‘Religious freedom’ proposals mask discriminatory intent

I’m a Baptist living in a state with millions of Christians of all denominations. A 2010 study showed that more Muslims lived in Texas than any other state. The numbers of Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists living here are also among the highest in the nation.

Texas is, in fact, one of the most culturally and religiously diverse states in the nation. A big reason for this great diversity is that the Texas and U.S. Constitutions protect religious freedom for everyone, regardless of their faith. Religious freedom is a fundamental right for everyone in America.

I’m proud of all of this. But I’m disturbed when people argue that the law should permit individuals or businesses to claim religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate against others.

We saw this play out recently with the unfortunate repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, but we’re also hearing the same arguments in support of new laws that would allow individuals, businesses, and even government officials to use religion to discriminate.

That’s wrong and counter to everything I believe as a Christian, American, and Texan.

Supporters of such legislation like to point to shop owners who don’t want to serve people they personally object to for religious reasons.

But that trivializes what’s at stake here. What we’re really talking about is allowing people to be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and denied public services simply because who they are or whom they love offends someone else’s personal religious beliefs.

That’s not standing up for religious freedom. That’s excusing and even condoning discrimination.

We hear arguments in favor of religious objections mostly when anti-discrimination laws protect our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors. Discrimination against anyone is wrong. Period. But don’t be fooled into thinking that LGBT people will be the only targets if our laws allow the use of religion to discriminate. We know only too well how religion can be misused for such bad works.

After all, folks have relied on the Bible to justify some pretty horrible things in our nation’s history. Slaveholders, for example, asked who could question the Word of God when the Bible said, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5).

Most Americans today realize such arguments are a shameful part of our history. But now confusing religious freedom with a right to discriminate could drag us back toward those days.

For example, we know that some extreme religious movements preach white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Should people who have those beliefs be able to fire or deny services to someone simply because they’re African-American or Jewish? Most of us surely would say no. But imagine the problems created when the law opens the door to using religion as an excuse to discriminate against anyone. Where do you draw the line? Which discrimination is allowed, and which isn’t?

The problem is even clearer when it involves government. If public officials can refuse to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples for religious reasons, then don’t be surprised when some object to granting licenses to people who have been previously divorced.

Opening the door to using religion as a license to discriminate would call into question numerous state and federal laws that bar discrimination based on characteristics like sex and even religion itself. If an employer believes women working outside the home is sinful, should he be permitted to fire or refuse to hire them? What about workers who belong to a different religion?

That’s not the kind of Texas I want, and laws that would open the door to these dangers are reckless and wrong.

Moreover, if the issue here really is protecting religious freedom, new laws are simply unnecessary. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by the Legislature in 1999, successfully balances the right to religious liberty with the right to be free from unfair discrimination.

Texas must and already does protect the right of individuals to live their personal lives according to their religious beliefs. But allowing people to use religion to refuse to obey laws that protect everyone from harm would put an individual’s religious beliefs ahead of the common good.

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Ellis: School policies must shift from suspend-first mindset

Before they know the ABCs or how to tie their own shoes, thousands of 4-year-olds in Texas are suspended from school each year, forced out of the classroom and denied the opportunity to learn.

A report issued this month by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed brought the issue into focus: more than 88,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students in Texas in the 2013-14 school year alone.

Recently, the Houston Independent School District’s board of education voted on a proposed rule change that would have ended suspensions for children in second grade and younger, except as required by law, and limited removals for third- through fifth-graders. Teachers would still have the ability under state law to remove a student from the classroom for repeated or seriously disruptive behaviors. HISD’s proposal also provided funds and training for educators in proven, alternative discipline methods that improve classroom safety and educational opportunities for all students.

A vote in favor of the proposal would have solidified HISD’s position as a leader in positive, forward-thinking education and school safety policies.

Unfortunately, the school board rejected the full proposal and instead supported a weakened version that effectively maintains the status quo for how our schools approach suspending our youngest children.

Unwarranted suspensions and other removals from school hurt students. When children, particularly young children, are arbitrarily suspended from school, they miss important learning and socializing time with their teachers and peers, they learn that the way to handle conflict is to push it away and ignore it, and they begin to believe they are bad children who do not deserve help. They realize that whenever they want a day off of school, they simply act out until they get sent home. The consequence can therefore reinforce the bad behavior the school is actually trying to prevent.

