Breaking: Judge Strikes Down Ban on Same-Sex Marriage in Utah

Adding to this week’s great news on marriage equality, today U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby struck down Utah’s same-sex marriage ban, which was put into the state constitution by referendum in 2004.

One of the far right’s standard attacks on the increasing number of judicial opinions striking down discriminatory marriage laws is that judges are “redefining marriage” and “usurping the legislature.”  No doubt they will do so again in this case.  Fortunately, Judge Shelby opens his opinion with a brief but important explanation of how the American constitutional system works:

The issue the court must address in this case is therefore not who should define marriage, but the narrow question of whether Utah’s current definition of marriage is permissible under the Constitution.…

[T]he legal issues presented in this lawsuit do not depend on whether Utah’s laws were the result of its legislature or a referendum, or whether the laws passed by the widest or smallest of margins. The question presented here depends instead on the Constitution itself…

In his opinion, Judge Shelby also takes apart the harmful, bogus argument that preventing same-sex couples from marrying somehow “elevate[s] the status of opposite-sex marriage”:

Rather than protecting or supporting the families of opposite-sex couples, Amendment 3 perpetuates inequality by holding that the families and relationships of same-sex couples are not now, nor ever will be, worthy of recognition. Amendment 3 does not thereby elevate the status of opposite-sex marriage; it merely demeans the dignity of same-sex couples. And while the State cites an interest in protecting traditional marriage, it protects that interest by denying one of the most traditional aspects of marriage to thousands of its citizens: the right to form a family that is strengthened by a partnership based on love, intimacy, and shared responsibilities. The Plaintiffs’ desire to publicly declare their vows of commitment and support to each other is a testament to the strength of marriage in society, not a sign that, by opening its doors to all individuals, it is in danger of collapse.  (Emphasis added.)

Congratulations, Utah!


Suddenly Senate Republicans Are Worried About 'Deliberation.' Give Me a Break.

I can understand why Senate Republicans are angry about the recent change in the Senate’s filibuster rules. It means that their agenda of obstruction just got a lot harder. But all their righteous indignation is ringing hollow.

Yesterday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, issued a statement attacking the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, for saying he would consider changing committee policies to make it harder for Republican senators to hold up nominations. 

Democrats “are slowly but surely taking the world’s greatest deliberative body and moving towards a majoritarian body,” Grassley charged.

Oh, really?

The reason Leahy has to even consider policy changes in committee is that GOP senators, in an attempt at retribution for the “nuclear option,” have repeatedly brought up an obscure rule that allows them to prevent the Judiciary Committee from meeting. They have also prevented the committee from meeting by simply not showing up, ensuring the lack of a quorum. Along with threats that Republican senators would refuse to return their “blue slips” signaling approval for hearings on home-state nominees, Sen. Leahy was faced with the prospect of not being able to process any nominees. Senate Republicans have literally not been allowing “the world’s greatest deliberative body” to deliberate on judicial nominations.

And the reason why Senate Democrats were driven to change the filibuster rules for presidential nominees in the first place was that the Republican minority was blocking nominees to positions they just didn’t want the president to be allowed to fill. In other words, they were using the Senate’s rules of obstruction in an attempt to nullify laws they did not like and reverse the results of the presidential election.

This didn’t promote “deliberation.” It shut the entire process down.

This sanctimonious whining from Grassley and his fellow obstructionist Republicans isn’t fooling anyone. Personally, I would have preferred not to have gotten to this place. My guess is that Senator Leahy would as well. But when you’re trying to govern a country and the minority party won’t let you complete even the most basic tasks of governance, there really is no choice. Comity has to be a two-way street.

The high and mighty act doesn’t work when you’re behaving like a child.


Six Ways Senate GOP Is Still Obstructing Judicial Nominations

As we approach the end of the first session of the 113th Congress, it's important to take stock of the toll that Republican obstruction has taken on the Senate's judicial confirmation process. Since President Obama took office, Senate Republicans have been exceptionally active and persistent in coming up with ways to block or delay his judicial nominees, a project that reached its apex this year.

Since 2009, Republicans have lived up to the Far-Right demand that they function as a “resistance movement” rather than as partners in an electoral democracy. That would include their menu of abuse of the filibuster and filibuster equivalents, needless holds on committee votes, refusal to cooperatively recommend nominees to the White House, and abuse of the “blue slip” policy. During President Obama's first term, Senate Republicans forced judicial nominees to wait an average of three times as long after committee approval for a confirmation vote from the full Senate as did President George W. Bush's first-term nominees.

