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

 

What’s a Mother to Do?

Toya Graham, mother of six, sees son on the Baltimore news throwing rocks at police cars, tracks him down, and smacks him several times in the head for his behavior. A bystander videotaped this altercation and it went viral on social media and picked up on national TV.

Many praised her actions as Mother of the year for teaching her son that rioting is wrong. But to hear her say it, the real motivation was “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. ”

Freddie Gray is the young man whose spinal cord was severed while being transported by police after an arrest. Gray died a few days later. His death sparked protests and riots in several sections of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. For a mother to live with fear that her son may end up dead like Freddie Gray at the hands of the police, is a fear that no mother should have to live with in her daily life.

What’s a mother to do? About a year ago, she heard gun shots outside her West Baltimore house and found a person who had been shot and left for dead. Her neighborhood is filled with violence. She reports she tries to keep him home but now that he is 16, she knows she can’t do that as often any longer.

West Baltimore is a poor area of the city. The per capita median income is 35% less than the Baltimore average and 56% less than the state’s average. 24% of the Black population is living in poverty. Unemployment is in the double digits and while it is down this past month to 11.5%, unemployment rate among black youth is at 16.1%, triple the national average. 60% of those over age 25 do not have a highschool diploma or GED. Life expectancy is 20 years less than other neighborhoods in Baltimore. A third of the properties are vacant or abandoned. This is the reality that she and her family face every day. This is the larger context to the Black Lives Matter movement. It isn’t just the police shootings of unarmed black men, it is the whole picture of the social landscape in which they breathe and have their being.

The New York Times has been publishing online a series of short documentaries entitled Conversations. There are two that I want to mention here. The first one I watched was about growing up Black. It focused on Black male youth sharing their experiences of racism. The youngest was 10 the oldest was in their 20s. One youth tells the story of walking down the street with his white friend and seeing a group of black teens walking towards them, the white friend suggests crossing over to the other side of the street. Another youth states that he will cross the street if he notices white people having a terror in their eyes as he approaches them. One wife describes all male teens and adults as potentially being seen by whites as a large scary black man. Her husband interrupts; I am not a large scary black man. One young man spoke about attending his school that was in two buildings and being stopped by police while walking to class from one building to the other. He expressed his shame and embarrassment he felt as his white student peers would walk pass him. This was not a onetime event, but one that happened several times. He was told the police were there to make him feel safe. He asks, “How can I feel safe when I feel like I am being hunted?”

The other short film was about parents having the “conversation” with their Black son. In white families, the ‘conversation’ usually refers to sexual behavior and responsibility but in these families the conversation is about how to act when, emphasis on when, police stop you. A father tells the story of placing and keeping his hands on the steering wheel in order to keep the police from becoming nervous about him and realizing that same action made his children in the back seat nervous and scared. A mother states, “It’s maddening that I have to prepare my kids for something that they are not responsible for.” Another parent instructs her children, “Under no circumstances are you to talk/ask questions to a police officer if stopped.”

To have this conversation be the norm in African American families is a terrifying prospect to fully grasp. It counters the white experience in this nation where whites are taught that the police are your friends and if ever in trouble, a police officer can help. Because whites typically do not have this experience with police, many are incredulous when they hear this reality for Blacks.

This is not a new phenomenon in America. This is not something that only began happening when Michael Brown was shot or Eric Garner was strangled. The Black Lives Matter movement is not reflecting on a new never before heard of act of aggression by police. Unfortunately this is a generational issue that dates back hundreds of years.

The issues faced by the black community in the 1870s after the civil war, in the early 1900s, and the 1960s are the same issues that are being faced today in 2015. In the 1870s and early 1900s, the police and vigilantes used lynchings to send a message to the black community; today we use the police and excessive force to the point of death to do the same. And when they are killed there is an immediate vilification and demonization of the victim to convince the public that somehow this death was justified. That somehow in this instance, the police officer had no choice but to shoot, or to hold the person in a choke hold, or slam the person to the ground and kneeing them in the back preventing them to breathe.

The riots that broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore as heinous as they are in their destruction of property and people’s livelihood; they too have a context in which they develop. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave that context:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

I stated earlier the conditions of Toya Graham’s neighborhood of West Baltimore; the high unemployment rate, the high poverty rate, the violence that is already rampant in the streets. These factors have the effect of keeping people trapped in poverty. It does not help to have a system in place to also keep them there.

Alabama State Senator Smitherman stated recently in a public hearing that Alabama is one shooting away from making Baltimore look like a kindergarten outing. The issue of racism and excessive force by police is not just in cities like Baltimore, New York, and Ferguson but also throughout the south.

Here in the south we have statues and schools commemorating civil war leaders who fought to keep the slave economy intact. The statues around the Capitol building commemorates confederate soldiers. It must be painful to be reminded that this state wanted to keep African Americans in shackles. Imagine being a black youth attending a school named for Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. How must it feel to know that the school you are attending is honoring someone who wanted your family to remain uneducated and in slavery? Or to have the Alabama history lessons still honor Jefferson Davis as a great statesman and to honor his treason with a state holiday?

