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This blog contains the musings of an Ethical Culture Leader (clergy).
Updated: 1 hour 21 min ago

Leader’s Message – “Bathroom Politics & Ethics” – June 2016

Fri, 05/13/2016 - 1:39pm

There are myriad problems in this country crying out for our attention: poverty, climate change, and racism, to name a few. Surely, which bathroom one uses is of little consequence, right? Not as far as the state of North Carolina is concerned. In March it passed a law restricting public restroom access to the sex cited on a person’s birth certificate. This was a first, and it drew immediate condemnation, but other states and localities are considering similar legislation.


Having lost a long battle to prevent the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, social conservatives have turned their attention to transgender rights and efforts to allow certain types of anti-LGBT discrimination based on religious beliefs. They contend that expanding anti-bias protections to bathrooms and locker rooms increases the risk of sexual predators molesting women and girls on those premises.


This myth persists in spite of the fact that experts, including law enforcement officials and advocates for victims of sexual assault, have called it baseless. Research has shown that women are no more vulnerable in public restrooms than in any other public space. Furthermore, since sexual assault and harassment are already illegal, this legislation is unnecessary. Once again, women are used to “shield” social conservatives from their real motivation. It is a strategy used throughout U.S. history to discriminate against marginalized groups for the sake of “women’s safety.” As Dru Levasseur, Transgender Rights Project director for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal, said “It gets down to prejudice and it’s not based on any kind of reality.”


In early May, the Justice Department threatened to sue North Carolina, or strip some of its federal funding, if it did not scrap its divisive law. North Carolina’s governor responded by suing the Justice Department, accusing it of “baseless and blatant overreach”—and of  “being a bully.” This prompted a counter suit, describing the restroom restrictions as “impermissibly discriminatory.” Then, on May 13, the Obama administration issued a letter to every public school district in the country directing them to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity. While lacking the force of law, it contains an implicit threat of lawsuits and loss of federal aid.


If you are confused by all of this, I suggest you visit the Lamda Legal website. There is a downloadable FAQ: Answers to Some Common Questions about Equal Access to Public Restrooms at It includes these definitions: “Transgender refers to people whose gender identity, one’s inner sense of being male, female or something else, differs from their assigned or presumed sex at birth. . . Gender-nonconforming people don’t meet society’s expectations of gender roles.” Identity and expression should also not be confused with sexual orientation. There is a difference between knowing who we are and knowing whom we love.


The odds are great that you know and interact with these people; they don’t wear labels. But now social conservatives want them to wear labels and carry IDs before entering public restrooms.


So much for politics. Now what about ethics? Last month I met with two young transgender men to discuss starting a support group for their peers who feel unwelcome at LGBTQ settings where “We are asked to check our masculinity at the door.” “What does that even mean?” they want to know. They want to be seen as individuals, not as labels. Don’t we all want that? I often think of the words of Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler that I use to close my guided meditation: “The spiritual nature, the best in each person, does not need to be saved, it needs to be recognized.” Everyone longs to be recognized as a person of worth and dignity. We have it within our power to grant that wish.


Finally, the most ethical statement was made by Attorney General Loretta Lynch:


This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms.  This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed, to protect all of us.  And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably – in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.


To which I can only add “Amen.”

Leader’s Message – Lessons Learned? – May 2016

Fri, 05/13/2016 - 12:25pm

On my walk from Union Station in Washington, DC to my lodgings, before participating in Democracy Spring last month, I noticed a memorial and stopped to read what was carved there in stone.


“Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

President Ronald W. Reagan, upon signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988


I had entered a “sacred” space: the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in WWII, designed by Japanese-American artist Nina Akamu and architect Davis Buckley, located at Louisiana Avenue and D Street NW, commemorating Japanese-American soldiers and those held in internment camps. I knew about the camps, as well the annual Day of Remembrance, held on or near February 19, the day in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that required the internment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry. I had also read about the finding, in 1983, of the federal Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians “that there had been no military necessity for the mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans and that a grave injustice had been done.” But I had neither heard about nor seen this memorial. I walked slowly through it: taking in its stark beauty, hoping that others had also taken the time to stop, and wondering how often the words “Here we admit a wrong” are spoken, never mind carved in stone. Not often enough, I suspect.