Over the last year, Obama's reelection drove the GOP to even greater acts of obstruction. Last spring, when President Obama announced his intention to fill the three existing vacancies on the DC Circuit, Republicans signaled their intention to stonewall the nominees no matter who they were. They just didn't want a Democratic president naming judges. This was part of a larger campaign of nullification of laws and election results they don't like. Democrats were provoked into changing the Senate's filibuster rules in exactly the same way that Republicans proposed when Bush was president. Apparently, what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander, because Republicans from that point forward have escalated their obstruction to heretofore unseen levels.

We have counted six ways that Republicans are escalating their abuse of Senate Rules to prevent presidential nominations from going forward.

1. Denying a committee quorum: Under the Judiciary Committee's rules, it can't vote on a nominee unless at least eight of the committee's 18 members are present, including at least two from the minority party. On November 21, the GOP committee members just didn't show up for a scheduled meeting to vote on ten judicial nominees, leaving the Democratic members unable to conduct business – and leaving federal courts around the country that much further from being fully functional.

2. The two hour rule: Under a rarely-invoked Senate rule, committees can't meet more than two hours after the Senate goes into session. Routinely, senators give unanimous consent to waive the rule so committees can carry out the chamber's – and the country's – business. But twice this month, Republicans invoked this rule to block the Judiciary Committee from meeting.

The first time was December 12, when the committee was set to vote on 15 judicial nominees (including the ten who had been blocked before Thanksgiving). The committee was finally allowed to meet a week later, on December 19, but even then the previous delays had a consequence: Republicans pointed out that this was technically the first meeting that these nominees were on the agenda to be voted on, so they invoked their right under committee rules to demand without explanation a one-time delay in voting until the next meeting. Of course, this was really the second time around for five of these nominees and the third time for ten of them.

And since the next committee meeting will be held next year, that means it will be a new session of Congress, which introduces another opportunity for obstruction (more on that later).

The GOP played the two-hour card again on December 18, this time preventing a hearing on five consensus district court nominees from Kansas, California, Maryland, and Maine. The nominees' families had come to Washington at their own expense to share an incredible moment in the lives of their loved ones. (It is always a joy to see the beaming faces of the spouses, siblings, and often-restless children who routinely come to these hearings, usually creating a packed hearing room.) They showed up for the hearing only to find out that Republicans had decided to prevent it from happening. Fortunately, after committee chairman Patrick Leahy threatened to change committee policies, they allowed the hearing to occur the next day.

3. Continued blue-slip abuse: Chairman Leahy's current policy is to give each senator an absolute veto over judicial nominations in their home states. If one or both of a nominee's home-state senators fail to submit a “blue slip” signaling their approval of allowing the committee to process the nomination, Leahy will not even hold a hearing on the nominee, let alone a committee vote.

Senate Republicans have frequently abused the “blue slip” process to prevent President Obama's nominees from even starting the confirmation process. Ten of the nominees currently in committee can't get a hearing because they are being blocked by their home-state senators. Five of these are nominees for long-vacant judgeships in Arizona that have been formally designated as judicial emergencies. Sen. Jeff Flake is blocking all five from hearings, but refuses to say why.

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr is blocking the nomination of Jennifer May Parker, who would be the first African American federal judge in that state's Eastern District. Because of obstruction by South Carolina Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, nominees Bruce Howe Hendricks and Alison Renee Lee have been languishing without a hearing since they were nominated in June. Georgia's Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Jonny Isakson refuse to return their blue slips for Eleventh Circuit nominee Jill Pryor, whom they had previously said was qualified for a lifetime federal judicial appointment; after nearly two years, they have yet to give their reasons.

But perhaps the most outrageous example of blue slip abuse comes from Florida's Marco Rubio, who recommended William Thomas for a district judgeship, then refused to submit his blue slip so he could curry favor with a right wing that grew suspicious of him on immigration issues. The reasons Rubio cites for his opposition are so ludicrous and demonstrably false that local prosecutors and even a local judge have written to him to correct the record.

Fortunately, Leahy has signaled that he is ready to consider reforming committee policies if Republicans continue their aggressive and escalated obstruction.

