Category Archives: Children and families

When the State Feeds Children, Children Go Hungry

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Dorothy McAuliffe

I can’t say anything bad about Virginia’s first lady, Dorothy McAuliffe. Her cause is admirable: ending childhood hunger. Her compassion seems entirely genuine. And it appears that she had been very effective, if effectiveness can be measured by the resources she has mobilized to advance her goals.

Writing in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed today, McAuliffe ticked off a series of accomplishments. Seven hundred Virginia schools now offer Breakfast after the Bell programs than did three years ago. State school breakfast funding has increased by $2.7 million during her husband’s administration. Schools served 10 million more breakfasts and two million more after-school meals and snacks than in 2004, while 37 more school divisions serve summer meals. Meanwhile, Virginia has built the capacity of the nonprofit sector such as food banks to help feed the poor.

But McAuliffe’s op-ed neglects to address a critical question: Has this activity contributed to childhood hunger getting better or worse? What exactly constitutes “hunger” anyway?

Here is what I fear: All these school and nonprofit programs are creating a moral hazard in which poor parents, secure in the knowledge that government and charities will pick up the slack, are spending less money on nutritional food for their children. While McAuliffe’s good intentions are unassailable, her op-ed offers no evidence whatsoever that children are any better off as a result.

As can be seen in the chart above, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the food stamp program, increases payments based on family size. Maximum payments for the most destitute households — around $140 to $150 per child per month — are spartan. But they should be sufficient if the money is spent carefully. Part of the problem in America today is that food stamps are not spent wisely.

The best documentation comes from a study published in November 2016 by the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program. That study plumbed a vast reservoir of data assembled by “a leading grocery retailer” and accounted for 80% or so of the money that households spent through their SNAP cards.

Most notoriously, that study found that 9.25% of all expenditures by SNAP households went to “sweetened beverages,” mostly soft drinks. The New York Times used the data in a 2017 article to point out that PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and other food companies had lobbied heavily against efforts to prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase soft drinks and junk food. But the scandal is bigger than soft drinks. Money spent on sweetened beverages, prepared desserts, salty snacks, sugars, candy, juices, jams and jellies accounted for more than 22% of total food stamp expenditures at the grocery store. The actual percentage was likely higher because these numbers did not reflect expenditures, at neighborhood convenience stores where food offerings are heavily tilted toward soft drinks, snacks and other junk food.

Even if we don’t take convenience-store expenditures into account, food stamp recipients spend a higher percentage of their resources on junk food than non-recipients — about 23% compared to 20%. They also spend considerably more on the most expensive food category — meat, poultry and seafood, leaving less for healthy staples.

No wonder kids in poor neighborhoods are 2.7 times more likely to be obese than children from affluent families. The problem is not a lack of calories. The problem is the wrong kind of calories. Which raises the question: what kind of hunger are we talking about? Are poor children hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat — or are they consuming empty calories that temporarily satiate them but leave them feeling hungry later?

“Ending hunger in Virginia requires an ‘all of the above’ set of solutions,” McAuliffe writes. I would agree. But I would suggest that we’re not following an all-of-the-above approach. Schools are providing free breakfasts, free lunches, and afternoon snacks. Nonprofits are sending kids home on weekends with backpacks with food. Nonprofits support food pantries, soup kitchens, and emergency food programs. Charities raise funds to feed families on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The underlying assumption is that poor families lack the money to feed themselves, and that society must intervene to ensure that children are fed. But the ultimate responsibility rests with parents.

The headline of McAuliffe’s op-ed reads “End of childhood hunger is in sight.” She probably did not write that headline. Regardless, I will venture to say that it is dead wrong. Here is a counter-intuitive prediction: The more that well-intentioned government and charities do to end childhood hunger and absolve parents of primary responsibility for feeding their children, the more pervasive hunger will get.

One of Three Virginia Children Unready for Kindergarten

Source: Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission

Roughly one third of Virginia children lack the social, self-regulation, literacy or math skills needed for kindergarten, finds a study on early childhood development released by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC).

(That estimate was derived from a representative sampling from 63 of Virginia’s 132 school systems, so a comprehensive statewide survey might yield a different percentage.)

Factors such as poverty, low birth weight, and maternal substance abuse place childrens’ early development at risk and strongly influence whether they will be ready for school. The scientific research is clear, says the JLARC report:

Very young children who grow up in — or are regularly exposed to — safe, language-rich, and healthy environments, with caregivers who support their curiosity and learning, are likely to enter school ready to learn. Conversely, children not exposed to such environments are less likely to be ready for school and are more likely to be held back, enrolled in special education classes, and perform poorly in later grades. Those same students are more likely than their peers to commit crimes, become teen parents, and rely on public assistance as they grow older. … Each of these outcomes can carry significant financial costs to government, including the state.

