Tag Archives: Judiciary

#229: A Challenge to Winner-Take-All in the Electoral College

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #229, on the subject of A Challenge to Winner-Take-All in the Electoral College.

We have frequently discussed the Electoral College, the system by which States send Electors to select a President of the United States.  Much of that explanation appears in the page Coalition Government, compiled of several previous related articles.  That discussion included the suggestion that the “winner-take-all” system for choosing Electors, adopted by forty-eight States and the District of Columbia, should be replaced, on a State-by-State basis, with a proportional system–and why such a change was unlikely to be made by any of them.  (We more recently noted an opposite movement, an attempt to replace the State vote with a national vote that effectively eliminates the significance of any state, in web log post #203:  Electoral College End Run, an idea having a much better chance of passing but which is probably unconstitutional.)

Now an organization called Equal Citizens has decided that there might be another way to eliminate the winner-take-all system and replace it with proportional representation:  have the winner-take-all system declared unconstitutional.  To this end, they have filed lawsuits against the practice in California, Massachusetts, Texas, and South Carolina.

That might seem like overkill.  After all, wouldn’t one successful lawsuit fix the problem?  However, it probably wouldn’t.

Suppose they filed in Texas and won in Texas.  There are four Federal District Courts in Texas, any one of which would do, and victory would mean it was illegal to assign all thirty-eight of that State’s electors to the candidate winning the majority vote–in Texas.  At that point they have to hope that the State appeals the decision to the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, and that they win there.  If they do, it will be illegal not only in Texas but also in Louisiana and Mississippi.  However, it will still be legal in the rest of the country.

In order for it to become unconstitutional nationwide, the Supreme Court of the United States would have to decide the case.  That means getting the Court to hear the case, and as we know the Court is rarely forced to hear any case and might prefer to stay out of this one.  The best shot at getting Certiorari at the Supreme Court for a case like this is to get decisions in more than one Circuit which hold opposing positions.  That is, they need one court to say it is constitutional and another to say it’s unconstitutional, so that the Supreme Court will see that it is necessary for it to resolve the matter for everyone.  That means in filing four lawsuits they are hoping to win at least one and lose at least one, at the appellate level.

In theory, they could win an effective victory if they won all four suits, as States might see that as an indication that other circuits would agree and avoid a lawsuit by complying with the change.  However, compliance would only be mandated in those circuits where the decisions were made, and additional lawsuits might be needed to change some recalcitrant States.

So how can a practice that is so nearly universal (only Maine and Nebraska do not follow it, and they both use district voting, that is, the state is divided into sections each of which picks a representative elector) be unconstitutional?

The argument is based on the XIVth Amendment, and specifically the Equal Protection Clause, which states that every citizen of legal age is to be treated equally by the States in all matters of law and politics.  That means, according to the Amendment, one person, one vote.  The claim is made that in a winner-take-all system, if fifty thousand voters pick one candidate but fifty thousand one voters pick the other, fifty thousand voters are disenfranchised when the entire electoral vote goes to the other candidate.  In order for their votes to be protected, the electoral vote should be divided based on the proportion of voters supporting each candidate–in this case, equally, or slightly in favor of the majority candidate.

So is it a good argument?

Maybe.

The XIVth amendment is one of the Reconstruction amendments following the Civil War.  The “Original Intent” of its reference to one person, one vote was to prevent discrimination against black men specifically; it was amending the section of the Constitution that counted slaves as partial persons by giving the emancipated slaves voting power equal to their white counterparts.  In that sense, it has nothing to do with the method of selecting Electors for the College.  However, as often happens, what the Framers of the Amendment wrote has been applied beyond what they intended.  This clause is the basis for all those lawsuits over reapportionment:  the claim that one party has by drawing the district lines given itself an unfair advantage by disenfranchising voters in certain geographic areas.  The connection is obvious:  if white government officials can set up districts such that blacks are always in the minority in every district (that is, by identifying black neighborhoods and apportioning them into several predominantly white surrounding neighborhoods) they can smother the voice of black voters.  Thus “gerrymandering” to oppress racial voting blocks is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

Yet the Equal Protection Clause would itself be inequitable if it only protected blacks or other racial minorities.  If it is a constitutional violation to stifle the representation of any one voter, it is equally a violation to stifle the representation of any other voter.  Arguably winner-take-all voting does exactly that, and on that basis could be ruled unconstitutional.

On the other hand, as we have noted in previous articles, the Framers of the Constitution did not intend for Presidents to be chosen by democratic process.  Quite the contrary, they expected that the Electoral College would always be hopelessly deadlocked and so serve effectively as a nominating committee offering a slate of candidates from which the legislature would select the one they believed would best serve them.  As we noted in #172:  Why Not Democracy?, that has happened exactly once.  However, the process was intended to empower the States as States, not so much the individual voters save as they are citizens of their respective States.  If we look at the Original Intent of the Constitution, it is evident that Electors are to be chosen by the States, by methods determined individually by each State.

Of course, the XIVth Amendment changed that at least in part.  The question is, in doing so did it mean that a State’s Electors had to be representative of all the voters proportionately, or is it sufficient for a State’s Electors to represent the majority of the State’s voters?  Are Presidents to be selected by the people, or by the States?

If winner-take-all Elector voting is deemed unconstitutional on that basis, it probably means that district apportionment is similarly unconstitutional, and electoral votes would have to be assigned based entirely on the proportion of the total vote in the state.  Israel uses such a system to elect its Parliament, and it is not an unworkable system.  If implemented, it would move us slightly closer to a President elected by the majority.

It is certainly worth considering.

As a footnote, in researching this article I stumbled upon this interesting toy which permits the user to experiment with various methods of choosing Electors and see their impact on the most recent two Presidential elections.  What intrigued me was that of eight possible methods (including the current one), Trump won the Electoral College in all but that one specifically rigged to give the Democrats the most electoral votes (that is, by using winner-take-all in states they nominally won and proportional in states they nominally lost).  That caused me to wonder how that could be if, as is often claimed, Clinton took the majority of the popular vote.  The answer seems to be in part that despite the fact that Trump took more votes in California than in any other state but two, Clinton took enough votes in that state to tip the balance of the popular vote, but not of the Electoral vote, because California is underrepresented in the Electoral College (because it is underrepresented in the House of Representatives).  That in turn reminded me that in the aforementioned web log post I commented that we did not want California to be the big bully that dictates the law to the rest of us.  The other part of the answer is simply that Trump took more states, and because of the “plus two” Electors each state gets, the geography worked for him:  the fact that Presidents are on some level chosen by the States, not the people, meant that having more states choose Trump gives him more Electors.

