An epic Supreme Court showdown over religion and LGBTQ rights ends in a whimper

“Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case involving a Catholic group that objects to placing foster children with same-sex couples, was widely expected to be a sweeping victory for the religious right, and a correspondingly significant defeat for LGBTQ rights. Instead, the Court’s opinion dodges nearly all of the important issues raised by the case.
It’s still a small win for religious conservatives and a similarly small loss for the LGBTQ community in Philadelphia. But the Court’s decision is unlikely to have many implications outside of that city. And it hits pause on a fight to overrule a landmark Supreme Court decision from over three decades ago — most likely because, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett notes in a concurring opinion, several of the justices aren’t sure what to do next if that decision is overruled.”

“The plaintiffs in Fulton, moreover, also asked the Supreme Court to overrule its seminal decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), which held that religious objectors must follow “neutral law[s] of general applicability.” Under Smith, a religious objector typically is bound by a state or local law so long as it applies with equal force to non-religious actors — so, if secular organizations are forbidden from discriminating, the same rule will generally apply to religious organizations.

But neither of these important questions was resolved in Fulton. While Justice Samuel Alito penned a lengthy opinion calling for Smith to be overruled, that opinion was joined by only Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

The remainder of the Court joined a much narrower majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, which rules in favor of CSS, but on grounds that are unlikely to have many implications for future cases.”

“this argument relies solely on the text of Philadelphia’s particular ordinance.”

US investment alone won’t solve Central America’s migrant crisis

“Vice President Kamala Harris recently announced a partnership with 12 private-sector companies and organizations to support “inclusive economic development” in the Northern Triangle of Central America, which includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. US government agencies, including the State Department, will also work with governments in the region to remove impediments to international investment and foster new private-sector partnerships.

Among the commitments, Mastercard is supporting 1 million small businesses in the region; Chobani is creating a startup incubator for food entrepreneurs in Guatemala; Microsoft is expanding broadband access to up to 3 million people by next July; and Nespresso is starting to source coffee from El Salvador and Honduras and expanding its existing operations in Guatemala with a minimum $150 million investment by 2025.

Though the lack of foreign investment is far from the only factor driving people to make the journey north, the idea is that improving economic conditions will contribute to overall stability in the region, which has long suffered from persistent corruption, weak government institutions, and high levels of violent crime.”

“there’s a long way to go in persuading would-be migrants that the economic opportunities at home are better than what they might find in the US.”

“direct foreign investment in the region has been minimal in recent decades. In 2019, the last year for which there is available data, foreign investment to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala was just under $2.2 billion combined, according to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. By comparison, migrants who left those countries sent a total of $22 billion in remittances back home that year.”

“the levels of foreign investment required to change the calculus around people’s decisions to migrate is much larger than what the region has received in the past. Harris’s initiative, therefore, only represents a starting point.”

““In order for Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to really compete for good jobs, there is a bit of a homework that needs to be done in terms of preparing the actual workforce in these countries to be in a position to assimilate the possibility of a Microsoft or Google or any other technology company that wants to do heavy investments in these countries,” Chacon said.

That means improving education — and not just formal education, but also vocational training that can set up students to fill niches sought out by international investors.”

“Costa Rica, which brought in $2.5 billion in direct foreign investment in 2019 — more than all of the Northern Triangle countries combined — can serve as a potential model in that respect. Unlike the Northern Triangle, it has invested in preparing a qualified workforce to be competitive, and not just for low-paying jobs, Chacon said.

“Investors in Costa Rica are very confident that the rules are there solidly in place, that they have a very good system of checks and balances, and that there is hardly any corruption anybody can point to,” he said. “That is very different from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.””

““In the Northern Triangle countries, we don’t really have any democratically-minded or reform-minded [government] partners,” Angelo said. “And so I think it’s only natural that the US government would seek to partner with the private sector, and particularly with American companies that we know generally abide by the rule of law.””

The Senate’s infrastructure gamble, explained

“Senate Democrats are navigating a tricky balancing act: attempting to simultaneously advance both a $600 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion budget resolution full of Democratic priorities that’s only expected to garner partisan support.

This plan, which has colloquially been referred to as the “two-track strategy,” is intended to demonstrate that lawmakers can actually work across party lines to get something done on “hard” infrastructure, like roads and airports, and that Democrats can also deliver on “human” infrastructure that’s a party priority but that Republicans won’t support, like funding for long-term caregiving and paid leave.

