PEOPLE FOR BLOG

NC's Tillis Marginalizes Minorities

In an interview recorded in September 2012, North Carolina Speaker of the House and U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis compared the growing population of African Americans and Latinos to a stagnant “traditional population of North Carolina and the United States.”

In an interview highlighted by Talking Points Memo, which first spotted the 2012 interview, a spokesman for Tillis claimed that “traditional North Carolinians refers to North Carolinians who have been here for a few generations.”

If you listen to the full context of Tillis’ remarks, however, it is clear that he was referring to the “traditional population” as a group distinct from the “Latino population” and the “African American population.”

Right Wing Watch points out that “traditional population” and “traditional Americans” are frequently used by anti-immigrant extremists as euphemisms for “white population.” For instance, in The Social Contract, a journal founded by an influential anti-immigrant leader, the term is used in a 2012 essay by Brenda Walker when she says, “Traditional Americans are assailed by affirmative action and benefits for illegal aliens, which are not available to citizens.”

In speaking of the “traditional population,” Tillis stands alongside people like William Gheen, founder of anti-immigrant group Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, who said that immigration reform would create a situation in which “traditional Americans, like those who that have been here for hundreds of years in descendancy, will no longer govern our own nation.”

It is true that North Carolina’s African American, Latino, and Asian American populations are growing faster than its white population. For instance, the Latino population in North Carolina grew by 111.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, increasing from 4.7 percent of the population to 8.4 percent. Yet Tillis has consistently worked to marginalize Latinos, by cutting spending on education, opposing healthcare reform, and supporting a restrictive voter identification law ironically called “VIVA.” That’s why People for the American Way is working in North Carolina this year to make sure Latino voters know the threat posed by Tillis’ extreme agenda.

Last year PFAW’s Spanish-language advertising helped spur turnout among Latinos in Virginia’s gubernatorial elections, and did the same in many 2012 battleground contests. As we look to the 2014 elections, Tillis’ actions and statements marginalizing the Latino community will represent a real challenge to his standing in an increasingly powerful voting bloc.

PFAW

Obama to Issue Executive Order Protecting Federal Contractors’ LGBT Employees

The White House announced today that President Obama will issue an executive order protecting the employees of federal contractors from workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the White House, it is an action rooted in the principle that “your ability to get ahead should be determined by your hard work, ambition, and goals – not by the circumstances of your birth, your sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Though most Americans don’t realize it, in the majority of states you can still be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. But across the board Americans believe that workplace discrimination is wrong, and that employees should be judged on how well they do their job, not on who they are or who they love.

The upcoming executive order, which ThinkProgress characterizes as “the single largest expansion of LGBT workplace protections in our country’s history,” could protect up to 16 million workers — a major step forward for LGBT equality and for basic fairness in the workplace. But even as we celebrate the anticipated expansion of protections, it’s important to remember that our country still needs a federal law like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to protect LGBT workers across the country — not just those who work for federal contractors — from employment discrimination. In addition to covering more workers, ENDA would not be at risk of being undone by a future president, as the upcoming order may be.

No one should be forced to choose between risking their job and hiding who they are or who they love.

PFAW

Dakotans Join Court Fight for Marriage Equality

In May, when we last updated our numbers on the fight for marriage equality, there were just two states left with unchallenged bans on same-sex marriage.

Today that number is zero – every state now either has marriage equality (19 and DC) or a legal challenge in progress (the other 31).

First we heard from South Dakota on May 22, where Rosenbrahn v. Daugaard has been filed on behalf of six couples.

Attorney Josh Newville in the Argus Leader:

With the filing of this lawsuit, South Dakota will join the many other states in the nation who are engaged in a historic and very important discussion about it what means to treat each other equally under the law.

Two weeks later, on June 6, Newville was back in court putting the last state on the board by filing Ramsay v. Dalrymple on behalf of seven North Dakota couples.

Plaintiff Bernie Erickson on Valley News Live:

We are simply looking for the same recognition that every other couple has, every other loving couple[].

Onward!

Check out our website for more LGBT equality updates.

PFAW Foundation

What Cantor’s Defeat Says About Money In Politics

As the news of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprising loss last night to Tea Party challenger David Brat sinks in, Brat’s anti-immigrant extremism is increasingly coming into the spotlight. Today Right Wing Watch wrote that Brat actively sought out the endorsement of ALIPAC, an anti-immigrant hate group whose leader has suggested that violence may be necessary to quell President Obama’s supposed war on “white America.” Brat campaigned on the claim that a vote for Cantor was “a vote for amnesty.”

