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Over the past few years, two topics have come to dominate the discourse about religion in America. The implementation of the Affordable Care Act and especially the rapid acceptance of marriage equality have prompted social conservatives to decry the supposed threat to "religious liberty." At the same time, the rise of "the Nones"—the growing numbers of Americans unaffiliated with any formal religion—has produced triumphalism among some atheists and despair on the part of some of the faithful.

Unfortunately, these twin debates have produced heat, but not light, and for much the same reason. Simply put, in the United States the terms "religious liberty" and "secularism" don't mean what their appropriators think they mean. Our First Amendment protections provide a shield from government interference with the practice of our own faiths, not a sword to prevent others from the exercise of speech and religion we might find offensive. And in the uniquely American context, "secularism" is not a spiritual philosophy embracing atheism or godlessness, but a political creed which recognizes that the separation of church and state is the surest protector of true religious liberty for all. As our religious diversity increases in the years to come, reclaiming these finest of American traditions will become even more important.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015 may go down as a watershed moment in the history of American civil rights. At the Supreme Court, the justices heard oral arguments in a set of cases which may decide whether or not all Americans have an equal right to marry. Less than 50 miles away in Baltimore, demonstrators are demanding equal justice from a police department with a disturbing record of brutality towards the city's African-American residents.

At stake is nothing less than this: do we Americans actually mean what we say in our defining national documents?  Do we affirm, as the Declaration of Independence states as a self-evident truth, that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?"  And 150 years after the end of the Civil War, are we committed to the full realization of the 14th Amendment's promise of equal justice for all?

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Despite the strong support for federalism expressed in some of his questions during Tuesday's Obergefell v. Hodges hearing, Justice Anthony Kennedy has advanced due process and equal protection arguments in two decades of decisions recognizing the rights of LGBT Americans. The Washington Post noted of Kennedy's 2013 majority opinion in Windsor striking down the Defense of Marriage Act's ban on federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
"DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code," wrote Kennedy, who was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Withholding federal recognition of same-sex married couples places them "in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage," Kennedy wrote. "The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects . . . and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify."

Needless to say, Justice Antonin Scalia completely disagrees.

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Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson
"If this was any person but Hillary Clinton," Newt Gingrich said Sunday of foreign donations to the Clintons' global charity, "they'd be under indictment right now for a clearly straightforward problem." Coming from the former speaker of the House, that statement was doubly ironic. After all, Gingrich was never indicted for the transparent scams at GOPAC, the political action committee over which Newt was forced to pay $300,000 in fines to the House Ethics Committee. More damning still, Gingrich's own 2012 presidential campaign was essentially underwritten by a single man—Sheldon Adelson—determined to buy both the U.S. and Israeli governments.

In Las Vegas this weekend, many of the GOP White House hopefuls spoke to the spring conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition. But Ted Cruz, Rick Perry and company weren't just there to pledge their fealty to Eretz Israel, but instead to audition for a cash infusion from the $30 billion casino magnate who gave $100 million to GOP candidates in 2012 alone. As he made clear in 2010, the secret to winning Sheldon Adelson's heart is no secret at all:

"I am not Israeli. The uniform that I wore in the military, unfortunately, was not an Israeli uniform. It was an American uniform, although my wife was in the IDF and one of my daughters was in the IDF ... our two little boys, one of whom will be bar mitzvahed tomorrow, hopefully he'll come back-- his hobby is shooting -- and he'll come back and be a sniper for the IDF."

"All we care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel, because even though I am not Israeli born, Israel is in my heart."

But as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman explained in March ("Is It Sheldon Adelson's World?"), Adelson's heart only has room for a very specific version of Israel.

Head below the fold for more on this story.

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For four decades, American public opinion on the issue of abortion has been largely unchanged. As the numbers from Gallup, the Pew Research Center, and other polls show, roughly half of Americans have identified themselves as "pro-choice" even as consistent majorities support keeping abortion legal in all or many circumstances.