4. Filibustering consensus nominees: Normally, senators filibuster nominees whom they oppose. Sometimes, even a senator who opposes a particular nominee will vote to end the filibuster if they feel that the Senate should be allowed to hold a yes-or-no vote. But during these past two weeks, Republican senators have been filibustering nominees whom they supported in committee and whom, when their nominations reach a yes-or-no vote, they overwhelmingly vote to confirm.

Now that the Senate's rules allow a simple majority to break a filibuster of most nominations, Republicans have been filibustering nominees just to waste the Senate's time.

Four consensus district court nominees from New York, New Hampshire, and Montana who cleared the Judiciary Committee without opposition months ago faced nearly unanimous Republican filibusters last week…before being confirmed hours later by large bipartisan majorities of 77-19, 75-20, 79-19, and 70-29. It is hard to find principled opposition in those numbers.

5. Counting down the hours: Once a cloture motion succeeds in ending a filibuster, Senate rules allow a certain amount of time for debate before a final confirmation vote, up to 30 hours for circuit court nominees and up to two hours for district court nominees. Over the past two weeks, as Republicans forced cloture vote after cloture vote on judicial and executive nominees, they insisted on eating up every minute of available time before allowing the confirmation vote.

As Republicans were forcing the Senate to spend time on nominations rather than budgetary and legislative issues, conservatives were busy condemning the Democrats for – wait for it – making the Senate spend so much time on nominations rather than budgetary and legislative issues. Because of GOP insistence on using every possible post-cloture hour for circuit, district, and executive nominees, senators were forced to pull all-nighters to get their work done. When Nina Pillard was nominated to the DC Circuit last spring, she probably didn't expect that her confirmation vote would take place at 1:00 am on a night in December.

6. Returning nominations to the president: Under Senate rules, any nominee not confirmed by the end of a session of Congress has their nomination returned to the White House. The president then renominates them, and they must go through the relevant committee again (though not necessarily with a hearing if they already had one). Since this is an enormous waste of time and resources, this rule is regularly waived by the unanimous consent of the Senate. So, for instance, at this point in George W. Bush's administration (between the first and second session of the 109th Congress), only one of the 18 judicial nominations then pending was returned to the president.

And this time? There are 53 nominees for current judicial vacancies who are somewhere in the Senate confirmation process. (There are also three for future vacancies.) Of these, we expect Republicans to demand that all but one be returned to the president for re-nomination. That includes:

  • 9 nominees who have been waiting for a floor vote that Republicans will not allow;
  • 15 nominees who would have been approved by the Judiciary Committee and thus eligible for confirmation votes if the GOP had allowed the committee to meet; and
  • 10 individuals who can't even get a hearing because of GOP abuse of the blue slip policy.

[Note: The one nominee we expect not to be returned, Judge Robert Wilkins for the D.C. Circuit, cannot be sent back to the White House because a motion to reconsider the cloture vote on his nomination is currently pending.]

The Senate likes to consider itself the world's greatest deliberative body. But it's hard to say that with a straight face when the minority party is preventing senators from learning about nominees in committee hearings. Or when Republicans prevent the Judiciary Committee from meeting to discuss the nominees and debate whether to advance them to the full Senate. Or when GOP senators presumably have concerns with a nominee but abuse the blue-slip policy to prevent the committee from asking the nominees about those very issues.

Senate Republicans have made great efforts to block President Obama's nominees, often in little-known or little-noticed ways. The cost is high to the nominees and their families, to our nation's system of justice, and to the Americans who rely on a functioning court system to guarantee their day in court.


New Mexico Becomes 17th Marriage Equality State

It has been quite a year for marriage equality. Today the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state is required by its constitution to allow same-sex couples to marry. This means that New Mexico joins the impressive list of states that legalized marriage for same-sex couples in 2013 alone, including Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, and becomes the 17th state in the country to legalize marriage equality.

As the march toward full equality nationwide continues with today’s victory in New Mexico, the momentum is undeniable. PFAW will continue to advocate for marriage equality until every couple can access the protections necessary to take care of each other for a lifetime.


NC Committee Upholds Teaching of Challenged Allende Novel

After Isabel Allende’s internationally-renowned novel The House of the Spirits was challenged by a parent this October, PFAW Foundation wrote to members of the Watauga County, North Carolina Board of Education, urging them not to remove the book from the county’s high school curriculum. Now, following a sustained outcry at both the local and national level – including from Allende herself – a county appeal committee has unanimously voted to uphold the teaching of the book.

