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The Constitutional Right To Not Be Sued Too Harshly

I’ve never seen it in the Constitution either, but U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett seems to know all about it. For once, conservative s are right when they talk about “unelected judges legislating from the bench.”

Last October a jury ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church — that’s Fred Phelps and all of the other “church” members who look just like him — had to pay $10.9 million to Albert Snyder and his family. Snyder’s son Matthew was a Marine Lance Corporal who was killed in Iraq. Fred Phelps and his gang of mutants were picketing Matthew’s funeral. Their reason — as we all know by now — is that American military deaths in Iraq are God’s way of punishing America for tolerating homosexuals.

So Albert Snyder sued Fred Phelps’ “church” for emotional distress and invasion of privacy and was awarded $10.9 million. And now Judge Richard Bennett has reduced the award to $5 million. His reasoning was based on “the need to weigh any harm Snyder suffered against the financial resources of the church.”


Or maybe it’s up to Fred Phelps to worry about his own financial resources. He could protect them himself by not engaging in hateful acts which would logically result in a $10 million verdict. You know, that “individua l responsibili ty” that conservative s are always talking about.

People have lost their homes and businesses, and been forced into bankruptcy, by expensive lawsuits. Whether that’s right or not, it’s a fact. Since nobody else has any guarantee that they won’t be sued into bankruptcy, why should a hateful shitbag like Fred Phelps have his own personal safety net that nobody else is entitled to?

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Vote in the common good

One of my favorite political buzzwords from the past few years has become “the common good,” a phrase I’ve seen most used as an umbrella term for the breadth of issues that should inform a person’s conscience when they vote. It’s a great retort to the groups, religions and individuals out there who suggest that only single issues should matter when it comes to casting a socially just vote.

As in 2004, we’ll likely see a push by very misguided Catholic groups to whittle the Catholic vote down to four issues: abortion, gay marriage and gay adoption, stem cell research, and euthanasia. These Catholic groups take these four issues and distort them for the sheer purpose of electing Republicans, while completely ignoring the breadth and depth of Catholic Social Teaching – the social principles that form the foundation of the Catholic faith.

Forty days out of the Iowa caucuses, a group of Catholic organization s have released a “Common Good Voting Pledge,” to draw attention to the wide range of social issues that should inform a Catholic’s conscience as they prepare to vote. The groups – including Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Pax Christi USA, NETWORK, Catholics United, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, and the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas – have one basic, but profound, message: Building a culture of the common good requires us to balance our own self-interes t with a commitment to greater common interest as well.

Two specific issues are highlighted: a commitment to fight poverty, and a commitment to end the war. On fighting poverty, the groups say: 37 million Americans live below the poverty line in the world’s richest country. Half the world nearly three billion people live on less than two dollars a day. These are moral scandals that violate human life and dignity. Poverty is linked to many affronts to human life, including abortion and war. We are called to put our faith into action and care for the poor and most vulnerable.

On ending the war: The Iraq war has lasted more than four years and the number of casualties now exceeds 3800 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. War disproportio nately affects the poor in society and drains needed resources from vital social programs. Pope John Paul II insisted that “war is always a defeat for humanity.” Pope Benedict XVI believes that it is “right to resist war and its threats of destruction. ” The U.S. bishops have called for a “responsible withdrawal” of troops.

You can sign the pledge by clicking here, or download copies of the pledge for distribution by clicking here.

The more “the common good” frames the discussion of religious voters in the 2008 election, hopefully the less polarized we’ll be as a nation. As Jane Addams once said, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

Now if only that statement were on the daily talking points given each morning to candidates running for President.

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Rumsfeld’s snowflakes

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often wrote memos to his staff that he labeled “snowflakes. ” Snowflakes? How cute! Do you suppose Cheney writes “gumdrops” for his staff? Condi Rice penning “puppy kisses,” perhaps?

One of these Rumsfeld “snowflakes” is getting all sorts of attention today. As The Washington Post reports:

In a series of internal musings and memos to his staff, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued that Muslims avoid “physical labor,” and wrote of the need to “keep elevating the threat,” “link Iraq to Iran” and develop “bumper sticker statements” to rally public support for an increasingly unpopular war.