Although I admired the cast bronze sculpture, depicting two Japanese cranes caught in barbed wire, atop a pedestal, I was drawn to the words and numbers inscribed in the semi-circular granite wall curved around it. There are the names of the ten camps where over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were placed. There, too, are the names of those who died serving their country. And there is this quotation from Daniel K. Inouye, US Congressman, US Senator, and Captain of 442nd regional combat team: “The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group.


I carried his words with me when I marched to the steps of the Capitol the next day. A movement is growing. People who have learned those lessons are calling upon politicians to learn them, too. We are demonstrating, and risking arrest, to call attention to the state of our nation: a home to natives and immigrants; diverse in our languages and customs, beliefs and values; and deserving of equal and fair representation. Democracy is both a promise and a responsibility.


As I reluctantly left the memorial, I read this poem written by Akemi Dawn Matsumoto Ehrlich, titled “The Legacy”:

Japanese by Blood

Hearts and Minds American

With Honor Unbowed

Bore the String of Injustice

For Future Generations

Leader’s Message – “Keeping Families Together” – April 2016

Thu, 03/24/2016 - 11:14pm

These lines from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” are engraved on a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands.


“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


And these words were spoken by Joao, an undocumented day laborer on Staten Island, earlier this year when rumors were flying throughout the New York area that officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be deporting families, particularly those from Central America.


“For two days I didn’t go out; I just didn’t leave the house. When family called to check on me, I told them, ‘Don’t worry. I’m hiding under the bed.’”


We are all immigrants or descended from immigrants. Do we all have the right to choose where our home will be, to put down roots in another country, to become part of a new community, to make a living and raise a family?


According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (Article 14) Furthermore, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” (Article 25)


Annie Moore was the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, after she arrived from Ireland on the SS Nevada. She was inspected by an employee of the Secretary of the Treasury’s office and given a $10 gold coin by an immigration superintendent. Between 1892 and 1954, 12 million third-class and steerage immigrants passed through the halls of Ellis Island. First- and second-class immigrant travelers were processed on board steamships entering New York harbor.


Today, over 40 million immigrants live in the United States, an all-time high. Our country remains a popular destination for about 20 percent of the world’s international migrants. Unfortunately, the United States has not yet found a kind and fair way to deal with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in limbo, with no path to become legal and afraid of becoming separated from millions more of their citizen children. President Obama’s executive orders are stalled in federal court, and Republicans routinely block any reform. It will now be up to the next president and Congress.


The stakes are high, the rhetoric is fierce, and the rumors keep flying. People are afraid that a raid could happen at any time, anywhere. They are attending Know Your Rights meetings held across the New York area and distributing Know Your Rights palm cards (


We support keeping families together. To that end, the Sunday Program Committee is sharing Sunday platform collections in April with organizations that promote immigrant rights and provide services for immigrant families. Please see the information in this newsletter about them. Learn more and donate generously.



Leader’s Message – “Misogyny and Politics” – March 2016

Thu, 03/24/2016 - 11:11pm


“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Madeline Albright, February 6, 2016


Hell? Really? The former Secretary of State said this when she introduced another former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a rally in New Hampshire. Of course, she wasn’t suggesting that we women help all women, just her candidate. (On February 10, the other woman running for president, Carly Fiorina, ended her bid.) Maybe there’s another special place in hell for women who support Republican women. At any rate, damning anyone to hell seems like a bad idea to me.


A day earlier, feminist icon and founder of Ms. Magazine Gloria Steinam said in an interview on comedian Bill Maher’s HBO show, “. . . women get more radical because they lose power as they age. And, when you’re young, you’re thinking, where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.” Maher gave her a chance to reconsider her statement by joking that he wouldn’t be allowed to make such a sexist comment, but she stuck to her guns. It took her a couple of days – and a backlash of tweets – to assert that “I misspoke. . . and apologize for what’s been misinterpreted as implying young women aren’t serious in their politics.” Really? I heard the interview and thought that she spoke very clearly – and condescendingly.


So here we have two Second Wave feminists chiding Millennial women (Fourth Wave feminists) because they have the audacity to assert their right to support the presidential candidate whom they feel best expresses their interests and values. They do look forward to the day when a woman takes her place in the Oval Office, just not Hillary. What do we make of this? Surely shaming and scolding a younger generation of women is not only high-handed, but ineffective.


