Safe Schools Letter Campaign Wraps Another Week, Twelve Groups Have Gone on Record

The letter-a-day campaign for safe schools that PFAW is leading just finished another week, and now twelve 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.

Below are excerpts from this week's letters.

Family Equality Council:

America has a rich tradition of valuing education and protecting and nurturing children through the educational process. Children with LGBT parents should not grow up feeling that their country does not value their success or the legitimacy of their parents and their families. We must ensure that all children have the same opportunity to thrive – which requires that they feel safe, supported and valued in school. Students experiencing harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or because they have LGBT parents are deprived of equal educational opportunities and are too often left with few or no avenues for recourse.

The Trevor Project:

In honor of next month's Day of Silence highlighting anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools, and on behalf of the more than one hundred thousand lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth served annually by The Trevor Project’s life-saving programming, we write in strong support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA, H.R. 1199 & S. 403). We thank the 226 bipartisan House and Senate cosponsors of this critical bill for addressing what has become a pervasive national problem, and we urge all members of Congress to join them.

Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund:

We urge you to support SSIA in response to increasing reports of harassment and violence faced by Sikh American students in schools. Consider the experience of Akashdeep Singh Ahluwalia, an eleven year-old Sikh American from New Jersey. Like many Sikh American students, who keep their articles of faith, he was bullied. Akashdeep was bullied so often that he had to change schools. When asked how he feels about the harassment he continues to face he responded, “It really depresses me. But in the end what can I do?”

American Association of University Women:

In addition to requiring policies prohibiting bullying and harassment, effective complaint procedures, and information sharing in current reporting systems, SSIA also provides opportunities for professional development to prevent bullying and harassment and student education programs. This is a critically important bill that will make a real difference in the lives of ALL students nationwide. That is why this bill is supported by over 110 leading national organizations in the fields of education, health, youth development, civil rights and religion.

PFLAG National:

Specifically, today’s letter to you involves three bills: [t]he Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), [t]he Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) and [the] Every Child Deserves a Family [Act] (ECDF).

PFLAG is the nation’s largest family and ally organization.  It is comprised of parents, families, friends and straight allies united with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender LGBT)[,] and has more than 350 chapters and 200,000 members and supporters crossing multiple generations of American families in major urban centers, small cities and town and rural areas in all 50 states.

PFLAG’s values are America’s values.  We believe that the welfare, safety and well-being of our children, all of our children, is an American value with a high priority that merits your attention.

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

PFAW will continue to update you as we approach April 11, 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.

Just today we 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.

PFAW

Jamie Raskin Discusses Hobby Lobby and Corporate Religion

Thursday afternoon, PFAW hosted a special member telebriefing on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a critically important case being argued before the Supreme Court next week that represents the overlap of two important issues: attacks on women's health, and the radical expansion of constitutional "rights" for artificial and increasingly powerful for-profit corporations.. The briefing featured senior fellow Jamie Raskin, who is a respected constitutional scholar at American University and a leading progressive Maryland state senator. Jamie previewed a new report from our affiliate PFAW Foundation: The Gospel of Citizens United: In Hobby Lobby, Corporations Pray for the Right to Deny Workers Contraception.

In Hobby Lobby and a companion case, the Affordable Care Act's contraception provision is being challenged by for-profit corporations regulated by the Act, as well as by the individuals who own the companies. One of the astonishing facets of this case is that for-profit corporations are actually arguing that they – the corporations themselves, totally separate from their owners – have religious liberty rights that are protected by law.

How did we get to a point where for-profit corporations are claiming religious beliefs and rights and not being laughed out of court? Jamie described how Citizens United was a watershed, completely transforming our constitutional jurisprudence and opening the door to Hobby Lobby's arguments. He noted the Tenth Circuit's conclusion that since corporations have First Amendment political speech rights, it follows that they also have religious rights.

Jamie pointed out that no court has ever found that ordinary for-profit corporations have religious rights. And that's what Hobby Lobby is: a profit-making corporation operating more than 500 arts-and-crafts stores with more than 13,000 employees. Quoting Justice Stevens' dissent in Citizens United, Jamie pointed out that "corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires." Yet just as that case empowered corporate CEOs to use the corporation's treasury to affect elections, Hobby Lobby threatens to empower corporate officials to impose their own religious beliefs on company employees. In both cases, the power of ordinary people is diminished, as they become more and more subject to the power of corporations.

