Does Religious Freedom Guarantee Abortion Access?

On October 6, three Jewish women filed a lawsuit against the state of Kentucky claiming that the state’s current abortion restrictions are vague and violate their religious freedom.1 Kentucky’s state legislature passed a series of bills in 2019 that banned abortion from fertilization, only allowing for abortion if the mother’s life is in danger. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.2

These laws were allowed to go into effect after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022). That decision overturned Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), both of which previously found that access to abortion was a constitutional right. Because of the Dobbs decision, access to and restrictions on abortion are now in the hands of the states.3

The women in the Kentucky lawsuit all argue that the abortion ban violates Jewish law and practices and forces pregnant Jews to conform to another set of religious beliefs. For over a millennium, Jewish scholars have developed answers to questions regarding when life starts, reproductive rights, and abortion. The majority of Jewish denominations teach that a fetus becomes a human life at birth; therefore, a fetus does not have the same rights as a person. They believe that the life and health of the mother (frequently understood to include mental and emotional health) must take precedence over that of the fetus.4

The case claims that Kentucky law forces Jewish women who screen their pregnancies and in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos for genetic anomalies to violate their religious beliefs by continuing unviable pregnancies. The case also states that families are harmed financially by requiring storage for embryos indefinitely.5

Jessica Kalb, who has struggled with infertility, has nine embryos currently frozen from her previous round of IVF and wants another child. However, the embryos have not been screened to see if they are compatible with life, and under Kentucky law, it is unclear if disposing of incompatible embryos would be illegal. She has decided not to go forward with another pregnancy.

Lisa Sobel’s daughter is also a result of IVF, and the Sobel family wants more children. However, she had a very difficult first pregnancy and worries what might happen in the second. “At this point, I’m scared to try and have another child,” she said. “If I miscarry, I could bleed out before the doctors and the lawyers could decide whether or not they could treat me or if I needed to be prosecuted, and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take for myself or my child or my husband.”6

Finally, Sarah Baron claims in the lawsuit that as an Ashkenazi Jew, she has a higher risk of passing on genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs disease, which is always fatal.7 The suit states that without the option of abortion, nonviable pregnancies cause psychological harm to the mother and cannot be terminated as is expected under Jewish law.8 The case is scheduled to be heard on November 15.

In response, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron indicated that he would defend the law. “The General Assembly has made it clear that Kentucky will protect unborn life and these laws are an important part of the commonwealth,” he said on October 6.9 Cameron is running for governor in 2023 and his platform addresses his support for ending abortion in the state.

Other states’ abortion restrictions are also being challenged in court by Jewish communities. In Indiana, Hoosier Jews for Choice are plaintiffs in a case suing the state over its abortion restrictions, and in Florida, a synagogue is taking the issue to court.10 Also in Florida, three rabbis joined a suit that includes a United Church of Christ reverend, a Unitarian Universalist minister, an Episcopal Church priest, and a Buddhist lama in order to challenge the restrictions in the state.11 It is likely that other organizations in states where abortion is restricted will follow.

Discussion Questions

  1. Kentucky law states that human life starts at fertilization. Does it matter if that law is at odds with a person’s deeply held religious beliefs? Why or why not?
  2. IVF is a medical intervention that relies on extracting and fertilizing multiple eggs at a time, knowing that not all will be used. What should be done with the unused embryos?
  3. Deeply held religious beliefs have granted individuals and organizations permission to refuse vaccination compliance or to refuse to cover certain types of health care for their employees. How is the Kentucky case similar to or different from those religious arguments?


As always, we encourage you to join the discussion about abortion and religious freedom with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Bruce Schreiner/AP
[1] Sobel et al. v. Cameron:; Washington Post:
[2] Kentucky Legislature:
[3] Supreme Court:
[4] National Council of Jewish Women:; Rabbi Susan Grossman:
[5] Sobel et al. v. Cameron:
[6] Lexington Herald-Leader:
[7] Boston Medical Center:
[8] Sobel et al. v. Cameron:
[9] ABC News:
[10] Indy Star:; NPR.
[11] Reuters:


The Voting Rights Act Goes to Court, Again

On October 4, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Merrill v. Milligan. In that case, the Court is considering whether the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should apply to Alabama’s recent congressional redistricting. One section of the Voting Rights Act requires that states provide minority voters with “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.”1

Close Up Classroom Resources

Gerrymandering: Should the federal government mandate that states end partisan gerrymandering?

What Are the Details of the Case?

Alabama has a large Black population but that population does not have a significant impact on the election of Alabama’s members of the House of Representatives.2 Only one of Alabama’s seven districts is set up so that minority voters have the potential to sway the election. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect congressional candidates of their choice.3 As NPR reports, ”Black voters are either concentrated in that district so they are a supermajority there or spread out across the remaining six districts so that their voting power is diluted. It’s a practice known as packing and cracking.”4

A summary of the case’s road to the Supreme Court from Axios states:

  • A three-judge lower court, including two appointees of former President Donald Trump, found in January that Alabama’s congressional map violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. “The appropriate remedy is a congressional redistricting plan that includes either an additional majority-Black congressional district, or an additional district in which Black voters otherwise have an opportunity to elect a representative of their choice,” the judges said in a 225-page ruling.
  • The state of Alabama asked the Supreme Court to put the lower court ruling on hold while it appealed, which the justices allowed, the Associated Press reports.5

WATCH: The Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Alabama Racial Gerrymandering Case, from NBC News

What Were Alabama’s Arguments?

