October 20, 2018

Trump Tramples on Rights and Religious Liberty

Pro-life and pro-choice activists gather at the Supreme Court for the National March for Life rally in Washington January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

I’m worried about our right to religious liberty; about it being used as an excuse for discrimination; about conservative, Christian beliefs being given special treatment by our government; and about our right to religious liberty suffering long-term damage because it’s been cheapened and made partisan by extreme claims.

Some may be surprised to hear that from me. Conservatives have painted me as a secular warrior against religious liberty fighting only for reproductive justice, but I’m a person of faith and the daughter of a pastor. I’m active in the Jewish community and recently traveled to Israel to tour holy sights. Back in 2012, I did testify before members of Congress and took on Rush Limbaugh over insurance covering birth control for women at religiously affiliated organizations. Those who wished to deny insurance coverage claimed that religious liberty required they be allowed to interfere in women’s access to reproductive health care.

I don’t agree. Their interpretation of religious liberty goes much further than the constitutional framers intended, upsetting a balance between competing individual liberties: the right to practice one’s religion and the right to be free of another’s religion. That balance has been a defining characteristic of our democracy, and one that we should hold dear. It also is particularly important to the Jewish community, Muslims, Buddhists and others who don’t practice the dominant Christian religion.

That’s why it’s especially upsetting to see the damage being done by the Trump administration. Not only is this administration using religious liberty for conservative Christian beliefs as a justification to trample the rights of women and LGBTQ persons, but in the process it is undermining our nation’s long respect for religious liberty. Allowing claims of religious liberty that are so extreme has made it a partisan issue for our country, which is a sad day indeed.

Recently, the Trump administration issued regulations that allow any company, including for-profit, publicly traded Fortune 500 corporations, to exclude birth control from health-care plans if the company has a religious objection. Surely, we can agree that we have lost our appropriate balance when we’re more concerned with the religious beliefs of Chevron than with the woman who works there and can’t get the medical coverage she needs.

Allowing claims of religious liberty that are so extreme has made it a partisan issue for our country, which is a sad  day indeed.

The Justice Department also directed that federal agencies should accommodate religious objections. A homophobic federal employee need only say that religion is why he won’t process the Social Security benefits of a same-sex spouse. This policy indicates a striking lack of understanding of this country’s history of discrimination. For decades, racists claimed God’s will required segregation and criminalization of interracial marriage. We are not so far from that past.

The Trump administration continues down the slippery slope and now has argued that not only do Fortune 500 companies have a religion, but the federal government has a religiously informed “conscience,” which should supersede the constitutionally protected right of a detained immigrant to access an abortion. Thankfully, the D.C. Court of Appeals put a stop to that argument. There is nothing more personal than a woman’s decisions about her own body. She must be able to make those in accord with her own beliefs, not a different religious belief imposed on her by her government.

This concern about a government-sponsored religion being imposed on those of a minority faith is the exact reason that our forebears fled their homelands to establish a country with freedom of, and from, religion. Whether women, LGBTQ persons or people of color are being discriminated against in the name of religion or having religious doctrine imposed on their life choices by their boss or by the government, we all must stand together for our tradition of religious liberty, not the Trump administration’s vision of religious domination.

For the other side of the debate, read Dave Andrusko’s column here.

Sandra Fluke is a Los Angeles social justice attorney and the state director for an advocacy nonprofit. She is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center and a former candidate for California State Senate.

School-board member Allen battles women’s rights activist Fluke for District 26

They’re both young. They’re both Democrats. They’re both up-and-comers on the political scene. 

In fact, judging by their black-and-crimson outfits at a recent debate in Santa Monica, Sandra Fluke and Ben Allen — the two candidates vying to represent California’s 26th Senate District — even share a similar taste in color schemes.

It can be hard to pinpoint any difference of opinion between Fluke and Allen, who are both described as progressive Democrats in a race that has stirred an unusual level of interest among political heavyweights and the community at large.

Allen, 36, an attorney, lecturer at UCLA Law School and member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board, says he supports greater investment in early childhood and public education; environmental protections, particularly for the Santa Monica Mountains; improved public transportation infrastructure; gender equality; and campaign finance reform. 

So does Fluke, 33, an attorney and women’s rights activist, who in 2012 rose to national prominence by standing up to conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh following a virulent thrashing after she testified to members of Congress in favor of health-care coverage for birth control.

Fluke and Allen seek to replace current state Sen. Ted Lieu, who is running to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman. The 26th District extends from West Los Angeles and Santa Monica to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, taking in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and most of the coastal South Bay.

“They’re very young, very strong, very eloquent,” said Margarita Valencia, 62, who like several district residents at a YWCA Santa Monica/Westside Town Hall debate between Allen and Fluke on Oct. 17, said they were having trouble deciding who to vote for. “They’re very good candidates.”

