PEOPLE FOR BLOG

YEO Evan Low Dedicates Harvey Milk Stamp

Last week, the highly-anticipated Harvey Milk stamp made its debut in a White House dedication ceremony featuring a roster packed with dynamic speakers including Evan Low, a Campbell, California city councilmember and participant in PFAW Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network, who recounted his personal story and stressed the importance of electing LGBT Americans to public office.

US Senator Tammy Baldwin later touched on where the LGBT equality movement stands today, more than 35 years after Harvey Milk's tragic assassination, crediting the youngest among us for understanding what's at the heart of the progress made and the work left to be done – love and fairness.

Anne Kronenberg, Harvey Milk's campaign manager, included in her closing remarks a simple statement of what the Milk stamp means – that new people and places will get to meet Harvey simply by opening a mailbox.

We remember.

We remember Harvey Milk

PFAW Foundation

Reid, Pelosi, PFAW & Others Call Out Kochs at Cap Hill Event

This Tuesday at a press conference in the US Capitol hosted by Brave New Films and featuring Robert Greenwald’s latest documentary, “Koch Bros Exposed,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders and People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker made a resounding call for amending the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s egregious decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC.

“We need our voices heard… we need to change the status quo,” Majority Leader Reid stated after calling for an amendment.

“We need a government by the many, not a government by the money,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed. She went on to declare, “the time to amend the Constitution is now!”

Comparing the amount the Koch brothers spent in the 2012 election cycle to the amount they made, on average, over the past three years, Sen. Sanders pointed out: “$400 million is not a lot of money when you make $11 billion a year.”

Following Sen. Sanders, People For the American Way’s Executive Vice President for Policy and Program, Marge Baker, took the podium and stated, “The time has come to discuss solutions.”  She highlighted the growing support for the amendment strategy, the momentum behind the small donor empowering Government By the People Act, the push at the state level for disclosure and campaign finance law, and the growing movement around the country of everyday citizens who are working to build a more democratic government.

 

PFAW

Countering the Conservative Campus Crusade

The following is a post by Gabriela De Golia, Advocacy Associate for affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program.

Last week, in a speech in support of a constitutional amendment to reduce the influence of big money on our political system, Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “No one should be able to pump unlimited funds into political campaigns.”  On political spending, Sen. Reid noted, the “Koch brothers are in a category of their own.”

Indeed, the Koch brothers’ influence in shaping our national political dialogue is stronger than many realize. In March the Center for Public Integrity wrote about David and Charles Koch’s financial investments in colleges and universities—the nation-spanning “campus of Koch Brothers Academy.” By pouring millions into schools across the country, the Koch brothers bankroll academic programs to promote their economic and social ideologies. They champion regressive political philosophies and create a pipeline for youth to become engaged in conservative activism. In effect, the Koch brothers are leading a crusade to funnel young people into the conservative movement.

However, we in the progressive movement are also investing in our youth. Despite not having as much money as oil tycoons, key players in the progressive movement understand the power of youth and are fighting back with a long-term progressive infrastructure. Programs like Young People For (YP4) of People For the American Way Foundation provide young progressive leaders the tools to create systemic change, roll back conservative advances, reclaim our democracy, and fight for justice.

By teaching young adults to identify key issues in their communities, create concrete action plans, and mobilize others through organizing and advocacy, YP4 helps Millennial change-makers build power to win on progressive issues. For example, through our program’s Money in Elections campaign, young activists have held rallies, gathered petitions, protested banks, and spoken at national events in support of reclaiming our democracy. Ariel Boone, a 2009 YP4 Fellow, lead a successful campaign urging the University of California at Berkeley to divest $3.5 million out of Bank of America and reinvest these funds in a local bank that contributes millions to the surrounding community. Last year 2013 Fellow Brendien Mitchell spoke alongside Senator Bernie Sanders and other pro-democracy movement leaders at a rally to get big money out of politics on the steps of the Supreme Court. These are but a couple examples of how YP4 is supporting young people in taking a stand against corporate influence in our political system.

