Monday, October 27, 2008

Churches Won’t Lose Tax Exemptions for Performing Same Sex Marriages

By Patricia Cain

The proponents of Proposition 8 have unleashed an ad in which a law professor proclaims that unless marriage rights are denied to same-sex couples, churches risk losing their tax exemptions. The claim is pure nonsense and any lawyer who makes such a claim should apologize for misleading the many religious leaders and congregations in this state who, because they are not legal experts, rely on those of us who are.

Our country was founded on the principle of separation of church and state. The U.S. Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. It also guarantees that an individual’s right of religious liberty is protected in every state in this country.

The California constitution provides similar guarantees. The California Supreme Court, the institution charged with construing the California constitution to ensure that it applies to all Californians equally, recognized the importance of these guarantees in its decision in the marriage cases. As the Court explained: “[A]ffording same-sex couples the opportunity to obtain the designation of marriage will not impinge upon the religious freedom of any religious organization, official, or any other person; no religion will be required to change its religious policies or practices with regard to same-sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.”

There is absolutely no legal basis for the claim in the proponent’s ad that churches may lose their tax exemption. The claim is nothing more than an attempt by the opponents of equal marriage to instill fear among the religious faithful in the hopes that they will flock to the ballot box and cast a vote to protect their churches.

Citizens of California need to check their fears against what we all know about religious freedom in this country. Churches and other religious institutions are free to follow their religious tenets and to conduct whatever sacraments and services are consistent with those tenets.

Churches in Massachusetts, where marriages between same-sex partners have been performed for over four years, can and do refuse to marry same-sex couples. Not a single church has been threatened with the loss of tax-exempt status. There is no risk that they will be threatened because the IRS and state tax authorities are bound by the guarantees of religious freedom in the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

When New Jersey adopted civil unions for same-sex couples in 2006, fears arose in that state that religious organizations would be forced to perform same-sex unions. On January 10, 2007, the New Jersey Attorney General issued a formal opinion concluding that religious institutions are not required to endorse or perform same-sex commitment ceremonies since they are protected by both the state and federal constitutions. The opinion cited relevant United States Supreme Court precedent. That same precedent applies in California.

Our country is strongest when the rights of all are protected. The separation of church and state is a necessary precondition for the protection of individual liberty and equality. We live in a public world full of differences of opinion and that is good. We get our strength from our private worlds where individual conscience and matters of faith reside. California’s constitution is a document that governs our public world. It should not be amended to deny the rights of some because of an unfounded fear that some voters’ religious freedoms are in jeopardy.
Cain is the Inez Mabie Distinguished Professor of Law at Santa Clara University and past president of the Society of American Law Teachers.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Rescue Package for Working Women

By Ellen Bravo

Wall Street tycoons behave irresponsibly, bring the country to financial brink, hold out their hands for an eleven-figure bailout -- and lobbyists applaud that as a rescue.

Women achieve daily miracles fulfilling responsibilities to their employers and their families, ask for modest protections so they won’t be fired for having a sick kid -- and lobbyists denounce that as mandates.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Not so long ago, we were surrounded by ashtrays and smokers wherever we worked, ate or traveled. Babies sat on our laps in the car. Most paints were lead-based.

In each case, public health experts alerted us to the dangers. Values shifted; what once seemed normal no longer met the test of public acceptability. Groups of concerned citizens petitioned government representatives to do their job and set new standards.

Action on these items was nothing unusual. From child labor to Jim Crow to excluding those with a disability, our government has stepped in to end long-time practices. Each time they did so because popular sentiment said, “Enough.”

Once again, there is a need for the government to protect its citizens. This time it’s to make sure that workers are not penalized for being good parents.

We have a giant disconnect between what family members need and what the workplace provides.

It flies in the face of our values, and hurts our families and businesses, when workers can’t afford to take time to care for a new baby or a seriously ill family member. And it jeopardizes us all when people are compelled to go to work and cook our food or care for our children when they themselves are sick.

Each time we try to advance, opponents rise up to tell us the sky will fall, business will flee. Consider this statement:

“[This bill] would create chaos in business never yet known to us… Let me make clear that I am not opposed to the [goals of reform]… What I do take exception to is any approach … which is utterly impractical and in operation would be much more destructive than constructive to the very purposes it is designed to serve.”

That’s Ohio Congressman Arthur Lamneck, arguing in 1937 against proposed rules outlawing child labor and establishing a minimum wage. More than 70 years later, these standards clearly aren’t what threaten the American economy. But lack of minimum standards really is harming American families.

