Overwhelmingly Catholic Spain is starting to get the secular message. Although I’m unsure of the practical implications, it’s a step in the right direction:

In an unprecedented decision here, a judge ruled in November that the public school must remove the crucifixes from classroom walls, saying they violated the “nonconfessional” nature of the Spanish state.

Although the Roman Catholic Church was not named in the suit, it criticized the ruling as an “unjust” attack on a historical and cultural symbol — and a sign of the Spanish state’s increasingly militant secularism.

If the judge’s ruling was the latest blow to the Catholic Church’s once mighty grip on Spain, the church’s response showed Spain to be a crucible for the future of church-state relations in Europe.

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You can view my assessment of Roland Burris’ acceptance of Illinois Governor Hairdo’s appointment to the Senate here: What About Roland Burris? (also see Burris Sympathizer Compares Reid to Segregationists).

You can sign the petition to block Burris’ appointment to the Senate here: Block US Senate Nominee Roland Burris

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The Obama team made what I consider to be a political masterstroke yesterday by announcing their selection of respected former Congressman Leon Panetta to head the CIA.

Although somewhat mixed, the reactions from the intelligence community have included a lot of praise for the Panetta pick. Even some neoconservatives are on board.

Former intelligence analyst Greg Treverton, now with the Rand Corporation, said Panetta’s experience as a former White House chief of staff might give him a unique understanding of the presidency and its needs for intelligence. “One of my experiences with people like Panetta who have been chief of staff is that they have a clear sense of what is helpful to the president that most senior officials don’t,” Treverton told me. “They get it. What he could do and couldn’t do. And that’s an interesting advantage Panetta brings. Knowledge of what the presidential stakes are like, how issues arise, and what they need to be protected from, for better or worse.”

Retired CIA deputy director for the East Europe division Milt Bearden said Panetta is a “brilliant” choice. “It is not problematic that Panetta lacks experience in intelligence,” Bearden e-mailed. “Intel experience is overrated. Good judgment, common sense, and an understanding of Washington is a far better mix to take to Langley than the presumption of experience in intelligence matters. Having a civilian in the intelligence community mix is, likewise, a useful balance. Why not DNI?”

Well, what could be the problem, considering that many successful past CIA directors have lacked direct intelligence experience (e.g. George H.W. Bush)?

3… 2… 1… Cue a tone-deaf, self-immolating Democrat shooting the Party in the foot:

“I was not informed about the selection of Leon Panetta to be the CIA director,” incoming chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was cited by the Los Angeles Times. “My position has consistently been that I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

Yep, that’s right. As the Republican obstruction machine opposition in Congress gears up to turn some of Obama’s appointments into partisan political theater, the incoming Democratic chairperson of a key intelligence committee decides to publicly cast doubts on one of Obama’s key appointments.

Can’t we Democrats even wait until Obama is inaugurated before we start shooting ourselves in the extremities? Do these people even KNOW how politics is supposed to work?

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Bob Barr, the co-author of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act — which codified yet another set of anti-gay sentiments into federal law — is now urging its repeal. Some may question his motives but at least he’s on the right side of the fence (after a long 12 years).

In effect, DOMA’s language reflects one-way federalism: It protects only those states that don’t want to accept a same-sex marriage granted by another state. Moreover, the heterosexual definition of marriage for purposes of federal laws — including, immigration, Social Security survivor rights and veteran’s benefits — has become a de facto club used to limit, if not thwart, the ability of a state to choose to recognize same-sex unions.

Even more so now than in 1996, I believe we need to reduce federal power over the lives of the citizenry and over the prerogatives of the states. It truly is time to get the federal government out of the marriage business. In law and policy, such decisions should be left to the people themselves.

In 2006, when then-Sen. Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, he said, “Decisions about marriage should be left to the states.” He was right then; and as I have come to realize, he is right now in concluding that DOMA has to go. If one truly believes in federalism and the primacy of state government over the federal, DOMA is simply incompatible with those notions.

