Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

DADT and other good news...

No doubt you've heard about the end of DADT, the military's policy on LGBTs in the service. You can read about its demise here and here. That's one campaign promise kept. Huzzah!

But with all the celebratory hoopla about DADT, you might have missed another gem -- this one dealing with property tax exemptions for married couples in Alaska.

Alaskan seniors above age 65 are allowed to exclude the value of their homes, up to $150,000, from property tax liability. However, the provision provides that the benefit is calculated more generously for married couples. For other co-residents --  brothers, sisters, cohabiting couples, and same-sex couples, to name a few -- are not eligible for this more generous calculation. The result is that same-sex couples pay hundreds of dollars a year more in property taxes than married couples with similar holdings.

The ACLU brought suit against the state of Alaska on behalf of three gay couples who would have been eligible for the tax break if they could marry.

On Friday, an Alaska trial court granted the couples summary judgment, finding that the tax provision violated the state's equal protection clause. The case is Schmidt v. State of Alaska, and you can read the opinion here. The court found that the tax code "violates Alaska's equal protection clause because it disparately burdens similarly situated taxpayers."

The court based its ruling on Alaska Supreme Court's holding in ACLU v. State, 122 P.3d 781 (Alaska 2005) (read the opinion here), in which the Court found that benefits reserved only for married state employees violated the state's equal protection clause. 

What makes this interesting (at least to me) is that the court found in favor of the same-sex couples even though Alaska has a constitutional provision that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. And it did so even though Alaska also has a statute that prohibits gay couples from reaping the benefits of marriage. "[T]he Marriage Amendment speaks only to the definition of marriage and does not mention the associated benefits of marriage." Schmidt, Slip op at 10 (emphasis in original). 

In other words, the statute's anti-benefit provision cannot "trump" a constitutional amendment that has no such prohibition. To put it bluntly: "In Alaska, a marital classification facially discriminates based on an individual's sexual orientation." Id. at 15.
A couple of caveats. First, this was just a trial court ruling, and it may or may not survive an appeal. As the court noted, the ACLU case dealt with state employee benefits and not property taxes.

Second, the court specifically acknowledged that Alaska's equal protection clause provides broader safeguards than the federal version. This case has no applicability to the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution.

Third, the analysis will be different in states where a constitutional provision not only defines marriage in heterosexual terms, but specifically limits marital benefits to those couples. 

Still, it's an awfully good sign: Judges are evolving on the issue of equal marriage rights along with the rest of us.

Even state constitutional amendments may not be enough to stop the momentum.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You mean it really is hip to be square?

Okay, so once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, I wanted to be cool. And I tried. I really did, but it just wasn't me. In kindergarten I ate the paste. In the fourth grade, I somehow managed to staple myself. In junior high, my dog really did eat my homework. I failed driver's ed, for god's sake.

But there was this lovely two-year period where cool didn't matter. Those were the years I spent as a freshman and sophomore at New Trier West High School in Northfield, Illinois.

Now, New Trier is a seriously cool placeFerris Bueller's Day Off was filmed there. Ann-Margret went there. And Rock Hudson. And Christie Hefner. And Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H.  As a matter of fact, there's a whole Wikipedia page devoted to cool people who went to New Trier.**

New Trier High School, west campus
New Trier was a great place for me. I tested into the highest academic level and I was surrounded by smart, interesting kids. My best friend and I translated Latin story books into English, just for fun.  I totally coveted her short-wave radio. Nobody ever went to the pep rallies, and everyone went to the musicals. It was heaven.

My best friend also turned me on to Chicago's folk music scene. Most notably, I heard Bryan Bowers play the autoharp at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I fell in love with the sound, managed to get a used autoharp of my own, and learned to play. I got to be pretty good at it, too.

Then we moved to the Detroit area, where I  continued to play and sing. My first public appearance there was also the first night I ever got drunk. God, between the rush of the applause and the warmth of the wine, I existed!

Anyway, from there I built a little following by doing open mics and such. But as my alcoholism progressed, my singing regressed. I couldn't remember lyrics and my voice was soon shot from smoking.