The state of Alabama argues that its districts are legal and that they were drawn in a race-neutral manner.6 During oral argument, the attorney for Alabama argued that there are many possible configurations of the congressional districts, and that computer models did not necessarily produce a map that was more favorable to minority voters. They stated that even the “plaintiffs’ [the other side’s] own witnesses testified about millions of possible race-neutral plans that, like Alabama’s plan, have no more than one majority-minority district. Plaintiffs were able to produce comparator plans with more majority-Black districts only by starting with a ‘nonnegotiable’ racial target and backfilling with other redistricting criteria after that target had been hit.”7

What Were the Plaintiffs’ Arguments?

Deuel Ross, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued for the plaintiffs. “There is nothing race-neutral about Alabama’s map,” he said. “The Black Belt is a historic and extremely poor community of substantial significance. Yet Alabama’s map cracks that community and allows [a] white block voting to deny Black voters the opportunity to elect representation responsive to their needs.”8

Ross also argued that the plaintiffs were not asking for guarantees that Black voters would be a majority or the major force in any district. Instead, they were asking for a plan that drew Black voters in districts where they are given “at least a fair chance—not even a guaranteed chance—to elect their candidates of choice in a second district.”9

WATCH: A Starting Point’s Divide & Conquer

What’s Next?

While the Supreme Court has already heard the case, it is unlikely that its decision will be handed down before June 2023.

Discussion Questions

  1. What have you learned about redistricting, gerrymandering, and the Voting Rights Act?
  2. What other issues relating to elections and voting do you think are important to discuss?
  3. How do you think the Supreme Court should rule in this case? Why?
  4. Do you believe that the U.S. system of campaigns, elections, and voting is fundamentally fair? Why or why not?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: William Hennessy, featured in SCOTUSblog
[1] Axios:
[2] SCOTUSblog:
[3] National Conference of State Legislatures:
[4] NPR:
[5] Axios:
[6] CBS News:
[7] National Conference of State Legislatures:
[8] NPR:
[9] CBS News:


Understanding the Iranian Hijab Protests

In recent days, Iran has been gripped by a series of mass protests that have gained international attention. The protests, largely led by women, are somewhat unprecedented. While both protest and women’s participation in protest in Iran are not new, the protests of the past two weeks are remarkable as the first of such scale specifically directed by Iranian women and centered on women’s civil rights in the country.1

The protests began in response to revelations that an Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, had died in custody of the nation’s “morality police,” an arm of the Iranian government that is responsible for enforcing religious law in the country. Amini had been arrested for refusing to wear a hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women to conceal their hair. The precise circumstances of Amini’s death are unclear. The Iranian government maintains that she died of a heart attack while in coma at a hospital in the capital city of Tehran, but protesters and critics argue that she was in a coma as a result of beatings and torture endured while in police custody.2

Understanding the Iranian Regime

In 1979, Iran experienced a revolution which installed Islamic religious leaders as the head of its government supported by opposition to Western interference in the country. The Iranian theocracy (a religious government) is an authoritarian regime led by a council of religious elders headed by the supreme leader. The supreme leader has ultimate authority over the military of Iran as well as the civilian government. Under Iran’s constitution, there is a legislature, a court system, and a president, but the supreme leader overrides all of those government bodies and is responsible for appointing most of the country’s leadership. The supreme leader holds office for life, with the current one, Ali Khamenei, having been in power since 1989.3

Iran has a culture that dates back to ancient Persia and to this day is among the most powerful nations in the Middle East. Unlike many of its neighbors where the majority religion is Sunni Islam, Iran’s dominant religion is Shia Islam, a distinct sect. Despite the theocratic government enforcing religious laws on Iranian society, Iran is actually among the most developed and cosmopolitan nations in the region and its people maintain a complex relationship with Western culture and influences. Throughout the regime’s history, the clash of theocratic rule with secular (non-religious) interests and a desire for reform in the country has led to unrest and political turmoil. Nevertheless, the theocratic government has managed to maintain its control.4

The U.S. Response to the Iranian Protests

Protests have been spreading and growing in size across Iran, a common sight being that of women burning their hijabs, dancing in the streets, and calling for freedom and the death of the supreme leader. The government has responded severely. Journalists reporting on the hijab protests have been jailed, hundreds of Iranian women have been beaten in the streets and arrested, and at least 40 people have been killed5.

