Minnesota Safe Schools Bill Becomes Law

Amid last week's activity surrounding the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network's Day of Silence and the PFAW-led safe schools letter campaign came a state success for the idea that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying an harassment. In the wee hours of April 9, the Minnesota House of Representatives took the final vote on the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. That afternoon Governor Mark Dayton signed it into law.

PFAW activists proudly joined OutFront Minnesota and the Safe Schools for All Coalition in supporting the bill as it moved to the Governor's desk.

PFAW will continue to stand up for safe schools.

We have released a policy toolkit designed to help activists understand and address the problem head-on. We hope that you'll use it to continue your own work on this important issue.

We also hope that you'll check out PFAW's report on Big Bullies: How the Religious Right is Trying to Make Schools Safe for Bullies and Dangerous for Gay Kids and its 2012 update.

Then visit our website and Right Wing Watch for more LGBT equality updates.


Voting Rights Advocates Rack Up More Wins

Earlier this month, PFAW reported on what has gone right for voting rights at the state level in 2014. While 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, states like Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina have shown that we can win.

Now we've uncovered even more evidence of why we can and should keep fighting the challenges that lay before us.

Voters themselves will get to decide what voter empowerment means in Illinois. House Speaker Michael Madigan's constitutional amendment providing "that no person shall be denied the right to register to vote or to cast a ballot in an election based on race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, sex, sexual orientation, or income" passed both chambers and will be on the November ballot. A similar effort is afoot in Ohio.

Native American voters in Montana have seen two encouraging developments. In Jackson v. Wolf Point School District, an agreement was reached that will provide for five-single member school board districts in addition to one at-large representative, as opposed to the existing multimember districts that heavily favored the area's white population. Wandering Medicine v. McCullough, which challenges the availability of late registration and early voting for residents of the Crow, North Cheyenne, and Fort Belknap Reservations, will proceed following a failed motion to dismiss the case.

In Washoe County, Nevada, home to Reno and the state's second most populated county, voters have come to expect 14 consecutive early voting days. This year, though, county commissioners planned to eliminate the two optional Sundays that fall within that period. The American Civil Liberties Union and other allies organized quickly, sending a letter to Chairman David Humke and providing testimony at a commission meeting. Thankfully at that same meeting Chairman Humke announced that Sunday early voting was back on and warrants further study.

Tod Story, ACLU of Nevada Executive Director, said:

Early voting allows more people to participate in our democracy, and weekend voting is necessary for many hardworking Nevadans. Weekends are especially important days for voting drives, including for communities of faith

US District Judge Nelva Ramos told Texas legislators, much like US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake did in North Carolina, that their emails must be disclosed – albeit confidentially – in the ongoing Voting Rights Act challenge to the 2011 Texas voter ID law.

Huffington Post:

The United States argued that the emails could be the only existing candid evidence about the purpose of the legislation because Texas Republicans coordinated their talking points on the bill and refused to publicly engage with the concerns of minority legislators. If any of the emails reveal discriminatory intent, the U.S. will still have to argue to get them admitted as evidence during the trial phase of the lawsuit.

Finally, Utah is taking Election Day Registration for a test drive. Governor Gary Herbert has signed HB 156, which sets up an opt-in pilot program for counties and municipalities. The state will keep an eye on how they do and report back to the legislature for possible further action.

We can win, and let's not forget that.

Check out PFAW’s website for more voting rights updates.


Safe Schools Supporters Stand Up for All Students

The letter-a-day campaign for safe schools that PFAW led concluded today, when we also marked the Day of Silence – an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that is meant to draw attention to the "silencing effects" of anti-gay harassment and name-calling in schools and to be a way for students to show their solidarity with students who have been bullied.

Over the last month twenty-eight groups went on record with Congress in support of safe schools legislation. Together, we sent loud and clear the message that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.

Below are excerpts from this week's letters.