But now, a new survey conducted for Vox by the communications and strategy firm, PerryUndem, revealed that for Americans abortion is "not so black and white." Where past polls found a public bitterly divided over the legality of abortion, the Vox survey found nuanced views and surprising common ground. When questions moved "beyond legality and into [the] reality" of the abortion experience for American women, a much different picture emerged.

Nearly four in 10 respondents said they were "neither" (21 percent) or "both" pro-choice and pro-life. Just changing the wording from "abortion should be legal in almost all cases" to "women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases" produced a 9-point jump in approval. Even more important, when the 1,067 adults were asked about what a woman's actual abortion experience should be like, using terms like "comfortable," "supportive," "without pressure," "non-judgmental," "affordable," "informed by medically-accurate information," or "without added burdens," the transformation was even more dramatic. As ThinkProgress summed it up:

A large majority of respondents--at least 69 percent--said "yes" for each of those descriptors, suggesting there's consensus about how Americans want women to be treated after they choose to seek an abortion. This aspect of Undem's polling is "really groundbreaking," according to [Kate] Stewart [of Advocates for Youth].
But while PerryUndem further found that Americans were unfamiliar with just how common abortion is (one in three women have terminated a pregnancy by age 45) and that support for women's reproductive rights was much higher among those who had talked to someone experiencing the procedure, in one area the survey shed little new light.

If support for women's safe and legal access to abortion is surprisingly broad, why are anti-abortion extremists enjoying even more surprising success at the ballot box?

In a nutshell, the answer is intensity. Anti-abortion voters simply care more about erasing women's reproductive rights than their supporters do about preserving them. And in some regions of the country and in off-year elections, that difference in motivation, commitment, activism, and turnout makes all the difference.

Continue reading below about when anti-abortion intensity trumps pro-choice propensity.

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These are dark times for Louisiana Governor and 2016 GOP White House hopeful Bobby Jindal. Facing a staggering $1.6 billion budget shortfall, Governor Jindal's popularity is plummeting at home even as he takes his presidential campaign on the road. Making matters worse, low energy prices are leading to layoffs and draining the state treasury as each dollar drop in the price of a barrel of oil costs Louisiana $2 million in lost revenue a year. The situation is so dire that LSU and other public colleges in Louisiana are preparing to file for "academic bankruptcy."

But there is one bright spot in Bobby Jindal's home state gloom. In 2014, Louisiana's $11 billion tourism sector had its third record-setting year a row. Too bad Jindal's crusade to be the face of Republican opposition to marriage equality is putting that at risk, too.

Three weeks before Governor Jindal took to the pages of the New York Times to declare, "I am holding firm against gay marriage," his lieutenant governor trumpeted the success of the Pelican State's tourism industry:

2014 was another record-breaking year for the tourism industry in Louisiana. Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, who oversees the Louisiana Office of Tourism, announced that in 2014 Louisiana attracted 28.7 million visitors, a 5 percent increase over 2013, resulting in $11.2 billion in total visitor spending and $836 million in state tax revenue generated.
"Tourism and hospitality was Louisiana's fastest growing job sector in 2014 with 223,000 Louisianans employed in the industry," Lt. Governor Dardenne boasted. Tourism had yet another great year thanks to creative marketing, dedicated industry leaders throughout the state and an incredible product—the many passions Louisiana offers."

Head below the fold for more on this story.

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Sun Apr 19, 2015 at 07:30 AM PDT