Suspensions also don’t improve classroom outcomes for the rest of the students. An American Psychological Association task force points out that research shows a “negative relationship between the use of school suspension … and school-wide academic achievement, even when controlling for demographics such as socioeconomic status.”

Out-of-school suspensions often have the greatest impact on Texas’ working families. When a young child is sent home, someone must be there to watch him or her. Parents are forced to take time off of work and put their jobs in jeopardy. Stories of family members losing their jobs because a young student is suspended are regrettably not that rare.

If studies indicated that suspending our youngest students resulted in improved outcomes, it would make sense to continue with the status quo. But research shows the opposite, as classroom removals for young children can lead to even more significant problems down the road. Studies show that early removals increase the likelihood of suspensions in higher grades, which then increase the odds of being held back a grade, dropping out of school altogether and entering the juvenile justice system.

What’s more, Texas Appleseed’s research shows classroom removals are issued disproportionately to certain groups of students. Black children, boys, and students who receive special education services are punished at disproportionately higher rates compared to their peers, but those rates are most alarming for black students. Black children make up 26 percent of students in HISD but represent 67 percent of Pre-K out-of-school suspensions. Seventy percent of the pre-K through second graders suspended in HISD are black boys.

Fortunately, there are proven, evidence-based alternatives to a system over-reliant on out-of-school suspensions. HISD’s proposal includes a robust, tiered system of behavioral interventions that can be used as alternatives to classroom removals. A staff of 25 trainers and 60 school psychologists would be trained in research-based methodologies, which they would then pass along to teachers, staff and administrators at all HISD elementary schools. Behavioral interventionists would be available to provide further assistance and referrals to external agencies to any campuses that request them.

Sometimes opportunities to make sweeping change can seem rare. But this instance provides our community a unique chance to adapt our schools’ discipline policies in a way that will help the youngest students stay in the classroom. I remain hopeful that at the upcoming December meeting the HISD school board will support a ban on out-of-school suspensions for the district’s youngest children.

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Sandra Bland’s death should focus our efforts on reform

A traffic stop for a lane change resulted in death. Many unanswered questions remain about how we ultimately lost Sandra Bland, but the unfortunate truth is our broken criminal justice system played a major role in her tragic passing.

While we can’t bring Bland back, we can look at the systemic problems that led to her death and decide to move forward by implementing specific policy reforms to create a more equitable and effective justice system for all people and prevent the needless destruction of more lives.

As anyone who has seen the dashcam video can attest, Bland’s traffic stop was clearly mishandled by the arresting officer. Though most of our officers serve honorably, as with any public servant, we must have transparency and accountability. We need more police training in de-escalation techniques and how to build better relationships with the communities they serve, body cameras must become mandatory, interrogations should be recorded, and independent investigations should occur in officer-involved deaths.

After the traffic stop, Bland was arrested and taken to jail. Taking away someone’s freedom by locking them in cell is a serious act that should only happen when it’s necessary to protect public safety. To ensure that’s the case, we must move away from wasteful and ineffective policies of mass incarceration — particularly the war on drugs — and towards more effective and less destructive smart-on-crime strategies for low-level, non-violent offenses.

By advancing policies like pre-arrest and pre-trial diversion, prohibiting arrests for minor offenses like Class C misdemeanors, and encouraging greater use of Texas’ cite-and-release statute, we can make sure we only put folks behind bars who are a threat to public safety.

Once the decision was made to arrest Bland, she could have been booked and released by the magistrate. Instead, she was confined in jail without being convicted of a crime because she couldn’t afford bail. Her situation wasn’t unique. More than 60 percent of people in Texas jails — and 80 percent of the people housed in Waller County Jail over the past year — haven’t been convicted of a crime. Instead, the vast majority are there simply because they don’t have enough money to get out.

Someone’s danger to the community should determine bail, not their wealth. Requiring risk assessments and utilizing proven alternatives to incarceration for low-risk arrestees — like personal bonds, electronic monitoring, or simple check-ins — can make sure we’re only confining people in jail awaiting trial if we know they’re a threat to the community.

At the time of Bland’s death, she had yet to be granted her constitutional right to counsel. If she had, she might have had her rights better protected and the opportunity to advocate for appropriate pre-trial release. By simply appointing counsel at the earliest stages and expanding and funding public defender offices, we can do a better job of safeguarding Texans’ constitutional rights.

