2021
June
08
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

June 08, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

‘3 Cops Talk’: How a trio of officers aim to build trust

Kim Campbell
Culture & Education Editor

How can communities and police departments build trust?

If you’ve been reading our Respect Project in recent weeks, you might be anticipating this answer: conversations and listening.

One place both of those are happening is on a podcast called “3 Cops Talk.” Launched last year by a trio of officers – Chris, Scott, and Shaun – the Illinois-based show has more than 30 episodes. Very little is off limits, as the wide range of topics shows: use of force, gun control, police training, active shooter situations.

The hosts aim to be transparent, evidenced in segments like “Ask a Cop Anything” and episodes like the engaging two-parter with an African American father and son one of the hosts knows.

For more than two hours, the men talk together honestly, at times colorfully, about race and policing. They focus on solutions and, in keeping with the show’s subtitle, “rebuilding community trust.”

Chris asks the father about creating understanding between officers on the street and the public: “How or where do you think we could start?” The father suggests officers could intervene when those they work with are out of line. 

Later, the hosts take turns responding when the father asks how they were in their early years on the job, and how they might have responded to what they thought was a car full of gang members.

Our newsfeeds are rarely filled with interactions like this. Chris wants to see more of them: “We need to sit down as a community … and we have to have a conversation.”

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Election laws, 2024, and the future of democracy

One of the main lessons of the 2020 presidential election was that ordinary officials, partisans themselves, can be among American democracy’s most powerful protectors. Will new election laws prevent that from happening in the future?

Kim

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To political scientists and many election experts and administrators, the wave of recently passed or proposed state laws sweeping the nation in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn his loss is deeply concerning.

It’s not just the provisions in these bills that in some instances would make it harder to vote. It’s that many of the bills also target election administration in ways that might make it easier for a losing candidate to jam a stick in the wheels of democratic processes.

“It is a very scary moment to see this trend,” says Adam Ambrogi, director of the Elections and Voting Program at Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation that focuses on American democracy’s challenges.

Is it possible to defend against the risk of election interference or manipulation?

Last week, Democratic lawyer Bob Bauer and Republican lawyer Jack Goldsmith, who together headed the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, announced that they would organize the legal defense of any election official who may “come under siege” from the new laws.

“The defense of the electoral process is not a partisan cause, even where there may be reasonable disagreements between the parties about specific voting rules and procedures,” they wrote in The New York Times.

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Election laws, 2024, and the future of democracy

Matt York/AP
Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are examined by contractors working for Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based company, at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix May 6, 2021. The Department of Justice and several Arizona election officials have expressed concerns about the post-2020 election actions in Maricopa County.

It’s November 2024. The U.S. presidential election is over. The battle over who won is just beginning.

Ballot totals show the incumbent leading the national vote by a few percentage points. His margin in the Electoral College is smaller than in 2020, but seems clear.

Still, the challenger and his supporters are mounting a furious challenge to an election they say was close enough to have been tipped by fraud.

In Michigan, counting is in chaos. Local officials in conservative rural counties are refusing to certify vote totals. State legislators are suing the secretary of state, claiming she posted a link to an absentee ballot application on her website, which is illegal under a new law passed via a highly unusual voter petition procedure.

In Wisconsin, the challenger’s campaign is desperately trying to close the president’s 15,000-vote winning margin. The challenger’s lawyers are methodically combing the state’s nursing homes and residential care facilities, looking for instances where staff reminded residents to apply for absentee ballots, or helped fill them out. Both actions are now subject to criminal penalties.

Nationwide, an organized corps of partisan poll watchers, taking advantage of laws passed since 2020 that allow them greater access, have filed hundreds of affidavits claiming suspicious voter behavior. Georgia is an epicenter of this dispute. The State Election Board, with all members appointed by the Republican-controlled legislature, issues a statement saying populous Fulton County was “rife with fraud.”

Finally, Georgia’s new governor takes a momentous step. Given everything happening in the nation, he says, it seems clear that the challenger won a big victory. He asks state lawmakers to simply overturn the president’s narrow Georgia victory, saying he’s been assured that such a move is legal under the U.S. Constitution.

Is this scenario far-fetched? Maybe. It rests in part on both new 2021 laws and bills introduced that haven’t passed state legislatures yet, and the results of yet un-run governor’s races. It cherry-picks provisions to put together a worst-case scenario. 

Crucially, it involves hypothetical decisions by dozens, if not hundreds of state officials who might swing either way. One of the main lessons of the 2020 presidential election was that ordinary officials, partisans themselves, can be among American democracy’s most powerful protectors.

Brynn Anderson/AP/File
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces an audit of presidential election results triggering a full hand recount Nov. 11, 2020. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary Raffensperger won wide praise last fall for firmly rejecting then-President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. The state then passed a raft of new voting laws, one of 14 so far to do so.

But to political scientists and many election experts and administrators, the wave of recently passed or proposed state laws sweeping the nation in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn his loss is deeply concerning.

It’s not just the provisions in these bills that in some instances would make it harder to vote. It’s that many of the bills also target election administration in ways that might make it easier for a losing candidate to jam a stick in the wheels of democratic processes.

Aspects of these laws may also implicitly reinforce the former president’s continued false claims that 2020 was stolen.

“It is a very scary moment to see this trend,” says Adam Ambrogi, director of the Elections and Voting Program at Democracy Fund, a nonpartisan foundation that focuses on American democracy’s challenges.

How U.S. elections are different

The spate of new laws also points out how unusual the American system of elections is.

Most advanced democracies run elections via a national-level, nonpartisan agency. Voting machines look the same everywhere, and so do ballots. The procedures for counting and certifying don’t vary.

But in the United States, elections are decentralized all the way down to county and local levels. A U.S. presidential election is in essence 10,000 individual elections run at the same time.

One of the downsides of this dispersion of power and responsibility is that it opens up opportunities for litigation, partisan and otherwise. Since 2000, election litigation has nearly tripled compared with pre-2000 levels, according to Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. That year, the Supreme Court ended the Florida recount – and the election – when it decided Bush v. Gore in favor of President George W. Bush.

