Category: Acton Occasional Series

sweet-cakes-by-melissa-AP-640x480What is the case about?

In 2013, a lesbian couple went into Sweet Cakes, a bakery in Oregon, to order a “wedding cake” for their same-sex commitment ceremony. When the couple told the baker, Aaron Klein that it was for a same-sex ceremony, he told them he would serve homosexuals but that his religious beliefs would not allow him to participate by creating the cake for them. The couple filed a complaint with the Oregon Labor Commission, claiming Sweet Cakes and the Kleins discriminated against them because of their sexual orientation.

Last week, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian finalized a preliminary ruling ordering Aaron and Melissa Klein to pay $135,000 in emotional damages to the couple they denied service.

“This case is not about a wedding cake or a marriage. It is about a business’s refusal to serve someone because of their sexual orientation,” said Avakian, a political appointee. In his ruling he notes he finds “no distinction” between refusing to serve a same-sex wedding and discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation.

“[Aaron Klein] denied the full and equal accommodation, advantages, facilities and privileges of Sweet Cakes by Melissa to Complainants based on their sexual orientation thereby violating ORS 659A.403,” claims the ruling.

How much were the Kleins ordered to pay the couple?

The Commissioner awarded the lesbian couple $135,000 in “damages for emotional and mental suffering resulting from the denial of service.”

What were the claims of emotional and mental suffering?
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independencedayJuly 4, 2015 will be America’s 239th Independence Day, the day Americans celebrate our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.

Here are five facts you should know about America’s founding document and the day set aside for its commemoration.

1. July 4, 1776 is the day that we celebrate Independence Day even though it wasn’t the day the Continental Congress decided to declare independence (they did that on July 2, 1776), the day we started the American Revolution (that had happened back in April 1775), the date on which the Declaration was delivered to Great Britain (that didn’t happen until November 1776), or the date it was signed (that was August 2, 1776).

2. After the War of 1812, the Federalist party began to come apart and the new parties of the 1820s and 1830s all considered themselves inheritors of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate again, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top. Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on and in 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday as part of a bill to officially recognize several holidays, including Christmas. Further legislation about national holidays, including July 4, was passed in 1938 and 1941.
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greekbanks_3357117bWhat’s going on in Greece?

Greece is defaulting on a key debt owed to the international community—and the Greek government is putting the question of whether the country will default on even more government debt up for a popular vote this week.

How did Greece get into such a financial mess?

Too much debt. For the past twenty years the government of Greece has spent more than it has collected in taxes.

Wait, that can’t be all there is to it. The U.S. does the same thing, doesn’t it?

Yes, but the U.S. is a rich country with a good credit rating while Greece is not.

A good way to measure a country’s debt is to compare it to its GDP. The United States deficit averaged -3.03 percent of GDP from 1948 until 2014, reaching an all time high of 4.60 percent of GDP in 1948 and a record low of -12.10 percent in 2009 (low is bad). Greece averaged -7.19 percent of GDP from 1995 until 2014, reaching an all time high of -3.20 percent of GDP in 1999 and a record low of -15.70 percent of GDP in 2009. In other words, Greece spends about twice as much (as a percentage of it’s GDP) as does the U.S.

Let’s imagine two countries—Greece and the U.S.—as if they were persons: GDP would be the person’s “income”; the deficit would be “additional credit card debt”; and interest on the deficit would be like “interest on a credit card.”

The U.S. has a high income (16.7 trillion a year) and every year adds about 3 percent to the total it owes the credit card companies (the national debt). No one is too worried that the U.S. will default on its loans so the credit card companies give them a low interest rate (2.43 percent).

Greece, on the other hand, has a relatively modest income (242 billion, or 1/70 the size of U.S GDP) and adds a lot more to its debt every year (7 percent). Greece has a low credit score (i.e., the credit card companies aren’t sure Greece will pay off it’s debt) and so is charged a high interest rate (about 15 percent).

Now Greece is refusing to pay it’s creditors, causing financial turmoil throughout Europe.

If Greece is such a small economy why does it really matter if they default?
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ssm-caseThe Supreme Court issued its ruling today on the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. (You can find our explainer article on the case here.)

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia and Thomas joined. Scalia also wrote an opinion that was joined by Thomas. Thomas also filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Scalia. And Alito filed a dissent that was joined by Scalia and Thomas.

In the ruling and four dissents—which total 103 pages—there are dozens of interesting and important quotes. Here are 50 key passages you should know about.

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What was the same-sex marriage case that was decided by the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which is consolidated with three other cases—Tanco v. Haslam (Tennessee); DeBoer v. Snyder (Michigan); Bourke v. Beshear (Kentucky). These cases challenged two issues concerning whether the Fourteenth Amendment must guarantee the right for same-sex couples to marry.

o-SUPREME-COURT-BUILDING-facebookWhat issues was the court asked to decide?

The two issues that were answered in this case are:

1. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?

2. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?

These are known as the “marriage” and “recognition” questions, respectively. The Court answered both in the affirmative.