#222: The Range War Explodes: Interstate Water Rights

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #222, on the subject of The Range War Explodes:  Interstate Water Rights.

Your ranch is upstream, and they dammed up the water.
Thirsty cows scream for my uncle to slaughter
The sheep
While your daddy’s asleep,
And I do the same for his daughter.

The Range War, by Todd Rundgren

In my hopefully forthcoming book Why I Believe I used the example of the range war, probably recalled from this old Todd Rundgren Romeo and Juliet song, in asking whether or not it was “theft” for the owner of an upstream ranch to dam the water supplies to provide for his own livestock and family, if it reduces the amount of water that would otherwise naturally flow downstream onto his neighbor’s ranch to water his livestock.  It is a difficult and intriguing question:  can I steal something from you that you never had, simply by preventing it from reaching you?  If I prevent the water from flowing downstream, can you accuse me of theft?

It appears that the United States Supreme Court is going to answer that question:  Florida is suing Georgia for using too much fresh water from the rivers that supply its northern areas, and the court has granted certiorari.

Georgia has a pretty solid case.  After all, if a storm is coming and I get to the grocery store before you and buy the last of the milk, eggs, and bread (what is now being called a “French Toast Emergency”), did I thereby rob you of those supplies?  If you took me to court over that, you would probably be laughed out of the room.  It’s Georgia’s water; what they don’t use becomes Florida’s water; what they use to support their growing cities and their booming agriculture, they use.  It doesn’t seem that Florida can really claim that it’s their water before it reaches them, and if it never reaches them, it never becomes theirs.

On the other hand, it’s not like Florida can get to the water first by leaving earlier.  Florida is in a very real sense dependent on Georgia allowing the water to cross the border.  Further, these are serious environmental concerns, removing water from wilderness areas dependent on those rivers.

Since this is a dispute between two States, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction–the case does not come to them on appeal from a lower court, and there are no prior decisions for them to consider.  An appointed Special Master has recommended that they side with Georgia, but at oral argument the justices reportedly seemed to be seeking a way to support Florida, Justice Ginsburg suggesting that a cap on Georgia’s water use might be necessary to protect its downstream neighbor.

Stay tuned for the resolution to this modern version of an old problem.

#221: Silence on the Lesbian Front

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #221, on the subject of Silence on the Lesbian Front.

Sometimes what the Supreme Court does not say is as significant at what it does say.  There is much speculation as to why they declined to hear a suit against a Mississippi law protecting a first amendment right not to support same sex weddings and similar matters.  The lower court ruling at this point is that the plaintiffs do not have standing, that is, none of them can demonstrate that the law has caused any of them actual harm, but the question behind that is why the court didn’t want to grab the case and decide the issue.

One possibility is that no one knows how it would fall, and no one wants to risk setting a precedent against their own view.  The conservatives would undoubtedly support the law, which makes it unlawful to bring any criminal or civil penalties against someone who for religious reasons refuses to provide services in support of acts they consider immoral, and particularly homosexual weddings.  The passage of the law invalidated local laws in Jackson and other metropolitan areas of the state that had protected the supposed rights of the homosexual couples.  Meanwhile, the liberal wing wants to normalize homosexual conduct, and have the law regard treatment of homosexuals as equivalent to treatment of blacks and women.  So we have an almost even split among the justices–but that there are an odd number of justices.

The swing vote is almost certainly Chief Justice Roberts.  He has been strong on first amendment rights, but has also sided in favor of homosexual rights.  If either side were sure of his vote, they would probably have accepted the case as a way of establishing a precedent favoring that position.  It thus may be that his position is uncertain, and neither side wants to take the risk.

On the other hand, the court has agreed to hear the cake case, in which a baker claims that a state law requiring him to make wedding cakes for homosexual weddings is an infringement on his religious liberty and freedom of speech.  The speech issue seems to be the one that is carrying the most weight with the justices, but it may be that the rejection of the Mississippi case is hinting out an outcome here.  If in the cake case it were decided that a state law could compel service providers to treat homosexual weddings the same as heterosexual weddings, it would still be an open question as to whether a state law can prevent any such compulsion, and the Mississippi case would matter.  However, if the Court were to decide that the baker cannot be compelled to create a cake for a homosexual wedding, that inherently supports the Mississippi law, saying that no one can be so compelled.

So the fact that the Court did not accept the Mississippi case could mean that they are leaning toward judgement in favor of the baker in the cake case, or it could mean that the position of the court is too uncertain for them to take case on the same issue so soon.  What it does not mean is that the Court has the votes to overturn the Mississippi law and wants to do so.

#219: A 2017 Retrospective

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #219, on the subject of A 2017 Retrospective.

A year ago, plus a couple days, on the last day of 2016 we posted web log post #150:  2016 Retrospective.  We are a couple days into the new year but have not yet posted anything new this year, so we’ll take a look at what was posted in 2017.

Beginning “off-site”, there was a lot at the Christian Gamers Guild, as the Faith and Gaming series ran the rest of its articles.  I also launched two new monthly series there in the last month of the year, with introductory articles Faith in Play #1:  Reintroduction, continuing the theme of the Faith and Gaming series, and RPG-ology #1:  Near Redundancy, reviving some of the lost work and adding more to the Game Ideas Unlimited series of decades back.  In addition to the Faith and Gaming materials, the webmaster republished two articles from early editions of The Way, the Truth, and the Dice, the first Magic:  Essential to Faith, Essential to Fantasy from the magic symposium, and the second Real and Imaginary Violence, about the objection that role playing games might be too violent.  I also contributed a new article at the beginning of the year, A Christian Game, providing rules for a game-like activity using scripture.  Near the end of the year–the end of November, actually–I posted a review of all the articles from eighteen months there, as Overview of the Articles on the New Christian Gamers Guild Website.

That’s apart from the Chaplain’s Bible Study posts, where we finished the three Johannine epistles and Jude and have gotten about a third of the way through Revelation.  There have also been Musings posts on the weekends.

Over at Goodreads I’ve reviewed quite a few books.

Turning to the mark Joseph “young” web log, we began the year with #151:  A Musician’s Resume, giving my experience and credentials as a Christian musician.  That subject was addressed from a different direction in #163:  So You Want to Be a Christian Musician, from the advice I received from successful Christian musicians, with my own feeling about it.  Music was also the subject of #181:  Anatomy of a Songwriting Collaboration, the steps involved in creating the song Even You, with link to the recording.