Enter Mr. Trump and his unprecedented attack on the election results. His false claims of fraud sufficient to overturn the vote have created pressure for litigation and new laws on two fronts, according to Professor Hasen. Ordinary Republican voters convinced the White House was stolen are clamoring for action from below. From above Mr. Trump and his allies continue to push state lawmakers for action.

Josh Reynolds/AP
Election auditors Harri Hursti (right) and Mark Lindeman catalog ballot boxes in Pembroke, New Hampshire, during a forensic audit of the 2020 New Hampshire legislative election May 11, 2021. Auditors have found no evidence of fraud or political bias.

So-called forensic audits are the latest item of contention. Republican state senators in Arizona subpoenaed ballots from Maricopa County and hired a little-known firm named Cyber Ninjas to examine the ballots in ways experienced election officials find unprofessional at best. The Department of Justice says it may also violate federal election law. The former president is now pressing for lawmakers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other states to take a similar step, reportedly seeing it as a possible path to return to the Oval Office within months. There is no provision in the U.S. Constitution that would make that possible.

As for new state election laws, Georgia’s sweeping legislation passed in April. Florida followed suit, enacting somewhat narrower new laws. Texas was set to pass an expansive bill late last month, but Democrats stalled the bill by walking out and denying the Republican majority a quorum. Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to call a special session to reconsider election legislation later this summer.

Between Jan. 1 and May 14, at least 14 states enacted 22 new bills that restrict access to the vote, according to figures compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice. Sixty-one bills continue to progress through 18 other state legislatures.

Overall lawmakers have introduced almost 400 restrictive bills in virtually every state in the union, according to Brennan. One of the most unusual situations is in Michigan, where Republicans control the Legislature but Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is governor. To avoid a certain veto from Governor Whitmer, GOP lawmakers may use an obscure provision of the state constitution that prevents the governor from striking down laws begun as citizen petition drives.

“We’ve never seen this type of threat in the modern era”

Provisions of these bills that alter how elections are administered, or give legislatures more control over the appointment and removal of election officials, may have received less attention than moves that affect the act of voting. But they are just as important, if not more so, according to a States United Democracy Center summary of the current spate of election legislation.

“These are substantial changes that, if enacted, could make elections unworkable, render results far more difficult to finalize, and in the worst-case scenario, allow state legislatures to substitute their preferred candidates for those chosen by the voters,” says the report.

In Arizona, Missouri, and Nevada, for instance, bills would allow state legislatures to take charge of certifying election results – giving them the opportunity to reverse results they don’t like, according to the report. 

In Georgia, the just-passed legislation strips the secretary of state of a role on the State Election Board. This could be a personal affront – Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger stood up to then-President Trump in a phone call and declined to overturn the state’s election results.

In Iowa, election officials are now subject to fines of $10,000 and suspension for actions that “disregard or hinder” the object of the law, and could be hit with criminal penalties for trying to calm disruptive poll watcher activity.

Adam Ambrogi of the Democracy Fund says that many of the new bills seem aimed directly at Mr. Trump’s electoral concerns.

“There is a clear attempt to defend the ‘big lie’ – that the election was poorly run,” he says.

They also appear designed to put pressure on election officials from the top of the ladder to the bottom rung.

“We’ve never seen this type of threat in the modern era,” says Mr. Ambrogi.

Is it possible to defend against the risk of election interference or manipulation?

Last week, Democratic lawyer Bob Bauer and Republican lawyer Jack Goldsmith, who together headed the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in 2013-14, announced that they would organize the legal defense of any election official who may “come under siege” from the new laws.

“The defense of the electoral process is not a partisan cause, even where there may be reasonable disagreements between the parties about specific voting rules and procedures,” the pair wrote in The New York Times.

Professor Hasen suggests strengthening intermediaries that help with truth-telling as a means of building overall trust in elections and strengthening democracy. What is required is a kind of bipartisan cross-discipline strengthening of institutions that have been attacked and degraded during the Trump era, he says.

“I’m talking about things like courts, law enforcement, academia, political parties, the school system, and civics organizations,” he emails in response to a reporter inquiry. 

Mr. Ambrogi suggests urging people and organizations that have generally stayed out of politics, such as corporations and business groups, to stand up and say enough is enough. Companies based in Georgia, such as Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, did this following the passage of the state’s election law earlier this year.

“They need to say this is dangerous for our country,” he says.

‘We lost everything.’ Gazans looking to rebuild see only obstacles.

How do you recover from war when the rebuilding itself is political? That’s the plight of Gazans who lost homes and livelihoods in the short Hamas-Israel conflict but face barriers on the long path ahead.

Kim
Felipe Dana/AP
Palestinian flags wave atop buildings heavily damaged by airstrikes during an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, June 5, 2021, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip.

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According to the United Nations, in the 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Gazans saw 1,200 housing units destroyed and 15,000 homes damaged. Electricity cuts have forced offices and businesses that survived Israeli strikes to shutter, and drinking water is in short supply.

The Biden administration is pushing for reconstruction, and Egypt and Qatar have already pledged $1 billion. But amid wrangling among Palestinian factions, Israel, and regional powers, Gazans’ ability to rebuild and start anew is being held hostage to politics and security concerns.

In early May, Mohammed Sultan was anticipating a June wedding, and for the past two years he has been building a small apartment above his parents’ home in Gaza City in preparation. Yet all was lost when his family’s home was hit by an Israeli missile strike. He says he is “not hopeful” that international pledges will result in widespread reconstruction, let alone help him rebuild his home.

His wedding, for now, is off. “My dream was about to come true,” Mr. Sultan says. “I promised my fiancée that we will soon be together after two years of waiting. ... But now I have no words to tell her.”

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‘We lost everything.’ Gazans looking to rebuild see only obstacles.

Ever since Mahmoud Abed’s family home in the Maghazi refugee camp was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike May 16, he has been consumed by one task: a search for housing.