Jamie also discussed how the implications of Hobby Lobby go far beyond this particular case. If corporations are "ensouled" and found to have religious liberty rights, it opens the door to letting them opt out of anti-discrimination and labor laws their owners don't like. And while Hobby Lobby is a family-owned company where the family ascribes their religion to the corporation, how would you determine the "religion" of a widely-held company like Exxon? Jamie pointed out that the law sees both – the family owned business and the large multinational corporation -- the same.

What can regular people do about all this? PFAW Vice President Marge Baker pointed out that most people don't even know about the dangerous power grab by corporations that the five far-right Supreme Court justices are assisting. It's important to educate our friends, colleagues, and family members about how frequently and dangerously the Supreme Court is bending the law in order to hand power to already-powerful large corporations. And elections matter, because the judges who make these decisions on the Supreme Court and every federal court in the nation are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. With control of the Senate at stake in this year's elections, the results this November will have an enormous impact on the courts.

PFAW

CPAC: The Right-Wing Woodstock or a Bad Family Reunion?

Like at a family reunion, the infighting at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) started long before anybody arrived.

First, the group American Atheists announced that it would be sponsoring a booth at the conference, with the goal of bringing conservative nonbelievers "out of the closet." The religious right was not pleased.

"CPAC's mission is to be an umbrella for conservative organizations that advance liberty, traditional values and our national defense," said the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins. But he made clear that atheists would certainly not fit under his umbrella: "Does the American Conservative Union really think the liberties and values they seek to preserve can be maintained when they partner with individuals and organizations that are undermining the understanding that our liberties come from God?" he asked. Good question.

So, the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, gave the atheist group the boot. In response, the atheists showed up anyway to debate attendees in the hallway.

Then there was the perennial problem of the gays. In 2011, religious right groups including the FRC boycotted CPAC after the ACU allowed the conservative LGBT group GOProud to cosponsor the event. Once again, the establishment sided with the religious right and for the next two years banned GOProud from participating. This year, ACU offered a "compromise" in which GOProud was allowed to attend the event but not to so much as sponsor a booth in the exhibition hall. The "compromise" was so insulting that one of GOProud's founders quit the organization's board in protest.

But what about the people who were too embarrassingly far-right for CPAC? Not to worry, there's no such thing.

Although the atheist and LGBT groups were too far off-message for the ACU, it did allow the anti-immigrant group ProEnglish to sponsor a booth at CPAC. Just a quick Google would have told the conference organizers that ProEnglish is run by a zealous white nationalist, Bob Vandervoort. In fact, CPAC's organizers might have recognized Vandervoort's name from the uproar his inclusion in the event caused in 2012 and 2013.

Now, just because the ACU was ready to welcome anti-immigrant extremists doesn't mean that that was enough for immigrant bashers. A group of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim activists who were worried that CPAC was going too soft on their issues organized an alternative conference across the street. One of their concerns was the perennial conspiracy theory that ACU member Grover Norquist is a secret Muslim Brotherhood agent. Another is that CPAC dared to hold a panel featuring immigration reform proponents.

They shouldn't have worried. Three days of speeches on the CPAC main stage made clear that many prominent conservative activists have no intention of moderating their stance on immigration reform. Donald Trump told the audience that immigrants are "taking your jobs," Rep. Michele Bachmann said she wouldn't even consider immigration reform until they "build the danged fence," and Ann Coulter, never one to disappoint, suggested that if immigration reform passes "we organize the death squads for the people who wrecked America." Then, there was One America News anchor Graham Ledger, who used the CPAC podium to claim that because of immigration, schools no longer teach "the American culture."

To be fair, CPAC did make some efforts at opening the Republican umbrella, hosting a panel on minority outreach off the main stage. But the gesture would have been slightly more meaningful if anybody had bothered to show up.

Any family has its squabbles. But this awkward backyard barbeque has turned into a full-fledged food fight.
 

Content originally published at HuffingtonPost.

PFAW

Defining Religious Liberty: Little Sisters' Little Victory

Among the many court cases challenging contraception requirements under the Affordable Care Act, the case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor has been, and continues to be, a strange one. The latest wrinkle came on Friday in what SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston calls a “partial win” for the order of nuns.

The Little Sisters, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, appealed to the Supreme Court to prevent the group from having to sign a form documenting its religious objection to providing contraception coverage while its broader challenge to the law moves through the courts. The Tenth Circuit had rejected a similar request.

