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Monday, November 20, 2017

The poor are getting screwed in Cheyenne

From the focus on a south Cheyenne trailer park to legislative actions that cut programs and steal away health care, those who are needy in the Capital City find themselves always on the short end of the stick.

By Rodger McDaniel

Frank Annunzio was a member of Congress from the mid-1960s until 1973. He was a colleague of Wyoming U.S. Rep. Teno Roncalio. Like Roncalio, he was a plainspoken Italian American.
Like Roncalio, Annunzio had a heart for the poor and the courage to ask, “Why are so many people so poor?”

I was on Roncalio’s congressional staff at the time and have a vivid memory of this incident. The House passed legislation reducing subsidies on wheat production. The bill primarily hurt the poor by raising prices of foodstuffs like bread and pasta. Annunzio stormed out of the House chambers and cornered the first member of the press he saw. It was a reporter from the Chicago Tribune.

“The people just got screwed,” Annunzio cried out.

“Congressman,” the reporter recoiled, “I can’t print that. We are a family newspaper.”

Annunizio didn’t miss a beat. “Well, then, you can print this. ‘The family just got screwed.’”

Well, since the Wyoming Tribune Eagle is a family newspaper, I need to say that the “family just got screwed.”

When? Every time they turn around. Where? Everywhere they look. From the Cheyenne trailer park controversy to the tax bill winding its way through Congress. From choices made by Wyoming legislators to avoid new taxes while cutting everything from health care to low-income energy assistance to education. From the predatory lenders who thrive in Wyoming to the landlords who rent unsafe, overpriced housing to people who have no other choices.

The trailer park issue in south Cheyenne is a teachable moment for those in the middle and upper economic classes in our community. The focus from those who say they want “to end the blight” is on getting rid of the substandard mobile homes. Instead, they ought to be asking why some of our neighbors have been forced to live in those conditions. Families are “getting screwed” because politicians refuse to address the underlying injustices of our local economy.

Start with wages. Ask why people working full time in multiple jobs can’t afford a decent place to live or nutritious food for their children. Move to a dialogue about access to health care. Open a conversation about slumlords. While you’re there, visit about the wage gap between men and women in a state with a high divorce rate that often leaves women to raise children in poverty.

Do a little research on the extent of the relationship between the poverty affecting too many Wyoming school students and low test scores in the state’s public schools.

How about demanding members of our congressional delegation demonstrate with facts just how it is that the Trump tax plan they support will trickle even a nickel down to the people who are forced to live in the trailer park the city wants to tear down?

The problem may be merely one of limited vocabulary. Think about it. Wyoming’s politicians have a vocabulary that proves useful when talking about oil and gas, public lands, state’s rights, cutting budgets, eliminating regulations and reducing taxes. They can wag freely as they deny the science of climate change and complain ad infinitum about wolves, welfare and “Obamacare.”

Ask about the causes of poverty. All they can come up with are simplistic, single-syllable words about drug testing welfare clients and disproven talking points suggesting that increased minimum wages will somehow hurt the poor.

With few exceptions, they have not the eyes to see, the ears to hear or the stomachs to consider the manner in which some in our community have a stake in the poor being with us always. From slumlording to payday lending, there’s money to be made from the poverty of others. There is no political downside in blaming the poor. The risk comes from asking why they are poor. The answers begin to look like meddling in the lives of those who profit from poverty.

Nonetheless, until the community engages in a compassionate debate about how to address the causes of the blight, we won’t be able to end it.

Rodger McDaniel is the pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Not all churches fight the LGBT-plus community

More than 1,200 clergy have signed a brief supporting LGBT-plus citizens in the "wedding cake" controversy. It's important to tell the U.S. Supreme Court that all churches don't seek to marginalize those they don't understand.

By Rodger McDaniel

I was pleased to join 1,200 of my clergy colleagues from all 50 states and two dozen faith traditions in signing an “amicus curiae” in support of the rights of gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual citizens to be treated with dignity.