Lastly, it is equally important that we ensure our laws are enforced equitably. What part race played in Bland’s mistreatment is impossible to quantify, but the effect of race in our justice system can’t be ignored. The numbers don’t lie: Blacks in Texas are imprisoned at almost five times the rate of whites and at seven times the rate of whites for drug possession.

Those are astonishing disparities that should cause alarm. As Bland’s case shows us, those aren’t just statistics — they are real lives being destroyed. It’s time for Texas to conduct a honest examination of the effectiveness of our justice practices and the equality of their enforcement. We can then determine why such racial disparities exist at each stage of our justice system and implement reforms to remedy them.

Let’s do our part to make sure that Bland’s legacy isn’t just a life needlessly lost, but a spark that inspires us to take action. After more than 30 years of mass incarceration and a shameful history of unequal justice for communities of color and the poor, Texas has an obligation to create a justice system that ensures all people are treated equally and fairly under the law.

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Ellis: Reforms needed to protect and engage Texas voters

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. This historic law was passed in response to an era in which many states, particularly in the south, mandated literacy tests, poll taxes, and other devices to institutionalize the disenfranchisement of the African American vote. There were thousands of dedicated citizens and grassroots organizers who sacrificed blood and tears fighting these discriminatory devices in order to ensure that all eligible Americans can participate in our democracy, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background. We have come a long way to guarantee our citizens’ right to vote is protected , but we still have a long way to go.

Instead of poll taxes and literacy tests of yesteryear, states now use controversial voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts to suppress the vote. In Texas, a federal court ruled last October that the state’s voter ID law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” When it comes to redistricting, Texas was the only state in the country that adopted redistricting plans following the 2010 Census that have been ruled to be deliberately discriminatory against African American and Latino voters.

We are unfortunately reminded on a regular basis that it remains a work in progress to fulfill the constitutional promise that each and every eligible Texan has the right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

Recently, Battleground Texas and Waters & Kraus LLP sent a letter to Texas’ Secretary of State on behalf of eleven Texas voters revealing further disturbing  reports of Texans’ voting rights being denied. Under federal law, whenever eligible voters apply for, renew, or update their driver’s licenses at a Department of Public Safety office, the state must give them a chance to register to vote or update their registration records.

Yet as the letter explains, the Texas voters named in the letter were unable to cast regular ballots in the 2014 general election either because their names were not listed on the registration rolls or their address information was outdated – even though each registered to vote through DPS. Several of these disenfranchised voters were denied the right to vote conventionally and forced to cast provisional ballots, some of which were not counted. One voter was unable to vote altogether.

The experiences of these eleven are examples of the systematic problems Texas citizens have faced. In less than two years, almost 5,000 Texans have complained to the Secretary of State about voter registration problems at DPS. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg, as those 5,000 are only the voters who made the effort to get their complaint on record. The majority of those complaints were reportedly caused by either a clerk at DPS failing to transmit the person’s request to be registered to vote or a confusing system that made it unclear whether people who updated their driver’s license information online also automatically updated their voter registration information, as well.

Unfortunately, voter registration problems at DPS are not new. A series of articles by the Houston Chronicle alerted state officials to these registration glitches as early as 2012.

I was encouraged  by the Houston Chronicle’s recent report that the Secretary of State’s office agreed to investigate these complaints and review the policies and procedures that caused them. This is an encouraging first step, and I urge the state to work with stakeholders in good faith to find common sense, inexpensive solutions to the chronic registration problems at DPS.

Litigation shouldn’t be the only tool our citizens have to guarantee their  right to vote – especially in Texas, where we repeatedly rank in the bottom of the country in voter turnout. In 2014, turnout was 28.9 percent, ranking second to last in the nation. In 2012, it was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th.

Working together, we can identify reforms that will not only protect Texas voters and increase voter engagement but will also make our voter rolls more accurate and secure. The words of President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking to Congress 50 years ago, remain apt today: “We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait … the time for waiting is gone.”