We turned our New Year’s attention to the keeping of resolutions with a bit of practical advice in #152:  Breaking a Habit, my father’s techniques for quitting smoking more broadly applied.

A few of the practical ones related to driving, including #154:  The Danger of Cruise Control, presenting the hazard involved in the device and how to manage it, #155:  Driving on Ice and Snow, advice on how to do it, and #204:  When the Brakes Fail, suggesting ways to address the highly unlikely but cinematically popular problem of the brakes failing and the accelerator sticking.

In an odd esoteric turn, we discussed #153:  What Are Ghosts?, considering the possible explanations for the observed phenomena.  Unrelated, #184:  Remembering Adam Keller, gave recollections on the death of a friend.  Also not falling conveniently into a usual category, #193:  Yelling:  An Introspection, reflected on the internal impact of being the target of yelling.

Our Law and Politics articles considered several Supreme Court cases, beginning with a preliminary look at #156:  A New Slant on Offensive Trademarks, the trademark case brought by Asian rock band The Slants and how it potentially impacts trademark law.  The resolution of this case was also covered in #194:  Slanting in Favor of Free Speech, reporting the favorable outcome of The Slant’s trademark dispute, plus the Packingham case regarding laws preventing sex offenders from accessing social networking sites.

Other court cases included #158:  Show Me Religious Freedom, examining the Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley case in which a church school wanted to receive the benefits of a tire recycling playground resurfacing program; this was resolved and covered in #196:  A Church and State Playground, followup on the Trinity Lutheran playground paving case.  #190:  Praise for a Ginsberg Equal Protection Opinion, admires the decision in the immigration and citizenship case Morales-Santana.

We also addressed political issues with #171:  The President (of the Seventh Day Baptist Convention), noting that political terms of office are not eternal; #172:  Why Not Democracy?, a consideration of the disadvantages of a more democratic system; #175:  Climate Change Skepticism, about a middle ground between climate change extremism and climate change denial; #176:  Not Paying for Health Care, about socialized medicine costs and complications; #179:  Right to Choose, responding to the criticism that a male white Congressman should not have the right to take away the right of a female black teenager to choose Planned Parenthood as a free provider of her contraceptive services, and that aspect of taking away someone’s right to choose as applied to the unborn.

We presumed to make a suggestion #159:  To Compassion International, recommending a means for the charitable organization to continue delivering aid to impoverished children in India in the face of new legal obstacles.  We also had some words for PETA in #162:  Furry Thinking, as PETA criticized Games Workshop for putting plastic fur on its miniatures and we discuss the fundamental concepts behind human treatment of animals.

We also talked about discrimination, including discriminatory awards programs #166:  A Ghetto of Our Own, awards targeted to the best of a particular racial group, based on similar awards for Christian musicians; #207:  The Gender Identity Trap, observing that the notion that someone is a different gender on the inside than his or her sex on the outside is confusing cultural expectations with reality, and #212:  Gender Subjectivity, continuing that discussion with consideration of how someone can know that they feel like somthing they have never been.  #217:  The Sexual Harassment Scandal, addressed the recent explosion of sexual harassment allegations.

We covered the election in New Jersey with #210:  New Jersey 2017 Gubernatorial Election, giving an overview of the candidates in the race, #211:  New Jersey 2017 Ballot Questions, suggesting voting against both the library funding question and the environmental lock box question, and #214:  New Jersey 2017 Election Results, giving the general outcome in the major races for governor, state legislature, and public questions.

Related to elections, #213:  Political Fragmentation, looks at the Pew survey results on political typology.

We recalled a lesson in legislative decision-making with #182:  Emotionalism and Science, the story of Tris in flame-retardant infant clothing, and the warning against solutions that have not been considered for their other effects.  We further discussed #200:  Confederates, connecting what the Confederacy really stood for with modern issues; and #203:  Electoral College End Run, opposing the notion of bypassing the Constitutional means of selecting a President by having States pass laws assigning their Electoral Votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote.

2017 also saw the publication of the entirety of the third Multiverser novel, For Better or Verse, along with a dozen web log posts looking behind the writing process, which are all indexed in that table of contents page.  There were also updated character papers for major and some supporting characters in the Multiverser Novel Support Pages section, and before the year ended we began releasing the fourth novel, serialized, Spy Verses, with the first of its behind-the-writings posts, #218:  Versers Resume, with individual sections for the first twenty-one chapters.

Our Bible and Theology posts included #160:  For All In Authority, discussing praying for our leaders, and protesting against them; #165:  Saints Alive, regarding statues of saints and prayers offered to them; #168:  Praying for You, my conditional offer to pray for others, in ministry or otherwise; #173:  Hospitalization Benefits, about those who prayed for my recovery; #177:  I Am Not Second, on putting ourselves last; #178:  Alive for a Reason, that we all have purpose as long as we are alive; #187:  Sacrificing Sola Fide, response to Walter Bjorck’s suggestion that it be eliminated for Christian unity; #192:  Updating the Bible’s Gender Language, in response to reactions to the Southern Baptist Convention’s promise to do so; #208:  Halloween, responding to a Facebook question regarding the Christian response to the holiday celebrations; #215:  What Forty-One Years of Marriage Really Means, reacting to Facebook applause for our anniversary with discussion of trust and forgiveness, contracts versus covenants; and #216:  Why Are You Here?, discussing the purpose of human existence.

We gave what was really advice for writers in #161:  Pseudovulgarity, about the words we don’t say and the words we say instead.

On the subject of games, I wrote about #167:  Cybergame Timing, a suggestion for improving some of those games we play on our cell phones and Facebook pages, and a loosely related post, #188:  Downward Upgrades, the problem of ever-burgeoning programs for smart phones.  I guested at a convention, and wrote of it in #189:  An AnimeNEXT 2017 Experience, reflecting on being a guest at the convention.  I consider probabilities to be a gaming issue, and so include here #195:  Probabilities in Dishwashing, calculating a problem based on cup colors.

I have promised to do more time travel; home situations have impeded my ability to watch movies not favored by my wife, but this is anticipated to change soon.  I did offer #185:  Notes on Time Travel in The Flash, considering time remnants and time wraiths in the superhero series; #199:  Time Travel Movies that Work, a brief list of time travel movies whose temporal problems are minimal; #201:  The Grandfather Paradox Solution, answering a Facebook question about what happens if a traveler accidentally causes the undoing of his own existence; and #206:  Temporal Thoughts on Colkatay Columbus, deciding that the movie in which Christopher Columbus reaches India in the twenty-first century is not a time travel film.