Last week’s vote was the second round of review the book has faced. Parent Chastity Lesesne appealed an earlier decision of a school committee to retain the book as part of the curriculum, and it is not yet known if she will appeal the most recent decision. If she were to do so, the Watauga County Board of Education would issue a final decision.

Community members in Watauga County have been speaking out against censorship of the book, including through a teach-in earlier this month at Appalachian State University. Lynn Schlenker, president of the Watauga High School parent teacher organization, told the School Library Journal that she was concerned about potential “ramifications on all curriculum at the high school.” Schlenker noted,

We need to explore ideas on how to provide the framework for book challenges in a way that doesn’t trample the rights of the other students.

PFAW Foundation

Escalated GOP Obstruction Provokes Talk of Committee Changes

The latest GOP tactic for blocking and delaying judicial nominations has pushed Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy into considering changes in committee rules to combat the increasing obstruction. For a committee chairman who has bent over backwards to respect the prerogatives of the minority party, this is a monumental development.

This afternoon, with hearings scheduled on five consensus nominees from four states, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee invoked a seldom-used Senate rule that prevents committees from meeting if the Senate has been in session for more than two hours. This, on top of the previous few weeks of nonstop committee obstruction, provoked Sen. Leahy to respond. In response to today's action, Leahy revealed that he is now considering changes to how he runs the committee:

Just last week, Republicans prevented the Judiciary Committee from holding an executive business meeting to consider 18 highly qualified nominees, including two Texas U.S. Marshals. Those two nominees should have been approved by the Committee last month, but Republicans failed to attend the meeting to report their nominations. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I have consistently shown my commitment to work with all Senators to process nominations. This obstruction sets back the bipartisan cooperation we have seen in recent weeks on such legislative matters as the budget, the defense authorization bill, and the Farm Bill. If this obstruction continues with respect to judicial nominees, I will be forced to reconsider long-held policies that have upheld the rights of the minority party in this process.

Among the “long-held policies” that is most in need of examination is the blue-slip process. It is not a rule of the Senate or of the Judiciary Committee, but is simply a practice of the chairman that has changed over the years. Leahy's policy is that until both of a nominee's home-state senators signal their approval for letting the committee process a nomination, he will not even schedule a hearing. This was his policy when George W. Bush was president, and he did not change it when a Democrat became president. Unfortunately, Republicans have met his even-handedness with obstruction. Nevada's Elissa Cadish, Kansas' Steve Six, Georgia's Natasha Perdew Silas, and Wisconsin's Victoria Nourse and Louis Butler are just a few of the highly qualified Obama nominees who have been prevented from serving on the federal bench by GOP abuse of the blue slip policy.

Perhaps no better example of abuse of the policy can be found than Florida's William Thomas, a current nominee who was recommended by Marco Rubio, then denied a blue slip by the senator on the most transparently flimsy of reasons. Yet Leahy has maintained his policy and allowed Rubio to block a hearing on Thomas. Rubio has not been forced to defend his absurd allegations in public, and Thomas has been denied the chance to defend and explain his record. That isn't how a committee of the world's greatest deliberative body should function.

There are many ways that Leahy can reform the blue slip policy. But whether it should be reformed seems to no longer be in doubt.


Senate GOP Acting More Like a "Resistance Movement"

A few hours after losing their fight to block Nina Pillard from the DC Circuit, Senate Republicans continued their war against President Obama, the Democratic Party, and common-sense governance by forcing cloture votes to end their filibuster of two consensus district court nominees: Elizabeth Wolford would fill a judicial emergency in the Western District of New York, and Landya McCafferty was nominated to a district court in New Hampshire. Their nominations have been languishing on the Senate floor since they were approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee back on August 1 and September 19, respectively, as Senate Republicans stubbornly and quietly refused to allow a confirmation vote.

The GOP's complaints about Wolford and McCafferty would barely fill a fortune cookie: She was nominated by a Democratic president.

Unfortunately, with today's Republican Party, that is enough to warrant all-out obstruction, requiring cloture votes to break the filibusters. Despite being unquestionably qualified consensus nominees, Wolford and McCafferty's cloture votes were 55-41 and 58-40. Among those supporting the filibusters were all the Republican Judiciary Committee members, who had previously voted to advance the nominations. (Orrin Hatch voted "present" in one case, which has the same effect as voting against cloture.) Under the recent rules change, the filibusters were broken.

