group. The Alabama Supreme Court is adhering to the US Supreme Court ruling.

You state your orders are still in effect.  Yet, even the Alabama Supreme Court by their dismissing the challenge declare your orders are not in effect any longer. If they were in effect still, then they would not have dismissed the challenge to same sex marriage. The federal and Alabama state courts have spoken on this matter.  Your legal opinion has been declared unconstitutional by the highest court in the land.  There is no conflict between the courts as you stated at your press conference. They are now in sync.

If you, in good conscience, cannot abide by the highest court in the land then to protect your integrity you need to step down as chief justice. The tide of change is coming to this country. We will finally live up to our highest ideals of liberty and justice for all.  We will no longer privilege one religion over another in this nation.  We will no longer privilege one class of people over another in this nation. We will no longer privilege one gender over another or one sexual orientation over another. We will no longer privilege one race over another in this nation.  Those days are coming to an end. May they come quickly for people are suffering injustices in this land.

Sincerely,

Rev. Fred L Hammond, MS, MDiv

Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

 

Anti-Racist vs Non-Racist

I came across the following article today:  “I don’t trust white people, even the liberals, and science backs me up.”   It is a good article that exposes the difficulty white people have after 400 years of white supremacy immersion to behave in ways that are non-racist.  The good news is the science this author is citing is behavioral science and not science like the immutable laws of science, such as the law of gravity. This means that white people can change their behaviors and become non-racist.

Non-racist?  I do not see too many people in the anti-racism work talking about being non-racist.  They mostly use the term anti-racist.  So what is the difference?  Actually there is a huge difference.

My taking action as a white ally in a Black Lives Matter protest is an anti-racist action.  I am standing in solidarity against the racism that has been institutionalized in our criminal justice system. (If this statement is new to you; there is a whole body of work out there that documents our criminal justice system as racist, so I am not going to spend time here justifying that statement.)

My reading and researching about institutional racism in the United States of America is equipping me with information to bolster my ability to recognize racism as it has been displayed and continues to be displayed in this nation.  This reading and researching is anti-racism work.  But this work still does not make me non-racist.

As the article points out, there are still unconscious racist messages embedded into my culture that I practice without even batting an eye even as I proclaim anti-racist statements with my mouth and body. To be non-racist in my behaviors means I need to be willing to examine my behaviors in the context of racism. It means that I need to have a wider frame of reference in which to place my behaviors and decisions.

I will give an example.  And it is easier to look at someone else’s behavior than it is my own.  Alabama’s Governor Bentley recently made the decision to close down department of motor vehicles in the most rural counties of the state.  He stated this was for financial reasons because of shortfalls in the state budget. Governors have the unpopular task to make the hard decisions even though it will affect people’s lives. If state budget was the only factor behind this decision, this might seem like a difficult but reasonable decision to make.

However, in the wider context, this decision affects people of color in greater numbers than it does white people.  In the wider context, this decision was made after the state of Alabama passed the requirement that people have to have state issued photo IDs in order to vote in elections. In the wider context, this decision will force people to take time off from work to travel 3 or 4 hours away to wait in line for several hours to get their license and photo ID. In the wider context, the majority of people living and working in these counties do not have positions that pay for personal leave or sick time, so a day off from work is a day’s pay lost.  This may translate in not being able to make rent that month or place food on the table that week.  What first appeared as an unpopular and hard decision to balance a state budget, now begins to look like yet another means to oppress and disenfranchise the poor who also happen to be predominantly people of color.

Now Governor Bentley has stated this decision was not done for racist reasons. On the face of his statements, I believe him. But intention does not negate impact AND look at where he lives. He lives in a state whose state constitution of 1901 was created for the sole purpose to promote and sustain white supremacy. His actions are in line with 114 years of white supremacy codified into the Alabama constitution.

