Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why applauding, kissing and hugging Gabby Giffords isn't enough -- Jan. 26, 2012 column


The outpouring of respect, empathy and, yes, love for Gabrielle Giffords on Capitol Hill was heartfelt, inspirational – and inadequate.

The congresswoman from Arizona who was critically wounded a year ago by a would-be assassin rightly received thunderous applause, hugs and kisses Tuesday at the State of the Union address and a teary farewell Wednesday when she resigned from the House.

Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, called Giffords “the brightest star among us, the brightest star Congress has ever seen,” and Republican Eric Cantor, the majority leader, said he spoke for all his colleagues when he said, “We are inspired, hopeful and blessed for all the incredible progress Gabby has made in her recovery.”

On Jan. 8, 2011, Giffords was holding “Congress on Your Corner,” a meet-and-greet event, in Tucson when a gunman opened fire, killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl who just wanted to meet her congresswoman, and wounding Giffords and 12 others.

The horrific attack stunned the nation and Congress. There’s nothing like having a colleague shot in the head at close range on a Saturday morning back home to focus the mind of even the most cynical member of Congress. Every House member and senator knew he or she could have been the target. Ordinary citizens knew we could have been exercising our civic right at the wrong time.

Watching Giffords now, we marvel at how far she’s come, and we know that the unspeakable could happen to any of us or to our loved ones. We too could struggle to speak clearly, to walk haltingly and to cope with a right arm that doesn’t work the way it used to. Any of us.

Giffords is one of those rare and luminous elected officials who rose above the political fray. As an obscure Democratic House member, she had a reputation for working across party lines and, old fashioned as it sounds, for wanting to do what was right for her constituents and the country.

She now is a beacon of hope for the 1.7 million Americans a year who suffer traumatic brain injuries.

Medical experts say Giffords has been lucky. She has received America’s finest health care – from intensive care to rehabilitation. As a federal employee wounded on the job, she has coverage for rehabilitation services for as long as necessary.

Many other traumatic brain injury patients are not so fortunate. Much depends on what kind of insurance someone has, if any, where one lives, what medical facilities and even whether family advocates are nearby, according to the Brain Injury Association of America.

The bottom line is that while Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance plans cover brain surgery and intensive care, insurers tend to skimp on rehabilitation programs, which affect a patient’s quality of life, USA Today reported in March.

Hundreds of thousands of patients who lack coverage are discharged each year from hospitals to nursing homes or to languish in their beds during critical early months when their brains are more receptive to healing, USA reported.

The military’s treatment of brain injuries also has been criticized, but ProPublica, a non-profit investigative news organization, recently quoted a neurological surgeon who said military care of brain injuries is “a hundred times better than what goes on in the civilian sector.”

Gabby Giffords wants to change that. She believes anyone who has suffered a brain injury should have access to the same high quality care she has been fortunate to receive.

And so, members of Congress can applaud, hug and kiss Giffords all they want, but it’s not enough.

To support Giffords’ struggle in a meaningful way, lawmakers should endorse, not repeal, the Affordable Care Act, also derisively known as ObamaCare. The law says some rehabilitation services must be included in essential benefit packages that go into effect in 2014 for Medicaid and companies participating in insurance exchanges.

The Obama administration has said it’ll leave details of those packages to the states, but to honor Gabby Giffords, the packages should specifically cover rehabilitation for traumatic brain injuries. It’s the right thing to do.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

'Socialist' Obama? Truth is a casualty -- Jan. 19, 2012 column


Over the holidays, one of my dearest Republican relatives said, “Well, it’s too bad Obama turned out to be such a socialist.”

Then, she added in a tone between sadness and sarcasm, “I’m sure most people wouldn’t have voted for him if they’d known that.”

What? I paused to process her calm declaration and realized that what I hear -- and discount -- as political potshots in a presidential campaign have become in the ears of some voters reliable truth.

That surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. The old saying that “the first casualty of war is truth” also applies to political warfare.

The barrage against President Barack Obama started before he took office and has continued nonstop. Obama’s decision largely to ignore the charges just allows them to fester.

Newt Gingrich’s latest attacks on Obama as “the greatest food-stamp president in American history” are classic. Gingrich portrays Obama as socialist in chief, and Obama refuses to knock down the notion that he favors encouraging dependency on the state.