But Republicans were still able to obstruct: Senate rules allow up to two hours of debate on a district court nomination after a successful cloture vote, and the GOP insisted on using their half of the time. It took a while, but the Senate was at long last able to vote to confirm these two highly qualified women. Then the same thing happened with two consensus nominees to fill emergency vacancies in Montana: It took until late at night to overcome the GOP's filibusters and post-cloture time-wasting tactics, but they, too, were finally confirmed.

It shouldn't be this way. Republicans are pulling out the stops to sabotage the Senate for adopting a rules change that their own party first proposed and aggressively pushed when they held the Senate majority and the White House.

Unfortunately, they are living up to the vow made by right wing leaders in the opening days of the Obama presidency: to function as a "resistance movement" rather than as responsible participants in an electoral democracy.


GOP Blocks Judiciary Committee From Even Meeting

Senate Republicans have escalated their sabotage of the judicial nominations process this week, most recently by forcing the Senate to wait until 1:00 am this morning to hold a confirmation vote on Nina Pillard to the D.C. Circuit. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will keep the Senate in session for the rest of the week in order to hold what should be routine confirmation votes, which are being needlessly delayed by these GOP antics.

The obstruction isn't just on the Senate floor: This morning, Republicans prevented the Senate Judiciary Committee from even meeting.

Under a rarely enforced Senate rule, committees can't meet more than two hours after the Senate goes into session. Routinely, senators give unanimous consent to waive the rule so the committee can carry out the chamber's – and the country's – business. But today, Republicans refused unanimous consent to let the Judiciary Committee meet.

The committee has a busy schedule, with votes scheduled for 15 judicial nominees who have testified before the members and answered follow-up written questions. Among those are nominees for vacancies designated as judicial emergencies by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. Each one of the nominees has been fully vetted and has the support of their home state senators, including Republicans Mark Kirk (IL), Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran (KS), Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker (TN), Roy Blunt (MO), and Pat Toomey (PA).

But Senate Republicans just don't care.

To make things worse, even had the committee meeting been held, Republicans were expected to abuse another rule: As they have done with only five exceptions since Obama became president, they almost certainly would have demanded that the committee delay votes on these nominees for at least a week without giving a reason, a right under committee rules that they have abused and made a standard part of their mechanism of obstruction. But since the committee didn't meet, they haven't even crossed that hurdle yet.

If the committee is not able to meet until next week – the last week the Senate is expected to be in session – and Republicans force the nominees to be held over, then they'll be stuck in committee at year's end. Since that will be the end of a session of Congress, absent unanimous consent to do otherwise, Senate rules require the nominees to be sent back to the president for renomination in the next session. That would force all of these nominees to repeat the committee voting process all over again, where once again the GOP could find new ways to slow them down.


The GOP's Post-Cloture Obstruction: Nothing Changes

Under Senate rules, after a filibuster has been broken by a successful cloture vote, a single senator can still delay an actual yes-or-no confirmation vote for as long as 30 hours. That 30-hour wait can be eliminated, but only if all the senators agree. So when the Senate invoked cloture on Nina Pillard's nomination to the DC Circuit Tuesday evening, Republicans immediately set about delaying her confirmation up to about 1:00 am Thursday morning. National Journal reports that McConnell has no intention of giving back any of that time, and that Republicans are "plotting a talkathon."

But the National Journal report makes a serious factual error when it says:

Before the rules change, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would probably have agreed to yield back time. Now? Not so much.

While Senate Republicans may want Americans to believe that, a quick look at the record shows it isn't so. We can look at other times (before the rules change) that Democrats successfully invoked cloture on a circuit court nomination to see if the GOP yielded their right to force the Senate to wait 30 hours before holding a confirmation vote.

It turns out there are only four examples where Democrats were able to successfully break the Republican filibuster of an Obama appeals court nominee with a cloture vote, and in only one of those cases did Republicans agree to immediately allow an up-or-down confirmation vote.

In two of those cases, confirmation votes took place two days after the cloture vote, even though in one instance almost every Republican supported the nominee. The Senate invoked cloture for David Hamilton to the Seventh Circuit by a 70-29 vote on November 17, 2009, but his confirmation vote (59-39) was not held for another two days. And cloture for Adalberto Jordán, nominated to the Eleventh Circuit, was invoked by an 89-5 vote on February 13, 2012, but he had to wait two days before his 94-5 confirmation vote.

