As the partial federal government shutdown drags on into its 14th day Friday, more than 5,000 federal employees in Alabama remain furloughed or are working without pay as negotiations in Washington resumed this week but appear to still be at an impasse.
At two weeks, the partial shutdown ranks as the second-longest shutdown in more than 20 years, affecting about a quarter of the federal government including the Departments of the Interior, Justice, Agriculture, State, Homeland Security and four others.
Many operations have ceased, including trash pick up at national parks across the country, and most of NASA and all 19 Smithsonian museums have closed. Essential operations — including much of the Coast Guard, ICE, the TSA and Border Patrol — are continuing, but employees aren’t being paid.
The IRS has also closed, and the agency doesn’t generally answer tax questions or pay returns during a shutdown.
In total, nationally about 800,000 government employees are affected. About half have been sent home on unpaid leave and the other half are working without pay, according to the New York Times.
A report estimated that Alabama is 9th most-affected by the government shutdown.
Alabama has the 11th-highest share of federal jobs, the 7th-highest federal contract dollars per capita and the 27th-highest access to national parks. Eleven percent of families in Alabama receive SNAP benefits, better known as food stamps, and though the program will continue paying benefits into the near future, if the shutdown were to continue, fundings for the program could run out.
Democrats took back power in the House of Representatives Thursday, and they are expected to pass a collection of bills to reopen most of the shuttered departments through the end of the year.
The bills, which would also provide short-term funding for the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 8, are aligned with bills negotiated and passed by the Republican-led Senate and Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, last month.
But President Donald Trump will likely remain unwilling to sign the bill, which doesn’t include his desired funding for a border wall or barrier.
Negotiations Wednesday weren’t able to break the impasse as Democrats remain opposed to Trump’s desired funding. Democrats have offered $1.3 billion for border security, including advanced surveillance and fortified fencing, but Trump has asked for $5.6 billion devoted to a border wall.
Sen. Doug Jones voiced his concerns about the shutdown’s effects Thursday.
“This is the third federal government shutdown I have witnessed in my first year as a U.S. senator,” Jones said. “Our duty in Congress is to serve the American people. By shutting down the government yet again – and retreating to our respective political corners – we are not doing our job and tens of thousands of our constituents are paying the price.
Jones pointed to the 5,000 federal employees in Alabama affected by the shutdown as a major reason for his frustrations.
“Vital Coast Guard employees, who are not paid under the Defense Department’s budget, don’t know if their next paycheck will come,” Jones said. “Garbage and waste are piling up at our treasured national parks. It’s time to come together to agree on a solution and do the job we were sent here to do.”
Jones was the only Democrat in the Senate to vote on Dec. 21 to proceed to debate on a bill passed by the House in December that included funding for a border wall. While he signaled he wouldn’t support the bill as it was written, the procedural vote would have allowed negotiations with the House and White House to continue.
Shelby — who leads the Senate committee charged with drafting the federal budgets — told reporters Thursday that the partial shutdown could last for “months and months.”
“I’m thinking we might be in for a long haul here. … A long haul, in other words, I don’t see any quick resolution to this,” Shelby told reporters, according to The Hill.
While Shelby, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, has been the main driver and supporter the bills to re-open the government, it has been Republicans in the House and the President who stymied his efforts to avoid the shutdown.
Though the bills overwhelmingly passed the Senate on their first time through, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has said he won’t put bills on the floor of the Senate — like the ones that will likely pass the House — that the president won’t sign.
“Let me say this again, the Senate will not take up any proposal that does not have a real chance of passing this chamber and getting a presidential signature,” McConnell said on Thursday.
Jones urged the House to send the bills back to the Senate anyway.
“While some will characterize it as a partisan proposal by the new Democratic House leadership, these bills have long been in the works in the Senate and would end the costly government shutdown while allowing negotiations to continue on the funding levels for border security,” Jones said. “I urge my colleagues in the House on both sides of the aisle to support this bipartisan path forward and send it back to the Senate. This proposal is the common ground we need to get back to the business of governing.”
Secretary of state says office will assist voters in complaints if local authorities punish voters without masks
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told the Alabama Political Reporter that all 1,980 polling places will be open on Tuesday for in-person voting if a voter chooses to cast their ballot in person.
