PEOPLE FOR BLOG

PFAW Member Telebriefing: Preview of Upcoming PFAW Foundation Report, The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era

Yesterday, PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin previewed his upcoming report, The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era, during a member telebriefing. Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon also joined the call to answer questions from members and discuss PFAW efforts to promote fair and just courts. Drew Courtney, Director of Communications for PFAW, moderated.

To kick off the call, Raskin reviewed another period during which the Court granted unprecedented constitutional rights to corporations. Lochner v. NY, Raskin explained, began an era in which government at every level was prevented from interfering with corporate contracts—and thereby prevented from passing sensible health and safety regulations.

Today, said Raskin, we’re in an analogous period, with the Supreme Court now using the First Amendment as an excuse for expanding or inventing the political and religious rights of corporations. This time, it’s beyond what we’ve ever seen before; the Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby cases both demonstrate how the Court is putting the interests of corporations over the rights of people and making it more difficult to hold corporations accountable for their actions. Other cases allow corporations to insulate themselves through a host of legal immunities while at the same time, they’re able to spend unlimited amounts of money  influencing who gets elected to office.

In responding to a question from a PFAW member, Baker outlined the two key ways to fight the Court’s trend of empowering corporations over people: Elect Presidents who will nominate, and Senators who will confirm, Justices who share the ideology that corporations shouldn’t be favored in their legal rights over people; and amend the Constitution, which PFAW and other groups are working on now. She also directed PFAW members to www.united4thepeople.org and www.getmoneyoutaction.org to get more involved in these issues.

You can listen to the full telebriefing here:

PFAW Foundation

Peggy Young Will Get Her Day in Court

There's good news in the Supreme Court ruling in Peggy Young v. UPS, a case we discussed in our Term Preview and also blogged about after oral arguments. That's the case where UPS refused to give light duty to a pregnant employee who was under doctor's orders not to lift heavy packages, even though they gave light duty to other employees with similar lifting restrictions (those injured on the job, those who'd lost their DOT driving certification, and those with permanent disabilities).

The Court ruled in favor of Young in a five-Justice opinion written by Justice Breyer and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Chief Justice Roberts. (Justice Alito concurred in the result but didn't join the majority opinion.) It's an important victory for Peggy Young individually and for women across the country, since it shuts down corporate efforts to make it much easier to discriminate against pregnant workers.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), passed in 1978, says that pregnancy discrimination is a form of illegal sex discrimination. Congress had to make this explicit after the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in a 1976 case. But that isn't all the PDA says. It also has a second provision: women affected by pregnancy "shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes … as other persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work."

The Court rejected UPS's extremely restrictive reading of the law. The corporation had argued that it hadn't discriminated on the basis of pregnancy because they were treating Young the same way they'd have treated a non-pregnant employee whose restrictions weren't caused by an on-the-job injury or other category. As Peggy Young learned the hard way when the lower courts ruled in favor of UPS without a trial, this made it much too easy for employers to force an employee to choose between her pregnancy and her job.

But the Supreme Court majority also rejected Young's reading of the law, where she would not have needed to show any intent to discriminate. Instead, the majority said that women in Young's situation – women asserting disparate treatment but without direct evidence of discriminatory intent – have to do more than show that they are being treated differently than workers with similar restrictions on their ability to work. Once they demonstrate the disparate treatment, the employer has a chance to offer up legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for their policy ("saving money" doesn't count). Then it's up to the employee to convince a jury that those reasons are just a pretext. This is the same framework used in other types of Title VII disparate treatment cases, and it can create a hurdle that can be hard for victims of discrimination to overcome.

So this was not the complete victory Young sought, but it is still a victory, because it vacated the lower court and gives her a chance to make her case.

In a brief paragraph, the majority noted that the law has changed since Young's pregnancy, to the benefit of women like her. Specifically, Congress modified the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008 to specify that impairments that limit your ability to lift, stand, or bend are disabilities under the law, thereby presenting legal options to women that were unavailable to Young. In addition, EEOC rules require employers to accommodate temporary lifting restrictions that originate off the job.

Not mentioned by the Court (appropriately enough, since it isn't the law) is a bill in Congress supported by a number of progressives – including our affiliate PFAW – called the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. This would make clear that employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees.

