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Opinion | If faith practices are “discriminatory,” do we really still have free speech?

Matthew Stokes

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Modern political candidates spend a lot of time presenting themselves as culturally acceptable to voters. That means a lot of talk about God, faith, and family, and often the winning candidate is the one who looks best driving a well-worn pickup truck. This is nothing new in American politics, but it’s a practice that is not without its shortcomings. 

For those voters who care very much about policy and legislation, and the deeper philosophies of governance that uphold those things, all of this cultural signifying can grow old in a hurry.

Yet there are a few cultural considerations that populist candidates are right to protect. It’s easy to dismiss the bluster about how we Alabamians “dare protect our rights,” but it’s worth remembering that rights must be defended or else they risk becoming something more like a privilege dispensed by those in power, and less like a freedom granted by and preserved in nature. 

Political observers have watched a number of court cases in recent years over the matter of religious freedom, particularly as it pertains to same-sex marriage.

 A number of plaintiffs have alleged discrimination when a wedding vendor refused to provide service on the grounds that to do so would violate their conscience. Plaintiffs have responded that conscience protections do not allow for discrimination, while defendants have in turn argued that the state cannot compel the creative work (i.e., speech) of the defendant in question. Court rulings thus far have varied in their application, though the United States Supreme Court ruled in the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case that the state did in fact violate the rights to free exercise of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips, though the court demurred on some deeper questions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Those questions are sure to be asked again in future court cases.

Alas, there is another element to religious freedom that is worth considering.  While much of this fight will concern the application of specific laws in the various states and municipalities, the preconditions for such arguments are often established in the rhetoric commonly employed in the public square.

A recent decision in one of Alabama’s federal courts sheds some light on this problem.

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 Just a few weeks ago, United States District Judge Myron Thompson dismissed a lawsuit brought against the Southern Poverty Law Center by D. James Kennedy Ministries, a Christian ministry based out of Florida. The SPLC has, for many years, labeled DJKM a hate group due to its stance on LGBTQ issues. Judge Thompson dismissed the case, noting that while the court was not offering comment on the specifics of the SPLC’s charge, the organization was well within its protected First Amendment rights to make such a claim.

In a broad sense, it’s hard to disagree with the ruling.  No one should be comfortable with a federal judge stepping out and saying “you can’t say that” to any person or organization. 

Yet the SPLC, an organization that has long outlived its usefulness as a neutral arbiter of justice, is playing a dangerous game with its Manichean practice of labelling hate groups.

Of course, there are clear instances of hate groups; the noxious alt-right, neo-Nazis, racists and bigots of various stripes, and anti-Semites, though the latter finds increasing oxygen on both the far right and the far left these days. Indeed, thoughtful Christians must admit that however unfair the charge may be against D. James Kennedy Ministries, there are certainly some within the church who wield Christian orthodoxy as a cudgel against others in a way that is unsound on the merits of Scripture as well as public perception. To that point, religious organizations concerned about the changing outlook on human sexuality should recognize that their own rhetoric often affects real people with real struggles; they should exercise their First Amendment freedoms with great prudence and caution.

Still it must be recognized that laws are upheld beyond the mere text on a page. There is a rhetorical function to our laws; if they are not upheld in custom then they are not likely to be upheld in practice.

Put another way, our cultural practices are often the precondition for the structure of our laws. 

The writers of the Bill of Rights had no qualms about enshrining those freedoms in the Constitution because they already believed those things in the deepest fiber of their beings. While Judge Thompson’s ruling may be technically correct, the practice of labelling the orthodox Christian stance of human sexuality as hateful poses a real risk not just to religious freedom, but freedom of speech, as well. 

Speech that is slowly but surely regarded as socially unacceptable may in time become legally unacceptable as well, and at that point, the First Amendment will have been stripped of all of its cultural and legal power.

Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and professor of the classics, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, alabamapolicy.org.

 

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Opinion | Jobs to move America

Patricia Todd

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Before COVID-19 swept the country, public officials celebrated Alabama’s 2.7 percent unemployment rate: it was a record low for our state, and lower than the national average. But statistics never tell the full story. Were the jobs Alabamians working good ones? With paid sick, family, and medical leave to protect workers from COVID-19? Were people working more than one job to make ends meet?

As we reckon with a pandemic and pending economic recession of a magnitude difficult to comprehend, Alabama needs to start looking beyond unemployment rates to ask some soul-searching questions. As industry after industry demands huge public bailouts, the South’s history of offering big corporate giveaways represents a glaring example of why public subsidies should only be on the table if public officials put people and workers first.

