The Fourteenth Amendment

Here is the talk I will be delivering to the Danville Unitarians this morning. It’s longer than my usual posts, so–unless you feel the urge to visit or revisit the 14th Amendment– feel free to skip it!


Thanks to our current political environment—and especially to an argument that Section 3 of that Amendment requires barring Donald Trump from the ballot—we’ve seen an explosion in references to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But the 14th Amendment has been incredibly important for a long time, for reasons having nothing to do with Section 3. Together with the 13th and 15th Amendments, the 14th is credited with strengthening and “reframing” the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Together, they are frequently referred to as our Second Founding.

It’s presumably due to that current interest that I was asked to talk about the 14th Amendment today, so you will get the equivalent of my class lecture on the subject. I apologize in advance…

The 13th Amendment, as you undoubtedly know, outlawed slavery, and the 15th forbid abridging a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Together with the 14th, they are the Reconstruction Amendments.

Of the three, the 14th Amendment is the lengthiest and most ambitious. Thanks mainly to the Equal Protection clause, it is now considered to be a part of the Bill of Rights.

The first Section is the one with which most of us are familiar; It reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Congressman who drafted the 14th Amendment, John Bingham, was very clear that his intention was to make the Bill of Rights binding on the states. Most Americans don’t realize that, prior to passage of the 14th Amendment, the Bill of Rights limited only the federal government. Bingham insisted that his language—“privileges and immunities” encompassed the entire Bill of Rights, and made them binding upon the states, and the contemporaneous arguments for and against passage tended to focus on that stated outcome.

Nevertheless, after the 14th Amendment was passed, it took the Supreme Court a number of years and a collection of discrete cases to apply most of the constraints of the Bill of Rights against state and local government actors, a process called (for some reason) incorporation.

Prior to passage of the 14th Amendment, state and local officials could “establish” religions, prevent you from exercising your right to speak freely, engage in blatantly discriminatory behaviors and other activities that violated the first 8 Amendments of the Bill of Rights.

An important clause in Section One established birthright citizenship—which has recently become something of a flashpoint for the considerable number of racists and self-defined “patriots” who want to close America’s borders and prevent the children of immigrants from becoming American citizens. Since most, if not all of the people arguing against birthright citizenship are not descended from Native Americans, the hypocrisy is rather noticeable.

The Second Section of the Amendment is historically interesting, but generally obsolete—it forbids denying the right to vote to any “of the male inhabitants” of a state who have reached the age of 21 and are citizens. Since passage of that language, we’ve extended the vote to women and lowered the voting age to 18.

The Third Section of the 14th Amendment is the one that has recently become relevant to the current election cycle. It reads:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado concluded that the language of Section 3 precludes Donald Trump from appearing on Colorado’s ballot. That decision is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will now have to decide to affirm or reject Colorado’s analysis–whether Section 3 bars Donald Trump from appearing on all the nation’s presidential ballots. It certainly seems straightforward; in order to evade the clear language of Section 3, the Court would have to find that the President wasn’t an “officer” of the United States, or that the provision isn’t what lawyers call “self-executing”—that is, that it requires Congress to pass a bill to make it operative. Neither argument passes the smell test. The Court could also find that Trump didn’t engage in insurrection, a finding which would be equally unpersuasive. Given the Justices’ performances at the oral argument on this case, I think we can safely assume that they will find a way to duck the clear implications of the Constitutional language.

Finally, Sections 4 and 5 confirm the validity of the national debt and authorize Congress to enforce the provisions of the 14th Amendment by “appropriate legislation.”

The most important operation of the 14th Amendment—at least in my opinion—is that it constitutionalized the Declaration of Independence’s promise of freedom and equality. Scholars refer to the Reconstruction Amendments as America’s “Second Founding,” because passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments transformed the nation’s charter from what was really an aggressively pro-slavery document into one that prohibited chattel slavery; it changed it from a document that was silent on the Declaration’s call for equality to one that granted equal citizenship to everyone born on American soil; and it changed the Constitution from a charter that stood aside while state governments abused individual rights to one that protected these rights against state government abuses.

A constitutional insistence on “equal protection of the law” effected a fundamental change in American politics and society. As historian Eric Foner has explained, no state gave Black people full legal equality before the Reconstruction era and the 14th amendment. Supreme Court decisions over the last century – outlawing racial segregation, decreeing “one person, one vote”, and many others – have rested on the 14th amendment. Foner and many other historians think the 14th Amendment should be seen as a form of “regime change” — an attempt to change the United States from a pro-slavery regime, which is what we had before the Civil War, to one based on equality, regardless of race. That’s a pretty fundamental change. Historian Heather Cox Richardson has written that the 14th Amendment established the power of the federal government to defend civil rights, voting, and government finances from a minority that had entrenched itself in power in the states and from that power base tried to impose its ideology on the nation.