I launched a new set of forums, and announced them in #197:  Launching the mark Joseph “young” Forums, officially opening the forum section of the web site.  Unfortunately I announced them four days before landing in the hospital for the first of three summer hospitalizations–of the sixty-two days comprising July and August this year, I spent thirty-one of them in one or another of three hospitals, putting a serious dent in my writing time.  I have not yet managed to refocus on those forums, for which I blame my own post-surgical life complications and those of my wife, who also spent a significant stretch of time hospitalized and in post-hospitalization rehabilitation, and in extended recovery.  Again I express my gratitude for the prayers and other support of those who brought us through these difficulties, which are hopefully nearing an end.

Which is to say, I expect to offer you more in the coming year.  The fourth novel is already being posted, and a fifth Multiverser novel is being written in collaboration with a promising young author.  There are a few time travel movies available on Netflix, which I hope to be able to analyze soon.  There are a stack of intriguing Supreme Court cases for which I am trying to await the resolutions.  Your continued support as readers–and as Patreon and PayPal.me contributors–will bring these to realization.

Thank you.

#196: A Church and State Playground

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #196, on the subject of A Church and State Playground.

Back in the winter we noted, in web log post #158:  Show Me Religious Freedom, that the United States Supreme Court was going to decide a case concerning whether a church-affiliated school could be denied participation in a public welfare program simply because it was sponsored by a religious institution.  That decision has been reached, in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Carol S. Comer, Director, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, 582 U.S. ___ (2017), and the majority opinion is very like what we previously suggested, but there are three concurring opinions that quibble on the details and one dissent that is scathing, fairly well reasoned, and as long as the other four opinions combined.

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the court, joined in full by Justices Kennedy, Alito, and Kagan; Justices Thomas and Gorsuch also joined the opinion, with the exclusion of “footnote 3”, and each of them filed a concurring opinion, and joined in supporting each other’s concurring opinion.  Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in the judgement.  It is Justice Sotamayer who wrote the lengthy dissent, in which Justice Ginsburg joined.

To recount briefly, Missouri runs a program which provides funding to resurface playgrounds with recycled tires.  There is a tax on new tire purchases which funds the collection and recycling of discarded tires, converting these into a “pour-in-place” durable soft surface which reduces injuries on playgrounds.  The application process for determining eligibility to receive such a “grant” examines many factors including the economic circumstances of the area, the public use of the playground, and more.  On a list of forty-four applicants, the school ranked fifth, but did not receive one of the fourteen grants because it was affiliated with a religious institution, and the department had a policy of refusing to provide money to any religiously-affiliated institution, consistent with the Missouri State Constitution Article I, Section 7, which we quoted in the previous article.  This led to a court battle over whether the State, by refusing to permit a religiously-affiliated school from participating in a program that provided aid for non-religious programs, had violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, by making eligibility for a public assistance program dependent on renouncing a religious belief or association.

All five opinions discuss the balance between the Free Exercise Clause, that the government cannot interfere with someone’s beliefs, and the Establishment Clause, that the government cannot support one set of beliefs over another.  Neither clause is exactly absolute.  For example, it is agreed that the Establishment Clause does not mean that the publicly-funded fire department can’t put out a burning church or synagogue, or that the police won’t investigate a theft of church property.  The Free Exercise Clause has also been tested, and laws have been overturned which prevented ordained ministers from serving in elected public office, on the grounds that such laws forced a person to choose between his religious beliefs expressed in his vocation and his right as a citizen to run for office.

A lot of the discussion on both sides concerned the previous case Locke v. Davey, 540 U. S. 712 (2004).  In Locke, the State of Washington ran a post-secondary education scholarship program based on outstanding scholastic achievement, but with a specific clause stating that the scholarship money could not be used for ministerial training.  The student claimed that the program was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause, but the Court held that under the Establishent Clause the State could refuse to fund ministerial training, particularly given that the program did not exclude schools which offered such courses or the courses themselves, only a degree program of that nature.  They have always maintained that there was some space between the two clauses, in which States were not compelled by either to act in a particular way; the question was whether in this case the state was forced to act one way or the other, or was free to act as it chose.

The majority felt that this case was more like McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U. S. 618 (1978), in which ordained ministers were barred from seeking election to public office, and the Court held that this amounted to denying a citizen a fundamental right available to all citizens (running for public office) based solely on religious belief.  The playground was not part of a religious training program, but a part of ordinary educational aid made available broadly to the community, and the church had been excluded from the program solely because it was a church, having a religious purpose in its existence.  The denial of the right to participate in the program was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause, because it required the church to choose between abandoning its religious faith and participating in a common government welfare program designed for the protection of children.  A significant part of the decision can summarized in the Court’s words

…denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion that can be justified only by a state interest “of the highest order.”

Under such “strict scrutiny” the policy failed.

To some degree, the concurring opinions have to do with footnote 3, which reads

This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing.  We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.

Justice Thomas expressed the view that Locke failed to apply strict scrutiny to the facts in that case, and ought to be overturned–but that that was not a question before the court at this time.  However, he thought footnote 3 too limiting, and deferred to Justice Gorsuch’ concurring opinion for that.

Justice Gorsuch says that the Court makes an indefensible distinction between religious status and religious use, and so distinguishes Locke from the present case.  He makes the point thus, comparing the two cases:

Is it a religious group that built the playground?  Or did a group build the playground so it might be used to advance a religious mission?….was it a student who wanted a vocational degree in religion?  or was it a religious student who wanted the necessary education for his chosen vocation?

The only justification for the decision in Locke, in Gorsuch’ view, is the “long tradition against the use of public funds for training of the clergy”.  As to footnote 3, he feared it would be misconstrued as saying that the principles on which this decision was based do not apply outside very narrow fact sets, which he thought was incorrect.

Justice Breyer put the emphasis on the fact that the program involved was intended “to secure or to improve the health and safety of children” and was in that sense not different from other public welfare programs such as police and fire protection.  He did not want to extend the decision too far, but thought in this case it was a clear violation of the Free Exercise Clause, and that for programs akin to this the fact that the applicant was a religious school should not exclude it.

Interestingly, none of these opinions declared that the Missouri Constitution’s Article I section 7 was unconstitutional; the majority opinion merely stated that as interpreted by the Missouri Supreme Court it ran afoul of the Free Exercise Clause, and so would have to be understood differently in the future.

