Jul 9, 2020

The Supreme Court rules on birth control.

The Supreme Court rules on birth control.

Plus, a question about the term "woke."

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Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The Supreme Court ruling on birth control and religious exemptions, other rulings that just came down and a question about the term “woke.” Also, one of my favorite “Have a nice day” sections of all-time.

President Donald Trump is applauded by gathered religious leaders, Thursday, May 4, 2017, as he displays his signature on his Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, at a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C. Photo: White House

Reader feedback.

Katelyn, a teacher from Brooklyn, wrote in with some feedback that largely echoed what I heard from other teachers. She said that “each region and district needs their own plan that’s reflective of their situation.” She made the point that there’s a cost associated with planning on opening, and we need to have the infrastructure to go remote if it comes to that in New York City. We need to “take time now to ensure that all students have devices and access and have a summer program that students and their parents take together that shows them how to use the online programs.”

“NYC kids are not like other kids in the nation,” she added. “They take the train to school with adults. They are not driven alone in a car and dropped off at the door. We missed out big time in the Spring by not doing a comprehensive lesson for parents with their kids on how to navigate remote learning… Why should we only plan for one scenario when we know we will likely be faced with more than one scenario?”

Yesterday’s issue generated a lot of great feedback from teachers and parents across the country (New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Jersey and more). There were so many thought-provoking responses it was difficult for me to choose what to include. In the interest of space, I’ve pulled together some of the most compelling responses into a Word document, which I encourage everyone to read by clicking here.

Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that President Trump can block the release of his financial records to Congress (for now), but he must hand them over to the prosecutors in New York. It’s a “stunning defeat” for the president, but in some ways a win: the pace of the courts likely means the records will be “shielded from public scrutiny until after the election,” The New York Times reports. The vote in both cases was 7-2, with each of Trump’s appointees to the court ruling against him. The president’s lawyers had argued he was immune from criminal proceedings so long as he remained in office.
  2. The United States set another daily coronavirus record yesterday, recording an all-time high of 59,000 new positive cases. It’s the fifth record in nine days, and five states — Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and West Virginia set daily records. Cases are now decreasing in only two states in America: Vermont and New Hampshire, while new cases are largely the same in 14 states and territories. The surge in cases is causing another shortage of tests and medical supplies to address the virus.
  3. The Supreme Court issued another stunning ruling on Thursday, declaring that nearly half of Oklahoma is an Indian reservation in the eyes of the criminal justice system. The ruling means state authorities will be unable to prosecute offenses there involving Native Americans, which will now need to be settled by federal authorities. It’s considered the most consequential ruling for Native Americans in decades, and Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the majority in a 5-4 ruling.
  4. Congressional Republicans and the White House are looking at a plan that will narrow the number of Americans who receive a second round of stimulus checks, The Washington Post reports. Congress gave out $1,200 checks to nearly 159 million households in March, but the benefits disappeared or were reduced for anyone earning more than $75,000 a year. Now Congress is weighing proposals that limit a second round of checks to people earning less than that, perhaps only sending checks to people earning $40,000 or less.
  5. Joe Biden says he is unveiling an economic proposal that will spend $700 billion on American products and research, a plan meant to stand in contrast to Trump’s “America First” agenda. The Washington Post describes it as a “competing brand of economic nationalism” that aims to create manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and reduce dependence on foreign countries. It represents a major shift away from embracing the globalization that Democrats have championed for decades. “Biden does not accept the defeatist view that the forces of automation and globalization render us helpless to retain well-paid union jobs and create more of them here in America,” a summary of the plan said.

What D.C. is talking about.

The Supreme Court (again). In some of its final rulings of this year’s session, the Supreme Court handed down two 7-2 rulings that will expand exemptions for religious employers from health-care regulations and anti-discrimination laws. In one ruling, the court said that the Trump administration could exempt employers from the Affordable Care Act regulations that mandate the coverage of birth control, so long as the employers raise religious or moral objections. That ruling could impact as many as 125,000 women employees across the U.S. — and is another turn in a years-long battle since the mandate was implemented by President Barack Obama.

In a second ruling, the court said religious schools were exempt from age and disability discrimination claims filed by teachers. Both rulings wrap up a year where religious institutions were given more freedom from federal policies by the courts while they were simultaneously granted more access to public funds, a step forward in the battle religious conservatives have been fighting for years.