Virginia has 13 “core” early childhood development programs, including seven voluntary home visiting programs for expectant mothers, the Virginia Pre-School Initiative, the Child Care Subsidy Program, and two Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs. The state spent $144 million on early childhood development programs in FY 2016; total federal, state and local spending amounted to $359 million.

An opportunity exists to improve the effectiveness of the state’s spending commitment without spending more money, JLARC concluded. “Careful attention is needed to whether programs are well designed, implemented as designed , and perform effectively.” But there is insufficient data to evaluate which programs are delivering the most bang for the buck. 

Bacon’s bottom line: By all means, we should evaluate the efficacy of Virginia’s early childhood development programs and reallocate resources to programs that deliver the most value. But such fine-tuning of the existing system amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic when one out of three Virginia children is unready for kindergarten. Virginia appears to be experiencing what can only be interpreted as a slow-motion societal collapse.

Lagging childhood development is strongly correlated with poverty and other phenomena such as low birth weight and maternal substance abuse that are also strongly correlated with poverty. The percentage of Virginia’s population in poverty at present runs about 11%. Yet one-third (subject to revision if we could obtain statewide data) of children are unready for kindergarten. Why the three-to-one disparity? A big portion of the problem, I submit, is demographic: Mothers in poverty have more children than middle-class mothers do, and they have children at much younger ages.

At 64 years of age, I’m about to become a grandfather for the first time. My eldest daughter, whose baby is due in literally one or two days, is 32 years old. Like her 30-year-old sister, who wants to have children but is waiting until her family’s career and finances are in order, and like the vast majority of middle-class Americans, she waited until she completed her education, found a job, got married, saved money, and achieved financial stability. Poor people don’t hew to the same family planning logic. Although the number of teen pregnancies is declining, poor women tend to give birth at a much younger age than their middle-class peers do, and they tend not to be married. (This proclivity, by the way, applies to all races and ethnicities.)

Given the strong correlation between poverty and low literacy levels, substance abuse, single-parent households, child neglect and a host of other pathologies, it should come as a surprise to no one that the percentage of Virginia’s young children ill equipped for kindergarten is increasing. And it should surprise no one that the percentage of teenagers ill equipped to graduate from high school is increasing, and that the percentage of young adults ill equipped for college is increasing. The same problem is manifesting itself on every step of the educational ladder.

Yes, we need to treat the symptoms of this systemic problem by, among other things, helping prepare young children for kindergarten. But the same pathologies that hinder readiness for kindergarten also hinder progression to 1st grade and beyond. In the long run, the most important thing we can do is to persuade teenagers and young women that they can improve their lives by adopting bourgeois values — deferring gratification, staying sober and delaying child bearing until they have completed their education, formed a stable marriage, and found a stable job.

Marriage, Fertility and Male Earnings

North Dakota fracking: higher male incomes did not translate into higher rates of marriage.

One of the great debates in the social science of poverty asks what accounts for the decline in marriage and the increase in out-of-wedlock births. There is a broad consensus among scholars of diverse ideological persuasions that children born into stable marriages tend to fare better in life than those raised by single mothers. The question is why the institution of marriage has declined so precipitously among lower-income Americans even while it remains strong and vibrant among affluent Americans.

In a new paper, “Male Earnings, Marriageable Men, and Nonmartial Fertility: Evidence from the Fracking Boom,” Melisa S. Kearney and Riley Wilson frame the issue this way:

In 2014, over 40 percent of all births in the U.S. were to an unmarried mother, with an even higher rate of 62 percent among non-college educated mothers. A leading conjecture as to why so many less-educated women are choosing motherhood without marriage points to the weak economic prospects of their male partners. The idea is that changing labor market structures and economic conditions have adversely affected the economic prospects of less educated men, making them less “marriageable” from the perspective of the women with whom they sexually partner.

Kearney and Wilson have flipped that conjecture around and hypothesize that improving earnings prospects by non-college educated males would be associated with an increase in marriage and marital childbirth. They tested that hypothesis by examining family formation between 1997 and 2012 in Census micro-areas experiencing a natural gas fracking boom, where non-college educated males experienced a jump in earnings compared to their peers in the rest of the country.