What did the Court rule?
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Supreme CourtIn a significant victory for the Obama administration, the Supreme Court voted in a 6-3 decision in King v. Burwell that the Affordable Care Act authorized federal tax credits for eligible Americans living not only in states with their own exchanges but also in the 34 states with federal exchanges. Here is what you should know about the case and the ruling.

What was the case about?

At the core of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the Court noted, were three key reforms: (1) Guaranteed issue and community rating requirements, (2) Require individuals to maintain health insurance coverage or make a payment to the IRS, unless the cost of buying insurance would exceed eight percent of that individual’s income, and (3) Seek to make insurance more affordable by giving refundable tax credits to individuals with household incomes between 100 per cent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line

Additionally, Obamacare requires the creation of an “Exchange” in each State—basically, a marketplace that allows people to compare and purchase insurance plans. The law gives each State the opportunity to establish its own Exchange, but provides that the federal government will establish “such Exchange” if the State does not. This case hinged on what “an Exchange established by the State under [42 U. S. C. §18031]” could mean since several individual states refused to establish their own exchanges.

The Internal Revenue Service interpreted the wording broadly to authorize the subsidy also for insurance purchased on an Exchange established by the federal government. The four individuals who challenged the law argued that a federal Exchange is not an “Exchange established by the State,” and section 36B does not authorize the IRS to provide tax credits for insurance purchased on federal Exchanges. Several district courts agreed with the government, but because one sided with the plaintiffs the case ended up at the Supreme Court.

Can you explain that without the legalese?
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Blog author: jcarter
Monday, June 15, 2015
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magna-cartaToday marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. Here are five facts about this English document which helped to establish the rule of law:

1. Magna Carta (Latin for “the Great Charter”), also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Latin for “the Great Charter of the Liberties”), was a peace treaty between King John of England and rebel barons that was sealed on June 15, 1215. Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law.

2. The original charter was ineffective. Pope Innocent III rejected the charter’s terms, and on August 24, 1215 issued a papal bull describing Magna Carta as “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people,” and declaring the charter “null and void of all validity for ever.” In September 1215, civil war broke out between King John and his barons, leading to the First Barons’ War. Henry III reissued the document in 1216 after stripping it of some of it’s more radical clauses.

3. The charter consisted of a preamble and 63 clauses that dealt mainly with the relationship between the medieval barons and the king. Of the original 63 clauses, only three remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third is the most famous clause that gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial:
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opm-hackWhat is the “OPM hack”?

The “OPM hack” refers to a massive data breach in which hackers, believed to be based in China, acquired personnel records of federal employees from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

What is the OPM?

The OPM (Office of Personnel Management) serves as the human resource department for the federal government. Among other duties the agency conducts background investigations for prospective employees, issues security clearances, and compiles records of all federal government employees.

How many records were stolen?

The OPM said that 4 million employees, both current and past employees, have been affected. But the American Federation of Government Employees, the union for federal employees, claimed Thursday that all federal employees and retirees, as well as one million former federal employees, had their personal information stolen.

The exact amount of data stolen, however, may be unknowable since, according to one U.S. official, “OPM officials and other authorities still don’t have a good handle on how much information was actually stored by OPM in the first place.”

What type of records were stolen?

Some of the records stolen were the Questionnaire for National Security Positions form, known as the SF-86 form. The 126-page form contains a plethora of information about an individual, including their Social Security number, birthdate, addresses, passport information, financial information, previous employment activities, connections to foreign nationals, etc.

When did the data breach occur?
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Pope-Francis-writing-On June 18, 2015, Pope Francis will issue the encyclical, Laudato si’. Here are some answers to questions people who aren’t Catholic—like me—may have about the document:

What is an encyclical?

The term encyclical (from the Greek egkyklios, kyklos meaning a circle) refers to a circular letter, that is, a letter that gets circulated to a particular group. A papal encyclical is a letter written by the Pope to a particular audience of patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops of the Catholic Church. Sometimes encyclicals are written to an even narrower group (e.g., the bishops of a particular country) but they normally tend to be for a broader audience. Encyclicals addressed to the bishops of the world are generally concerned with matters which affect the welfare of the Church at large.

What do encyclicals do?

As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains, encyclicals condemn some prevalent form of error, point out dangers which threaten faith or morals, exhort the faithful to constancy, or prescribe remedies for evils foreseen or already existent.

How many encyclicals have been published?

290, so far.

Have encyclicals always been issued by popes?
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new-york-cityLarge cities in the northeast like Boston, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, and so on, are often caricatured as wastelands of non-religious, unchurched, overtly secular theaters. Caricatures of this type seem odd given the fact that many of America’s oldest religious institutions are actively operating in those regions. One of my friends is quick to point out that every week people sit on church pews in northeastern churches that older than many states out west. For example, by looking at the Christian presence in the New York City area alone, research shows that the northeast might not be as religiously barren as many believe.

I recently contacted Tony Carnes, editor and publisher of A Journey through NYC Religions, to set the record straight on the New York City area. Since 2010, Carnes and his team have visited thousands of religious houses of worship, from all religious traditions cataloging the religious activity in New York City. In light of what he and his team have seen on the ground, Carnes has come to the conclusion that the best description of New York City is that it is a “post secular” city—a condition somewhere between a secular and sacred.
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