In order for Governor Bentley to be acting from a non-racist place, he needs first to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how the constitution that he swore to uphold is first and foremost a racist document written in such a manner to prevent people of color to fully participate in the governmental process. He also needs to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how his actions affect all of his constituents along racial lines. If he wants to truly be seen as non-racist, then he needs to change his behaviors when making decisions that will negatively impact people of color.

Let me attempt to give a more personal example to distinguish the two terms. I recently shared a sermon with my minister colleagues at our fall retreat entitled:  For Such a Time As This. It was the sermon I gave at the installation of another colleague. In it, I challenge our Unitarian Universalist denomination regarding racism within our faith.  Afterwards, one of my African American colleagues thanked me for stating things that he could not have stated then added ‘with such words comes great accountability.’ My sermon was anti-racist. My accountability to that sermon needs to be non-racist behavior.

It is easier to be anti-racist because that is merely pointing out the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes. The harder work, the aspirational work is to be non-racist, the plucking out the log within our own eye so we can see our own behaviors and change them to be increasingly non-racist. Undoing the ingrained behavior of a 400 year plus white supremacist culture will take concerted effort on all of our parts.

Those who are dedicated to this work need to be both anti-racist and non-racist. The willingness to stand in solidarity with people of color against racism and the willingness to do the hard soul-searching work to change our own behaviors so they no longer oppress others.

 

 

 

Sabbath Day Rest

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”  So begins the Department of Labor’s[i] website regarding the history of Labor Day.  It ends with this statement: The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”

Only a fraction of workers have Labor Day as a paid holiday.  In Tuscaloosa, over 200 establishments will be open this Labor Day.  In a 2013 survey[ii], 39% of employers nationwide will be requiring their employees to work Labor Day. The tribute offered by the nation becomes only a symbolic gesture; it is no longer a sincere offer of gratitude to the American worker.

I wonder if the life expectancy of Americans ranking 34th in the world, tied with Cuba, Columbia, Qatar, Costa Rica, and Nauru is in part because we do not honor the notion of a Sabbath.  Every nation that has surpassed our life expectancy by years—require employers to offer paid vacation and many of them also require paid holidays.  The US does not. Even Japan with its stricter work ethic than the US requires companies to offer 10 days of paid vacation leave. Their life expectancy is number one in the world at 84 years. Every single nation that excels in life expectancy over the US has a minimum of 10 days required paid leave in addition to paid holiday leave.  Most of these nations total between 25 and 35 days of paid leave a year.

Is there a correlation between paid leave and life expectancy?  I don’t know.  What has been studied is that there is a correlation between income and life expectancy.  An increase of $10K a year for someone who is in the bottom 25% of income does more to increase their life expectancy while a reduction of $10K for someone who is in the top tiers of income has little impact on their life expectancy.

According to National Employment Law Project, 60% of businesses are in favor of a $12 an hour minimum wage.  This wage would give the lowest paid wage earners in our country that $10K a year increase and have a positive impact on their health and life expectancy.

The average life expectancy in the US for males is 76 years of age.  The difference between expectancy between a male whose income is in the upper tiers of income versus the lower tiers of income is 6 years[iii].  The argument to make the poor wait for retirement benefits does not make sense when life expectancy improvement is concentrated in the wealthy.  Retirement should not be the only time we get to experience rest from our labors. My hunch is that we would enjoy more and longer retirement years if we are able to take paid leaves throughout our work lives.

The Center for Economic Policy report from 2013 found that 69% of small businesses in the US are less likely to offer paid vacation time.  Only 49% of low wage workers have paid vacation time versus 90% of high wage workers.  The ability to have time off should not be only reserved for those in high hourly wage or salaried positions. Time off is important for our general wellbeing, not only physical health but mental and spiritual health as well.

When I was executive director of a small non-profit, it was important to me that my employees had the ability to take paid time off from work—be it sick, vacation, or personal days regardless of hours worked.  It was pro-rated based on their hours worked.  The work was demanding and stressful enough to have to also worry about a sick child at home.  Every part time employee had a pro-rated equivalent of two weeks off their first year and it increased to four weeks after 5 years of employment.  Our turnover was low in part because of this ability to offer paid leave.  The philosophy I employed was that if the employer can assist in taking care of the basics for the employee then that will translate into increased productivity.  Having the ability to have time off when needed was a vital basic need.

