PEOPLE FOR BLOG

Last night, in a 178-234 vote, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act moved one step closer to becoming law. This legislation protects victims of hate crimes based on disability, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. 

The vote was taken on what's called a motion to instruct conferees - this one would have instructed those negotiating a final Defense Authorization bill to remove the hate crimes language included by the Senate. In a series of speeches (item 35) fit only for Right Wing Watch, the motion's supporters tried to take down this critical update to "equal protection under the law." Thankfully, their efforts were to no avail, and the Shepard/Byrd bill may soon reach President Obama's desk. A few minor hurdles remain, but we hope to see it signed within the next week.

With the stroke of a pen, the President will have an opportunity to send loud and clear the message that freedom from discrimination is a right all Americans should enjoy. And we cannot forget that this action would affirm - for the first time in federal law - a positive protection for gender identity.

Click here for more information from People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action.

PFAW

Church, State, Land Swaps, and the Supreme Court

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing oral argument in the case of Salazar v. Buono, a case involving the display of a cross on top of Sunrise Rock in the Mojave National Preserve, which is federal property. A former employee of the Preserve sued in federal court challenging the legality of the display, arguing that the religious symbol violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  The district court agreed and ordered that the display be taken down.  So far, so good.

But in order to sidestep the ruling, Congress swapped Sunrise Rock—but none of the land around it—with a private party who agreed to maintain the cross.  Buono asked the Court to enforce its order prohibiting the display of the cross and also asked the court to prohibit the land swap.  The court agreed as to both and on appeal to the 9th Circuit, the district court’s order was upheld.

People For the American Way Foundation joined a brief filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and other religious and secular non-profits on behalf of Buono to point out that objections to such religious displays on public land are more than the just general grievances.  Rather, the effects of an unconstitutional government display of religion inflict real and significant harm that cannot be easily ignored. 

Government-sponsored religious symbols are potent forms of speech that can have real, palpable effects on people who are subjected to them. The harm from them is not that they evoke mere distaste, displeasure, or even disgust. It is that they deprive citizens of the use and enjoyment of public lands, because using a public facility where the government has chosen to erect a monument to one faith stigmatizes nonadherents as second-class citizens, while demeaning the faith of adherents by coopting what is sacred.

Also, these harmful effects cannot be fixed by a contractual land transfer of a particular parcel of land, particularly when the parcel is entirely enclosed within a federal preserve and where the government has taken no steps to disassociate itself from the display[].  Nothing was done at all to make it clear that the display is no longer on government land.  As such, the transfer cannot be seen as anything other than a cheap strategy designed solely to preserve the display of the cross.  Allowing a scheme like that to cure the unconstitutionality of a government act wouldn’t correct the wrong—it would perpetuate it.

 

PFAW

Correcting the Court

Exhibit A from last term of the Roberts Court's conservative judicial activism is the Gross age discrimination case where the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reached out to decide an issue that hadn't been briefed and changed the law in a way that will make it much harder for older workers to prove that they were discriminated against in the workplace. Today, three key Democratic leaders, Senators Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy and Rep. George Miller, announced plans to introduce a bill to correct the Court's error. As noted in the coverage of the announcement, this is the second time in a year that Congress has reached out to correct the court, the first being the Lilly Ledbetter legislation, the first measure signed into law by President Obama in January of this year.

PFAW

Marriage Equality Bill Introduced in DC

DC Councilman David Catania introduced a bill on Tuesday that will end discrimination against same sex couples who wish to marry in the nation's capital. The District already recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, but the new proposal will allow the nuptials to take place in the city.

The bill is expected to pass the 13-member city council, and it is supported by DC Mayor Adrian Fenty. In spite of this strong support in the city, outsiders will once again focus on denying marriage equality to DC residents.

Harry Jackson, Bishop of the Hope Christian Church in Maryland, is once again vowing to bring the issue to the ballot. As PFAW has reported, Jackson is an ardent supporter of homophobic ballot initiatives; this time he has the support of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, Colorado-based Focus on the Family, and the National Organization for Marriage.

In addition, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who failed at derailing the marriage recognition bill from over the summer, has expressed interest in overturning DC law again, though he admits it is unlikely that Congressional Republicans will be able to muster enough support to do so.