No wonder that 10 months before the election, half the voters surveyed in the latest New York Times and CBS News poll said Obama doesn’t have the same priorities for the country that they do.

The economy remains the country’s No. 1 issue, and 60 percent think Obama has done nothing to improve it. Most Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

And, confirming my holiday conversation, the poll also found that better than one in four voters -- 26 percent -- believe Obama’s policies are socialist. Twenty-two percent say his policies are liberal and 28 percent moderate.

If you’ve listened to the Republican presidential contenders sniping at each other, you know it’s now a supreme knock to call someone running for president a moderate.

Despite all this, polls consistently find that Obama would beat all the Republican presidential hopefuls -- except one. He ties with Mitt Romney, who’s most likely to be his rival in November.

And here’s where it gets really interesting. Obama ties with Romney even though most voters say they lack a clear idea about what Obama wants to accomplish in a second term.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama will outline his policy goals for the coming year, but implicit will be his plans for a second term. Hoping to rekindle the sparks of 2008, he’ll appeal to the middle class and ally himself with the 99 percent.

It’s a tough sell for a president who seems more professorial than populist. But the best thing Obama has going for him is the contrast with Romney, whose comments this week that he probably paid a 15 personal tax rate set him even farther apart from ordinary people than Obama.

For whatever reason, Obama has been reluctant to mention poverty, even as the ranks of the poor expand. He could use his primetime speech to explain why everyone benefits from a strong safety net. He could tell about policy changes in the George W. Bush presidency that led to increases in the food stamp rolls and trace how the economic slump intensified need. He could call on the Republicans to help, rather than demonize, the poor.

In 2008, voters were willing to buy the promise of hope and change. When Caroline Kennedy endorsed Obama in an op-ed in the Times on Jan. 27, 2008, she wrote:

“I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.”

That’s still a good job description for president in 2012.

Ms. Kennedy also wrote that Obama would inspire in people “a sense of possibility” that they have the power to shape their own future. It hasn’t worked out that way. Yet.

To shape his own future, Obama needs to inspire a new sense of individual possibility, not imply dependency that his enemies will call socialism.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Court sets clash between religious liberty and workplace fairness -- Jan. 12, 2012 column


If only angels ran churches, the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that ministers may not sue for job discrimination would be less troubling.

Unfortunately, ordinary mortals are in charge of religious institutions, and, mortals sometimes need a nudge to do the right thing. That’s why we have federal, state and local laws prohibiting employment discrimination.

But in the most significant church-state ruling in years, the court on Wednesday said all government – and that includes the courts – must stay out of religious groups’ decisions to hire and fire ministers and other leaders. The court also left the decision of who qualifies as a minister to the religious groups themselves.

Religious organizations and their allies claimed a great victory for religious liberty.

“If ministers were allowed to sue for employment discrimination, judges and juries would wind up deciding who is a good minister, worthy of retention, and who is not,” University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock wrote on CNN’s Belief Blog. “These cases end with a jury deciding whether the employer had a good enough reason to justify its decision.”

Laycock represented Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School in Michigan in the Supreme Court case. Cheryl Perich, a teacher, complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she was wrongly fired.

Ms. Perich was hired as a lay or contract teacher and became a spiritually “called” teacher. She took a series of religious courses and was commissioned as a “Minister of Religion.” She mostly taught secular classes and spent about 45 minutes a day in religious duties, such as leading her pupils in prayer.

She became sick with what eventually was diagnosed as narcolepsy and took disability leave. When she was ready to return, the school told her she no longer had a position. She threatened to sue, which went against Lutheran principles to resolve disputes internally, and was fired. She went to the EEOC, alleging she had been discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The EEOC brought suit against the school, alleging that Perich had been fired in retaliation for threatening to sue.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the “ministerial exception,” a legal doctrine long ago accepted by federal appeals courts that says the First Amendment protects the right of religious organizations to make decisions to hire and fire clergy and grants them an exception to laws that prohibit job discrimination.

For example, the Catholic Church has the right to decide who can and can’t be a priest, and a woman who wants to be a priest can’t sue for gender discrimination.

The Hosanna-Tabor decision went farther, saying the exception applies to employment discrimination laws on all levels.

Thus the court has put the country to a test of values. Employment discrimination laws that protect other workers will not apply to employees in religious schools, colleges, hospitals and social service agencies – if employers deem the workers to be ministers, priests, rabbis, imams or other leaders. What now?