We simply don’t do Sabbath well.  When I was growing up we had in New York State what was called the Blue Laws, there are versions of these elsewhere as well.  But when I was a child, one version of the Blue laws was that stores were closed on Sunday.  End of discussion.  It was meant to be a guaranteed day of rest.

Oliver Sacks describes his family’s Sabbath[iv]:  [The family] mingled outside the synagogue after the service — and we would usually walk to the house of my Auntie Florrie and her three children to say a Kiddush, accompanied by sweet red wine and honey cakes, just enough to stimulate our appetites for lunch. After a cold lunch at home — gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly — Saturday afternoons … would be devoted to family visits. Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another.

“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Yes, the blue laws of my childhood had its origins in the Jewish and Christian notions of the Sabbath.  But there are benefits of having a weekly Sabbath Rest and our society can’t even tolerate one day a year to be held distinct from all others for all its citizens.

Former Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote a book[v] on his practice of Sabbath as an observant Jew.  He writes:  “The benefits of the Sabbath, a Day of Rest, are many. One is just rest. As the Bible says, `Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God: in it thou shalt not do any work.’ It refreshes you physically and mentally. It gives you time.”

Dedicating a day of rest by making it different from every other day of the week is also a way to honor your own life and the lives of your loved ones.  It is a means to recognize that your life has inherent worth and dignity. It declares your life and the life of your loved ones are worthy of respect and love.  Senator Lieberman buys fresh flowers for his wife every Friday before the Sabbath, not because he is a romantic but because his observance of the Sabbath commands him to celebrate the love between him and his wife.  This simple act sets the day apart from the week.  The Sabbath, Senator Lieberman states, is meant to engage “the senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—with beautiful settings, soaring melodies, wonderful food and wine, and lots of love. It is a time to reconnect with family and friends—and, of course, with God, the Creator of everything we have time to ‘sense’ on the Sabbath.”

However, we have made it nearly impossible for families to have a Sabbath day rest.  Our low wage earners in order to make ends meet are forced to have multiple jobs.  According to information gathered by Engage Alabama in Birmingham, the poverty level for a single mom with two kids is $19,700 yet a full time position at minimum wage only pays her $15,080.  Keep in mind, 69% of small businesses do not offer paid leave of any kind.  She misses work she loses pay.

Even if she was able to secure full time employment at $8.50 an hour, she still remains in poverty with an annual income of $17,500.  She will still need a second part time job to bring her above the poverty level and the likelihood that position will offer paid leave is even less.  Full time employees should not find themselves living in poverty. They should be able to earn enough to meet their basic needs.

If she was earning $10.10 an hour, she would be making $21,000 a year and would be able to qualify for health insurance for $50 a month through the federal marketplace. If the minimum wage of $1.60 in 1968 had kept up with inflation, the minimum wage would be $10.90 today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt when he introduced his National Industry Recovery Act[vi]  in 1933, stated:  It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as [those] in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.

When the minimum wage was first created nationally in 1938, it was meant to be a living wage.   But that is not how it has worked out.  Minimum wages have become stuck points in time.  In 2009, the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour was set.  To purchase something that cost $7.25 in 2009, today would cost $8.07.  It simply does not have the same purchasing power that it had.

Birmingham earlier this year passed a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour that will go into effect in January 2017.  They added to that ordinance the mandate that every year after that, minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation every January 1st.  This is the common sense thing to do and should have been included in 1968 when the $1.60 minimum wage was set.

There are over 17,500 low wage workers in the top 25 occupations in Tuscaloosa. Imagine what a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour would do for these people who are working hard yet finding themselves stuck in poverty and needing public assistance.