Under the Obama administration’s accommodation for religious groups, that form would exempt the organization from providing or paying for contraception coverage, and that responsibility would pass to the group’s insurer. In a brief to the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General’s office said that by Becket’s reasoning, a Quaker couldn’t be required to attest to his religious objections before being absolved of military obligations. But Becket insisted that the form acted as a “permission slip” that would trigger contraception coverage, and that would make the nuns complicit.

What makes this argument even stranger is the fact that the Little Sisters’ insurer is classified as a “church plan,” which is exempt from enforcement of the ACA requirement. So whether or not the Little Sisters signed the form, their lay employees would still not have access to coverage.

On Friday, the Supreme Court granted the Little Sisters’ request for an injunction, with a proviso. The group did not have to sign the government’s religious objection form, but it did have to notify the Department of Health and Human Services of its religious objections by letter. The Becket Fund declared victory and announced itself “delighted” by the Court’s compromise.

So, to recap: requiring a religious organization to sign a form opting out of providing contraception coverage is religious tyranny, but requiring a religious organization to send a letter to HHS stating its objections to providing contraception coverage is a victory for religious freedom.

Just wait until the Supreme Court hears the more far-reaching Hobby Lobby case, in which Becket and its client seek to establish the principle that for-profit companies can opt out of laws protecting their employees if those laws conflict with the religious beliefs of the corporation’s owners.

 

PFAW Foundation

Celebrating Religious Freedom

January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s approval of Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to the religious liberty protections in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In this year’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation, President Barack Obama writes,

Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals -- freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.

America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose. In the years to come, my Administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe. We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.

As we observe this day, let us celebrate America's legacy of religious liberty, embrace diversity in our own communities, and resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.

Melissa Rogers, a widely respected advocate for religious liberty who currently serves as special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also published a reflection on Religious Freedom Day.

Rogers celebrates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which passed Congress by unanimous consent in 2000 with backing from a politically and religiously diverse coalition. RLUIPA (pronounced R-loopa) has helped Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, people who practice Native American traditional religions and others protect their ability to meet and worship, and has helped people in prisons, jails, mental institutions, and state-run nursing homes preserve their religious freedom.

The values embodied in RLUIPA are universal ideals.  Department of Justice attorneys have provided technical assistance on issues involving construction of places of worship to government officials in Spain, Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries wrestling with these same issues.  In 2012, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee won the right to move into its new mosque with the help of a RLUIPA suit brought by the Department of Justice. On the day of the court decision, the mosque’s Imam, Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, remarked that America’s dedication to religious freedom can serve as a model for others around the world, and added:   “I think this is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the freedom and liberty that, in fact, exist in America and to teach our young people to believe even more in the U.S. Constitution.”

People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation celebrate religious freedom by working to uphold the First Amendment’s twin pillars of religious liberty: the Establishment Clause, which mandates the separation of church and state and prevents government from playing religious favorites, and the Free Exercise Clause, which protects individuals’ right to worship and exercise their faith free from government interference.

Religious liberty is central to the American Way, but it has also become a rallying cry for Religious Right leaders and their political allies, who all too often portray criticism as persecution, and policy disagreement as tyranny. That poisons our political climate.

Like other constitutional guarantees, religious liberty is fundamental but not absolute, particularly when it comes into tension with other principles like equality under the law or protecting public health. Advocates for religious freedom frequently disagree about how to apply religious liberty principles in specific cases, and where courts should draw the lines in cases balancing competing interests.  These are complex and often very contentious issues. People For the American Way Foundation’s “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics” set out principles for bringing religion and religious values into the public arena in ways that are constructive rather than divisive. 

PFAW

The Perils of Religious Politicking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW

Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to ACA's Contraception Coverage

To no one's surprise, the Supreme Court announced today that it will be deciding the legality of the ACA's provision regarding insurance coverage for contraception, which opponents claim violates the religious liberty of for-profit corporations and their owners. The Court will be hearing two cases together: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. We will be hearing and reading a lot about these cases in the next few months.

At issue is whether the law violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Under RFRA, a federal law is invalid if it imposes a substantial burden on religious liberty, unless it is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling government interest. (This law was passed in 1993 to recreate the substantial scrutiny laws had faced under the Free Exercise Clause until the Supreme Court altered the test in 1990.)