As YP4 enters its tenth year, we continue to recognize that to build a movement, you need to think long-term. From recruiting youth from marginalized communities into our Fellowship program, to assisting them in getting more voters to the polls through our voter engagement programs, to training them to run successful campaigns through our Front Line Leaders Academy, we support youth every step of the way of their leadership journey.

Often in conversations about politics and civic participation, young adults are afterthoughts, considered an “apathetic” audience that doesn’t vote. But Millennials are far more engaged than given credit for. In fact, today’s young adults are anything but disengaged. Despite being the first generation to be economically worse-off than their parents through no fault of our own, Millennials are far more likely to do community service than older generations. About half of us vote, and we currently account for over 20 percent of the voting-eligible population in the US – and that number is growing as more of us turn 18. We must constantly overcome conservatives’ best attempts to keep us from the polls, efforts which in themselves show how much power we hold over the political process – no one would try to disenfranchise us if we didn’t matter. And last but certainly not least, we are the most diverse and progressive generation in recent history.

Ironically, two individuals who spend enormous amounts of money to influence the civic lives of young adults represent political leanings at odds with much of the Millennial generation’s values. The Koch brothers singlehandedly influence the US political arena more than almost anyone else thanks to their nearly limitless pool of oil money. They are two of the most radical and influential right-wing leaders today who are attempting to abolish the minimum wage, get rid of Social Security, defund the Affordable Care Act, equate money with speech, and lead the transformation of American democracy into an oligarchy.  As shown in the Center for Public Integrity report, in 2012 they gave nearly $13 million in tax-deductible donations to higher education institutions, including many that are often considered “liberal,” to promote their ideologies.

These contributions show that conservative leaders do understand the power of youth and the return they get from investing in youth leadership development opportunities. By shelling millions into programs for young conservatives since the 1970s and focusing on long-term capacity building rather than just mobilization during elections, conservatives see the fruits of their labor in congressional dysfunction and the weakening of our democratic processes.

But programs like YP4 are doing the work to turn this tide by developing young progressive leaders. As Andrew Gillum, Director of Youth Leadership Programs at People For the American Way Foundation, wrote earlier this year: “Investing in progressive young people is the key to ensuring our movement’s capacity to create and sustain social change for years to come.”

Creating change is hard and takes time, especially when up against big money like that of the Koch Brothers. But by investing in young people, the progressive movement can make a real difference in both the short and long terms. We simply cannot afford to not invest in youth.

PFAW Foundation

Harvey Milk Memorialized with Stamp

Today the United States Postal Service releases its highly-anticipated Harvey Milk stamp, memorializing the LGBT equality pioneer on what would have been his 84th birthday. Evan Low, a Campbell, California city councilmember and participant in PFAW Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network, is expected to join other trailblazers at the White House dedication ceremony.

Councilmember Low had this to say last November in marking the 35th anniversary of Milk's tragic assassination:

In 2009, I became the youngest openly gay mayor as well as the youngest Asian-American mayor in the country. Some journalists wrote about how I was making history, but I like to point out that I was preceded by a number of other courageous “firsts.”

I became mayor 35 years after Kathy Kozachenko was the first openly LGBT person elected to public office, and 32 years after Harvey Milk – affectionately known as “the mayor of Castro Street” – was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the same state I serve today.

This week marks the anniversary of the tragic end of Milk’s short time in office, when he and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. But the legacy of Harvey Milk and other LGBT trailblazers is very much alive. Today there are more than 500 openly LGBT elected or appointed officials serving our country. Through their service and that of public officials representing other marginalized communities, it is clear that our democracy works best when our lawmakers reflect the nation’s diversity.