The Fourteenth Amendment prevents government from denying citizens the “equal protection of the laws.” What constitutes “Equal Protection” can be complicated, because governments need to classify citizens for all kinds of perfectly acceptable reasons. For example, the law draws distinctions between children and adults, between motorists and pedestrians, and between smokers and non-smokers, and those classifications don’t run afoul of the 14th Amendment.

The Equal Protection doctrine is intended to prevent government from imposing inappropriate classifications; those based on criteria that are irrelevant to the subject of the law, or that unfairly burden a particular group.  The general rule is that a government classification must be rationally related to a legitimate government interest. A requirement that motorists observe a speed limit is clearly a classification related to government’s legitimate interest in public safety. A law that imposed different speed limits on African-American and Caucasian drivers just as clearly would be illegitimate.

Complicating it further, although laws can be discriminatory on their face (for example, a law saying only white males can vote); these days, laws meant to discriminate are usually crafted to achieve that result by design. That is, they are drawn to look impartial on their face, but to have a discriminatory effect. A rule that all firefighters must weigh over 180 pounds would prevent many more women from being firefighters than men, despite the fact that weight is not an indicator of the ability to handle a fire hose or climb a ladder.

There are also situations in which genuinely neutral laws are applied in a discriminatory fashion. The phrase “Driving While Black” grew out of statistics showing that some police officers were disproportionately stopping black motorists for speeding.

The courts will look more closely at classifications that burden constitutional rights, or disadvantage members of groups that have historically been subject to discrimination. Lawyers call that process of taking a closer look “heightened” or “strict” scrutiny.

The Equal Protection doctrine is intended to prevent government from disadvantaging individuals and minorities of whom majorities may disapprove. Equal Protection guarantees—like all the other provisions in the Bill of Rights—  apply only to government actions. Civil Rights statutes address private-sector discrimination. Here in Indiana, for example, our civil rights statutes don’t forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, so unless you live in a city or town with a civil rights ordinance, private companies in your town can fire people for being gay, and restaurants can refuse to sell pizza to someone perceived to be gay.

Essentially, the Equal Protection Clause requires government to treat citizens as individuals, not as members of a group. American laws are supposed to be based upon a person’s civic behavior, not her gender, race or other identity. So long as we obey the laws, pay our taxes, and generally conduct ourselves in a way that doesn’t endanger or disadvantage others, we are entitled to full civic equality.  That guarantee of equal civic rights has unleashed the productivity of previously marginalized groups and contributed significantly to American prosperity. As we are seeing, it has also motivated a considerable backlash from people who see equality for “those people” as an attack on their “rightful” social privilege.

Critics of Equal Protection often argue that equality and liberty are at odds: that an individual’s liberty includes the right to dislike or disapprove of others and that true liberty would include the right to act on those negative opinions. What the 14th Amendment says, in essence, is: fine. Dislike Black people, or Jews or Gays. Don’t invite them to dinner. Tell your daughter not to date them. But you may not ask government to pass rules that discriminate against them or that prevent them from  participating as equals in the political system or civil society.

With that, I will conclude this admittedly very superficial description of the 14th Amendment. I’m happy to answer questions!


I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means….

I wonder what theocrats think the word “liberty” means?

I guess we’re going to find out. According to Vox and a number of other media outlets,

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” that will enforce a 2017 DOJ memo ordering federal agencies to take the broadest possible interpretation of “religious liberty” when enforcing federal laws. That memo, for example, prohibits the IRS from threatening the tax-exempt status of any religious organization that actively lobbied on behalf of a political candidatewhich is not allowed under the Johnson Amendment.

In a bold speech delivered at the Justice Department’s Religious Liberty Summit, Sessions characterized the task force as a necessary step in facing down the prevailing forces of secularism. “A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” he said, which “must be confronted and defeated.”

I don’t think I’d call the speech “bold.” “Ignorant” might be a more appropriate adjective.

Secularism, properly understood, is simply the absence of religion–an absence which evidently constitutes an existential threat to the worldview of people like Sessions. And liberty, at least as defined by those who drafted the U.S. Constitution, definitely does not mean the privileging of Christianity and its adherents over all other belief systems, religious or secular, which is quite clearly what Sessions intends.