COVID-19 has been a paramount concern for people across the state and citizens have to deal with a number of business, Church and government office closures since March, but Merrill insisted that voters will be able to vote in either the Republican or Democratic Party runoffs on Tuesday at the polling place they are assigned.
A number of cities and counties are requiring masks whenever anyone goes out in any public place and government offices and businesses are refusing service to persons who do not have a mask or who refuse to wear one.
Merrill told APR that the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Scott Harris and other public health authorities are suggesting that you should wear a mask when you go out. Many polling places will provide them to voters that need them, but wearing a mask is not required to vote.
“There are only five requirements to vote in Alabama: You have to be 18 years of age. You have to be a citizen, You have to be a resident of Alabama, You must not have been convicted of an act of moral turpitude that has taken away your voting rights, and you must have a valid photo ID,” Merrill told APR. “When you meet those requirements you can vote in the state of Alabama.”
When asked whether voters in those jurisdictions with face mask requirements have to wear masks when at the polls, Merrill said, “I don’t think anybody at the local level is trying to prevent people from voting.
Merrill said if localities place police or other law enforcement outside polls and attempt to ticket those who try to enter or exit without the required mask his office would get involved.
“If they want to try to do that, we will assist the voter in filing a lawsuit on infringement of their civil rights,” Merrill said.
Public health authorities are urging that everyone wear masks or cloth face coverings to protect themselves from becoming infected with the coronavirus and to avoid spreading the virus to others. Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Alabama press corps Tuesday that 20 to 40 percent of people infected with the virus have no symptoms and don’t event know that they are infected.
Thursday is the last day to apply for an absentee ballot to participate in the Tuesday, July 14 party primary runoff election. The close of business Thursday is the last day to apply for an absentee ballot. The last day to return those completed absentee ballots is the close of business on Monday.
Voters with a health concern due to the possibility of getting or transmitting the coronavirus may obtain an absentee ballot. The voter will still have to check a reason for asking for the absentee ballot. If the reason is fear of the coronavirus, mark that there is a health reason for the application. You will be allowed to vote absentee. Remember to fill out all the paperwork completely and to mail or return the ballot on time.
In the Republican primary runoff, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville and former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions are running for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. Judge Beth Kellum faces challenger Will Smith for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
There is no statewide Democratic primary runoff races, but in the 1st Congressional District, James Averhart and Kiani Gardner are running for the Democratic nomination for Congress.
On the Republican side, former State Sen. Bill Hightower, R-Mobile, and Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl are running for the Republican nomination for Congress.
In Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, former State Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise, faces Dothan businessman Jeff Coleman. There are also a number of local races being decided in primary runoffs on Tuesday.
Notably in Etowah County, the revenue commissioner’s race is a runoff between State Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, and Jeff Overstreet for the Republican nomination.
In Jefferson County, State Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, faces Eyrika Parker in the Democratic primary runoff for county treasurer.
If either Nordgren or Scott win the local offices they seek, that will lead to a special election for what would become open seats in the Alabama House of Representatives.
The polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and close at 7 p.m. A valid photo ID is required to participate in any Alabama election.
Absentee ballot applications are available online.
On Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported that 25 more Alabamians have died from COVID-19, raising the state death toll from the global pandemic to 1,032. Also, on Wednesday, another 1,162 Alabamians learned that they were infected with the novel strain of the coronavirus, raising the number of cases in the state to 46,424.
Only about 9 percent of the state has been tested at this point in time.
Sessions says that he will never stop fighting for law enforcement officers
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Sessions said on social media that he will “never stop fighting” for law enforcement officers. This was in response to the Saturday slaying of Ohio police officer Anthony Dia.
“We must end the violence against police,” Sessions said. “The last words of Officer Anthony Dia before he died on Saturday was ‘Tell my family I loved them.’”
“The disrespect and even attacks on our courageous law enforcement officers have reached a totally unacceptable level,” Sessions continued. “It is immoral and insane.”
Sessions prioritized good relations with law enforcement while he was U.S. attorney general.
“I understand how difficult their job is and how important it is for the peace and safety of our people,” Sessions said. ”I will never stop fighting for them. Let us remember Officer Dia and pledge that we will not forget his sacrifice.”
Toledo Police Officer Anthony Dia was 26-years old when he responded to a call about an intoxicated man in a store’s parking lot. When he “approached the male to check his safety,” the man turned around and fired a single bullet from a handgun, police said, citing witnesses account.