He and his brothers search daily for apartments for rent in Gaza for their four families.

But there are few available flats for displaced Gazans in the besieged coastal enclave, which according to the United Nations saw 1,200 housing units destroyed and 15,000 homes damaged in the recent 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

Even before the war, most rents ranged from $150 to $215 a month, large sums in Gaza, where prewar unemployment stood at 50% and 1 in 2 Gazans lived in poverty, relying on less than $4.30 per day including humanitarian assistance, according to the World Bank.

Electricity cuts also have forced many offices and businesses that survived Israeli missile strikes to shutter, while drinking water is in short supply.

Yet for now, despite $1 billion in pledges by Egypt and Qatar and a push for a reconstruction process by the Biden administration, rebuilding is not an option.

“Previous attacks on Gaza were always followed with a protracted and bitter reconstruction” that never materialized, says Mr. Abed, who is sleeping in relatives’ living rooms. “I am not hopeful at all.”

As wrangling among Palestinian factions, Israel, and regional powers over Gaza’s reconstruction continues, Gazans’ ability to rebuild and start anew is being held hostage to politics and security concerns. And with current border restrictions and previous frustrated reconstruction efforts fresh in their minds, Gazans say they do not dare to “dream.”

“I am particularly afraid that the complicated political reality will lengthen the construction process,” says Khalil El-Ashi, whose women’s clothing store in central Gaza once employed three people.

It was destroyed in a missile strike on a commercial building. With the recent losses, it would cost him $180,000 to start again.

“We have lost everything; we must be compensated as soon as possible,” Mr. El-Ashi says, stressing that Gazans do not care about regional politics. “All we want is to rebuild our life and have a new beginning.”

Dispute over materials

To start rebuilding roads, water networks, hospitals, and homes for the 70,000 displaced Gazans, engineers and contractors say they are in desperate need of concrete, steel, and water pipes – all materials that must be imported over the Gaza Strip’s three border crossing points with Israel. The Rafah crossing with Egypt is designed for passenger traffic; talks with Cairo are ongoing to allow fuel to enter the Strip.

But an agreement on reconstruction and the import of materials into Gaza is currently held up by the potential role of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the territory and traded rocket fire with Israel in a conflict sparked by tensions in Jerusalem. More than 250 people were killed in the fighting, the vast majority of them in Gaza.

Israel and the United States fear that the militant group could use materials and funds to rearm and rebuild its military network, and instead want the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank, to carry out the rebuild. Israel also demands that Hamas release two Israeli civilian hostages.

As a way forward, Western diplomats point to the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism – a temporary agreement between Israel and the Palestinian government brokered by the U.N. following an even lengthier and costlier Israel-Hamas war in 2014. The agreement paved the way for the entry of 3.4 million tons of construction materials for 600 large-scale projects and new homes for nearly 140,000 people.

Yet international aid agencies and Gazans say the post-2014 rebuild was constrained by several factors: Israel’s limits on so-called dual-use materials seen as having potential military application; Israeli vetoes on projects; and delays that saw one-year security clearance approvals on materials lapse before they ever arrived in Gaza. Many projects were still incomplete when the 2021 war broke out, according to Oxfam.  

Gazans say the restrictions on potential dual-use materials have hampered any type of construction in the blockaded Strip for a decade, and that any setback or damage to homes takes years to repair if they can be repaired at all.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Building equipment, sent by Egypt for Palestinians, arrives in the southern Gaza Strip, June 4, 2021.

Wedding plans

It is an obstacle faced by Mohammed Sultan, who in early May was anticipating a June wedding and who for the past two years has been building a small apartment above his parents’ home in Gaza City in preparation.

He built in fits and starts when construction materials were available and he had the needed funds. As his wedding date neared, he carefully picked out furniture for the new home, including a bedroom and living-room set.

All was lost when his family’s home was hit by an Israeli missile strike in May. The family fled when their neighborhood came under attack. When they came back, their home was gone.

“My dream was about to come true. I was about to start a family with my fiancée,” Mr. Sultan says, “but this has been all blown away with the wind.”

Having a home to move into, sometimes even owning a home, is often a prerequisite for marriage for many families and communities in the Arab world, including in Gaza.

With the outbreak of war, Mr. Sultan’s family took refuge in a nearby hospital and has since been staying with relatives, unable to find permanent housing.

“I promised my fiancée that we will soon be together after two years of waiting and working on our apartment,” he says. “But now I have no words to tell her.”

Pledges, not progress

Palestinian infighting is also delaying the rebuild. Hamas’ rival Fatah, which controls the PA, insists that the Authority is the only “legitimate Palestinian actor” to carry out rebuilding, despite its being absent from the Strip since fighting with Hamas in 2007 led to its expulsion.

Hamas, meanwhile, has vowed that it “will not take a single cent” of reconstruction money.

Rather than the Fatah-dominated PA, Hamas wants an independent commission to carry out the reconstruction. The two factions have even carried out rival estimates of the damage caused to the Strip, placed between $300 million and $400 million.

Where those sums will come from is also a fraught issue. Qatar, the only Arab state with diplomatic ties with Hamas, has pledged $500 million for Gaza’s reconstruction. 

Egypt, in a first, also promised $500 million to rebuild its neighbor Gaza, dispatching the head of Egypt’s security services to meet with Hamas last week and an engineering team to survey damage. But there is a catch to Cairo’s pledge: Only Egyptian firms can take part in its funded rebuilding.

Egyptian engineering teams and heavy equipment have crossed into Gaza and are helping municipalities remove rubble and debris, and both Gazans and Hamas are welcoming the badly needed Egyptian assistance.

Yet Gazans remain skeptical that Arab states’ promises will result in reconstruction and change on the ground.

“We lost everything”

At the Maghazi camp, Mr. Abed’s family lost their savings – gold and jewelry stashed away by his wife, Riham, which they had planned to sell to pay for fertility treatment to finally start a family.

“My heart broke when I saw my husband searching through the rubble, hoping to find any of our savings. All he could find was 13 shekels [$4],” Riham says.