But there is another aspect to the race also worth paying attention to: Brat’s focus on corruption in Washington. This morning our friends at Public Campaign pointed out that Brat, who was vastly outspent by Cantor, consistently made speaking out against political corruption a part of his campaign. In his victory speech, Brat said to supporters: “What you proved tonight was dollars don’t vote — you do.”

The overwhelming majority of Americans (92 percent of voters, according to a November 2013 poll) think it’s important for elected officials do more to reduce money’s influence on elections — a statistic we often highlight in our work for urgently-needed campaign finance reforms. What last night’s news brings to the foreground is the obvious fact that this 92 percent cannot possibly reflect Americans of only one political leaning. A commitment to fighting corruption and the outsized influence of big money in politics is a deeply-held belief of people of all political stripes, whatever their other beliefs may be.

This morning Politico proclaimed, “Big money couldn’t save Eric Cantor.” And despite Brat’s extremism, there is something hopeful about the fact that people can fight back against the tidal wave of cash flooding our electoral system. To be sure, this outcome is the exception rather than the rule. More than nine times in ten, the better-financed congressional candidate wins. In the post-Citizens United and post-McCutcheon campaign finance landscape, to pretend that money doesn’t matter hugely in the outcome of elections — and in who has access to and influence over politicians once the election is over — is to be willfully blind.

But it’s also important to be reminded that when voters set their minds to it, they still have the power to reshape our nation — for good or ill.

PFAW

Same-Sex Marriages Continue in Wisconsin After Federal Judge Denies Motion to Stay

Since last Friday’s ruling by Federal Judge Barbara Crabb that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, hundreds of same-sex couples have lined up to get marriage licenses across the Badger State. Immediately after receiving the ruling, clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties began issuing marriage licenses, and in both areas, facilities stayed open late on Friday and continued issuing licenses on Saturday. Officiants, including judges, ministers, and commissioners, married couples on-site at their respective county courthouses.

Similar to actions in other states where courts have struck down same-sex marriage bans, Wisconsin’s right-leaning GOP Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed multiple motions to “preserve the status quo” attempting to stop same-sex marriages from happening.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 48 of the state’s 72 counties were issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the ongoing legal battle. Wisconsin’s Vital Records Office is accepting the licenses, but holding them until they receive further guidance from Van Hollen.

For its part, the ACLU filed a proposal of how to implement same-sex marriage in the state. If approved, the plan would force Governor Scott Walker, Attorney General Van Hollen, and county clerks across the state to treat all same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally under the law.

Judge Crabb is set to have another hearing on June 19th.

PFAW Foundation

Poll Confirms Majority Support for Immigration Reform, Explains GOP Obstruction

A survey released today by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution finds strong public support, across political and religious lines, for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for people now living in the country illegally.

When asked how the immigration system should deal with immigrants currently living in the country illegally, 62 percent of Americans favor allowing them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, 17 percent favor allowing them to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and 19 percent favor identifying and deporting them.

A significant finding of the survey is that over the past four years, Americans went from evenly divided on the question about whether immigrants threaten American values or strengthen the country, to saying by an almost 20 percentage point margin that immigrants strengthen American society.

So why won’t the House of Representatives take up immigration reform?  The poll includes data that explains the lack of action from Republican leaders:  the party’s Tea Party base is the group most hostile to immigration reform, and white evangelical Protestants are the religious group most likely to favor mass deportation (30 percent) over a path to citizenship (48 percent) or other legal status (18 percent).

While a majority of Republicans, 51 percent, support a path to citizenship, about 30 percent of Republicans want to deport all immigrants living in the US illegally, compared to only 11 percent of Democrats.  Tea Party members are even worse, with as many Tea Party members supporting deportation as support a path to citizenship (37 percent). 

Also making action less likely in this election year are declining approval numbers for President Barack Obama, and a troubling lack of enthusiasm for voting in the mid-term elections among voters who most favor reform.  Latino voters and voters under the age of 30 are dramatically less likely than Republican leaning groups to say they are sure to vote this year: 30 percent for Hispanic voters and 24 percent for voters under 30, compared to 86 percent for Tea Party voters, 74 percent for seniors and 78 percent for Republicans.

