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Toledo Legal News - Editorial List Table

 

There’s cause for both concern and optimism when it comes to democracy

 

Sometimes, you wonder if the world is doomed to descend into autocracy. Certainly, that’s what the coverage of the past few years suggests. We read about the nations that are already there, like China and Russia, of course, and Saudi Arabia and Iran. Or about countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Poland that are nominally democratic but have been trending less so.

What strikes me most about this discussion of a global decline in democratic norms and values, however, is how little coverage has gone to places where democracy remains robust. How much do you read about countries that are performing well on this front, places like Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Finland, or Australia? Asking the question pretty much answers it.

These are strong, stable democracies. They have a healthy electoral process, their governments function admirably, political participation is robust, and civil liberties remain core to their identity. Amid concerns about democracy’s future, they’re shining examples of its staying power.

There’s no question that there’s reason for concern. Plenty of countries, including some of those above, are home to anti-democratic movements that reject the basic freedoms, civil liberties, and pluralism that we associate with democracy. Moreover, unhappiness with the way democracy is working appears to be rising: a Pew poll last year found dissatisfaction rose between 2017 and 2018, sometimes markedly, in such countries as Germany, India, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Canada, and the US.

One key to what’s going on in this country may lie in another Pew poll from earlier this summer: Americans see declining trust in both the federal government and in one another. They cite poor government performance, fear about the corruption of the political process by monied interests, and a general rise in disrespect for others and their beliefs.

Moreover, I’m struck over and over by the extent to which people I encounter lack confidence in elected leaders today. I was in a discussion group recently in which pretty much every participant attacked the country’s political leaders, regardless of ideology and party. You can find their arguments echoed wherever you turn. They don’t think elected leaders act in the public interest, instead putting their own promotion and well-being first. And people believe that our political leaders, both in Washington and in the state capitals, are failing to confront the big problems that concern people: drugs, health care, affordability, education, good jobs, ethical conduct, and the like.

Yet here’s the thing: over the course of countless public meetings over the years, I don’t ever recall anyone rejecting the Constitution or representative democracy itself. They may be distressed at government, our institutions, and our political leaders, but people seem to support the democracy we inhabit.

What may be most interesting about the polls I cite above is that even as Americans express their dissatisfaction, they also recognize the stakes and want to see things turned around. They believe that low trust in government and in one another makes it more difficult to govern effectively, and by a hefty margin believe it’s possible to improve on both fronts. Greater transparency, more effective restrictions on the role of money in politics, and more “honesty and cooperation” among political leaders, they told pollsters, would boost confidence. Similarly, they believe more cooperation among ordinary citizens would help rebuild trust in one another. These are, of course, among the bedrock values of representative democracy.

There’s one other point from which I take great hope: younger people, on the whole, seem to be more inclusive and tolerant in their views than their elders, and they have a more positive view of the role of government. On the whole, the older people I meet tend to be more cynical and pessimistic; younger voters — on issues from immigration to social inclusiveness — tend to be more expansive. Time, in other words, is on the side of democratic values.

So while I would never urge complacency in the face of the assaults we’re seeing on democratic norms, both here and elsewhere, I’m not pessimistic. Democracies have great internal strength, and they give cause for optimism that the core democratic processes of deliberation, compromise, negotiation, and cooperation will, in the end, endure.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Lee Hamilton, Center on Representative Government

Can government contractors refuse workers based on religious beliefs?

 

While religious freedom can mean many different things to you personally, within the U.S. Constitution it means only two things: the government can’t promote one religion over another (or promote religion over the lack of religion, or vice versa) and you have the right to worship, or not, as you choose —the government can’t penalize you for your religious beliefs.

Last week, the Department of Labor proposed a rule that could potentially pit these two types of religious freedoms against one another. The rule would allow federal government contractors to make hiring and firing decisions based on religious beliefs. Currently, federal government contractors are prohibited from discriminating against people on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin or disability — and under the Obama Administration, sexual orientation and gender identity were added to that list. The proposed rule wouldn’t overturn that policy; instead, it would make it easier for contractors to get a religious exemption so they don’t have to follow it.

Many faith-based organizations have long argued that this type of protection will allow them to work with the government without worrying about compromising their religious integrity. In their view, the current policy penalizes them for their religious beliefs, denying them the opportunity to secure lucrative government contracts unless they put aside their principles.

Many civil rights-based groups are worried this rule amounts to “taxpayer-funded discrimination” and will be used by federal contractors to justify denying jobs to LGBTQ people, unmarried women, atheists and others. In their view, the new rule allows people who do the work of the government and get paid by the American people to promote one set of beliefs over another.

Private organizations are generally free to take religious beliefs into account when making business decisions. But when a private organization has a contract with the government, the issue grows more complicated. Stepping outside of hiring and firing decisions for a moment, consider the case of Miracle Hill Ministries, the largest foster care agency in South Carolina. Miracle Hill requires that all potential foster parents agree that the Bible is the only authoritative word of God. The agency, which is funded by and partners with South Carolina’s state government, made news this year for turning away a Catholic applicant. Miracle Hill’s spokeswoman defended this action by stating, “If faith-based child-placing agencies are not allowed to follow their doctrine, then we wouldn’t be faith based anymore. It would be taking the heart out of what we do best — help children find families within our own community.” Maybe so. But as a prominent child placement agency in South Carolina, its decisions favoring one religion over another affect the state’s foster care system. Miracle Hill’s personal beliefs can have an outsized impact on public policy.

The Department of Labor’s proposed rule raises similar concerns.

Ultimately, that’s what’s troubling about the Department of Labor’s proposed rule. The problem isn’t that it creates an exemption for religious contractors to circumvent certain anti-discrimination rules — that exemption has always existed. In the past, the exemption meant that non-profit organizations like churches and charities that contracted with the government couldn’t be forced to hire employees outside of their religious community. But the proposed rule vastly expands the situations where it can apply. It would grant the exemption to any company or institution that has any kind of religious affiliation (such as Georgetown University, St. Jude’s Hospital or Goodwill). It would also allow them to do more than just prefer to hire people from a certain religious group, but also “condition employment on acceptance of or adherence to religious tenets as understood by the employing contractor.” As Vox’s Alexia Fernandez Campbell noted, “In other words, not only could a religious hospital that contracts with the government refuse to hire someone who is Muslim or Jewish, they could also refuse to hire someone in a same-sex marriage or fire someone who had sex before marriage.”

For a faith-based organization seeking a government contract, the rule change might seem like a blessing. But the greatly expanded scope of the exemption means that it has the potential to bolster one aspect of religious freedom (for some) while undermining another.

Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@freedomforum.org, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.

Lata Nott, Freedom Forum Institute

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