It is a somewhat circuitous approach to approving infrastructure legislation, driven by the focus that moderate Democrats, and President Joe Biden, have put on bipartisanship — as well as their refusal to alter the filibuster.”

‘Potential crisis for democracy’: Threats to election workers could spur mass retirements

“State and local election offices fear they are set to face a wave of retirements and resignations after confronting the dual burdens of a pandemic and a rise in conspiracy-fueled threats.

A new survey of over 200 local election officials — the people responsible for running polling places, maintaining voter rolls and counting and certifying the results of elections — found that roughly one-third were either very or somewhat concerned about “being harassed on the job” or “feeling unsafe” at work during the 2020 election cycle. Nearly 4-in-10 respondents in the survey, which was conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice and Bipartisan Policy Center, reported the same level of concern about “facing pressure to certify election results.””

““What is normally a fairly obscure administrative job is now one where lunatics are threatening to murder your children,” said Al Schmidt, one of the three members of Philadelphia’s city board of elections. Schmidt, a Republican, announced in January that he will not seek reelection to his post in 2023. “That is not something anyone anticipates or signs up for.””

““It’s a big challenge and, I think, a potential crisis for democracy,” said Lawrence Norden, the director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center, a left-leaning think tank. “The real question is: Who replaces them when they leave?””

““I think that the big danger here is especially if those positions — which, again, are typically pretty obscure — are targeted to replace those professional election administrators with partisan political operatives whose job it is to undermine confidence” in the electoral system, Schmidt continued.”

“Election administrators are also concerned about new laws in several states that exposed election officials to more criminal and civil penalties for wrongdoing. A bipartisan pair of prominent election attorneys warned in a New York Times essay that the laws could be used to intimidate election officials or punish them for honest mistakes.

“The people that are involved in elections are civic-minded individuals who just want to be part of a democracy, to make it fair and equitable. Nobody’s there for the pay,” said Roxanna Moritz, a Democrat who recently retired early from her position as Scott County, Iowa’s chief elections official, citing a lack of support. “I think that the criminalization in these states are going to cause people to say ‘Okay, it’s time for me to leave. I could make a mistake.’””

The Geophysicist Who Stormed the Capitol

“Sabol’s actions on January 6 and the days afterward have left many in his life confused and grappling for answers. How did a highly educated, middle-aged man with so much to lose participate in what FBI director Christopher Wray called “domestic terrorism,” and then try to kill himself? How did someone with strong views about government overreach, but also plenty of friends and neighbors outside his political bubble, end up on the steps of the Capitol, in attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election results?

In some ways, Sabol’s radicalization mirrors that of other insurrectionists, a group that collectively has put a new face on American extremism. While many of those arrested for political terrorism in recent decades have been young, underemployed and socially isolated, the majority of the 465 (and counting) defendants in the Capitol attack are much like Sabol—older individuals, mostly white men, with well-established careers.”

“Understanding Jeffrey Sabol’s transformation reveals how radicalization can happen under the radar, while offering lessons for those who want to combat it going forward: about how personal challenges can collide with political messages, and how a person’s job, education level, community and even their social media profile aren’t reliable predictors of extremist behavior. Thousands of people descended on the Capitol terrace, with thousands of individual routes taken to get there.”

“Over the past decade, several parts of Sabol’s life unraveled, according to interviews and court records. In 2011, Strotz filed for divorce. In an interview, she said Sabol began drinking heavily and acting “strange.” Then, in 2014, Sabol’s older brother died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving him devastated. “I believe at this point Jeff lost his bearing and allowed himself to be led by others that steered him down a negative path,” his sister wrote in her character letter filed with the court. She didn’t specify who the people leading her brother astray were, and she did not return phone calls or respond to emails.”

“Sabol found a large measure of stability with a woman he met while back home in Waterville one summer with his kids, according to the character letters. A neighbor to his parents, she and Sabol immediately connected. After a year of dating, she quit her job at a nursing home to re-locate to Colorado, moving into Sabol’s modest, split-level, four-bedroom rental in Kittredge.