The result: “This analysis does not indicate shift toward marriage in response to an increase in the potential wages of less-educated men associated with localized fracking booms. But both marital and non-marital births increase significantly.”

The authors compared the fracking boom of the 2000s to the Appalachian coal boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, in a different cultural era, increased earnings led to an increase in marriage rates, an increase in the marital birth rate, and a decline in the non-marital birth rate.”

In other words, the conjecture linking men’s income with their marriage prospects may have been valid 4o years ago, but it’s less valid today. Write Kearney and Wilson: “As non-martial births have become increasingly common, individuals are more likely to respond to increased income with increased fertility, whether or not they are married, and not necessarily an increased likelihood of marriage.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The interplay of economics and culture is incredibly complex. But the findings suggest that among a large portion of the American population, marriage is increasingly viewed as optional — regardless of the father’s economic circumstances. Further, out-of-wedlock birth is no longer stigmatized. This research calls into question the idea that blue-collar male earnings are the main stumbling block to family stability. We have passed a cultural Rubicon, and there may be no going back without a major change in values.

Falling Apart: Rockbridge County Edition

Robert E. Clark, 39, entered Alford pleas to nine counts of sexual abuse: not admitting guilt but acknowledging that there was sufficient evidence to convict him.

Here’s a story where America’s fraying social fabric intersects with near-criminal bureaucratic indifference. For context, read about the social breakdown of white America as described by sociologist Charles Murray in “Falling Apart.”

After seven months of investigation, a special grand jury has found dysfunction and incompetence “from top to bottom” at the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services, reports the Roanoke Times.

“Don’t write up reports,” a child-welfare supervisor, who went unnamed in the article, allegedly said. “It takes a lot of work for us to enter that into the system and get it taken care of.”

Despite evidence that the supervisor had shredded call reports to lighten the work load, the grand jury concluded there were no grounds for criminal prosecution. Still, the investigation found that problems extended beyond one bad supervisor, the Times says:

Board members, supervisors and staffers all contributed to a breakdown in the department’s Child Protective Services Unit, which “failed in its primary mission to our community, that of protecting the safety and well-being of our most vulnerable population: The children of the Rockbridge/Lexington/Buena Vista area,” the report stated.

The supervisor, who was fired during an internal social services review, invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself more than 60 times during the grand jury proceedings.

An earlier article in the Roanoke Times described one especially atrocious case of neglect and abuse uncovered in Rockbridge County.

In 2015, Rockbridge County Deputy R.T. McCullough pulled his patrol car into a mobile home park to check a report about two girls, ages 3 and 8. As he approached the home, he was struck by the stench of urine and the sight of cockroaches crawling over the front porch and screen door. Inside, he found thousands of the bugs covering over the walls and furniture — and a three-year-old girl who sat crying at the kitchen counter.

Under questioning the girls revealed that they had been sexually abused by one Robert E. Clark. (It’s not clear from the article what Clark’s relationship to the girls was.) The Times continues:

The 8-year-old confided to her foster mother and a counselor that over a four-month period in 2015, Clark repeatedly raped and molested her and her 3-year old sister, forced them to have sex with one another and beat them with a belt while they were naked.

Clark’s sister, Samantha K. Simmons, is charged with sexually abusing two young boys in a junked Ford van that sat nearby.

The desecration of children is not a new phenomenon in our society. And a scandal in one Virginia county hardly constitutes proof of a growing problem. Indeed, a 2012 New York Times article indicated that child sexual abuse had plummeted 60% between 1992 and and 2010. The reasons for the decline were not clear, although the article pointed to a number of possible factors, such as greater public awareness, stepped-up prevention efforts, better training and education, specialized policing, and the presence in many cities of child advocacy centers.

While it’s possible that such practices have driven down the incidence of child abuse, I fear that the ongoing social disintegration of the poor and working class — chronic under-employment and under-employment, out-of-wedlock births, non-paternal boyfriends moving in with mothers and their children, substance abuse, and related behaviors — are creating the conditions for endemic child abuse. I expect that more recent statistics than those quoted in the NY Times would show that the incidence of child abuse is getting worse, not better.

That assumes, of course, that the statistics are trustworthy. If Rockbridge County social welfare workers were shredding call reports, who knows if their counterparts were doing the same thing elsewhere. Frankly, it’s hard to know what to believe.

The Weiner-ification of America

Carlos Danger -- a man ahead of his time.