The poll also demonstrates the influence of Fox News within the conservative movement and the GOP. Some 53 percent of Republicans said they trust Fox over any other news source: those Fox News Republicans are more than 20 percentage points more likely than other Republicans to say that immigrants today burden the country rather than strengthen it, and almost 20 percent less likely to support a path to citizenship.  There is a similar Fox effect among Independents.

One panelist commenting on the poll results was Robert Costa, a political reporter for the Washington Post, who said that when he or other political reporters are looking to get a comment from a Republican politician, they head to Fox News’s Washington bureau.  Costa said he sees obstacles to action on immigration reform next year, as the 2016 Republican presidential primary jockeying heats up, noting that Ted Cruz is pulling the party to the right on this and other issues.

PFAW

Americans Want to #GetMoneyOut

The movement to get big money out of politics has made remarkable progress. Four years ago, after the Supreme Court issued its Citizens United ruling, there were just four senators cosponsoring an amendment to overturn that decision and related cases. Today, nearly half the US Senate and more than 100 representatives want to amend the Constitution to #GetMoneyOut. Another leap forward came last week when the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on one of the amendment proposals, SJ Res 19.

Cities and states have made their own strong showings of support.

Sixteen states, with a total population of 97,906,434, have passed resolutions demanding a constitutional amendment. An additional 168 cities, counties, and towns outside those borders have taken similar action, bringing the total to 120,981,141 people. This means that about one third of Americans live in areas that have taken official steps to reclaim our democracy from special interests and corporations.

PFAW

Money in Politics Tops Congress.Gov

Attending the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a proposed amendment to get big money out of politics last Tuesday, it was hard not to feel a special kind of energy and excitement in the room. So when the most viewed piece of legislation on Congress.Gov — the official source for federal legislative information — was the proposed amendment (Senate Joint Resolution 19), it was another sign that despite Republican obstruction, the American people want campaign finance reform, and they want it now.

SJ Res 19 on Congress.Gov

More than nine in ten voters believe it is important that our elected leaders reduce the influence of money in political elections. And according to a 2012 Associated Press survey, more than four in five Americans support campaign contribution limits for corporations. The American people want more than what the post Citizens United campaign finance era has offered. Congress.gov saw so many views of S.J. Res. 19 because Americans across the country are interested in creating an America that does not allow corporations to use their money to cozy up with politicians.

It was James Madison in Federalist Paper 57 who said it the best:

Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives?  Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune.  The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.

Today, it seems more and more like the rich have taken over our democracy, and the American people want solutions to clean up the mess that Citizens United and related cases have created.

PFAW

BREAKING: Wisconsin Marriage Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

A District Court judge ruled today that Wisconsin’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is unconstitutional.  Judge Barbara Crabb relied on equal protection law to strike down the ban:

"My task under federal law is to decide the claims presented by the plaintiffs in this case now, applying the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court," she said. "Because my review of that law convinces me that plaintiffs are entitled to the same treatment as any heterosexual couple, I conclude that the Wisconsin laws banning marriage between same-sex couples are unconstitutional."

Congratulate Wisconsinites by sharing our graphic below:

 

PFAW Foundation

President Obama’s Support for Amendment to #GetMoneyOut Predates Public Announcement

Nearly two years ago, President Obama caused a splash by expressing support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. Asked during the online forum what he was going to do to “end the corrupting influence of money in politics,” President Obama put the spotlight on the movement for a constitutional amendment by explicitly mentioning the amendment strategy:

Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn't revisit it).

A new book released this week by POLITICO reporter Ken Vogel shows that President Obama had been privately discussing an amendment months before his public comment in August 2012. Vogel’s book describes President Obama telling Democratic donors in February of that year:

“Now, I taught constitutional law…I don't tinker with the Constitution lightly. But I think this is important enough that citizens have to get mobilized around this issue, and this will probably be a multiyear effort. After my reelection, my sense is that I may be in a very strong position to do it.”

The fact that President Obama was sharing support for an amendment even earlier than previously known underscores the importance of the issue to our nation’s president. In addition to President Obama, 44 U.S. senators, 123 U.S. representatives, and more than 1,700 state legislators have gone on record in support of an amendment to get big money out of politics.

