November 6 was a good day for President Barack Obama. The Democrats increased their majority in the Senate and gained a few seats in the House. The popular vote for the House favored the Democrats, but the Republicans retained control thanks to gerrymandering in “red” states after the 2010 election. The percentage of women in Congress increased, although not by enough.
On balance, November 6 was also pretty good for religious liberty, church-state separation, public education, and reproductive choice. A Republican victory would have meant the probable addition to the Supreme Court of one or more clones of Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Robert Bork (Mitt Romney’s chief judiciary adviser). It would have given a tremendous boost to religious Right extremism and the movements to divert public funds to church-run private schools, to privatize public education, and to further shrink reproductive choice.
Let’s look at the issues that have long been among the main focuses of this column–issues that have received too little media attention.
Florida voters scored two important hits. By 55 percent to 45 percent margins, they defeated two proposed amendments to the state constitution. Amendment 6 would have undermined and shrunk abortion rights and access. Amendment 8 would have watered down its religious-liberty and church-state separation section for the purpose of facilitating tax aid to church-run private schools (through vouchers) and other religious institutions. Florida’s Catholic bishops endorsed and pushed both amendments, but majorities of Catholic voters ignored them. Coalitions of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, teacher, women’s, civil liberties, and other groups opposed the amendments, as did the state’s leading newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. Florida’s defeat of Amendment 8 was the twenty-seventh defeat for school vouchers or their variants in statewide referendum elections from coast to coast. (For details, see my position paper “The School Voucher Crisis” on the Center for Inquiry website.)
Although Indiana voters went narrowly for Romney and a Republican governor, they soundly defeated Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who late in the campaign made the utterly idiotic remark that if a pregnancy resulted from rape it was “God’s will.” That was too much even for conservative Hoosiers. Indiana voters also elected Democrat and public- school teacher Glenda Ritz to be state school superintendent by a 53 to 47 percent margin, ousting incumbent Tony Bennett, even though Bennett outspent Ritz by four to one. Bennett had shown disdain for public school teachers and their unions, and he supported the massive school-voucher plan passed in 2011 by Governor Mitch Daniels and a Republican legislature. As a native Hoosier, I am pleased.
While Wisconsin went for Obama (Paul Ryan did not even carry his hometown), voters curiously returned the state senate to Republicans, who will probably try to expand the state’s pioneer school-voucher plan, though the state school superintendent has shown it to be useless.
California voters approved a needed tax increase for K-12 public schools, but school funding measures were defeated in Arizona, Missouri, and South Dakota. California also defeated Proposition 32, designed to weaken teacher unions. South Dakota defeated by a two-to-one margin Referred Law 16, which would have ended teacher tenure.
Voters in conservative Idaho handily shot down three measures passed by Republicans meant to end teacher tenure, tie teacher evaluations to test scores, and ensure that every high-school teacher and student had access to computers.
Washington state and Georgia approved charter-school measures. A Stanford study has shown that only 17 percent of charter schools are better than local public schools, while 83 percent are either worse than or no better than public schools. It is increasingly clear that much of the diverse charter-school movement is aimed at weakening or privatizing education and undermining teacher unions, but the subject is too complicated for further comment at this time.
Democrat Maggie Hassan won the New Hampshire gubernatorial race, beating Republican Ovide Mamintagne, who “wanted to voucherize education, teach creationism in public schools, criminalize abortion, and outlaw many forms of birth control.”
While November 6 was a pretty good day for humanists and the majority of mainstream Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and other Americans, we cannot relax. The religious Right, the school pseudo-reformers, and the misogynist anti-choicers are not giving up. The dust has hardly begun to settle, and already Republicans are thinking about running Jeb Bush in 2016. Bush No. 3 has long supported school vouchers and restricting reproductive choice, apparently oblivious to the oft-registered opposition of Americans across the religious spectrum.
Ken Burns’s Dust Bowl
Did you see Ken Burns’s stirring four-hour documentary The Dust Bowl on PBS in late November? If not, it will surely be available widely. Its treatment of the 1930s devastation of the plains states due to anthropogenic misuse of the environment should convince all reasonable people that climate change, environmental destruction, resource depletion, and human overpopulation really do threaten our civilization. (On November 22, Thanksgiving Day, The New York Times reported that drought again affects about 60 percent of the lower forty-eight states. And that is just the United States.) The time is now for Washington and the whole world to get serious about this set of problems. Religious fundamentalist leaders of all stripes– Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, etc.–must not be allowed to impede the saving of our world.
Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty, is a former editor of Church & State and The American Rationalist and the author of a column in The Humanist for more than thirty years.