I’ve been thinking a lot about parents I know of three lovely children. Let’s call them Scott and Kate. After Scott’s job was outsourced to Taiwan, the couple lost their home. Since then, Scott got another job. Recently, they learned their daughter has cancer. Both parents have family leave and understanding employers. The problem is the leave is unpaid. They don’t know how they can make ends meet with the double whammy of losing income while on leave and having to cough up the 20 percent health insurance co-pay.

There are many heartbreaking parts of this story. But what hit me the hardest was when Kate said, “I feel like I failed my family.”

Kate and Scott have done nothing but work hard and take good care of their children. That should be enough. The failure here is a government refusing to bring the workplace into sync with 21st century realities.

Providing incentives to employers who move jobs overseas rather than those who grow them here -- that’s the failure. Allowing health care providers and insurers to jack up prices without regard for the impact on workers and their families, or on employers struggling to keep their heads above water -- that’s the failure. Opposing legislation that would bar employers from firing a worker who needs to take a day off to care for a sick child or parent -- that’s the failure. So is blocking progress on bills that would provide income for workers during family leave. And even worse, telling workers these are personal problems they have to work out on their own -- that’s an outrage.

The current bailout of irresponsible financial actors makes one thing crystal clear: those who demand smaller government are quite happy to have government intervention in their own behalf.

It’s high time we demand government do its job: set and enforce rules that benefit not just the rich and powerful, but the vast majority of American workers and their families.
Bravo is an author and activist who teaches women’s studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Copyright (C) 2008 by American Forum

Amendment 48 Goes Too Far



By Patricia Schroeder

My very first job after graduating from Harvard Law School was as a part-time lawyer for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains in Denver. I was working on cases related to expanding access to birth control to all couples regardless of their marital status. At the time the birth control pill was recently approved as safe, but it was not yet legal in all states for all women. The Supreme Court in 1965 established basic privacy rights to birth control, but only for women who could produce a marriage license.

Fast forward to 2008, 40 years later. In my worst nightmare, it never crossed my mind that voters in Colorado would be considering a constitutional amendment that could outlaw birth control pills. Emergency contraceptives could also be illegal under Proposition 48, a form of birth control that if taken up to 72 hours after intercourse can prevent an unwanted pregnancy, especially used by rape and incest victims.

If you need more reasons to Vote No on 48, chances are you or your own family will be affected if this crazy proposal passes. Like thousands of living women in Colorado in the 1970’s, I struggled with difficult pregnancies. I lost twins during my second pregnancy and almost died during childbirth. It was a painful time for my family, as it is for all families. I can only imagine how devastating it would have been if government officials had shown up on my doorstep, asking questions about what had happened, was it really a miscarriage? Yet, couples could face that kind of unthinkable government investigation if Colorado voters allow Amendment 48 to pass.

If you don’t believe it could happen, just take a look at the plain language of the Amendment. It would amend the Colorado constitution to grant, for the first time, inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law to fertilized eggs. Even the proponents of the Amendment admit they don’t know all the possible ramifications.

Would couples struggling to get pregnant be allowed to use in vitro fertilization, which depends on fertilizing more eggs than a woman can carry to term? Would common birth control methods, such as the Pill, IUDs, the Patch, and the Ring, be outlawed because they operate by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus?

Could child welfare agencies be called to investigate abuse of a fertilized egg? Would a fertilized egg have standing to sue a woman for getting chemotherapy for cancer because it might be harmed? Amendment 48 would open more than 20,000 statutes and regulations to re-interpretation by the courts and lawyers. Almost every area of the law would be affected, including criminal law, family law, trusts and estates, elder law, tort law, juvenile law, health law, and business law.

In this presidential election year, Coloradans will decide one of the most competitive senate races in the country, several strongly contested congressional races, and as many as a dozen statewide ballot initiatives. There are a large number of questions on the ballot this fall, and many of the issues are complicated. But it doesn’t take a constitutional scholar, a medical ethicist or a genius to see that Amendment 48 is ridiculous. Coloradans have rejected these extreme positions before and must do so again.

Amendment 48 is not a homegrown initiative. National groups such as The American Life League, Lifeguard, and the Thomas More Law Center are carrying out a multi-state strategy with the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade. In addition to Colorado, they tried to get similar amendments on the ballot in Georgia, Montana, and Oregon, but failed. These outside groups are hoping, in Colorado, that the Amendment will sneak through the clutter of a crowed ballot. They are counting on you to be distracted and not to focus on the full implications of Amendment 48.

