PEOPLE FOR BLOG

A Judicial Victory For Church-State Separation in Florida!

Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court issued a ruling that rejects the latest efforts by the far right to undermine religious liberty in that state and pave the way for the return of a state voucher program. Just a few hours after hearing oral argument, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously held that two proposed state constitutional amendments that would undermine religious freedom and overturn the Court's ruling a few years ago striking down the state's publicly-funded school voucher program cannot be placed on the November ballot. The ruling knocking these measures off the ballot came in a lawsuit in which lawyers with People For the American Way Foundation were co-counsel to the plaintiffs challenging the measures; the Florida Education Association and the NEA provided lead counsel in the case. Other groups participating in the case as co-counsel included the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Anti-Defamation League. At issue was the authority of the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission to place these proposals on the ballot. The Commission is authorized to propose state constitutional amendments pertaining to the "state budgetary process." We argued that these amendments, which would have removed the state constitutional provision prohibiting public aid to religious institutions and allowed the state to fund religious and other private school education through vouchers, exceeded the Commission's authority, as they did not pertain to the budgetary "process." The state urged a broad interpretation of "process" that basically would have encompassed everything the state spends money on, an interpretation that would give the Commission the power to propose just about any constitutional amendment on any substantive issue or subject that it wanted. We lost in the trial court and the state Supreme Court accepted direct review, given the timing and importance of the case. With ballots scheduled to be printed very shortly, the Court expedited consideration and heard oral argument on the morning of September 3. It was very clear from the Justices' questions that they had significant concerns that the state's interpretation of the Commission's authority was far too broad, and that "process" is not the same as "substance." Just a few short hours later, the Court ordered that these harmful proposals cannot be placed on the ballot, and that "no motion for rehearing will be entertained." Many thanks and congratulations to everyone who worked on this case, particularly the FEA and the NEA.
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Aren’t Rights a Good Thing?

In her speech last night, Sarah Palin mocked the idea that terrorists would be "read their rights." Well, setting aside the obvious complications that come from prosecuting an international “war on terror,” I’m perturbed by the idea that reading someone his rights would be a bad thing. One of the great selling points for this country is that even bad guys, really bad guys, terrible terrible guys, have rights. After all, sometimes those presumed-guilty people end up being, you know, innocent. In support of my view (and, umm, the Constitution) allow me to trot out the old war horse of this particular argument, A Man For All Seasons.
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law! Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that! Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
I expect our friends at the Thomas More Center to put out a similar statement any moment now.
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Oh, What a Week

Sarah Palin and John McCain

By the end of the Democratic National Convention last week my feet were aching but my spirit was soaring. I loved meeting People For members, and had a chance to connect with a lot of progressive advocates, political leaders, and potential donors. Our standing-room-only panel on the future of the Supreme Court was thoughtful and lively. Several of our staff did magnificent jobs in other panel discussions throughout the week. And the whole event felt like history in the making.

I hadn't even gotten home when the afterglow was interrupted by the announcement on Friday that John McCain had selected Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, to be his running mate. Like many others, we’ve been busy since then looking at her record, and when it comes to the issues we care about, it's not pretty.

Let me state clearly that I have spent my whole career working to give women the opportunity to take leadership roles. I am opposed to the media or anyone else judging women candidates on their hair, hemlines, or anything other than their policies, positions, and qualifications. I agree with Sen. Barack Obama that this campaign should not be about Palin's children, and as a mother, I appreciate that at least from the outside it appears that her teenage daughter is getting support at a difficult time.

In other words, let's judge Palin on her political positions and her record — and let's judge John McCain based on this important decision. Here's some of what we know already, with more coming out by the hour:

  • Palin opposes women's access to abortion, even in cases of rape or incest
  • she has a strong anti-equality record, opposing domestic partner benefits for gay couples, marriage equality, and expansion of hate crimes laws
  • as a mayor she reportedly asked about banning books from the library and threatened to fire a librarian who resisted
  • she supports the teaching of creationism in public school science classrooms

No wonder our Right Wing Watch blog reports that even the most extreme Religious Right leaders are falling all over themselves to gush about Palin — James Dobson even called her "God's answer" to prayer. When McCain floated the possibility of a pro-choice running mate, Religious Right leaders threatened to tank the campaign. The campaign caved, and the Religious Right got what they wanted. So much for Mr. Maverick.

