PEOPLE FOR BLOG

The Problem with “School Choice” Week

“School choice” will be celebrated this week at thousands of events across the country, with speakers talking about empowered parents and educational excellence.  It will probably be a public relations bonanza for the “school choice” movement.  But here’s the problem: the bright yellow banner of National School Choice Week is designed to distract attention from the least appealing and most dangerous aspects of that movement -- anti-government ideologues, privatization profiteers, and religious fundamentalists eager to get their hands on public education dollars.

Let’s back up a bit.

Education policy is a vast, complicated, and hotly contested arena. Terms like “education reform” and “school choice” sound good, but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless. They can be applied to genuine efforts to strengthen teaching and educational opportunity as well as cynical schemes to destroy public employee unions and dismantle public education altogether.

In particular, “school choice” encompasses a huge array of education policies, from public school charter and magnet schools to taxpayer-funded for-profit cyberschools and homeschooling.  Even a seemingly specific term like “charter schools” cloaks a more complex reality that ranges from innovation labs co-located in public schools to for-profit chain operations.  

If you believe that public education is an important democratic institution, and you think education policy should be aimed at giving every child the opportunity to attend a quality public school, these policies don’t all look alike. They don’t all have the same impact on public schools, or the same levels of public accountability.

But the folks at National School Choice Week would like you not to think about that.  Here’s Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, in a January 2 column:

To individual parents – “school choice” is not just about charter schools, or private schools, or traditional public or magnet schools, or online learning and homeschooling. It’s about having a choice of all of these options, being able to make a choice, and selecting the learning environments that are right for their individual children. When school choice organizations work together, the collective messaging of these partnerships and this broad, familiar definition of school choice resonates with families.

He acknowledges that people have different ideas about what school choice means: “It goes without saying that a charter school association and a private school choice group might not agree on every policy issue, or that a homeschooling organization and a magnet school consortium will not always find common ground,” he says, but we can all come together on “the basics.”

The problem with this “collective messaging” approach is that it hides the anti-public-education agenda of some “reformers.” Celebrating “school choice” across the board lends credibility to organizations pushing for destructive policies that are not at all popular with the American public. In spite of decades of right-wing-funded attacks on public education, for example, Americans oppose privatization plans  like vouchers that transfer public education funds to private schools.

Self-proclaimed reformers often dismiss concerns about privatization as a “red herring.” But you can’t embrace the Milton Friedman Foundation as a partner and then pretend that privatization is only an imaginary threat dreamed up by teachers unions.  Friedman has an explicit goal of getting rid of public schools altogether; they see programs like vouchers for poor kids as a tactical stepping stone toward that ultimate goal.

Others view the huge amount of money we collectively spend on educating children as a source of cash. One of the sponsors of National School Choice Week is K12, a member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council and a company the New York Times has described as “the biggest player in the online-school business,” one “that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload, and lowering standards.”  In September 2013, a hedge fund manager betting that the company’s model was unsustainable said that “K 12’s aggressive student recruitment has led to dismal academic results by students and sky-high dropout rates, in some cases more than 50% annually.” And yet Executive Chairman Nathaniel Davis was paid more than $9.5 million last year; Morningstar reports that K12’s compensation to top executives went from 8.89 million in 2011 to 10.89 million in 2012 to 21.37 million in 2013. According to Sourcewatch, $730.0 million of the $848.2 million K12 earned last year came from its “managed public schools” – in other words, taxpayers.

For-profit schools that are doing a lousy job can be protected by the huge amounts of money they spend lobbying in state legislatures. A November 2011 investigation by Lee Fang for The Nation reported that White Hat Management, which runs both traditional and virtual charter schools, had become Ohio’s second-largest GOP donor; the company’s success rate under No Child Left Behind was 2 percent, compared to 54.9% for traditional schools and 30 percent for “virtual schools” run by nonprofits.