Well, they are forgetting that Coloradans are independent thinkers. Coloradans believe that they and their neighbors should have the ability to plan when they want to start a family, decide when they are ready to become parents, and make other important life decisions. By establishing constitutional rights from the moment of fertilization, Amendment 48 would eliminate a woman’s right to make personal, private decisions about her own health care, in consultation with her doctor and her family.

Years ago, when I was asked how I could be both a mother and a Congresswoman, I replied, “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.” On November 4, I urge Coloradans to use their brains and protect women’s uteruses. Vote no on Amendment 48.
Schroeder represented Colorado’s First Congressional District from 1973 to 1996.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Clean Energy Initiative Works for Missouri

By Erin Noble

This election Missouri voters will have the opportunity to secure clean, renewable energy and more energy independence for our state. Backed by the names of 163,000 Missourians, a statewide Clean Energy Initiative has been certified by the Secretary of State and will appear on the November ballot as Proposition C.

The initiative requires the investor-owned utilities Ameren, Kansas City Power & Light, Aquila, and Empire to obtain 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2021. The initiative defines renewable energy as wind, solar, biomass (not to be confused with corn ethanol) and small hydropower.

A vast majority of Missourians support the Clean Energy Initiative because Proposition C works for our economy, for Missouri schools, for public health and for the environment, while protecting consumers from high-energy costs. Kansas City Power & Light also announced its support earlier this year, joining a diverse coalition of labor, public health, environmental and faith-based organizations that endorse Proposition C, including the United Steelworkers, Restoring Eden - Christians for Environmental Stewardship, and Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Twenty-six states have already adopted similar clean energy policies and are currently benefiting from cleaner, cheaper electricity created through renewable energy projects. Their success has paved the way for Missouri’s own Clean Energy Initiative.

With Missouri’s abundant renewable resources and strength in the technology sector, our state is poised to become a national leader in clean energy. That means developing the technology behind clean energy, building the infrastructure to support it, manufacturing the components to drive it, and providing the workforce to run it -- all jobs that will revitalize Missouri’s economy.

This opportunity comes as good news as total employment in the manufacturing industry in Missouri declines. Investment in clean energy connects our industrial base to a sustainable future and creates Missouri manufacturing jobs. Proposition C will further stimulate our state’s economy by adding tax revenue locally as well as statewide. As already evidenced by the wind farms built in Missouri in the past few years, clean energy developments have a direct, positive impact on local school districts. Last September, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about the success of a local wind farm on in Gentry County. According to the article, “The 9,000-acre Bluegrass Ridge Farm is slated to pay more than $500,000 in property taxes next year to Gentry County, the largest share of which will go to the King City School District.”

Eighty-two percent of Missouri’s electricity currently comes from polluting coal-fired power plants. Particulate matter from coal power plants is linked to asthma and lung disease. Coal plants also emit mercury a toxic metal that causes developmental brain defects in children. In fact, women and children are warned to avoid eating fish from many Missouri waters due to mercury contamination. Under Proposition C, clean energy derived from wind and solar power will begin to replace fossil fuels for a cleaner, healthier future for Missouri families and the environment.

Because of the increasing costs of fossil fuels and the likely imposition of constraints on greenhouse gas emissions, Proposition C would produce net savings to electricity customers over time as clean energy begins to replace coal. As an added guarantee, the Clean Energy Initiative includes an ongoing rate cap that provides the best protection for consumers than any other state. The bottom line: Proposition C will protect ratepayers from impending spikes in the costs of fossil fuels, saving Missouri consumers a cumulative total of $331 million over the next 20 years.

In November, Missourians will have the opportunity to choose clean, renewable energy and take a critical first step towards a secure energy future. Proposition C, the Clean Energy Initiative, represents a true win-win situation for all Missourians as we lessen our dependence on out-of-state coal and gain critical new jobs, new businesses and new revenues for Missouri.

It’s time for Missouri to join the 26 states that have already enacted a Renewable Energy Standard and are reaping the benefits of energy independence and economic growth.
Noble is Energy Policy and Outreach Coordinator for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Missouri Forum. 10/08

Monday, October 20, 2008

Affirmative Action: The Numbers Don’t Lie

By Deirdre Bowen , J.D., Ph.D

On November 4, Coloradoans are being asked to vote on the Colorado Civil Rights Initiative which proposes, among other things, to ban affirmative action in college admissions. Make no mistake in thinking that this proposal supports equality. Passage of Amendment 46 would be a giant step backwards.

The campaign incorrectly asserts that passage of similar anti-affirmative action initiatives in California, Washington and Michigan did not end in the dire results that opponents of such bans predicted. Ask the under-represented minority students who attend schools in those states if they agree.