Carlos Danger — a man ahead of his time.

by James A. Bacon

When I was raising my oldest offspring, now about 30 years old, a public awareness campaign would ask, “It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” Parents don’t seem nearly as worried where their children are these days — odds are, they’re at home. A better picture is, what are they doing?

Nancy Jo Sales, author of “American Girls,” knows. She spent two-and-a-half years investigating the online lives of teenagers, especially girls. And it’s not a pretty picture. Yes, even here in the Eden of Virginia, far from the Sodoms of California and Gamorrahs of New York City, it’s very disturbing indeed. Apparently, an entire generation of our youth has followed the path blazed by disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner.

From the book review in the Wall Street Journal:

It turns out that one of the main uses teens make of their phones is to watch, wield and circulate naked pictures of themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, the most commonly shared pornographic images are not of the girls themselves but “dick pics,” self-portraits of the penises of teenaged boys. Texting a photo of one’s genitals would seem to be an off-road perversion, not to the taste of any boy but the odd flasher. In fact, the stories Ms. Sales presents, whether of humiliation or triumph, often turn on a plot point involving such pictures.

“Do they think we want that? Because we don’t,” Sally, a 17-year-old in Boca Raton, tells Ms. Sales. So why do boys do it? One in James City County, Va., explains: “I send them my dick, so they’ll show me something of theirs.” This is a full economy: While a nude photo of a guy is practically worthless, a nude photo of a girl can be used as currency, traded with friends for marijuana or liquor — that’s “lq” in text speak.

“If you don’t send them nudes, they say you’re a prude,” says Casssy, another Floridian teen, says of boys.

“Lord of the Flies” depicted the descent into barbarism of teenage boys marooned on a desert island with no adult rules or guidance. Beelzebub has left the island and now lives in our homes. Smart phones enable girls and boys to interact in ways that their parents could never imagine — entirely out of view. Teenagers are obsessed with sex and peer status; they always have been, and always will be. In the past adults exercised some control and reined in those instincts. Now it’s much harder to. Even if we were of a mind to spy on our their communications, our kids are more tech savvy than us, they’re willing to devote their every waking moment to thwarting us, and they will assuredly develop a work-around to anything we concoct.

Where this trend will lead us, I do not know. I just hope that my 17-year-old doesn’t do any of this stuff. Meanwhile, my wife and I will go back to watching the Victorian morals on display in “Downton Abbey.”

Time to Reform Juvenile Justice

by Chris Braunlich

If the evidence showed that taking a particular medication actually made the disease worse, would you keep on taking it?

Of course not.

But a recent paper, Juvenile Justice Reform, co-issued by Justice Fellowship, Right On Crime, and the Thomas Jefferson Institute makes the case that, when it comes to Virginia’s juvenile justice system, that’s been exactly the prescription for too many years.

In fact, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) admits in its latest guidelines that “current policies and practices are not effective in preparing juveniles to be successful citizens in the community.”

According to DJJ, “after controlling for offense and risk and protective factors … the probability of a juvenile’s re-arrest increases by 32.7 percent for every additional year” that a young person remains incarcerated in the Commonwealth.

In short, the longer someone stays in the system, the more likely they are to return to the system. Some might argue that, after all, these are hardened criminal youth who deserve to be locked away.

But are they? More than 11 percent of youthful prisoners are there on a misdemeanor offense, and more than a third are incarcerated on non-person felonies – crimes that didn’t include confrontations with another person. One of the largest such crimes is larceny.

In fact, more youths were jailed in Virginia on a primary conviction of larceny than any other offense. And while that may sound a bit frightening, consider the fact that Virginia has the lowest threshold in the nation for felony larceny: $200.

That $200 threshold hasn’t changed since 1980, with the result that theft of a ubiquitous cell phone or a college textbook now meets the definition of felony larceny, with a much higher potential prison sentence. If the definition had simply kept pace with inflation, that threshold would be $565 today. Put another way: That $200 had purchasing power of $63.29 in 1980. Is that really our idea of felony larceny and a community risk?

The result is that youths are jailed in Virginia for crimes that would be misdemeanors in every other state, driving up our incarceration rates and costs.

More importantly: Non-violent youths who may have simply made a mistake are put in a prison environment with more hardened criminals. Removed from their family (often hundreds of miles away) and other community support networks like their local church, they are more likely to turn to the internal “support networks” of a juvenile prison – and that frequently leads to a worsening turn, not a better one. One result: Virginia’s rearrest rate three years after release from juvenile correctional centers is 80 percent, even while recidivism rates in several other states is declining.