The Court's ruling could have severely restricted women's rights under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Fortunately, the Court did not accept the misinterpretation of the law that would have benefited corporate interests at the expense of women everywhere.

PFAW Foundation

Shining a Light on Corporate 'Dark Money'

This op-ed was originally published at OtherWords.com.

If 2014 was the “Year of Dark Money” in elections, then 2016 is likely to be the “Year of Way, Way More Dark Money” — that is, unless something big changes soon.

One of the most troubling aspects of the explosion of big money in politics in recent years is the rapid rise in spending by groups that aren’t required to disclose their donors.

Right now, corporations and super-rich political donors like the Koch brothers can funnel millions into elections through groups that hide their identities, leaving voters and candidates unable to tell who’s behind the attack ads they buy in bulk, or what their agendas are.

More than $600 million of this so-called “dark money” has already been poured into our federal elections, and that’s only going to increase as we ramp up for the next presidential race.

Americans aren’t happy about this.

When President Barack Obama called in January for a “better politics” where “we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter,” he wasn’t just speaking for himself.

He was tapping into a deep-seated unease among everyday Americans who know that our political system can’t work for us when it’s awash in millions of dollars of untraceable money.

But President Obama can do more than simply call attention to the problem. He can take a big step toward fixing it by issuing an executive order requiring companies with government contracts to disclose their political spending.

That would mean that many of the nation’s biggest corporations — like Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Chrysler, and Verizon, just to name a few — would have to let the American people know about their political spending. That would turn some of that dark money into plain old “money.”

As The Washington Post editorial board wrote earlier this year, disclosure is “the backbone of accountability.” The public needs to be able to follow the money trail, see who’s behind political spending, and call them out when they don’t like what they see.

Even the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate political spending with its 2010 Citizens United decision, has underscored the need for disclosure. Transparency, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the ruling, “enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”

Today, only one-fourth of the country’s largest government contractors disclose their contributions to outside groups. That means that many of the corporations receiving the biggest government contracts — from taxpayer money — are likely doing a great deal of secret spending to influence elections.

President Obama is right: Ordinary Americans are tired of being pulled “into the gutter.” We’re tired of seeing corporations rig our political system with untold amounts of money from undisclosed sources.

The White House should issue an executive order to let voters see for themselves who’s trying to buy political influence to distort our democracy.

What are these corporations trying to hide? And why should We the People hand over our taxpayer money to help them hide it?

PFAW

PFAW Calls Out Ted Cruz for His Doublespeak on Immigration

If Ted Cruz is so proud of his anti-immigrant stance, why won't he talk about it in Spanish?

In launching his campaign this week, Ted Cruz released an English-language video celebrating both his immigrant history and his work “putting everything on the line to stop President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional amnesty.” But in the Spanish-language version, Cruz again celebrates his immigrant history, but makes no mention of his anti-immigrant leadership.

 

Read People For the American Way's statement calling out Cruz for his doublespeak.

PFAW

Many Say Schock’s Too Young to Serve. Here’s Why They’re Wrong.

This op-ed by Andrew Gillum, Director of Youth Leadership Programs, People For the American Way Foundation, was originally published at The Huffington Post.

In the quick unraveling of Rep. Aaron Schock's political career, some have questioned if Millennials are ready for Congress, but it’s wrong to conclude that Schock’s youth was the reason for his mistakes. And it’s even worse to write off young people as unfit for public office.

To the contrary, electing Millennials to public office has the potential to be tremendously beneficial to our country. As Tina Nguyen at Mediaite puts it “Hell, there needs to be more Millennials in Congress, but ones that demonstrate other millennial virtues — tech-savvy, ambitious, and striving to be self-sufficient.” I couldn’t agree more.

And while it’s easy to celebrate the potential that young people could bring to the business of governing, no one should think that it is only future “potential” that young people have. A quick look at communities around the country demonstrates the striking impact that young people in public office are already having. I know, because I see it up close every day. As Mayor of Tallahassee and as Director of Youth Leadership Programs for People For the American Way Foundation, I’ve collaborated with young elected officials who work diligently and effectively for their constituents and communities, while progress by their – literally – senior counterparts in Washington stalls. (This Congress has one of the oldest median ages on the books, so anyone who thinks that longer life experience is all it takes to be an effective legislator hasn’t been reading the news.)