A recent national study I conducted of 335 high achieving under-represented minority students majoring in the hard sciences from 33 states shows grim results for those students attending schools in the aftermath of anti-affirmative action campaigns.

Asked whether they had encountered overt racism from other students, 43 percent of students who attended school in California, Washington, Michigan and Florida where affirmative action is banned said “Yes.” Less than half of that number (20 percent) of students who attend schools in states that allow for race-based admissions answered similarly. Yet, anti-affirmative action supporters argue that such policies are outdated because racial issues no longer exist in America. They also maintain that banning affirmative action will lead to equality for all students.

Why, then, are minority students, who have been admitted under the exact same criteria as other students, almost twice as likely to have their qualifications questioned (46 percent) compared to students who attend schools in states that use race based admissions (25 percent)? Anti-affirmative action proponents claim race-based admissions increases resentment. In fact, the opposite is true. Banning affirmative action leads to suspicion and doubt.

It gets worse. While 80 percent of under-represented minority students ranked their ability to succeed as high, regardless of the state in which they attend school, substantially more students in anti-affirmative action states felt pressure to succeed because of their race (74 percent) than students in affirmative action states (40 percent). In addition, 31 percent of students in anti-affirmative action states as opposed to 19 percent of students in affirmative action states felt faculty had lower expectations of them compared to non-minority students.

But those wishing to ban affirmative action want us to believe that the use of race in admissions leads minorities to think that they can’t succeed on their merits. Once again, the numbers don’t support such a claim. Minorities don’t question themselves when affirmative action is present. Instead, far more whites question minorities’ merits when affirmative action is not present.

In light of this, many more minority students in anti-affirmative action states think race based admissions are necessary for minorities to get ahead (55 percent), compared to those students attending schools in states that do allow race based admissions (32 percent). Recall, these are students who did not benefit from affirmative action policies when they applied to school. It is the treatment they endure during their four years in higher education that leads minority students to question whether they are operating on a level playing field.

It may come as no surprise then, that after enduring at least four years of increased hostility despite the absence of “racial preferences,” only 3 percent of students in states that banned affirmative action versus 21 percent of students in race-based admissions states agree with this statement: Faculty and students no longer think minorities can only get into college with the help of affirmative action.

Furthermore, 20 percent of students in affirmative action states versus 40 percent of students in anti-affirmative states plan to investigate graduate school admissions policies on race. Not because they believe they will need such policies to get admitted, but to find a less hostile learning environment.

In other words, minorities find more divisiveness on campuses without affirmative action than those with affirmative action, contrary to what supporters of Amendment 46 would like you to believe.

Affirmative action is working, but the job is not yet complete. When minority students are admitted to schools under the same meritocracy as white students, but are disproportionately encountering overt racism, disproportionately having their qualifications questioned, disproportionately feeling pressure to succeed because of their race, and disproportionately perceiving that faculty have lower expectations of them, race still matters.

We now know the effects of doing away with affirmative action. And know this: Amendment 46 is not about gaining civil rights. It is about dismantling them.
Bowen is a professor at Seattle University School of Law. More on this study can be found in her forthcoming article Brilliant Disguise: An Empirical Analysis of the Colorblind Ideal in a Post-Affirmative Action World.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

Friday, October 17, 2008

Don’t Ignore the Constitution During Election Season

By Kathleen Taylor

America is in the midst of an election season, nearing an Election Day with what likely will be far-reaching consequences. Public interest is extraordinarily high, and candidates are debating many critical issues. Yet we have heard little or nothing about the Constitution and its Bill of Rights – the touchstone of our individual freedoms.

The most significant words of the U.S. Constitution may be the first three: “We the people.” Not “I the King,” not “I the Grand Religious Leader,” not even “I the elected President.” Our governing structure was created by the people, and ensuring that it works for the people is a continuing legal, moral, and political journey.

All through the centuries, arguments about the Constitution’s meaning have persisted: What does it mean that only Congress can declare war? (Article I) What constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors”? (Article II) Is taking an oath of office with your hand on the Bible a “religious test”? (Article VI) Under which conditions, if any, should explicit sexual language not be considered free speech? (Amendment 1) Is a urine test for drugs an “unreasonable search”? (Amendment 4)

The remarkable characteristic of the Constitution is that it offers bedrock principles—checks and balances, procedures, freedoms, responsibilities, protections—while at the same time responding to the needs of contemporary society. It’s not an accident; the founders wrote it that way on purpose. The Constitution is our civic compass. It points the way for courts, legislatures, and executive administrations. It guides us in times of war and of peace, of boom and of bust, and of everything in-between. It keeps us on the path of fair play, equal treatment, liberty, and security.