The last major period of unrest in Iran occurred in 2009. At the time, President Barack Obama’s administration (in which now-President Joe Biden served as vice president) was hesitant to publicly support the protests. However, the current Biden administration has made its support clear following a speech given by President Biden to the United Nations. The United States has since imposed sanctions on members of Iran’s morality police and is making efforts to provide satellite and internet services to Iranian citizens following a government shutdown of the country’s telecommunications.6

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe it is the obligation of the United States to provide support to the Iranian protesters?
  2. Should the United States involve itself in the internal affairs of any country? What kinds of events, if any, should necessitate U.S. involvement?
  3. Given the United States’ involvement in the Russia-Ukraine War and increasing tensions with China, do you feel the United States runs any risk of creating additional conflict by publicly supporting the Iranian protesters? Why or why not? What options should or should not be used by the United States in Iran?
  4. In 2009, the Obama administration avoided public support for protesters in part because President Obama was pursuing a nuclear weapons agreement with Iran (known as the Iran nuclear deal) and in part because the administration feared that support for the protesters would actually undermine their cause, as the regime could more easily point to Western interference as the real motive behind the unrest. The Iran nuclear deal was officially ended by President Donald Trump and there is little chance of it being revived. Do you feel that there is still a risk for the protesters in receiving the Biden administration’s support? Why or why not?

Related Posts

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Ozan Köse/AFP/Getty Images
[1] New York Times:
[2] Al-Jazeera:
[3] PBS:
[4] Yale University:
[5] United Nations:,circumstances%20surrounding%20Ms.%20Amini’s%20death.
[6] New York Times:


The Water Crisis in Jackson, Mississippi

AP Photo/Steve HelberOn August 29, 2022, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency for Jackson, the state capital, which was in the midst of an ongoing water crisis.1 Heavy rainfall caused the Pearl River and Ross Barnett Reservoir to flood, which in turn overwhelmed two water treatment plants that were already strained.2 Low water pressure and contamination left the city of 150,000 people—the largest in the state—without safe, reliable running water.3

The lack of pressure cut off thousands of homes from the city’s water supply.4 No water flowed from faucets, showers, or toilets. Residents of Jackson who did have pressure found their water to be unusable and unsafe. “The water that’s coming out of my kitchen sink smells like fresh sewage,” said Carey Wooten, who lives in Jackson with her two children. “As soon as you turn it on, it hits you right in the face. It’s horrible.”The Mississippi State Department of Health issued a boil-water notice, advising residents to not use their tap water. Lines stretched for blocks as residents waited to receive limited supplies of bottled water across the city.6

Graphic by Bethany Atkinson

Only a Matter of Time

The August flooding didn’t create the water crisis in Jackson. Instead, it exacerbated systemic problems that residents have been dealing with for years. There have been ongoing boil-water notices issued after storm events, leading to distrust by residents who feel that they are not receiving the proper services that should be guaranteed by the city.7 For years, officials have routinely warned that “pregnant people and children under five” should not drink the tap water due to elevated levels of contaminants like lead.8 Runoff from the recent flooding has only increased the contamination concerns and scope of this problem. “We’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to the Jackson water crisis,” said Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. “I have said on multiple occasions that it’s a not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail.”9

The Role of Race in the Jackson Water Crisis

Advocates argue that structural racism is at the root of the water crisis, stretching back decades to “white flight” out of the city. “This is a deep seated, decades-long in the making kind of situation,” said Arielle King, a lawyer and environmental justice advocate. “I think the history of racial segregation and redlining in this country have deeply contributed to the environmental injustices we see right now.”10 

The population of Jackson has declined more than 20 percent in the last 40 years, a trend which started with an exodus of wealthier white people to the suburbs after the city began integrating its public schools.11 Jackson is now approximately 83 percent Black, and nearly one in four residents live at or below the federal poverty line.12

These demographic shifts have had compounding effects. White flight left Jackson with lower tax revenues, as people of higher socioeconomic status no longer contributed to the city. Less money meant fewer investments in public resources. Even though upgrades to aging, underperforming infrastructure like the city’s water treatment plants were long overdue, nothing was done to improve them.13 A total breakdown of the system was inevitable after decades of deterioration and delay. The flooding in August was the breaking point that took an already vulnerable situation and made it worse.

READ: “‘A Profound Betrayal of Trust’: Why Jackson’s Water System is Broken”

Some argue that structural racism both created this crisis and is responsible for the continued inaction by local and state governments. For example, policy experts at the centrist Brookings Institution wrote, “Jackson is a city with one of the largest shares of Black people in America, in the Blackest state in the union. Ideally, infrastructure serves as a shared foundation for economic, environmental, and public health between different neighborhoods and municipalities; however, infrastructure is often poorly maintained or intentionally overlooked in particular places, leading to a lack of access, affordability, and safety for many communities of color.14

Officials estimate that it would cost at least $1 billion to fix Jackson’s water infrastructure, with even more money needed to properly maintain it.15 Jackson cannot pay for this on its own, and the state of Mississippi has not allocated money for the repairs. Plus, the wealthy white suburbs that surround Jackson do not share a sense of urgency or obligation to help a community that isn’t theirs.16 Some have questioned if this would even be an issue if Jackson were a predominately white community, wondering just how bad things have to get for something to finally be done.

Partisanship also plays a key role, as Jackson is a heavily Democratic city in a Republican-led state. While the city blames the state for the lack of proper funding, some state leaders have criticized the Jackson city government for “mismanaging” the treatment plant for years.17  With little political willpower by the state to provide funding, Jackson is caught in a cycle of suffering.