South Dakota State Senator Angie Buhl O'Donnell, another YEO, also reflected on Milk's impact:

Milk’s legacy has been a personal inspiration for me, as an openly bisexual elected official. Earlier this year, I became a Harvey Milk Champion of Change. While I was honored to be recognized by the White House with an award bearing his name, I actually had some hesitation about accepting. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I was worried about people thinking I didn’t really “deserve” it. But I realized that line of reasoning was not what Harvey Milk would have embraced. His legacy is about sharing your own identity, your own truth in whatever form that might take.  Besides, there’s a “B” in “LGBT” for a reason.

Though the right-wing has long tried to rewrite Milk's legacy, as affiliate People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch notes in this report on Liberty Counsel's Matt Barber . . .

Liberty Counsel’s Matt Barber is upset that the US Postal Service will issue a stamp honoring Harvey Milk, telling the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow that Milk was a rapist and “demonstrably, categorically an evil man.”

. . . it's clear that today is a day to celebrate how far the LGBT equality movement has come and to recognize the work that remains.

We remember.

We remember Harvey Milk

PFAW Foundation

Marriage Equality Continues Its March Forward

The march toward marriage equality nationwide continues at an astounding pace.

On Monday Oregon became the 18th state added to the win column when Judge Michael McShane struck down its ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Then on Tuesday Judge John Jones issued a similar ruling in Pennsylvania, followed Wednesday by the news that Governor Tom Corbett won't appeal – make that 19!

Wednesday also brought the filing of a marriage equality lawsuit in Montana. Governor Steve Bullock:

Montanans cherish our freedom and recognize the individual dignity of every one of us. The time has come for our state to recognize and celebrate – not discriminate against – two people who love one another, are committed to each other, and want to spend their lives together.

I look forward to a future where all Montanans have the opportunity to marry the person they love, just as Lisa and I did almost 15 years ago. We are on the path to greater understanding and equality, and we will all be better for it.

Montana is the 29th state without marriage equality that has a lawsuit pending.

That leaves only two states, North and South Dakota, with unchallenged bans on same-sex marriage. Their suits could be filed any day now.

Onward!

Check out our website for more LGBT equality updates.

PFAW Foundation

Pennsylvania Marriage Ban Struck Down

Another day, another discriminatory ban struck down. Today a federal judge ruled in Whitewood v. Wolf that Pennsylvania’s 1996 ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. This victory for marriage equality follows closely on the heels of the striking of Oregon’s ban only yesterday and makes Pennsylvania the 19th state allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Congratulate Pennsylvanians by sharing our graphic below:

PFAW Foundation

Oregon Marriage Ban Struck Down

More good news from the fight for marriage equality: today a federal judge struck down Oregon’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.

If you are feeling a sense of deja-vu, it’s understandable – the Washington Blade notes that this ruling is the “13th straight win for gay nuptials in the federal courts” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision last year, which struck down a key section of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act [emphasis added].

Given that decision, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum declined to defend the state ban, and the judge did not allow the right-wing National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to defend it. Earlier today NOM lashed out at the case, calling it “an ugly example of inappropriate cooperation between the Attorney General and the gay marriage lobby.”

Judge Michael McShane wrote:

It is at times difficult to see past the shrillness of the debate. Accusations of religious bigotry and banners reading "God Hates Fags" make for a messy democracy and, at times, test the First Amendment resolve of both sides. At the core of the Equal Protection Clause, however, there exists a foundational belief that certain rights should be shielded from the barking crowds; that certain rights are subject to ownership by all and not the stake hold of popular trend or shifting majorities.

As the Right continues to fight a losing battle to prevent loving couples from accessing the protections they need to take care of each other, we’ll keep fighting for nationwide equality.
 

PFAW Foundation

Six Decades Later, Still Fighting for Equality in Schools

The following is a guest post from the Reverend Dr. Merchuria Chase Williams, a former school teacher and a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.

Last month, sixty years after the Supreme Court threw out the toxic doctrine of “separate but equal,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked us to keep our “eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” She pointed out that in law and in daily life, race still matters deeply and cannot “be wished away.”