It does not help that Former President Jimmy Carter, a southerner, along with Congress officially pardoned him and restored him to full citizenship in 1978 posthumously. Davis had the opportunity for a pardon while he was alive if he applied for one, but is quoted to have said, to ask for a pardon would require repentance, and he hadn’t repented. There is no reconciliation for a person who did not see they had done anything wrong or immoral. Slavery is immoral. And to exonerate Jefferson Davis sends the message that it was okay after all.

Using excessive force against an unarmed person, especially when they are being compliant to police requests, is immoral. There was a recent video where the young black man under his own volition is in the process of getting down on the ground and a police officer runs up and kicks him in the face, breaking his jaw. This was not justified behavior, even if the person had run away from the cop moments before, it is not justified nor is it moral.

There were two commemorations happening in Selma this year. Bloody Sunday was 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement and the Battle of Selma, 150 years ago with the reenactment of that battle on the heels of the Bloody Sunday commemoration. At the reenactment, the KKK and other white supremacist groups were out in full number. Imagine how the predominantly black community of Selma felt to have the KKK once again at their doorsteps proudly waving their confederate flags for an era that while it must not be forgotten, needs to be placed into a new narrative of creating justice and liberty for all Alabama’s citizens. Instead it glorifies the confederacy and its rebellion against the Federal government.

This is the context in which the black community lives and breathes. To say racism is dead or is diminishing because we have elected to the highest office in the land an African American contrasts the vast unevenness of civil rights in this country.

So what is a mother to do? Julia Ward Howe in 1870 called on mothers around the globe to unite for peace and to help prevent the sending of our children to war. That declaration became the advent of Mother’s Day. Somehow the protest, the anger, and grief over the loss of young lives that gave birth to Mother’s Day has been reformed into a quaint hallmark card and flowers.

However, yesterday Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation was again brought to the forefront. Valerie Bell , who lost her son, Sean, on his wedding day, when police fired 50 shots into his car because they thought the occupants had guns but none of them did, joined Mothers for Justice United; a group of women and family members who have lost young men and women to police violence. She writes:

This year we are taking back the original intention of Mother’s Day: a day founded for mothers to stand up together to make collective demands. After the Civil War and the economic turmoil that followed, American abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, horrified by the wars and devastation of her time, penned a proclamation to mothers everywhere:  “Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause,” she wrote. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience… From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!”

Howe called on women to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
It’s now a century after the founding of Mother’s Day, and our sons are still being taken from us. Society has not disarmed, but militarized to the teeth. Mothers’ sons everywhere are still killing and being killed. We have had enough.

Yesterday Valerie Bell and other mothers of slain young black men marched in DC to bring attention to their grief and loss. It is not just the few that have made the headlines in recent months that they were protesting. The numbers are staggering.

Between 2010 and 2012, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white teens. In order for white teens to be of equal risk, it would require an additional 185 young white teens to be killed during that same time period or 1 additional death a week. The disparity does not stop there. Drug use among whites and blacks are about the same percentage. However, blacks in 2013 data collected by the FBI were 4 times more likely to be arrested for drug use than whites.

For me to stand here and tell you that the system is broken and needs fixing does not bring justice to this American tragedy. It is safe for me to speak. It is safe for me because I am at a distance from this reality. And many of you are also at a distance from this reality that is the nature of our social placement in society as Unitarian Universalists. We are considered a white liberal faith that can safely protest within our four walls, maybe sign a few petitions, and if we are brave, maybe join a rally to shake our fists in the air. But many of us won’t even do that much, we will shake our heads at this sad state of affairs and when this service is over return to our lives, celebrate Mother’s Day with our wives, mothers, and children and have a nice dinner.

But until we decide to listen and honor the first hand stories of people of color in our congregations and in our communities, our in-house actions are meaningless. Our declaring only to each other that we are white allies is really a vapid experience with no ability to make a difference other than to claim separation from those racists. We need to find a way to have heart awareness, a deep empathy that will call us to action, to speak up when our white co-workers proclaim that Freddie Gray got what he deserved or that Michael Brown was guilty or that young 12 year old Tamir Rice should have known better than to be black and playing with a toy gun on his property. Or when our white co-workers mention Brian Moore and other police officers shot and killed in the line of duty as a defense of police actions, we need to stand up and say the death of an officer does not justify the deaths of unarmed black men. This is not quid pro quo killings.

We must begin applying pressure on the system to create change so the deaths in the process of arresting someone ends. There is no call for police to kick a person in the face breaking his jaw. There is no need to shoot a shopper in Walmart because he picked up a toy gun. We need to have as much passion as Toya Graham who would go out in the middle of a raging riot and grab her son by the neck to pull him to safety. What would a mother do to save her children from harm?

What would you do, if you lived in her shoes?

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
10 May 2015 © Rev Fred L Hammond

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.