The 20 percent solution

by Jon Perr

On April 15, Congressional Republicans missed their deadline for the fiscal year 2016 budget resolution. Nevertheless, and despite their differences on defense spending and the voucherization of Medicare (absent from the Senate bill), the GOP conferees aim to balance the budget in 10 years by slashing over $5 trillion in social programs and safety net spending, including the repeal of Obamacare. (Their plans are also magically aided by $2 trillion in mythical revenues and mystery savings.) During a recent floor speech, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) described their objectives this way:
"A balanced budget approved by Congress will help make the government live within its means and set spending limits for our nation. Hard-working families are fed up with [President Obama's] spend-now, pay-later policies and are closely following our effort [on] a balanced budget."
Unfortunately, there is little evidence in support of Enzi's argument. As the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently forecast, there is no near-term debt problem. Adjusted for inflation, federal spending is lower now than when Barack Obama first took the oath of office. As the economy has recovered, the yearly deficit has been reduced by almost two-thirds since President Obama first entered the White House. And while the national debt as a percentage of the economy has plateaued, projected yearly deficits through 2025 under President Obama's proposed budget remain at or below the 50-year historical average of 2.7 percent. That stable picture explains both why Americans' concern about the budget deficit has eased and why the Fitch rating agency this week reaffirmed the USA's Triple A credit rating.

But there's an even bigger problem for Republicans so eager to swing a heavy budget ax. Since 1965, federal spending has exceeded revenue by that 2.7 percent of GDP. Yet polls consistently show that outside of foreign aid, there is no area of government spending a majority of Americans wants to decrease. And with the inescapable requirements to provide 21st century education and infrastructure even as the population grows older, the U.S. will need to invest more money in its people, not less. All of which means that to the degree that the United States even needs to "live within its means" right now, it should do so not by spending less, but by raising more revenue.

Call it the 20 Percent Solution.

Continue reading below.

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With the president's nominee for attorney general languishing in the Senate, John Cornyn (R-TX) issued this statement:
"Throughout her career, Loretta Lynch has proven to be an independent voice for justice and a strong advocate for the United States Constitution. Her experience and qualifications as a lawyer, prosecutor and dedicated advocate for the rule of law are unimpeachable and undeniable.

"This position is critical for our continued prosecution of the war on terror. Ms. Lynch's bipartisan support is a recognition that she is the right woman for this job and will do what is needed to protect America's national security.

"My colleagues in the majority party made clear earlier this year that partisan politics have no place in the Department of Justice - this nomination is an opportunity to put those words into action.

"Loretta Lynch's nomination has been delayed now for almost seven weeks. It is imperative that the President has his national security team at full strength and the unnecessary delay of Ms. Lynch's nomination has prevented that. She deserves an immediate up-or-down vote by the full Senate." [Emphasis mine.]

Wait a second. "Delayed now for almost seven weeks?" I just checked the date on that statement. Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, released it on November 6, 2007. The president he was talking about was George W. Bush and not Barack Obama. The nominee was Judge Michael Mukasey and not Loretta Lynch. Democrats, not Republicans, were the new Senate majority. The partisan issue was the Bush administration's illegal regime of detainee torture, not executive action on immigration.

And one other thing. Mukasey was confirmed when the Democratic-controlled Senate held that up-or-down vote after 53 days.

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Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks with local residents as she campaigns at the Jones Street Java House in LeClaire, Iowa April 14, 2015. Clinton, who announced on Sunday that she is running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominatio
In 2008, the campaign of multi-millionaire John McCain tried to brand Barack Obama as "elitist" and "out of touch" and "worried about the price of arugula." Four years later, Mitt Romney—the GOP presidential nominee worth at least a quarter of a billion dollars—declared that President Obama "reminded me of Marie Antoinette." Now, Politico tells us, the GOP is planning to "turn Hillary into Mitt Romney":
Republicans are readying a familiar template: The out-of-touch plutocrat who lives in a world of private planes, chauffeured vehicles and million-dollar homes.
But the Republicans' pathetic populist ploy is backfiring. After all, the now-wealthy Clintons have long supported policies to help working Americans. And while Hillary Clinton has put her money where her mouth is by backing increases in the taxes her family pays, the GOP and its 2016 candidates are—as always—calling for a massive, Treasury draining, tax cut windfall for the wealthy.

Capitals Gains Taxes. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton explained what Republican control of the White House would mean for Americans' tax bills. "They'll hurt the middle class and the poor and put the future on hold to give tax cuts to upper-income people who've been getting it all along."