While the task force will only enforce the guidelines listed by the religious liberty memo, the language in Sessions’s speech was as significant as the creation of the task force itself. Using striking rhetoric and the incendiary narrative of culture wars, Sessions characterized America as an implicitly Christian nation under attack from secularists. In so doing, he is continuing a wider pattern of the Trump administration: treating the federal government as a necessary participant in the longevity of Christian America.

He’s advocating for the kind of Christian nationalism — blending patriotism and evangelical Christianity — that the administration has consistently used to legitimize its aims and shore up its evangelical base.

As the Vox article noted, over the past few years Sessions’ version of “liberty” has gained considerable legal ground–from the Hobby Lobby decision, allowing closely-held corporations with religious shareholders to deny contraception coverage to its employees, to the case of Trinity Church, in which the Court held that a Lutheran church could use taxpayer funds to build a playground on its property. The confirmation of Kavanaugh would likely carve another hole in the wall of church-state separation.

It is obvious that this task force and various other efforts to take America back for (their version of) Jesus have been prompted by fury over civil rights for LGBTQ folks–especially recognition of same-sex marriage–and hysteria over the growing recognition that White Christian cultural domination of America is on the way out.

I’m not going to waste pixels on the fundamentalists who use religion as a justification for their bigotry and who experience any loss of privilege as discrimination. But I am going to protest the misuse of language.

In America, the word “liberty” means “personal autonomy”–an individual’s right to self-government. Liberty means we each have the right to “do our own thing” so long as we do not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as we are willing to accord an equal right to others. It most definitely does not mean (as the theocrats would have it) an obligation to do the “right thing” as that “right thing” is defined by the theology of the majority and enforced by government.

The First Amendment protects the integrity of the individual conscience against government overreach, and together with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it prohibits government from favoring some religious beliefs over others, or from favoring religion over non-religion. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)

The fact that we have an administration filled with people who reject that understanding of liberty—who are dismissive of the most basic premises of America’s history, philosophy and law–is more than unfortunate. It’s scandalous.

Or to coin a phrase, deplorable.


What Kind of Equality?

Yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion on equality. The panel was part of the 10th Annual O’Bannon Institute for Community Service, held at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington.

Our panel’s charge was very broad: we were supposed to discuss “equality” and consider America’s progress toward achieving it. In addition to me, the panel included a retired Pastor who heads the Bloomington Human Rights Commission, a social worker who founded and runs an organization called “Fair Talk” focused on equal rights for GLBT folks, and an 86-year old former football star who was the first African-American recruited by the NFL.

Beyond sharing stories from our different perspectives, we confronted a question: what do we mean by equality? No two people, after all, are equally smart, equally good-looking, equally talented or hardworking. What sorts of equality can we reasonably expect to achieve?

At the very least, we agreed that all Americans are entitled to equality before the law. Laws that disadvantage people based upon race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—laws that treat people differently simply based upon their identity—cannot be justified. America’s greatest promise has been that our laws treat individuals as individuals, and not as members of a group. As a country, we are making progress toward that goal. The progress is halting, and the culture sometimes lags, but we’re getting there.

That’s the good news. The bad news, as the pastor reminded us, is that inequalities of wealth and power in this country are enormous and growing. The wealthiest Americans not only control a huge percentage of the country’s resources, their wealth also allows them to exercise disproportionate political power. America is in real danger of becoming a plutocracy.

I hasten to assure my readers that there weren’t any socialists on that panel; no one was advocating class warfare or massive redistribution of wealth. We all understand the benefits of market economies, and recognize that inequalities are inevitable in such systems. The problems arise when the inequities become too large, and when they are seen as the product of privilege and status rather than entrepreneurship and/or diligence. It is then that they breed social resentment and create political instability.

America is doing a reasonable job of leveling the legal playing field. But you can’t eat legal equality, you can’t pay the rent with it, and it won’t cure cancer.


Sauce for the Goose

Yesterday’s post about the effort to expose the “reasoning” behind Senate Bill 371 got me thinking about equal treatment and its notable absence from other brilliant proposals currently wending their way through Indiana’s legislative process. (As you may recall, SB 371 “protects” women who want prescriptions for abortion pills, and the proposed amendment would similarly have “protected” men wanting pills for erectile dysfunction.)

For example, what would a more balanced approach mean for the bill requiring drug testing of welfare recipients?

So far, the arguments against that measure have been boring–the typical logical, evidence-based objections that routinely fail to persuade our lawmakers. The Indiana Coalition for Human Services, for example, has pointed out that Florida implemented such a program and found it to be ineffective and costly (only 2% tested positive). Others have noted that the available tests are not well-suited for a “pass/fail” situation. Legislative Services estimates the first-year cost to be 1.2 million, much more than is likely to be saved. Etcetera.