Amicus curiae is a Latin term meaning
“friend of the court.”As friends of the court, we want the U.S. Supreme Court to know that it is unconstitutional to use religious beliefs as a justification to discriminate against others.

The case before the highest court in the land is captioned “Masterpiece Cakeshop versus Colorado Civil Rights Commission.” It’s the hill on which religious conservatives have decided to make their last stand to legitimize their need to marginalize the LGBTQ community.

This started when the Supreme Court ruled gays and lesbians were constitutionally entitled to marry. Two men planning their wedding went to a business that held itself out to the public as a place that made wedding cakes. They wanted one of Masterpiece Cakeshop’s masterpieces.

But like Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi,” the cake shop owners told these men, “No cake for you!”

Conservatives said these men should shut up and quietly buy their wedding cake elsewhere. These are the same sorts of folks who believe that instead of starting a bus boycott, Rosa Parks should have just asked politely, “Is that seat taken?” When told she could not sit there, they believe she should have quietly found an alternative way to get to work. Why stir up a fuss?

The Colorado men did not go away quietly without stirring up a fuss. They filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The commission ruled against the cake makers on the basis of longstanding legal protections against the ability of businesses to discriminate.

Those protections were at the center of the battle over the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Business owners howled long and hard as Congress passed that legislation. They believed they had the right to deny service to anyone. Congress thought it had put an end to that ruse. But the heirs of those who lost that battle are back.

They argue it is their understanding of God that gives them the right to discriminate.

That is why we clergy became amicus curiae. We don’t believe the cake shop and its supporters should be allowed to speak for us. Religious thought in America is vastly diverse. As faith communities go, we are now in the majority. Faith communities claiming their beliefs provide the basis for denying the human dignity based on their sexual orientation or identity are declining in numbers.

A recent poll of people identifying themselves as Christians found a significant majority support gay marriage. Masterpiece Cakeshop bakers are asking the court to impose the views of a religious minority on all of us.

The Public Religion Research Institute poll also found more than six in 100 Christians opposed allowing businesses to refuse to serve gays or lesbians based on religious beliefs.

My clergy colleagues and I want the justices to know, as our amicus brief says, “Within the diverse panorama of American religious thought, a large and growing portion of the religious community welcomes, accepts and celebrates LGBT individuals and rejects the idea that they should be subject to discrimination in public accommodations based on differing religious views that reject their dignity and equality.”

The Supreme Court must not be left with the incorrect impression that most people of faith share the views of those who seek to employ their beliefs as a sword to smite those they don’t understand.

Jesus said there were two great commandments, and all religious rules depended on them. The framers of the Constitution said the nation could not establish the views of any one faith as predominant, adding that everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law.

Both the Gospel and the Constitution apply to this case, but it should be decided on the basis of the latter, not the former.

Rodger McDaniel lives in Laramie and is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. Email:

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cheyenne residents reach for compassion

A new group has formed with the goal of driving the Capital City's decisions through the lens of caring for other people. That might make us uncomfortable, but it is the right thing to do.

By Rodger McDaniel

Imagine being in a community defined by compassion. Contemporary theologian Karen Armstrong says it would look like this:

“A compassionate city is an uncomfortable city. A city is uncomfortable
when anyone is homeless or hungry, uncomfortable if every child isn’t loved and given rich opportunities to grow and thrive, uncomfortable when, as a community, we don’t treat our neighbors as we would wish to be treated.”

Armstrong is the founder of a global movement with chapters throughout the United States and the world that has found its way to Cheyenne. It is known as “The Charter for Compassion.”

It had its genesis here a couple of summers ago when the Rev. Steve Shive, the head of Wyoming’s Presbyterian churches, convened a meeting of clergy representing a variety of faith communities. Seated around the table were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists, Muslims, Jews and others.

Rev. Shive acknowledged the differences between the faiths but asked that for the moment we cast them aside and identify what we have in common. In a nutshell, it came down to what we call “the Golden Rule.”

That led the clergy to Karen Armstrong’s 2008 TED Talk. She called on people of faith to work for peace by treating others as we would like to be treated. Urging a revival of the Golden Rule, she suggested the world create what she called the “Charter for Compassion.”