Corporate subsidies, in the form of economic tax incentives, have become a popular tool that cities and states use to lure companies to a specific location. The fight over where Amazon would set up its second headquarters — cities raced to provide the most attractive incentive packages, offering billions of our public dollars to sweeten the deal — put a spotlight on the problems with these subsidies. Even after national outrage over the bidding war for Amazon, economic development specialists and elected officials continued to tell us that these subsidies were critical to creating jobs and growing the economy. Cities and states like Alabama still compete aggressively to bring corporations to our backyards, using our public dollars as bait. Promises of subsidies include abatement of income and property taxes, infrastructure development, workforce training, and sometimes cash. But the problem that COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief is that promises made are not always promises delivered. What’s worse, many of these promises weren’t good enough to begin with.

In Alabama, we celebrate the ribbon cutting of a new manufacturer breaking ground on a new plant and announcing new jobs that will be created. Yet, rarely are we told how much the state or municipality paid to the corporation to bring those jobs to the area or given details about the return on investment. Now that COVID-19 is shutting down production at manufacturing plants across our state, leaving many workers high and dry, it’s time to ask how our public dollars can be most effectively invested in private companies to ensure the outcomes we need.

Corporate subsidies have cost Alabama over $3.5 billion dollars over the past decade. The public has no information on how money was spent — or what we got for it. These subsidies do not require corporations to commit to providing a living wage; any paid sick, family, or medical leave; or hiring goals for marginalized communities. Most taxpayers don’t even know where to look for the information. This story holds true across the South.

Alabamians, like many of our Southern neighbors, cannot afford any loss of revenue. According to Alabama Possible, our state’s poverty rate is 18.9 percent, making us the 6th poorest state in the country. Our education system, mental health services, and public infrastructure are in dire need of funding. The National Center for Education Statistics ranks Alabama last in math, reading, and science. We also rank at the bottom in teacher pay, infrastructure, and access to health care. As a result, we lack the services and infrastructure needed to support working families through a crisis like COVID-19.

Why? For decades, our state has siphoned money from these critical public services and social infrastructure to provide corporations with handsome tax incentives in exchange for little more than a handshake deal. Our state is lining the pockets of corporate CEOs, not workers and communities.

COVID-19 makes it clear that Southerners deserve a better deal.

Which is why Jobs to Move America is building a research-action program, headquartered in Birmingham, to win sunshine and accountability policies in the South. We believe that together, we can turn the tide on endless and unaccountable corporate giveaways. We can demand limits on incentives and institute requirements that companies receiving our precious public dollars provide a living wage, benefits, a safe work environment free of racism and gender discrimination, and hiring preferences for marginalized and underrepresented communities. We can also demand a public accountability report about every company that receives subsidies so that Southerners can scrutinize whether their public dollars are actually doing public good.

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To get there, we need to understand and document all the public dollars that our state has given away. We’ll write reports about that spending, we’ll dig into the consequences of corporate giveaways on our communities and workers. We’ll work in coalition with community-based organizations and social justice groups, like Alabama Arise, to educate public officials and community leaders about the impact of these subsidies. And eventually, we’ll win legislation that ensures our public dollars create the kind of return on investment that we believe in: good jobs and healthy communities.

Do Mercedes, Amazon and Walmart really need generous tax subsidies to operate business as usual? The clear answer is no. It is time to get our priorities in order and take care of our own people — instead of corporate shareholders.


Patricia Todd is the Southern Director at Jobs to Move America. Patricia has socially and professionally advocated for public policies relevant to social justice, education, HIV/AIDS, and a wide range of issues affect the entire Birmingham community for over twenty years. Patricia was elected to the Alabama Legislature as the State Representative for House District 54 in November of 2006 as the first openly gay elected official in Alabama’s history. She retired from the legislature in 2018.

 

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Opinion | For humanitarian and public health reasons, we need to get people out of our jails

Bishop Van Moody

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For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners (Psalm 69:33)

We are facing a crisis unlike any in our lifetime. A virus is infecting us at unprecedented rates. Over 100,000 have been infected in the United States and the death toll in our country is already in the thousands. 

But we’re not doing everything possible to keep us safe. The county jails in Alabama, which lock up thousands of people, are a major health risk. The incarcerated population can’t practice “social distancing” and instead are left to languish in these facilities with no soap or supplies to sanitize their own cells.

Imprisoned  people are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses such as COVID-19. People incarcerated in jails are housed in close quarters, and are often in poor health. And, according to a report from the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the county jail population quadrupled between 2014 and 2018.

