Scanning the Heavens

Michael Gizzi is a professor of criminal justice, a political scientist, privacy advocate, and ruling elder commissioner to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Further thoughts on Hobby Lobby and the farce of corporate personhood

I explored yesterday’s decision in Burwell v Hobby Lobby in a guest post.
Here I expand on a few of the issues from that post.

The Court’s unwillingness to even address the constitutional issues at stake from Employment Division v. Smith suggest that the Court is not really interested in religious liberty.  The five justices in the majority see their interpretation of RFRA as a way to limit part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.  The same five justices have extended First Amendment speech rights to private corporations in campaign finance matters,  the decision today broadly expands the power of corporations, in what truly is a legal fiction.  Corporations do not profess religious beliefs. It is a farce to claim they do.  This case is about advancing corporate power, not religious freedom.  

It is also unclear whether today’s conservative bloc has the same understanding of religious liberty as the six justices who decided Smith in the Rehnquist Court.  I remember at the time thinking that Smith was a terrible decision that severely limited individual liberty.  Yet, in comparison with the smoke and mirrors of Hobby Lobby, perhaps Smith is ok. Ultimately the problem rests with the way that RFRA is used - and abused - by the Court in today’s decision.  And in the end, that all boils down to the idea of Hobby Lobby as even having a religious interest.  It is an arts and crafts store, not a church.  It is a corporation, not a person. 

The Court went to great pains to make it clear that this was a narrow decision, that only dealt with the contraception mandate.  It did not provide corporations with an exemption from other laws. The decision was also careful to use the words “closely-held” corporations, referring to privately-owned, and not publicly-traded corporations.  Thus, if you work for General Motors, the corporation would not be free to claim a religious objection to the contraception mandate.  Yet, it is a short leap from the logic that the Court uses to rule that corporations are people, to expand the decision to other corporations. That would be decided in future litigation, but Supreme Court decisions are interpreted by lower court judges, who will make the initial decisions as cases come to them.  

Is today’s decision a serious setback to women’s rights?  Yes, and no.  On the one way, it is baffling to even be debating contraception in 2014.  I thought that ship had, with the exception of some Roman Catholic Bishops, sailed long ago.  Justice Ginsburg’s concerns are valid.  But the decision is narrow;  most Americans are not impacted by it. Of course if I were one of the 22,000 women employees of the two companies immediately at risk of losing coverage, it would not matter that most American’s coverage is not limited.  I hope the Obama Administration take Justice Kennedy’s cue, and extends the same coverage that is being done for employees of non-profit religious organizations that have sought the exemption.  Of course, this infuriates me that it is even necessary, but if it ensures full access to all women for basic reproductive health care, then I can live with it. This case proves the point that health care should not be tied in any way to employment.  

Were I someone who actually steps foot in an “arts and crafts” store, I would be looking for a new place to shop.  But that is a personal choice of an individual - an actual person who has full rights to speech, press, and free exercise of religion.

GUEST POST -- Making Sense of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: Free Exercise of Religion or Advancing Corporate Power? | Bruce Reyes-Chow

Yes, I am blogging a link to my own writing, hosted on my friend Bruce Reyes Chow’s site.  

But here is a snippet:

What do we make of this decision?

I would argue that the Court’s unwillingness to even address the constitutional issues at stake from Employment Division v. Smith suggest that the Court is not really interested in religious liberty. The five justices in the majority see their interpretation of RFRA as a way to limit part of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The same give justices have extended First Amendment speech rights to private corporations in campaign finance matters, the decision today broadly expands the power of corporations, in what truly is a legal fiction. Corporations do not profess religious beliefs. It is a farce to claim they do.  This case is about advancing corporate power, not religious freedom.

It is also unclear whether today’s conservative bloc has the same understanding of religious liberty as the six justices who decided Smith in the Rehnquist Court. I remember at the time thinking that Smith was a terrible decision that severely limited individual liberty. Yet, in comparison with the smoke and mirrors of Hobby Lobby, perhaps Smith is ok. Ultimately the problem rests with the way that RFRA is used – and abused – by the Court in today’s decision. And in the end, that all boils down to the idea of Hobby Lobby as even having a religious interest. It is an arts and crafts store, not a church. It is a corporation, not a person.”

Happy National Camera Day!

It is a good day to take a picture.