What followed were months of multi-disciplinary conversations about the meaning of compassion. In January 2010, the charter was launched with 60 members beyond the U.S. to include England, Brazil, Australia, India, Botswana, and Malaysia. Now, Cheyenne is on the list.

From that 2015 roundtable, interfaith dialogue in Cheyenne has grown into a small movement. The group adopted the Charter of Compassion, which states, in part, “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures.” The full text of the charter can be read at It calls compassion an urgent need “in our polarized world.”

Through Compassionate Cheyenne, the charter has been endorsed by 122 individuals and 13 organizations in the Capital City.

The organizers of this movement are clear that they have no political agenda. They are not asking for money, charging dues or offering grants. While people of faith are involved, Compassionate Cheyenne is not a religious organization, but one that recognizes compassion is not just the work of a church, synagogue or mosque, but all of us.

The vision and mission are to recognize and highlight the enormous amount of compassionate work currently being accomplished in our community and to motivate others to be a part of it.

It exists for one purpose, and that is to continually place the matter of compassion before decision makers: “How does compassion inform your choices?”

Decisions are made for many reasons. Finances guide some, politics others; debates occur over who to help and whether, costs, return on investment, worthiness and more. All are important, but Compassionate Cheyenne asks that compassion is made the priority in every choice.

The dictionary defines the word “compassion” as “having a sympathetic concern for the suffering of others.” The Charter for Compassion seeks to move the needle from concern to community-wide action.

The late Henri Nouwen, the priest, professor, philosopher, and writer, taught us that “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness.” Did you hear all those action verbs? “Go,” “enter” and “share.”

What does “compassion” ask of the people of Cheyenne?

Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Right an historic wrong: Rename Devils Tower

Native American tribes from around the region have asked that the national monument -- a sacred place for them -- be given a more appropriate name.  "Bear Lodge" would more honor their beliefs. Get on with it.

By Rodger McDaniel 

Wyoming historian Phil Roberts discovered a single memorial to a Confederate hero in the Cowboy State, a grave marker noting the final resting place of John C. Hunton at Cheyenne’s Lakeview Cemetery.

After serving in Virginia’s 7th Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg, Hunton
became a wealthy cattle rancher along Chugwater Creek.

Hunton’s tombstone likely won’t generate a debate over removing Confederate war memorials in Wyoming. But there are “memorials” to the genocide and cultural destruction wrought by the U.S. government during and after the Indian Wars in the American West. One example is Devils Tower, the name the victors of that war attached to this sacred Native American site. There should be a discussion about giving back the names the Native Americans gave to this and other sites.

Long before white people invaded the land, the Black Hills was home to the Crow and Kiowa peoples among First World Nations. They were the first to name the extraordinary rock formation in northeast Wyoming.

According to Mary Alice Gunderson’s book “Devils Tower: Stories in Stone,” the people of the Crow nation called it “Dabicha Asow,” meaning “Bear’s Lair.” Through interviews and Native American legends collected by Dick Stone of Gillette, Gunderson recounts tribal beliefs about this rock.

Kills-Coming-to-the-Birds first saw the rock in 1833. Ninety-nine years later, she said it was placed there “by the Great Spirit for a special reason.” The rock had religious significance to native peoples. Gunderson’s book and Stone’s collection include Native American legends about what the conquering white people took it upon themselves to call Devils Tower.

One tells of seven Crow girls and their brother playing. Suddenly the boy transformed into a bear. The bear chased the girls, who found a tree stump. It invited them to climb aboard. The stump reached into the sky as the bear climbed after them, leaving claw marks yet visible on the sides of the impressive rock. The Great Spirit kept the girls beyond the reach of the bear: “The seven sisters were born into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.”

To the victors go the spoils. The white settlers tried to erase the stories. According to Native American writer Leslie Silko’s book “Ceremony,” the first novel published by a female native writer, this is the kind of Indian legend the white conquerors deemed “nonsense.” After white people stole the land and the stories, they deprived sacred sites of names by which the Indians knew them.

