Controversy in Indiana, Victory in Nevada

By Sheila Freed

There has been a lot of news coverage the past several days about Indiana. The legislature there passed and the governor signed a new law designed to protect religious freedom. The backlash has been immediate and significant, because the bill is seen as discriminatory against the LGBT community and potentially other groups. Several large corporations who do business in Indiana have said they will change their plans because of this law, and the result will be lost jobs and lost revenue to the state. But for an upswell of public concern — including a pushback in the media and among its voters — Nevada could have seen the same scenario play out here.

Assembly Bill 277 was introduced in the Nevada Legislature on March 12, 2015. The next day it was referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. As of April 2, the bill had apparently died with no action. The “Nevada Protection of Religious Freedom Act” was nearly identical to the Indiana law. Defenders of the Indiana law said it’s just like a federal law passed in 1993, but in fact Indiana’s new law, and what could have been Nevada law, go much farther. Both say that a “person” has the right to practice religion free of government interference. However the definition of “person” which is specifically included in the proposed statute is a “natural person; or any form of business or social organization or other nongovernmental legal entity, whether or not the organization or legal entity is created, organized, or operated for profit.” The backlash in Indiana and potentially in Nevada is that this definition allows businesses to discriminate based on a claimed religious belief. The infamous Citizens United decision said that corporations have a right to free speech. This legislation effectively gives corporations freedom of religion as well. (Does that mean they have a conscience? Doubtful.)

There are a number of states that have similar “religious freedom” laws, most being in the Deep South. The Arkansas legislature just passed such a law, and even Wal Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, is urging the governor not to sign it. Passage of AB 277 would have had huge implications for the tourist/hospitality industry in Nevada, and could very well have negated all the incentives the state has given to Tesla and other businesses to bring them here. But, more measured minds prevailed. Our legislators not only observed and took seriously Indiana’s ill-considered passing of their own bill; they did the right thing and left Nevada’s to die.

That’s advocacy in action. With so many potentially damaging bills coming up for committee vote or full-on assembly or senate vote as the 2015 session enters its second half, let’s assure our voices keep being heard.

— with contributions from Vic Williams

Creating Change from … Nothing

Editor’s Note: The following is from a March 27, 2015 Lenten e-mail message by ELCA Director of Advocacy Stacy Martin. It goes to the heart of why Christ-based advocacy matters.

“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.”

Mark 6:42-44 (NRSV)

Like Thomas Jefferson, I’ve never seemed to have much patience for the Bible’s miracle stories. They’re difficult to deal with. To my modern mind, it’s hard to imagine that seas can part, food can appear from nowhere and that the dead can be raised.

It’s so tempting for me, in my very modern way, to domesticate miracles – like reducing the feeding of the 5,000 miracle to an idyllic picnic or desert potluck. Not that thousands of human beings sharing isn’t miraculous. It is. In the four Gospels, there are six accounts of this miracle. Six! It must be too important a story for it to be about people sharing their lunches. Miracles are tricky that way.

In the Gospel of John account of the miracle of feeding the crowd, the disciples estimate that the crowd is so large that not even six months’ worth of paychecks would be enough money to feed the mass of people assembled. By expressing the amount in such stark terms, what I think the disciples are really saying is, “We don’t have enough money to feed all these people.” And Jesus is saying, “Exactly. Isn’t that great?”

Isn’t that just like Jesus?

One disciple retorts with what I hear as screaming sarcasm. “There’s a boy with five loaves and two fish,” he says. Imagine! Five thousand hungry people on the side of a mountain, and only five loaves and two fish in sight to feed them with. But it seems that this is exactly what Jesus wanted. The funny thing about God is that we are called to be God’s hands in the world at precisely those times when there’s a whole lot of nothing to work with; which is to say, God calls us all of the time. God even sets God’s communion table so that we come with nothing. It seems that God likes it best that way.