Or it does if we’re constantly vigilant.

Over the last two centuries, through activism, dissent, and dedication, citizens have expanded the scope and depth of our liberty. And today, more Americans enjoy the “blessings of liberty” than at any time in history.

Yet, in recent years, our federal government has grown more powerful and secretive, assuming powers it does not rightfully have. Our government has:
  • spied on Americans without the approval of Congress or the courts;
  • allowed the CIA to torture and abuse hundreds of people, including Americans, in secret prisons throughout the world;
  • held prisoners indefinitely without charge;
  • placed hundreds of thousands of Americans on terrorist watch lists without an explanation or opportunity to appeal; and
  • restricted the free flow of scientific information and set up barriers to the use of scientific materials.
No matter who wins the election, we must remember that the Constitution applies to everyone. It applies to the least desirable among us and to those with whom we vehemently disagree on matters of politics, religion, or ethics. That’s the tough part. We need to be vigilant for all people, not merely the ones whom society favors.

This election season is an opportunity to think about what the Constitution has given us, as well as what we ourselves can do to make sure it survives—not just in letter, but in spirit. We can consider whether what’s been going on is consistent with the Constitution. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of “Well, it’s not me; it’s that awful other person who’s being tortured/spied upon/denied an attorney/discriminated against/harassed.” Any of us could be that person in the future.
Taylor is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Missouri Should Use Paper Ballots

By Cynthia Richards

As Election Day nears, it’s hard not having the new political thriller Cassandra, Chanting on my mind. Written by an anonymous “election world insider,” it is about a race to reveal a high-tech plan to fix the upcoming presidential election after warnings about the precariousness of electronic voting have gone unheeded.

The novel’s title is apt. Surely all of us in the election integrity movement who have been speaking out about the dangers of this technology have felt like the mythical Trojan seer. Being dismissed as half-baked lunatics goes with the territory -- no matter how well-founded our concerns are. Recently, however, many states have begun to listen, and have taken bold action to protect the vote. Unfortunately, Missouri isn’t among them.

Missourians for Honest Elections has been working to alert Missouri voters and public officials about the issues surrounding electronic voting for several years. Unlike Cassandra, we don’t have the gift of prophecy. What we have -- not acquired from Apollo but through our own dogged research -- is the gift of facts. The following are some of the most sobering:

Computer scientists have testified that a computer code that would flip an election can be easily written and hidden within an electronic voting machine’s operating code and remain undetected. This could be done during the manufacturing of the machine, or during the creation of software “upgrades” that vendors often say are necessary after the machine has been purchased.

The federal government has never conducted a thorough review of the operating code on any of the voting equipment currently used in the state. Neither has the Missouri Secretary of State’s office, nor any local election board. Even if a rigorous study were done -- which would require permission from the vendor and take months to accomplish -- experts say that it would be next to impossible to discover vote tampering instructions in the tens of thousands of lines of code they would have to scrutinize.

It’s also important to underscore that electronic voting machines currently used in Missouri have been proven to be hackable by voters at the polls. Studies have shown that the physical security of the Sequoia Edge (used in Greene, Cole, Butler and Calloway Counties), the Diebold (now “Premier”) Accuvote TSx (used in the City of St. Louis and Kansas City), and the ES&S iVotronic (used in St. Louis County) all can be quickly and easily bypassed. Moreover, this can be accomplished without any unusual equipment that might alert a poll worker. This should alarm election officials who proudly point to physical security measures they take when the machines are not in use -- such as locked doors -- which they believe are sufficient protection.

Given such vulnerabilities, it’s imperative that we be able to audit election results. However, of the two types of machines used in Missouri -- touch-screen vote counting machines (DREs) and optical scanners -- only optical scanners allow for an audit. That’s because the DRE doesn’t provide a software-independent record of the vote. The “paper trail” on the DRE runs on the same vulnerable software as the machine itself, and voters often neglect to check it. Therefore, election officials have no way of knowing if it is correct. By contrast, with optical scan voting, election officials have recourse to paper ballots that voters have marked by hand. These can be hand-counted for a truly software-independent audit.

Recognizing the risk of using voting equipment that is both subject to tampering and produces unauditable totals, many states have decided to scrap their DREs and use optical scanners exclusively (some deploying one DRE per polling place for the disabled). It would be easy for Missouri to do this too, since we already have enough scanners throughout the state. However, officials in the “Show Me State” seem be waiting for a catastrophe to convince them to make this change.