Justice Sotomayor wrote those words in a dissent to the Schuette decision that upheld Michigan’s state constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action, six decades after the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling that said schools may not be segregated by race. It’s no coincidence that both of these decisions were about education. If anything proves that race still matters in America, it’s our public schools.

While the 1954 Brown decision brought badly needed change and helped invigorate a nationwide civil rights movement, glaring racial inequalities persist to this day – and nowhere are they more evident than in the classroom. In recent years, school segregation has actually gotten worse rather than better. On average, a black student today goes to a school where 29 percent of her fellow students are white – a percentage that has dropped seven points since 1980. Students of color are less likely to have access to a broad range of math and science courses and are more likely to be suspended than their white peers. And according to the Center for American Progress, on average American schools spend hundreds less on each student of color than they do on each white student.

While we may no longer be legally separate, educational opportunities and conditions for our nation’s students are far from equal.

Despite these gaps, big funders on the Right continue to pour money into efforts to privatize the education system rather than strengthen the public education system that the vast majority of our nation’s children use. The Walton Family Foundation, created by the family that established Walmart, has pumped millions into efforts to expand private school vouchers, undermining the public schools that are, in education advocate Diane Ravitch’s words, “the heart of most communities.”

Those of us who have been working for many years to improve the education system in Atlanta and across the country know that we need to support and strengthen public education, not undercut it. We need to work to address ongoing education inequalities for students of different backgrounds, not pretend that race simply doesn’t matter or that racial inequalities do not exist. Let’s use the anniversary of this landmark decision to recommit ourselves to building an education system that truly provides equal opportunities to all of our nation’s children.

Today’s Supreme Court majority may not get it, but the millions of children failed by our school system do.
 

PFAW Foundation

On the Brown Anniversary, The Struggle for Equal Education Continues

The following is a guest post from Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard, a member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.

Six decades ago the nation said “separate, but equal” is separate, but it certainly is not equal. This week we celebrate the 60 year anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown gave our nation the opportunity to show the world that we are as good as our promise. And while the impact of this groundbreaking decision cannot be overstated, a quality education is still not a guarantee for African American and Latino students today.  

In my state of Florida and across the country, students of color continue to be underserved by our school system. Recent data from the Department of Education highlights massive racial inequalities that persist six decades later. Beginning in preschool, African American students are suspended disproportionately – a distressingly early start on what many have characterized as the school-to-prison pipeline. Students of color are more likely to have lower paid teachers and fewer course options.

Undocumented students also face serious barriers in our education system. In Florida, undocumented students do not receive in-state tuition at state universities and colleges. Florida’s DREAM Act would fix this, allowing undocumented students who attended a Florida high school for at least three years to receive in-state tuition to attend one of Florida’s public colleges or universities.

Our students’ success or failure is incumbent on each and every one of us. As a teacher and as a member of the state Senate’s education committee, I know that building strong communities, a strong economy, a strong electorate, and a strong country requires investments in a public education system that works for all students. When we fail to fight for equal educational opportunities, our democracy is at risk. If we hope to improve our future, we must realize we are only as successful as our least privileged.

On the anniversary of the Brown decision, May 17th, I will join over 120 young elected officials from all corners of the nation to discuss and build education policy together. We will honor this moment in history through continued action to improve our children’s education system. We will do this because our kids deserve the chance to be their best, and because our future will demand it of them.

PFAW

Campaign Finance Amendment To See Senate Action

On the floor of the Senate today, Majority Leader Harry Reid called for a constitutional amendment to counter the outsized role of big money in our electoral system. Senate leaders are not wasting any time in moving forward; Sen. Leahy announced today that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the amendment early next month. The Senate action on an amendment – which 16 states and more than 550 cities and towns have already gone on record in favor of – serves as a significant step forward in the growing movement to put the power in our democracy back in the hands of the people.