Publicly funded vouchers to pay for private schools have been rejected each time they have come before voters, and there is scant evidence that the voucher programs that are operational produce better academic outcomes.  But they are still a cherished goal of anti-government ideologues and operators of for-profit and religious schools.  One of the biggest “school choice” advocates among the country’s governors is Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who has embarked on a grand privatization plan grounded in school vouchers, many of which have been used to send students to religious schools with questionable curricula and substandard academic achievement.  Data released by the state in November indicated that almost half of the vouchers were being used at schools that scored a D or F on the state’s rating scale.

There are unquestionably well-intentioned people in the education reform movement, some of whom will be participating in National School Choice Week activities. There are people of all political persuasions eager to find ways to give students a better education, and that includes teachers, administrators, and school board members – people who are collectively dismissed as “the blob” by some “reformers.”

People of good faith can and do disagree about the best way to strengthen teaching, hold schools accountable, reduce the devastating impact of poverty, and more.  But people who are genuinely seeking ways to strengthen public education and make schools better for all children should think twice about making common cause with organizations who see public education as something to be dismantled, and with companies whose bottom line is measured not in student achievement but in the profit margins demanded by their investors.

PFAW Foundation

Four Years After Citizens United: A Faith Perspective

Growing up, when I was taught that all people have inherent dignity, that all people were created in God's image, and that all people should have equal rights and opportunities, "all people" did not include corporations like ExxonMobil. "All people" in the past century meant real, hardworking, living and breathing human beings. But apparently "all people" in the 21st century, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, means something radically different.

Four years ago this week, ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, the high court infamously gave corporations the distinction, the same constitutional right as real people -- as you and me -- to spend unlimited amounts of money influencing elections. Four years later we are still advocating a point that should be obvious: Corporations are not people.

On the anniversary of a decision that has caused immeasurable harm to our democratic system, I take heart in knowing that faith leaders across the country are continuing to push for a more just democracy.

Yes, faith leaders across faith traditions. When many people think about the movement to get big money out of politics, they think about good government groups and activists poring over spreadsheets to "follow the money" and track political donations. But I know for a fact that faith leaders are also activists, advocates, and as noted in a new Auburn Seminary report, uniquely positioned to connect values that are vital to so many Americans with one of the most pressing issues of our day: making sure our democracy works for everyone.

Many religious traditions focus on economic inequality and injustice. When wealthy special interests are able to buy political influence and overpower the voices of everyday Americans, they can set an agenda that doesn't serve the needs of the poor or the vulnerable. Because many clergy and ministry leaders are often intimately connected with the struggles their congregation members face daily, they see firsthand the ramifications of big money in politics on almost every issue from a livable wage to the right to vote to the right to full citizenship. When moneyed interests can spend without limit to influence the elections of our policymakers, it only follows that our policies will be skewed and favorably follow the money. From the skyrocketing cost of education to environmental degradation to the expansion of the prison industrial complex, money in politics takes voters -- living, breathing human beings -- out of the mix, and in the end, the country and its people suffer.

As faith leaders we have a weekly platform within our communities to speak up about these issues. Many of the women and men I work with each day in my capacity as director of a national ecumenical alliance of African American clergy have been influential in leading the charge for the passage of local and state-level reforms to check the influence of big money in politics. They are using every opportunity to inform and expand access to our democracy and push for a government that is truly of, by, and for the people.

In the words of civil rights leader and theologian Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose 85th birthday was celebrated nationally on January 20, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Citizens United matters, and it is a moral imperative that we address it. What our country doesn't need is more "rights" for corporations or more political influence for the wealthy minority among us. What we need is to follow the lead of courageous faith and secular leaders alike in finding real solutions, such as a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United and related decisions, to address the billions of dollars that have been pouring into our elections, distorting our democracy, and hurting you and I -- real, living and breathing women, men, people, human beings.

This originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

PFAW

Defining Religious Liberty: Little Sisters' Little Victory

Among the many court cases challenging contraception requirements under the Affordable Care Act, the case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor has been, and continues to be, a strange one. The latest wrinkle came on Friday in what SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston calls a “partial win” for the order of nuns.