The Secretary of State’s Elections Division is aware of the disturbing facts presented above. But its response -- to provide “further education” to election officials -- is sadly inadequate. We applaud any effort to better train those who oversee our elections, but this cannot begin to address the issue. Missouri must put a stop to the general use of DREs. There is still time before November. And if this much-needed change does not occur before the election, Missouri voters should implement it themselves en masse by using paper ballots, which will be available at every polling place throughout the state.
Richards is a steering committee member for Missourians for Honest Elections.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Missouri Forum. 10/08

Friday, October 10, 2008

Which Side Are You On?

By Ellen Bravo

It can happen anywhere.

Recently, I sat in a room in Milwaukee filled with people clutching Bibles and babies and spewing venom. They were visibly enraged.

Granted, there’s a lot to be angry about these days: the persistence of poverty in our community, the lack of resources for our children’s education, the number of people who can’t afford health care, the gang of hoodlums on Wall Street holding a gun to our heads, the fact that hard-working parents can be fired for staying home to care for a sick child, and the continuing number of soldiers in harm’s way.

But the object of the rage of folks surrounding me wasn’t any of these things. It was the loving, long-term, committed relationships of people who happen to love someone of the same gender.

We were at a Milwaukee school board meeting, debating a resolution to end discrimination in benefits for same-sex couples in non-bargaining unit positions -- estimated to be about 1 percent of staff in those jobs. The cost isn’t very much, especially considering an earlier item on the agenda about the need to retain experienced employees. Treat people right and they’re more likely to stick around.

Opponents weren’t content with expressing disagreement with the proposal. They littered their comments with hateful remarks about real people sitting directly across the aisle or in some cases in the next chair -- people who simply want to build strong families and contribute what they can to their communities and who would certainly have preferred to be spending a warm fall evening playing in the park.

Someone had convinced this group that the loving couples they targeted were responsible for the problems in our society. Somewhere along the way, making life miserable for same-sex partners had become a path to easing the misery in one's own lives.

The angry speakers in the room, apparently without exception, consider themselves to be people of faith. I doubt any of them would condone physical violence against those they railed about. But I couldn’t help thinking how much their words of hate translate every day into acts that demean, diminish and discriminate against people whose chosen (and under-paid) profession is to educate our kids.

The opponents’ words, spoken defiantly in front of their own children -- girls in pinafores and boys with scrubbed faces brandishing signs -- in fact create the climate that leads to more than hurtful words or daily indignities. Their speeches give permission to those who beat people and tie them to a rail to die.

Fortunately, there were a number of others in the room, teachers and parents and a sprinkling of students who’d taken time to voice their support for domestic partner benefits. Among them were three clergy, each of whom reminded the audience that whatever one’s faith, we are called upon to act justly and promote community, not divisiveness.

The proposal passed the committee by one vote. The school board member casting that vote had been wavering on which way to go. Addressing the opponents, he announced his decision: “You swayed me to vote yes.”

His position reminds us that sometimes there is no middle ground. Either we stand with those who spread hate, or we stand on the side of the most basic American values of justice, equality and fairness.

Measures like this are on the ballot in several states and are increasingly coming up in legislatures, city councils and school boards around the country.

Regardless of where it happens, we must stand together to protect justice, equality and fairness for all Americans.
Bravo is an author and activist who teaches women’s studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum 10/08

Where do the Candidates Stand on Women’s Health

By Suzanne Petroni

We’re in the waning days of the Bush administration and the ideologues are working furiously to get in their last licks. Women, including the most underprivileged and poor in the world, are their target yet again.

A third of the world's population lives on less than $2 a day. The vast majority are women and children. Many are forced into marriage at 10 or 12 years of age. Many have six to 10 children, because they have no access to education or services, and no authority to decide on sexual matters in their marriages. As a result, more than 500,000 women die each year just because they get pregnant: they gave birth too young, too old, too often, or they live too far away from any trained health care provider. And increasingly, they are becoming infected with HIV/AIDS.

Controlling one’s own reproductive decisions is important for all women, but especially for women in poor families. Birth control is a critical component in ensuring that rates of unwanted pregnancy and abortion continue to drop, and that women and their children are able to live healthy lives.

But even as the president and his colleagues prepare to pack up and leave Washington, they’ve continued to find more opportunities to take away these basic women’s rights.