While Congress’s inability to govern has been on display time and time again, I’m constantly amazed at the ability of young people at the state and local level to actually get things done. We don’t expect to see an increased federal minimum wage anytime soon, but young electeds have sponsored both living wage ordinances and minimum wage legislation across the country. One of our members, Rep. Matt Lesser, co-sponsored and successfully advocated for the historic minimum wage increase in Connecticut. A cohort of young electeds pushed for a minimum wage increase in Wisconsin tied to inflation.

Young legislators in Colorado have tackled what seem to be losing battles in Congress: universal pre-K and Head Start funding. Rep. Crisanta Duran sponsored a bill to provide affordable child care for low-income families, and Rep. Dominick Moreno helped create the “Breakfast After the Bell” legislation that now gives more than 80,000 kids free breakfast in Colorado, a state where one in five children experience hunger.

And across the country, young people in public office bring innovative solutions to the problems their communities face. Nebraska State Senator Amanda McGill has worked on initiating telehealth services in schools. Cambridge Councilman Leland Cheung created incentives for start-ups in mixed use zoning areas.  Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak in Pittsburgh has championed open data and transparent government.

Everywhere I go, I meet people of every age eager to tell me about some extraordinary young elected official they know, as if that experience is unique to their community. It’s up to me to tell them that dedicated, effective young people in government aren’t the exception in communities across the country -- they’re the rule.

In all 50 states, young people are offering new perspectives and outside-the-box solutions. In a country that’s seemingly more divided than ever, we need more young people lending their voice and stepping up for public service. Don’t look to Aaron Schock as the face of young politicians – look in your own backyard.

PFAW Foundation

Wisconsin Voter ID Reminds Us of the Importance of Circuit Courts

The Supreme Court this morning denied a request to review the Seventh Circuit's decision to uphold Wisconsin's strict voter ID law. This case shows just how important fair and just courts are to protecting our most important rights, and the consequences of Republican efforts to prevent President Obama from filling circuit court vacancies.

Last spring, a federal district court struck the law down, recognizing that it would have a discriminatory impact on African Americans and Latinos, and that "it is absolutely clear that [it] will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes." Of course, that is no surprise, since that is the unstated purpose of these laws. Fortunately, when Wisconsinites recognized that their rights were being violated, a federal judge was able to make sure that partisan efforts to suppress the vote were not able to overcome our laws protecting the right to vote.

Unfortunately, this decision was reversed by a Seventh Circuit panel consisting of conservative judges nominated by Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. When the entire circuit was asked to review the panel decision, they split 5-5, just one vote short of preventing those rules from going into effect.

One judge could have really made a difference. And it just so happens that Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has blocked efforts to fill a longtime vacancy on that court for more than four years, since the day he took office after the 2010 elections. Make no mistake: Johnson and his fellow Republicans preventing President Obama from putting judges on the bench know full well how important the federal courts are, especially the circuit courts.

In fact, the Seventh Circuit is not the only one with a long-unfilled vacancy. Republican senators from Texas, Kentucky, and Alabama have also been blocking President Obama's efforts to nominate highly qualified jurists to fill longtime vacancies on the Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits. As we have written:

[N]o senator should see President Obama's outreach as an opportunity to coerce him into naming an unacceptable far-right nominee. Keeping the judgeship vacant even longer in the hopes that a future (hopefully Republican) president will fill it is not a reasonable option, serving only to make justice less available to those who need it most. At some point, such senators have two choices. They can agree with the White House on someone everyone can support. Alternatively, they should acknowledge the extensive consultations that occurred and present any concerns about the eventual nominee in public before the Judiciary Committee, where the nominee has a chance to respond.

Either way, Republican senators cannot be allowed to indefinitely prevent anyone from being nominated to fill longtime judicial vacancies.

PFAW

Payday Loan Interests Funneled Dark Money into Fight Against Oversight

On Tuesday the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal revealed that in 2012, the Online Consumers Network, an “arm of the online payday loan empire industry,” gave $200,000 to two dark money groups connected to top House Republicans during the industry’s push to roll back the power of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In other words, two years after the Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited outside spending to influence elections, payday loan interests were funneling dark money political spending to benefit officials who could help in their efforts to fight oversight and regulation.