Alabama, Equal Marriage is Here February 9th

Alabama is a special breed.  On February 9th the stay that Judge Granade placed on her rulings on two cases that Alabama’s constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional will expire. The 11th circuit has refused to extend the stay until the SCOTUS rules in June.  The backlash has begun. First we had the the Probate Judge’s Association stating that the first ruling only applied to the couple in the law suit and therefore they did not need to heed her ruling. Attorney General Strange applied for and received a 14 day stay on her decision. Her second ruling clarified she meant the entire state must comply.  Then we have the ongoing chest beating of Chief Justice Roy Moore stating the federal courts have no jurisdiction over the state in matters of defining marriage. And now we have the magistrates and counties stating that they will simply no longer officiate civil unions of any marriages regardless of gender make-up.

“Marriage licenses and ceremonies are not available at the Pike County Probate Office,” the judge’s office said on Facebook Friday afternoon. “Pike County residents who are seeking marriage licenses can do so at any Probate Judge’s office in the state that offers that service and are not required to apply for their license in their county of residence.”

[Pike County Probate Judge Wes] Allen  said in a news release that the decision allows him to obey the law and his Christian beliefs. He cited state law that says marriage licenses “may” be issued by probate judges. “I am choosing to take the Pike County Probate Office out of the marriage licensing business altogether.”

He is not alone.  Several counties in the state are taking similar stances.  And some magistrates have reportedly resigned rather than fulfill the court order leaving a void for Monday’s enactment of the court ruling.

Before this latest protest stance against enforcing same sex marriage, I have been in several debates with colleagues within Unitarian Universalist circles, as well as with gay friendly clergy of other faiths regarding the sanctity of marriage and what we should be doing come February 9th.  Should ministers rush to the court houses to marry gay couples in a civil union when it is not a religious service?   The concern is an ethical one.  Clergy see marriage as a holy union, sanctified by a higher calling and therefore should not be a commitment that one enters into lightly.  They require pre-marital counseling.  The style of counseling varies with faith tradition.

One non-Unitarian Universalist clergy person who has been officiating holy unions between same gender couples for decades stated this is a spiritual journey that requires prayer, contemplation, discernment and the development of a covenantal relationship before entering this path together.  Therefore, on the 9th, they will only sign marriage licenses for those couples who have already under gone a holy union ceremony. This is according to their doctrinal beliefs and the state is merely catching up in recognizing the spiritual reality of their holy covenanted union.   If a couple comes to them on February 9th seeking to be wed in their church, then they will have to under go their traditions prescribed process which takes time. No jumping on the quick-marriage-ceremony-just-because-it-is-legal band wagon.

Many Unitarian Universalist clergy also require some form of pre-marital counseling.  And there have been UU clergy who are concerned with the suspension of pre-marital counseling for same gender couples when equal marriage rights are first enacted. Pre-marital sessions have been used by clergy to get to know the couple and to discern with the couple any areas of potential concerns that might need addressing in order for the relationship to thrive in a legally binding marriage.

I understand the debate.  But here is where I am in my internal debate with myself. There are factors that need to be considered.  I know many same gender couples that have raised and are raising children together. I know many same gender couples who have already spent up to 50 years together. I have a difficulty making a couple that has already proven their commitment to each other over the years  in the face of severe prejudice and down right hatred to go through pre-marital counseling as if this is the beginning of their journey together.  Doing so discounts the reality that their relationship commitment is already further down the journey than most newlyweds. By my denying services unless they jump through our unique hoops is in my mind and heart creating an injustice upon injustice.  Who does this hoop serve–the couple who has been together already through thick and thin or the minister?   For same gender couples already committed to each other for years– my role as officiant is in restoring to them the affirmation that society should have already affirmed.

After this law has been in effect for a few years and those looking to marry have been together for a brief time then yes, I will resume pre-marital counseling for same gender couples.  They are beginning a new journey together and are seeking to deepen the relationship. But it is arrogant of me to insist on this as a requirement of marriage for a couple who already have raised children together and maneuvered through their children’s experience of being taunted for their parent’s relationship.

But we now have counties where courts are saying — ‘fine, the federal courts are making courts give out marriage licenses to same sex couples then this court will not offer the service of a civil marriage to any couple.’ One court said about 42% of the couples receiving licenses have the magistrate perform the marriage. Because I am a minister willing to officiate same gender marriages, should I insist that they have a religious service which includes the pre marital sessions because that is my personal preference religiously?  Especially when they do not want a religious service and a civil service is not being offered to anyone? This is another form of oppressive coercion that is in my mind equally as unjust as Alabama banning same gender marriage in the first place.

Unlike my Non-UU ministerial colleagues, I am not bound by an ecclesiastical doctrine of marriage that requires a series of steps in order for a person to enter into marriage.  I interpret my UU faith to see the sacred in the ordinary.   For me, justice is not served when I mandate a set of religious requirements on a couple who have been denied recognition of marriage status for decades and now have the freedom to marry.  For clergy to do this is what the courts who are refusing to perform civil ceremonies are hoping for. By denying all marriage licenses to couples or denying the service of a civil union is an attempt to prevent same gender couples from getting married because they know that here in Alabama, the majority of clergy will not officiate their weddings as a matter of doctrinal belief.