This process is expensive. Virginia’s two existing juvenile correctional centers cost $28-35 million each, or about $150,000 per youth per year. In other states, the daily cost of incarcerating a single youth is about $240; in Virginia, the cost soars to more than $400.

To its credit, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has already begun instituting reforms – closing most of the big facilities and opening wings in their remaining facilities with a high premium on workers trained in both security and rehabilitation.

But the paper issued by three center-right organizations suggests going the extra mile by decentralizing the juvenile justice system even further. A youth incarcerated in a prison that may be up to five hours away from their community is cut off from the resources most likely to aid him in rehabilitation and a return to a law-abiding life. Parental communication may be severed for disciplinary reasons, and home-based faith institutions are unable work early-on to help transition youth into jobs, school, and a better life. Continue reading

Speaking of Gay Rights…

gay_marriageLike a lot of other Americans, I have been slow to embrace the right of gays to marry. That’s because I respect the sanctity of an institution — marriage as the union between a man and a woman — that evolved over thousands of years. But, ultimately, my libertarian instincts prevailed.

As a libertarian/conservative, I espouse a win-win view of human rights. I don’t think, for example, that there is a fundamental human right to education or health care. Those so-called “rights” are derived, or subsidiary, rights. Financing one person’s “right” to health care can be achieved only by taking someone else’s property, thus harming that person. That’s not to say that society shouldn’t provide health care to all, but universal access to health care is something to be bestowed through legislation, not as a fundamental right.

What is a fundamental right? The right to vote is fundamental. Giving John the right to vote does not deprive Mary of the right to vote. Giving John the right of free speech does not deprive Mary of the right to free speech. Giving John the right to a trial by jury does not deprive Mary of the right to a trial by jury. Giving all citizens equal treatment under the law is a fundamental right.

By the same logic, giving Heather’s mommies the right to be married, along with all the privileges and appurtenances permitted under the law, does not deprive John and Mary of the right to marry.  So, while my heart tells me to support the traditional idea of marriage (not because I’m anti-gay, but because I’m pro-traditional marriage), reason tells me to support gay marriage. In this particular matter, I follow my head over my heart.

— JAB

Why Doesn’t Heather Have Two Daddies?

heatherNews from Attorney General Mark R. Herring: Virginia has issued 2,670 marriage licenses and 70 birth certificates to same-sex couples since gay marriage became legal in Virginia a year ago. So reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The figure that startles me is the 70 birth certificates. Presumably, male same-sex couples are not giving birth (although I suppose it’s possible that gay men could hire surrogates like some heterosexual couples do). According to highly authoritative information I scraped off the first page of Google search results, the number of married gay females nearly equals the number of married gay males nationally. If national trends hold true in Virginia, that implies that about 1,300 gay female couples account for those 70 births. But that’s just a guess. I would be interested to see the break-down of the births by the gender of the parents.

Ignoring the ethical, religious and political dimensions of gays raising children, I’m fascinated from an anthropological perspective. Are gay women more inclined to want children than gay men? (I’m guessing that’s the case: After all, the name of the book was, “Heather Has Two Mommies,” not “Heather Has Two Daddies.”) Do gay women tend to be more nurturing than gay men, just as women are more nurturing than men in the general population? How do gay women decide which spouse bears the child? If they want more than one, do they take turns?

So many questions. This should be a fruitful field of inquiry for an aspiring young social scientist.

— JAB

Why Must Hundreds of Richmond Children Seek Medical Care Outside Richmond?

VCU Children's Pavilion -- no substitute for an, independent, free-standing children's hospital.

VCU Children’s Pavilion — no substitute for an, independent, free-standing children’s hospital.

by James A. Bacon

An excellent article in Style Weekly asks an important question: “Hundreds of local children have illnesses that send them beyond Richmond to seek pediatric care. Why can’t we treat them here?”

The answer: Because the Richmond region is one of the few in the country not to have a dedicated, free-standing children’s hospital. And why doesn’t Richmond have a children’s hospital? Well, you’ll have to read the article, written by former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Peter Galuszka, to find out. While Peter refrains from tarring and feathering the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, evidence in his article points to VCU’s desire to hang on to its own pediatric business as a major obstacle.

As it happens, I’ve been poking around the edges of this story, which I may or may not have time to pursue. One angle among many that are worth investigating would be to document just how many families must seek medical treatment outside Richmond because specialized pediatric services are not available locally.

I recently chatted with two prominent pediatricians. They cited a report that said about 750 children each year seek medical attention outside the Richmond area, in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. That doesn’t include many hundreds of others who seek care, say, at Duke University in North Carolina, or any number of other hospitals around the country.