Sarah Palin has proven that she knows how to win local and statewide elections, and I encourage progressives not to take her too lightly or dismissively. Given what we're learning about her record and political beliefs, there's plenty of reason to question her selection by McCain, and to remind Americans what their election would mean for the future of the Supreme Court and for our rights and liberties. With your help, that's what we're going to do.

Let me know what you think at Kathryn@pfaw.org.

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It’s Good to Be the AG – Forgetful Gonzales Gets Off the Hook for Mishandling Secrets

Alberto Gonzales
The Associated Press and Washington Post reported today that Justice Department investigators have faulted Alberto Gonzales for repeatedly mishandling national secrets during his tenure as Bush’s White House counsel and Attorney General. The eye-opening accounts reveal that Gonzales failed to properly secure classified information in his DOJ office and even took classified materials home with him. What’s worse, he used an unlocked briefcase to transport the materials and didn’t store them in his home safe. But the coup de grace, courtesy of the DOJ investigators, is that Gonzales “did not know the combination to the safe at his house.” The crux of Gonzales’ defense, according to his lawyers, is that he didn’t intentionally mishandle documents but rather “was forgetful or unaware of the proper way to handle the top secret papers.” This strains credulity, especially since Gonzales was briefed at least twice on security procedures and signed a document that informed him of repercussions for mishandling classified information. As incredible as Gonzales’ absent-minded professor defense may seem, it’s all too familiar for those who watched the attorney firing scandal play out. He and his co-conspirators repeatedly pleaded ignorance, often to a comical degree – Kyle Sampson actually uttered the words “I don’t remember” 122 separate times in his testimony. The public has long since learned more than enough to know that Gonzales’ misconduct was due to arrogance and incompetence, not forgetfulness. His defense is cowardly and insults our intelligence, but his lawyers apparently don’t believe that he can defend himself on the merits. That strategy has worked so far – the Bush DOJ has declined to file criminal charges against its former leader – but it may not work forever.
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Governor Palin is Wrong; There's No Scientific "Debate" Over Evolution to Teach

Sarah Palin

As soon as news broke last Friday that Senator John McCain had chosen the relatively unknown governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, a media scramble began to find out more about her. In the brief period since then, one of the most concerning things to come to light about someone who holds public office and aspires to higher office is her belief that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes. As Palin has put it, "let kids debate both sides." This is a regurgitation of the right wing's "teach the debate" campaign. On the face of it, it sounds sort of benign, doesn't it? Give kids more information, let them decide? What could be wrong with that?

Well, one big thing — evolution is science, and creationism is religious belief. There is no scientific debate over evolution, and one simply cannot "debate" the validity of religious belief. Indeed, because creationism is religious belief, the Supreme Court has held that states cannot require it to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.

The right wing's "teach the debate" campaign is nothing more than their latest effort to undermine evolution, thereby sabotaging the teaching of sound science in our public schools. Having failed in their efforts to ban the teaching of evolution entirely, the right has shifted its strategy by attempting to suggest there is legitimate scientific evidence "questioning" evolution, when there isn't. (The other part of this strategy is to pretend that religion is science, by calling creationism "intelligent design.")

The campaign against evolution is not a scientific movement or an educational movement. It is a political campaign being waged by people who think their religious beliefs should be taught as science in our public school classrooms. It’s not good science, good education, or good policy.

Does this mean that students can't learn about creationism in public schools? Of course not. As part of a sound education, students should be taught about religion and learn about the beliefs of different faith groups, including beliefs about the origin of the universe and the development of human beings. And there are certainly suitable courses, such as World Religions, where such teaching can take place.