Hobby Lobby is an arts and crafts chain store with 500 stores and 13,000 full-time employees. The Green family who own and operate Hobby Lobby also do business through a corporation called Mardel, a for-profit business operating 35 Christian bookstores with almost 400 employees. The Greens and their corporations argue that the contraception coverage provision poses a substantial burden on their religious liberty in violation of RFRA.

Perhaps the most dramatic claim made in these cases is that for-profit corporations operating hundreds of stores and with thousands of employees have religious liberty interests at all. That's what the Tenth Circuit ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, citing Citizens United, and concluding that the mandate fails under RFRA.

The claim that for-profit corporations have religious rights was rejected by the Third Circuit in the Conestoga Wood Specialties case. That court also ruled that the corporation's family owners don't suffer a religious liberty violation because the law's coverage requirement and the financial penalty for noncompliance fall not upon them as individuals, but upon the corporation. According to the lower court, since they chose to engage in business using the corporate form, accepting all the financial benefits that brings, they cannot "move freely between corporate and individual status to gain the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the respective forms."

It now appears that the Supreme Court will make important rulings on the religious liberty interests of both for-profit businesses and the individuals who own them.

People can and do disagree on the interplay between individuals' religious liberty and general laws that go against people's religious beliefs. PFAW Foundation's "Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics" addresses this debate. Government does have the right to demand people and businesses comply with reasonable regulation and social policy, while at the same time, religious liberty is a key constitutional right. The debate over their interplay should be held in a way that does not devolve into claims of a "war against religion," which we hear all too often from the far right.

As far as corporate religion is concerned, the five arch-conservative justices who gave us Citizens United and who routinely bend the law to favor corporate interests may see this as an opportunity to strike another blow for "corporate personhood" and against the workers who the ACA is designed to protect.

PFAW Foundation

Religious Freedom Anniversary Highlights Divisions Among Current and Former Allies

A symposium on the 20th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act hosted by First Amendment advocate Charles Haynes at the Newseum in Washington D.C. on November 6 demonstrated one premise of People For the American Way Foundation’s 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics – that people who support a core constitutional principle like religious liberty can disagree with how that principle should be applied. In recent years, religious conservatives have increasingly charged that those who disagree with them on this line-drawing are tyrannical enemies of faith and freedom.  The RFRA anniversary was a reminder that, as Bill Moyers wrote in his introduction to the 12 Rules, “We can simultaneously share a strong commitment to religious liberty, while disagreeing over the application of that principle in a given circumstance.”

In fact, an almost unimaginably broad coalition worked to pass RFRA in 1993, including People For the American Way and the ACLU, the National Association of Evangelicals and Concerned Women for America, and a huge array of religious and civil rights groups.  Also unimaginable in our political climate: RFRA passed the Senate 97-3 and the House unanimously by voice vote. But divisions within the coalition developed just a few years later and persist today.

RFRA was a response to the Supreme Court’s 1990 Smith decision in a case involving Native Americans who were denied unemployment benefits because they had violated state anti-drug laws through the sacramental use of peyote.  The Court ruled that as long as the law in question was applied generally and not designed to target a particular religious practice, there was no real recourse for people whose exercise of religion was restricted. The decision toppled long-standing precedent and left advocates for religious liberty deeply concerned that religious minorities would suffer if there were no legal requirement for reasonable accommodation of their beliefs.

RFRA states that if a law places a substantial burden on a person’s exercise of religion, the government must demonstrate that the law is serving a compelling interest and does so in the least restrictive way. In 1997, the Supreme Court upheld RFRA as it applies to the federal government, but not to the states.  Efforts to re-mobilize the RFRA coalition to pass a new law failed when civil rights advocates feared that a broad standard could be used to undermine state civil rights laws such as laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Oliver Thomas, a co-chair of the original RFRA coalition, said it is not surprising that RFRA gets less popular as it gets older and its “majestic generalities” get applied in contentious cases. Organizations that were allies in passing RFRA are now on both sides of political and legal disagreements about how its standards should apply in a variety of situations, including the mandate under the Affordable Care Act that insurance plans include contraception, the proposed Employment Non Discrimination Act that just passed the Senate, and the advance of marriage equality.  Even among ENDA’s backers there are disagreements about the nature and extent of religious exemptions in the bill.