The problem is that Richmond divides the pediatric practice between three hospital systems: VCU, Bon Secours and HCA. A children’s hospital, advocates say, would create a volume and scale of operation that none of those institutions can achieve on their own. A higher volume would enable a children’s hospital to recruit more pediatric specialists to Richmond. Instead of seeking care outside the region, with all the added costs of travel, overnight stays and time off from work that entails, many families could find that treatment available here in town. There will always be some rarefied specialties that the local medical marketplace can’t support, but a children’s hospital would alleviate the problem to a significant degree.

VCU President countered that logic with vague statements regarding the continued instability and uncertainty in the health care industry and the argument that “collaborative care” was a better approach than a stand-alone hospital. What do they mean by collaborative care? Who knows? Writes Galuszka: “Rao and [Bon Secours CEO Toni] Ardabell declined interviews to elaborate on their positions.”

Beware the Cultural Totalitarians

Brad Avakian, closet totalitarian

Brad Avakian, Oregon’s closet totalitarian

by James A. Bacon

Among my less useful accomplishments in life, I earned a Masters degree in African history at the Johns Hopkins University, an interdisciplinary program merging history and anthropology. Among the few useful perspectives I gained was an appreciation of the extraordinary plasticity of family forms throughout history and across the world. There are patrilineal societies (which are organized around the father’s kinship group) and matrilineal societies (organized around the mother’s). There are patrilocal societies (in which the wife moves in with the husband’s family), matrilocal societies (the husband moves in with the wife’s family), avunculocal societies (newlyweds move into the residence of the wife’s uncle) and neolocal societies (in which the newly married set up their own abode).

Don’t even get me started about polygamy (marriage between a man and multiple women) and polyandry (one wife, more than one husband). You get the idea. The traditional American family in which couples trace descent through the parents of both spouses and form their own residence is far from universal, and it is hardly the only form of marriage that is capable of raising children to become productive members of society. That’s why, as much as I revere my cultural heritage of marriage between a man and a woman, I don’t see gay marriage as leading to social disintegration. If you fear social disintegration, a far bigger threat is the American welfare state, which has substituted the nexus of government entitlements for the bonds uniting man and woman.

Unlike my conservative peers, I don’t get exercised about gay marriage, at least if it evolves organically from changes in social norms as played out in the legislative process. I do have a problem with gay marriage being imposed nationally by judicial decree by five Supreme Court justices. And I have a huge problem in which the proponents of gay marriage harness the power of government to squelch those who fail to truckle to the new orthodoxy. The political Left has a totalitarian instinct that is a far greater threat to the American way of life than gay marriage ever will be.

Emboldened by their success in legalizing gay marriage, the American Left has moved way beyond the proposition of equal rights for gays. Progressives are moving to impose their views on dissenters, including those who, for reasons of religious conviction, decline to provide floral, catering or other services to gay weddings.

The latest case in point comes from Oregon. According to the Daily Signal, a publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian finalized a preliminary ruling ordering Aaron and Melissa Klein to pay $135,000 in emotional damages to a gay couple. Their crime: refusing to make a same-sex wedding cake. His justification: “This case … is about a business’s refusal to serve someone because of their sexual orientation. Under Oregon law, that is illegal.” Moreover:

In the ruling, Avakian placed an effective gag order on the Kleins, ordering them to “cease and desist” from speaking publicly about not wanting to bake cakes for same-sex weddings based on their Christian beliefs. …

“The Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries hereby orders [Aaron and Melissa Klein] to cease and desist from publishing, circulating, issuing or displaying, or causing to be published … any communication to the effect that any of the accommodations … will be refused, withheld from or denied to, or that any discrimination be made against, any person on account of their sexual orientation,” Avakian wrote.

Lawyers for plaintiffs, Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer, argued that in making this statement, the Kleins violated an Oregon law banning people from acting on behalf of a place of public accommodation (in this case, the place would be the Kleins’ former bakery) to communicate anything to the effect that the place of public accommodation would discriminate.

Thus, gay rights trump freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Avakian’s action is a national outlier now. But I fear it will become the norm. Many progressives, like Avakian, are closet totalitarians. They will not be satisfied simply to allow gays to marry — they will not rest until dissenting views are driven underground.

Could such a thing happen in Virginia? I hope not. But I can tell you this: While I support gay marriage, I will oppose with every fiber of my being any effort to extinguish the freedoms of religion and speech of Americans who oppose it.