Justice Sotamayer’s dissent is long, involved, and pointed.

Her most cogent point is that the church identifies the school as part of its ministry, intended to build the foundations of Christian faith in its students, whether children of church members or others from the community.  We have established that States can refuse to pay scholarships for ministerial training.  It is reasonable to conclude that the State can refuse to pay for Bibles, Korans, Torahs, as well as vestments, chalices, sacramental elements.  Arguably the doors, windows, roofs, and walls of church buildings are part of the ministry.  We would not use government money to pay for such acoutrements, because they are in a sense part of the ministry.

Yet it is clear that this is not so.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it was established the Federal Flood Insurance and Disaster Relief could be used to rebuild damaged churches, as long as it was distributed even-handedly–that is, not favoring any particular religion.  So government money can be used for repairing physical plant of religious buildings.

Further, the National School Lunch Act provides discounted and free lunches to students in private and parochial schools without regard for the religious nature of the school, because lunch is neutral and it would be discriminatory against the religious choices of these families to exclude them from an otherwise neutral benefit because they are attending a religious private school.

So on the one hand we ask ourselves whether the playground is part of the ministry of the church, and in a sense it is, but in the same sense that the lunchroom is part of the ministry of the church.  Indeed, from the perspective of the Christian faith, every congregant is an extension of the ministry of the church, and yet we know that people cannot be excluded from government assistance programs simply because they are members of a faith which regards all of its members as ministers.  The government cannot avoid giving money to church ministries, as the church understands them, because whenever money is given to people who belong to the church, it is aiding the ministry of the church.

And on the other hand, we ask ourselves to what degree the support of the playground is supporting the religious mission of the church.  In many states it is a requirement that schools include a physical education program, and although Trinity’s school is essentially preschool the playground may be necessary to their certification–that is, if all schools must have some kind of playground for physical activity, then the playground is clearly meeting a secular, a non-religious, requirement.  Stating that it is a part of the ministry of the church certainly calls the matter into question, but seen in perspective, the answer should be obvious, that state money given to religious institutions for secular purposes such as meals and playgrounds are not a violation of the Establishment Clause, and might well be required, as the majority observes, under the Free Exercise clause.

None of this touches the deeper problem, that the language in the Missouri State Constitution is Blaine Amendment language, which as we observed was inserted for essentially religious (anti-Catholic) purposes.  However, since no party addressed this, that issue remains for the future.

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#194: Slanting in Favor of Free Speech

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #194, on the subject of Slanting in Favor of Free Speech.

In January we looked at a trademark case that had much to do with freedom of speech and offensive language, in web log post #156:  A New Slant on Offensive Trademarks, in which Simon Shiao Tam named his all-Asian rock band “The Slants”, saying he wanted to use the normally derogatory word to reclaim some pride for his people.  The Patent and Trademark office, relying on the same law against offensive trademarks under which the Redskins sports franchise was stripped of its protection, refused the application, and it was ultimately appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  The Court has delivered its opinion in Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S. ___ (2017), and it has implications for freedom of expression.

The Slants performing April 16th at The Flying Dog Brewery, hosted by the 1st Amendment Society

On a related subject, freedom of speech was also behind Packingham v. North Carolina, 582 U.S. ___ (2017), which struck down a North Carolina law barring anyone on the state’s sex offenders list from accessing Internet social networking sites.  We’ll look at that after Tam.

There was really nothing at all surprising about the Tam opinion, unless it is that once again eight members of the court were in agreement.  Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Breyer.  Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayer, and Kagan, and Justice Thomas also wrote a concurring opinion.  All of them agreed on the essentials:  the so-called “disparagement clause” in U.S. trademark law which permits the denial of trademarks for anything that might be offensive to specific groups or persons is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

As Justice Alito puts it (slip opinion at 22), “Giving offense is a viewpoint,” then (slip opinion at 22-23) quoting from Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576, 592 (1969), “…the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”  Justice Holmes and Ray Bradbury would be pleased.

It’s good news, too, for the Redskins football franchise:  this was the rule that got them stripped of trademark protection, and so their ongoing legal battle is probably about to be rapidly resolved.  I don’t know if we’ll see a run on offensive trademarks in the near future–after all, as some in this discussion have observed, offending potential customers is not a good way to sell them your product.  On the other hand, the way is open for people to denigrate a lot of groups.  (The decision does not impact the prohibition against using the name of a living person without that person’s permission.)

So, how does the Packingham case fit?

In 2002 petitioner Packingham, then twenty-one years old, had sex with a thirteen-year-old girl, and pleaded guilty to “taking indecent liberties with a child”, a crime that qualifies under North Carolina law as “an offense against a minor” requiring registration as a sex offender.  The status can last three decades or longer.

In 2008, the state passed a law making it a felony for anyone registered as a sex offender in the state “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.”

It strikes me that this is a second punishment.  That is, at the time Packingham was convicted and sentenced, and required to register, there was no law regarding the use of the Internet.  Six years later this restriction was added to his sentence, without so much as a hearing to determine whether it was necessary.  That, though, was not the issue before the court, although Justice Kennedy recognizes the problem in passing.  It is also not stated that Packingham was informed of the new restriction, but that was not before the court either.

In 2010, eight years after his conviction, Packingham expressed his thanks to Jesus for an event in his life, the dismissal of traffic ticket without a hearing, posting this excitement on Facebook.  A Durham police officer managed to connect the Facebook post to the dismissed ticket, and obtaining a search warrant established that Packingham had violated the law.  He was convicted, despite making a motion that the law was a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech.  There was no allegation that his Internet communications were in any way suspect or criminal other than that this law forbad him from making them at all.

The conviction flip-flopped its way through the state courts, overturned by the Court of Appeals of North Carolina, reinstated by the North Carolina Supreme Court, not without dissent.  The United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction and struck down the law.

Again we have an effectively unanimous judgement:  Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion of the court, joined by Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotamayor, and Kagan, while Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas.  Justice Gorsuch did not participate in the decision, not having been present for oral arguments.

Justice Kennedy’s core point was that the Internet generally, and social media sites in particular, had become the new medium for many kinds of protected speech–obtaining news, expressing political opinions, communicating with others.  It had in essence become the public parks and town squares of old, the place where people gather to interact.  To refuse someone access to the Web would be to curtail their ability to communicate in the modern age.  That is clearly a limitation on freedom of speech, and as such must face scrutiny–the level of scrutiny in which there must be a demonstrable compelling government interest addressed in the least invasive way possible.  The protection of children from sexual predators is so strong a government interest that it might be possible to restrict the freedoms of potential recidivists, but the North Carolina law goes too far.