The only time there was a contested cloture vote for a circuit court nominee and Republicans yielded back the time, allowing a relatively prompt yes-or-no vote, they did so by accident. That was for the nomination of Andrew Hurwitz to the Ninth Circuit. The Senate invoked cloture on Hurwitz's nomination in a 60-31 vote at the end of the day on June 11, 2012, and he was confirmed the next morning by unanimous voice vote. After the vote, senior Judiciary Committee Republican Chuck Grassley claimed that he had not meant to let the vote go forward and did not know that this would happen, or he would have objected in order to prevent the needed unanimous consent. (He also listed 39 Republicans who would have voted against confirmation.)

There was one time when Sen. McConnell and his caucus did agree to yield back the time after a circuit court nomination cloture vote, as National Journal suggests was the norm. On March 2, 2010, the Senate voted unanimously for cloture on Barbara Keenan's nomination to the Fourth Circuit and confirmed her 99-0 the same day.

So before the recent rules change, would McConnell likely have agreed to yield back time for a nominee who Republicans had pulled out the stops to obstruct? Don't bet on it.


The Perils of Religious Politicking

Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a centrist Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign, launched a new political ad this month, and both the ad and the responses to it have highlighted the challenges of mixing religion and politics in ways that respect religious freedom, pluralism, and the spirit of the Constitution.

In Pryor’s new ad, he doesn’t talk about political issues or his opponent; he just talks about the Bible.

“I’m not ashamed to say that I believe in God and I believe in His word. The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers. Only God does. And neither political party is always right. This is my compass, my north star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what's best for Arkansas. I’m Mark Pryor, and I approve this message because this is who I am and what I believe.”

The centrality of faith in Pryor’s life is well-known. But the ad was slammed by Brad Dayspring at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who mockingly suggested the ad contradicted comments Pryor had made last year: “The Bible is really not a rule book for political issues. Everybody can see it differently.”  But I don’t see the contradiction. In both, Pryor seems to be acknowledging that even people who look to the Bible for guidance can disagree on particular policy positions. Dayspring’s attack drew a surprising rebuke from Pryor’s Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, who called the NRSC response “bizarre and offensive.”

The ad has drawn a mixed response from progressive commentators. Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly praises Pryor for “basically saying the Bible teaches some humility and reserves wisdom and final judgment to Gold Almighty, not to his self-appointed representatives on earth.” But Paul Waldman at the American Prospect takes issue with Pryor’s “I’m not ashamed” line, suggesting it is a dog-whistle for those who believe the Religious Right’s charge that Christianity is under attack in America.

Waldman notes, however, that the ad could have been a lot worse, reminding us of this notorious Rick Perry ad from 2012 which starts with very similar “I’m not ashamed” language but then gets “much more vulgar.”

A more recent example of the “a lot worse” school of religion and politics came from Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, who is currently running for the Senate. In a six-minute speech from the floor of the House of Representatives in September, he mixed personal religious testimony with Christian-nation claims that the government should be run according to his interpretation of the Bible.

Broun’s remarks start with a core Christian Reconstructionist principle: that God ordained family, church and government and gave each a specific area of authority. But, he says, because of “this mistaken idea that we’re supposed to have a separation of church and state, the family and the church have abdicated a lot of its duties over to government.” (Reconstructionists believe that God did not authorize government to be involved, for example, in education or the reduction of poverty; that role is meant for family and church.)

Broun calls the Bible “the basis of our nation,” and says the fact that we aren’t running society accordingly will mean the death of our Republic.  The founding fathers, he says, were “Bible-believing Christians” who believed that “every aspect of life should follow the dictates of God’s inerrant word. That’s what I believe in. That’s what we should all believe in.”

This message is not new for Broun. Last year Kilgore wrote about a Broun speech in which he said that evolutionary science is “from the pit of hell” and that the Bible is a “manufacturer’s handbook” that “teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society,” as well as our lives as individuals. “That’s the reason as your Congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C.”

There are important distinctions between Pryor’s ad and Broun’s speeches.  It is helpful to look at them through the prism of People For the American Way Foundation’s 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics. These “rules of the road” are meant to generate a broader conversation about how we can create and sustain a civic space that reflects the principles of the Constitution and the values of respectful civic discourse, one that welcomes the participation of people of all faiths and people of none. Consider this passage from the 12 Rules:

Public officials are free to talk about their faith, the role it plays in their lives, and how it influences their approach to issues, but must not use the power of their office to proselytize or impose particular religious beliefs or practices on others.

