Opinion

The Great Debate

What’s the 2014 election really about? Religious vs. women’s rights

Demonstrators gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court for the "Not My Boss's Business" rally for women's health and rights in Washington

Religious rights versus women’s rights. That’s about as fundamental a clash as you can get in U.S. politics. It’s now at the core of the 2014 election campaign, with both parties girding for battle.

What generated the showdown was last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. The decision instantly became a rallying cry for activists on both the right and left. Congressional Democrats are already proposing a law to nullify the decision. “It’s shameful that a woman’s access to contraception is even up for debate in 2014,” Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) said.   Conservative blogger Erick Erickson crowed, “My religion trumps your ‘right’ to employer-subsidized, consequence-free sex.”

How did the issue become so big so fast? Because it touches some extremely sensitive nerves in the body politic.

Members of the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood attend a service in Ketchum, IdahoThe question that best predicts a person’s politics today is not about income or education. It’s religion: How often do you go to church? Regular churchgoers — including fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics, even many Orthodox Jews — vote Republican. Voters who rarely or never go to church vote Democratic.

President Ronald Reagan brought the religious right into the Republican coalition. The Reagan coalition is the Old America — and religious rights are a touchstone issue.

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How much is contraception coverage and costly violations for BNP Paribas

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1. Does health insurance covering contraception actually cost anything?

In this article about a renewed fight at the U.S. Supreme Court just days after its decision about whether the owners of the Hobby Lobby retail chain had to buy insurance covering certain forms of contraception, the New York Times’ ace court reporter Adam Liptak wrote:

The majority opinion there, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., seemed to suggest that the forms could play a role in an arrangement that was an acceptable alternative to having employers pay for the coverage. Under the arrangement, insurance companies that receive the forms pay for the coverage on the theory that it costs no more to provide contraception than to pay for pregnancies.

Read the sentence I put in italics.

Obamacare was only passed after President Barack Obama and the bill’s lead sponsors in the House of Representatives and Senate agreed to a compromise to assuage religious groups opposed to contraception.

Despite Scalia, Supreme Court sends Obama a progressive message

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In a decision widely perceived as a setback for President Barack Obama last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the president’s recess appointment of three members of the National Labor Relations Board. Though the ruling could mean Obama never makes another recess appointment, the court’s reasoning is a substantial victory for progressives. It decisively rebuffs the wrongheaded, rigid brand of originalism that argues only the framers’ original intent is relevant in interpreting the Constitution — which conservative justices have supported for decades.

The court’s judgment was unanimous, yet the two separate opinions issued highlight the deep ideological fissure dividing the four conservative justices from the five who joined the court’s opinion. A majority of justices embraced a pragmatic reading of the Constitution, taking account of the nation’s rich experience over the past 225 years. That approach is far removed from the conservative justices’ unrealistic insistence that the Constitution is frozen in the late 18th century.

This starkly divided faux-nanimous decision, as Dahlia Lithwick labeled it in Slate, is the latest public conflict between the radical justices on the right, led by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and the more moderate traditionalists on the high bench. Scalia, as his opinion reflects, is the senior justice promoting the twin doctrines that the Constitution’s meaning was not only fixed in stone in 1789 but is also based on the literal words in the text.

Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision puts faith in compromise

Anti-abortion demonstrators high five as the ruling for Hobby Lobby was announced outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington

On Monday the Supreme Court decided its most anticipated case of the year. According to a sharply divided 5-4 court, the government cannot compel a closely-held corporation to provide contraceptive coverage as part of its Affordable Care Act-mandated employee insurance plans.

This was the expected result: four conservatives in favor, four liberals against, and Justice Kennedy concurring in the middle. Yet while many are calling the ruling a victory for conservatives and a loss for women’s (and by extension, LGBT) rights, Justice Alito’s majority opinion is actually far more limited than many had expected. Here’s why.

First, the opinion is limited to closely-held corporations. This distinction makes sense. An individual’s beliefs may be attributed to a family-owned business much more reasonably than to a large corporation. Hobby Lobby, the named plaintiff in the case, is indeed large: it has over 500 stores, and over 13,000 employees. But it is family-owned, and the owners’ devout Christian faith is evident throughout the company — including its advertising, product choices and employment policies.