The first part of the anniversary symposium, which included PFAW Foundation Board Member Rabbi David Saperstein, presented an insider view of RFRA’s history: the development of the RFRA coalition, the politics of writing the law and building congressional support.  One historical tidbit: coalition members had to work hard to overcome objections raised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who feared the law might somehow give a weapon to their opponents on abortion rights issues.  Rep. Henry Hyde told coalition members that the bill would not move until they addressed the bishops’ concerns.

That history is particularly interesting given that conservative Catholics are now using RFRA to challenge the contraception mandate.  A discussion of the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act featured Lori Windham from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents a number of companies, business owners, and organizations challenging the mandate, and Dan Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, which argues that the contraception requirement does not substantially burden the religious freedom of business owners, and that the Obama administration’s accommodation for religious organizations is more than sufficient.  Mach noted that while religious liberty is fundamental, it is not absolute, and should not be used to infringe the rights of others. 

Another issue discussed by the panelists was whether RFRA protects for-profit corporations – not the owners, but the corporation itself as an entity.  Some of the panelists discussing RFRA’s history agreed that conversation about violations of religious liberty were focused on individual people, not for-profit corporations, though some said the debate on RFRA and related laws assumed that companies would be covered.  The Becket Fund’s Windham made a case for including such corporations with RFRA’s protections, saying constitutional rights shouldn’t depend on your tax status. The Constitutional Accountability Center has argued otherwise.

Doug Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, is among the most prominent legal scholars on religious liberty.  He finds himself positioned on differing sides in various culture war battles. Just a day before the anniversary symposium, Laycock argued before the Supreme Court, representing people who are challenging the practice of sectarian prayer at city council meetings in the Town of Greece case.  In that case he stood with advocates of strong church-state separation. On other issues, such as whether a business owner should have the right not to provide services related to a same-sex wedding, he stands with religious conservatives who are pushing for broad religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws.

Laycock dismissed right-wing charges that the Obama administration is waging a war on religious liberty. He said the administration has gone to “remarkable lengths” to accommodate religious organizations on the contraception mandate and said he doubts that opponents will be able to convince judges that the current rule creates a substantial burden under RFRA. Obviously, the Becket Fund and other Religious Right legal groups and their clients strongly disagree. Later this month the Supreme Court will consider whether to accept for consideration four cases involving for-profit companies challenging the mandate. Cases involving non-profits have not advanced as far.

A panel on other current controversies placed them in the context of increasing religious pluralism in America, including the rapid growth of “nones” – people who claim to religious affiliation.  One panelist noted that religious and civil rights groups can still find common ground in opposition to laws targeting religious minorities, as many did in opposition to Oklahoma’s anti-Sharia law, which was found unconstitutional earlier this year. But it should be noted that some Religious Right groups have in fact backed such laws, and some opposed the building of the Islamic community center in New York that was deceptively dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Laycock worries that culture war battles are weakening Americans’ commitment to religious liberty.  He faults conservative religious groups for continuing to fight legal marriage equality for same-sex couples. But he also believes LGBT rights advocates should be more willing to accept broad religious exemptions. Laycock said that conservatives’ dug-in resistance to equality diminishes the incentives for gay-rights activists to accommodate them.  The challenge, as he sees it: on issues of sexual morality, one side views as a grave evil what the other side views as a fundamental right.  In that climate, tens of millions of Americans believe that “religious liberty” empowers their enemies, and neither side is willing to embrace what Laycock considers “live and let live” solutions.

Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee agreed with Laycock’s concerns about a winner-take-all approach to religious freedom issues, which he said reflects the broader political climate.  But the courts will continue to undertake the balancing act required by the Constitution and by RFRA when constitutional principles come into tension.  And, he said, once the courts work through issues regarding contraception and LGBT equality, we will all still need to grapple more with larger cultural and legal questions, such as those involving the growing number of nonbelievers who are reshaping America’s religious landscape.

The anniversary symposium, “Restored or Endangered? The State of Religious Freedom,” was sponsored by The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Christian Legal Society, American Jewish Committee, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.  

PFAW Foundation

New DC Circuit Decision Shows Why GOP Wants to Block New Judges

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a divided ruling today that the Affordable Care Act's contraception coverage provision violates the religious liberty of two business owners. The majority ruling came from far-right Bush-43 nominee Janice Rogers Brown, and she was joined by Bush-41 senior judge Raymond Randolph.