Our single mom would be able to come off of public assistance, spend more time with her children, and have an increased quality of life. She would have more income to buy locally the things she needs for her family.  Raising local wages would put more money into the local economy which in turns generates increased revenue for local businesses.

With the ability to meet basic needs, our low wage workers would be able to take a much desired breath.  For every dollar raise they receive means an additional $150 per month after taxes.  A worker making $8 an hour, making $10.10 an hour would earn $300 more per month.  That $300 would make a huge difference in their lives.

It would ultimately result in lifting all wages in the community. And how does that support Sabbath rest?  If a low wage earner is able to reduce the number of jobs needed to support their family because their rate of pay has increased, it would allow them to have that time with their loved ones.  It would strengthen the family unit.  It would reduce the stress they face that threatens their health and potentially extend their life expectancy.

If we could then convince employers that it is in their best interests to have healthy happy employees by offering health benefits, by offering paid leave—vacation, sick, holidays, and personal days; then we can begin to see how a Sabbath rest, a day dedicated to nurturing our souls and our families souls can transform our society.

Those of us fortunate to have paid leave, or two days off a week, consider taking one day to set it aside for family and friends only.  Choose to not do chores that day so your attention can be focused on your loved ones. Couples, make that a date night.  Families make that a family day of activities that are not chores around the house. If you are fortunate to work for one of the 61% employers that are not requiring you to work Labor Day, then use tomorrow to rest, have that BBQ outside with family and friends.  Finish your shopping chores today so you won’t be shopping tomorrow. Let the other 39% realize that it cost them more money to stay open than closing to honor this day.

Oliver Sacks closed his Sabbath reflection with these words: what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.                                                                                

Oliver Sacks died a few days after writing these words for the New York Times.  May we choose to not wait til one’s last days on this earth to ponder what is living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself but may we instead create that day to reflect, to ponder, to celebrate the life we have been given with our loved ones as part of our weekly practice. Blessed be.

[i] As found September 4 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0

[ii] Lieberman, The Gift of Rest, Howard Books, 2011

[iii] http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/ODNIRAST.HTML

[iv] http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm

[v] As found on September 5, 2015, http://business.time.com/2013/08/30/this-labor-day-much-of-america-will-be-laboring/

[vi]http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2012/10/24/life_expectancy_income_inequality_and_entitlements_why_the_connection_matters_99949.html

Alabama Legislature: Doesn’t care about Babies or Grandma

I have now lived in Alabama seven years.  My 7th anniversary serving as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa was August 1st.  In that time period, I have been arrested twice for standing up against Alabama’s injustice to its citizens.  The first was regarding their draconian anti-immigrant law which was gutted of most of its punch by SCOTUS. The second was to call attention to thousands of Alabamians who fall into the gap between Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.  We need Medicaid Expansion in this state.  Lives are at stake. Lives have been lost needlessly because they could not access the medical care needed to save their lives.  Medicaid expansion will create jobs in the tens of thousands.  Medicaid expansion will save the lives of loved ones who cannot now receive life saving treatment.

This week the Alabama legislation has been meeting in special session allegedly to fix the budget deficit that will cripple Alabama even further if new revenues are not found. How does Alabama respond?  With a $156 million cut to the state’s Medicaid budget.  This vote will sign the death warrant, not just for hospitals in rural and inner city areas, but for the thousands of people who will be kicked off of Medicaid. The federal government matches state funds for Medicaid at a ratio of 2:1.  This cut will in reality be closer to $460 million.  “If Alabama chooses not to have a Medicaid system, you will see an impact on the health care system you can only begin to imagine in your worst dreams,” said Dr. Don Williamson.  

Alarmist?  No, he is just stating the facts of what a massive cut will do to this state which is already among the highest in poverty and unemployment in the nation.