By this point, Sabol’s strong political views were already well established. According to Strotz, they took root after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. She denies race had anything to do with it: “It was Obama as a person. He would freak out. He hated that Obama became president, and he hated Democrats. He became obsessed.” Strotz, herself a registered Republican, says Sabol, a registered independent, wrote multiple emails to the Obama White House, though she doesn’t know what they said. Around this time, John Bergman, Sabol’s friend and former co-worker, remembers Sabol attaching a “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker to his old blue Ford pickup truck and running an American flag off the back.

Strotz says when she and Sabol were together, she witnessed what she refers to as his “bad side”—an angry streak and moods that would change quickly. She suggested that Sabol might want to talk to someone about this, but “there was nothing wrong with him in his mind,” she says. In 2016, according to county court records, Sabol was charged with misdemeanor child abuse; Strotz says Sabol had injured their then-15-year-old son. The charge was dismissed after Sabol paid fines and completed probation, a mental health evaluation and counseling. In 2018, he decided to give up custody of his son to Strotz, she says: “Jeff stood in my home and told my fiancé and I that he could no longer continue to do his 50 percent of parenting time with his son, or he would end up in jail.” Sabol did, however, consistently pay child support for his son, according to Strotz.

Whatever was triggering Sabol’s anger at home didn’t appear to carry over into other circles. Bergman says he didn’t experience his friend’s mood swings, though he describes an unusual intensity Sabol brought to his work at ECC. “I would leave the office at 5 p.m., and the next morning he’d still be there when I got in at 8 a.m. Sometimes he’d be there for two nights. He’d get into something and then just go.”

In 2020, Sabol’s fervor found new political outlets. As a geophysicist working on government contracts, Sabol had long been troubled by what he saw as the unchecked power and waste of military spending, or the “military industrial complex,” according to Kerbs. “Because of his work, he saw the other side, how corrupt it is,” Kerbs says of Sabol’s job cleaning up unused or discarded U.S. taxpayer-funded military weaponry and explosives. After the 2020 election, Sabol grew focused on another perceived abuse of government power, this one perpetrated by groups Sabol already harbored mistrust of: A strong supporter of President Donald Trump, Sabol believed the then-president’s claims that liberals and Democrats had “rigged” the election, according to prosecutors, and flew to Washington in December to attend political rallies.”

“he spoke openly to investigators about his views while recovering at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, after his arrest, telling agents, “There was no question” the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump. He had seen videos of ballots being mishandled, he said, and knew voting machines had been tampered with, even though more than 100 judges around the country have determined that no credible evidence of fraud exists. He said he was a “patriot warrior” who had answered “the call to battle” and was “fighting tyranny in the D.C. capital.””

‘This Is No Way to Live’: Discontent Spilled Over in Russia. But Will It Matter?

“For some reason, despite the risks, millions of Russians are unhappy enough with Putin to go out in the streets and protest. The question is—why? And will it matter?”

“Why did he think Russians were turning out like never before? Davidoff said that everyone he asked began with the phrase: “Well, I don’t agree with Navalny about everything, but …” I had heard similar comments. Then the speakers would continue with phrases like these: “But if they can treat Navalny this way, they can treat me this way.” “But it’s a matter of self-respect.” “But the corruption is out of control.” “But my bills keep going up and my pension stays the same.” “But my salary just disappears.” “But I’ve got to help support my parents.”

Whatever the motivation for each person, it was strong enough for them to risk physical harm, detention or even imprisonment to express discontent with the country and their lives.”

“Russians really are having a hard time making ends meet. In Moscow, with its shopping malls, elegantly dressed population and boom of elite housing, it’s easy to miss.

It’s also not easy to see on paper. All the statistics seemed to indicate that Russia weathered the Covid storm better than most countries. At the beginning of 2021, data showed that the economies of European countries contracted about 7.4 percent in 2020 and the world economy was down 3.5 percent, while Russia’s economy contracted by only about 3.1 percent. Analysts at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics noted cheerfully that this was the first time in history Russia did better than the world average. This appears to be in part because the segments of the economy hit hardest by the pandemic—service sectors—are relatively small in Russia. The price of oil, Russia’s main source of income, did plummet for a while, but then it began to edge up again. Today it’s almost $70 a barrel, while the state budget is based on revenues of $42 per barrel.

But on the micro level it’s a different story. Household incomes are down 3.5 percent in the past year, and this is a deeper dip in a downward trend: Households are making 11 percent less in real terms than in 2013. From Dec. 1 to March 17 the price of gas jumped 18.5 percent. Food prices have risen by almost 8 percent from April 2020 to April 2021, and the government is paying 3 billion rubles (about $40 million) to subsidize the price of sugar. The government has even banned the export of buckwheat groats, a staple for Russian families in hard times, to keep the price affordable.