Today, I’m going to focus on the first ruling (the birth control ruling) for the purpose of space (and because it seems to be the “bigger” story). This was the third time the court had heard arguments on this issue. The Obama administration had tried to find a suitable way to make everyone happy, implementing a system where employers who objected to contraceptive coverage could file a notice with the Department of Health and Human Services. That would trigger a new mechanism where the contraceptive coverage would be provided but not through the employer.

Some religious employers still objected to that, though, saying that filing the forms to the Department of Health and Human Services made them complicit in their employees’ contraceptive practices, The Wall Street Journal reported. The Trump administration responded with a blanket exemption for any employer, “including for-profit and publicly traded corporations, that asserted religious or moral objections.”

The policy also stripped the coverage without offering an alternative, though the White House says women who lose their coverage will be able to seek out new coverage via a Title X family planning program for low-income Americans. Justice Elena Kagan, who voted with the majority, said the Trump administration may not have provided adequate justifications for its blanket exemptions. That seemed to indicate the case will continue to be argued in the lower courts on new grounds.

What the left is saying.

The left is opposed to the decision, almost wholesale. It was especially disappointing for liberals because Justice Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, two of the court’s reliable liberals, voted with the majority. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented on the ruling. In her dissent, Ginsburg wrote that in considering two competing interests (health care and religious freedom), the court has skewed away from women’s health.

“Accommodating claims of religious freedom, this Court has taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs,” Ginsburg wrote. “Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree.”

In The New York Times, Gail Collins made her argument this way:

“Let’s pretend there was an order of nuns with a particular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. So much so that the order had, over the years, decided that any human heart was a holy symbol, and it was immoral to mess with it, even if you were a physician doing cardiac surgery.

Following their consciences, these nuns banned heart-related care from their employees’ health policies. That affected thousands of workers, many of whom did not share their religious convictions. Still, the nuns noted, their insurance coverage was generous. Except for that one thing...”

You can see where she’s going with that. In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick wrote that women have been demoted to bystanders in their own health care “as the interests of everyone else, including their religious bosses, are positioned as singular and urgent.” She also notes that in this latest challenge, “The lawsuit effectively flipped the theme of litigation in these cases from ‘Can religious dissenters opt out of the contraception mandate?’ to ‘Can the Trump administration allow anyone to opt out so long as they claim a religious or ‘moral’ objection to contraception?’”

“It bears mentioning that this decision comes down in the midst of a pandemic alongside crippling national job losses and financial hardship,” Lithwick added. “Women, already bearing the brunt of shutdowns and child care, may now lose access to vital contraception coverage. Poor women and women of color will be hardest hit, yet again.”

What the right is saying.

It’s a huge win for religious freedom — and for the protection of Americans’ rights. 53% of all Americans believe “employers should not be forced to cover contraceptives,” and the strong 7-2 ruling is proof that the justices recognize these protections for religious institutions are Constitutional. At the heart of the argument for pro-life conservatives is that birth control has an abortifacient effect: i.e. that birth control is often ending life, causing thousands of early-stage abortions every day.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board opined on the legalese behind the decision, citing Justice Clarence Thomas. “The Affordable Care Act’s text doesn’t mention contraceptives here, but rather empowers the executive branch to decide what preventive health coverage is mandatory,” the board said. “That ‘capacious grant of authority,’ Justice Thomas wrote, includes ‘the ability to identify and create exemptions.’”

In other words: the Affordable Care Act grants the executive branch the right to decide what is mandatory and what isn’t. Now, the executive branch is controlled by a Republican president, and he has the right to change that determination — as Trump successfully did through his blanket exemption rule. But the board notes this victory is a “narrow one,” and Kagan seems to draw the roadmap for it to go back to the lower courts and be fought anew.

In the National Review, Alexandra DeSanctis argued that there is no satisfactory reason to force anyone — let alone Catholic nuns or Christian business owners — to be conscripted into funding birth control. “The contraceptive mandate, remember, never even passed through Congress; it was tacked onto Obamacare after its passage by ideologically motivated, progressive bureaucrats in the HHS Department, then vigorously defended by the Obama White House…

“The belief that the government, or employers compelled by the government, ought to subsidize contraception stems from a fundamentally incorrect, irrational view of contraception as a necessary component of holistic health care,” she wrote. “On this view, a properly functioning female reproductive system is diseased and pregnancy is a disease to be prevented… One very well might like to have birth-control drugs for one reason or another, but when used for contraceptive purposes rather than medical ones, it is not health care by any reasonable definition of the term; it prevents no disease and cures no malady.”

My take.