A National Park Service website admits Devils Tower was referred to as “Bear’s Lair” and “Bear’s Lodge” throughout much of the 1800s. “Devils Tower” was most likely the result of a bad translation. Lt. Col. Richard Dodge’s 1875 journal noted, “The Indians call this shaft ‘The Bad God’s Tower.’” The Park Service acknowledges that “Bear Lodge” may have been mistakenly interpreted as “Bad Gods.” Congress adopted a paraphrased bad translation when it created Devils Tower National Monument in 1906.

In 2014, those who first owned the naming rights asked that the name Devils Tower National Monument be changed. The Park Service acknowledged, “In each instance, the request is to change ‘Devils Tower’ to ‘Bear Lodge.’ More than 20 tribes with close association to the Tower hold it sacred, and find the application of the name ‘Devils’ to be offensive.”

The name change stalled when Wyoming’s congressional delegation objected. As a Lakota survivor of Custer’s Last Stand said, “Washington was where all the problems began.”

Insisting on retaining the name given this rock by the conquerors furthers the regrettable strategy of destroying native peoples’ culture. Despite concerns of tourism interests that changing the name would be bad for business, righting a wrong might prove to be as good for business as it would be for the heart.

A name change honoring those who first saw it and honored it, who first came to understand it as sacred and from whom the land was stolen would become a part of the legend, making “Bear Lodge” a more popular tourist destination.

Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He lives in Laramie.

Wyoming surrenders to education mediocrity

Using the plan submitted to the feds, Cowboy State leaders will create a school system that won't produce the grads needed to compete in a modern economy. This state's students need champions, not a leaders who are faint of heart.

“We have to have an educated workforce. It is absolutely critical.” -- University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols regarding the ENDOW Advisory Council, a statewide group responsible for investigating ways to diversify Wyoming's economy.

By D. Reed Eckhardt

The above comment from UW's president might seem obvious. Wyoming cannot succeed in the modern, high-tech and global economy without educated workers who can handle its challenges.

The demand for ranch hands, oilfield workers, and coal miners is headed only in one direction -- down. Meanwhile, companies seeking smart employees who can
handle state-of-the-art tasks and can pivot to meet the needs of a rapidly changing economic environment will move to the forefront. If they don't find those workers here in Wyoming, they are going to locate elsewhere along the Front Range.

So please explain why this state's leaders -- its governor, its superintendent of public instruction, its Legislature -- continue to ask so little of their schools and the students who sit in their classrooms every day? 

It is unfortunate that the image, if only in the minds of many residents, is that Wyoming's public schools are excellent. Because there are no data to back that up. For example, the most recent Quality Counts report ranked the state's academic quality as a C-minus. And ACT scores show that just 33 percent of this state's high school graduates are college-ready in math, 38 percent in reading.

Given that, one might think that Wyoming's leaders are showing great distress about the quality of their schools. That they might be making a concerted effort to strive for excellence.

Think again.

Consider just one example: the goals contained in the recent plan submitted by State Superintendent Jillian Balow (and signed by Gov. Matt Mead) to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, also know as ESSA. According to the report, within 15 years -- that's right, 15 years -- the state hopes to have its third- to eighth-graders 59 percent proficient in math and 65 percent in reading. And those numbers drop to 46 percent and 39 percent, respectively, for high school graduates.

Please, doesn't anyone see what this means? That in 15 years, six of 10 Wyoming high school grads still will not be proficient in reading and more than half won't be able to do math at an acceptable level? These are not just low bars for success; they are criminally shallow. And they make you wonder where the schools are now if they are going to be at these levels in a decade and a half.

Here's the dirty truth: The Cowboy State has settled for educational mediocrity for far too long. If that continues, there will never be the kind of workforce that UW's Nichols (and others, including Mead)  envisions and which Wyoming will need to compete for jobs and to meet its forever goal of diversifying its workforce.