While this is far from surprising in light of the current state of our campaign finance laws, it flies in the face of how regulation should work. From the chemical industry ramping up political spending as Congress takes up a bill overhauling the regulation of chemicals, to the payday loan industry throwing money against oversight efforts, industry interests should never be driving the legislative or regulatory process. The public good should be.

Fighting to make governmental action about protecting ordinary Americans rather than protecting the bottom line of major corporations shouldn’t be controversial. It’s simply expecting our political system to work as it was intended: for the people.
 

PFAW

The Animus Amicus: Archive Activism and Marriage Equality

Note: This article first appeared at Huffington Post. 

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of state laws that ban same-sex couples from getting married. The historic case has attracted a wide array of amicus briefs; People For the American Way Foundation joined religious and civil rights groups on a brief urging the Court to reject discriminatory marriage bans and challenging “religious liberty” arguments opposing marriage equality.

One fascinating brief was filed by the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.  The original group by that name was led by Frank Kameny, an astronomer who was fired from his federal job for being gay and led some of the earliest gay-rights protests in the nation’s capital in the 1960s. The name and legacy have been revived by local activists Charles Francis and Pate Felts for the purpose of documenting decades of systematic anti-gay discrimination by the federal government. In partnership with pro bono attorneys from the firm of McDermott Will & Emery, the new Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is engaged in strategic “archive activism.” They are using the Freedom of Information Act to unearth a “culture of animus” that permeated the U.S. Civil Service Commission – now known as the Office of Personnel Management – and to bring to public light previously closed records about investigations challenging workers’ “loyalty” and “suitability.”

“The investigation and firing of gay and lesbian federal employees was like shooting fish in a barrel for the General Counsels and legal staff of the Civil Service Commission,” says Francis. “The animus, almost sports-like in their writings, is documented in decades of legal advisory files we discovered this year at the National Archives.”

Among the historical tidbits unearthed by the project: Nancy Reagan turning down a plea from a dying Rock Hudson for help getting into another hospital; and anti-gay activist Gary Bauer’s no-holds-barred, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to keep the White House from including a gay person on the nation’s first AIDS commission.

The Mattachine Society’s project is about preserving the historical record, but it also has an important legal purpose, which is demonstrating that anti-equality laws and regulations have long been grounded in hostility, or animus, that is not a permissible justification for discrimination.  Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissent from the Supreme Court decision in Windsor, which overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, demonstrates the importance of this archival work. Roberts suggested there is insufficient evidence – he waved it away as “snippets of legislative history” – to demonstrate that DOMA’s purpose was to “codify malice.” Added Roberts, “I would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry.”

There’s no escaping the brush of bigotry, the reeking stench of bigotry, exposed by the Mattachine Society’s brief, which links to more than 35 historical documents that demonstrate the ways that the Civil Service Commission, often in partnership with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and other law enforcement agencies, investigated people suspected of sexual “perversion” and robbed them of their federal jobs and careers.

From the amicus:

For decades, this animus was one of the basic assumptions of American life. It was so persistent, so prevalent, and so instrumental to the way that we structured our institutions, treated our fellow citizens, and organized our lives that, in retrospect, it is often overlooked….

For decades, both federal and state governments targeted and persecuted homosexuals, individuals suspected of being homosexual, and even those believed to have engaged in homosexual acts, regardless of actual sexual orientation. The stated rationale shifted over time—from concerns about national security to code words, such as “suitability”—but the point was always the same: government officials, federal and state, high and low, felt a complete revulsion toward homosexuals and wanted to purge the country of even the hint of homosexuality.

Animus, therefore, was a culture. And with that culture came a language. For decades,  government officials referred to homosexuality in official, often highly confidential or privileged communications, as “unnatural,” “uniquely nasty,” “immoral,” “deviant,” “pervert[ed],” and an “abomination.” Even the FBI had a term for the program that it designed to rid the government of homosexuals—the “Sex Deviate Program.” Once it attached, whether based in fact or mere speculation, the label of homosexuality remained forever fixed. As one senior executive official wrote, “once a homo, always a homo.” And, as one state legislature put it, what homosexuals wanted was “recognition.” And “recognition” was something to fear….