Religious Action Center:

The Reform Jewish Movement has long been active in the struggle for civil rights for all Americans, including members of the LGBT community. As people of faith, our holy texts teach us that all people are created in the Divine image, b’tselem Elohim (Gen. 1:27), and should thus be treated with respect and dignity. As Jews, our tradition and history teach us that we should not stand by as others suffer– we envision a government which “to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance” (George Washington, in a letter to Moses Seixas, 1790). Yet LGBT students are frequently victimized in their own schools and at the hands of their fellow students.

National Black Justice Coalition:

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the unspeakable tragedies unchecked bullying is causing across our nation. Students must be protected, and must feel safe and affirmed in their schools. NBJC is dedicated to the elimination of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in all our communities, and we recognize how these behaviors specifically attack those that live at the intersection of being Black and LGBT. Ultimately, this is about stopping abhorrent behavior that gets in the way of a quality education. All students deserve far better than that.

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS):

On behalf of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), an organization concerned about the sexual health education and well-being of people of all ages and particularly our nation’s youth, I urge you to actively support and cosponsor the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA, H.R. 1652/S. 1088) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA, H.R. 1199/S. 403). Bullying and harassment in schools are pervasive problems with serious consequences for students. SNDA and SSIA are two pieces of legislation that would help create safe and healthy spaces for students to learn.

National PTA:

As the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer child advocacy organization, National PTA has long advocated for the health and wellbeing of all children. PTA believes that the safety of children in school settings is a fundamental right and therefore we advocate for policies and programs that address the prevention, intervention, and elimination of bullying to allow every child full access to educational opportunities.

Advocates for Youth:

No young person should feel unsafe in their school because of who they are. Bullying and harassment have no place in our educational system, and SNDA and SSIA help us to protect all young people from being targeted based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. We urge you to support and cosponsor SNDA and SSIA.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund:

Most importantly, as shown by the recent rash of suicides of bullied children across the nation, these bills are part of a comprehensive preventative strategy to ensure that youth survive the years they spend in school. No parent should ever again have to learn that their child has taken his or her life due to bullying and harassment from a peer that was entirely preventable.

SNDA and SSIA will assist in creating a welcoming environment for all students and ensure that children are able to focus on education, rather than merely survival. Once enacted, these protections will help create a better educated, more productive population, able to contribute fully to the general welfare of our nation. Again, we urge you to support SNDA (S. 1088/ H.R. 1652) and SSIA (S. 403/H.R. 1199) as a co-sponsor of this essential legislation.

PACER Center:

PACER is working to create a paradigm shift in society’s views about bullying. Instead of seeing bullying as an accepted behavior and a natural part of childhood, we need to understand that bullying has a significant impact on the lives of children, especially those with disabilities. Children with disabilities are already so often vulnerable and when they are being bullied, their vulnerability magnifies. This can lead to additional challenges to learning in school, including fear of going to school, social isolation, and physical and emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, and lack of self-worth.

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN):

Today is GLSEN’s annual Day of Silence. Hundreds of thousands of students across the United States have taken a vow of silence for the day to draw attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools – behavior that we know has serious consequences. Eight in ten lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students report being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation, and nearly two-thirds harassed because of their gender expression. Such harassment has detrimental impacts on students’ long-term social, academic, psychological and physical well-being, including increased rates of absenteeism and depression and lower grade point averages and educational aspirations.

To most effectively address bullying, harassment and discrimination, it’s essential to have effective laws in place. The Safe Schools Improvement Act would empower states to develop anti-bullying laws that best meet their needs, so long as those laws meet basic, fact-based criteria to ensure their effectiveness, including the enumeration of race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and religion. The legislation would also streamline data collection on bullying and harassment to help states better address the issue. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would ensure that LGBT students can no longer be discriminated against in public school simply for being who they are.

Here are some of our earlier participants – more support for safe schools. And here's a look at all twenty-eight of us – together.

It's important, though, to recognize that safe schools advocacy is not just about one day or one month – it's a long-term commitment to change.

PFAW has released a policy toolkit, Education Without Discrimination: Creating Safe Schools for All Students, designed to help activists understand and address the problem head-on. We hope that you'll use it to continue your own work on this important issue in the weeks and months to come.