God also likes to turn things on their heads. Jesus’ disciples, who expected to be the ones to provide what was needed, found themselves surprisingly dependent upon the generosity of a small child. The Gospels’ accounts of this miracle indicate that the boy gave over his lunch with the kind of abandon and generosity that we only associate with God. It is just the kind of juxtaposition that God seems to enjoy best. Jesus’ faith is placed in a little child to stave off what might become a riot if the crowd is not fed. This is the same kind of juxtaposition we find ourselves in as church when we advocate in the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

This story about feeding 5,000 with so little is, among other things, a story about perspective. The disciples’ main mistake in this story, I think, is that they have no idea what it is that they have. Namely, they have a God who can feed many on nothing. A God who created the universe out of nothing. A God who put flesh on the nothingness of dry bones. “Nothing” is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as “nothing,” “insignificant,” “worthless,” and says, “HA! Now THAT is something I can work with!”

It is our poverty that we are asked to bring to God, not our treasure, because whether we think we have it all or we think we have nothing, we are all of us beggars fed at the table of God’s mercy. What do we have? Five loaves, a couple of fish? Not much. We believe that even when we want to make a difference in the world, we have to arrive fully prepared, fully equipped and fully funded.

I hear often from church folk and non-church folk alike that Lutherans, any faith community for that matter, can make no real difference in Washington. “Why bother?” I’m asked. Compared to big lobbying firms and corporations, they have a point. By comparison, we don’t have money, or connections, or power, or, often, technical expertise. What do we have? Five loves, a couple of fish? Only a smidge shy of nothing even on our most prosperous days.

It’s on the darkest of days when even bishops suggest that all is hopeless in the halls of power, when I’m dismissed by a member of Congress because I don’t come with deep pockets, when I’m ridiculed by a think tank because I attend to this work from a place of faith and not a place of “real” expertise, when I’ve received the tenth angry letter from a fellow Lutheran who is frustrated with me for even considering advocacy as a legitimate vocation, when I feel that we as the church simply don’t have enough power to change things for the better. It’s on those darkest days that I re-read this miracle story.This tricky little miracle story – the one told six times over in the Bible – says otherwise to the “why bothers” of the world. In this story we glimpse God’s inverted economy of free bread and fish paid for by, you guessed it, nothing. This is part of the juxtaposition I mentioned earlier. It is out of nothing that God will create something, even something as big as justice and peace. It is a tricky little miracle for sure.

In the last days before Easter, as we await the biggest miracle of them all – the bringing forth of life from the vast nothingness of death – may we remember that our nothingness is all that God asks or needs.

So Just What Is a Fair Minimum Wage for Nevadans?

Since America began pulling out of the Great Recession, a lot has been said and written about the struggling middle class, and how the recovery has only been for the wealthy.  Sixteen years ago, the ELCA adopted a Social Statement titled “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, A social statement on economic life.” In the very first paragraph, it says the current market-based economy meets people’s needs to an amazing degree and many are prospering as never before. At the same time, others continue to lack what they need for basic subsistence. The Statement goes on, “Our faith in God provides a vantage point for critiquing any and every system of this world, all of which fall short of what God intends. Human impoverishment, excessive accumulation and consumerism driven by greed, gross economic disparities, and the degradation of nature are incompatible with this reign of God.”

These strong words predate the current debate over whose politics and what economic policies are most beneficial, but the issues haven’t changed since 1991, and really since the days of the Prophets. LEAN always starts with the ELCA Social Statements when analyzing proposed legislation, and “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All” has come into play a lot in the current legislative session. A number of bills have been introduced that really do chip away at the status of working people.