SnapKnot
Courtesy of: SnapKnot

Zionism Unsettled is no longer sold on the PCUSA Web store

Last week I celebrated a small victory in what for me was a challenging fight over divestment at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).   Since I first saw the publication of the “study guide” Zionism Unsettled, I have been disturbed by its one-sided nature, its inflammatory and demonization of Israel.   So I authored a Commissioner’s Resolution, seeking the General Assembly to declare that Zionism Unsettled did not represent the views of the PCUSA, and sought to have its distribution ended immediately.   I explained my reasoning for this in a tumblr post early last week. 

I succeeded in getting the resolution through the Middle East Committee (no small feat) but it was amended to allow its sale, but to require instead that a statement be attached - kind of like a Surgeon General’s Warning - that it did not represent the views of the Church.   At the time, I thought this was acceptable.   I knew with a vote of 55-8, it would make it to the consent agenda.   On Wednesday last week, it was summarily approved.  I wrote about this last week.

I was opposed to Zionism Unsettled because I saw it as terribly damaging to interfaith relations with our Jewish brothers and sisters, and I saw it as serving to delegitimize our peacemaking efforts as a denomination.   American Jews had criticized the document since it was first published, and I think fairly so.  

I debated removing the resolution, 04-10, from the consent agenda, to amend it back to its original wording, but decided to take that small victory. At the time I still thought the bigger issue of divestment would be defeated. But when divestment from three companies over their business with the Israeli Defense Forces and their product’s violent use in Palestine passed by a margin of 7 votes, a major uproar in the Jewish community ensued.

It soon became clear to me that the resolution we passed was not enough. The continued presence of Zionism Unsettled on the PCUSA website would continue to cause damage to interfaith relations.   I was not the only person to feel this way.  Our new moderator - the #ModeRada Heath Rada - was hit hard with the issue in a press interview on Sunday on CNN.   Zionism Unsettled has made international news.   

I reached out to the moderator, suggesting we needed to do more, and got a positive response — little knowing that the process was already in the works (I assume).  And today a press release was issued by the Church stating that "Effective Immediately, Zionism Unsettled is no longer sold on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) website."

The original intent of my resolution has been accomplished.   I am proud of my work, and thank Moderator Heath Rada, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, and Presbyterian Mission Agency Executive Director Linda Valentine, for making this happen.   

We still have much work to do to repair the damage to our relationships with our Jewish Brothers and Sisters.  I for one will be speaking with the congregation at the local synagogue later next Month.    But it is with a sense of appreciation that I know that this divisive document is no longer available from the Church.  

A sweeping endorsement for digital privacy: Riley v. California

The Supreme Court’s decision today in Riley v. California can be thought of as “a sweeping endorsement of digital privacy” —  words used on the SCOTUSblog live stream when news of the decision first came out.  The statement is certainly accurate.  In a unanimous decision (with just one concurrence by Justice Alito), Chief Justice Roberts ruled that before police can search a cell phone after an arrest, they must first secure a warrant.  Roberts left open the possibility for exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless search, but described them as “extreme hypotheticals.” 

I have paid very close attention to this case, not just because I am writing a book on the Roberts Court and the Fourth Amendment, but because the case has forced the Court to address how the Fourth Amendment will be viewed in a digital world, after a forty-five year period of limiting individual rights in the name of crime control.  The Fourth Amendment, beginning with the Burger Court in the 1970s and 1980s, has been recast from one where the warrant requirement was the measuring stick, to one where the “touchstone” of Fourth Amendment analysis has become not a warrant but instead “reasonableness,” — a term that provides much wiggle room for providing discretion to police in the name of crime control. 

The cell phone case is not the first one to address questions of technology, although it is the logical sequel to the GPS surveillance decision, United States v. Jones, that the Court decided in 2012.   In Jones, the Court ruled that government could not use GPS to conduct surveillance of a vehicle without first obtaining a warrant. In that case, however, Justice Scalia relied on an old - previously discarded - theory of the Fourth Amendment claiming that an unreasonable search occurred when there was a physical trespass on a constitutionally protected area, one’s “person, home, papers, or effects.”    In the cell phone case, the Court never once mentions trespass.  Indeed, Scalia did not even mention it during oral argument.  Instead, the focus is on the doctrine of search incident to arrest.  Like Jones, all nine justices agree with the outcome - but in Jones, there was a 4-1-4 breakdown (Scalia writing for 4 justices, Sotomayor concurring; Alito writing for another 4, all agreeing with outcome, but not reasoning).  Here it is 8-1, with Alito concurring in part, and concurring with the judgment.  