Just recently, the United States Agency for International Development discontinued the provision of contraceptives to Marie Stopes International (MSI), one of the world’s leading family planning organizations. According to MSI, the decision will “seriously disrupt” family planning programs in at least six African countries – Ghana, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe - including one where the organization delivers 25 percent of all family planning services nationally. Women in these countries will be left with few options other than abortion, the majority of which will be unsafe and could very well result in their death or disability.

This is on top of the fact that for the past seven years, President Bush has blocked the congressionally approved U.S. contribution to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). UNFPA works in 140 countries to provide poor women with family planning, maternal and child health, and HIV prevention assistance. This year alone, the U.S. contribution could have helped to prevent up to 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 unsafe abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, over 77,000 infant and child deaths, and prevented countless women and men from contracting HIV/AIDS.

And of course in one of his first acts as president, Bush restored the Global Gag Rule, severely restricting groups that work in the developing world from providing much-needed family planning assistance. The move forced the closure of health clinics throughout Asia and Africa -- often the only providers of health care in their communities -- leaving millions in need.

But Bush’s apathy towards women isn’t just for those overseas.

Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed regulations that would deprive women of the right to make their own informed health care decisions. These regulations would allow doctors, nurses and other health care personnel to refuse to provide services that might offend their conscience. This includes not only the provision of abortion services, from which providers are already exempt under federal law, but could include contraception as well.

While we have made laudable progress in funding the fight against HIV/AIDS abroad, this progress has not been matched at home, where AIDS is now the number one killer of black women between the ages of 25 and 34. It’s not helpful that the federal government forces schools to teach programs that preach abstinence-only-until-marriage and bans discussing condoms, except to exaggerate their failure rates. Over 20 states, including Virginia, have now rejected federal abstinence-only programs, which have proven not only a complete waste of taxpayer funds, but have likely also caused harm to the students who are taught inaccurate information.

In these last few weeks of election season, Virginians should ask candidates for federal office where they stand regarding the health and welfare of vulnerable women.

Do they support the Bush policies of denying women access to contraception and providing young people with dangerous abstinence-only-until-marriage education? Or would they give women and youth the opportunity to live healthy lives and to be free to make their own educated decisions regarding their health?

The women of the world deserve better than what the Bush administration has provided, and the American people deserve wiser, more generous policies in our name.
Petroni worked on health and women's issues at the U.S. Department of State from 1997 until 2001. She lives in Northern Virginia and manages a program at a foundation in Washington, DC, supporting comprehensive health programs for women and youth in the developing world.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Virginia Forum. 10/08

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Mom Before the Prom

By Cristina Page

Now that the national attention on Bristol Palin's pregnancy is fading (for the time being) it seems the only discussion it inspired was about John McCain's vetting process and, by extension, his decision-making abilities. But there is another far more important subject raised by the 17-year-old's pregnancy. For decades, teen pregnancy has been viewed as a problem, a danger to the children of young mothers and a hurdle to the success of the adolescent mothers.

But recent public displays of contraceptive failure by girls of visibility and means gives the misleading appearance that teen motherhood might be a lifestyle upgrade. Clearly one of the exacerbating factors is that someone like Bristol Palin is part of what feels like a growing trend: the normalizing of teen pregnancy and teen motherhood in the United States. Bristol is not alone in suggesting that to be a 17-year-old mother is not only acceptable, but exciting. Last year Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney's then 16-year-old sister, had her baby. (The Spears', it's worth noting, were proponents of abstinence-only too.) Last year also featured the movie Juno, in which star Ellen Page played a 16-year-old whose quick-wit and sarcasm made her unwanted pregnancy seem as challenging as a bad case of acne. The attention garnered by each of these girls stripped away layers of what had for years been cautions against this very fate.

None of these occasions has prompted examination of the risks and damage caused by teen pregnancy and teen motherhood. And, it should be noted, recent data show that the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S., which is already the highest in the developed world, is on the rise. The last year witnessed a dramatic 3 percent spike in the number of pubescent parents.

Of course, Bristol, Juno and Jamie Lynn don't exemplify the average American girl confronting unintended pregnancy. And the problem is the average American teen doesn't really know that. The choice the fictional character Juno made, adoption, is almost a fiction these days too. Approximately 1 percent of pregnant teens opt to give a child up for adoption. And then Jamie Lynn Spears is a teen millionaire. Her pregnancy only enhanced her fortune. The first photos of her baby fetched a million dollars. The spotlight on Bristol Palin offers false comfort too. Bristol has resources available to her that none of her pregnant teen counterparts does -- like the secret service, the ultimate nanny.