The effort to purge “sex deviates” began well before President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Executive Order 10450, but that action explicitly made “sexual perversion” a disqualification from federal employment. Congress was in on the act as well. The Mattachine amicus quotes from a 1950 document from the US Senate Subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department:

There is no place in the United States Government for persons who violate the laws or the accepted standards of morality, or who otherwise bring disrepute to the Federal service by infamous or scandalous personal conduct . . . . It is the opinion of this subcommittee that those who engage in acts of homosexuality and other perverted sex activities are unsuitable for employment in the Federal Government.

The federal government also worked in concert with anti-gay activities being carried out at the state level. One of the documents uncovered by Mattachine’s Freedom of Information Act requests is a 1963 note from Civil Service Commission General Counsel L. V. Meloy to Charley Johns, chairman of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee on Homosexuality and Citizenship.

The infamous Johns Report wallowed in salacious descriptions of “the special world of homosexuality” and warned of “aggressive homosexuals” seeking recognition and legal equality. The report described teachers engaging in sex in public bathrooms and little league coaches seducing teenagers, asserting, “The plain fact of the matter is that a great many homosexuals have an insatiable appetite for sexual activities and find special gratification in the recruitment to their ranks of youth.” The report included a glossary of “sex offenses” that were illegal under Florida law and eight pages of homosexual slang and “deviate acts.”

Meloy’s letter asking for “several copies” of the report said that the “Federal Government has related problems in this area and … [the] investigation will shed additional light on a most difficult problem in suitability for government employment.” The Florida committee specifically targeted gay teachers but also resulted, according to the Mattachine amicus, in the removal of at least 37 federal employees.

The brief also documents that the Civil Service Commission shifted its strategies in response to court rulings challenging its policies. The brief goes into some depth documenting the case of William Dew, an African American Air Force veteran. Dew was married with a pregnant wife when he was fired from his job as an air traffic controller in 1958 for having admitted years earlier as part of a job application to the CIA that he had experimented with gay sex when he was in college. After a six-year legal battle, culminating in the Supreme Court agreeing to hear Dew’s appeal, the government settled with him. But rather than loosening the CSC’s anti-gay policies, the government strengthened its resolve in the wake of the Dew settlement and, in the words of the Mattachine amicus, “demonstrated its willingness to use all of its resources to crush homosexuals and those who engaged in homosexual acts with its suitability standards.”

Following a 1969 DC Circuit Court ruling that challenged the firing of federal workers for something that had nothing to do with the performance of their jobs, the CSC General Counsel at that time, Anthony Mondello, argued that federal agencies would have a hard time attracting quality workers if applicants knew they might have to work with “people who repeatedly engaged in serious misconduct offensive to community standards.”

The CSC and its successor, the Office of Personnel Management, continued to target gay federal employees throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s.

The Mattachine Society brief ends with an appeal to the Court’s history of addressing anti-gay animus:

The Dew case is important for another reason as well—one that goes to the heart of the cases now before this Court. For decades, there was no limit to the animus meted out against LGBT Americans and no end to its reach. It poisoned every institution in the United States and seeped into the lives of all Americans, not merely those of gays and lesbians. So too, the language of animus became commonplace among those in the highest positions in government: “homo,” “sexual deviant,” “pervert,” “abomination,” “uniquely nasty,” and other derogatory terms and phrases were used with bureaucratic ease as a way to define, cabin, and limit the citizenship of LGBT Americans. As the Dew case perfectly illustrates, the animus even extended to those who were not gay.

It was the courts—and in the case of Dew, this Court—that ultimately stepped in to set the course right. This Court knows animus when it sees it, and it has a well-established line of cases overturning laws that by their text, background history, and effect, relegate a class of citizens to second-class status. Seee.g., Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003); and United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). Indeed, this Court has already recognized the long history of discrimination and animus against homosexuals. Seee.g., Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 571.

The newly revealed documents cited herein merely reinforce what this Court already knows. For decades, there was a culture of animus against LGBT Americans that permeated every aspect of American life and every American institution. In many places, that culture continues to this day. To say that the marriage bans now at issue are not somehow the product of this historical animus is to ignore reality. We may not see the air that feeds the flame. But, for decades, animus against LGBT Americans fed the flames of hatred, revulsion, and disgust from which the current marriage bans arose.

The Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. is optimistic about the impact of its brief. “The government attorneys who administered the federal ban on homosexuals have met their match in our pro bono counsel McDermott, Will & Emery’s powerful amicus brief," says Francis, "The McDermott brief is a lasting account of an unconstitutional ‘culture of animus’ embedded through seven Presidencies.”

PFAW

GOP's Delay for Loretta Lynch More Ridiculous By the Day

If anyone had said four months ago that we’d still be waiting for the Senate to hold a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch, no one would have believed it.  Yet here we are.  Although she was approved by the Judiciary Committee three weeks ago, Mitch McConnell just can’t bring himself to schedule a floor vote for her.

Lynch is supremely qualified to be AG.  Progressives and conservatives alike have written to the Senate praising Lynch and urging her confirmation.  In fact, not a single one of the Republicans’ own witnesses at her confirmation hearing actually opposed her confirmation.

Yet Republicans in the Senate continue to make a partisan brawl out of a consensus nomination.

Until now, regardless of which party was in the White House or in control of the Senate, the attorney general nominee has gotten a confirmation vote very quickly upon committee approval.  But Lynch’s nomination has been languishing on the Senate floor for nearly three weeks, longer than the wait-time for the past five attorney general nominees combined.

McConnell has jettisoned his promise to allow a vote this week.  At the beginning of next week, Lynch will have been waiting for a floor vote as long as the previous seven attorneys general combined:

Click chart for larger image.
Chart: Loretta Lynch vs. other attorney general confirmations

McConnell’s latest excuse for delay is that the Senate needs to vote on a human trafficking bill first … a bipartisan bill that Republicans politicized by inserting an anti-choice provision.

The Lynch nomination was a great opportunity for Republicans to show the American people that they can govern.  Instead, they’ve shown the American people that they won’t pass up any opportunity to play politics, as they pile unheard-of delay after delay on the person who should already have been confirmed as our nation’s first African American woman attorney general.

PFAW

Signs of Progress on Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated Persons

Monday night was a big one for voting rights in Maryland. The State Senate passed a bill to loosen voter registration rules for formerly incarcerated persons, allowing them to register upon release from prison, rather than having to wait until probation or parole are complete. A hearing on the House companion bill took place on March 11.

The Washington Post:

Supporters of the legislation said in floor testimony that former prisoners automatically regain a number of rights as soon as they leave incarceration — and that the list should include voting, a way to reintegrate themselves into society.

Plus, they added, many former felons are confused about when exactly they can register to vote and post-prison is the clearest milestone that’s easiest for the state to enforce.

The disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons exacerbates the discrimination they face, particularly in minority communities that are disproportionately represented in the system. They work, pay taxes, and are affected by government decisions. They should be able to hold their elected officials accountable for those decisions. They should be able to vote.

It's fitting that Maryland is showing signs of progress just as its US Senators are reintroducing the Democracy Restoration Act in Congress.

Lead sponsor in the Senate, Ben Cardin:

The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. State disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy and the patchwork of laws leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, in addition to the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system. Congress has a responsibility to remedy these problems and enact a nationwide standard for the restoration of voting rights.”

Senator Barbara Mikulski:

From suffragettes through Civil Rights, expanding access to the ballot box in America has always been a move in the right direction. Disenfranchising former offenders does a disservice to the very idea of democracy. If an American citizen has paid their debt to society after committing a crime, our focus must be on their rehabilitation and full reintegration into society – voting rights and all.

Both PFAW and African American Ministers In Action support the Democracy Restoration Act.

We'll be watching for new developments in Congress and with the Maryland bill.

PFAW

#DemandDemocracy: Franciscan Action Network Speaks Out on Money in Politics

In the seventh installment of our #DemandDemocracy video blog, Jason Miller with the Franciscan Action Network discusses the impact of big money in politics on issues important to the faith community.

With powerful individuals and corporations buying outsized influence in our political system, Miller notes, progress on issues like immigration, climate change, and peacemaking is often stymied. In response, members of the Franciscan Action Network have banded together to call for a constitutional amendment and gather signatures in support of such an amendment.

PFAW’s #DemandDemocracy video blog series is a collection of short videos that highlight how big money in politics affects — and often stalls progress on — a range of other critical issues.