We also hope that you'll check out PFAW's report on Big Bullies: How the Religious Right is Trying to Make Schools Safe for Bullies and Dangerous for Gay Kids and its 2012 update.


On the Day of Silence, Check Out PFAW’s Safe Schools Toolkit

Today is the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s Day of Silence, an event meant to bring attention to the “silencing effect” of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. In classrooms across the country, thousands of young people will stay silent throughout the day as part of an annual student-led effort that has been occurring since 1996.

In anticipation of the Day of Silence, People For the American Way recently released a new policy toolkit, Education Without Discrimination: Creating Safe Schools for All Students, which provides activists with the tools they need to advocate for critical safe schools reforms. The toolkit includes lobbying and media tips, talking points, sample materials, and background info on the lead federal legislation, the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) and Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA).

Unfortunately the Religious Right continues to rail against commonsense legislation like SSIA and SNDA that would help make our schools safe for all students. Right-wing activist Gordon Klingenschmitt has warned that the Student Non-Discrimination Act would “give homosexuals and perverts protected status” and “mandate pro-homosexual recruiting of kids in public schools.” Just this week, Mission America’s Linda Harvey – who once claimed that anti-bullying programs would turn schools into “indoctrination camps” – publicly encouraged young LGBT people to stay in the closet.

To learn more about how to stand up to these hateful attacks and push for positive change, check out the safe schools toolkit.


So Many Vacancies, So Little Cooperation from GOP

President Obama has had a lot more vacancies to fill in our nation's judiciary than George W. Bush had at this point in his presidency. Unfortunately, due to obstructionism from the GOP, that has resulted in a large number of longtime vacancies without nominees.

Especially at the district court level, senators play an enormous role in determining who will be nominated to judgeships in their state. When senators work cooperatively with the White House, recommendations and nominations can be made quickly. We’ve seen such cooperation from senators in states like Virginia, Vermont, New Mexico, and Colorado. Not coincidentally, these are all states with two Democratic senators.

States with Republican senators are far more likely to have vacancies without nominees. Of the 37 current vacancies without nominees, all but six are from states with at least Republican senator. And of those six, only one is more than a year old. Despite White House consultations with home state senators, vacancies are remaining open and without nominees for far too long - sometimes years - in states with Republican senators.

These are things to think about next time you see someone blaming the persistently high vacancy rate on a lack of nominees from the White House.


Senate Invokes Cloture on Judicial Nominee Michelle Friedland

Today, the Senate voted to advance the nomination of Michelle Friedland to the 9th Circuit.

Friedland was one of many superb, highly qualified judges caught up in Republicans' blanket obstruction of judicial nominees, and President Obama was forced to re-nominate her for the court this year. After today’s vote, she still faces 30 hours of potential "post-cloture debate," unless Republicans allow the Senate to move forward on the nomination more expeditiously.

Even though the Senate changed its filibuster rule for judicial and executive branch nominations, lowering the threshold from 60 votes to a simple majority in order to invoke cloture and advance nominees toward confirmation votes, Republicans continue to force cloture votes as a procedural hurdle. The delay created by these votes and the subsequent 30-hour wait before a confirmation can occur amounts to a stubborn form of obstruction in itself.

And this is just one way that Senate Republicans are continuing to hold up the judicial nomination process. Judicial nominees from states with Republican senators also face unreasonable, meritless obstruction due the GOP's abuse of the Senate's "blue slip" policy, by which a senator can unilaterally put a permanent hold on a nominee from his or her state before they even get a hearing.

There are currently 31 judicial nominees on the Senate's calendar, many for long-unfilled vacancies and nearly half for ones that have been declared "judicial emergencies." As vacancies languish, courts can't do their job and in turn, Americans are denied access to justice. If Republican senators ended their obstruction and allowed the 31 pending nominees to go through, that alone would fill a third of the nation's current vacancies.

But based on how Republicans on Capitol Hill are behaving, we shouldn't hold our breath.