Wrong arguments! Logic has rarely prevailed at the Statehouse, and cost-effectiveness is not a concept embraced by our elected culture and class warriors.

So I say, pile on! Not only should TANF recipients be tested, so should all the other welfare moochers who are enriching themselves at taxpayers’ expense. Let’s start with corporate welfare, with the beneficiaries of crony capitalism–the coal-gasification boondoggle,the business enterprises that have persuaded lawmakers to grant them favorable tax treatment, the owners of sports teams we subsidize, and those like ACS that are making big bucks providing services like parking meters–taking a major chunk of the money that the city would otherwise have available for public purposes.

Perhaps we could require drug testing as a condition of getting an education voucher. And let’s not forget all the elected officials–10,400 of them, thanks to Indiana’s archaic township system–who are suckling at the public you-know-what. In fact, we should test everyone paid with tax dollars–teachers, police officers, firefighters, clerks in the City-County Building…Surely, those of us whose tax dollars pay their salaries are entitled to know whether our money is going to substance abusers.

Proponents of drug testing for welfare recipients justify that proposal by pointing to the expenditure of tax dollars. By that logic, we should test everyone we are supporting or enriching with public funds.

What’s sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander.


Little by Little….

A federal appeals court recently became the second such court to declare DOMA–the federal “Defense of Marriage Act”–unconstitutional. The challenge was brought by an 83-year-old resident of New York State, where same-sex marriage is legal. When her partner–pardon me, her wife–died, DOMA allowed the IRS to assess an estate tax nearly 400,000 higher than she would have owed had her spouse been a man.

The court ruled that DOMA violates equal protection, by treating couples (all of whom are legally married in New York) differently, based solely upon whether the marriage partners are of the same or opposite sex. But the ruling did something even more important: it analyzed the case under what is called “heightened scrutiny.” If this part of the ruling holds up, it will make cases alleging discrimination based upon sexual orientation much easier to win.

Doug Masson has posted an excellent summary of the case. As he reports

To withstand intermediate scrutiny, a classification must be “substantially related to an important government interest.” “Substantially related” means that the explanation must be “exceedingly persuasive.”. The justification must be genuine, not hypothetical and not invented after the fact in response to litigation.

The Court rejected BLAG’s argument that Congress had an important interest in passing DOMA to maintain uniformity on the issue of marriage-related benefits in protection of the treasury. The court observed that Congress has historically allowed states to go their own way on marriage. (For example, rules about age, divorce, consanguinity, and paternity.) Indeed, the sudden federal intrusion into marriage is, itself, suspicious. (All the states-rights advocates have been clamoring for repeal of DOMA, yes?)

Another justification was preserving the historical understanding of marriage. But, the court observed, ancient lineage doesn’t protect a law where it lacks a rational basis. Miscegenation and anti-sodomy laws had pretty long historical roots of their own.

Another justification was encouraging responsible procreation. The court recognized that this could be an important government interest but did not see that DOMA advanced that interest.

DOMA does not provide any incremental reason for opposite-sex couples to engage in “responsible procreation.”6 Incentives for opposite-sex couples to marry and procreate (or not) were the same after DOMA was enacted as they were before. Other courts have likewise been unable to find even a rational connection between DOMA and encouragement of responsible procreation and child-rearing.

The Court also dismissed as “far-fetched” the idea that the laws passed by Congress might actually make people gay or effect their sexual orientation. It was also not persuaded by the idea that merely getting to use the extra-special word “marriage” would, on its own, promote stable opposite-sex marriages.

Because the court concluded that same sex married couples constituted a “quasi-suspect” class and because DOMA was not “substantially related” to an important government interest, the Second Circuit concluded, it must be regarded as being in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The ruling was satisfying. What was not satisfying–indeed, what was very disappointing–was the role of Indiana’s Attorney General, Greg Zoeller, who led the group of states arguing for DOMA and its constitutionality. I have generally been impressed with Zoeller; unlike the hot dogs and culture warriors and know-nothings we seem to elect, he has come across as thoughtful and modest, and willing to abide by precedent. (I realize that complimenting a lawyer on willingness to abide by the law is a bit odd, but these days, the bar is set really low.) His willingness to fight for a discriminatory law in a case that did not directly involve Indiana–a case where he was a volunteer–was disappointing.

The bottom line, however, is that despite the efforts of Zoeller and those who agree with him, equality for GLBT folks is coming.

Little by little, the barricades are coming down.