President Joe Biden has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help Jackson, and Mississippi is set to receive $429 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law, but still more is needed to repair the water system, rebuild trust, and truly solve this problem.18

Discussion Questions

  1. The water crisis in Jackson has been compared to that of Flint, Michigan, which began in 2014. Are you familiar with what happened in Flint, or have you heard of any other issues like it?
  2. Do you believe structural racism has played a role in the response to this crisis (or lack thereof)? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?
  3. Do you think the state government has a responsibility to fix the water system in Jackson? How involved do you think the federal government should be, if at all?
  4. What public services do you think are most vital for a community to thrive? Should some be prioritized over others?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: AP Photo/Steve Helber
[1] NBC News:
[2] PBS:
[3] Twitter:
[4] Mississippi Today:
[5] Associated Press:
[6] Vox:
[7] Mississippi Today:
[8] Ibid.
[9] NBC News:
[10] BBC:
[11] Mississippi Today:
[12] Vox:
[13] Mississippi Today:
[14] Brookings Institution:
[15] Mississippi Today:
[16] Vox:
[17] Politico:
[18] Ibid.


A Renewed Labor Movement?

The year 2022 has seen a historic surge in labor organizing and union activity. While union organizing at Starbucks and Amazon has garnered the most media attention, the labor movement has also been active on university campuses, at newspapers and other publishers, and in the high-tech industry at Google, Microsoft, Apple, and other companies. This is occurring after almost 70 years of steady union decline.1

Union Membership

Why is the Labor Movement Gaining Ground Now?

At the end of 2021, two major U.S. companies—Kellogg’s and John Deere—reached newly negotiated contracts with their unions after protracted, public disputes to bring formal strikes to a close.2 Since then, there has been significant union activity. Employees at more than 200 Starbucks locations have unionized and there have been unionization efforts at many Amazon locations, including one successful effort in Staten Island, New York.3

Starbucks Employees

This represents the most significant union activity since the 1930s.4 So, why is this occurring now? Observers offer several reasons, including the following:

  • There is growing income inequality and a widening gap between executive and worker pay. This has led to increased support for labor unions among the public at large.5
  • Many young college graduates are not finding work in the careers they envisioned, and instead are working in the service sector at businesses such as Starbucks.6
  • The high-profile presidential campaigns of progressive Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) helped inspire organizing in many sectors of U.S. life, including among unions.7
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is viewed as a major—perhaps the major—catalyst of the new labor movement. “The pandemic was the wakeup call or the catalyst that has prompted two perspectives: ‘is there another way to work and live?’ and the relationship between employers with workers,” said former National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) chairman and current Georgetown Law School professor Mark Pearce. “The vulnerable workers—they were not only scared, they were pissed.”8Unionizing in Washington

WATCH: CNBC reports on efforts at unionization

Should Congress Pass Legislation to Protect Workers’ Rights to Organize?

Throughout this new labor movement, organizers have complained that companies are using underhanded, potentially illegal tactics to intimidate workers and block unionization efforts. The NLRB, which enforces laws protecting unions, issued a complaint on Friday accusing Starbucks of 29 unfair labor practices that included over 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act just in Buffalo, New York.9 In Seattle, the NLRB says Starbucks is violating U.S. labor law by withholding pay hikes and other benefits from stores that have voted to unionize.10 The same has happened in other regions and cities around the country, including Chicago.11 The government has also alleged that Amazon has violated labor laws in several instances.12

In this context, some lawmakers are considering strengthening labor protections. One bill, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021, would protect workers’ rights to strike, weaken “right-to-work” laws that currently exist in 27 states, and declare “it an unfair labor practice to require or coerce employees to attend employer meetings designed to discourage union membership.”13

Opponents of the law, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the bill “would undermine worker rights, ensnare employers in unrelated labor disputes, disrupt the economy, and force individual Americans to pay union dues regardless of their wishes.” And the Senate Republican Policy Committee alleges that the bill would “sabotage the economic recovery just as businesses are trying to make it past the pandemic,” as well as “curb workers’ choices, threaten jobs, and increase costs on employers” by “overriding state right-to-work laws, limiting Americans’ freedom to work as independent contractors, and allowing boycotts at businesses not involved in a labor dispute.”14

READ: A summary of the PRO Act of 2021

There are also laws being considered in many states that relate to the ongoing labor movement. Some of these laws are to strengthen the protections for organized labor while others are intended to slow the growth of unions and protect employers and small businesses.

Discussion Questions

  1. What have you heard about the new labor movement? Where have you learned about this?
  2. Do you think that income inequality is a significant problem in the United States? Why or why not?
  3. Do you support the ongoing labor movement? Why or why not?
  4. Do you think lawmakers should pass laws making it easier for workers to join a union? Why or why not?
  5. If you answered no to the question above, do you support laws that would make it more difficult for workers to join a union? Why or why not?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Elijah Nouvelage / Bloomberg
[1] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
[2] NBC News:
[3] Business Insider:|3
[4] WBUR:
[5] Ibid.
[6] New York Times:
[8] CNBC:
[9] CNBC:
[11] Chicago Tribune:
[12] Bloomberg News:
[14] U.S. Chamber of Commerce:,dues%20regardless%20of%20their%20wishes
Senate Republican Policy Committee:

Ranked-Choice Voting: A Curiosity or Coming Reform?