One of the major “warrant exceptions” that Court has relied on, and on which police have used extensively in the war on drugs, is the doctrine of search incident to legal arrest.  What this means is that after an arrest an officer can search the person of the arrestee, and the area within his “immediate” control.  This is done for the two reasons of officer safety, and to prevent the destruction of evidence.  The Court’s 1969 ruling in Chimel v California set the original precedent; it was reinforced in the 1973 decision in United States v. Robinson, in which the arrest occurred in a vehicle.  While the Court departed from it in the 1980s, with its ruling from New York v Belton which permitted vehicle passenger compartment searches regardless of those two rationales, in 2009, the Court’s decision in Arizona v. Gant restored the Chimel and Robinson justifications, limiting vehicle searches, for the most part,to those instances when it was reasonable to believe further evidence of the crime of arrest would be found. 

In oral argument in Riley, the government encouraged the Court to extend the Gant rationale to cell phone searches, but the justices would have nothing to do with it.  Chief Justice Roberts, in an opinion which seemed to try to make his knowledge of contemporary technology clear (he even referred to the iOS 7.01 user manual — who knew there even was a user manual?), Roberts argued that cell phones are fundamentally different than searching a wallet or pocket.    He used powerful language that privacy advocates will quote for years to come. His words are worth quoting in full.   Roberts describes cell phones as 

“such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy. A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones.” 

Moreover, the Court made it clear that

“Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person. The term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.” 

There are clear implications for privacy.    Roberts’ opinion focused on the storage capacity of phones. 

“The storage capacity of cell phones has several interrelated consequences for privacy. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information—an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video—that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, a cell phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet. Third, the data on a phone can date back to the purchase of the phone, or even earlier. A person might carry in his pocket a slip of paper reminding him to call Mr. Jones; he would not carry a record of all his communications with Mr. Jones for the past several months, as would routinely be kept on a phone.” 


The use of cell phones — smartphones really - is pervasive. 

Finally, there is an element of pervasiveness that characterizes cell phones but not physical records. Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day. Now it is the person who is not carrying a cell phone, with all that it contains, who is the exception. According to one poll, nearly three-quarters of smart phone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12% admitting that they even use their phones in the shower. ”


In his opinion, the Chief Justice rejected the government’s arguments that there were officer safety concerns, and largely swept aside concerns about the ability for a third party to remotely “wipe” a phone, by suggesting that police could seize the phone, and put it in a “Farady” bag (an aluminun baggie designed to prevent the transmission of digital signals, turn off the phone, or remove the battery.    He suggested that the concerns raised were mostly anecdotal.  

The Court does not over-rule the “third party doctrine” of Smith v. Maryland, the 1979 case which permitted searches of a “pen register” - a list of phone calls made, but distinguished it, by suggesting that call logs provide more information than just phone numbers.   There is certainly room for this to be further visited.  

The Court also never once acknowledges the “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard that has been the primary focus of Court decisions involving privacy issues since Katz v. U.S. was decided in 1967.    It is clearly implied that there is an expectation of privacy in the contents of one’s cell phone that society is willing to recognize as legitimate,” but the fact that the Court NEVER mentions the standard is telling.  It suggests efforts to distance itself from Katz, something Scalia has been pushing for for years.    Of course, the Court also ignores Justice Scalia’s misguided “trespass” doctrine.  Whether that will be just a blip on the jurisprudential landscape remains to be seen. 

Justice Alito’s brief concurrence questions why it should be the Court’s job to regulate these issues, and suggests Congress should be the entity to regulate police and cell phones, just as it passed legislation dealing with wiretapping after the Katz decision.  He also challenges the majority’s reliance on search incident to arrest being based on only officer safety and the preservation of evidence.

The Court’s decision today truly is a sweeping victory for digital privacy.  It raises a large red flag for other issues such as the pervasive government sweeping of our digital lives by the National Security Agency, but those issues will wait for another day — and will be further complicated by the “national security” interests that would be put forth, and could shift the balance.  But today, advocates of the Fourth Amendment serving to protect individual privacy have much to be happy about. 

Steve Jobs would be proud.  

Symbolism Counts. Perception Matters: Different lenses underlying divestment and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

In the days following the 221st General Assembly’s vote to divest from three corporations - Caterpillar, Motorola, and HP, over the Israeli government’s use of their products to violent ends in the Palestinian conflict,  I still am trying to make sense of this. I have never seen an issue that divides people who are usually on the same side of every political issue, but instead polarizes and separates allies.  It does not break down in predictable ways. I am on the anti-divestment side.  I simply do not believe that divesting of 17 million dollars of PCUSA pension funds will have any meaningful impact to help Palestinians, and I do not think that it will do anything to promote a two state solution. I view the issue as one which has much risk and potential to damage our role as legitimate peacemakers.  Many of my friends are on the other side. I view the issue through this lens.  It shapes how I perceive the issue.  Others see it in a different way.  Perception matters. 
 