The way to mitigate that health risk is clear. We need to release people who are no risk to our communities and vulnerable to exposure immediately. And jail officials need to come up with a plan, and make it public, for how they will deal with a COVID-19 outbreak in their facility. 

Gov. Kay Ivey acknowledged the danger in her State of Emergency declaration, finding that “the condition of jails inherently heightens the possibility of COVID-19 transmission.”  Ivey’s declaration said that people charged with crimes could be served with a summons instead of being arrested. But that doesn’t do much for the people already locked up and awaiting trial. 

And a COVID-19 outbreak in these jails with the current incarcerated population would be disastrous for public health. The incarcerated people who get infected would have to be taken to our already overcrowded hospitals, and people who work in the jails are also in danger of both being infected, and spreading the infection to people on the outside. Lowering the total number of people locked up would make an outbreak less likely, and also make it easier to quarantine people who have been infected.

But there is also a moral and humanitarian reason to get people out of these jails. The crime rate in our state didn’t quadruple in the last few years, but our jail population did. Many of the people now locked up aren’t there because they committed horrible crimes, they’re locked up because they’re too poor to afford bail. Some are even elderly and therefore at “higher risk for severe illness”, according to the CDC.

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It is wrong to lock people up because they can’t afford to pay bail. If a judge has already decided that someone does not pose a threat to the community and they can get out of jail if they can pay a fee, then they shouldn’t be locked up at all during a crisis like this.Poverty is not a crime and under these circumstances, it should not put you at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Last month county jail inmates with bonds under $5,000 were ordered released in Autauga, Elmore and Chilton Counties, as long as the sheriffs and wardens sign off on it. Mobile Countyhas also announced it would release certain pre-trial inmates.. These actions were taken due to fears of the spread of COVID-19.

Other states have also started doing this. Montana, California, New Jersey, Washington and Wyoming are amongthe states that have actively worked to reduce it’s incarcerated population in the last few weeks.

Actions like these need to be the norm going forward. COVID-19 is scary, but we must meet it with Christian love and compassion. We must extend that to our brothers and sisters behind bars who pose no threat to our communities and are awaiting their day in court. We must consider those who are elderly and already ill. This virus is the worst thing many of us have seen in our lifetimes, let’s combat it with love and compassion, instead of hate and fear.

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Opinion | Remembering civil rights icon Rev. Joseph E. Lowery

Derryn Moten

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Co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, Rev. Joseph E. Lowery died on March 27, 2020.  He and his clerical brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisaged SCLC as the national platform needed to inveigh segregation, materialism, and militarism in the South and nation. King became the first SCLC president in 1957, a position he held until his assassination in 1968.  Lowery headed SCLC from 1977 until 1997.

Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Lowery taught school in Birmingham before becoming a minister. He pastored his first church in the Magic City. He also led the Warren Street Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama and became the leader of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, the precursor of the Montgomery Improvement Association, MIA.

Perhaps less known is that Joseph Lowery was the last living co-defendant of the landmark Sullivan v. New York Times Company, a libel lawsuit filed by City of Montgomery and State of Alabama officials against the New York Times and Reverends Ralph D. Abernathy, Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Joseph E. Lowery, and Solomon S. Seay, Sr. Montgomery City Police Commissioner L. B. Sullivan, Public Affairs Commissioner Frank Parks, and Mayor Earl James filed $500,000,00 libel lawsuits each.  Gov. John Patterson sued the same defendants adding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for $1 million dollars.

The City and State alleged that the March 29, 1960 New York Times advertisement paid for by The Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Freedom in the South, defamed and libeled the plaintiffs by knowingly publishing false statements.  A chief bone of contention was a paragraph, 39 words, describing actions of the City of Montgomery Police Department against Alabama State College students. On February 25, 1960, those same ASC students sat-in at the Montgomery County Courthouse Cafeteria.  This was Alabama’s first sit-in demonstration. The ad claimed “police armed with shotguns and tear gas ringed the campus and padlocked the dining hall.”

The New York Times ad sought to raise funds for a trial Dr. King faced in Alabama for tax fraud. The City and State targeted the ministers because they were signatories to the ad. LorraineHansbury, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, Nat King Cole, and Ruby Dee, among others, also signed the ad. Defense counsel argued the Black ministers were included because of their friendships with Dr. King.  The lawsuits sought to harass, harangue, and financially ruin these civil rights leaders.  Temporarily, that is exactly what the suits accomplished.  A collective judgment of $3 million dollars, and an inability to secure a surety bond, allowed the State to garnish the personal property of Abernathy, Seay, Shuttlesworth, and Lowery. Each saw their automobiles seized and sold.  The Marengo County Sheriff also sold 300 acres of land owned by the Rev. Abernathy and his extended family since Reconstruction.