Pryor’s ad seems to be intended to keep to the appropriate side of this rule, where Broun clearly violates the rule by proselytizing from the floor of the House.

In addition, Broun, like David Barton and other Religious Right leaders, claims that the right-wing position on every political issue finds some grounding or justification in the Bible, which should be the final word on every policy matter.  Broun’s insistence that every aspect of law and society should fit his interpretation of the Bible also violates another rule, “It is appropriate to discuss the moral and religious dimensions of policy issues, but religious doctrine alone is not an acceptable basis for public policy.” In contrast, Pryor’s ad explicitly says that he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, even though he uses the Bible as his moral compass.

A Religious Right critic of Pryor’s ad broke another of PFAW Foundation’s rules: “Religion should not be used as a political club.” As blogger Jeremy Hooper noted, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition was “outraged” by Pryor’s ad. She said his claim to be guided by the Bible “the furthest thing from the truth” because he had voted for the Employment Non Discrimination Act, which protects people from being discriminated at work based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Lafferty is of course free to believe that fairness is not a biblical value; but she shouldn’t denigrate the sincerity of Pryor’s faith because he disagrees.

Still, Pryor’s ad is a cautionary tale about the fact that, as he himself has said, the intersection of faith and politics can be difficult to navigate.  It can come across as saying, “vote for me because I’m a Christian,” a message that fails to respect America’s constitutional ideals and growing religious pluralism. And it could be seen as uncomfortably close to the message of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 primary campaign against Mitt Romney in Iowa, which essentially boiled down to, “vote for me because I’m the right kind of Christian.” Candidates or campaigns that suggest only Christians, or certain kinds of Christians, are worthy of public office violate the spirit if not the letter of the Constitution’s prohibition on a religious test for public office. 

With Christian-nation advocates like David Lane organizing all over the country for the 2014 and 2016 elections, there’s little doubt that the months ahead will bring some downright toxic mixing of religion and politics.


PFAW and Allies Stand Up to ALEC

Last week ALEC held its annual meeting here in Washington, DC, once again bringing together state legislators and corporate representatives to advance legislation that hurts everyday Americans. But they weren’t alone.

Outside their meeting at the Grand Hyatt, PFAW and ally organizations led a protest to stand up to ALEC’s extreme agenda.  Holding signs like “ALEC shoots first… and hits real people” and “Stop the war on workers,” hundreds of advocates from diverse organizations and backgrounds marched, chanted, and made speeches about the real toll ALEC-supported policies have on Americans’ lives.

PFAW’s Diallo Brooks’ speech to the crowd was interrupted many times with cheers and applause.  He said:

It doesn’t matter where they meet—here in Washington or any other city. When ALEC comes to town, we need to let them know that it is not okay for them to have private meetings with our legislators and corporations and write legislation that impacts our lives every day. We’re here to let them know—loud and clear—that democracy is still alive. We’re paying attention, and we’re going to call them out wherever they go.

Following last week’s news that ALEC drafted an agreement for their state chairs calling on them to put the interests of ALEC first, Brooks and other protest leaders went into the meeting area and asked attendees to sign an alternative pledge – one asking ALEC legislators to honor the Constitution and their constituents rather than corporate interests. None of the attendees signed.


Supreme Court Hears Money in Politics Case, Activists Rally for Democracy

On October 8th, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in McCutcheon v. FEC, which has the potential to be the most destructive campaign finance case it has considered since Citizens United v. FEC.  In McCutcheon, the Court is examining the constitutionality of aggregate contribution limits and, depending on the decision it’s expected to release in early 2014, could allow even more money to be poured into our elections.

In addition to mobilizing its networks around the case, People For hosted a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court, where activists from a wide range of backgrounds and issue areas spoke about how moneyed politics affects our democracy. The rally was co-emceed by People For’s Marge Baker, and featured YEO Maryland State Director Craig Rice and YP4 Fellow Brendien Mitchell.

Public Interest Pictures filmed the event and put together the following video:

Tell McCutcheon: Our Democracy is NOT For Sale! from John Wellington Ennis on Vimeo.

To learn more about People For the American Way’s campaign against big money in politics, visit our Government By The People page.



