An effort is underway to create a new national monument next to Joshua Tree National Park that would preserve almost 700,000 desert acres for recreation while protecting plants, animals and cultural and historic sites. The proposed Chuckwalla National Monument — named for the lizard found in the Sonoran and Mojave Desert and northwestern Mexico — would need a presidential order or a vote by Congress to become reality. “What’s really important in this case is we want the national monument to be a resource for the community,” said Colin Barrows, founding board member of CactusToCloud Institute, ...
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The conservative-majority US Supreme Court appeared poised Monday to rule in favor of a Christian graphic designer who refuses to make wedding websites for same-sex couples.
The case, one of the most consequential being heard by the nation's highest court this term, pits free speech rights against anti-discrimination laws.
Lorie Smith, owner of 303 Creative, a website design firm in Colorado, is challenging a state law that prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.
Smith claims that creating marriage announcements for same-sex couples would be "inconsistent" with her Christian beliefs and being compelled to do so would violate her First Amendment free speech rights.
The case closely resembles one from 2018 when the Supreme Court partially ruled in favor of a Colorado baker, also a devout Christian, who had refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
During Monday's two-and-a-half-hour hearing, the six conservative justices on the court, which recognized same-sex marriage in 2015, appeared to be receptive to arguments made by Smith's lawyer.
The liberals were deeply skeptical.
"This would be the first time in the court's history that it would say that a commercial business serving the public could refuse to serve a customer based on race, sex, religion or sexual orientation," said Sonia Sotomayor, one of the three liberal justices.
"How about people who don't believe in interracial marriage?" Sotomayor asked. "People who don't believe that disabled people should get married?
"Where's the line?" she asked. "If I disagree with their personal characteristics like race or disability I can choose not to sell those people my website because it's my speech?"
Ketanji Brown Jackson, another liberal justice and the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, questioned whether religious objections were a valid basis for refusing to provide a service.
"Historically, opposition to interracial marriages and to integration, in many instances, was on religious grounds," Jackson said.
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito took issue with the comparisons to interracial marriage and also said there are "honorable people who object to same sex marriage."
'Cannot refuse to serve gay couples'
Smith's lawyer, Kristen Waggoner, who heads the faith-based Alliance Defending Freedom, said the state law would force her client to "create and speak messages" she does not believe in "on pain of investigation, fine and reeducation."
"When you're requiring a speaker to create a message to celebrate something that they believe to be false you're compelling their speech," said Waggoner, who represented cakemaker Jack Phillips in the previous case.
"Under Colorado's theory, jurisdictions could force a Democrat publicist to write a Republican's press release," she said.
Waggoner said Smith provides website services to members of the LGBTQ community other than marriage announcements and there are heterosexual unions she also would not endorse.
"So it's about the message and not about the sexuality of the couple?" asked conservative justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Another conservative justice, Brett Kavanaugh, said the case may hinge on the "narrow question" of whether Smith can be considered an artist with free speech rights rather than, for example, a landscaper or restaurant owner.
Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson said a company can "sell websites that only feature biblical quotes describing a marriage as between a man and a woman -- just like a Christmas store can choose to sell only Christmas-related items.
"The company just cannot refuse to serve gay couples," Olson said. "Just as a Christmas store cannot announce no Jews allowed."
Asked about the case, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Biden administration "believes that every person, no matter their sex, race, religion or who they love, should have equal access to society, including access to products and services."
In the 2018 case, the Supreme Court voted 7-2 that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had displayed anti-religious hostility toward the baker, thus violating his constitutional rights.
The court, however, did not squarely address the issue of whether a business can decline to serve gays and lesbians on free speech or religious grounds.
The Supreme Court has undergone a radical transformation since that ruling, with two staunch conservatives nominated by former president Donald Trump replacing one liberal and one swing justice.
The Supreme Court is expected to deliver its ruling before the end of June.
© Agence France-Presse
During the weeks leading up to the 2022 midterms, mainstream election coverage appeared to be guided by the presumption that President Joe Biden's pleas to save democracy were largely being ignored by American voters, that high inflation and gas prices would instead drive them to punish the incumbent party at the polls and hand Republicans dramatic victories. This wasn't just conjecture, either. New York Times polling showed that, while voters did say democracy was under threat, they did not rate saving democracy as a voting priority.
The much-predicted "red wave" did not happen. Straightaway, there were early indicators that Americans would end up putting a higher value on democracy than they had told pollsters they would. Republican candidates who made a big show of supporting Trump's Big Lie, hinting they were open to interfering with the 2024 election, lost their elections at a much higher rate than almost anyone predicted. Aligning a Republican campaign with Trump meant performing an average of five points below non-Trumpy GOP candidates. Most importantly, Democrats won crucial races for governor and senator in states like Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania, shutting down Trump's likeliest path to interfering with the 2024 election.
There are strong signs the trend will continue in Georgia's runoff Senate election between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Trump-backed Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Georgia voters have been in long lines to vote, setting daily record turnouts, exceeding not only previous runoff elections but also any early voting day in the state's history. More than a quarter of Georgia voters have already shown up at the polls.