FIFTY-THREE PERCENT of all births in Alabama are paid by Medicaid.   OF ALL BIRTHS.  Our Legislators, who are adamant in their proclamation of being pro-life for the fetus, are condemning mothers-to-be to early 20th century birthing practices that resulted in high mortality rates for both mother and child.  We are talking about LIVES here.  In this state mid-wives assisting home deliveries are illegal.  Not to mention that the only type of mid-wives allowed are the 20 nurse-midwives in the state and they must practice in a hospital. So what this Medicaid cut is really doing is sending Alabama even further back than early 20th century birthing practices because mid-wives are not allowed.  Imagine the extraordinary cost paid by taxpayers of an emergency room delivery because a mother cannot receive Medicaid to receive the pre-natal and birth services from within the hospital.

SIXTY PERCENT of all seniors in nursing facilities are having their care paid by Medicaid.  The Nursing homes will not survive such cuts to their funding. This is your grandmother and grandfather which the state has voted to throw onto the streets.  Are you able to take them in and provide for their care?  Are you going to be able to quit your job to ensure that Grandma is safe at home?  Their 24/7 needs dictated a safe place where their physical and medical needs are met, which is why you chose a nursing home in the first place.  Now they will not be able to afford this care and where will they go?

There are other people who depend on Medicaid for their health concerns such as people living with developmental disabilities, people living with other physical and mental disabilities.  What will happen when Medicaid is no longer available to sustain their lives at home with home health aides?

This special session is to come up with a sustainable budget with increased revenue to cover the deficit.  There are several possibilities as to where that revenue might be raised.  A cigarette and vapor tax was proposed and defeated.  A lottery.  A 5 cent per gallon gasoline tax.  Revamping the 70 year old tax code to meet the modern day economy.   Raise the income tax.  Eliminate corporate subsidies and tax loop holes. This is where the debate should be in the legislature.  Instead, they are wasting our time and tax dollars introducing new bills that have no relationship on balancing the budget at all.

Alabama is sending a strong message to the citizens of this state: You are throw away people.  If you agree with this statement then do nothing about this stance the Alabama House has taken.  If, however, you believe you have dignity and worth and should be respected to be able to live your life to your fullest potential, then you need to write, protest, get arrested if need be to let Alabama Legislators know that they were elected to do a job.  That job is to do what is best for the people of Alabama.  Eliminating Medicaid is not in our best interest and NOT ACCEPTABLE.  WRITE your legislators, PROTEST at rallies, GET ARRESTED in civil disobedience actions but this treatment of the people of Alabama is unconscionable and offensive to high heaven.

Published in: on August 5, 2015 at 2:12 pm  Comments Off on Alabama Legislature: Doesn’t care about Babies or Grandma  
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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.

 

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.

Alabama Creating a Religious Jim Crow

On February 9th, same sex marriage became the law in Alabama. The grandstanding by Chief Justice Moore was a classic Governor Wallace move.  Probate judges refused to honor the federal court ruling. Marriages performed in other states are still not recognized in Alabama. Rev. Paul Hard’s case to have his marriage recognized on his partner’s death certificate continues.

Yesterday, Representative Hill fast-tracked a bill, using the infamous HB 56 nomenclature, that would legalize discrimination against couples whose relationships do not line up with judges religious convictions.  It would legalize discrimination against couples whose relationships are not recognized by religiously owned institutions.  If this bill is passed we could very well be seeing signs at court houses that say: “Straights only.” “Gays not welcomed” “No marriage licenses to divorcees will be issued.”  This bill would allow a judge to discriminate against a person  of a Non-Christian faith if the judge believes his faith is the one and only true faith. It allows the judge to stand in judgement over the Christian faiths that have welcomed and honor sexual and gender diversities as part of God’s universal love and will.  It would allow a religiously owned hospital to deny the partner, legally married, from seeing their spouse or from any consultation to the life and death situations the spouse may be facing.  Governor Bentley has already stated that he would not prosecute any judges that refuse to issue a marriage license to same sex couples, so this bill would essentially codify his intentions.