Earlier in this year’s Nevada legislative session, State Senator Tick Segerblom created a stir when he proposed increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour (Senate Joint Resolution 8). At present, the minimum wage in Nevada is $7.25 per hour if health insurance is offered, $8.25 if no health insurance is offered and the employee must buy insurance elsewhere. A year’s full-time employment amounts to about 2,000 hours (40 hours x 52 weeks) and at $8.25 per hour, a year’s income would be $16,500.  It’s pretty difficult to live on that, even if you’re a single person with no dependents. The $15 per hour rate would make a year’s earnings $30,000, still not a very good living. Senator Joe Hardy introduced a somewhat competing measure, SJR 6. His bill doesn’t overtly reduce the minimum wage, but would have the effect of doing so for many workers. Right now, an employer is considered to offer health insurance if a plan is available through the employer at a cost to the worker of no more than 10% of his wage. So our minimum-wage worker would be able to buy insurance for $1,450 per year.  ($7.25 per hour with insurance x 2000 hours =$14,500.) Senator Hardy’s plan tweaks the formula to say that the employer is counted as offering health insurance (and therefore able to pay at a rate of $7.25, not $8.25) if the insurance costs no more than 10% of wages or 10% of the federal poverty level for a family of four, whichever is greater. That sounds pretty innocuous until you know that right now the federal poverty level for four is $24,250. This means that the employer can still be counted as offering health insurance if the plan costs $2,450 per year. A worker living on $14,500 per year may very well decline the employer plan if the cost goes from $121 per month to $204 per month. But the employer would still qualify as “offering health insurance” and could continue to pay $7.25.

This is just one example of a host of bills that require careful analysis to understand the impact. There isn’t room here to discuss others, but we hope to have more soon. Our Advocate, Rev. Mike Patterson, needs your prayers. He works hard to keep up with analysis of the bills, and then in committee hearings he has to speak, sometimes in opposition to powerful business interests. This is why “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All” is so important: It’s an anchor for LEAN’s positions, and a clear statement of how we think our beliefs should be applied in this material world. It’s worth reading. Find it at www.elca.org, or through Google.

Another Reason to Visit Nevada Legislature

Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy in Nevada has been working to get parishioners involved in the legislative process. We’ve spread the word about how easy that is by using the Legislative website. But a visit to Carson City is fun and educational. The building itself is impressive, and visitors can watch the Senate and Assembly in session, or visit a committee hearing, or simply prowl the halls and visit legislators’ offices.

Beginning April 6, there is another great reason to visit the Legislature.

Always Lost, a Meditation on War is a memorial to those lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11, 2001 will be on display until April 22. This exhibit has been all around the country since its unveiling in spring 2009, but it has local roots. It was begun by three professors at Western Nevada College in Carson City. The description below is from the WNC website, where there is much more information about Always Lost.

Components of the Exhibition

In its entirety, the Always Lost: A Meditation on War art/humanities exhibition consists of several components:

  • The “Wall of the Dead” depicts the faces and names of U.S. military war casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, currently numbering over 6,000 dead. As casualties continue to mount, the Wall continues to grow.
  • The Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of Iraq War combat photographs (Breaking News Photography, 2004) by photojournalists David Leeson and Cheryl Diaz Meyer, who were embedded with Marine units in Iraq in 2003. The twenty photographs are on loan to Western Nevada College courtesy of The Dallas Morning News.
  • Ninety pieces of literary work, which includes prose and poetry by Northern Nevada writers along with historical and contemporary sayings on the subject of war (the “meditations”).
  • Interviews and photographic portraits of three Western Nevada College student veterans, representing the thousands of military personnel returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
  • The story of Specialist Noah Pierce, who took his own life after completing two combat tours in Iraq, representing the thousands of veteran suicides. Included in the exhibition is Pierce’s poetry about his combat experiences, found after his death. Approximately eighteen veterans commit suicide every day (Army Times, April 22, 2010).  [In 2015, the figure is up to 22 per day.]

The exhibit will be in the second floor Atrium of the Legislative building. It will be open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is free to everyone.