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Ellis: Remove Confederate monuments from Capitol grounds

After the brutal murder of nine Charleston parishioners solely due to the color of their skin, the nation began a series of wide-ranging debates about the appropriateness of government endorsement of Confederate symbols. The South Carolina Legislature is in the process of debating legislation to remove the battle flag from the capitol grounds, the Mississippi Speaker of the House called for removing the image of the battle flag from the state’s current flag, and Alabama’s governor ordered four Confederate flags to be removed from a monument on the state’s capitol grounds.

Texas has also been part of that conversation. Two weeks ago, I asked Houston ISD – the state’s largest school district – to review and consider renaming schools named after Confederate loyalists, and other districts across the state have begun similar inquiries. On Monday, I joined with legislative colleagues to ask the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker to appoint a task force to discuss the monuments celebrating the Confederacy that dot the Texas Capitol grounds.

The debate about Confederate symbols and monuments did not spring up overnight, and the successes seen the past few weeks across the country did not come easily. Instead, it took decades of dedicated effort from activists and everyday Americans alike. They worked hard because they had to, as Confederate apologists spend considerable time and money redefining and whitewashing the cause of the Civil War.

The monument and plaques at the Texas Capitol are part of that rewriting of history. Some cite states’ rights and Northern coercion as the true causes of the Civil War, while another asserts the outright falsehood that “the war between the states was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”

As I have pointed out previously, there is no better source for why the Confederacy fought the Civil War than the individuals who actually made the decision to secede from the United States.

Texas’ 1861 declaration of secession denounces the United States for “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color – a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.” It argues that “all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free.”

Texas’ point of view was certainly not an outlier. Mississippi’s declaration acknowledged the state’s “position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.” Louisiana’s claimed “[t]he people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.” Alabama’s stated that President Abraham Lincoln’s election consigned the South’s “citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”

So let’s be clear: slavery and maintaining a system of racial oppression were the central, detestable causes of the Civil War.

The day after the massacre in Charleston, the United State Supreme Court released a decision holding that Texas did not have to approve specialty license plates festooned with the Confederate battle flag merely because a group asked for it. Instead, the state can exercise discretion and choose what messages it wants to promote.

Like other states, Texas ought to take that role seriously, and not just with regard to license plates. Public institutions like our community schools, universities, and especially the Texas Capitol – the face of our state government – ought not to celebrate individuals whose notoriety stems from their service in defense of human slavery.

We must not only strike down the symbols of racism, but more importantly the structures of racism and the resulting disparities of opportunity and justice. We should take down monuments praising the Confederacy and its overarching goal of maintaining the institution of slavery. But we must be just as vigilant moving forward to take down the continued racial barriers to equality of education, economic opportunities, and fair justice under the law.

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Ellis: HISD schools shouldn’t honor Confederacy

On Wednesday, June 24, 2015, I sent the below letter to the chairwoman of the Houston ISD Board of Education, Rhonda Skillern-Jones:

The Honorable Rhonda Skillern-Jones
Chair, Houston ISD Board of Education
4400 West 18th Street
Houston, TX 77092

Dear Chairwoman Skillern-Jones:

This week, we have witnessed a nationwide uproar regarding the continued government support and endorsement of Confederate symbols. Their presence on the South Carolina Capitol grounds, Mississippi state flag, Virginia license plates, countless street names, and elsewhere has resulted in much-needed conversations about the appropriateness of sanctioning painful symbols of slavery and racism. These are longstanding debates that were again brought to the forefront of our national consciousness days after a white supremacist who proudly waved the Confederate battle flag brutally murdered nine Charleston parishioners solely due to the color of their skin.

As the nation collectively reexamines vestiges of a discriminatory past, I turn my eyes closer to home. By my count, at least six schools in the Houston Independent School District (HISD) are named after men whose notoriety stems from their fealty to the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, an insurrection aimed at preserving the institution of slavery. When we name a school after someone, we send a message to our children that this individual is worthy of honor and praise. It serves as a community-wide endorsement of the person as a role model for our children to strive to embody through educational achievement.

The time has come for a change. I ask that the Board put in place a process to review and consider renaming HISD schools named after Confederate loyalists.

Remembering our past is important, especially if you want to avoid making the same mistakes. But we can teach our students about the evils of the past without endorsing the actions of those who fought to uphold them. When we honor hate at our schools, we teach hate to our children. For a large portion of HISD students, the Confederacy is a past that would have prevented them from ever attending school and made them subordinate to fellow students. Many of them would have lived in chains and been sold like chattel had the namesakes of their school been successful in the cause they espoused.