The concurring opinion agrees that the North Carolina law goes too far, but objects to the court’s identification of social networking sites as having the importance suggested.  Rather, Alito would suggest that it might be possible to prevent sex offenders from accessing many sites where predators might easily prey on children, but the definition of such sites would have to be refined–tellingly, Alito notes that Amazon, The Washington Post, and WebMD all qualify as “social networking sites” under the definition in the statute, and that perhaps the majority of web sites now do, as they provide ways for visitors to communicate with each other through comments on articles, and frequently to create a member profile.  (The other two requirements in the statute are that they provide some sort of revenue stream to their owners and do not exist primarily to facilitate sales between users (e.g., E-Bay, Craig’s List).)

In any case, it appears that the Supreme Court has decided that your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts (they are specifically mentioned) are important protected media for the exercise of your free speech.  That means something.

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#190: Praise for a Ginsberg Equal Protection Opinion

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #190, on the subject of Praise for a Ginsberg Equal Protection Opinion.

To read the conservative press, you would think that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in writing the majority opinion in Sessions v. Morales-Santana 582 U.S. ____ (2017), had turned her back on women’s rights and struck a blow for men.  Yet even from that reporting I could see that Ginsberg was simply staying true to her principles of equal protection (we had discussed her commitment to this previously in web log post #63:  Equal Protection When Boy Meets Girl).  Still, from the sound of it, I thought she ought to be commended for this consistency even when it seemed to go against her more feminist views.

However, unwilling to write about a court opinion I had not read, I took the time to find it and read it (link above to the official PDF), and found that it was a considerably less impressive story even than I had supposed.

I should perhaps have been tipped off by the fact that the decision was effectively unanimous–seven of nine Justices joining in the majority opinion, Justice Thomas writing a concurring opinion in which he agreed with the result but thought the equal protection language went further than necessary to reach it, and the new Justice Gorsuch not having heard oral arguments not participating in the decision.  The court did not consider it controversial.  They did, however, overturn part of the decision of the Second Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, so apparently there was a difficult issue in the matter.

It is also of some interest to us because although couched as an immigration case it ultimately proves to be a citizenship case, and we have addressed the statutes and cases involved in whether or not someone is a natural born citizen in connection with The Birther Issue when it was raised concerning President Obama, and more recently in web log post #41:  Ted Cruz and the Birther Issue.  The terms under which someone is, or is not, born an American citizen are sometimes confusing.  That was what was at issue here.

Morales-Santana was arrested in New York on a number of relatively minor charges, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service decided to deport him to the Dominican Republic, claiming that he was not a United States citizen.  That was where the story started to get interesting.  It seems that the Respondent’s father, José Morales, was an American citizen, having been born in Puerto Rico, and having lived there for almost nineteen years.  Twenty days before his nineteenth birthday he moved to the Dominican Republic to accept a job offer, and soon moved in with a native Dominican woman.  She gave birth to the Respondent, and the father immediately acknowledged paternity and shortly thereafter married the woman, making the child a member of his household.  Everyone assumed the child was an American citizen like his father.

However, the statute defining whether an unwed U.S. citizen father confers citizenship on his out-of-wedlock child specified, among other things, that the father had to have lived in the United States or its Territories or Possessions (Puerto Rico qualifies) for at least five years after reaching the age of fourteen.  José Morales, having left Puerto Rico less than a month before his nineteenth birthday, fell short of that requirement by twenty days.  Therefore he himself was a citizen, but his child, born abroad out of wedlock to a non-citizen mother, was not.

Morales-Santana, however, recognized a flaw in the law.  Had the situation been reversed–had his mother been an American citizen who bore a child out of wedlock with a non-citizen father–the statute only required that such a mother have been in residence for one year following her fourteenth birthday.  That meant, Morales-Santana argued, that women were being given a right that was being denied to men, in violation of the Equal Protection rights as understood by the United States Supreme Court.

The Second Circuit Court agreed, and decided that the citizenship conferred on children of unwed mothers ought equally to be conferred on those of unwed fathers, and stated that Morales-Santana could not be deported because he was, in fact, a United States citizen.

The government appealed, resulting in this decision.

What Ginsberg tells us is that the anomaly in the statute is the exception for unwed mothers.  The five year rule applies in all other related cases–not only unwed fathers, but married couples in which either spouse is an American citizen and the other is not.  If the Court were to rule that the unwed mother status applied equally to unwed fathers, it would have to rule that the same status applied in all these cases–but the legislature clearly intended that the five year rule would be the norm, and the one year rule a special exception for pregnant unmarried girls.  They would essentially be discarding the entire statute in favor of the exception.  Instead, they ruled that the one year exception was unconstitutional–a ruling whose only effect on the Respondent was that he could not claim citizenship through his father based on the inequity of a rule covering mothers but not fathers.

So Ginsberg certainly did strip some women of a statutory right, but she deserves to be credited for doing so consistently with her express view of equal protection.  Asserting that men and women should be treated the same does mean that sometimes women will be treated worse than they otherwise might have been.  This is one of those cases; it otherwise is not that important.

As a footnote, the court notes at one point that the statute asserts that a child born out of wedlock whose father acknowledges him and takes responsibility for his care will be regarded a citizen from the moment of his birth.  That is relevant to our discussion of what it means to be a natural-born citizen.

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#172: Why Not Democracy?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #172, on the subject of Why Not Democracy?.

As I was writing the previous web log entry, #171:  The President (of the Seventh Day Baptist Convention), I was reminded that we, in the United States of America, do not live in a democracy.  We live in a representative republic.

That fact was brought home to a lot of people in the recent Presidential election, some of whom are still reeling from it.  I have heard many complaints, mostly from young people, that our elected President did not win the majority of the voters, and therefore does not represent the majority of the people.  (It is at least worth mentioning that the actual vote totals will never be certain:  the vote count was never completed in quite a few voting districts because the total would not have changed the Electoral College outcome in those states.)  We should, they insist, change to a more democratic system, in which every vote counts the same.

We could do that.  Things are a bit more like that in other countries, particularly Israel where everyone votes for whatever parliamentary representatives they want and the entire country is treated as a single district.  Even England’s system is more democratic than ours.  However, note that in these countries the voters do not vote for their chief executive–they vote for their legislative representatives, and these in turn choose the chief executive.  Sure, British Prime Minister Theresa May campaigns for the position, but she does so by touring the country telling voters to support their local Conservative Party candidates for Members of Parliament, who in turn vote her into the Downing Street office.  It is still not strictly democratic, although by taking the vote for head of government away from the people and giving it to their elected representatives it actually becomes a bit closer to it.  However, it still can produce the outcome that the party in power, and thus the chief executive, did not actually have the majority of the votes.  It is a flaw of representative government, but representative government is the only way to avoid having every citizen in the country vote on every law.

