Sunday, June 21, 2015

South Carolina: It's Time to Take It Down

Dear South Carolina Governor & Legislators,

I was born in Charleston.  I'm a daughter of the South.  There's a city in Spartanburg County -- Landrum, SC -- that was named for some distant relatives of mine.  And my direct ancestor fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy.  My family owns land in the South that was passed down for generations, land that once we enslaved other people on. 

I understand heritage. I understand heritage is complicated.  I understand we have to remember the bad of who we were, and the hard times, along with the good of who we are, and the good times.  I understand that lives were lost and lives were changed, and the Confederacy and the Civil War continue to shape us.  I understand that we can't forget the past, nor do I want to.

I understand heritage.  I struggle with mine, celebrate mine, mourn about mine, live with mine.  Heritage is complicated.

But flying the Confederate flag doesn't represent my heritage, which goes back generations before and continues generations after the Confederacy.  It could only represent a thin slice of heritage at best.  But this symbol doesn't do even that.  It doesn't even truly represent that slice of time -- it's not the flag that flew in South Carolina during the Confederacy, it's the battle flag of another state.  It's not something that's been there, flying over or in front of government buildings, untouched, since that time. It's a symbol that was brought back into our public spaces by the resistance to the Civil Rights movement, a symbol that was brought back for reasons of hatred and racism.  It's a symbol that's been used and abused by the KKK.  It's a symbol that might seem to say "heritage" for some small percentage, but says "hatred" and "oppression" for so many others.  And it has no business on our public lands and flying over our government buildings. 

It's time to acknowledge that this symbol was put up for the wrong reasons, it's the wrong symbol, and it's time for it to come down.  It doesn't truly represent heritage.  It represents a hate that has no place in our government any more.  It represents a time when we acted wrongly, fighting against voter registration and glorifying a time of slavery. 

To truly respect our heritage, to truly honor it, we have to also be willing to honor the truth -- the complicated truth that there were things our ancestors were wrong about, and there were things they chose that we can't applaud.  My ancestors had honor and love and a number of good virtues, I'm sure.  But my ancestors drove Native Americans off their land, and then on that land my ancestors enslaved African Americans.  That's not something I want to wave a flag proudly for.  It's not something I want to forget, either.  But honoring and respecting heritage means understanding this complexity, that not all was good, not all was admirable, and not all was what we want to carry forward.  I might have German ancestors, but flying the Nazi flag wouldn't honor heritage, it would honor hate.  Flying the Confederate flag doesn't honor the complexity of heritage -- it shouts a message of oppression.

And one thing that clearly we need to not carry forward at this time in our country is a symbol that speaks of hatred, of oppression, and of slavery.  We need to not have symbols that glorify racism and oppression as part of our government and its buildings and sites.  The symbol needs to be placed in its proper context, and that is purely historical.

It's time to take down the Confederate flag.

Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"They died... discussing the eternal meaning of love."

In the Civil Rights era, there were churches that were centers for civil rights organizing.  And they were attacked -- bombed, set on fire.  We know best the story of the 16th Street Baptist church where four young girls died.  In his eulogy for them, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would say, "They died between the sacred walls of the church of God, and they were discussing the eternal meaning of love."

In that same eulogy for the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also said:
"They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream."
They are words he would share again in his eulogy for the Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb.

After the shooting in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, a shooting motivated by hatred of the values we stand for, the UUA launched our social justice movement "Standing on the Side of Love." 

This shooting in Charleston, South Carolina at the Emanuel AME Church says something to us in our religious faith, too. This shooting doesn't call for us to launch a movement, but to join a movement.  This shooting calls for us to be partners, work in solidarity, join coalitions, build bridges. 

These deaths say to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for Love.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Trouble with Truancy - Part 2

As my letter in Part 1 of this series illustrated, it's fairly easy to have a truant child.  Missing two weeks due to illness is quite easy to have happen, and the requirement that many districts have that a doctor's note is the only way to excuse the absence means a classist system of who can and will have absences excused and who will end up with a truant child.  All other things being equal, two children out for two weeks with the same two colds can end up with very different fates, not because of the nature of the child, or the diligence of the parent, but simply for economic reasons.

That income levels and truancy are related is no surprise.  A recent MLive article reported:
"Some districts, including many affluent suburban ones, reported little or no truancy. The Forest Hills schools outside Grand Rapids reported five truant students among 10,147 enrolled, and Bloomfield Hills in suburban Detroit just 32 out of 12,306. But Kentwood, another metropolitan Grand Rapids district, had 590 truant cases, representing 6.8 percent of its students, according to the data."