I, too, am a Second Wave feminist, and, for my Women’s History Month column, was all set to lambast Republicans for their “War on Women” (the topic of my lunch discussion on March 24, with a long list of misogynist legislation). Instead, thanks to Madeline and Gloria, I’m turning back to First Wave feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and their (failed) efforts to win suffrage for American women. It wasn’t until 1920, after their deaths, that another generation succeeded. These western New York State friends, and many of their neighbors, were political radicals. Such was not the case for other women. Remember that the women’s suffrage movement grew, in part, out of the Temperance movement that was rife with conservative Christians. Anthony’s organizational skills were put to the test as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association after Stanton published The Woman’s Bible, a controversial best-seller that attacked the use of the Bible to subjugate women (a practice still prevalent today). Conservative opponents denounced the book, and Anthony started spending more time with her daughter in London.


Gloria Steinem’s goddaughter Rebecca Walker (writer Alice Walker’s daughter), launched a new era of feminism in an essay entitled “Becoming the Third Wave,” published in Ms. Magazine in 1992. In it she wrote, “I am ready to decide, as my mother decided before me, to devote much of my energy to the history, health, and healing of women. Each of my choices will have to hold to my feminist standard of justice. To be a feminist is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fiber of my life.” Some older women called this new generation “ungrateful daughters.” Not Steinem, though; she listened. It’s time for her to listen again to a generation of women saying that they will decide.

Wondering about feminist waves? It’s confusing! Stop by my office for a chat.


Leader’s Message – “A City of Compassion?” – February 2016

Thu, 03/24/2016 - 11:06pm


On the morning of January 5, Mayor Bill DeBlasio reinstituted an event started by his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg: the annual Interfaith Breakfast. I’m glad he did. It’s an important tradition that brings together hundreds of clergy, from across all five boroughs, to the New York Public Library to hear about the city’s initiatives to help the neediest New Yorkers – and ask for our support. It’s a call for compassion.


Mayor DeBlasio focused primarily on mental health, affordable housing and homelessness, as well he should, given the appalling statistics. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, “In November 2015, there were 59,929 homeless people, including 14,476 homeless families with 23,912 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system.” Thousands more sleep on city sidewalks. People with serious mental illnesses find the tight shelter quarters, with their rules and regulations and as many as a hundred beds in a single room, daunting. “You are the necessary allies,” he told us.


As I chatted with the clergy at my table – friends I have met through our social justice work – and listened to the reflections of colleagues from different faith traditions on the stage, I recalled the words of Karen Armstrong, founder of the global movement, The Charter for Compassion: “A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city!  A city that is uncomfortable when anyone is homeless or hungry.  Uncomfortable if every child isn’t loved and given rich opportunities to grow and thrive.  Uncomfortable when as a community we don’t treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated.”


The early work of the Charter, which was launched in 2009, focused on building a network of cities. It has now grown to include other communities, large and small, that want to put compassion at the heart of their activities. The Compassionate Communities program doesn’t issue a certificate or seal of approval. Nor does it promote one way of practicing compassion. Instead it recommends that a process be designed and implemented by a diverse and inclusive coalition of people so that all voices are heard and all needs addressed. Each community conducts its own evaluation of what is “uncomfortable” in its unique culture, recognizing which issues cause pain and suffering to its members. The Charter’s goal is to support communities whose members are moved by empathy to take compassionate action in making the well-being of the entire community their priority.


I entreat our mayor to join this program. He made an excellent start by fulfilling a campaign promise to provide free universal pre-kindergarten. This fall an estimated 65,000 children enrolled in the program, at a cost of $400 million, putting New York City at the forefront of a movement that is slowly catching on in other cities. As DeBlasio said in an interview on National Public Radio, “Look, this is a tough place to do this. This is a school system with a lot of kids living in poverty, a lot of kids who are English-language learners, a lot of kids with special needs, but it’s working.” His administration has also undertaken a comprehensive approach to tackling income inequality by increasing the city’s Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, expanding paid sick leave to 500,000 more workers, creating new workforce development programs, and working with a broad coalition to secure local control of minimum wage from Albany.


Imagine how much more the Mayor, City Council members, city agency heads and borough presidents could accomplish if they explicitly and intentionally prioritized compassion. Yes, many of his initiatives work, and he faces many challenges to make others work, too. Politics – party and personal – play a major role. What if compassion played a more important role than politics? What if the empathy of every New Yorker could be motivated and mobilized? I believe it could work, and that is why I have requested to be included in the Mayor’s Clergy Advisory Council. I enjoy the annual breakfasts, but Ethical Humanism needs to be added to what is described as “a diverse set of local clergy tasked with liaising between members of the Administration and local faith communities.” Don’t you agree?