Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Day at the Courthouse

Just another "Texan Tall Tale"....

“They look so young,” the gray-haired woman said wistfully to her spouse as she looked toward the counter on the opposite side of the small courthouse lobby.  He smiled and nodded in agreement.

She had spied the youthful couple when they entered the building, holding hands and smiling as they strode confidently across the linoleum floor, across to the window marked, “County Clerk—Marriage Licenses.”  Seeing them made her think of a day long ago when she and her beau had taken that same walk.

The woman began to create a story in her mind about the youngsters as she saw them being greeted by the clerk.  She imagined the young man to be named Mark, like her grandson.  In fact, he looked a bit like him.

The girl?  She looked like a “Kelli” or “Brandi,” or some other name that could end with either “i” or “y.”  They’d probably met at college, through mutual friends, no doubt.  They looked comfortable with one another, she thought, in a way that said they were more than just infatuated.  They may have even been through some difficulty or sadness in their short time together, something that had made them stronger as a couple.

Yes, it was right that they should be married, she thought.  They’re in love.

The clerk’s terse tone, tinged with condescension, snapped her from her daydream.  “I asked, are you both Christian?” the woman inquired in voice loud enough to be heard across the lobby, apparently repeating something heard but not quite believed the first time by “Mark and Kelli.”

“No,” said Mark, both baffled by the question and annoyed that it was asked.  “Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m Jewish.”

“Well, then, you’ll have to wait until Maria comes back from her lunch break so she can issue your license,” the clerk replied, looking down at the stack of papers she had collected to shuffle so she could avoid meeting the stunned couple’s widening eyes.  “I have a sincerely-held religious belief that prevents me from doing it myself.”

“But it’s your job!” Kelli emphatically responded, her voice rising and tears of indignation welling in her eyes.  “And it’s the law!  How can you ignore the law?!?”

Across the lobby, the gray-haired woman tugged her husband’s sleeve.  “Are you hearing this?” she whispered. She cocked her head toward the County Clerk’s window.  It seemed the entire lobby was looking that way, too.

“Miss, you’ll have to lower your voice.  If you make a scene, you’ll be asked to leave,” the clerk said, her own voice growing louder.

Mark grasped the girl’s hand tightly, as if to get her attention.  He focused his gaze squarely on the clerk.  With a calm, but firm tone, he asked:  “What do you mean ‘sincerely-held religious belief?’  How does that ‘prevent’ you from following the law?’

“I just don’t believe you two should be getting married,” she replied.  “And the Bible supports that.  See, right here,” she began, as she whipped around to snatch the New International Version sitting like a paperweight atop a stack of forms on her county-issued standard office desk.  With a quick combination of page-flips and thumb-licks, she found the damning scripture she needed.

“Yep, right here.  Second Corinthians, Chapter Six, Verse Fourteen: ‘Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.  For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?’”  With a thud, she closed her Bible and any further conversation about the matter.

“Maria will be back in a few minutes," she said, dismissively.  "Wait over there and she can help you when she gets back—if she wants to.”

Just then, as if on cue, Maria appeared behind the counter, having returned early from lunch.  As she placed her purse in the large file drawer of her desk, she sensed the tension at the window.

“Is there something I can do to help?” she asked cheerfully, approaching the window.  She noticed her co-worker’s rigid stance, the flush that had appeared on the young woman's skin, rising from her neck to her face.  Were those tears in her eyes?

“Maybe you can help them,” her co-worker said, turning away and hastily retreating to a file room.

“We just want to get a marriage license,” Mark said.  “This shouldn’t be so hard.”

“Well, no, of course not!”  Maria looked over the application form.  “Everything seems to be in order so far as I can see.”

From across the lobby, the gray-haired woman continued to watch the young couple.  Finally, she thought, common sense will prevail.

“Thank you,” Kelli and Mark firmly said in unison, their impatience thinly disguised.

“Just one more question, though—have either of you been married before?” Maria inquired, her happy voice echoing off the shiny linoleum floors for all to hear.

Kelli’s anger burst through.  “Yes, I have!  So what?  What business is that of yours?”