Imagine the torment already being experienced when a loved one is critically ill and the only hospital available will not allow the partner to see their loved one or to have any input into their medical care.  Imagine the exponential emotional trauma that this law will create for this family. This is what happened 50 years ago here under Jim Crow–it cost the lives of thousands who did not make it in time to a hospital that would treat a person of color.  Imagine a couple longing to experience the joys of parenthood being denied by the adoption agency purely on the basis of their same-sex marriage. Jim Crow is being resurrected again if this law is passed.  This time he wears the clerical garb of the inquisition. This is insulting and outrageous!

Read the bill as presented here.  The hearing is this afternoon at 1:30 in room 429.  A tiny room for a bill that will essentially codify a Religious Jim Crow in the State of Alabama.  We need to pack this room to over flowing to express outrage of this bill.

The original code that authorizes who may perform marriages in the state of Alabama is already Christian-centric.  It is already an offensive statute.  I have only included the language that refers to religious entities. It reads:

(a) Marriages may be solemnized by any licensed minister of the gospel in regular communion with the Christian church or society of which the minister is a member; …
(b) …Marriage may also be solemnized by the pastor of any religious society according to the rules ordained or custom established by such society.
(c) Quakers, Mennonites, or other religious societies. The people called Mennonites, Quakers, or any other Christian society having similar rules or regulations, may solemnize marriage according to their forms by consent of the parties, published and declared before the congregation assembled for public worship.

This wording is already offensive. It creates a hierarchy of religious status in the state with Christians as the supreme religion and places Quakers and Mennonites as second class Christians by spelling them out. I recognize that the attempt is to include religious societies that do not have ordained clergy but the wording here is clear, Christians as defined by the State is the state recognized faith.  It is presumed that people are of a particular Christian sect. Sections B and C are afterthoughts.  I suppose section b of the code is meant to include Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Earth-Centered faiths, Jains, Hindus, etc. Instead it sends a clear message of Christian supremacy.

The better wording to be clearly inclusive of the diversity of faiths celebrated in Alabama would be a revision of section b and have b alone in regard to religious entities.  Marriage may be solemnized by any designated person, so designated by any religious society according to the rules ordained or custom established by such society. period.  Designated person would include the clerk of the Quaker society, it would include the Imam of the Mosque, it would include the Priest of the Roman Catholic Church, it would include the Rabbi of a synagogue, it would include lay-led congregations. It would include all faiths without giving preference of one faith over any other.

But the current wording with the legal discrimination amendment strengthens the stance that the Christian faith, defined in a fundamentalist fashion, is the only faith accepted and recognized by the State of Alabama.  That stance is prohibited by the Constitution of the United States.  And that stance creates a religious Jim Crow law in the state of Alabama.

As a minister of a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, I do not want the members of my congregation to face the discrimination that this bill legalizes.  I do not want the LGBT, Inter-racial couples, and divorced members of my congregation to experience the emotional trauma that this law will create for them.  My faith teaches me that all people are created equal and are endowed with unalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness with a person that they love and cherish.  I thought this was a common belief among all of our religions.  Sadly, I have been mistaken.

 

Privatization of Prisons is NOT the solution

Alabama has a long history of health and safety and abusive issues within its prison complexes.  Julia Tutwiler prison, an all women prison, made national news this past year with federal findings of sexual abuse committed by one third of the employees there.  The over crowding of the prisons in the state of Alabama  is at 190% of design capacity.  Over crowding in any institution is a powder keg for trouble.  There is a trend in Alabama for prisoners to serve longer terms.  Prisoners served an average of 30 month sentences in 2009 and are now serving an average of 43 months in 2014 before being paroled.  Alabama has the 3rd highest incarceration rate and the 8th highest crime rate as of 2012.  Yes, there are major problems within the Alabama prison system.

The mass overcrowding is placing Alabama at risk to have the Federal Government mandate a release of prisoners to bring the prison population to 130% of design capacity.  Anyone who has lived in Alabama for any length of time knows how averse Alabama legislature is to Federal interventions of any kind.