The Little Sisters, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, appealed to the Supreme Court to prevent the group from having to sign a form documenting its religious objection to providing contraception coverage while its broader challenge to the law moves through the courts. The Tenth Circuit had rejected a similar request.

Under the Obama administration’s accommodation for religious groups, that form would exempt the organization from providing or paying for contraception coverage, and that responsibility would pass to the group’s insurer. In a brief to the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General’s office said that by Becket’s reasoning, a Quaker couldn’t be required to attest to his religious objections before being absolved of military obligations. But Becket insisted that the form acted as a “permission slip” that would trigger contraception coverage, and that would make the nuns complicit.

What makes this argument even stranger is the fact that the Little Sisters’ insurer is classified as a “church plan,” which is exempt from enforcement of the ACA requirement. So whether or not the Little Sisters signed the form, their lay employees would still not have access to coverage.

On Friday, the Supreme Court granted the Little Sisters’ request for an injunction, with a proviso. The group did not have to sign the government’s religious objection form, but it did have to notify the Department of Health and Human Services of its religious objections by letter. The Becket Fund declared victory and announced itself “delighted” by the Court’s compromise.

So, to recap: requiring a religious organization to sign a form opting out of providing contraception coverage is religious tyranny, but requiring a religious organization to send a letter to HHS stating its objections to providing contraception coverage is a victory for religious freedom.

Just wait until the Supreme Court hears the more far-reaching Hobby Lobby case, in which Becket and its client seek to establish the principle that for-profit companies can opt out of laws protecting their employees if those laws conflict with the religious beliefs of the corporation’s owners.

 

PFAW Foundation

The State Of The Union Is Unequal – Economically and Politically

In tomorrow’s State of the Union address, President Obama is expected to speak at length about growing income inequality in the United States, and his plans to address it.  Any plan to address income inequality must also address the political inequality created by unrestrained spending on elections.

Income inequality affects not just individual lives, but our political system as a whole. In a series of cases beginning with the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court has struck down commonsense campaign finance regulations designed to limit private economic power from dominating campaigns for political office – and thus dominating our country’s political process. Since that time, the income share of the top one percent of income earners has almost tripled, growing at a substantially higher rate than the income of the rest of the population. 

This mounting wealth disparity has not resulted simply from the good fortune of the hardest working or smartest among us; it has been assisted through government policy. The capital gains tax sits at 23.8% for top earners despite the vast majority of Americans believing that it should be equal to the rate at which income is taxed.  Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage, whose real value has fallen about 30% since 1968, remains stagnant at $7.25 per hour, despite the fact that 71 percent of Americans want to see it increased; however, only 40 percent of the wealthiest Americans support such an increase.

As income inequality has ballooned, it has also become more difficult for even the most hard-working Americans to improve their economic prospects. State university systems that were once free are now approaching the cost of private institutions, while scholarships are going less often to benefit low-income students. Labor unions, which were instrumental in building the American middle class, are facing attacks from legislators backed by well-funded corporate interests.

Income inequality and political inequality go hand-in-hand.  As This American Life has noted, the average member of Congress spends at least four hours a day calling wealthy individuals and organizations asking for money, a tally that does not even include the countless fundraisers they must attend.  Average Americans don’t get these calls.  They do not get the chance to meet with their representatives at intimate gatherings.  Their voices go unheard. 

The sad truth is that under our current system, time-intensive fundraising and the concessions that go along with it are necessary conditions for the ascension to political office in the United States. That is something we need to change if we are ever going to deal with income inequality or any of the other major problem facing our country. 

That is why we here at People for the American Way Foundation are calling for “Money Out, Voters In” campaign and are working to pass a constitutional amendment that will allow our elected officials to work for all Americans, not just the wealthy few. 