Not only does perception matter, frames the entire discussion.   Some of the proponents of divestment see the issue as entirely being driven by keeping our investments compatible with the Church’s ethics policies.  We cannot profit from violence.   Through that lens, Caterpillar appears culpable.  Its bulldozers are used by Israeli’s to destroy Palestinian homes in the West Bank.  It does not matter that the “weaponizing” of these bulldozers is done by an Israeli company; nor does it matter that CAT has a dealership on the West Bank.  Through the lens of Palestinian suffering, CAT is culpable.   They believe this wholeheartedly, and truly care about improving the fate of Palestinians. 

But there are other perspectives that are blurred through that lens.  One of which is the damage and pain that ten years of seeking divestment from Caterpillar has caused to the Presbytery of Great Rivers in Central Illinois, and the churches in the communities where thousands of people are gainfully employed by CAT, and view it as a company that does much good.  When a F-4 Tornado struck Washington, IL on November 17, 2013,  Caterpillar came through providing support, funds, and even gave the mayor of Washington, a CAT employee, a paid leave of absence to take care of his town.  This is the same company that sells bulldozers to Israel, and all over the world.  Bulldozers and cranes — not mortar rounds, not heavy armament, but bulldozers. Perception matters.   
 
The feelings of those who are faithful members of Presbyterian churches in Peoria, Washington, Morton, and other communities throughout Central Illinois are also lost by the divestment lens.  “Our church is saying that we work for a company that is morally wrong?”  Over the years, at least one congregation has left over the continued threat of divestment.   With the actual vote, it is possible that others might leave.  I pray that does not happen.  But the local perspective is not seen through the divestment lens.  This became crystal clear to me when I was sitting in the Detroit airport waiting for a flight to Peoria on Saturday, and I saw a family coming back from a vacation, and the man was wearing a CAT hat.   We talked.  He asked what happened. I told him.  He shrugged saying “I respect what your church feels compelled to do, but we really don’t have a horse in that race.”   Later, the first thing I saw when arriving in Peoria, was a display with an old CAT bulldozer.   Peoria is proud to call Caterpillar home.  Perception matters.  

There is another lens - that of interfaith relations - that also loses focus when viewed through that of divestment.  To the vast majority of American Jews, the call for divestment from these companies is viewed as alignment with the global BDS - Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement — which challenges a Two State solution, and questions Israel’s very right to exist.  Proponents of divestment amended the resolution to include a statement that the church was not divesting from Israel, and was not joining BDS, but within minutes of the vote, the New York Times reported that “Presbyterians, Debating Israeli Occupation, Vote to Divest Holdings,” and in the second paragraph of the story, tied it to the BDS movement.   Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

To the vast majority of American Jewish organizations, this action was seen as an attack on them.   While many American Jews are unhappy with the actions of Israel in the conflict (as are many Christians, myself included), they see a vote to divest as the same thing as siding with the BDS, and as challenging Israel’s very right to exist.  As reported in the Presbyterian Outlook, “A statement from the American Jewish Committee quotes Rabbi Noam Marans, director of inter-religious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee, as saying the PC(USA) “is facilitating the delegitimization of Israel in the guise of helping Palestinians.”  It was later reported on CNN.com that AJC fully viewed the action as tying PCUSA to BDS.  “It is a very sad day for Presbyterian-Jewish relations when church leaders from across the U.S. align with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

It does not matter that the vote was not to divest from Israel, but to divest from 3 companies that do business with Israel.  It does not matter that the resolution explicitly says “we are not joining BDS.”  Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

This was exacerbated by the publication of a “study guide” in January, by the Church’s “Israel Palestine Mission Network” - an advocacy group aimed at promoting justice for Palestinians.  Zionism Unsettled presented a one-sided view of the conflict, demonized Israel, and referred to Israel as an “apartheid” state.  The book was part of a larger book forthcoming by BDS advocates.   The 78 page document and accompanying DVD received a lot of criticism, and I am proud that I was able to successfully bring a commissioner’s resolution to the General Assembly that declared that “Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the PC(USA).”  Zionism Unsettled revealed the underlying motives of some but certainly not all proponents of divestment.  Many supporters simply saw the issue through the lens of Palestinian suffering.  Some saw it through the lens of ethics.   BUT the American Jewish community views it through a different lens as being deeply hurtful.   I experienced that firsthand, when I encountered a Jewish Friend  who was at GA, trying to provide support in the fight against divestment.  I truly saw pain in his eyes, when he talked about the sense of being under attack he felt by the pro-divestment proponents.   He saw it through a different lens. Symbolism counts.  Perception matters. 