Yes, Alabama is a special breed.  And I am sure even after February 9th when equal marriage is the law of the state, we will not have heard the end of this.  There will be people who will angrily protest. Judge Moore will  beat his chest some more until he is once again removed for disobeying a federal court ruling.  And the legislature will dream up new ways to circumvent the federal ruling as they have in every federal civil rights issue in the past.  Integration of schools, voting rights, and reproductive rights to name a few.

Alabama, equal marriage is here February 9th!  It is a victory but it is a victory that will come with a price. In Alabama employers can still fire a person for being gay or transgender. If there is any deterrent to marrying on the 9th, it is the injustice of being fired on the 10th.  My willingness as clergy to officiate on the 9th is not going to be one of them.

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.

Dangerous TImes

If you received a phone call from Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales or Moderator Jim Key asking you to assist Ugandan gay refugees to flee that country into South Africa or the United States, would you say yes? Would you say yes, if it meant you had to volunteer your time and depend on whatever resources you could raise? Would you say yes, if it meant leaving your 2 year old daughter and 5 year old son behind?

These are dangerous times to be gay in Uganda and Gambia. Now to my knowledge, Peter Morales or Jim Key has not asked anyone to go into Uganda to assist the Unitarian Universalists there in helping sexual minorities and those suspected to be sexual minorities in fleeing the country.

But such a phone call occurred for Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp prior to World War II. They were asked to go to Czechoslovakia to provide support to the Unitarians of that country. The Unitarians had already been making inroads for an underground network but now there was a need to have someone or someones to move people through that network to safety.

Some background. The Rev. Norbert Capek had established the largest Unitarian congregation in the world in Prague with 3800 plus members. Unitarianism because of its inclusivity as a creedless faith became a safe refuge for Jews in Czechoslovakia. In 1938, the Munich Accord gave Germany the region of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Refugees were being tortured and shot by the Nazis as they fled for Prague. When the Sudetenland fell to German control in 1938, the American Unitarian Association sent ‘commissioners’ to assess the needs of the refugees and the Prague church.

The phone call came to the Sharp’s towards the end of 1938. When Waitstill questioned why them; he was told that 17 people were asked first. Waitstill asked if his understanding was correct that 17 people were asked and said no to this request to assist Unitarians and refugees in Czechoslovakia. Would you be one of the 17? It is a very hard question to answer.

Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp were distraught over what was happening in Europe. ‘These were our friends’; Waitstill would state later and something needed to be done. While reluctant to leave their two young children, the Sharps set sail for Prague on February 1st 1939, on March 15th the Nazis marched into Prague. The Sharps escorted Jews out of Prague and across Germany to freedom in England. They were followed by the gestapo. They burned their notes and documents to protect the people they were helping. They found their offices ransacked and furniture thrown onto the streets. And when they left in August 1939 to return to the States, they discovered afterwards that they were days away from arrest by the Gestapo.

The following year, they were called again by Unitarian President, Frederick May Eliot, to go to Paris to set up offices to assist people escaping Europe. Unfortunately, when they left for Europe this time, France fell to the Germans before they arrived. They moved their office to neutral Portugal. From Lisbon, among the many tasks they undertake, they managed to arrange for the escape of some 29 children and 10 adults to leave Nazi-occupied Europe to the United States. It was while they were in Portugal that the flaming chalice became a symbol for their official documents. The Sharp’s work combined with the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee ensured the rescue of 3500 families from Nazi controlled Europe. The Sharp’s became known as the ‘Guardian Angels of European children.’

Waitstill and Martha Sharp were posthumously honored as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel. Of the more than 20,000 non-Jews who risked their lives on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust, only four Americans have received such distinction to date.

Flash forward to February 1965. These were dangerous times to be in the south. Jimmy Lee Jackson had been shot in attempts to stop the beating of his mother by police during a non-violent protest in Marion, AL over the arrest of a Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader. There was outrage over Jackson’s death and a march was planned to carry his coffin from Marion to the capitol steps in Montgomery in protest of his wrongful death. This march was re-routed to begin in Selma and as the marchers crossed the Edmond Pettus Bridge they were brutally beaten by Alabama State Troopers. The horrendous force used by the police christened this day as Bloody Sunday. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. issued a call to clergy from across the nation to come to Selma, AL to join them.

One young Unitarian minister, James Reeb in Massachusetts heard this call. He had been working as a community minister in the inner city of Boston. While the issues facing people of color in Boston were not the same as the issues facing those in the Deep South, the core roots of the issues were the same: institutionalized racism. James Reeb spoke with several people about leaving for Selma that day. He was reminded of the dangers but he decided this is where he needed to be. He tucked his children into bed and caught an 11 PM flight for Atlanta and then another plane to Montgomery. By morning, he was joined by some fifty other Unitarian Universalist ministers who also answered the call.