PFAW Foundation

Highlights of PFAW Foundation’s National Summit for Youth

Last week, Young People For (YP4) – a youth leadership program of PFAW Foundation – celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by concluding its ninth annual National Summit for young progressive leaders. Over the span of four days, more than 130 YP4 Fellows went through extensive trainings, preparing them both for the community projects they will be leading this year and for life-long careers in the progressive movement.

From workshops on fundraising, communications, and coalition building to keynotes from civil rights leaders Phillip Agnew, Sofia Campos, and Lt. Dan Choi, Fellows left the Summit with the motivation and skills necessary to implement progressive change across the country. Many are already launching into projects to enroll peers in affordable health care, register young adults to vote, create leadership development programs for youth in their own communities, and more.



Concurrent with the National Summit, YP4 also celebrated the completion of its seventh annual Front Line Leaders Academy, a six month program providing those interested in greater civic participation the ability to learn from successful political campaign professionals. Nineteen Fellows received accreditation on a wide range of political skills – from designing a field campaign to effective public speaking – that they learned over the course of the program.

PFAW Foundation

GOP: Sensitivity Training in Animal House

When we learned last month that John Boehner was providing "sensitivity training" to his male Republican colleagues, I knew we would be in for a treat. But who knew Boehner's friends would provide an almost daily dose of "can you top this?" outrageous comments.

Just look at the sensitivity toward women that prominent members of the GOP have displayed just this week.

Yesterday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a favorite GOP pundit and former presidential candidate, said that it's the Democrats who have the "war on women" because they think women "cannot control their libido" and so rely on "Uncle Sugar" to provide birth control. (True to form, maybe he was trying to show us the difference between the pill makers and the pill takers?)

Then, later in the day, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, went off on a rant about how bored but crafty high school girls have figured how to work the system by having more children to increase their welfare checks.

And we also learned that Republican Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico wrote in his memoir that women are to "voluntarily submit" to their husbands, and that men are to take "the leadership role" in the family. Perhaps hoping nobody would actually read his memoir, Pearce promptly denied saying what he has said in print.

Never wanting to be outdone, yesterday afternoon Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, blamed a rise in sexual assaults on college campuses on President Obama and Sandra Fluke. Although Perkins used more polite language than that of Rush Limbaugh in describing Fluke, his implication was the same. Fluke's "crusade...for unlimited birth control," he implied, had encouraged young women to invite sexual assault on themselves.

What is going on in those sensitivity trainings?!

And that's before we even get to the policies. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved a Republican-sponsored bill that further restricts low-income women's ability to access abortion, threatens to wipe even private abortion insurance coverage from the market, and requires the IRS to investigate whether a woman who obtains an abortion has been raped. When confronted with the fact that the bill could drive low-income women "deeper into poverty," Rep. Steve King of Iowa snickered. Speaking at the March for Life on Wednesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made this bill the centerpiece of his speech.

Meanwhile, Republican-led state legislatures are having a field day restricting women's access to birth control and abortion. The Guttmacher Institute found that more state-level restrictions on abortion access were enacted from 2011 to 2013 than in the entire previous decade. If Michigan's recent debate over "rape insurance" is any indication, that trend of Republican legislatures trying to outdo each other is not slowing down anytime soon.

Even if the sensitivity training were working -- which it clearly is not -- no amount of sensitive language can cover up demeaning and disastrous policies. For example, Todd Akin was insensitive when he said the words "legitimate rape"; the House GOP was just being its authentic, retrograde self when it tried to write that principle into law. This is part of why GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan had to go into hiding on the campaign trail. Ryan never said the words "legitimate rape," but he did think that rape victims shouldn't be allowed abortions.

What the GOP doesn't seem to have grasped is that just saying sensitive things (or refraining from saying stupidly insensitive things) isn't enough to win voters. It's the policies, not just the way you talk about them.

If Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus' planned "reboot" of his party's image taught us anything, the new Republican craze for "sensitivity" will be short-lived. This week, after moving its annual meeting to accommodate the March for Life, the RNC will be encouraging its members to spend more time talking about their opposition to abortion rights. Yes, you read that right -- more time talking about it. The GOP's half-hearted attempt at outreach to women seem to already be going the way of its planned overtures to Latinos.

