Separate and Unequal

May 14, 2009

Good job, Assembly.  Now it’s up to the Senate to do the right thing.  I must point out, though, some egregious hypocrisies mentioned in this article.  Two different examples of religion dictating legal policy are noted.  One even comes from a reverend who fronts an organization called NYers for Constitutional Freedoms.  What? That’s antithetical to the First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” W/r/t the second part, it appears that folks in conservative religious enclaves are concerned that marriage equality would infringe on the free exercise of their religious beliefs.  I don’t know the specific wording of the NY bill, but in other states there are specific provisions for religious institution wherein they (the churches and clergy, etc.,) are not obligated to officiate over same sex marriages, which protects their free exercise.  W/r/t the first part:  To enact a discriminatory law that legislates hate, bigotry and inequality, all based on a religious argument, is anathema to the meaning of “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”  What that means is that no national religion should be established and that, by extension, no one religion (or two or three…) should be dictating policy – when it does, it forces one religion’s beliefs on an entire people, those people representing a mélange of religious points of view, varying from Catholic to Jewish to Agnostic to Deist to Atheist to None of Your Damn Business and so on. 

 I fully understand the fact that some people, based on their religious beliefs, practices and observances, believe that marriage equality, (read: same-sex marriage) is an abomination.  I do not agree with them but I understand that is what they believe.  (I understand that the bible reflects the wisdom of the time and of the men who wrote it so to take each and every word to heart (by the way – are you wearing clothes made from two kinds of cloth? That’s also a sin, according to the bible,) is to miss the mark completely, but that’s an argument for another time.)  I also understand that politicians are politicians, not leaders, and therefore are always thinking about reelection so the threat of an uprising from religious fanatics fundamentalists is daunting to say the least. I understand that their oath of office, while taken on a bible, (a practice that we know is simply S.O.P., not codified rule or law,) says nothing about upholding one particular religious point of view.  It does require them to say that they will uphold the Constitution (or whatever document governs their municipality) and the rule of law.  Finally, I understand that under the Fourteenth Amendment, any “persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizen of the United States and the State wherein they reside.  No State shall…deny any person with its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  This means that any right available to one citizen in the State must be available to every citizen in the State.  I do not understand the legal argument against marriage equality. 

On the eve of the 55th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Ed., (decided on May 17, 1954,) let us remember that not only is separate but equal not okay, but separate and unequal, as is the case with most current marriage and civil union laws, is disgraceful.

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Mandatory Minimums

May 14, 2009

Justice and compassion: “A system of ‘law and order’ is the means by which Torah seeks to address this imbalance of power. The underlying goal, however, is not simply to ensure justice, but also to create within us a deeper sense of compassion. …[We] also grapple with how to pursue justice in the most compassionate manner possible. …It may be that justice has to be ‘blind,’ but this does not mean that justice should not have a heart. As we seek justice for those who wrong us – personally, communally, even nationally – it is important to seek a fair and equitable judgment, but sometimes justice is even better served with a healthy dose of forgiveness, flexibility, generosity and gentleness.”

This makes me think of Mandatory Minimums, the great West Wing episode (immediately following “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett” and preceding “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics”!) and the policy therein. Mandatory minimums are sentencing guidelines for crack users. They consist, to put it simply, of a grid or matrix in which you find your offender and the mandatory punishment. (i.e., a first-time offender is caught with a gram of crack; find first time and gram of crack on the chart then follow the line to its pre-designated punishment.) This is what the episode focuses on, making the claim that mandatory minimums are racist because most crack users are black and most cocaine users are white; the amount of crack that necessitates harsh punishment is far less than the amount of cocaine (Andy argues to Toby.) Throughout the episode, Bartlett and others hint at and bemoan the lack of judicial discretion in such cases; such grievances are raised in a later episode, this time with a much louder voice. The episode involves Donna reviewing the pardon applicants; she comes across one man who, in his youth, was arrested for and charged with drug possession. In between the time of his arrest and the time of his trial (several months, maybe even years – I don’t remember) the defendant cleaned up his act: He successfully completed rehab and made several other positive improvements. He was a first time offender and after his arrest was never again in trouble with the law – not even so much as a parking ticket. When recounting this story, Donna says that unfortunately the strict sentencing guidelines precluded the judge from considering any of these positive steps taken and was forced to sentence the young man to jail. Bartlett and the staff go on to curse the fact that we appoint judges to use their judgment and then we don’t allow them to do the very thing they were appointed for. Indeed.

Perhaps the next time this issue comes up, or when someone makes it come up by raising the issue in front of Congress or the President, religious groups will consider supporting ridding the judicial system of mandatory minimums and other such strict sentencing guidelines which do not allow for true judicial oversight. They do not allow for compassion in the justice. This, seemingly, goes against a fundamental religious tenant. “Abraham asks God, ‘Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?’ …Execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another.’” I hope in the future organizations of faith and compassion will take up this cause and not be blinded by false political advertising.