 

PFAW

Bob McDonnell and the High Cost of Being a Gay Couple

In Virginia, far right gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell has gotten a lot of attention for his belief that it is the duty of government to punish homosexuality. McDonnell came to mind this weekend when I read a sobering article in the New York Times entitled "The High Cost of Being a Gay Couple."

By not recognizing marriages between two men or two women, our federal and state governments treat these couples as legal strangers. The authors of the article calculated the financial burden that results from this discrimination.

We looked at benefits that routinely go to married heterosexual couples but not to gay couples, like certain Social Security payments. We plotted out the cost of health insurance for couples whose employers don't offer it to domestic partners. Even tax preparation can cost more, since gay couples have to file two sets of returns. Still, many couples may come out ahead in one area: they owe less in income taxes because they're not hit with the so-called marriage penalty.

Our goal was to create a hypothetical gay couple whose situation would be similar to a heterosexual couple's. So we gave the couple two children and assumed that one partner would stay home for five years to take care of them. We also considered the taxes in the three states that have the highest estimated gay populations — New York, California and Florida. We gave our couple an income of $140,000, which is about the average income in those three states for unmarried same-sex partners who are college-educated, 30 to 40 years old and raising children under the age of 18.

And what was the result?

In our worst case, the couple’s lifetime cost of being gay was $467,562. But the number fell to $41,196 in the best case for a couple with significantly better health insurance, plus lower taxes and other costs.

Of course, as far as Bob McDonnell is concerned, the government is only doing what it’s supposed to do: punishing homosexuality.

PFAW

Hints for the Obama Agenda in the Coming Supreme Court Term

As discussed in a number of previous posts, the Roberts Court has demonstrated its conservative ideological bent, striking down laws passed by Congress and demonstrating a willingness to ignore long-standing precedent. It reached out last term in the Gross age discrimination case to decide an issue that hadn't been briefed and changed the law in a way that will make it much harder for older workers to prove that they were discriminated against in the workplace. In the Ricci fire fighters case, the Court reached out to decide the case on the merits - even though no employee had actually been injured -- so that it could reach the merits and change the law with respect to proving discrimination in so-called disparate impact cases. And, in the recently argued Citizens United case, the Court re-opened the briefing in the case to re-visit what had been a settled question about whether regulating corporate expenditures in candidate elections is constitutional.

Will this trend continue? And what does this mean for President Obama's initiatives on health insurance reform? Climate change? Financial regulatory reform? Asnoted in Adam Liptak's article in yesterday's New York Times, the Court's docket this term includes a number of cases likely to signal its future willingness to support government intervention to address structural problems in our economy. In Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, a case growing out of the Enron debacle, the Court will consider the scope of Congress' power to delegate regulatory responsibility to independent regulatory boards. The issue in Jones v. Harris Associates, concerns the role of courts in regulating executive compensation for mutual fund investment advisers. And in Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz v. United States, the issue concerns the scope of a federal law concerning lawyers' advice to clients considering bankruptcy. Dry? Perhaps. But what we learn in these cases, may well signal how far the Court is willing to go in supporting or, perhaps more likely, frustrating, efforts by the Administration and Congress to address serious structural problems in our economy.

You think Justices' legal ideology matters? Stay tuned.

PFAW

Business at the Court

It's the first Monday in October, and that means another Supreme Court term is upon us. In addition to cases addressing church-state separation and First Amendment protections, the Court will be hearing a load of cases relating to business and finance that could have broad implications for all Americans.

The justices’ decisions will be closely watched at a time when, constitutional scholars say, Obama administration initiatives are generating fundamental questions about the structure and limits of government power that will, in short order, reach the court.

“There will be major ways in which these interventions will produce legal and constitutional issues,” said Michael W. McConnell, a former federal appeals court judge who is now director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center.

And these aren't even the kinds of business cases we're used to talking about with relation to the Court.

In recent terms, the business docket was studded with cases about employment discrimination, federal pre-emption of injury suits and the environment. With the exception of a single employment case, all of those categories are missing.

In their stead, important questions about bankruptcy, corporate compensation, patents, antitrust and government oversight of the financial system will confront the justices.

PFAW

Standing Up For Kevin Jennings

The Right Wing smear machine has been in overdrive attacking Kevin Jennings, who heads the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.  But the education community is having none of it.