We shouldn't be surprised when proponents of policies that are based in misogyny say misogynistic things. But we need to be clear that the real harm is not just a lack of sensitivity. It's the ugliness of the policies themselves.

Originally published at the Huffington Post.

UPDATE: A Public Policy Polling survey released on Jan. 29 finds that Huckabee has rocketed up in the polls in the wake of the "Uncle Sugar" controversy, and now finds himself leading the polls for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

PFAW

Presidential Commission Issues Report on Election Administration

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama announced the formation of a nonpartisan commission focused on improving our country’s system of voting. Yesterday, nearly a year later, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) issued its report.

As Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post summarizes, the PCEA covered online voter registration and early voting, voter registration modernization, polling place resources and accessibility, poll workers, and more.

The PCEA recommendations are indeed a welcome addition to the voting rights debate, helping us move closer to the day when every eligible voter can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts.

Jon Greenbaum, Chief Counsel, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law:

We are encouraged by the recommendations in this report. If fully implemented, practical commonsense measures like early voting and voter registration modernization will improve voter participation and satisfaction.

Michael Waldman, President, Brennan Center for Justice:

The Commission’s report marks a significant advance in the way we think about voting. Too often voting issues have been marked by partisan discord. The Commission makes clear that there are achievable, bipartisan reforms that can be implemented now to transform voting in America. Most importantly, it recognizes that we can’t fix long lines until we first fix our outdated voter registration system.

Robert Brandon, President, Fair Elections Legal Network:

The bipartisan recommendations released from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration are a compilation of the good reforms advocates have been fighting for across the country. As the Commission points out, some of the reforms like online voter registration, expanded early voting, and increased poll worker training are already in place in various jurisdictions. But for real change to be made and access to voting improved, these reforms need to be broadly implemented in many more states. The responsibility now lies with election officials, and state and local elected officials to improve how elections are run in their communities as soon as possible. We will continue our work to promote these reforms and use the Commission’s work as support for these much needed changes.

In fact, much of what the PCEA recommends, and much of what these and other allies have long recommended, is covered by PFAW in Money Out, Voters In: A Guide to Democratic Reform. Released last fall, the toolkit is founded on our belief in a democratic system where all Americans have equal access to the voting booth and where all Americans, regardless of wealth, can express their views to one another and their government on a level playing field.

PFAW looks forward to using the PCEA recommendations as we continue to realize a 'Voters In' vision.

We must keep in mind, though, that the PCEA isn't the last word on American electoral reform. There is much more work to be done to enact needed reforms and to step up and counter threats when the right to vote is under attack.

Nor does the PCEA replace what the Voting Rights Act lost after the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. PFAW and African American Ministers in Action welcomed last week's introduction of the Voting Rights Amendments Act, and we look forward to working with the House and Senate as they take up this vital legislation. It is imperative that this year, as soon as possible, the President sign into law a strengthened VRA. Please join the fight.

PFAW

Marking the 41st Anniversary of Roe v. Wade


Today marks the 41st anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade decision protecting every woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. Today, according  to NARAL Pro-Choice America, seven in ten people support Roe v. Wade.

A poll conducted by NBC News and Wall Street Journal last year found that a record number of respondents supported a woman’s right to choose in all or most circumstances.

This support is especially important in light of the work conservative activists continue to carry out in an attempt to undermine women’s health and autonomy.  As noted in our 2013 report, Chipping Away at Choice, from mandatory waiting periods to “TRAP” laws, the ability for women to access safe and legal abortions is under attack. People For the American Way will continue to work with our allies in protecting women’s right to choose.

PFAW

Windsor's Ripples of Equality

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling yesterday showing how the Supreme Court's Windsor case (DOMA) is helping to bring greater equality, even in areas unrelated to marriage equality.