Judge Brown opened her opinion with starkly political language more appropriate to a Republican convention than a judicial opinion:

Two years after our decision Seven-Sky v. Holder, 661 F.3d 1 (D.C. Cir. 2011), we are asked to revisit the behemoth known as the Affordable Care Act. ... [We] must determine whether the contraceptive mandate imposed by the Act trammels the right of free exercise [of religion] ... [emphasis added]

With politically charged language like that, it was no surprise what her conclusion would be.

The case concerned the two Gilardi brothers and the Freshway corporations they own, a produce and trucking operation that employs about 400 people. The Gilardi brothers and their two corporations sued the Obama administration, contending that their religious liberties were violated by the administration's mandate that insurance plans provide women with contraception coverage without copay.

Judges Brown and Randolph rejected the claim that the Freshway corporations have a religious liberty right that can be violated, since they are not people. But they also ruled that the contraception coverage provision violates the brothers' rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Under RFRA, a law is invalid if it imposes a substantial burden on religious liberty, unless it is the least restrictive means to serve a compelling government interest.

The D.C. Circuit panel's majority ruled that the law fails in every respect. On the question of whether it imposes a substantial burden, Brown and Randolph concluded that the law forces the company's owners to "approve and endorse" the inclusion of contraceptive coverage in their companies' employer-provided plans, despite their religious objections to contraception. (It is not clear how obeying a law is the same as approving and endorsing it.) And they concluded that the interests underlying the contraception provision are not compelling – that is, that the government does not have a strong enough reason to ensure that women have access to affordable contraception.

The dissenting was Judge Harry Edwards, a Carter nominee and the only one of the court's six senior judges not put on the bench by a Republican president. He explained:

There are three reasons why the Mandate does not substantially burden the Gilardis' "exercise of religion." First, the Mandate does not require the Gilardis to use or purchase contraception themselves. Second, the Mandate does not require the Gilardis to encourage Freshway's employees to use contraceptives any more directly than they do by authorizing Freshway to pay wages. Finally, the Gilardis remain free to express publicly their disapproval of contraceptive products. [emphasis in original]

He also recognized that protecting women's health is a compelling government interest.

Yesterday, Senate Republicans made clear their determination to prevent President Obama from filling the three vacancies on the court, filibustering the first nominee just as they had signaled they would do even before they knew who the president's three nominees would be. Today's opinion exemplified why. Including senior judges, who can serve on panels like the one making today's decision, Republican-nominated judges on the D.C. Circuit outnumber Democratic-nominated ones 9-5. And with Republicans having made a deliberate effort over the years to appoint conservative ideologues to the bench, a three-judge panel is more likely than not to have at least two staunch conservatives.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw Republicans shut down the government and threaten to destroy the nation's economy is the president did not adopt their policies. Similarly, since President Obama isn't nominating the people that a President Romney would have chosen for the D.C. Circuit, Senate Republicans have taken it upon themselves to limit the size of the court and keep a Democratic president from filling the three vacancies.

That is why it is so important to defeat the GOP effort to filibuster the president's nominees. For them, "elections matter" only when they win.

PFAW

Hypocrisy, McCarthyism & “Christian Persecution”

It seems like with every election, congressional hearing or large gathering of its activists, the Right reaches new lows. Here are some updates on what we’re up against right now.

Rewarding Hypocrisy -- Sanford and Cruz

This week, former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford staged a political comeback and won a special election to reclaim the U.S. House seat he once occupied. Sanford had left office mired in scandal about his extramarital affair and ran a campaign centered on his own humility and learned compassion -- although, apparently his experience did nothing to dissuade him from his moralizing anti-choice and anti-gay positions. I pointed out in a piece on the Huffington Post yesterday that Sanford trumpeted his new personal understanding of "human grace as a reflection of God's grace," but his ideas of grace, choice and personal freedom as they apply to his own story don’t seem to be pushing him in the direction of supporting those things for same-sex couples, women, religious minorities or really anyone who is not just like him.

Sanford’s just the tip of the iceberg.

This past weekend NRA convention speakers from Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum to Sarah Palin and NRA president Wayne LaPierre attacked “the Left,” the Obama administration, the media and, basically, their straw man version of The (uber-liberal) Establishment for using fear tactics to scare Americans into supporting common sense gun reforms like background checks… while in the same breath stoking paranoia about every manner of “big government” tyranny, like the forced disarmament of America’s law abiding gun owners.  