Part of that is due to Georgia Republicans passing a law to truncate the early voting calendar, which prominent Democrats like Stacy Abrams have criticized as voter suppression. People have fewer days to vote early now, concentrating early voters into longer lines and higher per-day averages.
Still, these numbers also suggest that the same democracy-protecting urge that shaped the midterm elections is likely in play. It's hard to argue that the runoff between Walker and Warnock will have much impact on those much-ballyhooed "kitchen table" issues. Democrats already have a 50-vote majority in the Senate. A Warnock win would help protect that, but it isn't likely to make a huge difference in the daily operations of the Senate. Democrats are still short one vote to overturn the filibuster. Plus, Republicans now control the House, which presents a significant roadblock for passing meaningful legislation with or without Warnock.
That said, voting in this election also has great symbolic value to many people, with Georgia's recently-passed sweeping voter restriction law compared by critics to Jim Crow-era voter suppression.
"Voter suppression is one of the surest cures for apathy," Charles Blow, a New York Times opinion writer who recently relocated to Georgia, wrote last week. "Nothing makes you value a thing like someone trying to steal it from you."
He describes the long lines to vote as "a poll tax paid in time," but notes that "voters are simply responding with defiance to the efforts to suppress."
This enthusiasm to show up for democracy may not have been evident in pre-election polls, but it's showing up in post-election data. On Monday, the progressive strategy group Way to Win released an exit polling report that shows, contrary to pre-election assumptions, protecting democracy was ranked a number two priority by voters, only behind the economy.
"Pundit predictions about what would move voters were wrong – the loss of abortion rights and other freedoms, including attacks on our democracy, drove a winning pro-freedom, anti-MAGA majority in the midterms," Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president of Way to Win, told Salon. "These issues helped us buck historic trends and avoid a red wave – and the same issues are particularly salient in Georgia."
Last week, research from Impact Research, a Democratic polling firm, showed similar trends. "Six in 10 voters cited protecting democracy as an extremely important reason that they decided to vote in November. This put the issue ahead of inflation (53%), abortion (47%) and crime (45%)," HuffPost reports. Not only did the issue motivate turnout, but it helped independent voters decide to back the Democrats.
To be clear, the high early turnout in Georgia doesn't mean that Warnock is guaranteed to win. As Blow notes, "all of the obstacles placed in voters' way" do cause a lot of voters to give up, even if it stiffens the spines of others. In addition, as a New York Times analysis from the weekend reminds us, "Georgia is still fundamentally a right-leaning state." Yes, it's hard to imagine Republican voters will be moved to stand in line to back someone as demonstrably unfit as Walker. Even Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, confessed that, after waiting in line for an hour to vote, "I walked out of that ballot box showing up to vote but not voting for either one of them." But after a disappointing overall midterm election for Republicans, it is possible that many will show up to vote for Walker in hopes of carving out a victory.
Still, the high voter turnout plus this post-midterm polling shows that, despite warnings to the contrary, voters do put a premium on protecting democracy. As Brian Beutler of Crooked Media argued in a pre-midterm newsletter, Americans downplayed their concerns about democracy to pollsters and focus groups because of a "common human distaste for conflict." Most people "wish politics could be a kinder sport" and tend to react negatively to both the increasingly authoritarian rhetoric coming from Republican politicians and the dire warnings about fascism coming from Democrats. If Warnock wins in Georgia, it will be continuing evidence that, as uncomfortable as Americans may be with talking about these issues, they are still motivated to save the American experiment.
A man who shot Lady Gaga's dogwalker during an attempt to steal the singer's prize French bulldogs was sentenced to 21 years in prison Monday after pleading no contest to attempted murder.
James Howard Jackson and two other men attacked Ryan Fischer on a Hollywood street in February 2021, and after a struggle made off with two of the "Poker Face" singer's three pets that were out for a walk.
Fischer sustained chest injuries in the attack and said on Instagram a month later he had suffered a collapsed lung.
Jackson, 20, entered the no-contest plea after prosecutors agreed to drop further robbery, assault and other charges.
"The plea agreement holds Mr Jackson accountable for perpetrating a cold-hearted violent act and provides justice for our victim," said a statement from the District Attorney's Office.
The two other assailants have already been jailed for their parts in the crime.
Following the incident, Lady Gaga offered a $500,000 reward for the return of dogs Koji and Gustav. A woman who handed in the dogs in response to the reward has been charged with being an accessory after the fact and with receiving stolen goods.
The singer's other bulldog, Miss Asia, was able to evade capture, and ran back to the wounded Fischer's side after the robbers left.
Jackson earlier this year was recaptured after being accidentally released from custody in what officials described as a "clerical error."
Los Angeles police said at the time they did not believe the dogs were targeted because of their owner, but because of the breed's appeal on the black market.
Small and friendly -- and thus easy to grab -- French bulldogs do not have large litters.
Their relative scarcity, and their association with stars such as Lady Gaga, Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Jackman, Chrissy Teigen, Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna, gives them added cachet and means they can change hands for thousands of dollars.
© 2022 AFP