Mr. Abed, his wife, and extended family are now living on the only aid readily distributed in the enclave: flour and sugar.

“Who will compensate us?” Mr. Abed says of pledges by Arab and Western states. “We have lost everything.”

Mr. Sultan, the brokenhearted groom, says he is “not hopeful” that international pledges will result in widespread reconstruction, let alone help him rebuild his home. His wedding, for now, is off.

“They destroyed my life along with that little apartment,” he says.

Ballot initiatives give voters a voice. Are states listening?

In many states, the ballot initiative is a fixture of politics. Yet as a legal tangle in Mississippi reveals, this symbol of direct democracy often faces pressure from other political institutions.

Amelia

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Last fall, 74% of Mississippi voters approved of Initiative 65, to legalize medical marijuana in the Magnolia State. But recently the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the measure – and future ballot measures – on a legal technicality.

Under state law, for a signature drive to successfully put a measure on the ballot, one-fifth of the required signatures must come from each of the state’s five congressional districts. The problem: Since 2002 there have only been four congressional districts in the state.

Mississippi finds itself as the latest state where tension has emerged between institutions of government and the notion that citizens can have a direct say on issues through the ballot box. The divides don’t always follow predictable patterns. But some experts say they are particularly evident now in conservative-controlled states.

“We are living in a time when the ballot initiative is being used as a tool for liberation,” says Corrine Rivera Fowler of the watchdog group Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “It’s being used to pass progressive policies in conservative-majority states, where the legislators seem to be out of touch with the needs of their constituents.”

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Ballot initiatives give voters a voice. Are states listening?

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
An attendee waves a sign criticizing the Mississippi Legislature over outdated legislation, which enabled a state Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Mississippi's initiative process, at a rally in Jackson, Mississippi, on May 25, 2021. The protest took place near both the state Capitol and the state Supreme Court building.

Zack Wilson describes himself as a “redneck,” born and raised in small town North Mississippi. He has a Mississippi drawl that could be heard from a mile away. He works in the firearm industry. He was also among the 74% of voters who approved of Initiative 65 last year, a citizens’ ballot initiative that would have legalized medical marijuana in the Magnolia State. 

But despite the medical cannabis measure’s widespread approval by more than two-thirds of the electorate in November, its future now hangs in the balance between the legislators’ power and the voters’ will. As do future ballot initiative efforts, such as a potential Medicaid expansion and an effort to reinstate Mississippi’s 1894 flag as the official state flag, complete with a set of Confederate Army stars and bars in the top left corner. 

Last month, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down Initiative 65 – potentially even voter initiatives approved in other years since 2002 – in a sweeping, controversial 6-3 majority decision.

The ruling hinged on a legal technicality. Section 273(3) in the Mississippi Constitution allows citizens to gather signatures to put a voter initiative on the next ballot. Under state law, to be done correctly, one-fifth of the required signatures must come from each of the state’s five congressional districts. The problem: Since 2002 there have only been four congressional districts in the state. 

The will of the voters was thrown out with the court’s ruling, opponents of the decision say. Some experts on state politics question the notion that the court’s decision was politicized. And the state’s top justices hold their positions by election. 

Yet Mississippi finds itself as the latest state where tension has emerged between institutions of government and the notion that citizens can have a direct say on issues through the ballot box. And while the issue doesn't always follow predictable partisan lines, the subversion of the voters’ will, as opponents describe the efforts, has become particularly evident in conservative-led states. 

“We are living in a time when the ballot initiative is being used as a tool for liberation,” says Corrine Rivera Fowler, the policy and legal advocacy director with the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center watchdog group, which tracks instances such as the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling. “It’s being used to pass progressive policies in conservative majority states, where the legislators seem to be out of touch with the needs of their constituents.” 

For Mr. Wilson in Mississippi, it feels like power brokers have undermined citizen rights.

“They’ve used the Supreme Court for a loophole they’ve known about for over 20 years,” Mr. Wilson says. In fact, he notes, the legislature has had seven bills over the years to amend the technicality cited by the court, but each attempt died in committee. “We had the expansion of Medicaid that was in the signature-gathering process, and so was term limits for politicians.” 

Mr. Wilson adds, “They got a triple win with one stroke of the pen.” 

Legislatures versus ballot measures 

And in other states, this year alone Florida, South Dakota, and Arizona, among others, have introduced measures that attempt to limit voter power historically reserved for citizens through the ballot initiative process. 

Meanwhile, some legislative tug of war has become common after ballot measures pass. 

In 2018, more than 64% of Florida voters approved of Amendment 4 to the state constitution, to restore voting rights to former felons who have finished their terms of sentence, including parole and probation. The next year Florida Republican lawmakers and governor sought to hobble Amendment 4’s intention by requiring that former felons pay “all fines and fees” in connection with their conviction before each individual’s voting rights can be restored in full. (A federal judge ruled parts of the law unconstitutional in May 2020.) 

In 2018, 62% of Idaho voters approved of expanding Medicaid access through a ballot measure. Since its approval, conservative Idaho state legislators have continually proposed legislation to limit the process. 

But in the case of Mississippi, the recent unraveling of ballot measures revisits nearly a century of setbacks. 

Xander Peters
The Mississippi Supreme Court building, on May 27, 2021, in Jackson, Mississippi. Two-thirds of the court's justices recently struck down a voter initiative on medical marijuana over a technicality in state law.

A troubled history

In 1922, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down the initiative process for the first time, only five years after 69% of Mississippians voted in approval of the 1917 Initiative and Referendum Amendment. In the 1922 Power v. Robertson ruling, the court sided with State Revenue Agent Stokes Robertson after a citizen coalition attempted to pass an initiative that would have cut his salary, which, at the time, was $40,000 annually, and which today equates to roughly $635,000. (By comparison, the governor of Mississippi today makes a little more than $122,000 annually.) 