PFAW

Udall Constitutional Amendment to Restore Our Democracy: PFAW Member Telebriefing

The day after Sen. Tom Udall’s proposed constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics was considered at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Udall joined People For the American Way activists, supporters, and staff members on a member telebriefing to discuss the amendment and what Americans can do to support it.

Sen. Udall noted in his introduction that together we have come a long way in the movement to get big money out of politics, due in part to the work of People For the American Way. He said that in the last few years, our nation’s campaign finance laws have come under increasing attack. There are only two ways, Sen. Udall said, to have lasting reform on this issue: either the Court can reverse itself, or we can amend the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC. Sen. Udall pointed out that elections should be about the quality of ideas, not the size of bank accounts. 

When asked by a participant to address the false claim pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz and other right-wing politicians and activists that this amendment is an attack on the First Amendment, Sen. Udall explained: “This is about restoring the First Amendment so it applies equally to all Americans.” He pointed out that our access to constitutional rights and our ability to participate in the democratic process should not be based on our net worth. 

Sen. Udall urged activists on the call to voice their support at every opportunity they have. Specifically, he encouraged advocates to get a copy of the amendment and urge their local officials to support it by passing resolutions. Despite the lengthy process of amending the Constitution, Sen. Udall asked participants not to be discouraged; with a strong grassroots movement, he said, we can make it happen.

PFAW executive vice president Marge Baker also fielded questions from participants on the call. She urged activists to connect campaign finance reform to the issues most important to them and their communities, whether that’s fighting for health and safety on the job, defending the environment, or protecting voting rights. On voting rights, Baker pointed out that the Supreme Court’s attacks on campaign finance laws go hand in hand with their attacks on the right to cast a vote; both have the effect of disempowering average Americans in our democracy. This is why, Baker pointed out, we must take on the Supreme Court and reclaim our political system – making it a democracy truly of, by, and for the people. 

You can listen to the call here:

PFAW

US Senators Who Support the Amendment Strategy

45 US Senators now support a constititutional amendment to undo the harm of decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon. Do yours?


State Senator

Alaska

Sen. Mark Begich

California

Sen. Barbara Boxer

California Sen. Diane Feinstein
Colorado Sen. Michael F. Bennet
Colorado

Sen. Mark Udall

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal
Connecticut Sen. Christopher Murphy
Delaware

Sen. Thomas R. Carper

Delaware Sen. Christopher A. Coons
Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz
Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin
Maine Sen. Angus S. King, Jr.
Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin
Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski
Massachusetts

Sen. Edward J. Markey

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Michigan

Sen. Debbie Stabenow

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Montana Sen. Jon Tester
Montana Sen. John E. Walsh
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid
New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen
New Jersey Sen. Cory A. Booker
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez
New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall
New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich
New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed
Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse
South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy
Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders
Washington Sen. Patty Murray
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin
West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller, IV

For more elected officials who support an amendment, visit United4thePeople.org.

PFAW

PFAW and Allies Deliver to Senate Hearing Two Million Petitions for an Amendment to #GetMoneyOut

Before yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a proposed campaign finance constitutional amendment had even begun, advocates from People For the American Way and partner organizations had already delivered a powerful message from the American people. Carrying signs saying “Restore the First Amendment” and “Amend the Constitution to #GetMoneyOut,” activists rolled in stacked boxes of more than two million petitions in support of an amendment to get big money out of politics.

 

In his opening remarks, Sen. Patrick Leahy noted that these petitions serve as a “tangible reminder that Americans are calling on Congress to act.”

In an rare move that underscored the importance of the proposed amendment, both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell testified at the hearing. Sen. Reid issued a call to action for the amendment, urging Americans to work together to restore the basic principle of one American, one vote. “Our involvement in government should not be dependent on our bank account balances,” he said.

Sen. McConnell, on the other hand, used the platform to claim that the proposed amendment is about shutting people up, calling it the “latest proposal to weaken the First Amendment.” Later, Sen. Ted Cruz continued to push the false claim that the amendment would “repeal the free speech protections of the First Amendment” and “muzzle” Americans.