PFAW

Iowa's Controversial Voter Purge Will Not Take Effect

Last Friday the 13th a long-running battle to bring controversial voter purges to Iowa ended after Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate declined to continue an appeal launched by his predecessor, Matt Schultz, and the case was dismissed from the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Des Moines Register:

In a statement, Pate said he voluntarily declined to continue the appeal after consulting with the Attorney General's Office and will focus now on "building the most accurate voter registration list for Iowa."

"I will use my authority to the fullest extent of state and federal law to ensure accurate voter lists," Pate said. "There are other ways to accomplish the same goal without pursuing a course with significant legal hurdles."

ACLU of Iowa:

"This is an important victory for the protection of voters’ rights in Iowa," said Rita Bettis, legal director of the ACLU of Iowa. "It means that Iowans will not have to worry about the voter purges we've seen take effect in other states with a disastrous impact, especially for new U.S. citizens and Latinos."

[ . . . ]

Jeremy Rosen, ACLU of Iowa executive director, said "This case is part of a broader effort nationally to push back on unfair voting restrictions by politicians that make it harder for people to vote, who are more likely to be minorities, poor people, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities."

Indeed we must continue pushing back, as it becomes harder to distinguish between margins of victory and margins of disenfranchisement, and as we honor the legacies of Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act.

PFAW Foundation

Alabama's Shame Grows with Bill to Make It Harder for Gays to Marry

In some parts of the world, government officials won't help you if you don't share their religious beliefs. Citizens seeking to be served by government employees have to go from office to office, experiencing the shame and frustration of being turned away by those whose salaries they pay.

Yesterday, Alabama took a step toward becoming such a place, to the delight of the far right.

The Alabama House passed the so-called "Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act" by an overwhelming margin of 69-25 yesterday. Among its provisions is one stating that civil servants have the right to refuse to perform any civil marriage ceremony should they wish. As AL.com reported:

In session today, Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Livingston, asked [bill sponsor Jim] Hill: "Why all of a sudden has this become an issue?"

Hill replied: "I can't answer that, sir."

Really? It isn't hard to figure out:

Tears came to the eyes of Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, as she spoke against the bill on the House floor. Todd, the only openly gay legislator in the state, said the bill was drafted to discriminate against gay couples who want to marry.

"This is very hurtful to me as an openly gay person," she said.

Ever since a federal district judge ruled that Alabama's marriage ban violates the Constitution, the state has been a showcase of defiance. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore violated the canons of judicial ethics in seeking to force government officials from complying with the ruling, prompting our affiliate PFAW Foundation to file a formal complaint with the Judicial Inquiry Commission. Because of Moore, Alabama quickly became a checkerboard where gay and lesbian Alabamans were locked out of full citizenship across vast swaths of the state based on the whims of local officials. The state supreme court then shut down marriages for same-sex couples across the state in a highly controversial ruling.

Now Alabama legislators are seeking to guarantee that even if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that lesbians and gays have the right to marry, it is a right they will not be able to exercise across vast swaths of Alabama, unless they can find a public servant whose religious beliefs do not include a vehement hostility to lesbian and gay equality. That this bill targets one group of people for second class citizenship cannot be seriously questioned. No one should be fooled for a moment that this has anything to do with religious liberty, a fundamental American value designed to be a shield from oppression, not a sword to harm others.

PFAW

Seriously? Republicans Target Birthright Citizenship Again?

This op-ed by Randy Borntager, Political Director of People For the American Way, was originally published at The Huffington Post.

After the vast majority of Republicans voted to shut down the Department of Homeland Security to oppose President Obama's immigration actions, and with Republicans blocking any hope of real immigration reform this Congress, it seems the anti-immigrant movement has instead decided to refocus its efforts on revoking the constitutional right to birthright citizenship.

Earlier this week, Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana decided to introduce a birthright citizenship amendment to the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015. The amendment so far has just one cosponsor -- Sen. David Perdue of Georgia -- and it's unlikely that it will be included in the final bill, but this decision to tack an unconstitutional, anti-immigrant measure onto an important bill shows the priorities of Sen. Vitter and the Republican Party.

Sen. Vitter claims that his birthright citizenship amendment would help curb the issue of "birth tourism," recently in the news surrounding Chinese mothers coming to California -- often committing crimes in the process -- so their children can be born in the U.S. It would seem more sensible to tackle this issue through targeting the middlemen who NBC reports "pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars tax-free," and the visa, tax, and marriage fraud that are often a key part of "birth tourism." Instead, Sen. Vitter and the many Republicans who support ending birthright citizenship are trying to use the issue as cover for their attacks on immigrants and attempts to revoke a core constitutional right.