A recent gathering took place in Huntsville, AL to discuss the issues of necessary reforms.  It was the second of four state wide forums conducted by David Mathews Center for Civic Life and the Alabama Media Group.  One of the attendees, John Zierdt, Jr, is listed in the write up about this forum as an “advocate for privatization and suggested the state examine how similar arrangements, specifically with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), are working in neighboring states.” 

He went on to state, ” ‘I think they [CCA] offer a very good solution,’ Zierdt said. ‘It’s a good solution for us because you don’t have to do capital expenditures. It’s something I think really needs to be looked at.’  Zierdt said that with privatization there is the possibility to temporarily move inmates to other states where space is available. ‘You can pay now or you’re going to pay later,” he said. “You’re going to play [sic] later when the fed takes over because you’ll still get CCA.’ “

I do not know if this John Zierdt, Jr is the same John Zierdt, Jr who was the President/CEO of Transcor America, Inc.; a subsidiary of Corrections Corporation of America. If it is the same person, then his overwhelming positive endorsement of proposing Corrections Corporation of America as a solution is a conflict of interest as such a venture would overwhelmingly benefit his personal interests.  His threat that CCA will be in Alabama either by choice or by Federal force is an intimidation stance that should not be tolerated by Alabama citizens.

There are serious concerns that suggest privatization, specifically CCA, does not serve the best interests of Alabama. According to Sourcewatch, Corrections Corporation of America ” has been strongly criticized for many aspects of its operations, which amount to two primary critiques: (1) CCA’s lobbying and campaign donations have led to federal and state policies and government contracts that fatten its bottom line, often at the expense of the public interest; (2) CCA’s profit-increasing strategies constitute a vicious cycle where lower wages and benefits for workers, high employee turnover, insufficient training, and chronic understaffing can lead to mistreatment of inmates, increased violence, security concerns, and riots. As discussed below, profit-focused measures that affect inmates, such as withholding medical care or inadequate nutrition, add to the volatility of the situation. This, in turn, has led to dangerous working conditions for correctional staff. CCA’s history also includes allegations of falsifying records, fraudulently billing Medicaid, violating labor laws, and all around ‘cutting-corners. ‘”

Based on this report by Sourcewatch and the long list of lawsuits lobbied against CCA and their subsidiaries, privatization is not going to resolve the horrendous inhumane treatment of incarcerated people in Alabama.  In fact, if CCAs track record continues the atrocities may even grow instead of lessen. A majority of federal and state contracts required a quota of beds filled and payment, a sort of ‘low-crime tax’, if beds were not filled .  Sourcewatch states such contracts place taxpayers ‘on the hook’ for ensuring private prisons profit.

For the moment, let’s take CCA out of the equation here.  What does privatization of the prison system mean?  It places a capitalist model unto a human service venue.   Humans become the product which is immoral on so many levels.  The number one goal is profit for shareholders.   Just as hotels need a certain percent of occupancy to stay profitable, so do prisons.  What is the difference between prisons and hotels?  Humans are not the product in the hospitality industry.  The product in hospitality is the amenities offered by staying in one hotel over another hotel.  Prison is not a hotel, it does not provide amenities to make one’s stay pleasant.  Prison is meant to be punishment for breaking laws.  The problem is that private prisons have ensured that there are increasing numbers of people breaking the law and therefore staying in their prisons.

The private prison industry has spent over 20 million dollars between 1999-2009 lobbying the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, Office of Management and Budget, and ICE in attempts to influence immigration policy.  A strong draconian anti-immigrant policy translates into profits for private prisons at taxpayers expense. The average bed costs $122 per night, multiply that times the 2 million undocumented immigrants that have passed through detention centers in Obama’s administration alone and you come up with a pretty expensive night’s stay at taxpayers expense.  The private prison industry translates people into cattle.  A fairly immoral and repugnant view of humanity.