 The perception of many commissioners may have been impacted by the presence of a group of Jewish people representing a group outside of the Jewish Mainstream, who wore shirts saying “Another Jew for Divestment.”  All week long, Commissioners saw these shirts.   To many of them, this said “Oh, American Jews support divestment? This can’t be too bad.”  The absence, until Friday, of competing groups of mainstream Jews to voice the opposite message, came too late.   Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

For me, this issue is far from over.  We need to start examining the other lenses.  We need to put major effort into repairing relationships with our Jewish neighbors.  We need to extend an olive branch.   We need to figure out how to have leverage on peacemaking issues, since we will lose the ability to influence CAT, HP, and Motorola.  We need provide the same amount of care and concern for our own members in many parts of the country, hurt by their perception of what we have done. We need to examine the internal processes by which we discern these matters.     Symbolism counts.  Perception matters.

Michael Gizzi
Ruling Elder Commissioner
Presbytery of Great Rivers

Now that General Assembly is Over…

I sit in the Detroit airport, waiting for a flight that is still several hours away.  I should sleep, but I am still a bit wound up, and thinking about what to make about this most remarkable of weeks. 

General Assembly was long.  I arrived here on 6/13, it is now the 21st.   I am sick of sleeping in hotel rooms, of eating fast food breakfasts, of having no more than six hours of sleep in a night.  I am tired of banquet hall chicken dinners, and crappy hotel coffee. I am tired of sitting for hours on end, and work sessions starting at 8:30am and going until 10, 11, or even midnight (last night, we ended at 11:59pm, and they literally turned the lights out before we got out of the room!), and then I had a silly committee meeting to approve the final per capita figures and the budget at 12:15am.   

General Assembly is without a doubt, the legislative body of the entire church.  We did a lot of work.  We approved probably 200 items of business; including some big things.  We issued an authoritative interpretation of the Church Constitution declaring that presbyterian pastors could perform same sex marriages in states where it was legal, without fear of reprisal from church disciplinary commissions, and sent an amendment back to the regional presbyteries to redefine marriage as being “between two people.”   This was probably the single biggest thing done, but ironically, not the biggest thing in the news.

On Friday, the General Assembly completed a contentious debate, and agreed to divest from three corporations who do business with Israel, and whose products are used for non-violent purposes by Israeli’s in the Palestinian conflict.  This was an issue that demonstrated more than anything else, the role of interest groups; the influence that staff predisposition on one side of an issue can have, and the power of both persistence, and symbolism.   Persistence, in that there have been overtures to divest from Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola, dating back more than a decade.  And only this year, did the measure pass, by a mere 7 votes.   Symbolism in that while the Church claimed that the decision was to divest against these three corporations, and not from Israel itself, the reality is the news has very clearly suggested - and Jewish groups have interpreted it - as the opposite.   Four minutes after the vote, the New York Times had breaking news declaring that Presbyterians vote to divest from Israel, and within 2 paragraphs, linked the move to the radical secular BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement that questions Israel’s very right to exist.     There was more symbolism in the presence of a small, but vocal (yet still respectful) group of Jewish students (all from California, and pretty much representing a group of Jews far from the mainstream)  wearing shirts that said “Another Jew for Divestment,”  to many commissioners, this said “oh, American jews support divestment?” This can’t be too bad.  The absence, until Friday, of competing groups of mainstream jews to voice the opposite message, came too late.    Symbolism matters and influences votes.  This isn’t rocket science.

But hard as it is to believe, there was much more to General Assembly than gay marriage and Israel-Palestine.  The Assembly voted to rearrange the Church’s mid-councils, or synods, calling for a reduction from 16 to 10 to 12 regional synods in two years.    The Assembly voted to permit prior commissioners to serve as committee moderators in future assemblies without being elected as commissioners. We established ethics standards for commissioners, we took action on climate change, on gun violence, on other global peace issues (although Israel dominated international issues).   We sent the Belhar Confession back to a vote in the presbyteries to decide whether to include it in our Book of Confessions. We established a new drug policy task force to look at issues surrounding the war on drugs.  The list goes on and on.