Fun fact about me: I’m a descendent of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, namesake for Roger Williams University and the man largely responsible for religious freedom in the United States. As a result, I’ve read a lot about Williams — and about religious freedom issues. In today’s discourse, it’s tough to find an old white ancestor from the 1600s to be proud of, but I can gleefully report that, if I were to pick one, Williams would be it: he fought hard for the separation of church and state, for the religious freedom of all kinds and — as his Wikipedia page accurately reports — he was known for advocating fair dealings with Native Americans.

In a funny twist of fate, Williams is actually an ancestor through my dad’s side of the family (which has some Quaker lineage), but he fought hard to protect the earliest Jewish settlers in America — which is part of the reason my mom’s ancestors (who were Jewish) were able to come here hundreds of years later. That kind of religious freedom fight has long been close to my heart and is one of the reasons I often proudly say I’m a Quaker Jew, even though I was raised in an exclusively Jewish household.

When I think of religious freedom, that’s usually the kind I imagine. Americans being free from laws and rules imposed on us by religion, and being free to practice the religion we want. This case addresses the counter scenario: What happens when American law imposes itself on religious practice?

Because I’m disappointed in the outcome of the ruling, I am sad to report that I believe the justices fall on the correct side of this. Obamacare’s fatal flaw was how much of it hinged on executive action, and the contraceptive mandate was no different. It’s why the Trump administration has been able to dismantle so much of it without Congress. I also believe that, fundamentally, religious institutions should be protected from being forced to financially support something that is a violation of their values.

But here’s the rub: I really don’t think contraceptives should be a violation of religious values. It’s not the way the law is being applied here that’s the problem. The Supreme Court is on strong legal footing, as the 7-2 ruling demonstrates. The issue is the anti-contraceptive belief the Little Sisters of the Poor is taking to the court.

Josh Brahm, who I’ve referenced here before and whose pro-life podcast I appeared on not long ago, has written about how we don’t actually know if or which kinds of birth control have an abortifacient effect. If they don’t have this effect, then many of the religious objections the Little Sisters of the Poor are standing behind evaporate. And not just evaporate, but implode. That’s because (as I’ve discussed before) the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to make contraceptives more widely available.

The religious right does themselves no favors by advocating this position, even if the issue has split support with the U.S. population as a whole. I think the Obama-era cutout was actually quite fair — it took the nuns’ hands off the lever to provide birth control for women, at least partially absolving them in their role in funding it. But that, apparently, wasn’t enough. Now they seem able to make that decision for others.

In truth, women have enough reason to advocate access and coverage of birth control on the issue of pregnancies alone. But that’s to say nothing of the actual medical benefits birth control provides, like regulating periods, reducing acne, decreasing cramps, and even lowering the risks of ovarian and uterine cancer, which makes DeSanctis’s argument unconvincing. It seems plain as day to me that birth control is a part of women’s health care, and giving religious employers wide latitude to refuse coverage of it isn’t just unfair — it also has the potential to (and very likely will) cause more of the very things they are trying to prevent: unwanted pregnancies.

Your Blindspot.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

Last week, the right missed a story about how Republicans have been skipping intelligence briefings in Congress.

Last week, the left missed a story about how President Trump actually wants bigger payments to Americans in the second round of stimulus checks.

Your questions, answered.

Have a question you want answered? Simply reply to this email and write in. I love hearing from readers!

Q: Could you explain the term ‘woke’ and what that means? In my family, there are those who would cheer if they considered me woke and those who would think I had lost my senses.  I may be wrong, but it seems to me that being woke, along with identifying the injustice that exists in our country, also means going along with the thinking of everyone who considers themselves woke. In other words, agreeing on everything. A wise person said ‘if two people agree on everything, one of them is not necessary.’

— Barbara, Fresno, California

Tangle: I don’t blame you for being confused.

Depending on who is using it, the term “woke” is either a pejorative or a compliment. And it’s not always easy to parse how it’s intended! The Bible of slang terms like “woke” in 2020 is Urban Dictionary, which has two definitions of woke that speak to your confusion.

The first definition is “The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue.”

The second definition is “Being aware of the social and political environments regarding all demographics and socio-economic standings.”

The latter definition, actually, is the kind of awareness the term “woke” is meant to represent. From a chronological perspective, being “woke” was initially meant as a compliment. Younger, politically conscious Americans used to tell each other to “stay woke,” and they meant that in the literal sense of the word: woke is the past tense of wake, or being past the process of waking up. To stay woke meant to not fall back asleep — to not rest in the slumber of complacency on issues that mattered.

