First up from the God Machine this week is an important legal fight over contraception and the Affordable Care Act -- with the larger trend working in the White House's favor.
With the recent Supreme Court ruling on "Obamacare," the most significant challenges to the law's legality have been exhausted, but there are some smaller cases that are pending, including litigation involving access to contraception .MSNBC's Emma Margolin reported this week:
A federal appeals court has ruled against the Colorado-based Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged, finding that employees of such religious nonprofits must be able to access contraceptive coverage in line with the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Unlike last year's controversial Supreme Court case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., which successfully challenged the health care law's birth control mandate in its entirety, this case targeted a federal accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious objections to birth control. All those groups have to do, under the accommodation, is submit a formal objection to including contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans, so that their health insurance issuers or a third-party administrator can provide the coverage directly.
As longtime readers may recall, Colorado's Little Sisters of the Poor wants to provide health care coverage to its non-profit group's employees, but it doesn't want to cover contraception. No problem, the Obama administration said -- the group can fill out some simple paperwork noting a religious objection, at which point a private insurance company can create a separate policy for workers who want access to birth control. The non-profit group wouldn't be involved and wouldn't pay a penny.
The nuns filed a federal lawsuit anyway, claiming that the paperwork itself infringes on their religious beliefs.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that "the accommodation scheme relieves Plaintiffs of their obligations under the Mandate and does not substantially burden their religious exercise under RFRA or infringe upon their First Amendment rights."
Margolin' msnbc report added, "It is the sixth appeals court to find that the ACA accommodation poses no substantial burden to nonprofit groups' religious beliefs, according to the ACLU." How many appeals courts have ruled against the policy? So far, zero.
In other words, the religious right and other conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act continue to go after this accommodation for religious non-profits -- and they keep losing.
Anthony Terrell, reporter for MSNBC, talks with Rachel Maddow about a gathering of the Iowa State Democratic Party at which all five Democratic candidates for the 2016 nomination are speaking, and the rivalry between their respective supporters. watch
Carlos Pineiro, persistent picker-upper of whatever news is dumped down, joins Rachel Maddow for a test of how well he paid attention to the stories covered on the show this week, for a chance to win prizes worthy of fifth-round white elephant trades. watch
Nick Tuths, Rachel Maddow Show producer, presents Rachel with two of the finest examples of office clutter harvested from the TRMS cube farm for consideration as rewards for a winning performance by this week's Friday Night News Dump player. watch
Rachel Maddow reports the few new details learned about yesterday's deadly gun attack on two U.S. military facilities that left four marines dead and three others injured, including the names of the deceased. watch
The Rachel Maddow Show takes a road trip to New York's Westchester County to see where road signs for Donald J. Trump State Park actually lead and find a neglected, weed-choked plot of land with dangerously dilapidated structures. watch
* Yesterday's victims have been identified: "The four Marines killed in the rampage in Chattanooga, Tennessee, served a total of five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one was awarded the Purple Heart. The Marine Corps said Friday that their remains were being sent to Dover, Delaware."
* The investigation continues: "School administrators at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, where the gunman in Thursday's shooting spree was a student, are working with law enforcement as investigators try to determine what motivated him to attack two military facilities in this city. The shooter, identified as Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, 24, graduated from the university with a degree in electrical engineering in 2012."
* Preliminary details emerge: "The attacker who shot four Marines to death in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had at least three guns plus a vest to carry extra ammunition, and he apparently died in a firefight with police, authorities said Friday."
* Nigeria: "Nigeria's Islamic extremists chose open-air praying grounds for suicide bombings Friday, one of the holiest days of the Muslim calendar. At least 15 people died as they prepared to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in northeastern Damaturu, said police."
* It's a shame someone in his position isn't more credible: "Thursday's massacre of four Marines in Chattanooga, Tenn., appears to have been a terror attack motivated by Islamic extremism, the head of the House Homeland Security Committee said on Friday. Though federal investigators later said there was 'no indication' the shooting was directed by an outside group, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said it had all the hallmarks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)."
* Busted: "Michael Grimm, a former New York congressman and FBI agent who once investigated white-collar crime, was sentenced Friday to 8 months in prison for tax evasion by a judge who said his "moral compass' needed adjustment."
* The key ally: "House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is coming to President Obama's aid by vowing to support and aggressively sell the administration's nuclear deal with Iran ahead of a vote in September. Pelosi praised the deal at a news conference on Thursday, calling it the 'best possible option' for 'stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction' in the Middle East. She also suggested that Republican opponents of the deal had not read it."