Today alone, in addition to wasting the Senate's time and taxpayers' money by forcing the Leadership to hold a cloture vote on Michelle Friedland, instead of just bringing her confirmation straight to an up-or-down vote:

  • Republican senators successfully filibustered the Paycheck Fairness Act, for the third time, despite persistent inequity in pay for women and men doing the same work.
  • And on the House side, Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee blocked Democrats' attempt to bring the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) up for consideration.

We’re going to keep fighting to get as many more nominees confirmed as we can this year, before time runs out. But the message we send to Republicans in November is tremendously important as well.

Winning or losing at the ballot box could be the difference between a continued vacancy crisis on federal courts dominated by pro-corporate, conservative ideologue judges or the restoration of balance and justice to our courts with the confirmation of highly qualified judges who understand the promises of the Constitution and how the law impacts the lives of real people.


Obama: Lots More Judicial Vacancies than Bush

Politico had a headline a few days ago proclaiming that “Obama [is] now Outpacing George W. Bush on judges.” The key take-away was that Obama has had a few more judges confirmed than Bush had at the same point in his presidency.

But that only tells part of the story, as many have pointed out. Although Obama's absolute number is slightly higher, he has also made many more nominations than Bush had at this point, something the Politico article mentioned but didn't highlight. So a more revealing statistic is that Bush had 88% of his nominees confirmed at this point, while Obama only has only had 79%.

One reason Obama has made so many more nominations is that there have been so many more vacancies to fill. While 270 judicial vacancies have opened up since January 2009, only 202 had opened up during the corresponding period during President Bush's time in office.

So, for Obama: Lots more vacancies than Bush. Lots more nominations than Bush. Yet basically the same number of confirmations as Bush.

That isn't parity.


Blue Slips: Republicans Should Stop Abuse of Consultation Process

In an op-ed Sunday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, addressed critics of his use of blue slips, a committee tradition that Republicans continue to abuse. Under this policy, the chairman asks the Senators from a nominee’s home state to submit a blue slip expressing their support or opposition. The consequences have varied over time, depending on who the chairman has been. Leahy’s practice has been to not hold a hearing unless both senators submit their blue slips saying they support letting the committee process the application. As Senator Leahy points out

The Constitution requires presidents to seek both the “advice and consent” of the Senate in appointing judges to lifetime posts on the federal courts. … When senators return this paper, it is proof that the senators elected to represent that state were consulted and the nominee is likely to be confirmed.

Leahy states he “cannot recall a single judicial nominee being confirmed over the objection of his or her home-state senators,” and affirms the importance of home-state support in moving the process forward.

But Leahy also acknowledges that the “judicial confirmation process in the Senate has grown increasingly difficult,” and that Senate practices that bring principles of the Constitution to life do need “ongoing evaluation to make sure they work as intended. And he reiterates that he “would not rule out proceeding with a nomination if the blue slip is abused.”

Indeed, since his election, President Obama has routinely sought the advice of senators through the judicial nominations process. It has been a hallmark of his presidency. But too many Republicans have refused to engage in a cooperative process, instead seeking the authority to pick the nominee themselves, even if it is someone the president would oppose. When that happens, no nomination is made. Other times, the senators withhold the blue slip indefinitely, often refusing to give a reason why, and sometimes even after they themselves recommended the nominee they are now blocking. The result of this abuse has been the worsening of a serious judicial vacancy crisis.

Chairman Leahy has stressed the importance of blue slips in showing that senators have been consulted by the White House. Taking heed of Leahy’s words, Republicans should be wary of continuing the abuse of the blue slip process to block judicial confirmations. Their continued use of this “silent, unaccountable veto” is a detriment to the judicial process. As GOP obstruction continues through withholding of blue slips despite substantial consultation, judicial nominations grow more cumbersome, and the impracticality of this part of the process becomes clearer.


Supreme Court Declines New Mexico Wedding Photographer Case

The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a request to consider Elane Photography v. Willock, a case brought by a wedding photography business that had been penalized for violating a New Mexico law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. After the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously rejected its free speech and religious liberty claims, the company appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that taking pictures is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment, and that the government has no right to force a photographer to take a particular picture. The Supreme Court declined to take the case.

