Thursday, January 12, 2017

Grabbing That Low-Hanging Fruit

"Senator Sessions," Cory Booker of New Jersey intoned yesterday, "has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requirement of the job – to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all."

It is probably unfair to slam Senator Booker as hypocritical, as some conservatives have, for his criticism because he honored Senator Sessions at the Capitol Visitor Center in 2016 when they both recognized marchers who successfully pressed for what eventually became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "I am humbled," Booker said at the time, "to be able to participate here in paying tribute to some of the extraordinary Americans whose footsteps paved the way for me and my generation. I feel blessed and honored to have partnered with Senator Sessions in being the Senate sponsors of this important award."

Honoring their colleagues is what Senators do. There is a political upside and no downside.

It also may even be unfair (barely) to draw parallels between the Cory Booker who on that day declared himself "humbled," as well as "blessed and honored" to the Booker who testified yesterday against the nomination of Senator Sessions to be Attorney General.   He proclaimed it "a blessing and honor" to have participated in the earlier event with Sessions and maintained "in the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country."

The United States Senate is a small, exclusive club whose members frequently testify to the importance of their conscience and love of country, as well as having been blessed by you-know-who.

More substantively, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committe, Booker argued that Sessions'

record indicates that we cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to a justice system that people on both sides of the aisle readily admit is biased against the poor, drug addicted, mentally ill, and people of color.

His record indicates that at a time when even the FBI director is speaking out about implicit racial bias in policing and the need to address it; at a time when the last two Attorneys General have taken steps to fix our broken criminal justice system; and at a time when the Justice Department he would lead has uncovered systemic abuses in police departments all over the United States including Ferguson, including Newark; Senator Sessions would not continue to lead urgently needed change.

The criticism is valid, as has been almost all of the criticism of the nomination of the Alabama Senator. However, it was celebrated as precedent because it was the first time a sitting United States Senator testified against the appointment of a sitting United States Senator for a cabinet position. And it was nothing more.

Of the three most pressing issues facing the judiciary (campaign finance reform being the third), Booker gave glancing reference to one when he stated "He will be expected to defend voting rights, but his record indicates that he won’t."

While stoutly defending gay rights, the New Jerseyan completely ignored another right, which is threatened by.... let's have the American Civil Liberties Union, as it appears on its website, explain:

With increasing frequency, we are seeing individuals and institutions claiming a right to discriminate – by refusing to provide services to women and LGBT people – based on religious objections. The discrimination takes many forms, including:

Religiously affiliated schools firing women because they became pregnant while not married;                  
Business owners refusing to provide insurance coverage for contraception for their employees;

Graduate students, training to be social workers, refusing to counsel gay people;

Pharmacies turning away women seeking to fill birth control prescriptions;

Bridal salons, photo studios, and reception halls closing their doors to same-sex couples planning their weddings.

While circumstances differ, one thing remains the same: religion is being used as an excuse to discriminate against and harm others.

There is some, limite, risk in pointing to "uncovered systemic abuses in police department" and none asserting the need to protect "the equal rights of gay and lesbian Americans."

But woe be to the man or woman who vigorously denies there is a constitutional, let alone ethical, right to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.  HB 2 in North Carolina has been dubbed by opponents as "the bathroom bill" because it disadvantages gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals by requiring them in government buildings to use only bathrooms corresponding to the gender listed on their birth certificate.

HB2 and similar bills which advocates refer to as "religious freedom" initiatives protect discrimination also on the basis of color, gender, national origin, ethnicity, or religious belief.  There are people- most prominently the incoming Vice President of the United States- who have tried, and will continue to try, to memorialize discrimination on the basis of the euphemistically-termed "faith."
Bob Jones University "had justified its ban" on interracial dating which lasted half a century "by saying that God created people differently for a reason." The college dropped its prohibition only after its tax exemption was withdrawn by the Internal Revenue Service- whose commissioner is appointed, with consent of the Senate, by the President of the United States.

Prohibition of interracial dating won't come into vogue.  However, Donald Trump has interviewed possible nominees for the US Supreme Court from a list given him by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. With the possibility that he or President Pence might nominate as many as four Justices, the GOP effort to codify discrimination on the basis of religion or "faith" presents a real and serious threat to freedom of religion and to the United States of Constitution.

Senator Booker chose to downplay the critical issue of voting rights and ignore that of the wall of separation between church and state. The failure lays bare his testimony as sound and fury, signifiying nothing of substance.

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