The year 2004 will always be considered a bleak year for equality in Oklahoma when state voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as “between one man and one woman.”
I had just started this blog in earnest a few months before that November vote in the general election. What struck me and others I knew in favor of same-sex marriage and gay rights in general back then wasn’t so much the overall outcome but the vote totals and percentages themselves.
The numbers were suffocating and depressing. The Oklahoma Senate voted 38 to 7 and the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted 92 to 4 to put the measure on the ballot. Oklahomans voted 1,075,216 in favor of State Question 711 limiting marriage to a man and woman while only 347,303 of them voted against it. That’s an approximately 76 to 24 percent split.
The ballot title itself reeked of exclusion and hatred:
This measure adds a new section of law to the Constitution. It adds Section 35 to Article 2. It defines marriage to be between one man and one woman. It prohibits giving the benefits of marriage to people who are not married. It provides that same sex marriages in other states are not valid in this state. It makes issuing a marriage license in violation of this section a misdemeanor.
Note the phrase “benefits of marriage.” Why even use the word “benefits” in a rhetorical sense. Was the point to rub it in the faces of the gay community? It sounds like something a playground bully might say with a nasty smirk. I get to have the benefits. You don’t. Ha ha ha. Note, too, the provisions that prohibit the state from recognizing other state laws and criminalizing same sex marriage.
As we now know, the amendment and similar measures in Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming were overturned by a federal panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex legal throughout the nation under an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
As I mentioned, it seemed suffocating and depressing here in 2004. On a personal level, I wondered at that time, like I’m sure others here did, whether it was worth it to keep on fighting for progressive causes in Oklahoma. I definitely thought about writing off Okie Funk as a short experiment at that point, but eventually SQ 711 served as another catalyst for people to keep on fighting. I doubled down on the political writing and new people and a new generation rose up here to fight for equality and other progressive causes at the local level.
The Oklahoma City Pride Festival and Parade grew in size, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) community here—at least from my perspective—became better organized and recognized as a political force.
Meanwhile, sympathetic depictions of LGBT people continued to appear in movies and television shows, and a younger generation showed their tolerance and support. In 2012, President Barack Obama became the first president to endorse same-sex marriage. Before this, of course, thousands of gay people and others stood up for equal rights, sometimes losing their lives to do so. There were the New York Stonewall riots in the late 1960s and the HIV activists in the 1980s. I could go on, but I’m not the one to write this particular history in all its detail, although it feels good to be on the right and winning side.
So what a wonderful moment in history! What a turnaround in feelings and reactions from the dark days of 2004 in Oklahoma when it seemed the same-sex marriage fight could take another generation or even longer here and I was ready to give up on this place when it came to politics.
Here are the words from a document initially more than 900-pages long that conservatives here seized on to make a case to stop low-income people from getting health insurance:
“Exchange established by the State . . .”
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 2010 Affordable Care Act Thursday in a 6 to 3 ruling that had driven some local conservatives, such as The Oklahoman editorial board and U.S. Sen. James Lankford to make some of the most tortuous arguments ever used or given credence in the public arena. In the end, now that the ruling has come down, it all seems so absurd.
Why are we just now debating the five words in a law passed five years ago? It’s because conservatives are trying to find anything they can to deny people health insurance.
The ruling clarifies that subsidies for health insurance can be given to qualifying low-income people on the insurance exchanges maintained by the federal government for those states that chose not to established their own state-operated exchange. That was always the intent of the law, which is clarified throughout its initial pages and subsequent regulations, including an Internal Revenue Service ruling.
The law was always meant to be a national law, not one designed for only particular states that opted in on the law. The idea that the five words I quoted above prove otherwise is cherry picking at its worst. The fact so much money and time has gone into addressing the argument seems to me incredibly wasteful and ridiculous, and the 6-3 ruling in a normally 5-4 divided court shows the case had little to no merit.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, said it this way: “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”
Let me parse that even further. Is there any doubt that the law was conceptualized to help get as many people as possible health insurance? Those arguing that “the State” was an intentional limitation are incredibly wrong or being deliberately deceptive. I choose the latter. Those that argue the five words render the entire debate, Congressional vote, more debate and legal wrangling over the law meaningless and void, including all the subsequent regulations, are just trying to manipulate or find a loophole. It’s simple dishonest politicking.