Cool Tools for Staying Informed … And Heard

By Sheila Freed

We are already a quarter of the way through the 120-day Legislative Session. There are about 1,100 Bill Draft Requests and in less than a month, they all must be introduced. Even people with strong interest in a particular issue can feel they’ll never successfully track what is going on.

Help is available, however. The Nevada Legislature has a wonderful website that enables private citizens not only to stay abreast of what’s going on, but to register their views. Let’s walk through a couple of these “cool tools.”

First, you may not know who your legislators are. Go to www.leg.nv.state.us, the Legislature’s home page. Down the right side is a list of topics. Find “Who’s My Legislator” and click on it. A window will open showing a map. In the top right corner is a space to put your home address. You’ll get back information on who your State Senator and Assembly Member are, complete with contact information.

If you want to learn more about that person, go back to the home page. Look at the top left corner where it says “Legislator Information.” Click on “Assembly” or “Senate” and then choose from the menu at the top of the page to get to an alphabetical list with each legislator’s background. There’s a ton of other information on the “Assembly” and “Senate” pages, including upcoming meetings and the daily calendar.

Politicians often find it safer to study a problem than actually take action to fix it. Have you ever wondered what happens to those studies? Back on the home page, right above “Assembly” and “Senate” is an option for “Research/Library.” Choosing that will get you to the home page for the Research Division of the Legislative Counsel Bureau. The Bureau’s reports on all kinds of policy issues are there.

If you’re interested in a particular topic, there’s a couple of ways to find all the bills that deal with that topic. On the Research Library page, scroll down to “Session and Interim Info” and find “Quick Look-Up by Bill or Subject. Using the subject search for the 2015 session will get you to the same alphabetical sort that is used to index the entire Nevada Revised Statutes, and you’ll find bills from Abandoned Property to Youth Parole Bureau. (Sorry, no Z’s.) If you click on the blue bill number, you’ll go to a page showing the current status of the bill, and a link to the text. As the bill goes through the committee process and the text is revised, you can follow the changes. Each new version shows in a different color.

Another way to find topics of interest is from the Legislature home page. Near the top of the list on the right side is “BDR List.” Clicking there will take you to a page where you can look at the “full list” or “divided list.” Choose “divided list” and you’ll get a search window. You can put in your Legislator’s name to see which bills that person has  sponsored, or you can put in a topic such as “education” or “health care.” This is not a comprehensive search, but it’s a start. Eventually there will be a blue number such as “AB 123” next to each BDR number. That’s the bill number once the BDR gets introduced as a bill. If you click on the blue, you go to the same place described earlier, with the status of the bill and a link to the text.

If you want to know why the language of a bill gets changed, go back to the page where you first looked for the text, the one that says “Status of Bill.” Toward the right, you’ll see information about the committees that have debated the bill. You can read the minutes of those meetings and look at the exhibits or handouts that are presented by people who testify about a bill.

So by now you’re well informed on the bills you have an interest in. You know how to contact your legislator because you looked at the “Assembly” and “Senate” choices on the legislative home page. Their email addresses and phone numbers are right next to their names, and it only takes a few minutes to express your views.

If you want to reach a wider audience, go back to the home page and scroll down the list on the right side. You’ll find “Share Your Opinion on Legislative Bills.” That opens a box where you can enter a bill number, then indicate “for” or “against” and add comments. Identifying information is required, to show you’re a live voter, not the creation of some activist or publicist. But here’s another cool thing: At the top of the “Share Your Opinion” box you can choose “View Comments.” Enter a bill number, and you’ll see all the comments others have made about that bill. You can choose “Reports” and see the results sorted in a dozen different ways. Reading the comments can be pretty entertaining.

So who needs video games? It’s possible to spend hours on the legislative website, getting smart and having fun. There’s no shortage of issues, many of them controversial. Part of our vocation as people of faith is to “speak truth to power,” and the webmasters at the Legislature make it easy. Lutheran-Episcopal Advocacy in Nevada (LEAN) urges you to do just that.