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and other civil rights advocates worry that the ruling will make fighting discrimination in the workplace that much harder.

“Blatant discrimination is a social evil we have worked hard to eradicate in the United States,” Lynn said.

Even some who support the ministerial exception, like University of Alabama law professor Paul Horwitz, say religious groups should use their power carefully and be sensitive in their behavior toward ministers.

There are good reasons “to avoid thinking of the state as the font of all power and the solution to all problems, but taking that step requires us to think much more carefully about institutional responsibility,” Horwitz wrote in a September draft of an article for Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy.

Virginia’s Laycock concedes that some churches will use power wisely and some won’t, but overall he says religious freedom demands that churches make the choices.

The Supreme Court has affirmed the autonomy of churches and other religious groups. It’s up to the mortals in charge to call on their better angels for guidance in the workplace.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lightning strike or impersonating a voter -- which is more likely? -- Jan. 5, 2012 column


The next big test of conservative muscle is the Republican presidential primary Jan. 21 in South Carolina, but a more important battle there has already been won.

The U.S. Justice Department last month rejected South Carolina’s strict new voter ID law, which requires voters to show a valid, government-issued photo ID. Justice said the state’s law would block qualified blacks from exercising the right to vote.

South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley vows to fight the ruling. South Carolina is among about a dozen states that tightened up on voting laws last year by passing no-photo-no-vote laws, limiting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting periods and other measures.

Proponents insist that strict new photo ID laws are needed to combat widespread election fraud. People are so disillusioned these days that they’re inclined to believe the claims. But where’s the beef?

“The only possible sort of fraud photo ID laws could stop is if someone fraudulently impersonated someone at the polls,” said Justin Levitt, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Levitt studied cases of voter fraud nationwide for a paper he wrote in 2007 titled, “The Truth About Voter Fraud.“

And how common is voter impersonation? “It’s more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls,” Levitt told me.

South Carolina, which had a history of discrimination in voting, is required under the federal Voting Rights Act to submit changes in voting law for review by the Justice Department. The state must show that the changes have “neither the purpose nor the effect” of denying or abridging someone’s right to vote because of race, color or membership in a language minority.

The state failed to present “any evidence or instance of either in-person voter impersonation or any other type of fraud that is not already addressed” by existing law, Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general, wrote in a letter to state officials.

Under state law in effect since 1988, South Carolinians can vote after showing a driver’s license or non-driver photo ID card or after showing a voter registration card without a photo and signing the poll list.

Photo ID laws have become a rallying point for Republican politicians. GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum called Attorney General Eric Holder “about as biased as any attorney general.”

“You need photo ID to buy a drink. You need photo ID to get on an airplane. You need photo ID to buy cigarettes. So I'm assuming none of their people either drink or smoke,” Santorum said in Iowa, McClatchy reported.

But, Santorum and others who make that argument are forgetting one thing. There’s a fundamental difference between voting and flying, drinking or smoking. Americans have a constitutional right to vote.

Rival GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich questioned why Holder is “so determined not to identify if people are not eligible to vote.” Gingrich charged that the Justice Department is trying desperately “to retain the ability to steal elections.” What?

To be sure, for most Americans, having a photo ID is routine. But many black Southerners who were born at home before birth certificates were always recorded face obstacles to obtaining birth certificates so they can get photo IDs.

Ten percent of non-white registered voters in South Carolina lack the necessary photo ID and could be barred from voting, the state told the Justice Department. Yes, that’s people who already were registered to vote and have been voting for years.

South Carolina first said nearly 240,000 people lacked photo ID cards but later submitted a revised number of about 80,000. The Department of Motor Vehicles said the others had allowed their licenses to expire, had moved or had died.

The push among Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country to tighten up on voting law represents a change in America, where the trend for decades has been to expand voting rights.

Most reports about the new laws focus on how blacks, the poor and students -- who tend to vote Democratic -- could be disenfranchised. An Associated Press analysis found that in South Carolina thousands of older, white, well-to-do voters who live in coastal retirement communities -- and vote Republican -- also could be affected.

Seniors who give up their driver’s licenses may let their passports expire as well and then find themselves without a valid, government-issued photo ID. Under the new law, these voters also could be turned away from the polls.

That’s something I’ll bet Santorum, Gingrich and the rest of the GOP gang haven’t even considered.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.