The day of the march, there was an injunction against it and Governor Wallace was not going to lift it. The question was clear, obey the injunction or obey the moral call? King announced his decision to the people who assembled: “I’ve made my choice this afternoon. I’ve got to march. I’d rather have them kill me on the highway than butcher me in my conscience.” (Mendelsohn, 1966)

King led the march over the bridge where they were met by State Troopers who told them they could proceed no further. Could they pray, King asked? So there were prayers for those injured on the previous Sunday and prayers for those who caused the injury, the very police standing there blocking their passage.

King explained the reasoning for what happened to those participating: “We decided we had to stand and confront the State Troopers who committed the brutality Sunday. We did march and we did reach the point of the brutality … and we had a prayer service and a freedom rally. And we will go to Montgomery next week in numbers no man can number.” (Mendelsohn, 1966)

Later that evening, James Reeb with the Reverends Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen went for dinner at an integrated diner not far from the gathering place. As they left Walker’s Café, they hear four white men calling them the infamous derogatory slur. They quicken their pace, and Clark turns around just as he sees one of the men swing a club or a pipe as if aiming at a baseball.

James Reeb is struck down. He is incoherent and in pain. The ambulance gets a flat tire just outside of Selma. They wait for another ambulance. The police surround the second ambulance and question them. They refuse to provide escort. The nearest hospital that will treat him from Selma is Birmingham. His injuries are too great; he is removed from life support and dies two days later. His death became the lightening rod President Johnson needed to pass the Voting Rights Act.

In the eulogy that Martin Luther King gave he attempted to answer the question of not who but rather what killed him. He states: “James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice.”
The truth is what killed James Reeb is the same that killed 6 million Jews and 3 million political prisoners and homosexuals in Germany. It is the same that created the genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. It is the same for threats against sexual minorities in Uganda and Gambia—where homosexuality is seen as a worse threat than hunger, disease, and abject poverty.

If you received a phone call to act on behalf of justice, would you answer yes? These are also dangerous times. Every generation has to answer the call before them. The Sharps and others answered the call in the 1940’s. Reeb and other clergy answered the call in the 1960’s.

And closer to home it is the same people who stand by indifferently as people’s rights are eroded away under the guise of religious freedom in Mississippi to allow businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities or here in Alabama to allow nurses and doctors to refuse to treat a woman who has an abortion, regardless of reason.

There really is no difference between the death sentences for being gay in Uganda and refusal to sell to a gay person in Mississippi. It is only a matter of degree of the indignity suffered. They are rooted in the same ignorance, the same intolerance, the same hatred against humanity’s diversity.

And while we can easily point to the atrocity of what is happening in Uganda or in Syria or in Ukraine as being dangerous times, it is harder, much harder to point out what makes living in America today as also living in dangerous times. We are like the frogs in the pot of water with the water slowly increasing in temperature and when it hits boiling it will be too late for us to jump out.

What makes this time dangerous is the very eroding of the values that we have based this nation upon. The Supreme Court has made it easier to undermine the protections of the voting rights act. The Supreme Court has ruled money equals speech. The Supreme Court has weakened the Affirmative Action mandates. Alabama passes legislation that allows medical personnel to discriminate against patients whose choices offend someone’s religious doctrines. Mississippi passes legislation that allows businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities under the false guise of religious freedom. Yet we remain passive like those frogs in tepid waters. The Democratic process is a core principle to our faith yet we take it for granted and assume it is safe from harm.

I see a lot of feigned outrage in society today. People outraged that the owner of a sports team declared his bigotry. People outraged that a sheriff in New Hampshire called the President the N word. People outraged over the racist remarks of a rancher. A group of students up in arms over the denial of admittance to a sorority on campus but not one ounce of outrage when the student government refuses to officially integrate the Greek system. Feigned outrage over one person’s slight not one protest over the institutional racism that sways power over others. Hypocrites! We as a nation are more concerned about the blatant surface appearances of racism than the hardcore insipid reality of it that courses through our veins. Symbolic rage while the system churns on its racist oppressive policies unabated.

These are dangerous times. We don’t need to travel across the world or even across the country to address it, the call is right here in Tuscaloosa.

Sixty years ago this month we commemorate the anniversary of a major integration victory that declared that separate is not equal in education. Central High School became the pride of post Brown v Board of Education. It was fully integrated with successful students of all races. The school district proclaimed that they were successful for a generation in integration and therefore no longer needed the court mandated integration ruling. Tuscaloosa claimed they would continue integration without being told but Tuscaloosa lied. Tuscaloosa voted to build two high schools and then gerrymandered the district to not only racially but economically segregate Central. The students in Central High School are being prepared not for a better life but for a life of continued poverty and very likely for prison. Central’s top students are not even able to qualify on college entrance exams.