So what?  What does it matter if a child is labeled truant?  Well, it turns out it matters a great deal.   In Michigan, a truant child can mean a fine to a parent, and even jail time

Well, apparently that wasn't enough for our Michigan Republicans who control our legislature.  This week, Governor Snyder signed a new bill into law that cuts welfare to families if a child is truant. 

So imagine, if you will, a low-income family with three children.  The youngest child gets sick for a week, and the parent keeps her home.  It's a mild cold, so there's no need to see a doctor, but the child misses a week of school.  Now they have 5 of the 10 days towards being considered truant.  The child gets sick again.  The family can't afford to see a doctor, but keeps the child home again.  Now the child is truant.  The parents are then fined for having a truant child.  And, now, our government takes food away from the whole family. 

Governor Snyder said, "Much like the Pathways to Potential program, this legislation brings together parents, schools and the state to determine obstacles that keep students from being in school and how to overcome them."  When my child was sick a couple of years ago with a mild cold and I wrote the letter to my school board in frustration, it did bring parents and school together.  My child's principal had told me there was no way she could excuse the absence without a doctor's note.  The school board seemed to hear the situation, and agree that the policy was flawed.  Two years later, the policy is still (or back) in place.  Children are still being considered truant because of illness and income.  Now Governor Snyder thinks this will bring together parents, schools, and state?  Yes, it will -- unnecessarily.  It's completely unnecessary to bring the state into this level of involvement between schools and parents.  The fact that it's penalizing lower income people who are already struggling with the truancy laws is unconscionable. 

The Trouble with Truancy - Part 1

Two years ago, I wrote our school district about the truancy policy.  At that time, I was told that I had presented a good case, and they were going to change their policy.  I don't know if it actually did change and then changed back, but looking at the policy on my school district's webpage, the policy is the same as the one I complained about.  In this post, I'll share that letter.  In my next post, I'll talk about why it matters, and what the Michigan government has just done that makes this even worse.

Dear JPS School Board,

I’m writing to you because I’ve been disturbed about the JPS elementary school attendance policy for some time.  Specifically, I find it disturbing that the only way an absence can be “excused” is with a doctor’s note.  My chief issue with this policy is that I think it is, in a word, classist.  In addition, I think that it represents a misuse of the medical system and it fails to respect a parent’s reasonable judgment.

The policy as it now stands requires a doctor’s note to excuse an absence.  I am fortunate to have insurance and have a family doctor I can turn to.  Even so, it may require a $20 co-pay for a visit before a doctor will be willing to write a letter, which may mean a $20 fee for a note to excuse an absence for what I know is a cold with a mild fever.  Since I’m following our school’s procedures of keeping a child home when sick, I’ll need to do this if I think she might be sick for even five days total per year.  This is doable for me, if I’m worried about the situation.  However, for a family in a harder economic situation, that $20 co-pay can be onerous.  But that’s assuming a family has a regular doctor and has insurance beyond catastrophic coverage only.  I’m certain that not all families in our school district do, with more than half of the children in our county living in poverty (  As you well know, most of our elementary schools qualified for the federal program supplying free school lunches for our children based on the poverty rates of our area. 

What we are creating, therefore, is a system wherein wealthier students when they get sick are less likely to be considered truant and poorer children are more likely to be considered truant, based not on their real truancy rates, but based on their access to affordable medical care.  The schools need to be helping address income inequality between our students, not creating further income inequality.

Beyond issues of class, however, this system represents a misuse of the medical system and a lack of respect for the judgment of parents.  To return to my own child’s situation, we’re told we’re supposed to keep children home if they have any fever.  However, when I keep my child home with a sniffle and a temperature that’s up one or two degrees, as I have done today, I therefore also need to call my child’s doctor and get a note from her.  In the past, the doctor has told us with cold-like symptoms and a very mild fever there’s no need for the child to see a doctor unless the condition persists beyond a couple of days.  I therefore know that there’s no need, other than the JPS policy, to seek a medical professional’s advice.  Today we called the doctor, anyway, to try to meet the policy demands.  However, we haven’t received a call back yet.  Sometimes they’ve been willing to provide a note for school without seeing her and, really, what does that prove, except that we have a good relationship with our doctor?  If they won’t write a note for today without seeing her, I’ll need for her to see the doctor, in order to prove she was sick.  My daughter may be well tomorrow, but I would need to pull her out of school tomorrow in order to get the note to excuse the first day’s absence.  (The note would probably then say that my child’s absence wasn’t excused, because she was fine by the second day.)  So now my child would have been out for one and a half days when one day would have sufficed, wasting the doctor’s time, my time, and my child’s time, just because of a poor policy.  Frankly, I’m unwilling to pull my child out of school for an unnecessary doctor’s appointment, because school is more important to me than your attendance policy.  So if this happens for eight days per year, my child will probably be referred to a truant officer for early truancy intervention.  My hope is that if this happens, “early truancy intervention” is something which focuses on telling other parents to keep their children home when they’re sick so that my child can catch fewer colds and miss fewer days, or helps set up free clinics for parents without insurance!  Of course, you can see that we’re caught it a Catch-22.