In August, Democrat Mary Peltola won Alaska’s lone seat in the House of Representatives in a special election to replace Don Young (R), who passed away in March 2022.1 Peltola defeated two Republicans, former Governor Sarah Palin and Nick Begich III. Peltola becomes the first Alaska Native person to be elected to Congress.2

This election received national attention for multiple reasons. First, Palin is a well-known figure in national politics and was the 2008 vice-presidential nominee for her party. Second, a Democrat winning in Alaska is often newsworthy. However, what most captured public attention in this special election was Alaska’s use of ranked-choice voting.

What is Ranked-Choice Voting? 

Ranked-choice voting is a system in which voters rank candidates by preference. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, they are declared the winner. If no one wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. This continues until a candidate wins an outright majority.

In the Alaska special election, Peltola secured the most first-place votes (39.7 percent), but not enough to win an outright victory. Palin came in second (30.9 percent), so the first-place votes of Begich and those who had opted for a write-in candidate were eliminated. While most Begich voters ranked Palin as their second choice, enough of them put Peltola as second to put her over the 50-percent threshold.4

Should More States Adopt Ranked-Choice Voting?

Alaska is the second state to adopt ranked-choice voting; Maine also adopted the system in 2016. New York City elected to adopt ranked-choice voting in 2019.5 Several other cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, have used the system for several years.6

Advocates of ranked-choice voting argue that it will lead to less partisanship and will reduce negative campaigning and attack ads.7 Indeed, in Alaska, Palin and Peltola did not engage in much negative campaigning against each other.8

However, there are also arguments against ranked choice voting. Critics argue that ranked-choice voting is confusing and that voters are overwhelmed by the task of ranking all candidates rather than just choosing one. For example, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote on Twitter: “Ranked-choice voting is a scam to rig elections. 60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won.'”9

Some critics also argue that the second-choice votes of the top candidates should count for something. In other words, in the Alaska election, people who voted for Palin or Peltola with their first-choice votes never had their second-choice votes counted.10

Advocates, who are often a mixture of centrists and far-left progressives who dislike the mainstream Democratic Party,11 also argue that ranked-choice voting might lessen the impact of dark money and corporate spending on elections. In Alaska, Palin outspent Peltola by 400 percent and Begich outspent both of them, only to come in third.12

Lawmakers in 29 states are now considering ranked-choice voting.13 Andrew Yang, a former presidential candidate and the founder of the Forward Party, argues that ”ranked choice voting ensures the most accurate allocation of delegates based on voters’ true preferences.”14 Ranked-choice voting is the central focus of the new party that Yang and others launched recently.

SEE: Is Your State Considering Ranked-Choice Voting?

In recent election cycles, voters and candidates have focused on the political and electoral process almost as much as the issues themselves. There have been arguments about voter ID laws, mail-in voting, the Electoral College, and campaign finance laws, to name just a few issues. It is possible that reforms in elections such as ranked-choice voting will continue to be prominent in U.S. political debates for some time.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you believe the U.S. election system functions well to represent the views of the people? Why or why not?
  2. What reforms to U.S. elections, if any, would you like to see?
  3. Do you support ranked-choice voting? Why or why not?


As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: AP Photo/Becky Bohrer
[1] CBS News:
[2] Alaska Public Media:
[3] The Hill:
[4] Reuters:
[5] Time:
[6] Vox:
[7] Ibid.
[8] NPR:
[9] NBC News:
[10] National Review:
[11] Vox:
[12] Open Secrets:
[13] Pew Research:
[14] USA Today:


Summer Roundup: Back to School with the Supreme Court, the Midterms, and the Search of Mar-a-Lago

In communities across the country, teachers are welcoming students back to school as the summer draws to a close. The beginning of the school year is an exciting and important time for establishing good civic habits in students. To help facilitate dialogue among students and spark civil discussion in the classroom, we are reviewing several noteworthy issues that emerged over the summer.  

Roe v. Wade Overturned 

In late June, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, essentially overturning the precedent of Roe v. Wade (1973).1 Over the summer, Close Up students joined with our partners at A Starting Point to discuss the impact of the Dobbs decision with New York University law professor Melissa Murray. 

READ: Close Up-ASP Homeroom Resource: After Roe v. Wade

The policy landscape regarding reproductive rights is still shifting, as state legislatures, courts, doctors, and other institutions figure out their next steps. There are many policies being considered in states across the country, and there are new lawsuits emerging as well. Not all of these debates will be strictly about access to abortion. For example, there may be debates about supporting women during their pregnancies and supporting families after children are born. “[Women] are far less likely to have assistance for themselves and their children, and they are far less likely to have health care available to them when they are pregnant and for their children,” says Stuart Butler, a researcher with the Brookings Institution. “And that means that there’s going to be not only more hardship, but greater health problems and maternal deaths and so on … unless there is a fundamental change in political behavior in those states.”2 

The Midterm Election Primaries 

This year is a congressional election year, with the midterm elections approaching on November 8, 2022. Conventional wisdom suggests that this will be a difficult year for Democrats in Congress. The president’s party often loses ground in midterm elections, and this pattern certainly held true in 2006, 2010, and 2018.3 In fact, the 2002 midterms—only a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—are the only midterms since 1946 in which the president’s party did not lose at least some ground in Congress.4