Four years later, the GOP's declared candidates are once again proving him right. Both Rand Paul and Marco Rubio would repeal the estates and gift taxes, while reducing the rate on capital gains and dividend income to zero.

Low capital gains tax rates have been one of the biggest drivers of income inequality. In 2011, the Washington Post explained why.

Continue reading about the GOP's pathetic populist ploy below.

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Mon Apr 13, 2015 at 02:49 PM PDT

When Carly loved Hillary

by Jon Perr

Carly Fiorina, the disgraced HP CEO and failed California Senate candidate, says her odds of entering the 2016 Republican presidential contest are "higher than 90 percent." Of course, that's not because she believes she can win the nomination, but because the odds she wants to be the GOP's vice presidential nominee are 100 percent. And to secure that slot, Fiorina has made clear to all that she will run as the Anti-Hillary, a conservative attack dog who is willing and able to do the dirty work the GOP's ultimately male nominee will not. That's why Fiorina was among the first to take to the airwaves after Hillary Clinton's campaign announcement to declare that the former secretary of state and twice-elected senator from New York "lacks accomplishment."

But back in the summer of 2008, Carly Fiorina had only praise for the woman who almost won the Democratic nomination for president. Of course, seven years ago, Fiorina's mission was to bring supposedly disgruntled Hillary voters over to John McCain. As with her loss to Barbara Boxer two years later, at that task, too, Fiorina failed miserably.

In the days after Barack Obama clinched the delegate count to assure his nomination, John McCain's economic adviser was dispatched to win over unhappy Hillary backers that June. As Newsweek ("Carly Fiorina: Praising Hillary, Pushing McCain") reported at the time:

For the past 15 months, Carly Fiorina has given her life to John McCain. A brand-name businesswoman owing to her tumultuous tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina serves as "victory chairwoman" of the Republican National Committee and is the McCain campaign's most outspoken and energetic female surrogate. But as she strolled around a dining room in the battleground state of Ohio last week, praising "a focused, determined, intelligent, empathetic, powerful leader," she wasn't talking about the GOP nominee. She was talking about Hillary Clinton--a woman, she told the 50 women gathered to see her in a Columbus suburb, who'd been wronged. "Women in positions of authority, particularly bold women who are trying to change things, are ... caricatured differently, commented upon differently and held to different standards," she said. "I watched all of this happen to Hillary Clinton."[Emphasis mine]
But Fiorina's "female-focused speaking tour in Ohio and Pennsylvania" quickly went off the rails. For starters, she assured Americans that John McCain "has never signed on to efforts to overturn Roe vs. Wade." But McCain abandoned that stand from his 2000 campaign in favor of the GOP's draconian 2008 platform which called for reversing Roe and instead passing a "human life amendment" to the Constitution. Fiorina sparked another controversy when she raised the topic of health insurance coverage of contraception.

Head below the fold for a whole lot more on Carly.

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Every four years, Republican primary voters are treated to the predictable and pathetic spectacle of GOP presidential candidates claiming to be Ronald Reagan's heir. Left unmentioned is that Reagan's actual record as an abortion rights-signing, immigration amnesty-backing, tax-increasing and Earned Income Tax Credit-supporting Republican who tripled the national debt would make The Gipper about as welcome in today's GOP as a bout of chlamydia.

But in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement announced last week, the 2016 GOP White House hopefuls are climbing on top of each other to proclaim themselves the latest vessel for Reagan's ghost. For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who previously pledged to rip up on "Day One" the deal the U.S. negotiated with its closest allies, explained this week that "the best president in my lifetime when it comes to foreign affairs was a guy who was governor of California." That's why, Walker declared, "a lot of people agree ... with my sentiment on Iran." Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who in years past claimed that Iran did not represent a threat to the United States, summed up his approach to curbing Tehran's nuclear program this way:

"I believe in applying Reagan's approach to foreign policy to the Iran issue."
If so, Paul and his GOP rivals might want to rethink that talking point, and not just because Reagan at Reykjavik had offered to dismantle the entire American nuclear arsenal and denounced the Israeli raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak. After all, while President Obama is not about to "give the Iranians nuclear weapons," President Ronald Reagan sent the mullahs in Tehran a cake, a Bible and U.S. weapons. And even before the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly brought down his presidency, Reagan was humiliated by Iran's Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon and its ally in Syria just prior to retreating in disgrace.