The electoral map of the 1824 Presidential election, in which Andrew Jackson took the clear plurality of both the popular and the electoral vote but not the majority of either, throwing the decision to the House of Representatives, who selected John Quincy Adams to serve.
The electoral map of the 1824 Presidential election, in which Andrew Jackson took the clear plurality of both the popular and the electoral vote but not the majority of either, throwing the decision to the House of Representatives, who selected John Quincy Adams to serve.

There are, of course, other ways to achieve a more democratic election of the President of the United States.  People have been complaining about it since at least the 1824 election, when the failure of Andrew Jackson to gain fifty percent in the Electoral College resulted in John Quincy Adams, with less than a third of the vote, being selected for the office by the House of Representatives (the only time in history where no candidate obtained fifty percent of the Electoral College vote).  Some years ago when we were examining the Electoral College in detail in connection with Coalition Government, we noted one suggestion, that each state allocate its electoral votes based on the percentage of voters supporting each candidate–and why that would never be enacted.  More recently, someone proposed that states begin changing their system for apportioning electoral votes such that the votes within the state were irrelevant, that each state would give all its electoral votes to whomever won the popular vote nationally.  That would achieve the desired “democratic” outcome.  It would prevent situations like that of the recent election.  The question is, do we want that?

The first point that should be recognized here is that the majority always wants the democratic system.  That’s because in a democratic system, the majority can always impose its will on the minority.

Of course, that often happens anyway–but many great strides forward in these United States have happened precisely because minorities were empowered.  Certainly it is sometimes the case that majorities become entrenched, resisting necessary change until overwhelmed as public opinion shifts, but it has also been the case that minorities have used the system to gain a voice within the process.  There is something called the tyranny of the majority, when minority voices and positions are overwhelmed and trampled by majority opinions.  Our system was designed in part to prevent that.  There is also a tyranny of the minority, when a small group prevents the majority from doing what it deems right through legal intervention, and our system is supposed to prevent that, as well.  Our system produces gradual change by trying to keep everyone somewhat satisfied.  Younger people are less patient, wanting rapid change.  Older people have usually learned that not all change is for the better, but all change has unintended consequences.  Our country advances a bit, then eases back, then advances again, feeling the path carefully.

Meeting of the Electoral College in Ohio, 2012.
Meeting of the Electoral College in Ohio, 2012.

Many other countries have suffered from what we might call “rapid cycling”.  Because they are so controlled by the majority, and because the majority is mostly in the middle shifting a bit to one side and then to the other but the politicians tend to be at the extremes, it is common for one party to be voted into office, make major changes to everything, upset the bulk of their constituents who only wanted things to change a little and don’t like the unanticipated parts, and so be voted out of office and replaced by an opposing party which proceeds to repeal everything the first party did and pass its own extremist programs, leading to its failure at the polls and the return of the original party, or often yet another party, whose agenda then dominates.  Remember, as we have often mentioned in connection with coalition government, we are not in our chosen parties because everyone in those parties agrees with us on every point; we are there because we have agreed to support each other on those points each of us think important.  That means some of the things you want your party to do other members of your party strongly oppose–the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party wants open borders, but the Labor wing definitely does not; the universal healthcare driven through by the Democratic Progressives has gone very badly for labor unions, whose members lost much of their superior healthcare benefits under the program.  Majority opinion is more fickle than a twelve-year-old girl’s crushes.  Democracy leads to such rapid changes.  People think they want one thing, but when they start to see where that leads, they change their minds and want something else.

Our system does not always give us stability.  In recent years the fracturing of political opinion has led to some very unstable situations.  However, rapid change is always unstable, and we have seen much rapid change over those years.  The system is working to slow the change, to keep things at a pace people can accept.

A more democratic system would not be a better one.

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#171: The President (of the Seventh Day Baptist Convention)

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #171, on the subject of The President (of the Seventh Day Baptist Convention).

One subject that intrigues me is what is called church polity, that is, the way various churches and denominations organize and operate themselves both locally and globally.  We call our various subdivisions synods, presbyteries, conferences, and quite a few other names.  Among the Baptists, a highly democratic and congregationalist group (“congregationalist” polity means that the church is run entirely from the bottom up, as church members decide what the denomination believes and does, and anyone who disagrees either goes along for the sake of unity or leaves the group), divide themselves into “conventions”, gatherings that attempt to agree on what is important to them.  Each convention elects a president, who sets the agenda for his term; they also hire staff to provide services for the member churches, such as publications.  I am not an expert on church polity, with only passing familiarity with a half dozen or so denominations, but my mind was caught particularly by the practice of one denomination, the Seventh Day Baptist Convention, and I thought it might have lessons for non-religious people immersed in the secular political world.

Seventh Day Baptist Churchof Plainfield, New Jersey
Seventh Day Baptist Church
of Plainfield, New Jersey

For those who care about such things, the Seventh Day Baptists were founded in England and are the oldest denomination in America to observe a Saturday Sabbath.  Some are perhaps a bit legalistic about that while others are more relaxed–much as found in Sunday-observing churches.  (I have written On Sabbath elsewhere.)  They are otherwise like most Baptist churches.  Once a year–in the United States, it happens in August–they hold a major meeting of the convention, Conference, hundreds of members getting together somewhere for a week of meetings and services and discussions.  (The week prior to this, they have a major gathering for the youth of the denomination in the same location, many of whom then stay for the convention itself.)  It is at this conference that they elect a president.

The interesting aspect is that the president does not at that moment take office.  He is elected to replace the current president, but it is expected that he will take time to tour the denomination, talk to the churches, and develop his “vision” for the denomination during his term.  He remains effectively “president-elect” during this time–an entire year, as the following year at conference he will step into the role, introduce his vision for the year ahead, and oversee the election of the person who will replace him as president elect.  He now has a year to serve as president of the denomination, to make his vision a reality, before the new president takes the office at the next annual conference.