VIEW: The New York Times Primary Election Calendar 

Currently, Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate, thanks to two independents who caucus with the Democratic Party—Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Angus King (I-Maine)—and the tiebreaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. In the House of Representatives, Democrats hold a slightly more substantial majority (220–211 with four vacant seats).5

Early in this election cycle, Republicans appeared poised to win control of both chambers of Congress.6 However, the outlook is no longer quite so clear. This is due in part to the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization discussed above, as most Americans (61 percent in a 2022 Pew Research Center poll) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.7 Another issue that seems to be moving somewhat in Democrats’ favor is the fact that gasoline prices are no longer surging, although prices at the pump and overall inflation do remain high.8

While this is a national picture, local social issues for discussion and individual candidates also matter. In recent weeks, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) openly worried about the quality of candidates that won Republican Senate primaries.9

The FBI, the National Archives, and Donald Trump

In early August, the Federal Bureau of Investigation executed a search warrant at former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence. Agents removed several boxes of material from the property, marking the first time in U.S. history that a former president’s home was searched as part of a criminal investigation.10 The FBI sought the search warrant to find and secure classified documents that were being held—potentially in violation of federal law—at President Trump’s residence.  

The dispute centers around classified documents that some intelligence experts are concerned could put covert agents at risk.11 The National Archives and Records Administration had been involved in a protracted dispute with the former president as it attempted to recover documents. Beginning at least as early as May 2021, the National Archives was in communication with the former president’s legal team in an effort to recover those documents.12

It is unclear what will become of this investigation. There is a possibility that President Trump or others in his orbit will face criminal charges, but this is by no means guaranteed.13 There are other investigations underway relating to the January 6 attack on the Capitol, efforts to overturn election results in Georgia, and the Trump family’s businesses, among other things.14 Against this backdrop, President Trump is also weighing whether and when to announce a run for the presidency in 2024.15 The former president remains at the center of the Republican Party—candidates he has endorsed have won 95 percent of their primary races.16 

In the contentious atmosphere of recent U.S. politics, the combination of investigations and congressional and presidential campaigns could be volatile. 

Questions for Teachers

  1. What issues are your students most interested in discussing at the beginning of this school year? 
  2. What issues are you most eager to discuss? What are you apprehensive about discussing? 
  3. How are you planning to teach the 2022 election?  

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Justin Hicks/IPB News
[1] ScotusBlog:
[3] FiveThirtyEight:
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ballotpedia:,_2022
[6] CBS News:,_2022
[7] Pew Research:
[8] U.S. News & World Report:
[9] The Hill:
[10] ABC News-Chicago:
[11] CNN:
[12] ABC News-Chicago:
[13] USA Today:|8
[14] CNN:
[15] NPR:
[16] FiveThirtyEight:


Diversity, Discord & Democracy

We do not have to look far to find evidence of strong partisan hostility in the United States. People are ending long-term friendships, or even cutting off communication with family, over political differences.1 Partisan animosity—feelings of anger, fear, and distrust toward those with whom we disagree—has been steadily increasing for decades.2

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released new survey data that help to give a sense of the problems we face as a democracy. “Perhaps the most striking change is the extent to which partisans view those in the opposing party as immoral,” wrote the report’s authors.3

As the chart below indicates, people believe that members of the opposite party are closed-minded, dishonest, immoral, unintelligent, and lazy. 

The fact that large majorities of members of both parties view members of the opposite party as closed-minded and dishonest means that we are lacking fertile ground for deliberative democracy and civil discourse. 

While schools alone cannot solve these problems, and schools certainly didn’t create these problems, schools remain a setting in which people from different backgrounds come together for significant stretches of time. Schools can make use of this diversity by facilitating dialogue about pressing social and political issues.4 

We encourage teachers to design high-quality dialogue and deliberations that call on students to weigh evidence from multiple sources, view issues from multiple perspectives, and work collaboratively to solve problems. This blog and our many resources in the Current Issues Resource Library are designed to help teachers foster this kind of dialogue. 

Related Post: Deliberating About Pressing Issues

Such dialogue can help students build knowledge and skills, but it is also important for students to reflect on the dispositions that they are developing. There are many dispositions democratic citizens should develop, including: 

  • Public-Mindedness or a Concern for the Common Good: In addition to thinking about their own needs and desires, citizens must also consider the common good—the needs of others in society—when making decisions.5 
  • Humility and Open-Mindedness: Humility involves understanding that one’s knowledge and experiences are not the only knowledge, opinions, or experiences that matter in a decision-making context. Others’ experiences—some of which may be even more relevant to the issue at hand—need to be explored and considered. Sometimes, this means granting special privilege to groups and individuals whose experiences are particularly relevant.6 Open-mindedness refers both to the willingness to listen to the perspectives of others and the openness to being changed—or having one’s mind changed—through dialogue.7 
  • Empathy: Empathy is a broad term used often in educational literature. However, in the context of deliberation and deliberative democracy, it means something very specific. In this context, empathy “is not a feeling, but rather a process through which others’ emotional states or situations affect us.”8 A related term used by German social scientists is verstehen. This means to understand the meaning of an action from the point of view of the actor.9
  • Political Friendship: Aristotle wrote that “friendship seems to hold states together” and that “the special business of the political art is to produce friendship.”10 Danielle Allen describes a particular kind of friendship—political friendship—this way: “Friendship is not an emotion, but a practice: a set of hard-won, complicated habits used to bridge differences of personality, experience, and aspiration. Friendship is not easy, nor is democracy.”11 This includes thinking about the consequences of a decision for members of the group who may disagree with or be adversely affected by it.   