During the White House press conference this week, ABC News' Jon Karl reminded President Obama that the international nuclear agreement with Iran has some unsavory, if not malicious, proponents.
"Does it give you any pause," Karl asked, "to see this deal praised by Syrian dictator Assad as a 'great victory for Iran,' or praised by those in Tehran who still shout 'death to America,' and yet our closest ally in the Middle East calls it 'a mistake of historic proportions'?"
This is, of course, a standard Republican argument: if our Middle Eastern foes are on board with the deal, and Israel isn't, almost by definition, the policy must lack merit. As this line of thought goes, there's a debate by proxy underway -- any agreement backed by our enemies and condemned by our friends must be killed.
But approaching the debate in such a narrow way cuts both ways -- and doesn't do the right any favors. For example, to say that our friends oppose the deal is absurd -- the U.S. position enjoys the enthusiastic support of our European allies, as well as some in Israel. What about closer to home? The agreement has also received bipartisan praise from American diplomats.
More than 100 former American ambassadors wrote to President Obama on Thursday praising the nuclear deal reached with Iran this week as a "landmark agreement" that could be effective in halting Tehran's development of a nuclear weapon, and urging Congress to support it.
"If properly implemented, this comprehensive and rigorously negotiated agreement can be an effective instrument in arresting Iran's nuclear program and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the volatile and vitally important region of the Middle East," said the letter, whose signers include diplomats named by presidents of both parties.
Experts in nuclear policy are even more enthusiastic in their endorsements of the diplomatic agreement. Vox collected reactions from arms-control analysts and "it was really hard to find arms control analysts who seem to be critical of the deal on the non-proliferation merits."
Republicans are obviously aligned with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in opposition to the deal, but ironically, they're joined by Iranian hard-liners who were also bitterly disappointed by this week's diplomatic breakthrough. The New York Timesreported today:
With timing running out before Congress' August recess, the House of Representatives is supposed to be working on must-pass appropriations bills. Thanks to a bizarre fight over Confederate flags, that's not happening, though Democrats are offering GOP leaders a way out -- if they want it.
To briefly recap, Democrats introduced a measure curtailing the display of Confederate flags on graves in federal cemeteries and the sale of Confederate flag in national park gift stores. Southern Republicans balked and the mess has brought the entire process to a halt.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters last week that members are going to have to figure something out, but when asked what the remedy might be, the Republican leader replied, "I have some ideas. When I firm them up in my head, I'll let you know."
In reality, of course, Boehner hasn't the foggiest idea how to get out of this mess, which is why the appropriations process is facing an indefinite hold. The Hillreports today, however, that House Democrats are offering the GOP leadership a way out.
House Democrats are floating a legislative deal linking the thorny Confederate flag debate with expanded voting rights. [...]
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said Thursday that Democratic leaders will drop their push to attach flag-related amendments to appropriations bills, freeing Republicans to pursue their spending agenda, if GOP leaders will agree to consider an update to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a central part of which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.
In theory, that's a pretty generous offer, though I have a hunch Republicans won't see it that way.
Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* In the new Fox News poll we talked about earlier, Hillary Clinton enjoys a 40-point lead over Bernie Sanders among Democrats nationwide, 59% to 19%. Last month, the margin was slightly larger, 61% to 15%.
* Though this week's Washington Post/ABC News poll found Hillary Clinton's favorability rating improving since the early summer, a new poll from the Associated Press found the opposite.
* Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Perry and Donald Trump traded barbs yesterday, with the former governor arguing, "What Mr. Trump is offering is not conservatism, it is Trump-ism -- a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense." The former reality-show host responded that Perry "should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate."
* Trump is also apparently feuding with John McCain, following the senator's critical comments this week. Trump called for McCain to be defeated in a primary, adding that the senator is a "dummy" because he graduated "last in his class" at the Naval Academy. (I get the feeling Trump cares a little more about college transcripts than he probably should.)
* For a while, Florida Republicans couldn't find anyone to run in the open U.S. Senate race, but now, the party has too many candidates. The latest entrant in Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R), who kicked off his campaign on Wednesday, just a year and a half after getting elected to statewide office.
* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told CNBC's John Harwood this week, "When I look at the Old and the New Testament, there's one thing that is clear in there. And that is, it does depend on how we help people who are downtrodden, down on their luck, the widowed, the poor." This is the sort of rhetoric that tends to annoy his Republican critics, since it serves as a rationale for Medicaid expansion.
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