A Jew with roots in the district

Probably the greatest difference between Allen and Fluke is their backgrounds. Allen grew up in Santa Monica and has been heavily involved in district politics as a local school-board member. Fluke originates from rural Pennsylvania and moved to the district about seven years ago, although she spent some of that time at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C. She’s worked as a social justice advocate locally and at the state level, standing up for low-wage workers and domestic violence victims among others, but she comes to the district race as a political outsider.

Allen is Jewish, with strong ties to the Jewish community. Growing up, he attended Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Santa Monica, although he is now a member of the Reconstructionist congregation of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. He went to public schools, graduating from Santa Monica High School in 1996, but also attended the supplemental Jewish education program at Los Angeles Hebrew High School.

While studying for his bachelor’s degree in history at Harvard University, Allen taught Hebrew and Jewish history at the Harvard Hillel children’s school. After graduating from UC Berkeley Law School in 2008, he returned to Santa Monica and was a member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ New Leaders Project and active in the Anti-Defamation League. 

Although sensitive to the nuances of Jewish life, Allen said he believes Jews in the district generally want the same as other constituents: vibrant schools, better transportation, a healthy economy. However, he said he’s been inspired by the long legacy of Jewish leaders in Los Angeles and credited his own background as steering him toward politics.

“Growing up in a Jewish family, you care about social justice, you care about good government, you care about ethics, you care about taking a thoughtful approach to decision making. It’s a part of our culture and a part of our heritage,” he said. “They’re values that got me thinking about working in government and working in public service.”

Earnest and thoughtful, Allen tends to offer detailed answers to policy questions reflective of years spent tackling the intricacies of government. 

“I’ve worked in the private sector, I’ve worked in the public sector. I’ve seen government work at various levels,” he said. “I’ve been really engaged in community-building for a long time now, and I’ve picked up a set of skills and experiences that will be very useful for me to be an effective legislator.”

Plenty of others seem to think so too. Allen has the endorsement of a slew of federal, state and local officials, including U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. Supporters also include dozens of neighborhood and business groups, environmental leaders and labor organizations.

“He’s got a combination of ideals and ‘sechel,’ and he has both integrity and savvy,” said Donna Bojarsky, a behind-the-scenes political fundraiser and connector. “He’s one of these people who reminds me of the early Berman-Waxman days, the kind of caliber of young Jews who are willing to both idealistically and practically take on society’s needs.”

Grabbing the spotlight to seek political change

Fluke’s path into politics has been far less traditional. An unknown law student in early 2012, Fluke found herself thrust into the spotlight after Limbaugh’s misogynist attacks against her following her congressional testimony in favor of insurance coverage for birth control and women’s health. Instead of retreating from the public eye, Fluke stood up to Limbaugh, appearing on national news channels and talk shows to argue for women’s reproductive health rights.

Before being catapulted to national attention, Fluke said she hadn’t considered running for office. But calls from women’s activists and others prompted her to rethink.  

“They were looking for more women’s voices, more young people’s voices, more progressive voices in our elected officials,” she said. “I felt that I needed to honor those requests.”

Poised, confident and direct, Fluke is quick to acknowledge that a brush with Limbaugh doesn’t qualify her for political office. But she said her handling of the incident, her advocacy work and the values she stands for do. She said she is determined to fight for the interests of regular people, and her top priority is campaign finance reform. She emphasized her own campaign’s reliance on small-dollar contributions rather than deep-pocketed donors with special interests.  

“I have the independence to be able to be effective in Sacramento,” she said. “I will be a champion for working families.”

Fluke’s background is Christian — her father is an Evangelical preacher — but her husband, comedy writer Adam Mutterperl, is Jewish. Fluke said the two celebrate both traditions’ holidays and sometimes attend Temple Israel of Hollywood. She has also worked with local Jewish organizations, particularly the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles, where she chairs their Advocacy Training Project.

Like Allen, Fluke has also garnered an impressive list of supporters, including U.S. Reps. Julia Brownley and Judy Chu, and many labor and community organizations, civic leaders and activists.

Leslie Gersicoff, who works as the executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee Western Region, said she’s impressed with Fluke. Emphasizing that her opinion is personal, and not that of her organization, Gersicoff said Fluke is a refreshing change from male-dominated politics.

“She has an incredible sense of integrity. She’s not business as usual. … She has a true social conscience, and I think the work she would do in Sacramento would benefit a very broad spectrum of individuals, particularly women,” Gersicoff said. “She knows her issues, she knows her stuff, she’s not afraid, and she’s positive, absolutely positive. She’s got good energy for California.”