General Assembly is long.  I said that.  Its meetings are intense; governed by strict parliamentary procedure; its committees grapple with lots of business.  But through it all, most of us were able to remain “decent and orderly.”   It also provides a voice to the youth, with 172 “Young Adult Advisory Delegates” - affectionally known as “YAADs.”  These young people have full floor access, can speak, can vote in committee, can speak in plenary, and cast advisory votes.  

Now many of our commissioners return to their homes and churches, and have to explain what we did.  Many people will rejoice; some will be upset.  In some communities, actions will cause people to question whether to stay in the denomination;  for others, GA will be a brief blip on the news, and have little impact on their daily lives.    I am pretty sure it will be with me for a long time.  I have made new friends, rekindled other friendships, and have taken my responsibilities seriously.  Some issues - like divestment - divided people who are usually on the same side.   Yet, through it all, we remained gracious.  After I spoke before the Middle East Committee to advocate for my resolution critical of the Israel Palestine Mission Network’s publication Zionism Unsettled, two members of the IPMN came up to me and told me that they agreed with my resolution, and were not offended by what I had proposed.  We truly were decent and orderly.  

I still have one more post in me, trying to dissect how the divestment vote happened, but that is still, 20 hours later, both too raw, and demands more time to process, but I walk away from the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) already thinking, how can I get back to the 222nd GA in two years, processing some overtures about process that I want to submit to presbytery for approval and consideration before the next GA.   Yet, I am happy to return home, to my family, to focus on my book, and to get life back to Normal.  

Highs & Lows of General Assembly

It is  now 11:40 pm on Friday night, the last night of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  We are still in plenary session.   Tomorrow by noon the assembly will be done. This has been a week unlike any other. It has been a remarkable experience, both in the prayerful discernment process of the church, the work we have done, and the very democratic nature of a church polity.  Something I have dreamed of my entire adult life.

In thinking of this week’s experience I will say there have been the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. Yesterday, June 19, 2014, was one of my very best days.  The action Thursday to authoritatively interpret the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to permit pastors to perform same sex marriages in states where it is legal, and to face no disciplinary actions; and the amendment sent to the presbyteries to redefine marriage as being between two people was one of my proudest moments.  Our church has declared that all are welcome, all are equal, and as I saw yesterday on twitter,  #loveWins. This was incredibly special, it was an issue dear to my heart.   And I will forever know I was a part of that process.  

It is only today that I fully understood the pain that those on the other side of the issue felt, and how important our prayerful discernment is.  As I have written before, I have been dedicated, wholeheartedly to the opposition of divestment from three corporations (Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola) due to their use by the Israeli government in the Palestinian conflict.  My focus initially was on what I saw as a divisive, one-sided, and biased “study guide” called Zionism Unsettled.   I authored a commissioner’s resolution, to which five other commissioner’s joined, declaring that it does not represent the views of the church.  That resolution was approved by the Middle East Committee 55-8, and approved on the consent agenda on Wednesday.  This was another incredible high.   But I was equally committed to approving a resolution calling for continued positive investment in Palestine, and against divestment.

I was fully aware of the impact the decade long effort to divest has had on my presbytery, the pain it has caused, the churches which have left - since Caterpillar is headquartered in Peoria and smack-dab in the middle of the presbytery.   I aligned myself with a group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.  We worked in solidarity, we strategized, we developed speaking points, messages,  we raised objections, and engaged in what is certainly a political process, but one that was both thoughtful, prayerful, and conscientious.     

Today, after a 3 1/2 hour debate, we lost.   By a margin of 7 votes, the Assembly decided to divest from these three companies.   I spoke early about the damage this would do to our interfaith relations, and how hurtful it would be viewed to American jews. I spoke about the symbolic way this would be viewed by the outside world, as affiliating ourselves with the BDS - or Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement (even though that isn’t officially true).  One of my colleagues spoke passionately about his community of Washington, IL, and how this decision would be viewed.  We fought the good-fight.  It was even harder to lose by such a close margin.    7 votes.  I saw the pain in the eyes of my fellow commissioners and the concern of how our local churches would react.  I saw calls for prayer.   Not everyone in our presbytery - or even in my congregation - is opposed to divestment - but many are.  Five of us opted to sign an official dissent from the vote, so our names will appear n the minutes of the meeting.      

But in the end, I realize that this is what happens in a democracy.  In a representative polity.  We make hard decisions, not everyone is happy, but we have spoken.   I will have more to say, when my brain is less cloudy.  But  in the end, more than fifteen hours after starting today, I think I am out of ideas, and might revisit this entire post tomorrow afternoon at the airport.  