Another NRA convention speaker, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is being discussed in right-wing circles (and by Cruz himself) as potential presidential candidate in 2016. Cruz is a Tea Party super star who is making waves by challenging the traditional role of freshmen U.S. senators and recently gained notoriety for leading the filibuster of the background check requirement for gun purchases (the one 90% of Americans support) and then insulting his fellow Republican senators at a Tea Party event. But Sen. Cruz was born in Canada. Where are all the Tea Party “Birthers” who claimed that President Obama was born in Kenya and therefore he didn’t qualify as a “natural born citizen,” making him ineligible to run for president, even if his mother was an American citizen??

Whether it’s based on race, politics or ideology, the hypocrisy here is palpable … as it was when Cruz bragged to the NRA about vowing to filibuster any gun safety reform, no matter how common-sense or popular, but in the same speech, tore into Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for requiring a 60 vote threshold to advance one of his preferred “pro-gun” bills, which incidentally had less support in the Senate than background checks.

It seems that it’s not so much a good redemption story the Right loves as it is blatant hypocrisy that gets rewarded with support and popularity.

McCarthyism

It must be political witch hunt season because Republicans in Congress – fueled by their allies in the right-wing media – are embarking on some serious fishing expeditions in attempts to smear the president, his nominee for Labor Secretary Tom Perez and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee channels Sen. Joe McCarthy perhaps more than any other sitting member of Congress in his overzealous twisting of facts and events to “support” his hyperbolic allegations like President Obama’s is “the most corrupt government in history” and Hillary Clinton and her inner circle staged a vast “cover up” surrounding the embassy attack in Benghazi. Issa, who himself is no stranger to ethical questions (again with the hypocrisy -- they can’t help themselves), along with his allies, who include most congressional Republicans, the Religious Right and virtually the entire conservative movement, are clearly being motivated by their expectations that former Sec. of State Clinton will be a formidable candidate for president in 2016, so they are trying to tar her in advance.    

Issa and his House cohorts have been involved in the attacks on Tom Perez as well, although the real obstruction is taking place in Senate, where Perez’s confirmation vote has been delayed again by Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee. While obstructing an eminently well qualified Latino nominee seems like a funny way to demonstrate the GOP’s “rebranding” and appeal to Latino voters, the attacks on Tom Perez have truly been as vicious as they are baseless. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) alluded to Perez being “a dishonorable man,” and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) contorted claims about an incident involving the city of St. Paul, MN to assert that Perez wanted to “hurt poor people” simply because he was in a position of power from which he could do so.

This week, PFAW delivered 50,000 petition signatures to the Senate HELP Committee urging an end to the obstruction and swift action to confirm Tom Perez, and we’ll continue to keep the pressure on.

Religious Right’s Persecution Fantasy

Claim after claim after claim of “persecution,” used as examples of a “war on Christians” by Religious Right activists, talk show hosts and politicians, gets thoroughly debunked. But even as these examples are firmly established as myths, right-wing leaders, and even lazy mainstream journalists, continue to cite them in their speeches and reporting. PFAW’s Right Wing Watch released an In Focus report in the first weeks of the Obama administration in 2009 about the Right’s use of a “big lie” strategy about a war on Christians to stoke the base’s false fears of religious persecution. We are seeing every day in our Right Wing tracking that the playbook we identified remains in constant use.

Corporate Court(s)

A new study by the Constitutional Accountability Center details the remarkable success corporate special interests like the Chamber of Commerce have had before the current Supreme Court. Certainly as, if not even more, notable, another study published in The Minnesota Law Review ranked all 36 Supreme Court justices of the last 65 years based on their pro-corporate bent. While all five of the current Court’s conservative justices made the top 10, President George W. Bush’s nominees and the two most recent conservative additions to the Court, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, were at the very top of the list.

Meanwhile, a separate study from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service confirms what we’ve been pointing out for years -- that President Obama’s judicial nominees are being treated exceptionally poorly by Senate Republicans. Emblematic of the obstruction of President Obama’s nominees has been the situation with respect to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, often called the nation’s second most powerful court. Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to preserve the DC Circuit’s rightward tilt even at the cost of maintaining vacancies that severely hinder the Court’s ability to do its job.

PFAW will continue to call attention to and fight the GOP’s unprecedented judicial obstruction in the DC Circuit and the entire federal judiciary. We expect several confirmation battles on the horizon, with new nominations expected to be announced by the White House in coming weeks, and we’ll be employing various strategies to make sure senators are feeling the heat in their own states over the GOP’s unconscionable obstruction.

PFAW