We live in a nation where 1 in 3 black males born today will spend time in prison. We live in a nation where 1/3rd of black students between grades 7 and 12th grade are suspended or expelled from school. Tuscaloosa because of gerrymandered district lines has created a disproportionate number of whites and middle class blacks to attend the wealthier North Ridge and Paul Bryant schools. Central High is 99% black and predominantly poor. 80% of their students qualify for the federally funded school lunch program. Tuscaloosa’s 2012 Demographic study for a school district that told the Supreme Court that they could ensure integration of all of their schools, does not even mention the racial or economic breakdown in this report. Tuscaloosa has lied again. Where is the outrage over this injustice? But keep one pledge out of a sorority and we are up in arms over the indignity.

These are dangerous times not because of the potential of loss of life, though if we continue on this path of oppression it could result in this, but because of the loss of our moral compass as a people.

I never quite understood the scripture verses where it states that our fight is with principalities and powers, until now. It is not the spiritual warfare against demons as our Christian siblings believe, but rather against those human made systems that rob humanity from reaching its full potential. Racism is a power and the system in which it flourishes is the principality.

The principalities and powers of yesterday included fascist governments. Today they include the superficial righteous who parade their holy scriptures with no true understanding of the words or the spirit of love those scriptures contain. They hide behind the feigned outrage over the symptoms of racism while encouraging the real forces of racism and oppression to press on unfettered and unaccounted.
It is up to us to answer the call even in the midst of these dangerous times to call out the false outrage and point towards the heart of the matter. Even to do this takes courage because the temptation is to go with the flow and join the chorus du jour but this is the task before us to root out injustice where ever it grows. From east to west, north and south, we are called to speak to our Unitarian Universalist principles in a nation that has forgotten the true meaning of our founders’ words of inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and which are echoed in the words of our pledge: liberty, and justice for all.

The only way these words can become true in America is if we seek to ensure that our neighbor, regardless of their creed, race, sexual / gender identity or class has at their disposal all the resources necessary to reach their full potential. When my neighbor does not have the resource then I become the poorer for it.

This is the call that the Sharps answered. This is the call that James Reeb answered. They went to ensure their neighbor is treated the way they would want to be treated. This is the way of love. This is the mantle that is laid down before each of us. Will we pick that mantle up in these dangerous days? I pray that we will in our own way and according to our own conscience.
Martha Sharp is said to have asked her grandchildren, ‘What important work are you going to do for the world?’

 

Dangerous Times was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL by Rev. Fred L Hammond 18 May 2014 (c)

A prayer for the Alabama Legislature

Tomorrow, Faith leaders from across the state will be holding a press conference in Montgomery on the steps of the State House and will be praying for the legislators as they debate HB 56, the bill passed last year that is projected to cost the state $11 Billion in economic loss, not to mention the hundreds of  millions of dollars combined in litigation costs and county, city, and state taxes. Each faith leader has been asked to deliver their prayers for the legislature as part of this event.

Here is the prayer I will be delivering to my legislators:

Holy One, who incarnated the world with love, your messenger stated the greatest leader among us was the one who served the poor, the weak, the infirmed, and the stranger.  We have strayed from that purpose and have sought instead to align ourselves with the privileged, the powerful, and the wealthy in the vain hopes that we might share in that privilege, that power, that wealth.  In this striving we have failed to serve the least of these who are most vulnerable; the children and elderly, the poor and the working poor, and the sojourner.  We have failed to see that what we do to the least of these we in turn do to ourselves and to all that is sacred. When we enact laws that tear apart families, we are tearing apart the sacred tapestry established from the beginning of life.  Such actions grieve the Spirit that weaves together the human family.  Help us to know that such actions result in pain and suffering in other seemingly unrelated arenas of our state.  Help us to know and feel that grief that cries out for redress are as the cries from the Hebrews who sojourned in Egypt.  The suffering cries out to the heavens for redress of their injustice.

Turn us away from our self serving actions.  Guide us back to being the servants of the people who are disenfranchised and made vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by an unequal system.  Teach us again the meaning of the Samaritan, the one disenfranchised and hated by society turned out to be the one who was incarnated by the Spirit of Love.  May we humble ourselves before the Sacred that lives within each of us.  May we seek to honor the holy within each of us by enacting laws that strengthen the human family by nurturing our resident’s potentials and receiving our resident’s gifts rather than castigating their presence among us.   In the Spirit of the Holy One who calls us to give voice to the voiceless, to lift up the downtrodden, and to offer hospitality to the sojourner, Amen.  Let it be so.

 

Rev. Fred L Hammond

Minster, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

More Alabama examples towards the path of Genocide

I recently posted about the eight stages of genocide and made comments of how I see Alabama methodically implementing these stages.  I realize making  such a statement can be seen to be outrageous but I have come to this conclusion through observing what is happening in our state.  I did not make these comments lightly.

Since writing that post The Southern Poverty Law Center has confirmed a report that a school district in Northeast Alabama called their Latino students into the cafeteria and asked them if they knew their legal status in this country.  Those that stated they were undocumented were culled out of the group and were arrested by ICE.