The memos, often referred to as “snowflakes, ” shed light on Rumsfeld’s brusque management style and on his efforts to address key challenges during his tenure as Pentagon chief. Spanning from 2002 to shortly after his resignation following the 2006 congressiona l elections, a sampling of his trademark missives obtained Wednesday reveals a defense secretary disdainful of media criticism and driven to reshape public opinion of the Iraq war.

The White House is flipping out today, trying to distance themselves from these memos that label Muslims lazy. Dana Perino, current White House spin doctor, even had the audacity to say this: “We are aware that we have a lot of work to do in order to win hearts and minds across the Arab world and the Muslim world and I can understand why they would be offended by those comments.” Of course, you’d think that if the White House were really that aware of all the work they need to do in order to win hearts and minds across the Arab world, they wouldn’t be championing an Attorney General nominee (Michael Mukasey) who refuses to label waterboardin g as torture.

But I digress…Rums feld’s snowflakes, so to speak, provide some of the most brazen insight into the spin world of the Bush administrati on since 9/11. Here are some examples that literally had my jaw hanging wide open for a few moments…

  • Under siege in April 2006, when a series of retired generals denounced him and called for his resignation in newspaper op-ed pieces, Rumsfeld produced a memo after a conference call with military analysts. “Talk about Somalia, the Philippines, etc. Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists,” he wrote.
  • Based on the discussion with military analysts, Rumsfeld tied Iran and Iraq. “Iran is the concern of the American people, and if we fail in Iraq, it will advantage Iran,” he wrote in his April 2006 memo.
  • In one of his longer ruminations, in May 2004, Rumsfeld considers whether to redefine the terrorism fight as a “worldwide insurgency.” The goal of the enemy, he wrote, is to “end the state system, using terrorism, to drive the non-radicals from the world.” He then advised aides “to test what the results could be” if the war on terrorism is renamed.

Not that I had any doubt before, but this really is a 1984 world that the Bush machine has created. Test what the results could be if we renamed the War on Terror? Is this the Department of Defense, or a bunch of executives trying to repackage New Coke?

A spokesperson for the Council on American-Isl amic Relations, Ibrahim Hooper, sums this all up best, saying that these memos…er, snowflakes…r eflect the “stereotypic al attitude” that not only led us into war, but also sold war to the American people in a nicely wrapped media package.

“Our policy was never based on reality,” Hooper said. “It was based on the wild ideas of those who wanted to invade the region. … It shows you what kind of wrong-headed policymakers we had at the time.”

Welcome back to the front page, Rumsfeld. Meanwhile, if you want a Friday laugh, check out this list of synonyms for Rumsfeld’s snowflakes. My favorite is “butterfly kisses.”

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Queens, Christ, & Constitutions: An Existential Elegy

Not long ago Miss South Carolina botched her answer to a question in the Miss Teen USA pageant…a move that sent millions of viewers racing to watch her tortured response on YouTube and made her the unfortunate butt of numerous jokes offered by countless comedians. The question referred to the fact that some 20 percent of Americans cannot find the United States on a map…a rather staggering statistic.

A new survey points to another area of deficiency in the knowledge base of the American public; this one with regard to our understandin g of the Constitution . Some may contend it is simply a reflection of differing interpretati ons…a seemingly valid, though problematic possibility which I will endeavor to address.

The survey results lead one to ask if a trend is emerging and if we can identify the factors precipitatin g this apparent lapse in acuity. Before exploring the possibilitie s, or lack thereof, take a look at the following excerpts from the survey.

From The First Amendment Center:

WASHINGTON — Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the nation’s founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation, according to the “State of the First Amendment 2007” national survey released today by the First Amendment Center.

Just 56% believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme — down 16 points from 72% in 2000.

58% of Americans would prevent protests during a funeral procession, even on public streets and sidewalks; and 74% would prevent public school students from wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that might offend others.

25% said “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees,” well below the 49% recorded in the 2002 survey that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, but up from 18% in 2006.