Seven decades would pass until Mississippi’s voter initiative process was restored. In 1992, state lawmakers passed a resolution that once again put the citizens’ ballot process back on the ballot. And similarly, as was the case 70 years prior, a resounding 70% of voters approved of the effort.

But after the 2000 decennial census, the state’s five congressional districts were reduced to four.  

Importantly, it seems as though the court’s ruling only strikes down the legitimacy of Initiative 65’s medical marijuana program initiative. Instead, the court’s decision insinuates – without concisely stating – that all prior ballot initiative efforts that were approved by voters will stand.

Yet the court’s interpretation of the law, including that insinuation, plus the result of killing the initiative process going forward, has left legal minds “reeling from this ruling,” Ms. Rivera Fowler says.

Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson, a Republican and the highest-ranking election official, is now calling upon his Republican colleague, Gov. Tate Reeves, to call a special session for legislators.

It remains unclear whether or not Governor Reeves will do that.

“We are a long way from being able to make that decision,” Governor Reeves told WAPT days after the state Supreme Court handed down its ruling. He later added on the electorate’s decision to support a medical marijuana program, “The people have spoken. They made their voice heard and voted overwhelmingly to have a program, and Mississippi should have that.”

Seeking a fix in Jackson

Mississippi residents agree. But many believe the buck stops with legislators to right the wrong.

Melvin Robinson, a Jackson native and the founder of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association, is one of them. He believes that not only is the state missing out on a major economic opportunity – “a billion-dollar industry that would have provided jobs,” he says – it’s also set the state’s voters back in their trust of public officials, most of whom they elected.

“To restore faith in the voting process here, I think that the legislators who are chosen, that we vote for, should codify [Initiative 65] and pass it as law, exactly as it’s written,” Mr. Robinson says. “It’s very concerning that the legislature is so flippant about the opinions and wants of their constituents.”

Long before Mississippi voters made their way to the polls, the opposition aimed at the medical marijuana program initiative was evident. High-ranking officials were already speaking out against it.

“Most non-stoners say we should be careful and deliberate. Initiative 65 is the opposite,” Governor Reeves wrote on social media prior to last year’s election that legalized medical marijuana in Mississippi through the ballot initiative process. “Experts say it would mean the most liberal weed rules in the U.S.! Pot shops everywhere – no local authority. Voting against both.”

Opponents of the ruling have pointed to a politicization of the courts, but the accuracy of that particular charge remains unclear. 

“This is certainly being interpreted as such, particularly because the initiative structure has been utilized in the last decade,” writes Thessalia Merivaki, an elections expert at Mississippi State University, in an email. “That said, it would be inappropriate to charge the court as political, because other initiatives had not been challenged in the court, and so we cannot know whether they would have ruled similarly on another case.”

“People are just tired of being run over”

There’s little doubt of the trouble created by the ruling for ballot initiative organizers, however. Getting initiatives from the signature process to the ballot is an enormous effort often starting years prior to a vote.

“These laws are not passed easily,” Ms. Rivera Fowler says. “For [ballot initiatives] to then be taken to a court and challenged and repealed really goes against the grain of our democracy.”

It was “suspect to see a court at such a high level seeming to take sides,” she adds.

Some Mississippi legislators have publicly supported legislative action as a fix. But a deliberate way forward continues to elude Mississippi lawmakers. Dr. Merivaki, an assistant professor in political science, says this case could act as a catalyst for a future constitutional fix in Mississippi.

“It appears that this is something the state legislature has been trying to do over the years but has failed to do it,” Dr. Merivaki writes, referring to attempts to fix the state’s constitutional technicality in recent years. It is “possible that the attention this topic has attracted, and the recent statements by Governor Reeves, will be an incentive for the state legislature to address.”

With the clock ticking, it’s the nation’s political climate at the moment that worries Mr. Wilson. Public support of institutions – and by association, lawmakers and the courts as well – has waned in recent years. And protests last summer over policing are a reminder, he says, that “it only takes one spark to light a fire.” 

If there were ever two steps forward for the relation between the public and their elected officials, particularly in a state like Mississippi, then this, Mr. Wilson says, is one step back. “In the society we live in today, I mean, people are just tired of being run over,” he says. “Especially by people we have hired and put in office to, in essence, work for us.” 

What should matter most for getting into college? In the UK, more than a score.

In the U.S., schools have increasingly dropped testing requirements for college applicants. Across the pond, the U.K. is facing similar calls to consider a more holistic approach to assessing students.

Kim
Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
An A-level student holds a placard as she protests exam results at the constituency offices of U.K. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in 2020. The exams that help determine university placement were canceled again this year. Results will be based on class work and results of mock tests.

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In the United Kingdom, there is new momentum for scrapping decades-old tests in favor of a more holistic and fairer way of assessing students for university placement and jobs.

In what some see as an opportunity to enact the most fundamental education reform since World War II, educators are looking for ways to measure student capabilities that are more accurate than the one-size-fits-all exam approach that has prevailed for generations. Tests, such as the A-levels, are widely seen as favoring privately educated students.

The push for new models, echoing a similar move away from requiring exams like the SAT in the United States, also reflects a desire to better measure aptitude and potential – for U.K. students in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and the more than 175,000 foreign pupils in more than 125 countries around the world who take the international version of A-level exams. 

“I’m always wary of talking of revolutions, because they tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater, [but] we’re at a tipping point,” says Bill Lucas, a learning expert at the University of Winchester and an advisory group member of the advocacy group Rethinking Assessment. “Educators are thinking this is a really interesting moment to take stock.” 

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What should matter most for getting into college? In the UK, more than a score.

Rahul Rajendran dreamed of attending an Ivy League school in the United States to study astrophysics. 

A native of Klang, a port town on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Rajendran earned a scholarship to a prestigious British international school in Malaysia, and figured the A-level path – an intensive course of study culminating in globally recognized tests taken by students in the United Kingdom – was his ticket to a top university. 

But then the pandemic intervened, canceling the high-stakes exams on which he and legions of other students in the U.K. and around the world rely. As he was forced to recalibrate his dreams, he came to a realization that mirrors a growing trend: the desire for a fairer and more comprehensive way to assess students and their abilities.