All of this means that none of my retired friends can live on their monthly pensions of 12,000 rubles ($164) without working or getting help from their children and families. And it explains why all of us have been living paycheck to paycheck.”

“Corruption in Russia has always been a problem, but the conventional wisdom is that it seems to have gotten worse in the past two decades. First, my friends would tell me, they had to pay 15 percent in kickbacks on state contracts, but now it’s 35 or 50 percent. The saleswoman in a local household goods store told me how she and her husband had saved up enough money to buy the rights to a small press kiosk, but since it was at a bus stop and owned by the city, he had to get an official’s signature. Dressed in his best suit, her husband went into the office and explained what he needed. The bureaucrat replied, “Well?” My friend’s husband didn’t understand, and after a few questions back and forth at cross purposes, the official finally said, “Didn’t anyone tell you? My signature costs $50,000.”

Businesspeople also run the risk that a competitor will pay off someone in law enforcement to bring charges against them—and watch as the competitor takes over their business. Everyone resents the day-to-day corruption that makes life difficult, the money you pay in taxes or fees that disappears into someone’s pockets. You pay your apartment fees, but the management company doesn’t shovel the snow or wash the floor in the entryway or fix the hole in the roof. You watch workers change the curbstones on your street four times in three months. The trash cans in parks are overflowing. Getting your kids in the right school or right class costs extra.”

“The government crackdown in recent weeks means life has changed dramatically for independent media and opposition political figures and activists. Dmitry Gudkov, once a member of the parliament who formed the opposition Party of Changes, packed up and left Russia on June 6 after being warned by sources in the presidential administration that otherwise a “fake criminal case would continue until his arrest.” On June 9, the Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared an extremist group, thus making all its employees ineligible for elections for at least three years—including, of course, in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for September. For Russians who hoped for change through open media and elections, it felt like the end of an era in Russia’s political life.”

“Albats points out that throughout Russian history, autocrats have been forced out only when they lose the support of the “elites”—which these days means the billionaires around Putin.
Which suggests that a crusader like Navalny, no matter how charismatic, and ordinary Russians, no matter how discontented, are unlikely to change that pattern.”

How the Anti-Abortion Movement Used the Progressive Playbook to Chip Away at Roe v. Wade

“The attack on Roe has been decades in the making—and its successes owe not just to the strength of the conservative anti-abortion movement, but to the progressive playbook that achieved breakthroughs on civil rights, gay marriage and even abortion.

Much like the civil-rights activists of the past, abortion foes have pursued a long-term strategy that stretches far outside the courts. It depends on grassroots political change as well as legal challenges, and on the tidal push-and-pull between politics and the law at the highest levels.”

“Efforts by anti-abortion activists at the state and local level also reflect the use of a strategy that has already proved successful for gay rights advocates—one that focused on changing local laws, one step at a time, to make the values written into an earlier case appear to be out of step with contemporary constitutional law as well as public sentiment.”

“The current focus on “viability”—the question at the heart of the Dobbs case—is a new step in this politics of repudiation. In Roe v. Wade, the Court has held that there is a right to abortion until fetal viability, which now falls around the 24th week of pregnancy. Advances in neonatal care might move up the date of viability somewhat, but until now the point has held: Any future limits on abortion right would have to observe that line in the sand. The Court has preserved this “viability” line even as it repeatedly tinkered with abortion rights in response to politics.
To chip away at the “viability” norm, states have rushed to ban abortions much earlier in pregnancy—the Mississippi law now before the Supreme Court prohibits the procedure a full eight to nine weeks before viability. Georgia recognizes fetal personhood at six weeks. Alabama has sought to ban abortions outright, regardless of gestational time. Anti-abortion activists then point to all these moves as evidence that the viability norm encoded in Roe, just like the sexual-behavior norm encoded in Bowers, has now become an outlier—a relic of a time when American beliefs around abortion were far more permissive.”