But other witnesses were quick to debunk this myth, including constitutional law expert Jamie Raskin, who is also a senior fellow at People For the American Way. In his testimony, Raskin noted:

[E]ven as our huge majorities of Americans support reclaiming our democracy, opponents of the Amendment are waving the flag of the First Amendment, as if political democracy and free speech are enemies. But the Citizens United era has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with plutocratic power. Citizens United did not increase the rights of a single citizen to express his or her views with speech or with money. Before the decision, all citizens, including CEOs, could express themselves freely, make contributions, and spend all the money they had to promote their politics. They could band together with the help of the corporation and form a PAC. All Citizens United did was confer a power on CEOs to write corporate treasury checks for political expenditures, without a vote of the shareholders, prior consultation or even disclosure.

In terms of real world consequences, Raskin went on to note, these damaging Supreme Court decisions did not “expand the political freedom of citizens but… reduce[d] the political power of citizens.”

North Carolina State Senator Floyd McKissick described some of those real world effects, noting that he can divide his time in the state legislature into two distinct periods: “before Citizens United, and after”:

Suddenly, no matter what the race was, money came flooding in. Even elected officials who had been in office for decades told me they’d never seen anything like it. We were barraged by television ads that were uglier and less honest than I would have thought possible. And they all seemed to be coming from groups with names we had never even heard of. But it was clear that corporations and individuals who could write giant checks had a new level of power in the state.

PFAW

Still In Store from the Supreme Court in 2014...

There is about a month remaining before the end of the Supreme Court’s current term, which is expected to be at the end of June.  The Roberts Court has already done great damage in the cases it has decided so far.  The far-right’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC drove another dagger into the heart of our democracy by empowering the wealthiest and most powerful among us to exercise even more control over our election.  Town of Greece v. Galloway continued the arch-conservatives’ goal to undermine the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

But there are many important cases remaining to be decided over the next several weeks.  Depending on how the Court rules, the entrenched power imbalance already harming our democracy could be significantly worsened.

Recess appointments and sabotage of the executive branch:  NLRB v. Noel Canning.

This case has the potential of completely remaking the president’s recess appointment authority from how it has been understood and exercised since the 1800s.  The recess appointment power has long been used by presidents of both parties during all kinds of recesses, not just those occurring annually between sessions of Congress.  And it has always been used to fill vacancies regardless of when those vacancies first became open.  But that may soon change.

It’s important to note that this case arose out of far-right conservatives’ efforts to nullify laws they don’t agree with.  In this case, the laws in their crosshairs were those protecting workers, which they sought to undermine by preventing the National Labor Relations Board from having enough members to conduct business.  Specifically, Republicans blocked the Senate from holding confirmation votes on President Obama’s  nominees to the NLRB, finally provoking him to make recess appointments in January of 2012.  This was during a vacation period when the Senate was meeting for pro forma sessions for a few minutes every few days, a practice that came about for the specific purpose of preventing recess appointments.

The Supreme Court has been asked to answer several questions:  (1) Can a recess appointment be made only during the recess between two sessions of Congress (which occurs once a year and can last only a split second), or can it be made during any recess?  (2)  Can the Senate use pro forma sessions to turn what would otherwise be a recess into a non-recess, thereby preventing recess appointments?  (3)  Is a recess appointment limited to those vacancies that first became open during the same recess during which the appointment is made?

Attacks on public sector unions:  Harris v. Quinn.

This case is about home care personal assistants (PAs) in Illinois, who provide in-home care under two of its Medicaid programs to people with disabilities and other health needs.  But it has the potential, should the Roberts Court wish, to deliver a crippling blow to public sector unions nationwide.

Illinois PAs are classified as state employees for the purposes of collective bargaining and work under a common “agency shop” agreement:  If the employees in a particular group choose to have a union represent them, the government employer recognizes that union as their exclusive representative.  When the union carries out its collective bargaining functions, it does so on behalf of all the employees, regardless of whether they actually join the union.  Members pay dues to support this activity on their behalf.  To prevent “free riding,” the law requires non-union members to pay their fair share to support the basic collective bargaining activities being done on their behalf, but not to support non-collective bargaining activities such as political campaigning with which they might disagree.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that such arrangements for public employees are consistent with the First Amendment, dating back to a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  But that precedent is threatened in this case as petitioners – backed by the anti-worker National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation – call for the Roberts Court to overrule Abood.  According to the PAs who brought this case, the arrangement violates their First Amendment freedom to choose with whom to associate.  They also claim that exclusive representation violates their right to petition the government on matters of public policy, since the subject of their negotiations is the functioning and budgets of state Medicaid programs.