The average teen girl would be led to believe that teen pregnancy doesn't ruin adolescence, but instead brings lavish amounts of attention, an adoring and adorable teen father, and an endless supply of parental support. The reality for most teen moms could not be more different.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, eight in 10 teen fathers do not marry the mother of their first child. Kids without involved fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, twice as likely to end up in jail, and two to three times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems. Children who live apart from their fathers are also five times more likely to be poor than children with both parents at home.

Teen mothers, typically left to go it alone, are less likely to complete the education necessary to qualify for a well-paying job -- in fact, parenthood is the leading cause of school drop out among teen girls. College then becomes the remotest of possibilities. Less than two percent of mothers who have children before age 18 complete college by the age of 30.

Too often heartbreaking sacrifices are also foisted on the child of a teenage mom. The children of teen mothers are more likely to be born prematurely at low birthweight compared to children of older mothers, which raises the probability of infant death and disease, mental retardation, and mental illness. Children of teen mothers are 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade and are less likely to complete high school. The children of teen parents also suffer higher rates of abuse and neglect (two times higher).

Teen girls and their children are not the only ones paying dearly. Teen childbearing in the United States costs taxpayers (federal, state, and local) approximately $9.1 billion each year. Most of the costs are associated with services to address the negative consequences detailed above.

The issue of teen pregnancy needs to be taken seriously and there's no better time than an election year to demand that.
Page is the author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex and spokesperson for
Copyright (C) 2008 by the American Forum. 10/08

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

When Your Child is Disciplined at School, Get Involved!

By Rebecca Lightsey

The excitement and optimism that accompany a new school year can fade quickly when a disciplinary problem surfaces at school.

School discipline is a serious matter -- particularly when it means that a student will be removed from the regular classroom for a long period of time, or when the court becomes involved.

It is serious for the student, whose permanent school or court record may be affected; it is serious for the parent, who must make sure that behavior problems are not undermining their child’s capacity to learn and that the school is applying discipline appropriately and equitably; and serious for the school, which must maintain a safe learning environment while constantly evaluating the long-term impacts of its disciplinary policies.

Texas Appleseed has researched the impact of school discipline as part of a larger School-to-Prison Pipeline project and found that:
  • Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs, where students are sent for an average of 30 to 40 days for misbehavior, have five times the dropout rate of mainstream schools.
  • African-American students and special education students are significantly overrepresented in discretionary disciplinary referrals -- sometimes at rates three or four times their representation in the overall school population.
  • Where a child attends school -- and not the nature of the offense -- is the greatest predictor of a student’s receiving a disciplinary referral.
Studies show that there are fewer disciplinary referrals and fewer incidents of violence in schools where parents are involved. Here are a few steps that parents can take to stay involved.

Make sure your child understands behavior expectations at school outlined in the Student Code of Conduct -- and what can happen if he or she breaks the rules. The state requires that schools discipline students for serious misbehavior (such as aggravated assault or bringing drugs or a weapon to school), however schools have discretion to discipline for other problem behaviors listed in the Student Code of Conduct.

Find out if your school practices “zero tolerance.” Serious misbehaviors cannot be tolerated if they undermine school safety and students’ ability to learn. However, some schools adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to any infraction. It is important that Student Codes of Conduct specify that intent, self-defense, and disciplinary history be considered in decisions to discipline a student. Parents can urge schools to adopt disciplinary policies that take these factors into account.

Remember that due process counts. You have a right to be informed in a timely manner when your child is suspended, expelled or referred to an alternative school -- and you and your child must be given an opportunity to present your side at a school conference or disciplinary hearing. If you have been given a reasonable opportunity to participate, the school can hold a disciplinary hearing without you.

Neither behavior problems nor disciplinary action should derail a child’s education. Parents should work with the school and the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program to ensure that students assigned to alternative schools do not fall behind and consider dropping out.

Individual Education Plans (IEP) must be followed for special education students. Make sure that failure to follow an IEP did not cause or exacerbate your child’s behavior problems -- and that any alternative placement does not jeopardize your child’s education or emotional health.

Keep track of fines, community service and/or court dates if your child is ticketed or arrested at school. Failure to comply fully can result in additional fines or impact your child’s court record.

Throughout the disciplinary process, it is important to remain calm and open-minded and to communicate with the school. Ultimately, a child in trouble learns most from observing how the important adults in his or her life -- both at home and at school -- handle these kinds of challenges.

To download Texas Appleseed’s report on School Discipline, visit their website at
Lightsey is executive director of Texas Appleseed
Copyright (C) 2008 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 10/08