Reid’s remarks included a call to fellow senators to fight back against the “hostile takeover of our democratic system” by wealthy special interests:

Every American should have the same ability to influence our political system. One American, one vote. That’s what the Constitution guarantees. The Constitution does not give corporations a vote. And the Constitution does not give dollar bills a vote…

…[T]he flood of special interest money into our American democracy is one of the glaring threats our system of government has ever faced. Let’s keep our elections from becoming speculative ventures for the wealthy and put a stop to the hostile takeover of our democratic system by a couple of billionaire oil barons.

Read People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker’s statement on the upcoming hearing here.
 

PFAW

PFAW Opposes Nomination of Michael Boggs to be Federal Judge

Federal district court nominee Michael Boggs of Georgia had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. The hearing was his opportunity to address the many serious concerns we and others have had about his record. When he first ran for office as a state judge, he assured voters that they could know where he stood by looking at his legislative record, including his opposition to marriage equality. But judges aren’t supposed to let their personal political beliefs determine how they rule on cases. In addition, the legislative record he cited is deeply disturbing.

Unfortunately, his testimony in response to senators’ questions only deepened our concerns. So in a letter Wednesday to members of the Senate, People For the American Way expressed strong opposition to this confirmation. PFAW Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon delineated the reasoning behind the organization’s opposition to Boggs’ confirmation.

“[Boggs’] record makes clear that senators should not confirm him to a lifetime position as a United States judge,” the letter states. “…we do not believe Michael Boggs has demonstrated that he would be able to bring to his service as a lifetime judge on the federal courts the requisite impartiality necessary for such a position.”

The five page letter discusses the problems around Boggs’ ability to perform in the role of judge and his actions relating to LGBT equality, reproductive rights, and government promotion of religion. It also discusses the controversy around his support for the inclusion of Confederate imagery in the Georgia state flag, as well as his candor before the Judiciary Committee. You can read the full text of the letter here.
 

PFAW

Idaho Marriage Ban Struck Down

Yesterday evening a federal judge ruled Idaho’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples unconstitutional. If the state begins issuing marriage licenses Friday morning, plaintiffs Amber Beierle and Rachael Roberts say they are more than ready to make their union official. Beierle reflected, “I don't think people understand what [the ruling] means to native Idahoans who love this state and want to stay in this state but who want to be heard.”

In her ruling, Judge Candy Dale made clear that the state’s ban denied critical rights to same-sex couples simply because of who they are:

Idaho's Marriage laws deny same-sex couples the economic, practical, emotional and spiritual benefits of marriage, relegating each couple to a stigmatized, second-class status. Plaintiffs suffer these injuries not because they are unqualified to marry, start a family, or grow old together, but because of who they are and whom they love.

Close on the heels of the striking of Arkansas’ marriage ban, the ruling in Idaho comes as further evidence that the movement toward full nationwide marriage equality cannot be stopped. Even as the far Right continues to compare same-sex marriage to bestiality and to absurdly insist that marriage bans “take nothing away from anyone,” the stack of judicial wins for equality grows taller and taller.
 

PFAW

Marriage Equality Lawsuit Filed in Alaska

It seems like the march toward marriage equality is making news every day. Just yesterday, May 12, Alaska became the latest state to take up the issue when a lawsuit was filed in federal court challenging the state constitution's ban on same-sex marriage, which dates back to 1998.

The plaintiffs' intent is plainly stated:

[R]estore to the Alaska Constitution the principles of due process, fairness, and equality, and to restore and affirm the civil liberties, individual rights, and personal dignities otherwise guaranteed by the Alaska Constitution to each and all of its citizens.

But it's their personal stories that really drive the message home:

Matthew Hamby and Christopher Shelden: They have experienced difficulties obtaining benefits, such as health insurance, extended by the State of Alaska to other married couples as a routine matter.