The National Association of School Psychologists calls Jennings "A Champion in the Department of Education."

The Learning First Alliance says "Kevin Jennings is the right person to lead the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools."

The National Education association says Jennings is "highly qualified" and that his "proven track record of success speaks for itself."

Gerald Tirozzi of the National Association of Secondary School Principles appeared on CNN last night to praise Jennings as "a powerful voice to continualy help us not to back away from doing the right things for kids in our schools."

And, in case you were wondering, People For says "Kevin Jennings Will Keep Schools Safe for All."  Indeed.

 UPDATE: There's more!

The Council for Exceptional Children says "Mr. Jennings has dedicated his career to ensuring that our schools remain supportive, safe and positive for all students."

The Social Workers Association of America says Jennings "is devoted to improving the school climate and making schools safe and nurturing environments for learning and growth."

The National Association of Secondary School Principals calls Jennings "a great educator who cares deeply about every student."

PFAW

Rep. Franks calls President Obama "an enemy of humanity"

Recently, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) accused President Obama as being “an enemy of humanity” in a speech at the How to Take Back America Conference. Rep. Franks said:

We shouldn't be shocked that he does all these other insane things. A president that has lost his way that badly, that has no ability to see the image of God in these little fellow human beings, if he can't do that right, then he has no place in any station of government and we need to realize that he is an enemy of humanity."

 

Could Franks be piggy-backing on Rep. Wilson’s “you lie” outburst during President Obama’s speech on health care in front of congress? What strikes me most about this quote (and something that may receive less media attention) is that Franks uses the abelist term “insane” to describe President Obama. I want to pose a question: how many House members have publicly called the President a word to describe someone living with mental illness before President Obama’s term in office?

PFAW President Michael Keegan’s made the following statement in response to Rep. Franks’ comments:

Rep. Trent Franks' remarks at the How to Take Back America Conference show a stunning lack of respect for our president and the office of the presidency itself. Rep. Franks is following the lead of Glenn Beck, but he's a member of Congress, not a talk show host, and he should act like one.

Americans, and especially members of Congress, should be able to disagree passionately about politics without making wild and irresponsible accusations. President Obama's views on reproductive rights are supported by a majority of Americans, and it is outrageous for Rep. Franks to claim that anyone who holds such views is unfit for public office and an "enemy of humanity."
 

 

 

PFAW

Mary Travers, Defender of Democracy and Folk Music Legend, R.I.P.

Mary Travers of the folk music trio Peter, Paul and Mary passed away this week. She was a longtime friend, ally, and supporter of People For the American Way and a powerful advocate for justice and equal rights throughout her life.

PFAW honored Travers and her bandmates Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey for their decades of activism at our 1999 Spirit of Liberty event. This tribute video, which was played at the event, explains why they were awarded the Defender of Democracy award: The progressive movement had a great friend in Mary Travers, and we are saddened by the loss. We send our condolences to her friends and family.

PFAW

Obama Nominates First Openly Gay EEOC Commissioner

President Obama recently nominated Chai Feldblum to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  She'll be the first openly gay person to hold that post.

Feldblum, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, previously served as legislative counsel to the AIDS Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, where she played a role in the drafting of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

"She has also worked on advancing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights" and "been a leading expert on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act," according to a biography released by the White House.

Her degrees are from Harvard Law School and Barnard College, and she went on to clerk for Judge Frank Coffin on the First Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

Of course, the Right Wing has lost no time at all in branding her "general counsel to the Forces of Darkness."  Stay classy, you guys.

PFAW

Happy Constitution Day!

At People For, our mission is to promote and defend constitutional values, so September 17th, Constitution Day, has a special place in our heart. Senator Robert Byrd passed legislation to create Constitution Day in 2004, and we wanted to celebrate this year by sharing clips from some of our Constitution reading events from years past.