Given that the Confederacy was – in the words of Texas’ February 1861 official declaration of secession – “established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity,” it is illuminating to see the current demographic makeup of the schools that bear Confederate names:

Dowling Middle School is named after Richard Dowling, a Confederate army officer. According to the most recent data from the 2013-14 school year, the school is now 57.7 percent Hispanic, 40.3 percent African American, 0.4 percent Asian, and 1.1 percent white.

Jackson Middle School is named after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a brigadier general in the Confederate army. The school is now 87.6 percent Hispanic, 10.7 percent African American, 0.1 percent Asian, and 1.2 percent white.

Johnston Middle School is named after Albert Sidney Johnston, a general in the Confederate army. The school is now 49.3 percent Hispanic, 32.9 percent African American, 3.3 percent Asian, and 12.5 percent white.

Davis High School is named after Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. The school is now 88 percent Hispanic, 10.8 percent African American, 0.1 percent Asian, and 0.9 percent white.

Lee High School, which has notably stopped using the “Robert E.” portion of the school’s original name, is named after the commander of the Confederate army. The school is now 71.6 percent Hispanic, 15.7 percent African American, 7.8 percent Asian, and 3.7 percent white.

Reagan High School is named after John H. Reagan, postmaster general and secretary of the treasury of the Confederacy. The school is now 83.3 percent Hispanic, 8.6 percent African American, 0.5 percent Asian, and 4 percent white.

As an extremely diverse school district in the most diverse city in the nation, the names of our community schools should not lionize men who dedicated themselves to maintaining the ability of one human to own another. I hope that the Board will use this unique opportunity to move the district in a new direction and away from a discriminatory past by creating a process to review and consider renaming schools named after Confederate stalwarts.


Rodney Ellis

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Let more community colleges offer four-year degrees

By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Sarah Davis

All hardworking Texas families should have the opportunity to compete for today’s best and fastest-growing jobs in order to move up the economic ladder, and an integral part of making those dreams become a reality is access to affordable educational opportunities.

After all, higher education is more important than ever. While a high school degree once sufficed in previous generations, a bachelor’s degree is often a prerequisite for jobs in today’s 21st century economy. Texas leads the nation in job growth, and economic indicators point to continued growth and the rising need for a skilled workforce, particularly in the critical fields of nursing and applied sciences.

Unfortunately, attending a public four-year college or university in Texas has gotten considerably more expensive over the past dozen years. In fact, the average cost of full-time attendance at a public university increased 104 percent from 2003 to 2013 – more than doubling.

In an effort to address the ongoing need for a skilled workforce and the spike in the cost of higher education, we filed legislation this session – Senate Bill 271 and House Bill 1384 – to carefully implement an alternative pathway for students to obtain a four-year degree.

These bipartisan bills provide the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board with the authority to allow community colleges that meet certain criteria to offer bachelor’s degrees in either applied science or nursing – provided the schools use a measured, phased-in approach, and meet other safeguards we include in our legislation.

Proposed community college baccalaureate degrees would be reviewed according to the same standards used for baccalaureate program approvals at universities. This would include demonstrating short- and long-term workforce needs in the field, adequate faculty and library resources to meet accreditation standards, sufficient funding to support the program without harming existing programs, and regular review processes to ensure quality and effectiveness.

The proposed legislation offers another avenue for students and working adults that want a more affordable higher education experience to complete a four-year degree. Community colleges offer lower costs relative to universities, as estimates put the cost of a four-year degree at a community college around $10,000 to $12,000. In addition, community colleges often have more flexibility by offering courses in the evening, on weekends, and hybrid classes making it much easier for folks with fulltime jobs to continue their education. Community college graduates are also more likely to remain and work in their local community, ensuring that the same public that invests in their education also reaps the benefits.

Community colleges can and should be leveraged to provide limited and affordable four-year degrees in areas of the state where needs are the greatest. Seventeen states, including Texas, already allow some community colleges to offer four-year degrees.

Currently, three Texas community colleges are authorized to offer a maximum of five baccalaureate degree programs in applied technology. The experience of South Texas College, Brazosport College, and Midland College suggests that these programs can be rolled out in a gradual, thoughtful manner. This experience has already put those regions of the state in a better position to meet local workforce needs.