A Very Good Day at GA

Today was the fourth day of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  It was the day we finished our work in committees, in preparation for the return to plenary session on Wednesday afternoon. It was also the day I knew I would present my overture on Zionism Unsettled before the Committee on Middle East Issues.

I had prepared what I thought was a 3 minute presentation, but before heading over to the COBO Center I tested it out.  I was 40 seconds too long.  I spent the next 30 minutes cutting it down, and getting it to a 2:52 second talk.  After testing it multiple times, I decided it was good.   

Committees met, and we heard recommendations from the Biennial Assembly Committee Recommendations.  Oh, how very presbyterian.   This was ok, though because we were led by Carol McDonald and she helped guide us through the issues.   I was pleased that a fellow commissioner moved, at 11:30am for us to vote on the entire package of 16 recommendations as an omnibus package, and just pull out the items we wanted to discuss separately.  This saved a huge amount of time.

After lunch, things started to bog down, as multiple people began proposing amendments, and amendments to amendments.   It tested my patience, and the skills of the moderator.  I found a solution.  Voting down the original amendment, I then called for us to suspend the rules, and work as a committee of the whole, for 3 or 4 minutes, to talk out what amendments we wanted to make, and then make ONE motion.  That seemed to work.   Roberts Rules can be messy, but if you work it, it can be efficient too.

About that time, I got a text from a colleague on the Middle East Committee saying “Come now!”   I grabbed my iPad, and headed to the other end of COBO.   Alas, it was clear that they had more business to do.  I came back, grabbed my bag, and laptop, and headed back to ME Issues to wait.   I knew I could do the presentation, I watched the tenor of the committee — it was not as contentious as I expected, but they were worn down.   There were about 250 people in the room.  65 commissioners, and 200 observers.    Around 4:10 it was my time.  

I gave my talk, and it seemed to be well received. Given the time constraints I could not engage my audience, but merely stuck to my script.  I knew they would cut me off if I went over. So, I made sure I told a story, explaining why I was opposing Zionism Unsettled; and felt like it was effective.  There were no questions, so I sat back and waited to watch the debate.  To my surprise there was much support. My statement that as a political scientist, I understood the use of political propaganda, seemed to resonate with one commissioner.  Others did feel that calling for its removal from the  web store was censoring it (which wasn’t really my intent), and a motion was made to strike everything involving ceasing distribution of the document.  In that case, it would have read:  

The 221st General Assembly (2014) declares that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

I was actually ok with that.  But committee members thought it didn’t go far enough, and the end result was to further amend it to say 

The 221st General Assembly (2014) declares that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A. and directs all Presbyterian Church (USA) entities to express this statement in all future catalogs, print or online resources. 

The resolution then passed by a vote of 54-8.   I was ecstatic.  Hell, I was doing a happy dance.  In many ways I was shocked.  This was as good as I could have hoped.  The Middle East Committee was willing to overwhelmingly support a resolution that I considered a long-shot.   Commissioner’s Resolutions in general are considered last. 

Technically, a vote of 54-8 qualifies for the consent agenda, with 88% of the committee approving it, but as of now, no Middle East issues resolutions appear on the consent agenda, so I am unsure if it will have to get full approval on the floor.  We’ll see tomorrow.  

In the end, I felt that I had accomplished what I had come to do at General Assembly.   I was really bothered when I saw this document, and felt like it was not just offensive to my Jewish Friends, but really hurtful.   I experienced that an hour later, when I encountered a Jewish Friend who is here working on other Middle East Issues with my friends from Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.  He was disappointed we did not fully succeed in removing the document.  And I truly saw pain in his eyes, when he talked about the sense of being under attack he felt by the Pro BDS / Pro Palestinian proponents.  We are not done with these issues, not by a long shot, but I knew, with the Zionism Unsettled resolution, I had done the right thing.  

I’ll end this by including the comments I gave before the committee today.

Overture Advocacy - CR 04-10

Mr. Moderator.  My name is Michael Gizzi, I am a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Great Rivers.  I am the advocate for CR04-10, on declaring that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the view of the PCUSA, and seeking it to be removed from the church web store.   Let me explain why I bring this.  For the last two years I coordinated adult christian education at First Church, in Normal, Illinois.  In my daily life, I am a university professor. In that latter role, I also serve as the advisor to Hillel, the Jewish Student Union.  I work hard to develop relationships with my Jewish neighbors. I have had a rabbi teach a class at First Pres on “a taste of judaism.” 