“Well,” Maria began, her voice still courteous and sweet—perhaps too sweet.  “That’s going to be a problem.  You see, I have a sincere religious belief that marriage is eternal.  It says so in the Scripture, right there in Matthew, that if you two get married, you would be committing adultery.  I can’t be a party to that, I’m sorry.”

Kelli burst into tears.  Mark exploded into a fit of rage.  “What the hell are you talking about?!?  Your job is to uphold the Constitution!  There is nothing illegal about us being married!” he shouted for all to hear.

“Sir, calm down or we will have to call a deputy down and arrest you!”  Maria’s voice had lost its sweetness by now. 

“I’m telling you that I do not have to provide you with a marriage license if it violates my sincerely-held religious beliefs, no matter what the Constitution says.  You’ll need to wait until one of my co-workers can help you.  Now, sit over there,” she commanded, waving them off to the seating area at the corner of the counter.

The woman across the lobby lurched forward, instinctive in her desire to intervene on behalf of the young couple.  He looked so much like her grandson.  The gentle squeeze of her husband’s hand, the slightest tug on her arm told her, No…this is not our business.

Stunned, Mark and Kelli turned away from the window.  Only then did they realize that every eye in the lobby was trained on them.  A scene had been made.

As they shuffled to the chairs in the waiting area, the gray-haired woman studied their faces.  What was that look?  Was it anger? Frustration? Embarrassment?

No, she soon realized.  That look was the look of shame.

###

The oath of office for County Clerks elected in Texas reads, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the duties of (the office) and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.”

Yesterday, April 11, 2017, nearly two years after the United States Supreme Court issued the Obergefell decision, the Texas Senate preliminarily approved SB 522 on a 21-10 vote, mostly along party lines (Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, voted in favor of the bill).  This bill would allow clerks to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples and assign those duties elsewhere if doing so would contradict a “sincerely held religious belief.”

I think this bill has a snowball’s chance in Hell once it gets to the House.  Nevertheless….

The San Antonio Express-News quotes Senator Brian Bridwell, the Granbury Republican who authored the measure as saying, “Right now, there is not an alternate mechanism for a clerk who is not willing to issue a license because of their sincerely held beliefs.”


To that I say, hogwash.  There is an alternate mechanism:  Get another job if you refuse to do the one you have sworn to do.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

We Fear What We Don't Understand

Bathrooms.  Who would have thought we would be talking so much about such private, yet shared experiences?

Today, March 7, Senate Bill 6 will be heard in the Senate State Affairs Committee at the State Capitol.  Authored by Sen. Lois Kohlkorst (R-Brenham), the bill aims to restrict access for transgender persons to restrooms and other facilities.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has made bathroom access one of his top priorities this session, and his message sounds an alarm: “Menacing men dressed as women are preparing to assault our children and womenfolk!” 

Mrs. Kohlkorst, ironically channeling former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, wrote an opinion piece that appeared in several Texas newspapers this weekend, in which she wrote, “Women’s rights are human rights.”  She also wrote that opponents of SB 6 seemingly have only one goal in mind—to let boys and men into women’s restrooms to prey on girls and women.  “Young men who are ‘curious,’” she wrote, “or hold more nefarious goals will be free to experiment, while girls and parents are left legally powerless.”

Mr. Patrick and Mrs. Kohlkorst know exactly what they are doing and to whom they are delivering their message.  They know that most people do not understand what it means to be transgender, assume they do not know a transgender person, and do not understand the experience of transgender people in the real world.

And they are keenly aware that what people do not understand, they are likely to fear.  I cannot speak from any personal experience about what it is like to be a transgender person, beyond what I have learned through study and interaction.  Nevertheless, here is some information I have learned that might be helpful to those who do not have knowledge or understanding of this phenomenon.

Transgender persons are people who do not—cannot—identify with the gender assigned them at their birth.  Transgender people report that this issue of identity is not the result of choice, nor is one’s gender identity determined on a whim.  Transgender persons do not wake up one morning and “decide” to change their gender from the prior day, as Mrs. Kohlkorst asserted in her article.