Here is what the law states regarding schools:

Section 28. (a)(1) Every public elementary and secondary school in this state, at the time of enrollment in kindergarten or any grade in such school, shall determine whether the student enrolling in public school was born outside the jurisdiction of the United States or is the child of an alien not lawfully present in the United States and qualifies for assignment to an English as Second Language class or other remedial program.

Here is what Genocide Watch writes to describe stage 6:

6. PREPARATION:Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity. Death lists are drawn up. Members of victim groups are forced to wear identifying symbols. Their property is expropriated. They are often segregated into ghettoes, deported into concentration camps, or confined to a famine-struck region and starved. At this stage, a Genocide Emergency must be declared. If the political will of the great powers, regional alliances, or the U.N. Security Council can be mobilized, armed international intervention should be prepared, or heavy assistance provided to the victim group to prepare for its self-defense. Otherwise, at least humanitarian assistance should be organized by the U.N. and private relief groups for the inevitable tide of refugees to come.

Which of these statements does the actions of the school district in Northeast Alabama resemble most?  Now granted stage 6 has not been fully implemented in the state of Alabama but it seems to me that the actions of this school district did not follow the law as written but instead jumped to the next logical step of where this law is headed in spirit.  The school district identified and separated out the students who were undocumented and had them arrested by ICE agents.  This is indeed the spirit behind Genocide Watch’s Stage 6.

There was another event this time in Morgan County.  Committee on Church Cooperation, a non-profit organization,  whose mission is to help the poor  has decided that immigrants are not part of its mission, especially if they are undocumented.  The Decatur Daily reports this in their newspaper:

Gayle Monk, CCC executive director, said the organization has had to take extra steps to make sure undocumented immigrants do not obtain food, clothing and other assistance, much of which is donated to the agency by Morgan County churches.
“We thoroughly check everybody out,” Monk said. “We’ve even got wind that a lot of them have illegal Social Security cards. So I’ve tried to educate my staff on what to look for.”
As a condition of receiving assistance, Monk said, applicants must present government-issued photo identification showing residence in Morgan County. They also must provide a Social Security card for every member of the household, as well as documentation of income.
“The majority of the Hispanics, No. 1, can’t speak English when they come in here and, No. 2, have a Social Security card that is fake,” Monk said. …

Monk said the extra attention paid to documentation has been effective.
“It used to be about 10 percent (Hispanics) that we served,” Monk said. “Since cracking down, I haven’t seen anybody, especially in the last month. …

Monk said CCC has no connection to the controversy over undocumented immigrants because it receives no governmental funding.
“We operate strictly off of donations given to us out of the kindness of an individual’s heart,” Monk said.

In the ruling by Judge Sharon Blackburn  she stated the churches did not have a basis on which to argue that HB 56 would impinge on their freedom to practice their faith.  Yet, here is an example of an organization deciding to implement the law using the laws criteria to single out and deny services to people in need.  This organization decided to interpret their religious mission not on spiritual principles but rather on state law.  A response by CCC to criticism of their actions on facebook  states:

“Our acting Board Chairman, Mr. Greg Ethridge, states clearly “CCC’s charter is to serve those in need in Morgan County. Our policy, since 1973, has been that each client served present their proof of residency in Morgan County and thier [sic] Social Security card. This policy is regardless of race, color, creed, religion or nationality.”  

Social Security cards do not provide proof of residency within local municipalities, therefore there is no need to have them as part of this criteria of eligibility.    In this instance it can only be used to discriminate between residents who are citizens and residents who are undocumented which implies that nationality is regarded as a criteria for service by this charitable religious organization.  Comments in the story also suggests there is a bias against those who speak a different language.

Where does this story fit into the stages towards genocide?  I suggest this falls into stage 1:

1. CLASSIFICATION:All cultures have categories to distinguish people into “us and them” by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi. Bipolar societies that lack mixed categories, such as Rwanda and Burundi, are the most likely to have genocide. The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions. The Catholic church could have played this role in Rwanda, had it not been riven by the same ethnic cleavages as Rwandan society. Promotion of a common language in countries like Tanzania has also promoted transcendent national identity. This search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide.

There is the story in the Christian Scriptures where a Greek  woman is asking Jesus for a miracle for her daughter.  Jesus responds somewhat uncharacteristically that it is not right to take food from the children and cast it to the dogs.  The woman bravely responds that even the dogs get a chance to eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.  Jesus gives the woman her miracle.

This is not a story that we should be offering the crumbs of our abundance to those who speak a different language.  Nor is it a story that suggests  different Christian and other religious  charities should discriminate between those who are like us and those who are not in offering services.  Rather it is a story that reveals that love transcends the boundaries of race and culture and what we offer to others who are different should be of the same quality and same intention as what we offer those who are similar to us.   Where better to transcend these ethnic and racial categories and boundaries than within the services of a charitable organization whose mission is to help those in need.

There is still time to stop the progression of the effects of this law.  We all must work together to prevent the dehumanization of even one child, one family, one community.  If we do not or if we cannot, we are all dehumanized in the process.