But science courses are not among them. Evolution and creationism occupy two separate and independent spheres, and have no place together in science classes. It's our responsibility to prepare our young people as best we can to succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy of the 21st century. To that end, students need and deserve a quality science education.

Read more:

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About That U.S. Attorney Scandal...

Hey, remember the U.S. attorney scandal? Fishy firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 for allegedly partisan reasons? It was a huge deal when the revelations first broke last year, but since then the mainstream media has, in classic MSM-ADD fashion, largely seemed to have lost interest in covering recent developments.

Well, Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hasn't forgotten about the firings. And he's my hero of the day for promising the White House that he won't let them escape accountability for any potential wrongdoings.

At the Democratic National Convention yesterday, Talking Points Memo's David Kurtz asked Leahy for reaction to the news that a U.S. district court judge has refused to stay an order that former White House aide Harriet Miers is legally required to testify about the firings.

Leahy had this to say:

"The White House is essentially saying, 'We're above the law; the rest of the rest of the world has to follow the law.' That's not the way it works.

Just because someone works in the White House, they're subject to the same laws as everybody else...

I intend to keep on — and if they're trying to run out the clock to the end of this Congress, I remind them. I'll still be chairman next year."

Not one to expect much from the Bush administration, I'm still a bit flabbergasted that a simple concept like in America, no one is above the law is completely lost on the Bush administration. (Seeing as how escaping monarchical edicts and founding a government of equal citizens is kinda-sorta why this country was founded in the first place.)

Watch Kurtz's talk with Leahy here:

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Can Design Save Democracy?

Proposed AIGA ballot design

The AIGA, a consortium of graphic artists, thinks it just might.

In order to avoid the sort of poor election ballot design that plagued the 2000 election — remember butterfly ballots and hanging chads? — the AIGA has proposed several changes that would make ballots much easier for voters to figure out. (To say nothing of prettier.)

The New York Times has a great interactive look at the problems the AIGA sees in current ballot designs and what their ideal ballot would look like. (The picture on the right offers a glimpse.)

Of course, in addition to better ballots, voters also need to know their rights at the polls and what they need to bring with them. (Think ID!) Click here for People For's voting-rights toolkits.

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Kathleen Turner vs. Susan Collins

Sure, we've been saying for years that Senator Susan Collins's votes on the Roberts and Alito nominations show how shallow her commitment to choice really is. But when Kathleen Turner is saying it, it just sounds different. So, without further ado, Kathleen Turner calls Susan Collins out on choice. Enjoy.
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Kathleen Turner vs. Susan Collins

Sure, we've been saying for years that Senator Susan Collins's votes on the Roberts and Alito nominations show how shallow her commitment to choice really is. But when Kathleen Turner is saying it, it just sounds different. So, without further ado, Kathleen Turner calls Susan Collins out on choice. Enjoy.
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Yo, CNN! Progressives Have Values Too!