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Obama’s transition team announced today that former Congressman Lean Panetta will be appointed to head the CIA.

Apparently, Obama was having some trouble finding someone with intelligence experience to take the job because nearly everyone in the intelligence community was implicated in some way in Bush’s illegal intelligence schemes (e.g., warrantless wiretapping and torture).

On the matter closest to my heart — Bush’s rampant torture regime — here is Leon Panetta, in his own words, in a Aug. 2008 op-ed in the Washington Monthly:

According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what’s wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation. It was drafted by those who looked around the world of the eighteenth century and saw persecution, torture, and other crimes against humanity and believed that America could be better than that. This new nation would recognize that every individual has an inherent right to personal dignity, to justice, to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

We have preached these values to the world. We have made clear that there are certain lines Americans will not cross because we respect the dignity of every human being. That pledge was written into the oath of office given to every president, “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” It’s what is supposed to make our leaders different from every tyrant, dictator, or despot. We are sworn to govern by the rule of law, not by brute force.

We cannot simply suspend these beliefs in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.

As Andrew Sullivan puts it:

This is a good day for America’s soul.

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If you’re interested, my post on the Israel/Gaza situation has been updated with some more thoughts on the matter.

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The RNC is having a debate amongst the contenders for the organization’s top job.

Just to give you a flavor of how obscenely out of touch these vaunted GOP operatives are, consider a couple of their responses when asked to name Bush’s biggest mistake (to repeat: his biggest mistake):

Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele cited the “failure to communicate on the war, Katrina, the bailout.” [emphasis mine]

South Caroline Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson cited the decision to push Social Security and immigration reform which, he said, “tore our party apart.”

Yep, you read that right.

Michael Steele said that one of Bush’s biggest mistakes was poor communication skills in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (not, you know, his failure to prevent the deaths of 1,600 Americans in the most embarrassing and tragic episode in modern American history).

And Katon Dawson believes that the biggest, most worstest, thing that Bush did to destroy the Republican brand for a generation was his bad timing on pushing Social Security and immigration reform! Seriously!

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Even though conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer can often be a right-wing lunatic on a lot of issues (see, e.g.), he recently wrote a compelling article in (gulp) The Weekly Standard arguing for a hike in the national gas tax that deserves close attention. An excerpt (I recommend you read the whole thing):

Americans have a deep and understandable aversion to gasoline taxes. In a culture more single-mindedly devoted to individual freedom than any other, tampering with access to the open road is met with visceral opposition… But it’s not just love of the car. America is a nation of continental expanses. Distances between population centers can be vast. The mass-transit mini-car culture of Europe just doesn’t work in big sky country.

This combination of geography and romance is the principal reason gas taxes are so astonishingly low in America. The federal tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. In Britain, as in much of Europe, the tax approaches $4 per gallon–more than 20 times the federal levy here…

Today’s economic climate of financial instability and deepening recession, moreover, makes the piling on of new taxes–gasoline or otherwise–not just politically unpalatable but economically dubious in the extreme.

So why even think about it? Because the virtues of a gas tax remain what they have always been. A tax that suppresses U.S. gas consumption can have a major effect on reducing world oil prices. And the benefits of low world oil prices are obvious: They put tremendous pressure on OPEC, as evidenced by its disarray during the current collapse; they deal serious economic damage to energy-exporting geopolitical adversaries such as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran; and they reduce the enormous U.S. imbalance of oil trade which last year alone diverted a quarter of $1 trillion abroad. Furthermore, a reduction in U.S. demand alters the balance of power between producer and consumer, making us less dependent on oil exporters. It begins weaning us off foreign oil, and, if combined with nuclear power and renewed U.S. oil and gas drilling, puts us on the road to energy independence.

Andrew Sullivan and Joe Klein approve. Gotta give credit where credit is due…

Update: The case for a gas tax is made all the more compelling by recent auto industry sales data that show gas-guzzling SUV sales surging again due to — wait for it… — low gas prices!

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