“Americans clearly have mixed views of what First Amendment freedoms are and to whom they should fully apply,” said Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. “To me the results of this year’s survey endorse the idea of more and better education for young people — our nation’s future leaders — about our basic freedoms.”

The right to practice one’s own religion was deemed “essential ” or “important ” by nearly all Americans (97%); as was the right to “speak freely about whatever you want” (98%) and to “assemble, march, protest or petition the government (94%),” Policinski said. “Still, Americans are hard pressed to name the five freedoms included in the First Amendment,” he said. Speech is the only one named by a majority of respondents  (64%), followed by religion (19%), press and assembly (each 16%) and petition (3%).

First Amendment Center Senior Scholar Charles Haynes: “While the survey shows Americans highly value religious freedom, a significant number support privileging the religion of the majority, especially in public schools. Four decades after the Supreme Court declared state-sponso red religious practices unconstituti onal in public schools, 58% of respondents support teacher-led prayers and 43% favor school holiday programs that are entirely Christian. Moreover, 50% would allow schools to teach the Bible as a factual text in a history class.

“The strong support for official recognition of the majority faith appears to be grounded in a belief that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, in spite of the fact that the Constitution nowhere mentions God or Christianity . Of course, people define “Christian nation” in various ways — ranging from a nation that reflects Christian values to a nation where the government favors the Christian faith. But almost one-third of respondents appear to believe that the religious views of the majority should rule: 28% would deny freedom to worship to any group that the majority considers ‘extreme or on the fringe.’”

A third think the press has too much freedom and 60-plus percent believe the press is biased in its reporting or, worse, falsifies or makes up stories.

The data tend to mirror the recent rise in the rhetoric and the rancor surrounding religion in the political sphere and the expanded focus upon social issues…a focus which has frequently been derived from religious doctrine (primarily the Bible).

Unfortunatel y, this has led to an erroneous belief that legislation ought to be predicated upon that premise. The fact the Karl Rove and the GOP have sought to exploit this gaffe has only exacerbated the misconceptio n and the divisive vitriol it promotes.

Let me be clear…people have the right to support the legislation they favor…which is as it should be. However, said legislation mustn’t impinge upon constitution ally granted rights; otherwise our judicial system exists and is intended to intervene to prevent such overreach (a function which has all too often been falsely defined as judicial activism). Beyond this fundamental legislative construct, voters can also attempt to alter the constitution .

Sadly, the political premise of laissez-fair e has been circumvented by those who would seek to impose one set of theological beliefs above all others…an action undoubtedly in conflict with the intent of the Constitution . Clearly, the document seeks to remain neutral in this regard so as to allow for the desired freedoms our forefathers sought…inclu ding the freedom to hold one’s chosen religious beliefs without interference or imposition from the state. That delicately nuanced balance appears to be in jeopardy…and the survey seems to affirm an expanding threat.

At first blush, one might be inclined to scratch one’s head at the inaccuracies found in the respondent opinions; however, when one considers that a fifth of Americans can’t even identify their nation on a map, the lack of constitution al proficiency seems a logical extension of an unsettling trend.

As America seeks to install democratic values in the Middle East, the erosion taking place on the home front seems a stark contradictio n, as well as a tacit endorsement of similar actions on the part of those we view to be adversaries. The fact that others embrace a theological bent we may justifiably find to be fully unacceptable points out the precarious nature of our dilemma.

Understandin g the degree to which we should act to address the unsavory aspects of these conflicting ideologies is a complex predicament. We would be well advised to avoid the wholesale negation of other non-threaten ing beliefs which reside under the same basic theological umbrella of our antagonists… beliefs we may not affirm but cannot in good conscience…a nd in keeping with our constitution al values…seek to extinguish. It is difficult to imagine we can succeed in discerning this fine line of distinction if we can’t do as well with regards to our own actions here at home.

When one imagines a large number of constitution ally illiterate Americans attentively watching a beauty pageant finalist failing to speak coherently about basic issues of geography and education in a country where 20 percent of us can’t identify our nation on a map, the concept of engaging in an effort to export our democratic values seems an epic existential exercise. Consequently  , I have my suspicions that the current ideological conflicts we face at home and abroad may represent mankind’s sempiternal challenge.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

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