The flaws of the conservative attacks on birthright citizenship have been well documented. First, it's blatantly unconstitutional. It's clear that the drafters of the 14th Amendment intended it to guarantee citizenship to everyone born in the U.S. The only exception -- in the words of one of the amendment drafter's, Sen. Jacob Howard -- is for people "who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers accredited to the Government of the United States," as they are not, as the 14th Amendment requires, "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States. Conservatives from Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush adviser, to the anti-immigrant Lou Dobbs have viewed attempts to undermine birthright citizenship as unconstitutional.

It's also a terrible idea. Gerson wrote, "Anti-immigration activists often claim that their real concern is to prevent law breaking, not to exclude Hispanics. But revoking birthright citizenship would turn hundreds of thousands of infants into 'criminals'--arriving, not across a border, but crying in a hospital." The Migration Policy Institute also found that rather than decreasing the number of undocumented immigrants in America, as birthright citizenship activists claim, revoking the right would "likely increase dramatically" the number of people in the country without authorization, leading to the "establishment of a permanent class of unauthorized persons."

Sen. Vitter is not the only Republican promoting anti-immigrant bills instead of trying for real, bipartisan solutions on immigration. In January of this year, Rep. Steve King of Iowa re-introduced a bill aiming to repeal birthright citizenship. Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Rep. Mike Coffman, and Rep. Joe Heck have all backed plans to revoke birthright citizenship in the past.

We need immigration reform. From improving the economy while reducing the deficit to ensuring that DREAMers and their families can live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation, the benefits are endless. Not only have Republicans blocked comprehensive immigration reform when it had a real chance of passing, they're now trying yet again to bring up unconstitutional bills to drive their point home. That's not what responsible governing looks like, and for a party that says they're trying to attract more Latino support, they're certainly not shy about attacking immigrants for short-term political gain.

PFAW

Alabama Supreme Court Orders Official to Violate Federal Court Decision

Late yesterday saw the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of resistance to marriage equality in Alabama, and it is another ugly one.

Earlier this month, the Alabama Supreme Court (with Chief Justice Roy Moore recused) chose to act on a petition from two far right anti-gay organizations and ruled that the state's marriage ban is constitutional. (In other words, they ruled that gay and lesbian couples do not have a constitutional right to marry in a proceeding where none of the parties was a same-sex couple. How's that for fair?) They ruled that federal district Judge Callie Granade's January decision saying otherwise does not bind anyone but the parties in that case, and they directed every probate judge in the state but one to stop giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The one exception was Probate Judge Don Davis: Since he had been specifically ordered by the federal court to grant a marriage license to the plaintiffs in Strawser v. Strange and Davis, the justices ordered him to say whether he felt that federal court order required him to grant licenses to any other same-sex couples, or only to the parties in that particular case.

Yesterday, the justices (again with Moore recused) concluded that the federal court order didn't apply to any other couples, and they directed Davis to enforce the marriage ban that had been struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year.

It isn't quite clear why the Alabama Supreme Court, rather than Judge Granade, is qualified to say what Judge Grande's order means.

Even putting that aside, the logic of the state justices' legal conclusion is hard to fathom. A federal court ruled that the ban was unconstitutional - period. It did not rule that the ban was unconstitutional only when applied to the particular couples in that lawsuit. When Judge Granade ordered Davis to issue marriage licenses to the plaintiffs who had asked the court for this relief, she clearly intended for Davis to act consistently with the Constitution for any other same-sex couples seeking to marry. For Davis to comply with the Alabama Supreme Court's order, he would have to defy the federal court.

The contempt for the rule of law seen in this order is nothing new to the Alabama high court. After all, Chief Justice Moore himself was removed from the court more than a decade ago for defying a federal district court order. His efforts to nullify the federal marriage equality ruling prompted PFAW Foundation to submit a formal complaint to state ethics officials calling for him to be removed a second time. It is disheartening to see that most of his colleagues on the state high court share his contempt for the rule of law, to say nothing of the rights of lesbian and gay Alabamans.

PFAW Foundation