As Justice Kagan noted during oral arguments, this “would radically restructure the way workplaces across this country are run,” imposing so-called “right to work” regimes on all public employment throughout the United States.  In so doing, it would substantially drain the coffers of public sector unions, which has been a longtime political goal of conservative extremists.

Unfortunately, the far-right Justices on the Roberts Court have already demonstrated their eagerness to join in the political attack on workers.  Two years ago, in Knox v. SEIU (another case involving public sector unions), they severely undercut another longtime precedent that had enabled public sector unions to protect workers’ rights by deciding an issue that wasn’t before them, ruling against the union on an issue that it had not even had a chance to argue.  As Justice Sotomayor pointed out in her dissent, the majority was acting in violation of the Court’s own rules to achieve this result.  Whether they will show a similar eagerness to undercut public sector unions remains to be seen.

Corporate religious liberty rights:  Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.

These cases have the potential to give religious liberty rights to for-profit corporations, and to empower their owners and managers to ignore laws on health insurance coverage, employment discrimination, and other areas based on their religious beliefs.

Under the Affordable Care Act and HHS guidelines, employers generally have to provide certain preventive health services, including FDA-approved contraception, to women employees.  The cases challenging this requirement involve several companies and their owners.  Conestoga Wood is a for-profit corporation with 950 employees, owned by members of the Hahn family.  Hobby Lobby is an arts and crafts chain store with over 500 stores and about 13,000 full-time employees, owned by members of the Green family.  The Greens also own a corporation called Mardel, a chain of 35 for-profit Christian bookstores with about 400 employees.

The Greens and the Hahns have religious-based opposition to the use of some of the contraceptives covered by the law.  They claim that the law violates not only their own religious freedom, but also the religious freedom of the large for-profit corporations they run.  The primary law at issue in the cases is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), enacted in 1993.  Under RFRA, a federal law cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it advances a compelling government interest in the least restrictive manner.

A key question for the Justices is whether a for-profit corporation is a “person” covered by RFRA.  Unsurprisingly, before this litigation, no court had ever found that for-profit corporations have religious liberty interests either under RFRA or under the First Amendment.  Yet a divided Tenth Circuit ruled for Hobby Lobby: They concluded that since corporations have First Amendment political speech rights under Citizens United, it follows that they also have First Amendment religious rights, and that RFRA should be interpreted to include them as “persons.”  As PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin has written, “the outlandish claims of the company involved would not have a prayer except for Citizens United, the miracle gift of 2010 that just keeps giving.”

The next question is whether the coverage requirement is a substantial burden on the families’ (and possibly corporations’) exercise of religion, even though they are not forced to use or administer the contraception, or to affirm that they have no religious objection to it.  Since the ones providing the health insurance are the corporations and not the individual owners, a ruling in favor of the owners would have implications for a concept basic to American law: that a corporation is a legally separate entity from its owners.

If the Justices find a substantial burden on the corporations or their owners, then they will determine if the government interest (furthering women’s health and equality) is a compelling one, and if the coverage provision advances that interest in the least restrictive manner.

While a victory for either the corporations or their owners would directly harm women’s health, it could also open the door to employers being able to exempt themselves from other laws that they have religious objections to, such as anti-discrimination protections.

Women’s Access to Reproductive Health Clinics:  McCullen v. Coakley.

The Court is being asked to overrule a 2000 precedent upholding buffer zones around reproductive health clinics.  The current case involves a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around such clinics (with exceptions for employees, patients and others with business there, and people passing through on their way somewhere else).  Anti-choice advocates claim this violates their freedom of speech because it restricts only people with a particular viewpoint.

The lower courts disagreed, citing the 2000 case of Hill v. Colorado, where the Supreme Court upheld a buffer zone making it illegal to approach within eight feet of people at clinics for the purpose of counseling, education, or protesting.  (This applied anywhere within 100 feet of the clinic.)  That 6-3 decision analyzed the law as a content-neutral regulation of speech that was reasonable in light of the importance of protecting unwilling people’s right to avoid unwanted conversations and their right to pass without obstruction.  However, two of the conservative Justices in the 6-3 majority have been replaced by far more conservative Bush nominees:  Rehnquist (by Roberts) and O’Connor (by Alito).  Since Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas dissented in the 2000 case, there may very well be five votes to not only strike down the Massachusetts buffer zone but also to overrule Hill completely.