People For the American Way is committed to religious liberty, freedom of expression, and LGBT equality, and recognizes that people who support both religious freedom and full legal equality for LGBT people can and do disagree on where lines should be drawn in such cases.  A small business person who wants to run a business that reflects their values can be a sympathetic figure. Some believe a mom-and-pop company whose owners have religious objections to same-sex marriage should have the right to turn away a gay couple under those circumstances.  But it is hard to identify a legal principle by which a business covered by an anti-discrimination law would be allowed to ignore the law on the basis of the owner’s religious beliefs on marriage, but not on the basis of his religious beliefs on segregation or gender inequality.

The tension between the rights of a business owner and the ability of a legislature to ban discrimination as a matter of public policy finds eloquent expression in New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Bosson’s concurrence in the Elane Photography case.  The court unanimously upheld a finding by the state’s Human Rights Commission that refusing to provide services to a same-sex couple had violated anti-discrimination law. Bosson wrote that the court’s ruling means that the business owners “are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives. Though the rule of law requires it, the result is sobering.”

More from Bosson’s opinion:

On a larger scale, this case provokes reflection on what this nation is all about, its promise of fairness, liberty, equality of opportunity, and justice. At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others. A multicultural, pluralistic society, one of our nation’s strengths, demands no less. The Huguenins [the business owners] are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish, they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life…In the smaller, more focused world of the marketplace, of commerce, of public accommodation, the Huguenins have to channel their conduct, not their beliefs , so as to leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation, the tolerance that lubricates the varied moving parts of us as a people. That sense of respect we owe others, whether or not we believe as they do, illuminates this country, setting it apart from the discord that afflicts much of the rest of the world. In short, I would say to the Huguenins, with the utmost respect: it is the price of citizenship.

Bosson’s opinion recognizes that there are competing interests at play and that can make line-drawing difficult.  He treats the religious liberty questions respectfully.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Religious Right from portraying the decision, and Bosson’s opinion, as pure tyranny.  A lawyer for the Alliance Defending Freedom called the decision “a blow to our client and every American’s right to live free.” Cases in Colorado and Oregon involving bakery owners that declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and faced punishment for violating anti-discrimination laws have generated similar rhetoric. 

Most Americans do not see tyranny in the balancing act that legislatures and courts are engaged in. They believe the principle staked out in PFAW Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics: it is legitimate for government to require religious organizations and individuals to abide by rules and regulations that promote the common good. A poll conducted by Third Way and HRC just before the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act found that 68 percent of Americans believe that small business owners should not be allowed to refuse service to gays or lesbians, regardless of their religious beliefs. When asked specifically about wedding-related services like catering, flowers, or cakes, nearly as many – 64 percent – were opposed to laws that would allow small businesses to deny services based on their religious beliefs.


YEO Leads Fight Against ‘Right to Discriminate’ Law in Mississippi

In the wake of the recent uproar about an expansive “right to discriminate” bill that was vetoed in Arizona, on Thursday Mississippi governor Phil Bryant quietly signed similar legislation, the so-called Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, into law.

Mississippi State Senator Derrick Simmons, a member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, has been a vocal opponent of the distressing law. On the floor of the state Senate last week, Sen. Simmons, who is African American, said:

If you have never been discriminated against, you don't know how that feels…. I urge you to vote against this bill because it legalizes discrimination.

On Friday he spoke out again in a powerful op-ed outlining some of the negative repercussions his state may see now that, in Simmons’ words, “the worst outcome has occurred”:

Businesses wishing to discriminate against any person under state law could use “religious exercise” as a defense to justify their actions.

Federal and state laws do not let business owners with religious objections to “mixing the races” refuse service on religious grounds. We do not let business owners with traditional views of sex roles refuse to sell certain products to women or not hire married women for full-time jobs on religious grounds. Yet the way this bill is written could open the doors to many other types of discrimination.

…The Jim Crow laws ended in 1965. I was born 11 years later. I never witnessed those horrible years. I don’t want to see any shadow of the Jim Crow era, but this bill could turn back the clock. Arizona stopped it from happening when Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill in her state. I was praying for the same here; however, Mississippi just doesn't have the will to do what is right. Mississippi is burning again.