Did you watch last Saturday's presidential candidate forum at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church? The media coverage has made me want to scream, hey, progressives have values too! Fortunately, we're doing more than yelling about it. With your support, People For is putting progressive values to work around the country this year with:
  • a campaign to expose the threat to Americans' rights, safety, and health from a federal judiciary dominated by President Bush's judicial appointments;
  • activists striving to keep people from being unfairly turned away at the polls this November, a deeply moral undertaking given our nation's history on voting rights; and
  • People For the American Way Foundation is working with equality-affirming clergy in California to challenge homophobia in the church, and promote the value of treating everyone equally under the law.
It's great to be engaged in these great questions of our day. But back to that forum for a minute. I have no problem, of course, with candidates reaching out to religious voters like any constituency. But there are at least two things that make me uncomfortable about the Saddleback event and the way it's been covered by the media. I worry about the precedent that seems to have been set this year for presidential candidates to be grilled on the details of their faith by journalists and preachers. There's a blurry line between candidates talking genuinely about what grounds their outlook and policies, and having the race for the presidency turned into a forum on which candidate is the "right" kind of Christian. That's definitely not the American Way. People For's Right Wing Watch blog has done some excellent reporting on this. While Rick Warren may call Sen. Obama a friend, and encourage civil debate, there's no question in my mind that his questions were far "friendlier" to Sen. McCain. His forum delighted the Religious Right's "old guard." I'm also eager to challenge media coverage that buys into the Right's message that the only moral or values-based position on reproductive choice and gay equality is opposition to both. I happened to catch a piece on CNN on Monday in which BOTH interviewees — Religious Right leader Tony Perkins and a religious leader supporting Obama — spent much of the segment agreeing with each other about how Obama should water down his positions on choice. If CNN couldn't find a clergyperson to explain the moral underpinnings of choice, they didn't look very hard. We'll keep working to raise those voices. I think it's important for our leaders, in their eagerness to reach as many voters as possible, not to back down from defending core progressive values. Some of these are equality, free speech, religious liberty (not intolerance) and a willingness to fight against poverty and abuses of human rights. Another core value is a women's right to make the most personal decisions about her health and family. That's no less a "value" than John McCain's stated belief that life begins at conception — and his support for a constitutional amendment that would make all abortion illegal. The same goes for the value of marriage equality, which polls show is being embraced by a growing number of Americans, even as the Right pours all its energy into fighting it. I'm off to the Democratic Convention in Denver next week, in part to make sure that at least one party doesn't forget about progressives and OUR values. This work can be tiring and energizing at the same time — I'm sure I'll feel that way after a week at the convention! I'm looking forward to telling you about it. If you had the same reaction — or a different one — to the Saddleback forum, feel free to let me know at Kathryn@pfaw.org. And as always, thanks so much for your ongoing support.
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Olympic Fever at People For

The Olympics begin today -- with some very personal excitement at People For. David Banks, the son of Executive Vice President Marge Baker, is competing on the U.S. Olympic rowing team in Beijing. I know many of us will be up in the wee hours cheering for David and the team, and looking for a glimpse of Marge and her family in the crowd. This year, American viewers of the Olympics can expect to see a lot of ads for our presidential candidates, bringing our domestic politics more noticeably into an event that always strikes me as a complicated mix of internationalist spirit and patriotic rooting for the home team. And here in the U.S. we'll go pretty much straight from the Olympics into the political parties' nominating conventions and into the final sprint toward Election Day. All that has me feeling a sense of excitement -- and gratitude -- for the potential for progressive change achieved through the democratic process. As flawed as our election system is, as frustrated as the candidates will make us, as maddening as some of the campaign coverage will be, American voters have the opportunity to make a tremendous change in the leadership of our country -- and influence our future and the world's. The political Right has long tried to co-opt patriotism, and use it as a bludgeon against progressive candidates. But I hope those efforts have less and less effect in the wake of the very evident damage right-wing leadership has done to America. Of course we progressives are motivated by our love for this country and the freedom and power it grants its citizens, for our deep desire to see it be true to its highest ideals. Our patriotism leads us to reach for a better, more progressive America -- one that holds true to core values that have been sadly corrupted by the Bush administration. People for the American Way is dedicated to making the promise of America real for every American. Equality. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. The right to seek justice in a court of law. The right to cast a vote and have that vote count. That's the American Way! And thanks to pressure from People For members and allies, we're seeing a reassertion of checks and balances -- like the House Judiciary Committee voting recently to hold Karl Rove in contempt of Congress. So, I'm hopeful. In the coming weeks I'll be cheering for David and other athletes who represent the best of the American spirit. And I'll be working with all my colleagues to help ensure that our leaders are committed to the values we believe represent the best of American ideals. (To this end, People For has a petition out now urging Barack Obama to pick a progressive running mate).
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Olympic Fever at People For