“It paints a better picture of how a student has evolved if you evaluate us throughout the year, rather than having like one big exam at the end, where it’s like a do-or-die kind of scenario,” says Mr. Rajendran. 

Unbeknownst to him, a movement for just such a change is happening 6,500 miles away in the U.K., where the chaos caused by the pandemic has provided new momentum for scrapping the advanced A-level exams – as well as the General Certificate of Secondary Education tests, or GCSEs – in favor of a more holistic and fairer way of assessing students for university placement and jobs.

“I’m always wary of talking of revolutions, because they tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater, [but] we’re at a tipping point,” says Bill Lucas, a learning expert at the University of Winchester and an advisory group member of Rethinking Assessment, a hub for U.K. educators to catalyze change by designing and piloting new models. “Educators are thinking this is a really interesting moment to take stock,” he says.

Taking on the status quo

Billed by some as an opportunity to enact the most fundamental education reform since World War II, some educators are looking for ways to measure student capabilities that are more accurate than the one-size-fits-all exam approach that has prevailed for generations. Such tests are widely seen as favoring privately educated students, and often provide little more than a snapshot of an ability to memorize volumes of material.

The push for new models also reflects a desire to better measure aptitude, competence, and potential – for U.K. students in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and the more than 175,000 pupils in more than 125 countries that annually take the international version of the A-level exams. The trend has been underway for years, but the recent disruption of the mandatory string of exams is catalyzing it anew. 

Jacob King/PA/AP/FILE
Students at Bristnall Hall Academy in Oldbury, England, react as they receive their General Certificate of Secondary Education results Aug. 20, 2020. The GCSE exams have been canceled for a second year in a row due to the pandemic.

When Rethinking Assessment was launched last year, its coalition of educators – including a Cambridge University neuroscientist and the headmaster of famous all-boys school Eton College – noted in an open letter to The Sunday Times in London that “post Covid there is a growing appetite for change.” 

All students, regardless of exam results, “leave school with only a partial record of their strengths,” the educators wrote. “No credit is given to those who are skilled communicators, thoughtful team players, clever problem solvers or creative thinkers; in short, the stuff that helps you thrive in life, and makes you invaluable to employers.” 

“Let’s make the legacy of the COVID crisis an assessment system that more proportionately reflects the range of knowledge, skills and talents of all our young people,” adds Geoff Barton, head of the U.K.’s Association of School and College Leaders, on the Rethinking Assessment advisory group web page.

It’s an echo of what’s been happening in the United States, where test-optional admissions have become more common. Even before the pandemic, some colleges had begun giving students the choice of whether or not to submit their SAT or ACT scores. The pandemic accelerated that trend: The University of California, one of the largest university systems in the U.S., for example, voted a year ago to phase out SAT and ACT score requirements. One board member called the tests “extremely flawed and very unfair.”

Recent research looking at practices of U.S. private colleges and universities pre-pandemic, however, suggests that a test-optional approach increased the number of women, but barely budged numbers for low-income and Black, Latino, and Native American students. 

“From numbers towards narratives”

The pandemic has changed habits, says Professor Lucas, noting impacts from Canada and New York to Australia. Some alternative approaches are already shifting “from numbers towards narratives,” which include creating portfolios and recognizing life-skill strengths like creative thinking and leadership. The key question today, he says, is “why do we reduce however many years of formal schooling to a few grades and numbers?” 

In the U.K., the first step is brainstorming solutions that work and can be applied from school to school. The pandemic has highlighted the need: As traditional exams were canceled, students were subjected to a variety of ad hoc assessment methods.

Last year, the exam regulator, Ofqual, applied an algorithm that incorporated a school’s overall past performance in the calculation of individual grades – causing a nationwide drop of nearly 40% from predicted results. That method was subsequently withdrawn after an outcry and student protests. For many, the results derailed the path to a planned college and career.

“I and others like me ... haven’t had a chance this year to prove ourselves and show we can get good grades despite everything,” Samantha Smith, who was homeless for a while and held down several jobs while working on her A-level studies, told the Shropshire Star newspaper last year.

This year, A-level results, released Aug. 10, will be determined by teachers, and depend much more on class work and mock test results. The speedy shift to a new approach, with little official guidance, has raised concerns among parents, who are already gearing up for legal battles over the results.

Giving teachers a bigger role in the process has future potential, says Magnus Bashaarat, headmaster of tuition-based Bedales School in Petersfield, England. “The way that they assess and know their students is much more accurate and representative – and this is the important bit, fairer – than a terminal, cliff-edge, high stakes exam,” he says. 

Still, finding an alternative to the current system will take time, note observers. Any permanent change would require key decisions by the current Conservative government – which may not happen easily. A return to normal A-level and GCSE exams in 2022 is more likely.

But Rethinking Assessment and other educators are pursuing a classroom-tested system that they hope will one day be recognized by universities and employers.

Bedales School, for example, has for more than a decade offered alternatives to GCSE exams, taken at age 16. Instead of the traditional intensive barrage of tests, the school’s method focuses on collaboration, research-based topics, presentation, and an exam element. 

Universities have found it difficult to differentiate students by test results alone, Mr. Bashaarat says, and there is also a push from employers who in the past have hired school graduates who did well at A-levels but who lacked key personal qualities and skills that A-levels do not measure.

“It should be an opportunity for generational change, shouldn’t it?” says Mr. Bashaarat, who is also a member of the Rethinking Assessment advisory group. “Because the pandemic and the reaction to it can liberate you to make these absolutely decisive and grand changes, and change the architecture, forever.”

Almost a year on from his own A-level exams Mr. Rajendran in Malaysia has not rushed straight into university. His expected A-level results were downgraded by the test score algorithm  and even after adjustments by his teachers, his final grades were not what he had hoped for, and failed to reflect two years of intensive study, he says. He has given up his Ivy League dream for now, and is applying to local universities in Malaysia, thinking about a computer science degree rather than astrophysics.