The worst outcome has occurred - Governor Bryant has signed the discriminatory bill into law. Yes, we can hope the Mississippi court system will recognize the importance of enforcing protection from discrimination, but we can act locally. We must ask our counties and cities to pass non-discrimination ordinances so our friends of all races, colors, creeds and orientations can find oases from prejudice in the great state of Mississippi.


AAMIA Featured in Safe Schools Letter Campaign

The letter-a-day campaign for safe schools that PFAW is leading just finished another week, and now twenty groups have gone on record with Congress in support of safe schools legislation. Together, we are sending loud and clear the message that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.

PFAW's own African American Ministers in Action was one of this week's highlights.

As clergy we will continue to learn and grow in our work for civil and human rights for all because of critical needs that have risen with the increase of cyberbullying and being bullied on school property. When young people come to our places of worship, they walk into a sanctuary, a safe place. This is what we should cooperatively be striving for in our schools.

We encourage you to be a partner in stopping abhorrent behavior that prevents victimized students from accessing quality education. All children deserve far better than that. Can we count on your support and cosponsorship? Your consideration of SSIA and SNDA, including as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), is necessary and appreciated.

Below are excerpts from the rest of this week's letters.

CenterLink: The Community of LGBT Centers:

CenterLink represents 149 centers in 45 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, supporting the heart and soul of the LGBT movement. LGBT community centers work more closely with their LGBT constituency and engage more community leaders and decision-makers than any other LGBT network in the country. It is these community centers that often serve as the first line of defense against harassment and bullying of LGBT youth, and it these centers that see the devastating impact of these acts on our country’s students . . . It is our responsibility to ensure that all students have access to quality education without fear of harassment and discrimination. We strongly encourage you to support and co-sponsor the SSIA and the SNDA.


Since the campaign launched, more than 11,000 individuals and 1,000 Jewish organizations have signed on, making a public commitment to stand up against demeaning or bullying treatment of anyone due to real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. We ask for members of our government to make their own commitment to protecting students from bullying within schools by taking action in Congress.

There is a Jewish concept known as . . . Tikkun Olam, which translates to an obligation to repair and heal the world. While term might be rooted in Jewish text and tradition, the concept is universal. Please stand with the Jewish community and Keshet and help repair the world by protecting our students.

Robert F. Kennedy Center:

Bullying is, at its core, a human rights violation. It is the abuse of the powerless at the hands of the powerful, and it is a threat against the right to receive an education free from persecution. According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 28% of youth age 12-18 report being bullied in the past year. The effects of bullying are serious and long-lasting and affect both academic achievement as well as mental and physical health long after the bullying has stopped.

Gay-Straight Alliance Network:

On behalf of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, we write today to urge you to support two critically important bills: The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) (H.R. 1199 / S. 403) and Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 1652 / S. 555). GSA Network is a national organization that operates a national association of 39 statewide organizations serving Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs in more than 3,000 schools across the country[.] Tens of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight ally youth participate in GSA clubs each year, and work to make schools safer.

Together these bills represent the first Federal definition of bullying and harassment, a necessary step to helping school districts, administrators and educators prevent, identify and address incidents of bullying and harassment. In the United States, 63.5% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 43.9% because of how they express their gender. 81.9% of LGBT students were verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation and 63.9% because of their gender expression. 55.2% of LGBT students were harassed or threatened by their peers via electronic mediums, often referred to as cyber bullying.

National Association of Secondary School Principals:

NASSP believes that learning occurs best in a supportive, inviting, orderly, and personalized school setting, where students are safe and feel free from theft, threats, intimidation, bullying, weapons, drugs, or violence of any type. Principals accept that their first responsibility is to foster such a climate, and the public continues to confirm that priority. NASSP believes that school leaders and staff members, along with community members and leaders, have a shared responsibility to ensure that schools are safe and orderly. Trusting relationships in school are the most effective means of ensuring school safety.