“He bled out, pretty much. They did what they could with lifesaving measures, but there was nothing they could do,” Dia’s widow Jayme told the Toledo Blade newspaper. “The last thing he said over the radio was, ‘Tell my family I love them.’ He lived for his family, and he loved, just loved, being a police officer.”
American law enforcement has come under heavy criticism by politicians, the media and the public alike following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by the Minneapolis Police Department.
Sessions served in the Senate from 1997 to 2017, when he was confirmed as U.S. attorney general in the Trump administration. Sessions is also a former U.S. attorney, Alabama attorney general and assistant U.S. attorney.
Following his service as U.S. attorney for both the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Sessions was chairman of the Alabama Republican Party. Sessions is a former U.S. Army reserve officer. He has a bachelor’s degree from Huntingdon College in Montgomery and a law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law.
Sessions and his wife, Mary Blackshear Sessions, started the first college Republican club at Huntingdon College. They have three children as well as grandchildren. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was born outside of Camden in Wilcox County in 1946. Sessions is a native Alabamian. He is 73 years old.
Sessions is running in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff. His opponent is former Auburn University head football Coach Tommy Tuberville. The winner of the GOP nomination will face incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, in the Nov. 3 general election. Defeating Jones is considered critical for Republicans efforts to try to retain control of the Senate.
Supreme Court hands down two rulings expanding religious liberty
The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday handed down two decisions strengthening religious liberty and expanding freedom of religion.
In the first case, the Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, saying that the Catholic nuns do not have to pay for medical procedures that they object to including abortion.
The decision was written by pro-life Justice Clarence Thomas. The 5-4 decision majority opinion is the biggest pro-life decision of the Trump presidency. This overturns a lower court ruling saying employees are entitled to abortion and birth control services.
The Montgomery-based Foundation for Moral Law praised the Supreme Court’s decision in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania. The Foundation had filed an amicus brief with the Court arguing in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor’s case.
This case arose from Obamacare’s contraception mandate. The Little Sisters objected to complying with the Obamacare mandate of contraception and abortion services based on their religious convictions. The Trump administration issued new rules that exempted employers with religious and moral objections to complying with the mandate. The States of Pennsylvania and New Jersey sued, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled against the Trump administration and the Little Sisters.
The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Third Circuit. The Court held that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 allowed the Trump administration to craft these regulations and that the Trump administration had complied with the Administrative Procedures Act in enacting the rules.
Consequently, it did not reach the religious freedom claim, but it held that it was proper for the Trump administration to consider the effect of federal religious freedom law when it passed the rules.
“GREAT win at the Supreme Court today on the Obamacare abortion drug mandate,” said Republican Senate candidate Jeff Sessions. “For the first time in nearly a DECADE, the Little Sisters of the Poor & other religious groups can do their good work without fear of being forced to violate their beliefs.”
“As Attorney General, I reversed the Obama administration’s position in the Little Sisters of the Poor litigation, and said NO MORE to government persecution of religion,” Sessions said. “I have a lifelong record of fighting to protect religious freedom. This is one of many issues on which President Donald J. Trump and I worked on together to take a strong stand for religious liberty. I also started the Religious Liberty Task Force at the Department of Justice to protect religious freedom across the entire government.”
Sessions is running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary on July 14. His opponent is former Auburn head football Coach Tommy Tuberville.
“Although the majority opinion focused more on administrative law than on religious liberty, the Court’s decision was a win for religious freedom because it upheld important rules that protect Americans with religious and moral objections to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate,” said Matt Clark, the attorney who wrote the Foundation’s amicus brief in this case.
“Justice Alito’s concurring opinion importantly emphasized that the courts must defer to a person’s interpretation of his religious obligations when he raises a religious objection,” Clark continued. “As James Madison wrote in 1785, ‘The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.’”
Kayla Moore is the President of the Foundation for Moral Law.
“The main opinion said that Congress considers religious liberty to be an ‘unalienable right,’” Moore said. “We commend Congress and the Court for recognizing it as such, and we hope that the Court will take that principle to its logical conclusion in every religious freedom case that it considers.”