I stopped playing sometime around 1977. Well, no. I didn't just quit; I disassociated from the autoharp completely. The fact that I could play became a guarded secret, a source of embarrassment. The autoharp was not the stuff of serious music. It was a lame, stupid novelty that revealed my failure as a musician. From 1977 on, I can probably count on my fingers and toes the number of times I played. Occasionally, it was for my kid.

Here's the thing:  Recently my kid -- the very coolest person I know -- said she wishes I still played the autoharp. I didn't think she even remembered.

It seemed prudent to listen to her. So this past month, I played autoharp and sang before sizable audiences at two recovery-related events. I was terrified. I was embarrassed, too. But through all the white noise I could hear that long-ago voice I thought was gone for good. And I liked it.

It was pretty damn cool.

** Charlton Heston and Donald Rumsfeld went to New Trier, too, but they're even less cool than I am.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

We Must Never Forget

This is a republication of my blog post from September 11, 2009.

Today on Facebook, many of my friends wrote: “Never forget.” They were, of course, referring to the devastating attacks we all experienced eight years ago. Flags flew at half mast today. Memorial candles burned in churches, office lobbies, and even hotels. Lists of the victims’ names -- so many of them! – re-revealed the tragedy’s scope not only through statistics (3,000+ deaths and 6,200+ injuries), but by reminding us of each individual light that was extinguished on that day.

Once again, we are in mourning. That is just as it should be.

However, along with these gentle and somber reminders, I have also received more than the usual amount of anti-Muslim propaganda: an expose of how Muslim law treats women… the old (and false) story about how Budweiser refused to sell to a convenience store after the owner cheered the victory of Al-Qaeda. The emails I have received tend to color all Muslims in the same shade of hatred, as if this diverse group is significantly more homogenous than Christians or Jews or Buddhists or women or homosexuals or African Americans.

The fact is, hate and bigotry can be found on the fringes of every religion, ethnicity, and cultural identity. Orthodox Jewish services separate men from women. Fundamentalist Christians believe non-Christians (as they define that term) are doomed to suffer an eternity in hell. If you think that Muslims have a monopoly on radicalism and hatred, you might want to check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate group site. Or, if you have a really strong stomach, you can look here or here. or here I could go on, but you get the idea.

That’s why I, too, will never forget. Not just about the plane crashes and the burning Twin Towers. Those images aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be with me forever.

But there are other things – very important things – I’m all too likely to forget when I wrap myself in the comforting cloak of our collective grief and anger. These are the things I must fight to remember:

I must never forget that in our fear and anger, we allowed our President and Vice President to highjack our national principles, freedoms, and rights.

I must never forget that our leaders took the unprecedented step of invading a foreign country that was not an immediate threat.

I must never forget that our creation of an immoral war has led to the deaths of over 4,300 American soldiers and more than 100,000 civilians so far (with credible estimates well in excess of 655,000 as of 2006), as well as scores of people from other nations.

I must never forget that 9/11 led to the remarkable conclusion, at the highest levels of government, that torture is a valid investigative strategy.

Finally, I must never forget that we have lived this nightmare before, in a thousand different forms both large and small: in the near-complete genocide of indigenous peoples around the world; in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge; in the Holocaust; in attempts to “cure” homosexuals; in our ostracizing people with HIV/AIDS… I must never forget that our species has an almost pathological need to destroy those who frighten or anger us.

Most importantly, I must never forget that I am just as prone to this pathology as everyone else on the planet. For that reason, I must be forever vigilant, and I must be willing to protect our principles even when my own judgment lapses. In short, I must remain teachable.

Please, God, let me never forget. Please, let me remain teachable.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Babar, now 80, shows no remorse for causing global warming.

Hooray, hooray!! King Babar is 80 years old!

Babar, of course, is the star of the classic series of children's books. But Babar, who is really just a colonial imperialist dictator, has a darker side...

The rainforest, before.

The rainforest, after King Babar got done with it
Babar, of course, is now a vocal a climate-change denier. During my investigation, a member of Babar's cabinet (who wishes to remain anonymous, surprise, surprise), confirmed that the dictator's financial portfolio is closely linked to entities owned by the Koch brothers.

Shame, shame, bad elephant!