Log Cabin Republicans:

For too long a national inattention to bullying has left America’s LGBT youth particularly exposed to extremely high rates of harassment and assault. According to the 2011 National School Climate Survey, over 81.9% of LGBT students experienced verbal harassment, over four in ten were physically harassed, and over one in five suffered physical assault based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Many in Congress recognize the reality that faces our nation’s youth and the positive impact of anti-bullying laws, which is why they have taken steps to prevent bullying in our nation’s schools. By becoming the next co-sponsor of the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), you, too, can help American children.

Transgender Law Center:

No administrator, teacher or school staff would be able to be silent when a student is being bullied or harassed because of his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The SNDA makes school districts responsible for preparing staff to deal with bullying and harassment of LGBT youth or those perceived to be LGBT.

Here are some of our earlier participants – more support for safe schools.

With one week to go, PFAW will continue to update you as we approach this year's Day of Silence – an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that is meant to draw attention to the "silencing effects" of anti-gay harassment and name-calling in schools and to be a way for students to show their solidarity with students who have been bullied.

PFAW has released a new policy toolkit, Education Without Discrimination: Creating Safe Schools for All Students.

Please also check out PFAW's report on Big Bullies: How the Religious Right is Trying to Make Schools Safe for Bullies and Dangerous for Gay Kids and its 2012 update.


Jamie Raskin & Marge Baker Unpack McCutcheon

Two days after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC, PFAW Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin and Executive Vice President Marge Baker held a telebriefing with PFAW members to discuss the case – and what Americans can do about it.

Jamie noted that with the fall of the overall, or "aggregate," contribution limits, we are now past the midpoint in right-wing efforts to dismantle our nation's campaign finance laws. We've seen the same five conservative Justices strike down efforts to promote viable public financing of campaigns and open the door to unlimited corporate expenditures to affect elections. Left untouched – so far – are base limits (the cap on the amount you can give to a particular candidate) and laws against coordinating certain political expenditures.

Jamie also criticized the Court's absurdly cramped reading of the First Amendment, such that campaign finance laws can only be justified if they are intended to prevent real or perceived "quid pro quo" corruption, which is essentially bribery. Perhaps the next question for the Roberts Court will be whether any campaign contribution limits can be upheld as long as there are bribery laws on the books.

Marge Baker was also on the call, fielding questions from PFAW members, several of whom had participated in the rallies nationwide that were held on Wednesday in response to the ruling. A couple of major themes kept coming up:

  • Efforts to mitigate these rulings by legislation or regulation and more comprehensive efforts to reverse them completely by constitutional amendment are complementary. As people organize to advocate for an amendment, they also create the political landscape needed to enact the remedial provisions.
  • When you vote for president and senator, you are casting a vote that will determine who sits on our nation's courts. McCutcheon may have been issued this week, but it was set in motion by the elections that allowed those five conservative justices to be nominated and confirmed.
  • The issue is much greater than whether campaign finance laws address "quid pro quo" corruption. The issue is the health of our democracy. When a tiny elite of powerful, super-wealthy individuals have an outsized role in selecting and influencing our elected officials, drowning out the interests of everyone else, this poses a grave danger to our democracy – a danger that Americans around the country are increasingly recognizing and doing something about.

Listen to call here:

Add your voice to the movement to get big money out of our elections here.

For more information on what you can do to help preserve our democracy, check out our Government By the People activist toolkit.



Applying McCutcheon's Logic to Voter ID Laws

The Chief Justice's opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC striking down aggregate campaign contribution limits dismisses several scenarios put forward to describe how funds can be rerouted to bypass the existing base limits on contributions:

The dissent concludes by citing three briefs for the proposition that, even with the aggregate limits in place, individuals "have transferred large sums of money to specific candidates" in excess of the base limits. But the cited sources do not provide any real-world examples of circumvention of the base limits along the lines of the various hypotheticals.