Say what you will about the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which preceded ESSA, but at least its sponsors understood the importance of setting that bar high. It was impossible, of course, to prepare every student in every school for success. But at least the sponsors' hearts were in the right place: They focused on education excellence. Wyoming's leaders, with their ESSA proposal, are surrendering before the fight even has begun. It is an acceptance of mediocrity. This state's children, parents, and taxpayers deserve better than this.

Here's hoping that next year's elections produce two things: A governor and state superintendent who champion education excellence and who will accept nothing less; and a plan to make that happen. Wyoming may not need a No Child Left Behind Act, but it must have a will, a mindset and a strategic blueprint to prepare itself and its young people for the future. It is time to stop talking about creating an educated workforce to diversify the economy and do something about it. The status quo -- as reflected by the state ESSA plan -- is not going to get that job done.

D. Reed Eckhardt is the former executive editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. He has been writing about education issues in the state for almost two decades.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A horrible wrong done in the name of Wyomingites

Andrew Johnson of Cheyenne was wrongly imprisoned for 24 years. Yet the Legislature stubbornly refuses to pay for his losses. Some 32 other states compensate those convicted wrongly. But not the Cowboy State.

By Rodger McDaniel 

During the 2017 legislative session, the people of Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne, where I am the pastor, sent a petition to Republican and Democratic leaders.
Andrew Johnson and his former wife, Annette.
They asked legislators to compensate citizens who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, as do 32 other states and the District of Columbia.

Specifically, they asked Wyoming to pay Andrew Johnson for the nearly 24 years he spent in prison for a crime the state knows he didn’t commit.

Not a single legislator from either party bothered to reply.

You may not remember Andrew and the grave injustices visited upon him by both the criminal justice system and the criminal malpractice of the Legislature.

In 1989, he was convicted of rape. There was no DNA testing then, only false accusations. Before the verdict, he said, “I thought the trial was going in my favor. I knew there was no evidence I had committed a crime.” Andrew was wrong. It took the jury 20 minutes to find him guilty.

Years later, DNA tests provided proof. He was innocent. Andrew was released from prison with little more than the shirt on his back. He had no job, no home, his mother died while he was incarcerated. With the injustices of the legal system corrected, Andrew then faced the injustices of the legislative system.

In 2014, bills compensating Andrew for those lost years passed both houses of the Legislature, in different forms. The bills landed in a conference committee, a well-known playground for mischief. Former Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar and his accomplice, Cheyenne legislator Bob Nicholas, argued disingenuously that DNA proved nothing. Andrew was, they said, still guilty. And although Homar didn’t have enough evidence to retry Andrew, he used his political influence to further ruin this man’s life.

The late John Schiffer of Kaycee, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was the bill’s chief proponent. After the bill died in the conference committee, he said, “This is something we need to do in this state; it just wasn’t meant to be this year.” However, more than three years later, legislators seem satisfied with doing nothing ever.

So, Andrew remains uncompensated for those lost two and a half decades. His attorneys threw a “Hail-Mary” pass and filed a federal court lawsuit. That court has now rejected Andrew’s plea for someone, anyone to recognize the enormity of the injustice he has experienced.

He finds himself hemmed in between two Latin terms. One is often employed by courts when they deny justice, i.e., res judicata, meaning “the thing has been decided.” It means that if you look long enough through a bunch of dusty, dead, old law books, you’ll find a reason to deny justice.

The other Latin term explains Wyoming lawmakers. Una sals victis nullam sperare salutem, is intended to tell people like Andrew, “The only hope of the vanquished is not to have any hope at all.”

A year after Nicholas and Homar killed the compensation bill, an Albany County legislator, Charles Pelkey, then a freshman Democrat in the state House, briefly took up the cause. He introduced but then, inexplicably, withdrew a bill to provide compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Since then, nothing.

Criminal prosecutions are undertaken in the name of the people. When the conviction turns out to have been wrong, that wrong is likewise perpetrated in their name as well. The people of Wyoming, through their elected representatives, are guilty of a grave injustice. As the “Innocence Project” explains, “With no money, housing, transportation, health services or insurance, and a criminal record that is rarely cleared despite innocence, the punishment lingers long after innocence has been proven. States have a responsibility to restore the lives of the wrongfully convicted to the best of their abilities.”