Bible scholar and cultural commentator Dr. Michael Brown said, “This is a tremendous victory for freedom of religion and conscience in America. Under Obamacare, employers were forced to provide birth control coverage as part of their health plans, which for many Catholics in particular would be in violation of their faith. The court has overwhelmingly ruled for religious freedom, honoring moral objections of employers who now may opt out of providing abortion or birth control services.”
The Supreme Court also released a ruling Wednesday saying religious institutions have the right to pick their own employees and are exempt from secular anti-discrimination laws.
“Trump and moral conservatives won two big ones,” Brown said.
In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru the Court ruled that the First Amendment prevents courts from intervening in employment disputes between religious schools and the teachers at those schools who are entrusted with the responsibility of instructing their students in the faith.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission. Judicial review of the way in which religious schools discharge those responsibilities would undermine the independence of religious institutions in a way that the First Amendment does not tolerate.”
Brown is the author of the new book, “Evangelicals at the Crossroads: Will We Pass the Trump Test?” He has written 35 books and hosts a nationally syndicated daily talk radio show The Line of Fire, as well as the host of shows on GOD TV, NRBTV, and METV.
Barbara Ann Luttrell is the Vice President of External Affairs for Planned Parenthood Southeast.
Planned Parenthood SE was upset with both rulings.
“Today, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld two Trump administration rules that allow employers and universities to push their religious or moral beliefs on employees and students by denying them access to insurance that covers birth control,” Luttrelll said in a statement. “Bosses and universities will be able to decide — based on their own objections — if their health insurance plans cover birth control.”
Staci Fox is the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast.
“Today’s ruling deals yet another devastating blow to health care access in this country,” Fox said. “As is so often the case, it will hit people of color and low-income people hardest, and in the middle of a global pandemic that is already ravaging those communities. It is more proof that reproductive rights are under attack at all levels – not just abortion access.”
Both decisions were victories for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. The State of Alabama, under Marshall’s leadership, had previously joined multistate amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in both cases, supporting the Little Sisters of the Poor and Our Lady of Guadalupe School: Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania; and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru.
“The First Amendment rightly recognizes that one of the unalienable rights all men and women possess is the right to exercise their faith,” Marshall wrote in a statement. “And today the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that fundamental truth in two important decisions. Thankfully, the Court recognized that the federal government need not force nuns to violate their sincerely held beliefs by providing contraceptive coverage to employees who help them care for the sick. And the Court likewise reaffirmed that the government has no authority to tell religious schools who they must hire or retain to teach their faith.”
COVID-19 kills 228 Alabamians in last three weeks as deaths pass 1,000
At least 1,007 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 since the first case was diagnosed in the state in mid-March.
The Alabama Department of Public Health reported Tuesday that more than 1,000 Alabamians have now died from COVID-19. At least 228 of those were killed in just the past three weeks.
At least 1,007 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 since the first case was diagnosed in the state in mid-March, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Another 26 deaths are listed as probably COVID-19 deaths.
By June 1, 18,246 Alabamians had tested positive. By June 17, 26,914 cases had been diagnosed in the state. In the twenty days that have followed, another 18,349 Alabamians have tested positive. As of Tuesday, 45,263 tested positive, with another 888 positive coronavirus tests announced on Tuesday.
Alabama’s coronavirus epidemic was expected to peak in April while the state was under a shelter in place order. By April 30, the state began lifting restrictions to reopen the economy.
On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters that Alabama and other states may have reopened their economies “too soon.” Since the Memorial Day weekend, cases of coronavirus have risen at an alarming pace. On Monday, hospitalizations for COVID-19 set a new record at 1,016.
The combination of a surge of cases, many Alabamians out and about without masks or face coverings, and large holiday gatherings over the Fourth of July weekend make many public health officials concerned that we could be seeing dramatically higher numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and even deaths moving forward into late July and early August.
Fauci told members of the Alabama press corps that 20 to 40 percent of people who are infected are not showing any symptoms, but they could still be spreading the virus.
Fauci said that wearing a mask or cloth face covering and staying at least six feet away from other people is the best way to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus — or transmitting the virus to other people if you are already infected, but just don’t know it.
Several cities and counties in Alabama have already implemented a mask requirement.
State officials are urging Alabamians to take personal responsibility for their own health.
Thus far the global pandemic has killed 543,596 and known coronavirus cases are rapidly approaching twelve million.