“There is no use thinking about the past, really,” he says. “I’m more focused on what I’m going to do in the future.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the plans Bedales School has for A-level exams, which will continue to be taken at the school. 

Books

Hammocks, fireflies, and the 10 best books of June

As fresh as a summer breeze, this month’s picks invite readers into the lives of people seeking truth and compassion, fighting injustice, and finding themselves. Biographies of two historical figures offer deeply nuanced and complex characterizations, which lend insight.

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“I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where it was always June,” author Lucy Maud Montgomery mused in her journal. She later placed those words into the mouth of her character Anne Shirley of “Anne of Green Gables” fame. Such a place may not exist, but for many book lovers, June kicks off the season of vacations and – glory be – more opportunities for uninterrupted reading. A worthy reading list might include a mix of entertaining novels and edifying nonfiction. The choices this month range from a comedy of French and American manners to an exploration of Edgar Allan Poe’s contributions to science. 

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Hammocks, fireflies, and the 10 best books of June

Penguin Random House and Macmillan Publishers
"Americanon" by Jess McHugh, Dutton, 432 pp.; "Somebody’s Daughter" by Ashley C. Ford, Flatiron Books, 224 pp.

Kick off the summer reading season with books that offer fresh perspectives, windows on the world, personal reflections, and deep dives into history.

1. The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

This inspirational novel pays tribute to the woman who helped J.P. Morgan shape his rare books collection, which became the Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle da Costa Greene’s successful career was a rare feat for a woman in the early 20th century, but what makes it even more extraordinary – and such rich material for historical fiction – is the secret she harbored throughout her long career: She hailed from a Black family that had chosen to pass as white. 

Simon & Schuster
"The Other Black Girl" by Zakiya Dalila Harris, Atria Books, 368 pp.

2. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Nella Rogers, a publishing assistant, finds herself the only Black person in her office. So she’s ecstatic when another Black woman is hired. But something about her is a little off, and it may cost Nella everything to figure out why. Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel effortlessly melds together suspense and comedy and transforms an age-old cultural tale into something new. 

3. The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

Alka Joshi’s captivating sequel to “The Henna Artist” exposes corruption and black market dealings in 1969 India. Lakshmi, the herbalist of the first book, sends her protégé, Malik, to intern at the Jaipur palace, while taking his new love, a young widow, under her wing in Shimla. When the royal cinema in Jaipur collapses on opening night, Malik sets out to uncover the graft. The novel affirms that seeking truth is a wholly worthwhile endeavor.

Penguin Random House
"Lorna Mott Comes Home" by Diane Johnson, Knopf, 336 pp.

4. Lorna Mott Comes Home by Diane Johnson

Diane Johnson returns with another lively transatlantic comedy of manners that takes on an elusive subject: happiness. After 20 years of marriage to a former curator at the Musée d’Orsay, 60-something Lorna Mott tires of her husband’s philandering and returns to San Francisco to pick up her career as an art lecturer. She finds the Bay Area much changed and her grown children from her first marriage all struggling financially. Once again, Johnson plays the family dynamics and comparisons between French and American culture to warm comic effect.  

5. Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford

Ashley C. Ford’s father was in prison throughout most of her childhood, and her memoir focuses on the twin pains of his absence and of her difficult mother’s presence. Through exceptionally vivid memories and deep empathy, Ford brings readers through her experiences growing up as a Black woman in the Midwest. From vulnerable child to independent adult, she shows the value of compassion for ourselves as well as others.

6. The Reason for the Darkness of the Night by John Tresch

In this excellent biography of Edgar Allan Poe, John Tresch is less interested in the scandals of Poe’s life than in his role in the scientific milieu. The author of classic horror and detective stories eventually formulated theories about the origins of the universe and the nature of God. The book’s telltale heart is that Poe’s writings “place him at the center of the maelstrom of American science in the first half of the 19th century.”

7. America on Fire by Elizabeth Hinton

Elizabeth Hinton argues persuasively that urban protests are better thought of as political acts of rebellion by Black Americans against an unjust society. Hinton chronicles how law enforcement efforts to pacify U.S. cities in the last half-century wound up spawning more unrest.

8. How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

In his debut work of nonfiction, Clint Smith embarks on a very personal tour of some key flashpoints in the history of American racism, from Louisiana’s Angola prison to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, which is now a bustling tourist attraction. The result is a reckoning both brilliant and unnerving. 

9. Americanon by Jess McHugh

This delightful book argues that enduring bestsellers, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac and “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” have contributed to a unified national identity as much as revered founding documents like the Constitution.

10. Meade at Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown

Ever since he allowed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army to retreat back to the Confederacy after the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Gen. George Gordon Meade has been a much-debated Civil War figure. In this meticulously researched new book, a Civil War expert presents a refreshingly complex view of the matter – and rises to Meade’s defense. 

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At the Biden-Putin summit, a bid for Syrian peace

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After 10 years of civil war against a brutal regime, half of the people in Syria have voted with their feet. They have fled to nearby countries or to areas still controlled by anti-regime forces. Now with fighting at an ebb, these displaced millions are caught in a power struggle between the United States and Russia to end the war – a struggle that could be decided at a summit June 14 between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin.

This first summit between the two leaders will deal with many issues, not the least is whether Syria’s future will be decided by the tools of war or the tools of peace. The U.S. and Russia both have forces in this pivotal Mideast state. But last week, the Biden administration made a bid to deploy a tool of peace. It announced $240 million in new humanitarian aid to Syria’s displaced population.

Not all wars are fought with weapons. Aiding innocent civilians – with food, houses, schooling, and hope for the future – can reaffirm their role in defining the peace.

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At the Biden-Putin summit, a bid for Syrian peace

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U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield talks to a rescue worker in Turkey at the Syrian crossing point Bab al-Hawa, June 3.

After 10 years of civil war against a brutal regime, half of the people in Syria have voted with their feet. They have either fled to nearby countries or to areas still controlled by anti-regime forces. Now with fighting at an ebb, these displaced millions are caught in a power struggle between the United States and Russia to end the war – a struggle that could be decided at a summit June 14 between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin.