Legislators will say the state just doesn’t have the money. Well, the state had enough money to pay the cost of wrongfully convicting Andrew. They had the money to pay for his prison cell for 24 years. Justice and common decency dictate they find the money to make right this terrible wrong.

Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He lives in Laramie.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Be honest, Christians: You DO hate the sinner

Those fundamentalists who oppose giving rights to LGBTQ people say it's really about hating the sin. But they need to be honest with themselves: Depriving people of their livelihoods is all about hating them too.

By Rodger McDaniel 

As the Cheyenne City Council prepares to debate an ordinance prohibiting employers from discriminating against gays, lesbians, transgender or bisexual people, some are making plans to stir Shakespeare’s cauldron. (Editor's note: It now appears the council will delay action on the matter, pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision from Colorado.)

“Double, double, toil and trouble.” Most of the trouble will come from self-identified Christians.

What is it that causes some Christians to hate LGBTQ people? Please don’t insult our intelligence

with that disingenuous Christian ditty, “We hate the sin but love the sinner.”

Let’s be honest. You hate “the sinner.” You reserve a special hatred for same-sex love and gender identity you don’t understand. You weaponized God’s word for justification and claim your so-called “religious freedom” is at stake in whether they have equal rights under the law. Some of you reject your own daughters and sons when they come out.

You encourage the passage of laws dictating which bathroom they can use and support banning otherwise patriotic Americans from serving our nation in the armed forces. And now, you advocate that they lose their jobs and livelihoods because of the way God made them.

I’m sorry, that’s hating the one you believe to be the “sinner” even more than it is hating the sin.

I’ve heard your justifications. You call it “tough love,” claiming “the Bible tells you so.” You argue that you have to be able to discriminate against them to exercise your religious freedom. You claim you worry about their relationship with your God.

But hate is not that complicated. It has only two components: thought and action. Hate is characterized by extreme ill-will, intense dislike and a passionate aversion to something or someone. But no one cares whether you have extreme ill-will for gays, lesbians, transgender or bisexual people. It’s what you do, not what you think, that makes you a hater.

When you attend a City Council meeting and use your faux-Christian credibility to lobby against nondiscrimination, you cross the line and become a hater. Then you’ve decided to use your beliefs to do damage to the lives of those you deny hating. When you act on your ill-will, you relinquish any plea of innocence to the sin of hating your neighbor.

Anyone of sound moral deportment should agree that no one should lose their job unless the boss has a good reason. That job is all that stands between the worker and poverty and being able to put a roof over the heads of one’s family and food on their dinner table.

There are few legal doctrines in Wyoming as dishonorable as the “at will” doctrine. Created by the Wyoming Supreme Court, not the Legislature, the doctrine allows employers to discharge an employee for no good reason. Regardless of how many years you’ve contributed to the well-being of the employer and his or her business, without a union or personal contract that says otherwise, you can be sent packing with no recourse.

Employees can be fired for no cause, but not an illegal cause. Under the law, illegal causes include discharges based on race, creed, religion and gender. In past debates over nondiscrimination laws, the haters have said no such law is necessary. They asserted that LGBTQ employees are protected under civil rights laws.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions pulled the rug out from under that argument. The case was brought by a gay man who was fired because of his sexual orientation. He told the court civil rights laws prohibit firing employees because of sexual orientation. Sessions says those laws provide no protection to LGBTQ workers.

Thus, Cheyenne City Council’s debate comes down to love and hate. That is always the choice Christians have to make. None of that “we don’t need a new law” or “hate the sin but love the sinner” stuff. Peel back the veneer. See this for what it is.

“Double, double, toil and trouble.” You can either hate LGBTQ people enough to subject them to loss of their livelihoods because of how God created them, or you can love your neighbor as yourself. You can’t do both.

Rodger McDaniel
 is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. He resides in Laramie.