“By flooding the field of action with abortion restrictions based on different standards over the years, abortion opponents have forced courts to wrestle with difficult and often murky medical questions, and given judges with more favorable ideological leanings maximal opportunities to revisit legal rules and frameworks. One successful wave of post-Roe anti-abortion activism assailed the logic of the trimester framework, a critical part of the original Roe decision that deemed most restrictions in the first trimester of pregnancy unconstitutional. In the most important Supreme Court abortion case between Roe and Dobbs—Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in 1992—the Court threw out the trimester framework but preserved the viability line as an essential component of the right to choose.”

“In Dobbs, the renewed attack on viability sets the stage for an end game. Viability has long been in the crosshairs because abortion foes see it as a potential weakness in the Roe precedent—philosophers and bioethicists have sometimes questioned its logic. The Supreme Court could have dodged the fate of viability in Dobbs, but instead they decided to tackle it head-on: In fact, they narrowly chose to consider only the question of whether pre-viability bans are unconstitutional. That means that if the Court wants to uphold Mississippi’s law, the justices must get rid of at least part of Roe. Even if the justices in Dobbs do not openly repudiate a woman’s right to choose, Roe could be fatally weakened.”

Will the Internet Destroy Cuba’s Communist Dictatorship?

“On Sunday, July 11, thousands of Cubans in dozens of cities around the island nation took to the streets to protest the country’s communist dictatorship and persistent shortages in food, energy, and medicine, all of which have been made worse by the pandemic.

The demonstrations have been enabled by social media and the internet, which only came to Cuba in a big way in late 2018, when President Miguel Diaz-Canel allowed citizens access to the internet on their cellphones.”

The Trade Embargo Allows Cuba’s Regime To Blame the U.S. for Communism’s Failings

“Despite being in place since 1962, the trade embargo has plainly failed to accomplish its primary goal of toppling Cuba’s regime. If anything, the policy has likely bolstered the regime by allowing the communist government to blame the U.S. for its own economic problems, as Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel did on Sunday. The trade embargo has contributed to the Cuban government’s impoverishing of millions of Cubans while limiting Americans’ economic freedom, too. That it remains in place nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union shows that America’s foreign policy towards Cuba has failed to learn the primary lesson of the end of the Cold War: Economic freedom is the best weapon to aim at communism.”

“Cuba’s government is authoritarian, but there should be no mincing of words about this. Communism is what broke Cuba. The authoritarianism on display is merely the natural evolution of communist regimes—a pattern of economic and political repression that has been tragically repeated in too many corners of the world during the past century.
Biden’s statement is right to conflate the lack of economic freedom with long-running political repression in Cuba. That’s exactly why America’s trade embargo is such a backward strategy, one that assumes economic and political freedom aren’t fundamentally linked.

Look at what happened when the Obama administration loosened some of the rules banning Americans from traveling to Cuba as part of an effort to reestablish diplomatic relations. Even with the trade embargo still in place, that slight policy change helped create a boomlet of entrepreneurship amid then-Cuban President Raul Castro’s thawing of tight state control over private businesses on the island.”

“Since taking over as Cuba’s president in 2018, Díaz-Canel has cracked down on Cuba’s private sector. Former President Donald Trump helped him smother the nascent economic reforms by reversing some of Obama’s attempts to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations and by slapping new economic sanctions on Cuba just before leaving office in January.

Advocates for maintaining the embargo against Cuba argue that increased trade and tourism would enrich and strengthen the communist regime while failing to aid most Cubans. This was basically Trump’s approach—one that reflects longstanding hardline conservative views about how to handle the communist state just 90 miles from the Florida coast. “There is zero reason to delude ourselves into believing that ‘engagement’ will get the tyrants in Havana to change their ways,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) wrote in January.

This is a clever misdirection. Where is the evidence that disengagement is working? The embargo has been in place for nearly six decades. How much longer should we wait? How much longer should the people of Cuba have to wait?”

“As the people of Cuba strive to cast off their communist oppressors, the United States can do more than simply offer words of support. Undoing Trump’s restrictions on the remittances that many Cuban Americans send to their families still trapped under the communist regime would be a great place to start.

If Biden were to reinstate Obama’s travel and economic policies toward Cuba and call on Congress to end the failed trade embargo, it would be unlikely to immediately change the reality on the ground in Havana. But it would signal to the Cuban people—and to the country’s potential future leaders in the event of a full-scale toppling of the regime—that the United States is prepared to let trade and tourism serve as vital economic and political lifelines for the island’s long-suffering residents. And it would remove one excuse the Cuban government routinely uses to dismiss the failings of communism.”