To not accept my word that my child has a mild fever and a sniffle is to disrespect my judgment as a parent, one who does care about my child’s medical status and knows that a doctor visit is not necessary.  To have to pursue it with a reluctant physician, as well, is a misuse of the medical establishment, and disrespectful to our physician, as well. 

If you all think back to the days when you were a child, and were home sick with a mild cold, you’ll remember that your parent probably called the school and told them you were sick, and that was the end of the matter.  There should be a way to continue to do this.  Be creative.  While the occasional problem of a parent keeping a child out of school more for other reasons may exist, there are ways to address this without creating a burdensome system with a difficult financial cost to the parents to it. 

Thank you for considering my argument.  I hope I have managed to convey my issue respectfully, although this policy frustrates me every time my child has been home sick.  I understand not excusing a family vacation, or even a trip to the dentist, but if you want parents to keep sick children home, as I know you do, I hope you will consider making it easier for us to do so. 

Cynthia L. Landrum

Friday, June 12, 2015

New Legal Religious Discrimination in Michigan

Michigan's Governor Snyder signed a new set of discrimination laws yesterday.  "Senate Substitute for House Bill No. 4188" states:

"Private child placing agencies, including faith-based child placing agencies, have the right to free exercise of religion under both the state and federal constitutions.  Under well-settled principles of constitutional law, this right includes the freedom to abstain from conduct that conflicts with an agency's sincerely held religious beliefs."

Both faith-based and non-faith-based agencies receive government money.  Given the separation of church and state, it should be the case that agencies receiving federal or state money are not allowed to religiously discriminate in who they serve.  However, this separation has been eroded over the years in a multitude of ways, from President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision. 

Even so, this is a new level of affront to freedom of religion.  Hobby Lobby isn't receiving government money to do its work.  It's a for-profit organization.  Adoption is a different sort of business.  Half of adoption agencies are faith-based in Michigan -- Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and the evangelical Bethany Christian Services. How much money are they receiving from the state?  Michigan Radio reports that it is "up to $10 thousand dollars a child." 

This is most notably an attack on same-sex couples.  The Catholics and Methodists both do not recognize same-sex marriage, and the president of Bethany Christian Services, William Blacquiere, has said, "At Bethany, we would never deny a family for their secular status, or single-parent, or anything of that nature. However, if the family would be in conflict with our religious beliefs, we would assist them to go to another agency."

Actually right now judges are stopped from granting two-parent same-sex adoptions already.  Same-sex parents who adopt usually end up with only one of them as the adoptive parent.  This is what started the court case that led to Michigan's challenge to the same-sex marriage ban.  And with a Supreme Court decision potentially changing the marriage equation, this might change, but right now this is the case.  So the religious right is getting ducks in a row to make sure that if you can get married in Michigan you can still be banned from adopting, denied housing, barred from public accommodations, and fired from your job the day after your wedding.  Seriously.  I do not exaggerate.  This is currently the case that all these forms of discrimination are legal, but our legislators are writing laws that ensure that they're not just legal by the default of having no legal protections from discrimination, but explicitly and purposefully legal.

However, it is not just same-sex couples who might be denied adoption.  So who else might conflict with the religious beliefs of these Christian organizations?
  • Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and any people of non-Christian faiths
  • Atheists, agnostics, and the unchurched
  • Single parents and unwed couples
It wasn't that long ago that people had religious objections to interracial marriage and interracial adoption.  Even that most abhorrent form of discrimination could be seen as legal with this new legislation. Our legislature has been hard at work lately making sure that their rights to discriminate are protected at every turn.  What they're worried about, it seems, is their freedom to hate, and what the corporations want. 

What's missing in all of this, of course, is what's best for the children.