The court ruled that a lawyer cannot peremptorily "strike" (remove from the jury pool without giving a reason) a potential juror based on their sexual orientation. But in reaching that conclusion, the Ninth Circuit concluded that any government classification based on sexual orientation triggers heightened scrutiny for Equal Protection analysis. This is a departure from Ninth Circuit precedent, which had previously applied only the lowest level "rational basis" scrutiny.

But that was before Windsor. The panel concluded that while the Supreme Court didn't explicitly address the appropriate level of scrutiny for anti-gay laws in the DOMA case, it in fact applied heightened scrutiny.

Windsor requires that when state action discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, we must examine its actual purposes and carefully consider the resulting inequality to ensure that our most fundamental institutions neither send nor reinforce messages of stigma or second-class status. In short, Windsor requires heightened scrutiny. Our earlier cases applying rational basis review to classifications based on sexual orientation cannot be reconciled with Windsor. Because we are bound by controlling, higher authority, we now hold that Windsor's heightened scrutiny applies to classifications based on sexual orientation. [internal quotations and citations removed]

The panel discussed the types of discrimination faced by gay and lesbians during our nation's history:

In the first half of the twentieth century, public attention was preoccupied with homosexual "infiltration" of the federal government. Gays and lesbians were dismissed from civilian employment in the federal government at a rate of sixty per month. Discrimination in employment was not limited to the federal government; local and state governments also excluded homosexuals, and professional licensing boards often revoked licenses on account of homosexuality. ... Indeed, gays and lesbians were thought to be so contrary to our conception of citizenship that they were made inadmissible under a provision of our immigration laws that required the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to exclude individuals "afflicted with psychopathic personality." It was not until 1990 that the INS ceased to interpret that category as including gays and lesbians. It is only recently that gay men and women gained the right to be open about their sexuality in the course of their military service. As one scholar put it, throughout the twentieth century, gays and lesbians were the "anticitizen." [internal citations removed]

Indeed, today's Right Wing is dedicated to the idea that gays and lesbians are outsiders to our society. But most Americans know better, and so did five Supreme Court Justices in Windsor.

As the Ninth Circuit decision shows, the impact of Windsor continues to grow, and not just in the area of marriage equality.

PFAW Foundation

Report on Judge Cebull Shows Why Courts Matter

At the end of last week, America learned the extent of former Judge Richard Cebull's racist, sexist, and overtly political behavior before he was pressured to retire from his position as a federal district judge in Montana.

Nearly two years ago, the Great Falls Tribune uncovered a disgustingly racist e-mail about President Obama that Judge Cebull had sent from his work e-mail to his friends. When confronted, Cebull explained that he doesn't like the president – as if that justified the e-mail or was even an appropriate sentiment for a sitting judge to publicly express. Racism and openly expressed partisanship are toxic to the idea of a fair and just federal court system, which relies on having trustworthy, unbiased judges, which is why PFAW called on Judge Cebull to resign. Instead, he remained on the bench for over a year and only retired when it seemed a report on his misconduct might become public otherwise.

Last week, overruling the Ninth Circuit, a national panel of judges ordered the report released. As the Great Falls Tribune reports:

A review of four years' worth of emails from former Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull's federal email account found "hundreds" of emails "related to race, politics, religion, gender, sexual orientation and politically sensitive issues that were inappropriate for Judge Cebull to have sent from his federal email account."

A national panel of federal judges released the 9th U.S. Circuit Court Judicial Council's March order late Friday that found Cebull in violation of numerous ethics codes.

The full report makes clear just how compromised Cebull was as an impartial judge deciding important cases of federal law. One line makes especially clear that this isn't just about interesting academic discussions of the law: It's about people's lives. Cebull himself told investigators that he was "acutely aware that each day in my court is the most important day in someone's life."