Texas universities and colleges are incredibly important to our state, and they will continue to provide and produce the majority of baccalaureate degree-educated students in our state. But Texas still has real workforce needs that are not being met – needs that will require the state to utilize all alternative pathways to build and maintain an educated, skilled workforce for in-demand occupations that require a four-year degree.

We look forward to working with the legislature to prepare Texans to participate in today’s competitive global economy.

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Ellis: Texas should have right to select messages it wants to promote

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that will determine whether the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles must issue Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty license plates that bear two images of the Confederate battle flag – a flag that never flew over our state and is now closely associated with violent hate groups.

I have been quite vocal in my opposition to the proposed license plates over the past four years. During that time, I received numerous phone calls, letters, and emails from individuals who are excited to tell me the “true” history of the Confederacy, complete with why Texans should be proud to have license plates bearing the image of the stars and bars.

Winston Churchill said that “history is written by the victors.”  This is apparently true except for the Civil War. Confederate apologists have spent 150 years trying to change the Civil War into something that it was not. Here’s what it was: an insurrection against the United States government with the goal of maintaining the institution of African slavery.  Instead of facing that reality, Confederate apologists continue to try to rewrite history, couching it as a war in defense of states’ rights.

Rather than rely on modern interpretations of history, I believe the best source of information for why Texas joined the Civil War is the words of men who actually made the decision to secede. The Texas declaration of secession, issued in February 1861 when the state seceded, provides an illuminating glimpse into their motivations.

The declaration denounces the United States for “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”

It goes on: “[w]e hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

That is the real Civil War: men fighting to preserve the fundamental wrong of one human owning another. Slavery was not a minor cause – it was an essential part of the call to arms.

That is the backdrop of the legal case that was argued on Monday, when the key issue was whether specialty license plates are government speech. If the Supreme Court finds they are, then Texas has discretion over which plates to issue. Conversely, if specialty plates are found to be private speech, then the government’s power to limit a message is restricted, and as a former Texas solicitor general contends, “[e]verything would have to come in – swastikas, sacrilege, overt racism, you name it.”

Denying Texas the right to disassociate itself from messages that it does not wish to convey would have obvious negative consequences. If the Department of Motor Vehicles cannot exercise some discretion to reject offensive plates and must instead merely act as a rubber stamp, are there zero limitations to what we will soon see on Texas license plates?

I do not want to see a license plate supporting the American Nazi Party any more than I want to see one supporting the Confederacy. In fact, I would rather shut down the entire specialty license plate program than see a swastika on a state-issued plate.

The state government must have a right to select the messages that it will promote. Texans remain free to slap the Confederate battle flag on bumper stickers, but the Department of Motor Vehicles should be able to reject that message on our license plates.

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Ellis: As we honor King, let’s examine criminal justice reform

Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life on a mission to make America true to its constitutional promise of equal opportunity and justice for all. Unfortunately, recent events are a sobering reminder that 50 years after Selma, the gap between the vision of the dream and reality of disparate justice persists.

Though we have made progress, the need to push for reforms to ensure all people, regardless of race or income, receive fair and equal justice under the law is as important and necessary today as it was that bloody Sunday.

These problems aren’t unique to Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has appropriately labeled our nation’s criminal justice policies “the New Jim Crow,” and as the Chronicle’s recent coverage tells us, we have the same issues – perhaps even worse – right here at home. They are as persistent and extensive as they are disturbing, and the numbers don’t lie:

In 2012, African-Americans made up only 18.9 percent of Harris County’s population, but they comprised 65.8 percent of those from the county incarcerated in state prison for drug possession and 50 percent of the people detained in Harris County jails, despite the fact that rates of drug use barely differ between racial groups.

Houston Police Department officers shot 121 civilians between 2008 and 2012, yet not a single officer was indicted or disciplined.

Seventy percent of people in the Harris County Jail have yet to be convicted of any crime, the majority of whom merely cannot afford to post bail.

These aren’t just statistics – they are real lives affected. We must decide whether we care enough about those lives to take action, right now, to move us forward toward a more fair, equitable and effective justice system we can rely on.

We can start by advancing smart-on-crime diversion alternatives for low-level, nonviolent drug possession offenses, which are proven to be more effective at improving public safety, and move away from our ineffective and wasteful over-reliance on incarceration. It’s equally important to reform how these laws are enforced by moving toward community policing and away from “broken windows” policing and practices like “stop-and-frisk” that disproportionately target the poor and communities of color.