“Stay woke” was an expression that was tied closely to the Black Lives Matter movement during its rise to prominence in 2013. I remember when #StayWoke was a popular hashtag used next to #BlackLivesMatter on social media. But it’s important to note that the roots of being “woke” actually go much further back in political activism, and its use today has direct ties to Black culture that precedes the Black Lives Matter movement.

Charles Pulliam-Moore actually wrote an awesome article about the evolution of “woke,” and the fact its first major appearance was in a 2008 Erykah Badu song, where she encourages listeners to “Stay woke.” The context of it in that song was Badu acknowledging the fact a world with racial equality was not yet a possibility — a fact she was staying woke to.

Fascinatingly, though, Badu’s use of the word — which began its mainstream use today — was decades after “woke” was first used to describe someone who was politically conscious. In fact, The New York Times Magazine published a rather cringe-worthy glossary of “phrases and words you might hear today in Harlem” in 1962. In it, the term woke was included and it was the same “well-informed, up-to-date” and socially conscious definition you’ll find in the Oxford Dictionary today.

All of that, of course, is just the natural evolution of hundreds of years of etymology that equates “being awake” with being politically conscious, aware, or understanding of the reality of the world around us.

Now, though, “being woke” has in many ways been co-opted by conservatives and moderates who view the left’s current positions on many issues to be extreme. Depending on the context, saying someone is “woke” is akin to saying they’re a white, wealthy, privileged liberal who projects their worldviews onto people of color. Here is another Urban Dictionary definition that aptly sums up that use of the word: “Wokeness occurs when a white, upper-class person pretends to hold opinions they imagine a black lower-class person might hold.”

So, what does it mean? It really depends on who is calling you “woke.” The original definition is rooted in a political and social consciousness that you mention — which is understanding the presence of racism, classism and sexism in society. The pejorative is meant to label people who emphasize those realities as being too extreme, and definitely includes an idea that all of those people blindly agree with others they perceive to be woke.

The latter definition doesn’t really pass the sniff test for me, as there’s a good deal of infighting in the woke world — so it’s not as if they’re all agreeing with each other. But it’s also certainly used to describe people whose “wokeness” goes too far and leaves them holding bizarre or contradictory positions. And it’s often used to blithely write off a famous person whose care for social justice might be performative rather than being rooted in actual issues and a sincere passion for justice.

A story that matters.

Nearly one-third of Americans missed full housing payments in July, a new report from the Apartment List says. 32% of all Americans did not pay their housing payment — rent, mortgage, etc. — in the month of July. 19% made no payment at all. It’s the fourth month in a row that a historically high number of people could not make their housing payments in full, reflective of the breadth of the economic crisis the coronavirus pandemic has caused. “The economic fallout from the pandemic does not appear on track for the quick V-shaped recovery that many had originally hoped for,” reports Apartment List. Click.


  • 24%. The percentage of U.S. adults who say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion.
  • 30%. The percentage of pro-life adults who say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion.
  • 19%. The percentage of pro-choice adults who say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion.
  • 21%. The percentage of U.S. adults who think things in the country are on the right track.
  • 64%. The percentage of U.S. adults who are happy with their current jobs.
  • 8%. The percentage of U.S. adults who are unhappy with their current jobs.
  • 39%. The percentage of U.S. adults who have money invested in the stock market.
  • 66%. The percentage of U.S. adults with an income of $100,000 or more who have money invested in the stock market.


Yesterday, I let you all in on the fact that I was about to eclipse 6,000 daily readers of Tangle. I asked for your help and you responded. Thank you. The newsletter cruised past 6,000 email sign-ups easily, and the word about Tangle continues to spread. I’m thrilled about what’s ahead. Please keep telling your friends, family and folks in your social media network. If you’re someone with a big following or involved in politics and want to collaborate, drop me an email and let me know. You can share Tangle by forwarding this email to friends or clicking the button below:

Have a nice day.

A few years ago, Chris Buckley was in the Klu Klux Klan. Now, he’s on the front lines of the anti-racism battle. Buckley’s story was featured in a widely shared Washington Post profile from 2018, but it’s worth revisiting now (and it’s back in the news because of a new organization he’s a part of). He says the root of his hatred was a combination of childhood trauma and, later, time spent in the Army when he was taught that Muslims were the enemy. After being embraced by a Syrian refugee and another former racist, Buckley has gone down a reformist path. His latest gig is as one of the most high-profile leaders in a group called Parents for Peace, which offers counseling, hotlines and resources for people trying to leave hate and extremist groups. Click.

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