Roberts Court Leaves Workers and Employers Hanging

Over the dissent of three of the moderate Justices, the Supreme Court this morning dismissed "as improvidently granted" the Unite Here v. Mulhall case. As we discussed in our term preview, that's the case where the Eleventh Circuit declared as criminal certain routine agreements between employers and unions designed to facilitate peaceful organizing. But in dismissing the case, the Roberts Court seems to have left intact a damaging lower court opinion whose potential illegitimacy was the basis of today's dismissal.

Today's dismissal consists of simply one sentence, with no explanation. To learn what prompted it, you have to read Justice Breyer's dissent (joined by Sotomayor and Kagan).

The dissenting justices suggest that the case is being dismissed because questions have been raised about whether the Eleventh Circuit had jurisdiction to hear it in the first place. The dissenters argue that the Court should have asked the parties to address certain new questions to determine if the lower court had the legal authority to issue its decision. If the answer turns out to be yes, the Justices would then decide the merits of the case. Otherwise, they would vacate the Eleventh Circuit decision, meaning it would have no effect, as if it had never been issued.

But because the appeal was simply dismissed, the lower court ruling stands. That means that this damaging Eleventh Circuit ruling stands even though the Supreme Court's majority seems to believe it may have been made invalidly. As Justice Breyer writes:

Unless resolved, the differences among the Courts of Appeals could negatively affect the collective-bargaining process. This is because the Eleventh Circuit's decision raises the specter that an employer or union official could be found guilty of a crime that carries a 5-year maximum sentence ... if the employer or union official is found to have made certain commonplace organizing assistance agreements with the intent to "corrupt" or "extort." In my view, given the importance of the question presented to the collective-bargaining process, further briefing, rather than dismissal, is the better course of action.

PFAW Foundation

ALEC and Koch-Funded SPN in the Spotlight

Last week The Guardian began to shine some light on the shadowy right-wing group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), exposing how the organization connecting corporations with conservative legislators to move a legislative agenda supporting special interests is declining in popularity. In the wake of tragedies like Trayvon Martin’s shooting, many former members are attempting to distance themselves from ALEC’s extreme agenda.

Close on the heels of that revelation, we now see that a Koch-funded network of state policy groups with ties to ALEC, the State Policy Network (SPN), plans to launch a coordinated assault on many of the issues and services most important to everyday working Americans. Newly-exposed funding proposal documents obtained by The Guardian outline what they call a “blueprint for the conservative agenda in 2014.”

And what an agenda it is. According to the documents, the proposals take aim at public education, health services, worker’s compensation, environmental protections, and more. A new website ( launched by allies ProgressNow and the Center for Media and Democracy helps to further expose the agenda behind these state policy groups and draw attention to some of SPN’s major funders.

SPN, a member of ALEC, should take heed of ALEC’s declining public image. The American people are tired of the coordinated attack on the services, rights, and protections vital to a thriving middle class.


McConnell to Participate in Recess Appointments Case

This morning, the Supreme Court made some interesting procedural decisions in the Noel Canning recess appointments case, all relating the oral arguments scheduled for January 13.

First, the Justices extended the argument time to 90 minutes, rather than the usual 60. The Obama Administration will get an extra 15 minutes to make its arguments. Perhaps more surprisingly, the other extra 15 minutes are to let Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell participate in oral arguments. McConnell and every Republican in the Senate submitted an amicus brief arguing that President Obama's 2012 recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were unconstitutional.

This is the second time this Term that the Court has allowed McConnell to participate as an amicus in oral arguments. The other was the McCutcheon money-in-politics case (which has yet to be decided).

McConnell and his fellow Republicans were not the only amicus filers who had asked to participate in oral arguments. Professor Victor Williams sought to participate to argue that this is a classic "political question" that federal courts should stay out of, a position that none of the parties is arguing. Alternatively, if the Court chooses to address the merits of the case, the professor urges the Justices to not only uphold the recess appointments but to declare confirmation holds and filibusters unconstitutional. However, the Court denied his request.

It is always important to remember why this case exists at all: Because Senate Republicans abused Senate rules and blocked confirmation votes on qualified NLRB nominees, in order to prevent the NLRB from having a quorum and being able to fully carry out its functions. In other words, it was an effort to nullify federal laws and regulations protecting American workers, part of the party's greater effort at nullification of laws – and the results of elections – they don't like.