Private prisons historically pay lower wages than public prisons.  This is part of the capitalist model.  The belief that private prisons would be good for the economy is a falsehood.  Remember the goal is profit for shareholders and investors.  The average wage for a private prison employee is $8.25 an hour versus Alabama’s public prison employee average wage between $12.55 – 18.02 an hour, depending on region.  It has been established that in order to afford a two bedroom apartment, one must earn $13.34 an hour in Alabama.  Lower wages means less ability to purchase goods which results in a depressed economy.

The comparison of privatizing prisons to the privatization of nursing homes, group homes for the disabled, hospices does not equate.  There has been the argument that these for-profit institutions that house people have done well and in many instances better than government run or non-profit entities therefore  for-profit prisons will also do well is false for this one reason.  These for-profit institutions are geared towards the well-being and comfort of the people they serve.  The people who access them pay for them privately through their own funds or insurance.  The people who access them if they are dissatisfied with the service given to them or their loved ones can and will remove themselves from the institution. Not so in a prison setting.

A prisoner has little recourse when receiving maltreatment.  There is the human tendency to believe that the incarcerated deserve what they get in prison. Whether it is abuse from other inmates or correctional officers, that is all part of the ‘they deserve what they get.’    Private prisons look to cut costs, so fair treatment–adequate nutrition, sufficient medical care–is a cost factor that shareholders cannot tolerate.  But the prisoners, especially in private prisons, are heavily restricted in their ability to sue for better conditions because of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.  When an inmate is able to sue, the result tends to be a settled case with no ramification on correcting the prison system itself.

Returning to CCA as the solution to Alabama’s broken Prison system.  Sourcewatch lists six legal cases that allege CCA was negligent in their handling of violence, treatment, and resultant death of inmates and officers.  CCA settled the lawsuits.  One case– CCA’s run Idaho Correctional Center had four times the level of violence between inmates of any other Idaho prison. The suit alleged that CCA employees were complicit in the prisoner on prisoner assaults.  The prison earned the infamous name of Gladiator School.  The findings were so egregious that Idaho cancelled their contract with CCA in 2013.

There were six cases listed at the Sourcewatch site of sexual assault.  One case was at the CCA-owned Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky.  The prison was originally a mens prison but CCA threatened to close it because of empty beds (remember profit is the ultimate goal here not rehabilitation of inmates.) The facility therefore became a women’s prison in 2005 but retained the staffing ratio originally used at the mens prison of 81% male and 19% female employees.  In 2010, six correctional officers, including a chaplain, were charged with sexually assaulting 16 women inmates. The facility also housed 168 women from Hawaii sent there in attempts to save Hawaii money.  Hawaii brought their female inmates back into their prisons as a measure of protection. The prison was closed in 2013.

There were three cases of wrongful death listed at the Sourcewatch site.  One case was the death of an inmate at the CCA-run Kit Carson Correctional Center in Colorado just days before he was scheduled to be released who required a medication to treat a hereditary ailment that cause his breathing passages to swell shut. The medicine was only available in 30 day dosages for a cost of $35.  The CCA medical staff did not want to spend that amount when he was being released in a few days.  [remember profits before people.] He attempted to call for help but the case alleges staff had the practice of turning on the intercom in a vacant cell blocking other calls so as not to be disturbed by the inmates. The case was settled out of court in 2004.

These fifteen cases mentioned at Sourcewatch are only samples of the dozens of lawsuits against CCA and its subsidiaries.  There are many, many others reported by other watch groups such as Grassroots Leadership, and Private Corrections Working Group. All of these lawsuits reveal a consistent pattern of negligence and abuse of inmates across not only CCA but across the private prison industry, which leads to the only conclusion that CCA and other private for profit prisons are not intending to serve the best interests of any citizen except the lining of their own pockets.

So turning to privatization is not the solution to Alabama’s prison woes.  In all likelihood, lawsuits of sexual assault, wrongful death, medical negligence, and instigated violence will continue to plague Alabama’s prisons even after privatization.  The only difference is the State of Alabama can wash their hands of any accountability for these egregious acts within our prisons.