Archive for the ‘Civil Rights’ Category

Judge Woods and the Mezuzah

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Judge Diane Woods is not Jewish. She’s Protestant. And that makes her ruling in the so-called Mezuzah Case even more powerful.

Woods is one of Obama’s top contenders to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by John Paul Stevens. In 2009, she was part of a three-judge panel hearing a case that tells us all we need to know about her heart and values.

The plaintiffs in the case, Lynne  Bloch and her children, were long-time residents of Chicago’s Shoreline Towers. The Blochs had displayed mezuzot on their doorposts — as Jews do the world over — for 30 years, without objection.

But in 2001, the condo association adopted new rules: “Mats, boots, shoes, carts or objects of any sort are prohibited outside Unit entrance doors.” And soon enough, the condo began confiscating the Bloch’s mezuzuot.

Reading the case, it’s shocking to see what the Blochs endured. The condo association president told Lynn that if she didn’t like the way the rules were enforced, she should “get out.”  And, when Lynne was on the condo board herself, the president held events Friday night — even though he knew Lynne, who observes the Sabbath, couldn’t attend.  (When asked whether he was aware of Lynne’s religious obligations, he said, “She’s perfectly able [to attend],” but “she decides not to.”)

For over a year, every time the Blochs put a mezuzah up, the association took it down. When Lynne’s husband Marvin died, Lynne put in a special request, asking for the mezuzah to be allowed during the 7-day shiva period. The association relented.  Yet when Lynne and her family returned from the burial with the rabbi, they were shocked to find the mezuzah had been removed. They were humiliated.

The Blochs sued for damages, and also filed suit in federal court, alleging their civil rights had been violated.

At the Appeals Court level,  the three-judge panel initially ruled in favor of the condo association. Judge Woods dissented. She believed the family had the right to hang the mezuzah on its doorpost, and that denying them that right was discriminatory.

When the case came before the the full court, Woods still seemed to be in the minority.  Judge Frank Easterbrook argued that the perhaps the condo’s rule was not discriminatory, but had been put forth, as the Times reports, “with a completely empty head by people who didn’t have a clue about the religious significance of the mezuzah.”

Woods pushed back hard, and eventually swayed the panel to rule unanimously in the Bloch’s favor.

Supreme Court watchers say the case illustrates Judge Wood’s powers of persuasion — a key asset, as whomever Obama appoints will need to be able to woo Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote in a hotly divided court.

But I think it’s  more important for another reason. It shows that Woods has empathy, and a keen sense of justice and fairness.

No doubt, if she’s chosen, the right will attack her as an activist, radical judge. The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network  is on record saying Judge Woods “has betrayed a consistent hostility to religious litigants and religious interests.”

“At the center of this case is a little rectangular box,” the Court wrote, “about six inches tall, one inch wide, and one inch deep, which houses a small scroll of parchment inscribed with passages from the Torah, the holiest of texts in Judaism.”

Judge Woods antithetical to religious interests? The Blochs of Chicago would disagree.

Breaking the Heart of Hope

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Gary Wills, professor emeritus of history at Northwestern, reviews David Remnick’s new book about Obama in the New York Times today. Here are his final four lines:

Continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done. He may have drunk his own Kool-Aid — believing that his election could of itself usher in a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state era. That is a change no one should ever have believed in. The price of winningness can be losing; and that, in this scary time, is enough to break the heart of hope.

This summation feels way too pat to me — especially for a history professor. Inertia? All Obama tried to do in his first term was to pass a politically-unpopular stimulus bill because it was the best thing to do to right the faltered economy, and then pass a health care bill, to insure 30 million un-insured. (And why are these times more scary than others? 1980? 1967? 1963? 1947? 1939-1944? 1917 … 1861-1865? …)

Obama still believes he can work across party lines. Maybe Wills would call this naive.

I’d call it something else.

The most insightful lines in the book review come near the beginning. Obama, Wills writes:

is a bit of a chameleon or shape-shifter, but he does not come across as insincere — that is the importance of his famous “cool.” He does not have the hot eagerness of the con man.

That is — he’s authentic. I’d argue that for Obama, the price of winningness is sincerity. I think voters see that. Even voters who don’t like him.

Over time, authenticity in politics carries the day.

‘Welcome to Your White House’

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Growing up, I thought the New York Times’ slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” was sort of like that ad for the Yellow Pages: If it’s out there, it’s in here.

It’s hard to imagine a more far-flung network of news gatherers. Today’s paper alone has staff reports from Mexico City, Moscow, Hanoi, Jerusalem, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Cairo, London, Stellenbosch, and Durango, Colorado. And that’s before you even get to the National Report.

And yet there I was in a class a few days ago, discussing the Jewish thinker Soloveitchik, and the professor, Moshe Berger, points out that there is something unintended and much darker about the newspaper’s slogan. It doesn’t just imply breadth, as I’d always heard it. It also implies judgment and subjectivity: There is some news that is not fit to print in these pages.

News of the Holocaust, for example, Professor Berger said. Or, more recently, news that would have contradicted the official White House version of WMD’s in Iraq, in the run-up to war.

To this list we can add: news of the Stonewall riots in Grenwich Village, 40-years ago today, which launched the gay rights movement.

“I didn’t know a single person, student or teacher, male or female, in my entire Ivy League university who was openly identified as gay [in the 1960s],” Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times column Sunday, adding:

And though my friends and I were obsessed with every iteration of the era’s political tumult, we somehow missed the Stonewall story. Not hard to do, really. The Times — which would not even permit the use of the word gay until 1987 — covered the riots in tiny, bowdlerized articles, one of them but three paragraphs long, buried successively on pages 33, 22, and 19.

On that hot, humid night in 1969, police raided the Stonewall, a gay bar — one of the few places gay men and women could congregate without being harassed — ostensibly for selling liquor without a license. Normally, when such raids occurred, people would just submit or disperse quietly. On this night, they fought back, some 400 people in all, many attempting to stop the cops from making arrests.

An AP story explains:

Four police officers were injured, including one with a broken wrist, according to the Times, which described the scene as a “rampage” by hundreds of young men. Thirteen people were arrested that first night on charges including harassment, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest, the story says.

Today, President Obama marked the anniverary of Stonewall with an official ceremony, a “presidential first,” as the Washington Post noted, telling gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender Americans: “Welcome to your White House.”

Obama has been fairly criticized by the gay community for failing to act on his campaign promise to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule on gays in the military, and because his administration is strongly backing a legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act.

Speaking directly to the community today, Obama acknowledged his critics. The quote below is from the official White House transcript:

And I know that many in this room don’t believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that.  It’s not for me to tell you to be patient, any more than it was for others to counsel patience to African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.

But I say this:  We have made progress and we will make more.  And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I’ve made, but by the promises that my administration keeps.  And by the time you receive — (applause.)  We’ve been in office six months now.  I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration.  (Applause.) 

My sense is, as Rich wrote, that Obama is moving slowly on gay rights because his is surrounded by alumni from the Clinton administration, who were badly burned when implementing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Obama “doesn’t want to risk gay issues upending his presidency.”

In the meantime, 40-years after Stonewall, a whole class of Americans just like you and me remain second class citizens, subjected daily to discrimination sanctioned by the law of the land.