Living in a foreign land called Alabama

Alabama is no longer a part of America.  Not the America I was taught to value and love.  I do not recognize the actions that are happening around me.  I did not grow up knowing the fear that I visibly see on my friends’  faces as they worry about their children being dropped off at school.  I am seriously considering carrying my US passport because I do not recognize my country. I am,  as of September 29, 2011,  living in a foreign land.

Since the law, commonly called HB 56, went into effect on September 29th municipalities have shut off water service to residents suspected of being undocumented.  This is a tactic that totalitarian countries use before they begin the final push towards genocide.  Yes, I used that word.   There are eight stages towards genocide according to Genocide Watch  and Alabama apparently is actively pursuing them.

Stage One: Classification.   We have classified Alabamans into us and them.  Citizens vs illegals.  And the “illegals” are of a specific nationality even though the law is any immigrant who is in this country without documentation.

Stage Two:  Symbolization. “names or other symbols  are given to the classifications”  Calling immigrants illegals, criminals, parasites, and rats are all signs of stage two.  This is happening in Alabama.

Stage Three: Dehumanization.  This is happening in Alabama.  We call residents who are here without papers, illegals. We are hearing people and some politicians use the terms rats or parasites or blights on society. This is for the sole purpose to dehumanize the plights of these immigrants who according to Federal law have not committed a crime.  It is harder to feel compassion towards a parasite losing its home or water but if we insist to  humanize our neighbors regardless of nationality then we have a chance for compassion and interrupting this stage.

Stage Four:  Organization.  The state has ordered that our police force which is to protect and serve to be trained outside of their authorization under federal law to arrest and detain  individuals that they determine are not here legally. In other countries where genocide is occurring these trained militias commit mass murder and that is NOT  happening here in Alabama. But it is worrisome that police are not adequately trained and therefore are racial profiling in their arrests.  The federal government is also actively engaged in this stage with its ICE raids and brandishing weapons with the sole purpose of terrorizing a community.

This past weekend a Latino minister and a minister colleague were stopped by police in Warrior, AL  in northern Jefferson County on the road en route to fix his car that had a flat tire.  He was asked for his papers to show he was here in this country legally.  He showed the police officer his passport.  The police officer “determined” the  passport was counterfeit and asked for additional identification.  He showed him a chaplaincy association card that stated he was a member of the clergy in good standing in that organization.  His colleague, who had documentation was allowed to leave.  But he was arrested on the charge of using a counterfeit passport.

When inquiries were made as to bond and charges, the charges changed to impersonating a clergyman.  What happened to the counterfeit passport?  It was a legitimate passport indicating that he had every right to be here in this country.   He was released after the jail was flooded with phone calls inquiring why they were charging someone  with  impersonation of clergy, when in fact he was and is a minister.  Impersonating clergy is a crime?   In a state where if a group of people declare that they avail a person’s skills as their minister  thereby making that person a minister; this becomes a bogus charge and reveals the racism that he has been subjected to by the police officer.

Stage Five:  Polarization.  We are seeing the beginnings of this extreme polarization.  When Farmers complained to Sen. Beason about not being able to harvest their crops, his attitude was ‘so what.’  Conservative press is becoming more extreme in their propaganda targeting immigrants. The passage of HB 56 is also an example of this polarization.

Stage Six:  Preparation.  “Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity.” We are beginning to see this after the passage of this law.  Municipalities are shutting water services to those they suspect are undocumented.  Landlords are evicting families from homes.  Schools are requesting proof of citizenship of new enrollees and,  while the state school board has said this would not happen, teachers are asking previously enrolled  students if they are undocumented.  Students,  this is a question that does not need to be answered.  Respectfully decline.

Stage Seven:  Extermination of people. Not happening.

Stage Eight:  Denial of the genocide. The seeds of this are happening in the guises of  “What part of illegal, don’t you understand.” This is the following the law even if it is morally corrupt and unjust.   Martin Luther King, Jr. countered such statements with arresting Jews was the law in Germany during Nazi Germany but it does not mean it is the right and moral action to take.

Many of these stages are developing to fruition at a faster pace than others. We need to be active in dismantling these stages to prevent genocide from happening in our beloved country.

Now, I know many will read this and declare, Fred, you are exaggerating. This is not what is happening in Alabama.  This would never happen in America. My reply would be it already has happened in America several times in our history.

It happened when our founding parents  first settled this country and rounded up the native people of this land,  massacred them en masse, and forced them onto reservations.  It happened through out the deep south after the civil war through the 1970’s.  Lynchings were a common occurrence, bombings of  churches and synagogues  happened regularly because they were of a different race or different religion.  Several of these stages were implemented during World War Two when the US sent thousands of Japanese Americans to internment camps.  And it is happening again this time against another people who only seek what we have;  the dream for a better life.

We need to repeal this law. We need to expand our education for tolerance and diversity.  We need to begin living our highest values as taught by all of our faith traditions of  treating others as we would want to be treated.