Most of our police officers do honorable work, and their service is to be praised and respected. But as with any profession, we must have transparency and accountability to ensure public trust. An independent police review board with subpoena power should be established; independent prosecutors should be required in any case with a law enforcement-related death; body cameras, with proper policies regarding their operation and accessibility, should be mandatory; and all police interrogations should be recorded.

We need to advance reforms to ensure every person, regardless of color, rich or poor, stands equal before the law if they are accused of a crime. Our right to be judged by a jury of our peers must be protected through measures to eliminate the broken key man grand jury system, prevent outside influence and bias, and eliminate barriers to community participation. Everyone in a free society deserves that their constitutional right to counsel be protected by access to quality legal representation, which we can help through the expansion and funding of public defenders and managed assigned counsel systems.

People should not be imprisoned simply because they are poor, so it’s imperative we fix our bail bond system to stop locking in jail those who have yet to be convicted of a crime because they cannot afford bail.

We should establish an entity to consistently oversee and compile data on our criminal justice policies to evaluate their effectiveness at reducing crime and the reliability, efficiency, and fairness in their application.

As we celebrate King’s birthday this week, let’s dedicate ourselves to honoring his legacy with more than rhetoric and commit ourselves to making his dream a reality through meaningful action.

King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc doesn’t bend on its own. It’s our responsibility, each and every one of us, working together, to dedicate ourselves to advancing the cause of equality and justice for all. We can start today, and we’ll be a better city, state and nation as a result. What better way to honor a true American hero?

Ellis, a Democrat, represents Houston in the Texas Senate.

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Ellis: Veterans courts relieve strife brought home by troops

By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Judge Marc Carter

As this Veterans Day approaches, it is appropriate to honor those who have served our country. Veterans Day is not only flags and parades, though. It is a reminder that, every day, we all have a chance to do something to assist those who have sacrificed so much in our name. That is why we are letting our community know that, even in the criminal justice system, there can be a place where compassion and justice meet. That place is called the Veterans’ Court, and this Veterans Day marks the fifth anniversary of the first such court in Texas, which was started right here in Harris County in November 2009.

Like most great ideas, this one had many people who helped give it a start. From folks in the Legislature who drafted and pushed for the bill in 2009 that authorized the creation of treatment courts for returning vets, to the large number of federal, state, county, judicial and nonprofit officials who helped bring the statute to life in the Harris County district courts, to the local private bar associations, prosecutors and court staff who worked tirelessly to make the implementation work on a day-to-day basis – all are owed a debt of gratitude.

This very special court is a labor of love for all involved. For us, it combines two public-policy issues that are near and dear to our hearts: helping veterans and making our criminal justice system more fair and balanced.

The principle behind these courts is simple: If a veteran suffers from a condition related to his or her service, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and that condition leads them to an encounter with the criminal justice system, then our treatment court will ensure they are matched up to the services at the Department of Veterans Affairs to which they are entitled. The court will hold them accountable to use those services and receive the treatment and counseling needed to cope with the residual effects of war. If they complete their treatment honorably, they are given a chance to reclaim their good name and clean record.

To date, 52 veterans of all services, from the Vietnam era to Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, have completed the felony program successfully. Now the Harris County misdemeanor courts are beginning their own program, and today there are 19 such programs across Texas. Each court has chosen to focus on its own unique population. Some have made drug abuse among veterans their priority, as returning vets may self-medicate to cope with PTSD, physical pain from injuries and depression. Other courts focus strictly on the needs of felony offenders and the serious consequences they face in our criminal justice system.

All of these courts are united in their mission to help those who served us. Men and women who might never have gotten treatment to grapple with the profound changes in their lives as a result of military service now have that opportunity thanks to the enacting legislation and the good people from the VA and local governments who put it into practice.

Texas has a long tradition of honoring those who served. Wherever you can, we urge you to ask your local officials to consider such a program so that we can give meaning to the pledge to honor veterans as they return home. We did not march where they marched, yet we can help them carry their burdens back home.

 Ellis, a Democrat representing Houston in the state Senate, is author of the original veterans court legislation in the Legislature. Carter is presiding judge of the Harris County Veterans Court.

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