The Olympics begin today -- with some very personal excitement at People For. David Banks, the son of Executive Vice President Marge Baker, is competing on the U.S. Olympic rowing team in Beijing. I know many of us will be up in the wee hours cheering for David and the team, and looking for a glimpse of Marge and her family in the crowd. This year, American viewers of the Olympics can expect to see a lot of ads for our presidential candidates, bringing our domestic politics more noticeably into an event that always strikes me as a complicated mix of internationalist spirit and patriotic rooting for the home team. And here in the U.S. we'll go pretty much straight from the Olympics into the political parties' nominating conventions and into the final sprint toward Election Day. All that has me feeling a sense of excitement -- and gratitude -- for the potential for progressive change achieved through the democratic process. As flawed as our election system is, as frustrated as the candidates will make us, as maddening as some of the campaign coverage will be, American voters have the opportunity to make a tremendous change in the leadership of our country -- and influence our future and the world's. The political Right has long tried to co-opt patriotism, and use it as a bludgeon against progressive candidates. But I hope those efforts have less and less effect in the wake of the very evident damage right-wing leadership has done to America. Of course we progressives are motivated by our love for this country and the freedom and power it grants its citizens, for our deep desire to see it be true to its highest ideals. Our patriotism leads us to reach for a better, more progressive America -- one that holds true to core values that have been sadly corrupted by the Bush administration. People for the American Way is dedicated to making the promise of America real for every American. Equality. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. The right to seek justice in a court of law. The right to cast a vote and have that vote count. That's the American Way! And thanks to pressure from People For members and allies, we're seeing a reassertion of checks and balances -- like the House Judiciary Committee voting recently to hold Karl Rove in contempt of Congress. So, I'm hopeful. In the coming weeks I'll be cheering for David and other athletes who represent the best of the American spirit. And I'll be working with all my colleagues to help ensure that our leaders are committed to the values we believe represent the best of American ideals. (To this end, People For has a petition out now urging Barack Obama to pick a progressive running mate).
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Matching the Right's Passion

This week gave me a sobering reminder of just how motivated and organized the Radical Right is. I think it's a real challenge to us to match their passion and commitment. On Wednesday, national and local Religious Right leaders convened a call of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pastors and activists at 215 locations in California, Florida and Arizona. Those are the three states with constitutional amendments banning marriage for same-sex couples on the ballot this year. They rallied their troops for what they describe as nothing less than warfare against "Satan." The call's main focus was Proposition 8 in California, which Watergate felon-turned-Religious Right organizer Chuck Colson called "the Armageddon of the culture war." The Right's rhetoric may be over the top but their field plan is sophisticated and extremely ambitious, with detailed plans for identifying their voters, get-out-the-vote campaigns, absentee balloting strategies, and massive rallies. Organizers said they had already raised $15 million of the $23 million they need to put their full plan into action, and national religious right organizers are planning to call for special offerings from conservative churches across the country. All this to invalidate legal same-sex marriages in California and prevent other committed gay and lesbian couples from being legally married — and having their commitment recognized and protected under the law like everyone else. I'm glad that People For and our foundation's Right Wing monitoring brings this kind of behind-the-scenes strategizing to light. You can read more about the extreme rhetoric and terrifying scale of the Right's planned operation in a memo on the call here. And I'm proud that we're working with our allies to defeat this attack on equality —and that People For the American Way Foundation has its own long-term education campaign working with African American pastors who are willing to take the lead in challenging homophobia in the black church — and to take the heat for doing it! Some of those leaders were in the office this week, and we're getting some high-energy inspiration from them. We're going to need it — because, take it from me, the Right is not dead, or even sleeping. And, in case you forgot that some of its ideologues are sitting in positions of great power, People For the American Way Foundation's recently published analysis of the Supreme Court's most recent term confirms that critical institution's drastic shift to the Right. We're also going to need your passion and energy to fight for the American Way. I hope I can count on you in the coming months so that, together, we can build a better, more just and equal America.
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Rededicating Ourselves to Human Dignity