Think we don’t need to update the Voting Rights Act? Check out Tuesday’s primaries.

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The door is open for Congress to repair the nation’s most transformative election law, which was neutered by the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago today.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion for Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, issued Congress a written invitation to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after striking down Section 4 of the act and disabling the strongest safety check against racial discrimination in voting.  The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on the Voting Rights Amendment Act shows that his invitation did not fall on deaf ears or timid hearts.

Swift and dauntless action is needed in both houses of Congress, however, to ensure that voting remains an equal opportunity exercise for all Americans, and that Congress remains a relevant force in the defense of voting rights in places like Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and beyond.

Brown v. Board of Ed: Key Cold War weapon

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, issued on May 17, 1954, is probably the most important judicial decision in American history.

This week, on its 60th anniversary, the landmark ruling is being celebrated for its historic role in committing the United States to ending legal racial segregation and establishing the courts as a forum in which to secure enhanced protection of rights. All subsequent court decisions advancing the rights of those who have suffered discrimination are built on Brown.

There is another reason, however, that the decision was especially important.  The Brown ruling greatly advanced the interests of the United States during the Cold War, when the nation was vying with the Soviet Union for global influence. The Truman administration recognized this in the early 1950s, when it filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court in December 1952, calling for the result that the court announced 17 months later.

Exorcising the voter fraud ghost

A poll worker looks at voter authorization forms and provisional ballots after the polls closed at the Covenant Presbyterian Church during the U.S. presidential election in Charlotte, North Carolina, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Keane

When it comes to the fight about voter fraud and voter suppression, how do you prove a negative?

One key question in the battle over the legality of voter identification laws is whether such laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud and whether they suppress a lot of votes from eligible voters.

Though the answer to the second question remains in considerable dispute, after Tuesday’s federal court decision striking down Wisconsin’s voter ID law, it is time for voter ID supporters to throw in the towel and admit state voter ID laws don’t prevent the kind of fraud they are supposedly targeted for.

The increasing significance of race

Behind every Supreme Court decision is a sociology of ordinary life. Opinions reveal the justices’ view of what’s what in the world, how people act and why things change.

Justices probably prefer that we focus on their legal analyses, but we can glean the sociology behind their assumptions. Last week, judicial world views spun into interplanetary conflict when the court voted to affirm Michigan’s vote to bar all consideration of race, gender, ethnicity, color or national origin in public decision-making, including in state college admissions.

The justices based their decision on a novel faith in the democratic process, which Justice Sonia Sotomayor spent 58 pages countering in a dissent that seemed to come from another universe.

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Obama’s unaccountable briefers, pipeline bribery, and economic woes at Yankee Stadium

 

1. Obama’s unaccountable briefers:

Here’s a key paragraph in Saturday’s New York Times report explaining the Obama administration’s decision to delay yet again a decision on the Keystone pipeline:

’The Nebraska Supreme Court decision could lead to changes in the pipeline route, and it’s important to have that information and better understand that route, because it could have implications for environmental, socioeconomic and cultural impacts of the pipeline,’ a State Department official said Friday in a conference call with reporters that was conducted on the condition that the official not be named.

Why did this official have to remain anonymous? Was he or she providing a national security leak? Was he or she blowing the whistle on some government wrongdoing?

Opening the political money chutes

The headline about a new Supreme Court opinion rarely tells the whole story.  Rather, the detailed reasoning of the ruling often reveals whether a decision is a blockbuster or a dud.

When the court writes broadly, it can eventually remake entire industries, government practices or areas of the law. Lawyers and lower courts scrutinize an opinion’s every line and footnote, pouring over the legal reasoning and noting subtle changes from the court’s earlier decisions in the same area.

This is why it is fair to call last week’s Supreme Court ruling in the campaign finance case McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission a blockbuster case. In McCutcheon, the court struck down limits on the total amount that an individual could give to federal candidates, parties and certain political committees in an election cycle.

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