In 2009 Senator Byrd reads the Preamble:

In 2006 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reads Article 3:

In 2004 Richard Gere reads Article 1, Section 3:

and Article 5 and 6:

In 2004, Betty Friedan reads the 19th Amendment:

In 2009, Ana Marie Cox reads the 18th Amendment:

and the 21st Amendment:

In 2009 Michael York reads the 25th Amendment:

PFAW

The Writing is on the Wall

The writing is on the wall. As any number of commentators have suggested, it’s pretty clear that no matter whom the President nominates for the next Supreme Court vacancy, the Republicans and their allies on the far right are going to fight. Indeed, as Jeff Toobin points out in his excellent article in The New Yorker, even the President’s mainstream nomination of David Hamilton for a seat on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals – his very first judicial nominee – continues to languish because of unfounded attacks from the Right. As one White House official is quoted by Toobin: ‘If they are going to stop David Hamilton, then who won’t they stop.” 

As suggested in Toobin’s article, the Republicans claim it’s payback for the President’s votes against Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.  But as history is showing us, then-Senator Obama’s votes were the correct ones. The Roberts court is Exhibit A in far right judicial activism – not the balls and strikes umpiring we were promised by the Chief Justice.  In any event as Republican Senator Thune makes clear in yesterday’s Roll Call article, the only way for the President to avoid a fight is for him to nominate a conservative – anything else would meet significant resistance.

So the cards are on the table. If we’re going to have a fight, then let’s think boldly about the kind of Justice we need on the Court. And that means a Justice who understands that the law and the Constitution mandate protections for average Americans against the interests of the more powerful. It means a Justice who understands that the law and the Constitution protect important privacy rights. It means a Justice who appreciates that the law and the Constitution affect the realities of Americans’ everyday lives.  It means a Justice who respects the core constitutional values of justice and equal opportunity for all.  If we’re going to have a fight, let’s make it one worth having – let’s make it a fight for core constitutional values.

PFAW

Bagram Detainees Obtain Right to Challenge Detention

The Washington Post reported on Sunday, that the Obama administration this week will put in place a new review system to allow detainees held by the U.S. at a military base in Bagram, Afghanistan the ability to challenge their detentions.  While this is a small step in the right direction, the bigger issue is the administration’s decision to continue arguing against habeas corpus rights in the federal case brought by some of those same Bagram detainees now pending before the DC Court of Appeals. 

After the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 recognizing by a vote of 5-4 the habeas rights of detainees held by the U.S. at the military base in Guantanmo Bay, Cuba, and since Obama has declared that the Guantanamo detention center will be closed by the end of the year, all eyes have turned toward Bagram where hundreds of detainees are being held there without review. While both sides continue to argue the merits of whether the constitutional right of habeas corpus should apply to detainees held overseas by the U.S. in a zone of conflict, at least the administration now concedes what many of us have been arguing for years:  it is a basic human right that an individual cannot be deprived of their liberty without due process.  

Let’s hope that the new process afforded to Bagram detainees in the end will be a meaningful one. 

PFAW

DOJ Won’t Prosecute Schlozman

In a disappointing move, Attorney General Eric Holder has decided not to prosecute former head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division and interim U.S. Attorney Bradley Schlozman for lying to Congress, instead giving deference to the decision of the Bush Administration.  Operatives like Schlozman led to the massive politicization of the Justice Department during the years of the Bush Administration and created an atmosphere of distrust by the very citizens the DOJ was meant to protect. 

During Schlozman’s testimony to the Senate in 2007, he repeatedly evaded questions regarding his actions, including hiring practices during his tenure.  Furthermore, Schlozman repeatedly refused to take responsibility for the Civil Rights Division’s failure to fully investigate thousands of claims of disenfranchisement during elections, instead choosing to pursue unmeritorious claims of voter fraud in key battleground states.

Because of such politicization by operatives like Schlozman, People For the American Way Foundation and numerous other civil rights and voting rights organizations were forced to defend the rights of voters across the country and protect them from disenfranchising tactics such as voter ID laws and overly stringent registration policies.  Fortunately, massive mobilization efforts like the Election Protection program were able to help meet this challenge, but it should not have to been our responsibility to protect voters from their own Department of Justice. 

While we understand the desire of Attorney General Holder to move forward and applaud his steps to reinvigorate the Civil Rights Division and eliminate the tarnish left by the previous Administration, we should not allow bad acts to go unpunished.  It is clear that Schlozman perjured himself during his testimony to the Senate, as concluded by the Office of Professional Responsibility’s internal report.  The American people deserve justice and we had hoped that bad actors such as Schlozman would be prosecuted as a testament to the American public that the DOJ will no longer play politics with justice.     

PFAW