I'm writing to you today from San Francisco, where it's been an energizing, thought-provoking week. Last night, Ambassador James Hormel, a member of People For's board, hosted an event at his home to help me get acquainted with some friends and People For supporters. Jim's commitment to public service has benefited San Francisco and the country in many ways, and he is an incredible asset to People For. Joining me was Rev. Kenneth Samuel, who is helping lead People For the American Way Foundation's efforts in California this year to create constructive conversation in black churches around discrimination and marriage equality. Also there were Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who have inspired my life and work for many years: Del and Phyllis are legendary advocates for women and for equality, and were the first same-sex couple married in California this year. I had the great pleasure of presenting to them, in person, a beautiful book we created with the more than 8,000 congratulatory messages from People For members who signed our online "guest book" for their wedding. It was a delight to see their pleasure at so many warm wishes and the knowledge that People For will be working to defend their marriage against right-wing efforts to strip away their rights. Seeing Del also reminded me that earlier in my career, as an advocate for women and families experiencing domestic violence, I had learned much from her book on battered women. Violence against women is on my mind because it was one topic covered at a conference sponsored by the Tides Foundation earlier this week. Did you know that women serving in the military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire? And I read earlier this year that doctors at the West Los Angeles VA Healthcare Center reported that 41% of female veterans seen at the clinic say they were victims of sexual assault while in the military, and 29% report being raped during their military service. Those numbers haunt me. The struggle to promote and protect equality and dignity for all people is a long one. In our country, the progress toward equality for women won by generations of struggle has not yet overcome entrenched resistance to equal opportunity (as Lilly Ledbetter found out at the hands of first her employer and then the Supreme Court). But that's just one reason why we need to rededicate ourselves to women's equality. Lawmakers continue to pass legislation restricting women's freedom. And anti-choice activists are rallying to Sen. John McCain's campaign based on his hardcore anti-choice voting record and his pledge to appoint the kind of Supreme Court justices who will abolish a woman's constitutional right to choose. We're working to make sure people understand that record, just as we're fighting to get Congress to fix the Court's twisted reading of civil rights law that made it impossible for Lilly Ledbetter to get justice after being discriminated against for so many years. Next week I'll be back in Washington after ten days on the road. I look forward, as always, to hearing from you (Kathryn@pfaw.org).
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Fourth Circuit Victory For Religious Liberty

If you read my post back in March after the oral argument before the Fourth Circuit in Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, Virginia, you know that it was quite an honor to have had retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the three-judge panel. And now Justice O’Connor has written the court’s opinion in the case, a July 23 unanimous decision in favor of our client, the Fredericksburg City Council.

As I’ve reported previously, the Council has been sued by one of its own members, Rev. Hashmel Turner, who claims that he has the constitutional right to deliver a prayer in the name of Jesus as the official Council prayer to start Council meetings. Never mind that this would make the non-Christian residents of Fredericksburg feel like second-class citizens when they attend Council meetings. Rev. Turner, who is represented in this case by the religious right Rutherford Institute, also claims that the Council’s policy requiring that its official opening prayers be nonsectarian (that is, not in the name of a specific deity) is unconstitutional. A federal district court judge soundly rejected those claims, and now the Fourth Circuit has rejected them as well.

As Justice O’Connor explained in the court’s opinion holding that the Council’s policy does not violate the Constitution, “[t]he restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to people who come from a variety of backgrounds.” This does not mean, of course, that Rev. Turner’s own free speech or free exercise rights have been violated. To the contrary, as Justice O’Connor observed, Rev. Turner “remains free to pray on his own behalf, in nongovernmental endeavors, in the manner dictated by his conscience.”

Justice O’Connor’s opinion is a sound repudiation of the Rutherford Institute’s efforts to stand the First Amendment on its head. Unfortunately, it seems that the Institute is not listening; it has already announced that it will ask the Supreme Court to hear Rev. Turner’s case.

So stay tuned. In the meantime, I want to add my personal thanks to our co-counsel in this case, the very fine lawyers at Hunton & Williams.

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