But before he earned the title as the U.S. president who actually negotiated with terrorists, Ronald Reagan's intervention in the Lebanese civil war was a disaster both for American policy in the Middle East and the U.S. armed services sent to implement it. And when Reagan wasn't trying to buy the release of American hostages from Iranian-backed terrorists beginning in 1986, he happily accepted the unlikely help of others in freeing U.S. captives from the Assad regime in Syria.

Continue reading about Reagan's disastrous encounters with Iran, below.

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"Unless we are able to correct this," National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson warned in November, "very bad things will happen to taxpayers." By "this," Olson meant five straight years of budget cuts and staffing reductions at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Now, thanks to congressional Republicans once again targeting Uncle Sam's tax collector for political payback, the chickens have come home to roost. While only 40 percent of callers can even get through to the IRS help-line, refunds are being delayed as the agency faces furloughs. Meanwhile, IRS officials say they don't have the manpower to chase down tax cheats who owe the U.S. Treasury less than a million dollars even as the percentage of audits plunged to a 10-year low. It's no wonder BusinessWeek declared, "The IRS Sucks."

But if Americans are "seeing red" over what Olson called the "worst filing season" in years, that's because they should. The shocking decline in customer service levels is purely the result of Republican sabotage of the IRS. With its draconian budget cuts and workforce downsizing at the IRS, the GOP isn't just making taxpayers miserable. Republicans are costing Uncle Sam tens of billions of dollars of lost revenue annually.

A recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) summed up the impact for the IRS of having lost 18 percent of its funding and 13,000 agents since 2010 even as its responsibilities and the volume of returns jumped by seven percent. With the "tax gap" between what Americans owe and what they actually pay now estimated to top $500 billion a year, "IRS funding cuts continue to compromise taxpayer service and weaken enforcement." Nevertheless, Republicans like Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-FL) pretend that result is a bug, and not a feature, of years of GOP policy:

"[M]ore money is not the only solution...The IRS has the flexibility to ensure that its limited resources are used as cost-effectively as possible...

"We deliberately lowered the IRS funding to a level to make them think twice about what they were doing and why. They don't have a dime to spare on anything frivolous or foolhardy or even middling. The IRS should and must focus on the most important, the most egregious and the most in need."

Unfortunately, that's not how the world—or basic math—works.
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Eye chart; letters read 'DR RAND PAUL FOR PRESIDENT'
In his announcement speech on Monday, ophthalmologist turned GOP White House hopeful Rand Paul recounted his pro bono work performing eye surgeries in Guatemala. But in a speech that emphasized his medical background and commitment to "liberty" as his calling cards, Senator Paul made little mention of the Obamacare program he has long promised to repeal. That omission was probably for the best. After all, as he has made clear in the past, Dr. Paul's prescription for millions of previously uninsured Americans is to choose "freedom," just like those who shop for cosmetic surgery like Lasik.

But in his response to President Obama's State of the Union address in January, the junior senater from Kentucky offered his diagnosis of the American health system and offered his own prescription to cure it:

Obamacare, at its core, takes away a patient's right to choose. Under Obamacare, patients are prohibited from choosing their doctor or their insurance...

Everyone knows our health care system needed reforming, but it was the wrong prescription to choose more government instead of more consumer choice and competition.

Obamacare restricts freedom and must be repealed!

I was asked recently how we would fix our healthcare system. I replied, "Let's try freedom again. It worked for over 200 years!"

Continue reading about Rand Paul's freedom cure below.
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