This first summit between the two leaders will deal with many issues, not the least is whether Syria’s future will be decided by the tools of war or the tools of peace. The U.S. and Russia both have forces in this pivotal Mideast state. Turkey and Iran also play a military role, making Syria a potential flashpoint for a larger war. But last week, the Biden administration made a bid to deploy a tool of peace.

It announced $240 million in new humanitarian aid to Syria’s displaced population. It is a hefty amount that adds to past U.S. aid and is designed to help cut through the justification for more violence. (Nearly 500,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war). The money will not only help meet the immediate needs of some 13 million people, but also further build up parts of Syrian society that demanded freedom a decade ago in mass protests and now want to prepare for a possible end of the Assad regime.

The U.S. aid also sends a signal to all Syrians, especially those that still support the Assad regime, that the eventual reconstruction of their country can best be funded by those seeking peaceful, democratic government, such as the U.S. Neither Russia nor Iran have healthy economies that can afford the estimated $200 billion to $300 billion required to rebuild Syria.

One specific issue at the Biden-Putin summit is whether Russia will veto a measure at the U.N. Security Council in July that would open more border crossings into Syria to deliver aid – outside any control by the regime. Since 2019, only one access point has been available, with about 1,000 U.N. trucks a month able to enter because of Russia’s veto power.

Mr. Putin seeks global approval that the regime has won the war. But by aiding millions of innocent Syrians, the U.S. and other countries are defining the terms of peace in favor of half the population. Or as Omar Alshogre, a former prisoner of the regime, recently told the U.S. Congress:

“We always have this narrative that the regime actually told us that the conflict in Syria is so complex that ... it’s difficult to do good, because you don’t know who’s good, who’s bad. That’s not true. We actually know who is good, actually know who is bad. The Syrian people fighting against the regime are the ones that need to be supported.”

Not all wars are fought with weapons. Aiding innocent civilians – with food, houses, schooling, and hope for the future – can reaffirm their role in defining the peace. “The regime will fall,” said Mr. Alshogre. “It will take years, but the regime will fall and then we would have the responsibility to rebuild our nation.”

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Finding reliable, lasting security

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If events beyond our control leave us feeling insecure and afraid, where can we turn? As a family experienced after coming face-to-face with an intruder in their home, lingering fear is no match for God’s ever-present love and goodness.

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Finding reliable, lasting security

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

The “Peanuts” cartoon character Linus famously found security in a blue blanket he carried around with him. But often our need for comfort and peace of mind exceeds what a favorite cozy item can offer. Where can we really turn to find a reliable sense of security?

In my own life, I’ve learned that when things we can’t control yank the “security blanket” from our hands, it can actually become our first step in discovering a stronger, more lasting sense of security – one that’s not external, dependent on what’s going on around us, but eternal, of God.

When our first daughter was a baby, she and my wife were enjoying a quiet summer afternoon at home together. Suddenly my wife looked up and found herself facing an intruder – a man who’d broken into our home. When she spoke to him, he turned and ran down the stairs. On the way out, he grabbed a portable stereo and fled down the street.

It took my wife a moment to recover from the initial shock, but she phoned the police and then called me at work. By the time I got home, the police already had the man in custody, and they’d recovered the stereo. But there was still a very strong sense of insecurity, and fear. We felt so vulnerable. So violated.

But we both knew from experience that prayer is a valuable starting point in establishing freedom from fear. To me, prayer based on the nature of God, good, as the only legitimate power represents a very bright ray of hope. It awakens us to God as the divine source of fresh ideas that heal. It underscores the native goodness – and capability of living up to that native goodness – of everyone.

Such prayer also sheds a fresh spiritual light on the topic of security. It often seems that security is something we have to find somewhere in the world around us, and then protect through our own personal effort. But the Bible describes God as our “strength and power,” the one who makes our way “perfect” (II Samuel 22:33). Another verse adds, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1).

So in the hours that followed the break-in, we began to pray. We needed to address the lingering feelings of victimization and fear through a completely different lens – a spiritual one. We prayed to feel God’s protecting, divine goodness.

These prayers helped us see that while the man’s behavior had been unacceptable, none of God’s children are inherently evil or malicious. Our inherently spiritual nature means that everyone is capable of expressing goodness and feeling safe. We realized that the protecting, saving power of God is always here.

As we prayed in this way, the dread that had seemed so overwhelming dissolved. The feeling of freedom, joy, and security we’d felt before in our home returned to us – and has stayed with us in all the years since.

“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, explains, “Christian Science brings to light Truth and its supremacy, universal harmony, the entireness of God, good, and the nothingness of evil” (p. 293). Even when troubling things happen, divine Truth, God, is here to convey this comforting, healing fact: God isn’t just ever present. God is the only legitimate presence.

This divine law is available for each of us to lean on, right here and now, bringing security and healing directly into our lives.

Looking for more timely inspiration like this? Check out the “Related stories” below; explore other recent content from the Monitor’s daily Christian Science Perspective column; or sign up for the free weekly newsletters for this column or the Christian Science Sentinel, a sister publication of the Monitor.

Viewfinder

‘Mount Recyclemore’

Tom Nicholson/Reuters
A man photographs "Mount Recyclemore," depicting leaders of the G-7 advanced economies looking toward Carbis Bay. Made from electronic waste, the artwork was created by Joe Rush and Alex Wreckage at Hayle Towans in Cornwall, England, June 8, 2021. Leaders will discuss climate change at the summit, which begins in Cornwall on June 11.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Kim Campbell
Culture & Education Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when we explore how chaplains are offering guidance and counseling to help support transit workers.

Finally, we invite you to meet the humanitarians solving community problems. Meet your fellow Monitor subscribers. Join the conversations at Community Connect. On this page, you can see panel discussions, Q&A interviews, and audio reporter profiles – all are included in your subscription. It’s our way of connecting you with the work of good Samaritans in the world.

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