As noted in an amicus brief that PFAW Foundation joined, the Massachusetts law applies to people regardless of the content of their speech and is a content-neutral way to ensure that women can enter the clinics to exercise their constitutional rights.  The law does not prevent abortion opponents from approaching women who are more than 35 feet from the clinic entrance (as opposed to the Colorado law, which prohibited unwanted close contact anywhere within 100 feet of the clinic). And the record in this case shows that anti-choice advocates have consistently been able to distribute literature to individuals approaching clinics, as well as to have quiet conversations with them.

Nevertheless, many felt after oral arguments that five conservative justices were likely to strike down the Massachusetts law.  If they do, we will see if they also overrule the 2000 precedent, opening the floodgates to another era of efforts to block women from exercising a deeply personal constitutional right.

Regulating greenhouse gases:  Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (and several companion cases).

In these cases, industrial interests and their allies are attacking the EPA’s ability to effectively regulate their greenhouse gas emissions.

In Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles, since they easily fit within the CAA’s broad definition of “air pollutant.”  This ruling, resisted by the Bush Administration, allowed the Obama Administration to adopt regulations on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks in 2010.

Under the EPA’s longstanding interpretation of the Clean Air Act, once EPA regulation of a pollutant from mobile sources (like cars and trucks) goes into effect, that pollutant is automatically subject to regulation under EPA rules for stationary sources (like factories and power plants).  Those regulations involve permitting requirements for facilities emitting pollutants over statutory thresholds.  But greenhouse gases are emitted in far greater volumes than other pollutants, and millions of industrial, commercial, and even residential sources exceed the statutory threshold.  The EPA recognized that immediately adding these millions of stationary sources to its permitting programs would impose tremendous costs to both industry and to state permitting authorities.  So in what is called the “Tailoring Rule,” the agency chose to move gradually, initially subjecting only the largest sources of emissions to mandatory greenhouse gas permitting, and planning a gradual phase-in for others, with planned rulemakings on how best to accomplish that phase-in.

Industrial interests, the Chamber of Commerce, and their conservative allies in state government have challenged the EPA rules.  They argue that since the addition of greenhouse gases to the stationary sources permitting programs would cause what they characterize as results not desired by Congress (such as bringing huge numbers of buildings, including churches, schools, bakeries, and large private homes into the programs), it means that greenhouse gases are not the type of pollutant to which these permitting programs apply.  And that lets the major industrial contributors to greenhouse gas pollution off the hook.  They also claim that the Tailoring Rule is a rewrite of the Clean Air Act, which only Congress can do.  So we end up with hyperbolic right-wing talking points in Supreme Court briefs, like this from Southeastern Legal Foundation:

This case involves perhaps the most audacious seizure of pure legislative power over domestic economic matters attempted by the Executive Branch since Youngstown Sheet & Tube [the 1952 case striking down President Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean War].

As the Constitutional Accountability Center noted in their amicus brief supporting the EPA, the agency’s gradual approach satisfies rather than subverts the central purpose of the Clean Air Act:

This is not a suspension of the relevant statutory provisions nor a failure to enforce the CAA as written.  To the contrary, EPA is setting priorities based on both practical realities and its limited resources, biting off no more than it or, as important, the regulated entities themselves, can chew at any given time. This phase-in of the CAA’s requirements is not a rewrite of the statute, and it is fully consistent with the executive authority vested in the President by Article II of our enduring Constitution and the separation of powers evidenced in the Framers’ design.

PFAW Foundation

The Religious Right’s Persecution Complex: PFAW Member Telebriefing

Yesterday, People For the American Way activists and supporters joined members of PFAW’s Right Wing Watch team for a preview of our upcoming report on the Religious Right’s claims of persecution and discrimination.

PFAW Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery and Senior Researcher for Special Projects Miranda Blue discussed how the Right has developed a powerful echo chamber pushing stories — many of which have been soundly debunked — painting conservative Christians as a victimized minority.

You can listen to a complete recording of the call below, and keep an eye out for PFAW's upcoming report: "“The Persecution Complex: The Religious Right's Deceptive Rallying Cry."