There are a lot of interesting aspects to that.  For one thing, I don’t believe anyone has ever served two consecutive terms, but in the several centuries of history (our local congregation was established before the American Revolutionary War) I could not say whether anyone has filled the position more than once.  It is a small denomination, the sort in which ordinary members all over the country know each other, partly because in addition to this annual meeting they have another annual business meeting one weekend to which everyone is invited, hosted by one of the member churches, and several smaller multi-church gatherings.  So the fact that I know a father and a son who both held the position (many years apart) does not suggest nepotism as much as tradition.  It also means that no one runs on his record–you are not going to be elected to serve two consecutive terms.  Interestingly, you are not really elected based on what you promise to do; you are elected based on the belief of the electorate that you will do something that needs to be done, something that will be good for the denomination.  You are elected, in essence, because people trust you to discover the needs in the church and address them.

Ultimately, too, the system reminds us that all leaders are temporary.  In a democratic system such as a representative federation, almost all leaders serve terms of office which end after a few years.  (Our federal judiciary is appointed for life, but even that ends eventually.)  Some can be re-elected, but many have term limits, and re-election is never guaranteed.  The people we have picked to be our leaders were picked because a large number of us from a very large area of the country thought they would do what needed to be done.  It was not exacty because we liked their policies, although that is part of it and in truth it was also partly because many of us feared the policies of the alternative.  It was, rather, because we perceived these as people who would try to do what America needed to have done.  It might not be exactly what they intended to do initially, and they might not succeed in their objectives, but we needed to change the course of the Ship of State, and this crew seemed to be the best chance to do so.  We know that we are committed to this choice for the short term, and if we are unhappy with it there will be a chance to change in the not too distant future (already serious politicians are working on their twenty twenty presidential campaigns).

Every once in a while I find myself trying to reconstruct the sequence of Presidents and Vice Presidents who have served during my lifetime.  They are all important, and they all have done things that mattered at the time.  Some have also done things with long-term consequences, but despite their importance at the time there are few who can tell you what significant actions were taken by the Eisenhauer administration, or that of Johnson, or Ford, or Carter, or even Clinton.  We remember the scandals, but what Presidents do is rarely remembered outside history books.

So stop worrying about it.  A Presidential term is really a rather short moment in history, even in the course of your life.  There will be other Presidents, some better and some worse than the present one.  Let’s see what this one does, and build from there.

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#160: For All In Authority

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #160, on the subject of For All In Authority.

O.K., show of hands:  how many of you have been praying for our new president?

I see that hand.

img0160Trump

No, I appreciate this.  I have never been much of one for canned uninformed “pray for the President/pray for the leaders”–I never know what to pray, and I’ve been a political writer for several years, and still don’t know what to pray.  Part of the difficulty I face is that we are told to give thanks for the answers to our petitions, but for most of what I can imagine asking I have no reason to expect to see how God has answered–I am not privy to cabinet meetings nor to the thoughts of men.  Part of the problem is that it is very easy to want God to move our leaders to my political opinion, and God does not generally do that, or at least not that I’ve recognized in others.

But I am upset about the people who have been protesting, and particularly because I know that at least some of them would take the name “Christian”.  I do not mean that Christians should never protest.  I am not even saying that Christians should never be involved in overthrowing governments–that’s simply more than I know.  However, the call we were given was to pray, not to condemn.  In a modern democracy, the proper function of protest is to communicate our opinions to our leaders, not to condemn them for theirs.  Communicate, certainly; do not condemn.

One of those who taught me along the way made the statement God gives you the person that you need, not necessarily the person that you may want.  I do not even now remember to what exact situation he was applying that, but I have recognized it in connection with spouses, pastors, and particularly governments.  (I suspect it applies as well to parents, although I was out of the house and married before I heard it; I wonder to what degree it applies to children.)  Proverbs has a verse which in the original speaks of a lot falling in a lap, an archaic concept among archaic concepts for which the Christian Gamers Guild has found a modern translation, “We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines where they fall.”  Benjamin Franklin noted that if sparrows do not fall without God’s notice, nations certainly do not rise without His aid–and that would undoubtedly apply as well to governments.  At this point we know, incontrovertibly, that God chose to make Donald Trump President of these United States.  We may debate whether that is upon us a blessing or a curse, a reward or a punishment, a path forward or an impediment to truth, but whatever it is, it is what God decided we needed.  This is God’s gift to us, what He has given.

And every gift God gives is good.

Don’t choke on that.  Understand, as I know I have said previously and elsewhere, that when the Bible says that God’s gifts are good, it does not mean necessarily that we will like them.  All things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose it says in Romans 8, but it does not mean that everything that happens to us will be pleasant.  Eat your spinach, it’s good for you–this is the kind of good Paul meant there, that whatever comes to us benefits us, whether we enjoy it or not.  Suffering produces endurance.  When Jesus says that God gives both sun and rain to the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous, He did not mean that we all get good things and bad things–he meant that we get the good that is the sun and the good that is the rain.  I do not yet know whether this presidency will be steak or Brussels sprouts–the good I will enjoy or the good I need to endure–but I know that it has been given to us and it is good.

In the early days of the church, nearly all Christians lived in or near Jerusalem.  Then a terrible thing happened.  A Christian named Steven was lynched by a mob.  Instead of the rioters being brought to justice, the local ruler arrested one of the top people in the church, a man named James, and had him executed.  The persecution of believers had begun.  Many, including some of the leaders themselves, fled Jerusalem, left the province known as Judea, and sought homes elsewhere in the Roman Empire.  It was undoubtedly something they would have prayed to end, despite the fact that Jesus told them it would happen–and we see in hindsight that these fleeing believers carried the message with them into places it would not have reached nearly as quickly otherwise, so the church spread and grew as others heard the gospel and believed.  Christians had been told to take the message into the whole world, but were rather complacently sitting in the one small town (and face it, as capital cities of the time went, Jerusalem was a small one) sharing the message mostly with people who had already heard it or knew where to hear it if they were interested.  We needed that trouble to move us in the right direction.

Therefore I know what to pray.  I pray that God will give wisdom to this man and his advisors, so that they will accomplish the task God has given them in the best way possible.  I do not know what that task might be, nor do I know to what degree the answer to my prayer will involve God clearing the path for what the man wants to do and to what degree it involves God impeding that path so that only part of the human program will be accomplished.  I do know that God will accomplish His purpose, one way or another, and the current presidency is part of that.  We are instructed to pray, and not given much understanding of what to pray, but this is enough.  One way or another, this should move us in the right direction.  We might not know what the right direction is (and for those first century Christians it seems to have been every direction as long as it was motion), but we know that God is moving somewhere and will bring us where He wants us to be.

So let us pray.

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