Here’s how The Oklahoman editorial board disingenuously lamented the ruling:
If the plain meaning of a law can be ignored and unilaterally revised, based on the whims of presidential administrations or judges overly concerned with political considerations, then the law provides neither definitive citizen protection nor regulatory clarity.
But those five words have to be read in a context. Anyone can pick out five words in an incredibly long document and distort them. What about typos or word omissions or, perhaps in this case, a confusing phrase? All these rhetorical issues can be reconciled. It’s a question of a simple fix in language.
As Roberts wrote, “Contrary to petitioners’ argument, Congress did not believe it was offering states a deal they would not refuse — it expressly addressed what would happen if a state did refuse the deal.” That’s exactly right. It’s clear in the law, was made clear in Congress and was made clear by the subsequent IRS ruling. The federal government would run the exchange for states that “did refuse the deal.” How difficult is that to understand?
Oklahoma, of course, is one of 37 states that “did refuse the deal,” including not accepting additional Medicaid money from the federal government.
U.S. Sen. James Lankford, who confidently predicted in a Senate speech that the high court would not allow subsidies in states without a state-operated exchange, said before the ruling, “I believe they’re going to rule on the plain text of the law. Does the law mean what the law says? Or can the administration reinterpret it based on their preferences?" Again, cherry picking five words from a longer document doesn’t constitute “the plain text of the law,” and this wasn’t the administration reinterpreting anything. How many times must this be said before conservatives get it: The intent of the law was to provide access to health insurance and subsidies to uninsured people in ALL the states. This is not a reinterpretation. Lankford is as wrong as his wise and bold prediction in his Senate speech.
Then there’s Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has sued the federal government over this one law four times. Let me cherry pick his statement, which you can find in its entirety here, in response to the ruling. Pruitt argues, “There’s no doubt the rule of law took a hit today, but I won’t be deterred from continuing to fight for the rule of law and our founding principles.”
What in the world do “our founding principles,” always subject to an incredible amount of debate in the first place, have to do with five cherry picked words? Pruitt’s and Lankford’s rhetoric show their intentions are political rather than legal. I understand they’re politicians.
I wasn’t a big fan of the ACA when it was signed into law in 2010 because I wanted a universal public insurance option, but I did see it and still do as a first step towards that goal. Health care should be a human right. It establishes our basic humanity. Let’s debate that point in Congress, courts, schools and in our homes, but let’s quit wasting time on “frivolous lawsuits,” a term I bet is used more often by conservatives than progressives. The ACA is five years old now. It’s working. It can be improved. Local conservatives here, especially Pruitt, need to let it go.
The earthquakes started to hit this past late Friday evening and early Saturday morning as I sat in my living room trying to watch television.
There were at least four in a row, a fact I confirmed later through the United States Geological Survey site here. One of the quakes—a 4.0 magnitude—struck shortly after midnight followed shortly later by another quake of 3.2-magnitude. During the 4.0-magnitude quake, I remember thinking that if it didn’t stop, if it continued for any more length of time, my house was going to collapse on top of me. It woke my wife up, and she came out in the living room.
She hadn’t felt the smaller quakes, which seemingly “led” to the larger one. I told her about them. Literally rattled, she tried to go back to sleep because she was running in a local race early that morning. I told her I’d stay up for a while in case the wave of earthquakes kept rolling on and grew in intensity. Sure enough, the 3.2-magnitude followed a few minutes later.
Should I wake up my wife and go outside and wait out the earthquake wave? What if the wave simply didn’t stop and the quakes got bigger? What if they stayed about the same in intensity? Could the repeated shaking lead to damage that could physically harm us? But the Oklahoma seismic world calmed itself momentarily then, and after an hour or so of rattling-free peace, I went to bed.