Being transgender is not the same as being gay or any other description of sexual orientation, which refers to physical and emotional attraction.  Being transgender is also not as simple as dressing in clothing customarily associated with the opposite sex.  Finally, a transgender person’s gender identity is not dependent on having surgery.

Despite what one sees on television, being transgender is neither inherently glamorous nor extravagant.  Perhaps the most well-known transgender person in American culture today is Caitlyn Jenner, who lives a very privileged and public life, even starring in a reality television show.  In fact, the vast majority of transgender people in America are disproportionately poor and significantly more at-risk of suicide and violent crime than the population as a whole. 

Finally, transgender persons are not new to American society, though the general public is likely more cognizant of their presence today.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that many have met or known a transgender person, but were not aware of their gender story.  Yes, it is possible that you have been in a public restroom with a transgender person and didn’t even know it.

The issue of safety is a red herring.  There is not a shred of evidence to support the notion that transgender persons are more prone to be violent, criminal sexual predators. The idea that men are waiting for SB 6 to pass so they can dress up as women, sneak into bathrooms and sexually assault women and girls is not only factually baseless--it is already illegal to do that! To assert, as Mrs. Kohlkorst did, that women (or men, for that matter) are not protected legally from sexual assault is mendacity and fear-mongering.

Senate Bill 6 is a solution in search of a problem.  If it is already illegal to sexually assault a person in a restroom or anywhere else, then what is the real impetus for this legislation?

A lot has been said about the potential economic impact of laws such as this.  That alone, however, should not be the reason for opposing it.

Discriminating against humans out of ignorance and fear, denying them their basic dignity—that is reason enough.

I do not personally understand what it means to be transgender.  I have not walked in those shoes or struggled in that way; however, I require neither the struggle nor the experience to know that treating people as “less than” is wrong.




Saturday, January 21, 2017

An Open Letter to My President

January 21, 2017
 
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

As a proud citizen of the United States, I want to extend my congratulations to you on the occasion of your inauguration.  The events of this weekend, starting with the words of your speech, all the way through the many demonstrations across the country in response to your ascent to the highest, most respected office in our great country, have moved me to write to you, my president.

My president.  Many, like me, have struggled with that notion.  Many Americans have decided that they cannot refer to you as such.  They, like me, did not support you, nor did they vote for you.  They, like me, have been alternately baffled, amused, and frightened by the things you have said and done in the past months.  Though many of my friends and loved ones who did support you suggest that we take you seriously rather than literally, others, like me, are deeply concerned that there are hateful elements in our country who hear the words you speak and see the actions you take as a license to hate.

Nevertheless, you are my president.  I didn’t agree when people said “not my president” about President Bush (I did not vote for him) or President Obama (I did vote for him).  They, like you, were my presidents, regardless of whether or not I voted for them, as are you.  It seems that if I do not claim you as my president, then I am not in a solid position to remind you that you represent me and all Americans, not just your base.  You now have the awesome job, burden, and responsibility of representing not only those who voted for you, but all of us.

Because I hold such great respect for the Office of the Presidency, and because you are, indeed, accountable to this and every citizen, I will applaud you when I feel you have done the right thing, and I will question you when you have not.  I will speak the truth, even when my voice shakes.  In the liturgy of my church, I will sincerely pray for you to be wise and fair when your name is uplifted, and will pray that those who follow you will be led by love, compassion, inclusion, and justice.

Because you are my president, this sincere and respectful gay, environmentally-concerned citizen wants to know why the LGBT and Climate Change pages on the White House website were suddenly absent immediately following your inauguration. 

Because you are my president, I want to know the plan for replacing the Affordable Care Act since members of my family are depending on the health insurance therein provided for them. 

As a citizen of the United States and the State of Texas, I want to know from you, my president, if the construction of the wall you propose along the southern border will involve the taking of land from United States citizens who have seen the government usurp hundreds of acres of Rio Grande Valley farmland upon which their livelihoods depend in previous, similar efforts.

Yes, Mr. Trump, you are my president, and Mr. Pence is my vice president.  In making that claim, I proudly claim also my constitutional right to ask these questions of you and your administration, and to expect a response.

With sincerity, passion, and patriotism,

D. Scott Elliff, Ed.D.

Corpus Christi, Texas