Congressional and Senate candidates debate at University Synagogue

University Synagogue was the host Oct. 12 for debates in two races for the Nov. 4 election — one between Elan Carr and Ted Lieu, running for the 33rd Congressional District seat, and another between Sandra Fluke and Ben Allen, who are vying for the California 26th state Senate seat. In addition, representing one side of the race for Los Angeles County’s 3rd District supervisor, candidate Bobby Shriver delivered remarks, while his opponent, Sheila Kuehl, appeared via a pre-recorded video message. 

The triple-header featured the candidates discussing a range of issues both national and local, from Israel’s national security to Los Angeles’ transportation system, as well as reforming the United States immigration system and ensuring there is no asbestos in Santa Monica and Malibu schools.

Mirror Media Group, whose holdings include the Santa Monica Mirror, Brentwood News and Century City News, sponsored the event, which drew upward of 200 people. 

The winners of at least two of the races will have big Jewish shoes to fill. Carr and Lieu are vying to succeed Rep. Henry Waxman, who has served 40 years in the seat, while Shriver and Kuehl are squaring off to succeed Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is currently in his fifth term, the maximum allowed. 

The debate between Carr and Lieu kicked off the afternoon, Brentwood News Editor Jeff Hall serving as moderator. The candidates discussed national security, immigration, education, employment and a range of other issues, seeking to distinguish themselves from one another.

The candidates belong to opposing parties — Carr, who is Jewish, is a Republican; and Lieu (who is not Jewish) is a Democrat — but, last week, the two men’s remarks underscored what they have in common: Both are pro-Israel and both are frustrated by the partisan politics in the House of Representatives, among other grievances. 

Carr has family ties to Israel. He also served in Iraq in 2003 as a member of the U.S. military. He said he would be more than a “reliable vote” in Congress on Israel issues: “When I see the exposure to danger that Israel is facing today … it terrifies me,” Carr said. He described himself as someone who has background experience with Israel and is familiar with threats facing the country today. 

Lieu promised to fight against “existential” threats to Israel and the United States. He set himself apart from Carr’s pro-military credentials by saying he is “skeptical of American military intervention,” adding that the situation in Libya today is more precarious than it was prior to the deployment of troops there by the United States and its allies following the Arab Spring uprisings. He also cited how American intervention in Iraq under the George W. Bush administration has left the country worse off than it was before. 

During the Q-and-A portion, an audience member question about the legalization of marijuana spotlighted another difference between the two congressional candidates. 

Carr said he would “absolutely not” decriminalize marijuana if he we were to be elected, stating that marijuana facilities around Los Angeles are a “source of crime,” citing his work as a criminal gang prosecutor on such cases. 

Lieu won applause from the crowd when he said the opposite.

“I think it’s profoundly stupid that the U.S. government criminalizes marijuana,” Lieu told the audience. He pledged that as a member of Congress he would vote to decriminalize marijuana.

Harriet Epstein, a University Synagogue member and one of the event’s attendees, said afterward that she approved of Carr’s remarks on Israel. “It would be nice to [elect] someone who is a Jewish Republican, even though I’m a Democrat,” she said in an interview. 

Epstein also revealed her voting plans for the Shriver-Kuehl race. 

“I don’t always agree with him, but he has his head on straight,” Epstein said of Shriver. She also voiced approval of Allen, citing his credentials as a local who has done well. 

Allen, 36, a Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member, grew up in Santa Monica and attended Santa Monica High School. Allen’s mother is Jewish.

He faces, Fluke, 31, a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, who became nationally known in 2012 when she was harshly criticized by Conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh after she testified before Congress, then a law student, on issues related to women’s reproductive health care.

This past summer, Allen and Fluke were the two youngest candidates in the crowded primary election for the 26th state Senate seat.

On Sunday, Allen and Fluke, both progressive Democrats, touted their interest in improving California’s education system. Fluke expressed hopes in making higher education more affordable, while Allen said he would promote, if elected, statewide investment in early-childhood education. 

Allen also called himself a champion for the preservation of the Santa Monica Mountains and said he would like to see the state help to fund the Los Angeles metro rail, while Fluke said her No. 1 issue is campaign finance reform.

County Supervisor candidate Shriver’s remarks, like some of Allen’s, focused on Los Angeles transportation, among other local county issues. 

“How many people would like a train that goes to the airport? You all need to vote for me,” the son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and nephew of John F. Kennedy said in a stump speech, which followed Kuehl’s video message.

Shriver, who previously served on the Santa Monica City Council and as mayor of Santa Monica, heaped praise on the Metro Expo Line, which is headed to his city and now extends from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City. He also discussed the importance of county oversight over arts venues such as the Ford Theatres. The county recently announced a $54 million budget increase to arts and culture funding for the current year, and Shriver has made advocacy for the arts part of his political platform.

In her video message, Kuehl talked about her experience as a state legislator, indicating that it will be “directly relevant to what the County of Los Angeles does and, more importantly, what it is required to do for all of its 10 million residents”