This is the new Oklahoma reality, and more and more scientists are confirming the surge in earthquakes here is caused by the wastewater injection well process used in hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The fracking boom here may have brought economic benefits to some people in our state, but it’s now becoming clear that for those of us in central and northern parts of Oklahoma it has brought a great deal of anxiety. Are we safe in our own homes? How much have our homes been damaged already? When will the big one strike?
The state government line is that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is on the job, protecting our interests and diligently looking into why the state has become more seismically active than even California. But that’s not much solace to anyone in the early morning hours trying to sleep or relax when the quakes strike one after another.
I will predict this: If the earthquakes don’t stop before the 2016 elections, the issue will become even more political. If a big earthquake strikes again, such as the 2011 5.6-magnitude temblor near Prague, then I suspect more and more people will find the courage to speak out against the special interests of the oil and gas industry, which has a powerful and well-funded political lobby.
Those special interests were highlighted recently in an article by Environment and Energy Publishing (E&E) under its Energy Wire section. The article points out that the University of Oklahoma was trying to pursue a $25 million donation for a new building from local oil baron Harold Hamm at a time when scientists affiliated with OU were trying to make sense of the state’s dramatic surge in earthquakes.
Here are the basic facts to consider: The Oklahoma Geological Survey, which studies the earthquake issue, is affiliated with OU. Billionaire Harold Hamm is the founder and chief executive officer of Continental Resources, a large oil and gas company in Oklahoma City and a big OU donor. OU President David Boren sits on the board of directors of Continental Resources and has been paid $1.6 million since 2009, according to the E&E article.
The new article rehashes the fact Hamm met with OU officials and a seismologist earlier to discuss the earthquake issue as it emerged. Here’s a key paragraph in the article:
Hamm urged Boren to prohibit Holland from talking to reporters about quakes and instead have the university's spokeswoman handle such questions. When The New York Times wrote about Oklahoma earthquakes in December 2013, he forwarded the story to Boren with a note: "This situation could spiral out of control easily."
Austin Holland is a seismologist for the Oklahoma Geological Survey.
Read this from a well-researched article in The New York Review of Books about the plight of universities these days. I know Boren is not running a private university, but he's making millions one way or another. It's the same thing.
. . . In 2012, thirty-six private university presidents earned more than a million dollars—some a lot more—and many supplement their salaries with “service” on corporate boards. Especially in straitened times, these excesses are, to say the least, tasteless. They make presidential homilies urging students to put aside selfishness ring hollow. . . .
But as interesting as it might be to some people that there were and probably remain conflicts of interests when it comes to OU, the oil and gas industry and the study of Oklahoma’s earthquake issue, it’s really only a side show.
The Oklahoma Geological Survey has now publicly linked earthquakes to the injection well process as have scientists outside of the state. There remains little doubt about what’s causing our homes and offices to rattle on a daily basis. But the real issue beyond the appearance of conflicts of interest and the hard science is the question over what we should do now.
Should the state place a moratorium on injection wells used in fracking? How many injection wells should be shut down? Can the entire fracking process be changed? For many people like me who live in the primary earthquake-prone area right now, the issue seems beyond urgent.
The issue is a major state crisis that’s not getting the attention it deserves. The earthquakes are occurring in major population centers. It’s time to take more action.
Fracking is a process in which water laced with chemicals is injected deep underground to create fissues that release fossil fuels. The wastewater is then injected by high pressure into underground rock formations. Scientists believe this process creates instability along fault lines that trigger earthquakes in Oklahoma, which may experience as many as 800 quakes of a 3.0 magnitude or higher this year, according to E&E.
On Monday afternoon, I was in my office at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond when things started to shake. My office is on the ground floor of a large two-story building. Again, I was struck by the feeling that if the shaking continued any longer or grew just a little bit stronger, there would have been damage, maybe even injuries.
Even worse, it happened so fast that I didn’t think to crawl under my desk to protect myself. My office is relatively far from an outside door, and, anyway, the earthquake experts say people should take cover before running.
This is the day-to-day reality fracking has brought to Oklahoma, and the last thing people here need to do is just incorporate it into their daily perceptions and experiences. People need to speak up. This is not normal and natural. Fracking is not normal and natural. Speak up.