Susan Tow and Christina Laborde: The same-sex marriage ban complicates the process by which Christine could adopt the children.

Stephanie Pearson and Courtney Lamb: The couple lives in Anchorage and wishes to marry in Alaska because both feel that Alaska is their home and that they should be able to marry in their home state.

Sean Egan and David Robinson: Despite the fact that they were lawfully married in New York nearly three years ago and that even the United States Armed Forces now recognize them as married, extending to Sean the benefits available to military spouses, the State of Alaska does not recognize their marriage, and in the eyes of the State, they are legal strangers, their marriage void under state law.

Tracey Wiese and Katrina Cortez: Tracey moved to Alaska sixteen years ago and Katrina has lived in Alaska her entire life. Tracey works for Providence Medical Center and is a business owner. Katrina is a [self-employed] business owner. The couple has a three year old daughter together.

Yesterday's filing is great news for these couples and countless other Alaskans wishing to bring marriage equality to their state, but on this issue Alaska is not The Last Frontier – three states remain with unchallenged marriage bans.

Here's where we stand:

17 states and DC have legalized marriage for same-sex couples.

30 states without marriage equality have lawsuits pending.

3 states – Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota – have unchallenged bans, though a South Dakota challenge is expected soon.

Check out our website for more LGBT equality updates.

PFAW Foundation

Dangers of Supreme Court Prayer Ruling Quickly Become Clear

Sometimes the damage from a bad court decision takes a while to make itself clear. Not so with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a town’s practice of beginning council meetings with prayers that are overwhelmingly Christian. Conservative political and legal groups called it a win for religious freedom, but it only took a few days to see just how much unnecessary and divisive conflict the Court’s decision could generate in communities across America.

Late last week the mayor of the New Jersey town of Carteret cited the Supreme Court ruling to justify cancelling the use of the borough hall for a Saturday naturalization ceremony.  He was upset that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to allow the ceremony to begin with prayer. The INS says its rules are meant to ensure that naturalization ceremonies are "conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements." But Mayor Daniel Reiman said the INS could "host its godless ceremony someplace else." (It was held in Newark.)

What a sad object lesson for those aspiring American citizens and their friends and families. Who knows how many different faiths were represented among them? It shouldn’t matter, because one of the most precious benefits of being an American is that your rights and standing as a citizen do not depend on your holding any particular set of religious beliefs.

But don’t tell that to Al Bedrosian, a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. Last week after the Supreme Court ruling, Bedrosian declared that prayers to open board meetings should be given only by Christians. It is shameful that Bedrosian holds public office in Virginia, home of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the birthplace of the First Amendment. Bedrosian argued publicly several years ago that Christians should “rid ourselves of this notion of freedom of religion in America.” He said Christians “are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions” and called it one of the “greatest moments in US Senate history” when a group of Christians disrupted a Hindu religious leader who was giving an opening prayer.

Both Reiman and Bedrosian are misinterpreting the Court’s decision. But these episodes bring even greater clarity to a reality to which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court demonstrated “blindness” – in the words of dissenting Justice Elena Kagan. That is the exclusionary and divisive reality – as opposed to the theory – of government bodies opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.

The case decided by the Supreme Court came concerned the upstate New York town of Greece.  For years, the town council has been inviting local clergy to open its meetings. Those clergy have been overwhelmingly Christian, and their prayers were sometimes highly sectarian, invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These were not, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, ceremonial invocations like the “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” which begins Supreme Court sessions.

The town’s prayer policy was challenged by two citizens (one Jew and one atheist) who felt coerced by the invitations to Christian prayer, and who felt as if they were being made outsiders in their own town based on their religious beliefs. They argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted as preventing the government from favoring religion in general or any religion in particular.