Zionism Unsettled is marketed as a congregational study guide on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict issued by the IPMN. A study guide should examine multiple sides of issues; provide a fair and balanced approach, asking people to think, discern, and pray about issues in a meaningful way.   After reading Zionism Unsettled, it became very clear that it is not a study guide, but rather a one-sided piece of political propaganda — a polemic - that demonizes Israel, describes it as being  “towards a single Jewish, apartheid state.”  It presents a one-sided view of the conflict, distorts issues rather than educates.  I was horrified by what I read in its tone and content.

To the outside world, to the press, to anyone who reads this, Zionism Unsettled appears to speak for the Presbyterian Church (USA).  It does not matter if there is a FAQ on the website, saying it does not speak for the Church;  Symbolism is compelling.  And this document is more than symbolic.  It is being sold and distributed by the church.  And to our Jewish neighbors, across America, it is an attack on not only the political state of Israel, but an attack on them which threatens to polarize our community, betray our relationships, and undermines our role as peace-makers. 

As a political scientist, I understand political propaganda. I understand why it is used.   As a Christian Educator, I know that a study guide should provide participants the opportunity to consider multiple viewpoints.  Zionism Unsettled does not do that.  As Christians we are to seek justice.  My heart breaks over the suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, but this document is destructive, and not only goes against stated General Assembly policy for a two state solution, but damages legitimate efforts at peacemaking.   

CR 04-10 calls for the GA to declare that Zionism Unsettled does not speak for the PCUSA and to cease distribution of it. This action would go a long way to avoid creating further animus with our Jewish friends.  The Israel Palestine Mission Network is just that, a mission network, an advocacy group.  It does not speak for the GA, it does not speak for the church as a whole.   Zionism Unsettled has done damage to us already. We can and must do the right thing to say this piece of propaganda does NOT speak for us.  

Thank you for your time.

This was a good day.  




General Assembly from the Trenches

It is 9:57pm, The GA Procedures Committee recessed for the evening at 9:30, current with its work, but 12 hours after first meeting.  The day was a whirlwind.  Committee sessions from 9:30 - 12:00,  1:30- 5:00pm, and 7:30 - 9:30.   We got through 15 items.  I also was able to get to know some of my fellow commissioners, having lunch and dinner with them.  It was good times in spite of the hours. 

The morning was kind of a rough start, the committee moderator was learning the ropes of moderation;  committee members felt compelled to speak on everything, and to repeat what other’s had said; the committee parliamentarian was also learning the ropes.   The afternoon and evening went much more smoothly.  We did some important business.  I was able to move the approval of new associate stated clerks, including my friend and former Executive Presbyter Sue Krummel.  I worked hard to kill a set of new proposed ethical standards for commissioners that I thought was fundamentally flawed, had biases in it, and needed much refinement.  

In something my Academic Senate friends would expect, I made a substitutionary motion to amend an amendment, and strike a whole part of the overture.  After much confusion in the committee, this ultimately failed.  But I then suggested we could strike the entire motion and refer it back to COGA — presby-speak for “Committee on the General Assembly” to refine and clean up several of the issues for the next GA in 2016.    Ultimately however, I realized that 1) I have only so much political capital in the committee, and were I to speak again, and propose ANOTHER substitutionary amendment, I might get physically hurt.  :)   So, I opted to let the amended resolution pass, and I will issue THAT new motion from the floor of plenary, after pulling it from the consent agenda on Wednesday.   

We also debated giving Young Adult Advisory Delegates, short for YAADs, the right to vote as full commissioners.   This was interesting as a YAAD moved to disapprove the motion, and then another commissioner moved to disapprove with comments.  We went on with this for a long time.  But it passed 53-2, with all but 2 YAADs voting for the motion.   

We debated other issues tonight, but I am so brain dead, I can hardly remember what they were.   GA is hard work.   Oh yeah, I remember.  I moved to refer a commissioner’s resolution to provide child care at General Assembly to COGA, and thus let the NEXT GA Procedures committee deal with it!   Snark happens after 9pm. 

My day was also made exciting by attaining a level of #PresbyGeek status by being mentioned by name in two Presbyterian News sources.  The Presbyterian Outlook published a story mentioning my resolution opposing the so-called study guide Zionism Unsettled.   A longer story appeared both in the daily print Genera Assembly News, and in a press release on the PCUSA Website.   If, the Layman picks up the story tomorrow, I will have hit the Presby Trifecta, but this was still pretty cool.

Somehow during committee time, I also found time to write a 3 minute overture presentation for CR 04-10, which I will present to the Middle East Committee tomorrow at some point, hopefully during the day, and not late at night.  

So, today was a good day.   This commissioner is in recess until 9:30am tomorrow.