Fostering these traits in students is not easy. It requires repeated experiences with working together to solve common problems, critical self-reflection, and engaging imaginatively with the perspectives of others through film, literature, and dialogue.  

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.

Related Post: Anger, Fear, and Polarization


Featured Image Credit: Walt Handelsman, New Orleans Times-Picayune 
[1] NPR:; The Atlantic:
[2] Abramowitz, A. I., & Webster, S. “The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. Elections in the 21st Century.” Electoral Studies. 41. 12-22. 2016. Deichert, M. Partisan Cultural Stereotypes: The Effect of Everyday Partisan Associations on Social Life in the United States. Doctoral Dissertation, Vanderbilt University. 2019.
[3] Pew Research Center:
[4] Allen, Danielle. Talking to Strangers. University of Chicago Press. 2004. Parker, Walter C. Teaching Democracy: Unity and Diversity in Public Life. Teachers College Press. 2003. Hess, Diana, and Paula McAvoy. The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education.
[5] Parker, Walter C. Teaching Democracy: Unity and Diversity in Public Life. Teachers College Press. 2003.
[6] Narayan, Uma. “Working Together Across Difference: Some Considerations on Emotions and Political Practice.” Hypatia 3.2. 31-47. 1988.
[7] Landemore, Helene. “What Does it Mean to Take Diversity Seriously? On Open-Mindedness as a Civic Virtue.” Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy. 16(S). 795-805. 2018.
[8] Morrell, Michael. Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation. Penn State Press. 2010.
[9] Hannon, Michael. “Empathetic Understanding and Deliberative Democracy.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 101.3. 591-611. 2020.
[10] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle. Politics.
[11] Allen, Danielle. Talking to Strangers. University of Chicago Press. 2004.


Public Parks and Community Green Spaces

In an interactive photo essay for the New York Times, journalists Ruth Fremson and Audra D. S. Burch celebrate what would have been the 200th birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned 19th-century landscape architect. By showcasing photos of people enjoying themselves in his creations—such as New York City’s Central Park, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and the U.S. Capitol grounds—Fremson and Burch recognize Olmsted’s contributions to the civic life of communities across the United States.1 

“Olmsted understood the promise of the park as a social force that would become an amenity in city life over the decades,” they write. “In his view, parks were imbued with an exquisite kind of healing power. They were beautiful, born of nature, reimagined by man.”2 Over a century later, public parks and community green spaces continue to provide for those who visit them, especially during challenging times.

READ MORE: “Olmsted’s Enduring Gift”

This May, a record heatwave stretched from the south up the east coast, bringing temperatures near 100 degrees Fahrenheit.3 Many cities have experienced temperatures up to 20 degrees higher than what is usually expected this season.4 “The abrupt beginning of hot temperatures early in the season after a relatively cool spring brings an increased risk of heat illnesses unless proper precautions are taken,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.5 As temperatures continue to shatter records and become more extreme due to climate change, summers are increasingly becoming what can be considered “hot” or “extremely hot.”6 Millions of people will feel the heat. 

Parks provide places for people to cool down, whether it be by a fountain, in a body of water, or under the shade of a tree. In fact, trees have been shown to lower the average air temperature when compared to areas with paved surfaces like roads and parking lots. “The sun just beams into all that pavement. And it doesn’t just roast anyone who happens to walk across it, it’s also transferring heat to the air, day and night,” explains Joss Fong, a senior editorial producer for Vox. “If you take an area that’s just parking lots and buildings and cover at least a quarter of the space with trees, you can lower air temperatures there by around eight degrees Fahrenheit.”7 This makes it more bearable to be outside in the heat. 

In addition to helping people stay cool, parks can also improve both the physical and mental health of those who use them. Visitors can go for a run, read, or relax. They can bike and get a breath of fresh air. Trees improve air quality, absorbing “gaseous air pollution” and holding “small particles … like dust, ash, pollen, and smoke” on their leaves.8 Olmsted himself noted, “Where there were parks, they gave the highest assurance of safety, as well as a grateful sense of peculiarly fresh and pure air.”9 As important as this was back then, it became vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many turned to parks for a break from quarantine and an area where they could physically space out without risking possible exposure to the virus indoors. 

Despite the benefits, not all communities have accessible green spaces for their residents. According to a 2020 report by the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress, communities of color are nearly three times more likely than their white counterparts to live in “nature deprived” areas.10 These disparities are the results of decades of discriminatory urban and environmental policies that shaped where people lived, what was built in their neighborhoods, and what resources they could access. 

This report complemented an NPR analysis from a year prior, which used census data and thermal satellite imagery to conclude that for many neighborhoods in major cities across the United States, “where it’s hotter, it also tends to be poorer.”11 The effects of extreme heat disproportionately affect lower income communities, many of which feature more pavement and less greenery. 