That is an important point. People rely on our federal judiciary to have their day in court when their rights have been violated. From job and housing discrimination to civil rights violations and voter disenfranchisement, from predatory lending practices to consumer fraud, from immigrant rights to environmental protection, from small business contracts to business mergers, the federal courts decide cases that have an enormous impact on people's lives.

Courts matter. That's why it matters who sits on those courts.

PFAW

Judge Strikes Down PA Voter ID Law

In 2012, over the protests of thousands of Pennsylvanians, forty five organizations, and every Democrat in the state legislature, Governor Tom Corbett signed into law one of the strictest voter ID requirements in the country. The Speaker of the Pennsylvania House acknowledged that he pushed the law to help Mitt Romney win the state.

This morning the two-year-old law was ruled unconstitutional. Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley wrote that law was a “substantial threat” and that it would hinder the ability of many to vote freely.

In the ruling, Judge McGinley stated

“Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.”

People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council said of the law last year:

“The purpose of this law has been clear from the beginning. It was meant to keep African Americans, students, and other traditionally suppressed communities from  exercising our hard-won right to vote. Even the law’s supporters have admitted that there is absolutely no evidence of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania. Instead, this law is a purely political attempt to disenfranchise citizens who have every right to vote. I am dismayed at today’s decision and hope that as this case moves through the courts, our judges recognize the ugly intent and real consequences of voter ID.”


 

PFAW Foundation

Celebrating Religious Freedom

January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s approval of Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to the religious liberty protections in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In this year’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation, President Barack Obama writes,

Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals -- freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.

America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose. In the years to come, my Administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe. We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.

As we observe this day, let us celebrate America's legacy of religious liberty, embrace diversity in our own communities, and resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.

Melissa Rogers, a widely respected advocate for religious liberty who currently serves as special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also published a reflection on Religious Freedom Day.

Rogers celebrates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which passed Congress by unanimous consent in 2000 with backing from a politically and religiously diverse coalition. RLUIPA (pronounced R-loopa) has helped Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, people who practice Native American traditional religions and others protect their ability to meet and worship, and has helped people in prisons, jails, mental institutions, and state-run nursing homes preserve their religious freedom.

The values embodied in RLUIPA are universal ideals.  Department of Justice attorneys have provided technical assistance on issues involving construction of places of worship to government officials in Spain, Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries wrestling with these same issues.  In 2012, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee won the right to move into its new mosque with the help of a RLUIPA suit brought by the Department of Justice. On the day of the court decision, the mosque’s Imam, Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, remarked that America’s dedication to religious freedom can serve as a model for others around the world, and added:   “I think this is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the freedom and liberty that, in fact, exist in America and to teach our young people to believe even more in the U.S. Constitution.”

People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation celebrate religious freedom by working to uphold the First Amendment’s twin pillars of religious liberty: the Establishment Clause, which mandates the separation of church and state and prevents government from playing religious favorites, and the Free Exercise Clause, which protects individuals’ right to worship and exercise their faith free from government interference.

Religious liberty is central to the American Way, but it has also become a rallying cry for Religious Right leaders and their political allies, who all too often portray criticism as persecution, and policy disagreement as tyranny. That poisons our political climate.

Like other constitutional guarantees, religious liberty is fundamental but not absolute, particularly when it comes into tension with other principles like equality under the law or protecting public health. Advocates for religious freedom frequently disagree about how to apply religious liberty principles in specific cases, and where courts should draw the lines in cases balancing competing interests.  These are complex and often very contentious issues. People For the American Way Foundation’s “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics” set out principles for bringing religion and religious values into the public arena in ways that are constructive rather than divisive. 

PFAW

Students Take Action to Fight Money in Politics

In our continuing efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases and restore Government Of, By, and For the people, PFAW Foundation is helping coordinate the Students United For Democracy coalition – a group of student activists and good government groups working to raise awareness of our country’s money in politics problem and pass resolutions on college campuses calling for a constitutional amendment.