The dearth of FEC prosecutions, according to the dissent, proves only that people are getting away with it. And the violations that surely must be out there elude detection "because in the real world, the methods of achieving circumvention are more subtle and more complex" than the hypothetical examples. This sort of speculation, however, cannot justify the substantial intrusion on First Amendment rights at issue in this case. (emphasis added)

Yet exactly this sort of speculation is routinely used by the far right to justify the substantial intrusion on the right to vote caused by strict photo ID laws. As Hans von Spakovsky and Peter McGinley recently wrote for the Heritage Foundation:

A favorite claim made by those who oppose voter ID is that voter fraud is a rare occurrence. On the surface, this argument may have some appeal, because it is not very often that huge voter fraud conspiracies dominate the national headlines. But, by its very nature, voter fraud is hard to detect.

Unfortunately, despite the absence of evidence of the in-person voter fraud they allegedly are intended to prevent, a number of voter ID laws have been upheld despite their obvious impact on the right to vote.

If only the courts were as solicitous of the right to vote in elections as they are of the right to purchase them. The "Money In / Voters Out" approach to elections has got to stop.

PFAW Foundation

Postcard from Arizona to John Roberts: Money Corrupts

In a week in which the Supreme Court turned a blind eye to the reality of money corrupting politics, a story out of Arizona provides a clear example of the insidious influence of the private prison industry and its campaign contributions. 

Arizona has been at the forefront of bad prison policy and big profits for private prison companies. People For the American Way’s 2012 report, “Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy,” explored how Arizona officials’ political and ideological commitment to prison privatization overrode good policy and common sense. Unbelievably, faced with evidence that privately run prisons were costing taxpayers more, not less, than state-run prisons, some legislators moved to stop the state from collecting the data.

This February, we wrote about Politico’s coverage of the private prison racket. “Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records,” author Matt Stroud asked, “So why do we keep giving them our business?” One answer is that the industry spends a fortune on lobbying and campaign contributions.

This week’s story shows how those investments can pay off. According to the Arizona Republic, House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanaugh tried to slip a last-minute $900,000 earmark for private prison giant GEO Group into the state budget. The company is already expected to get $45 million this year under contracts with the state that guarantee the company at least a 95 percent occupancy rate, “virtually ensuring the company a profit for operating its prisons in Arizona.” The state Department of Corrections said the extra money isn’t needed, but Kavanaugh heard otherwise from the company’s lobbyists. GEO executives gave Kavanaugh more than $2,500 in 2012.

The good news is that the Senate Appropriations Committee dropped the extra funding “following an uproar of criticism from Arizonans.”


Voting Rights – We Can Win

The New York Times and NPR recently shared somewhat different takes on where voting rights stand now and what the picture might look like come Election Day 2014.

It is true, as suggested by The Times:

Pivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing . . . bills, laws and administrative rules — some of them tried before — [that] shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote.

It's also true, as quoted by NPR from its interview with the Brennan Center's Myrna Pérez:

We've seen a lot of real momentum in 2014, thus far, towards improving our elections both at the states and nationally[.]

PFAW thought it would be good to take a step back and look at what has gone right at the state level in 2014 – and why we can and should keep fighting the challenges that lay before us.

Florida has an especially troublesome history with voter purges, but now the trouble is headed back toward the chief architects. On April 1, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that Gov. Rick Scott’s voter purge of suspected non-citizens in 2012 violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), because systematic removal programs are barred within 90 days of a federal election. This came just days after Secretary of State Ken Detzner did an about-face and called off his 2014 plans.

In the final hours of its legislative session, thanks to a flaw in the bill language, Georgia looked poised to take the early voting days for municipal elections down to ZERO. Because staunch advocates like the League of Women Voters closely monitored the bill and sprang into action when that fatal flaw was discovered, the session adjourned on March 20 with early voting intact. As the League's Kelli Persons noted:

The message here is that it's very important . . . to pay attention to what's happening at the local level[.]

Even in North Carolina, where the Moral Mondays movement began and challenges to voting reach far and wide, there's been a victory of sorts. On March 27, US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled that lawmakers must release correspondence related to the formation of the state's new voter ID law, saying that though some records might be shielded, many are considered public. We need transparency as this case moves forward.

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 – but we can win, and let's not forget that.

Check out PFAW’s website for more voting rights updates.