The New York Times won its appeal to redress the State cases in the federal courts. Montgomery County Senior Circuit Judge Walter B. Jones heard the original five cases. A racial cyborg, Jones pronounced from the bench that the Fourteenth Amendment was irrelevant in Alabama and that the Sullivantrial would be conducted “in the belief and knowledge that the white man’s justice . . . brought over to this country by the Anglo-Saxon Race . . . will give the parties at the Bar of this Court, regardless of race or color, equal justice under law.” Four years after it all began, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgments against the defendants.

As we pray for the repose of Rev. Joseph Echols Lowery, we should remember part of his prayer at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration; “We ask you [Lord] to help us work for that day when Black will not be asked to get back . . . and when white will embrace what is right.”

 

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Opinion | A little effort can make a big difference in the fight against COVID-19

Will Ainsworth

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Will Ainsworth is Alabama’s lieutenant governor.

Every American was a bit disappointed when the White House announced this week that social distancing guidelines will remain in place at least until April 30, and some governors across the nation have mandated that statewide shelter-in-place orders may be enforced until the end of June.

Working from home, avoiding contact with others, and venturing into public only when absolutely necessary can make life seem much like the Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day.” Each day, the temptation to break a social distancing guideline becomes a little harder to resist and the desire to ignore protocols and immediately return to your normal routine becomes that much greater.

But facts, statistics, and simple, everyday hard truths demand that we not only hold the course in the fight against COVID-19, but also practice stricter self-discipline in how we act and what we do.

As this column is being written, Alabama is teetering on the edge of its 1,000th documented case of Coronavirus, and 19 of our fellow Alabama citizens have already succumbed to the deadly sickness.

Every indicator points to the situation getting significantly worse in our state before it begins to improve, and President Trump has ordered additional ventilators sent to Alabama from the national stockpile in order to prepare for what awaits us.

If current trends continue, Alabama’s healthcare resources will likely be pushed beyond capacity by the end of the month, and the number of hospital and ICU beds that are needed will exceed the total number we have in the state.

The good news is that Alabamians can prove all of these projections and possible doomsday scenarios wrong if we just use common sense, take self-responsibility, and follow the rules that health professionals suggest.

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Too many among us are still refusing to take the COVID-19 crisis seriously, and by doing that, they threaten their own lives along with the lives of everyone they love and everyone they meet.

Since Gov. Kay Ivey declared the state’s Gulf Coast beaches closed in order to enforce social distancing, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has reported a dramatic surge in weekend traffic on Alabama’s lakes and rivers.

My family and I live by Lake Guntersville, and we have noticed the massive groups of people congregating together, jumping from party boat to party boat, and ignoring every rule about social distancing and self-isolation that the Center for Disease Control has asked us to follow.

It may come as a surprise to these weekend revelers, but sun, water, and cold beer are not effective vaccines against COVID-19.

For proof of this fact, just look toward the group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students who spent their Spring Break in Gulf Shores in mid-March. Upon their return north, several of the students have displayed symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19, and all of them are currently under quarantine.

Each time an individual or family decides to strictly follow CDC guidelines and do their part in the fight against Coronavirus, the numbers bend in our direction, and all of us get that much closer to safely resuming normalcy.

Assuming Alabama has a daily infection rate of 20 percent, trends show that we can expect to have more than 245,000 total cases of COVID-19 by May 1, but if through discipline and resolve we can reduce that daily growth to 10 percent, a little more than 9,000 cases will occur. At five percent growth, we have only 1,600.

via Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth

In other words, just a little effort and diligence from all of us can make a tremendous difference. Social distancing is recommended because the virus that causes COVID-19 can travel at least three feet when coughed or sneezed, and it can live on surfaces for days.

The rules for social distancing are easy to understand and follow, and they require you to remain at least six feet away from others, wash your hands frequently with soap, sanitize and wipe down surfaces, stay at home to stop the spread, and self-quarantine and contact your physician if you experience symptoms.

President Trump was wise to extend the social distancing requirements for at least another month, but all of us look forward to the day when future extensions will not be necessary. To accomplish that goal, we must each remember three simple things – stay smart, stay healthy, and, most importantly, stay home.

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