For far too long, students have been pushed to the margins of our political system.  From rising education costs to uncertain environmental and economic futures, it is clear that government often fails to act in the interest of students and young people. As explained in PFAW Foundation’s report, “Students and the Movement to Amend the Constitution,” each of these issues is intricately connected to the role that big money plays in our political system. Rather than protecting the interests of all, public officials often look out for the interests of those who pay for their campaigns, and students – who are taking on record levels of student debt –students simply could not afford to “pay to play” even if they wanted to.

Yet the country and its young people are waking up.  Sixteen states and 500 cities and towns have already passed resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases.  In 2014, student governments will be adding their voices to this nationwide call.

If you want to get involved with campaign, please email us.  Also, please be sure to check out the website and follow SU4D on Facebook and Twitter.

PFAW Foundation

The Senate Could Immediately Reduce the Vacancy Rate by a Third

Just a few days into the new session of Congress – with Senate Republicans having forced renominations of more than 50 judicial nominees – the Judiciary Committee has now fully vetted and advanced 29 of those nominees to the full Senate. For many of them, it is their second time on the Senate floor, since the committee approved them last year, too – unanimously in almost all cases.

Now nothing prevents the Senate from fulfilling its constitutional role of holding confirmation votes … nothing, that is, but the same type of escalated GOP obstruction that led to so many nominees being up for a committee vote in the first place. In this case, short of a formal cloture vote, Senate rules prevent the Senate from holding a confirmation vote if GOP obstructionists led by Senator McConnell object.

If McConnell allowed it, the Senate could vote this week to confirm these 29 nominees. Doing so would put an enormous dent in the vacancy rate that is weakening our nation's federal court system: In a single day, 31% of the nation's circuit and district court vacancies could be filled.

Among these 29 nominees are eight who would fill vacancies that have been formally designated as judicial emergencies by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. Confirming them would resolve 22% of our nation's judicial emergencies.

The alternative? Let the emergencies fester. Let the vacancy crisis continue unabated. Let a huge backlog of pending nominees form, guaranteeing longer and longer wait times for the dozens of nominees the Judiciary Committee will be advancing to the full Senate in the next weeks. Let America's judicial system continue to crumble into disrepair like our nation's roads and bridges.

Why would anyone think that's a good idea?

PFAW

In Virginia, The Power of Showing Up

In elections, it doesn't just matter who wins. It also matters how they win: who shows up to vote and why.

We're seeing this yet again in Virginia this week, as Terry McAuliffe kicks off his first term as governor. On his first full day in office Monday, McAuliffe got started on the agenda of progressive reform that he told voters he stood for - including expanding LGBT rights and access to reproductive care, and expanding health care coverage.

He also emphasized a push for Virginia's version of the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at the state's public colleges and universities. That measure has bipartisan support, but was stalled last year by Republicans in the state legislature. McAuliffe's stance on immigration issues was one of the key things separating him from Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli - and contributed to his critical victory among Latino voters.

Exit polls in 2013 made clear that Latino voters - and a lot of other Virginians to boot - were turned off by the GOP's chilling anti-immigrant rhetoric and opposition to common-sense immigration policies.

A Latino Decisions election-eve poll in Virginia last year, which we sponsored along with America's Voice, found that over half of Latino voters named immigration and the DREAM Act as the most important issues that politicians need to address. Jobs and the economy, education, and health care also ranked highly. And just as importantly, Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli's demeaning remarks about immigrants severely damaged him in the eyes of Latino and Asian American voters. In the end, Virginia's Latino voters favored McAulliffe by a whopping 37 percentage points.

And it's not just immigration. In his speech on Monday, McAulliffe also repeated his intention to push for expanded Medicaid coverage in Virginia, which would provide health coverage to 400,000 uninsured people in the state - a measure that McAulliffe's Republican predecessor Bob McDonnell refused to take.

Republicans are learning the hard way that anti-immigrant extremism is not what American voters want. They are also learning the hard way that America's growing number of Latino voters are not going to sit back and let Republican politicians insult and scapegoat them.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.