Some people, particularly those in the religious majority, have a hard time seeing why such prayer is a big deal. As Paul Waldman writes for the Washington Post, “the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”

But imagine, as Kagan did, a Muslim who has come before the city council seeking a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. When she is asked to join in prayer celebrating the divinity of Jesus, she has the option of not participating, or leaving the room. Either option identifies her as somehow different from her neighbors and from the councilmembers who will decide the fate of her request.  A federal appeals court had ruled that the town’s practice was unconstitutional because, even if town officials had no bad intent, the consequence of the nearly uninterrupted parade of Christian prayers was to signal that Christianity was favored, and to make unequal citizens of people of other faiths or no faith.

Unfortunately, five Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying even an overwhelmingly Christian and sectarian prayer practice is OK unless there is a pattern of prayers denigrating other faiths or proselytizing or unless there is evidence that people are being legally coerced or punished for not participating. The Court has given a green light to “Christian Nation” advocates like Al Bedrosian to demand that their city council or county commission allow their official meetings to be regularly opened with explicitly Christian prayers.  Some Religious Right leaders have said that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Right now, practices vary. Some government bodies don’t bother with prayer; others invite clergy to open meetings, with guidelines that prayers be respectful or nonsectarian. But even that nod toward pluralism is at risk: Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said this ruling means government bodies can no longer make a distinction between nonsectarian prayer and “praying in Jesus’ name” and he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that will have an impact on a number of cases.”

It’s worth noting that some progressive Christians agree that “nonsectarian prayer” is a kind of oxymoron. But, says Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore, that is not a reason to push for sectarian prayer; it is instead a reason to do away with legislative prayer altogether. He writes that the effort to push more prayer in official settings is “offensive to those who pray as much as to those who don’t.” The pro-church-state-separation Baptist Joint Committee had filed a brief in the case stating that “prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of government.”

That brings us to a crucial distinction between what is constitutional and what is wise, particularly in a country that is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. As noted in People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, “Some things that are legally permissible may still be damaging to religious tolerance and civic discourse, and should be discouraged.”

The Supreme Court did not rule that legislative bodies have to begin their meetings with prayer; it ruled that the Constitution allows them to. In spite of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s portrayal of legislative prayer as a unifying force, it seems likely that an aggressive push for more sectarian prayer to open official meetings will be anything but unifying. Elected officials should think twice before going down that road.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he prays that the Court is showing a way toward “a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life.” But Moore is wrong: we already have a free marketplace of faith expression in America. The First Amendment has fostered a vibrant, flourishing, peaceful religious pluralism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Christian media has a massive presence on television, radio, and online. But what too many “Christian Nation” advocates want, and what the Court is opening the door to, is a system in which a religious majority can more easily use the institutions of government to promote its religious beliefs and label others as outsiders.

And that is not the American Way. 

PFAW Foundation

Marriage Equality Win in Arkansas

This past Friday, May 9, Arkansas State Circuit Judge Chris Piazza struck down the state's discriminatory constitutional amendment – marriage equality's first step into the South.

Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry:

Today a state circuit judge in Arkansas ruled in favor of the freedom to marry, the latest in a unanimous wave of favorable rulings from more than a dozen state and federal judges across the country in recent months. Judge Piazza held that there is no good reason for discriminating against couples and their loved ones just because they are gay. With nearly 70 marriage cases now making their way through the courts, and five federal appellate courts now hearing arguments and soon to rule, today's decision out of Arkansas underscores that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry.

Wolfson and his organization have been working on a project called Southerners for the Freedom to Marry, and though we expect an appeal to the Arkansas ruling, it looks like the South is ready for change.

One notable Southerner helping to lead the way is Congressman John Lewis, who for more than fifty years has championed the causes of civil rights and was one of only eighty-one members of the House and Senate who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act.

The remarks he made back in 1996:

. . . are just as timely as those he makes today for the Southerners project:

. . . and they were echoed by Judge Piazza in Arkansas:

The issue at hand is the fundamental right to marry being denied to an unpopular minority. Our judiciary has failed such groups in the past.

PFAW Foundation