In the 1960s, Philadelphia began creating “pocket parks” on small parcels of vacant land in lower income neighborhoods to address this problem.12 They transformed barren or blighted areas into enjoyable gathering spots, with the input and support of those who lived there. Other parks have received renewed attention and funding for upgrades. In Washington, D.C., Meridian Hill-Malcolm X Park is undergoing a two-year renovation to restore its historic fountains, plant new greenery, and repair crumbling infrastructure.13 This follows the reopening of Franklin Park in downtown D.C., which was updated to include “an outdoor café with seating and restrooms, a children’s play area, a repaired and interactive historic fountain, new seating, an improved tree canopy, and more.”14 While these projects ultimately improve the physical area—and therefore, the experience of those who visit—they can often be deprioritized when budgets are tight or other issues are deemed more urgent. 

A park can serve as a great equalizer in a community—a place where all people can interact with each other regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status, or ability. It’s a place meant to be utilized and enjoyed by all, not just a few. Green spaces add to the civic health of a community by serving as meeting spots where people can come together in recreation and celebration, where they hold vigils and stage protests, and where they enjoy the company of others and escape the world for a moment. Parks reconnect us to nature and offer a respite from a busy, hectic world. 

Just as Olmsted was commissioned by the federal government and numerous local and state governments to create and renovate parks and landscapes, the question now is: what more can and should be done to maintain the parks we currently have and to expand green spaces into communities where they are lacking? As we note the benefits of local public parks and community green spaces, we can also consider the investments and upgrades that may be needed so more people, and future generations can enjoy them as well.

Discussion Questions

  1. When was the last time you went to a local park? How did you spend your time there? 
  2. How frequently do you, your friends, or your family visit parks? 
  3. Does your community have public green spaces? How accessible are they to community members? 
  4. What do you think are the greatest advantages of public parks and green spaces? 
  5. How important do you think it is for the government (local/state/national) to invest in creating or maintaining public parks? 

 As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: Ruth Fremson/New York Times
[1] New York Times:
[2] Ibid.
[3] Washington Post:
[4] New York Times:
[5] Ibid.
[6] New York Times:
[7] Vox:
[8] Minnesota Pollution Control Agency:,tree%2Dfilled%20areas%20are%20cooler.
[9] New York Times:
[10] National Geographic:
[11] NPR:
[12] Alison Blake:
[13] DCist:
[14] DowntownDC:


A Tragedy in Buffalo Sparks Multiple Debates

On Saturday, May 14, a gunman killed 10 people and wounded three others in a supermarket serving a predominantly Black population in eastern Buffalo, New York. The shooter, an 18-year-old white man, traveled over 200 miles to the Tops Supermarket.1 He was the apparent author of an online screed that claims the attack was meant to threaten non-white, non-Christian people into leaving the United States. “The diatribe resounds with white supremacist, anti-immigrant, and antisemitic beliefs that reflect an increasingly prominent conspiracy theory about a plot to reduce white people’s global influence by ‘replacing’ them.”2 The gunman who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand also promoted this theory.3

The shooting was live-streamed over the social media platform Twitch, though the stream was interrupted and the video was removed less than two minutes after the violence began.4 In the week before the shooting in Buffalo, three Asian American women were injured in a shooting in the Koreatown neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. That city also reported two other recent shootings at businesses owned by Asian Americans, and officials believe the shootings may be connected.5

Horrific events such as these call on teachers and schools to do many things. First, teachers must attend to the anger, fear, and desperation of their students, and they must attend to their own emotional and mental health needs as well. Our friends at Facing History and Ourselves offer important resources for teachers in their resource, Teaching in the Wake of Violence.

In addition to addressing the emotional needs of students, schools must attend to these questions as matters of public policy. Citizens must engage in civil dialogue around the many issues raised by the tragedy. Obviously, one policy issue that is relevant is gun control. In the shooting in Buffalo, the perpetrator used weapons that were legal to purchase in the state of New York but modified them with extended magazines that cannot be legally purchased in that state. This raises questions about the role of the federal government.

Another issue that some public officials have raised is the role of social media in spreading hate. New York state authorities launched an investigation into several social media platforms that the shooter may have used to plan and broadcast the attack. The inquiry is primarily focusing on Twitch (a video streaming service owned by Amazon), online messaging boards such as 4chan and 8chan, and the chat site Discord. “This terror attack again revealed the depths and dangers of these platforms that spread and promote hate without consequence,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James.6

New York Governor Kathy Hochul also called on social media companies to monitor their content more closely. “The fact that … this execution of innocent human beings could be live-streamed on social media platforms and not taken down with in a second says to me that there is a responsibility out there,” she said.7 Debates over the role of government in regulating social media companies, and over whether social media platforms can be held responsible for their content, continue to escalate.

Related Posts

Discussion Questions

  1. How are you feeling and responding to these events?
  2. What more do you know or want to know about these events?
  3. Do you think that elected officials should seek to regulate online speech? Why or why not?
  4. Would you support additional gun control measures? Why or why not?
  5. How can communities and individuals combat the kind of hate and intolerance on display in Buffalo and Dallas?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below.



Featured Image Credit: AP Photo/Matt O’Rourke
[1] Associated Press:
[2] ABC News:
[3] National Public Radio:
[4] BBC News:
[5] Associated Press:
[6] Reuters:
[7] CBS News: