House GOP Follows Orlando Tragedy with a License to Discriminate

On June 12, in a brazen attack on the LGBT community, a gunman walked into Pulse nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people.

Since then, House Republicans have refused to take meaningful action on hate violence and gun violence prevention.

So what are they taking up instead?

On July 12, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, an odious anti-LGBT bill that would redefine and hijack the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty.

One month to the day that 49 lives were lost and 53 others were injured in Orlando, Chairman Jason Chaffetz and Representative Raúl Labrador, the bill's sponsor, are renewing their push for legislation that attempts to turn religious liberty into a license to discriminate against LGBT people. It's beyond shameful.

People For the American Way joined the American Civil Liberties Union and over 70 national, state, and local organizations in urging Chairman Chaffetz to cancel this hearing and instead consider how best to ensure that no one in this country is subjected to violence or discrimination based on who they are or who they love.

Please join us: Take a stand for equality and against hate -- add your name now to STOP the so-called First Amendment Defense Act.

PFAW

The Movers Behind The Anti-LGBT 'Religious Liberty' Movement

This post originally appeared on Right Wing Watch.

In the first few months of this year, for the second year in a row, more than 100 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in state legislatures, many of them promoted under the banner of protecting religious liberty.  A new report by People For the American Way Foundation, “Who is Weaponizing Religious Liberty?,” explains that “it takes a right-wing village to turn a cherished American principle into a destructive culture-war weapon.”

The report makes clear that the wave of anti-equality legislation promoted in the name of religious liberty is not an outgrowth of local conflicts but the latest step in a long-term campaign by national Religious Right legal and political groups to resist legal equality for LGBT people. As Americans have come to know and embrace their LGBT family members and friends, harsh anti-gay rhetoric has become less effective, says the report, leading social conservatives to try to reclaim the moral and political high ground by reframing debates over marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections as questions of religious liberty.

These efforts are being promoted by “a network of national Religious Right organizations that oppose legal recognition for the rights of LGBT people,” notes the report, which profiles some of the leading organizations while noting that they “represent the tip of the iceberg of a much larger movement that is trying to eliminate legal access to abortion and roll back legal protections for LGBT people, couples, and families — and trying to do so in the name of religious liberty.”

The groups covered in the report include:

·         Family Research Council and FRC Action

·         Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action

·         National Organization for Marriage

·         Alliance Defending Freedom

·         Liberty Counsel

·         American Family Association

·         Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

·         American Principles Project

The report includes links to additional resources on the organizations behind the Right’s use of religious liberty as political strategy for resisting equality. 

PFAW Foundation

“Hobby Lobby II” Distorts the Principle of Religious Freedom

The following is a guest blog by Rev. Faye London, a member of the VASHTI Women’s Initiative within People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.

The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell case – which has now been consolidated with similar cases under the name Zubik v. Burwell – is a continuation of a strategy by the Right to gut the Affordable Care Act since they have been unable to repeal it. All of these cases are framed as "religious freedom" cases, yet trying to limit women’s reproductive freedom is based on a twisted understanding of what the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was meant to address.

Congress passed RFRA more than 20 years ago when the Supreme Court refused to protect native and indigenous individuals from being denied government benefits because of drug tests detecting peyote, a substance that was used in their religious ceremonies. RFRA was passed to protect people from having their free exercise of religion violated by the government.

Like so many others, this law has become a victim of targeted reinterpretation. In 2014, the Hobby Lobby decision made it legal for a corporation to act as an individual with regard to religious freedom. It also redefined religious freedom, so that people and corporations could use RFRA to avoid obeying laws that offend their religious beliefs, but don’t actually limit their free exercise of religion. Several states also considered laws intended to make it legal for any person or business to cite religion in order to ignore laws prohibiting discrimination against same gender loving people. And while that aspect of the debate was all over the news, the threat to women’s health posed by laws like this grew quietly in the background.

The case now at the Supreme Court attacks a vital piece of the puzzle by which ACA protects women's health by requiring health insurance to include contraception coverage without charge. There is an accommodation already in the law that sets an alternative route to coverage for women who work for nonprofit religious organizations that disapprove of contraception. All the organization has to do is fill out a very short and simple form or write a letter stating that as an organization they do not want to provide contraception, and they are relieved from that responsibility and the government takes over, directing the insurance company to pay for the contraception rather than the religious nonprofit. The Little Sisters of the Poor organization and others are saying that signing a one-page form is an "undue burden" on them morally, as it still constitutes participation in opening the way for women to access "sinful" contraceptive care.

This new trend is just another way to strip rights from poor people who depend on these services for survival. It is not about religious freedom. The accommodation is sufficient to protect the Little Sisters' religious freedom. This is about controlling women's bodies (and particularly poor women's bodies, since women of means can afford to pay out of pocket), in order to make space for those who would relieve themselves of any responsibility for ethical treatment of their employees or the public.

PFAW Foundation

Discriminatory "Religious Freedom" Bill is Bad for Our State

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

I am one who believes that we must be vigilant about protecting true religious liberty, which has been a guiding principle throughout our country's history. As the First Amendment makes clear, all people have a right to practice, or not to practice, any religion they choose. Laws that truly protect individuals' exercise of religion prevent the government from infringing on our rights.

But the state legislature is considering a bill (HB 757) that, though framed in the language of protecting First Amendment religious freedom, at its core is about one thing: discrimination. HB 757 was recently amended and passed by the state Senate and is now being considered by the House. As Americans United explains it, the bill would allow "any individual or 'faith-based' business, non-profit entity, or taxpayer-funded organization to ignore any law that conflicts with their religious beliefs about marriage." In other words, businesses and organizations could cite religion in order to refuse service to certain groups of people.

This bill could lead to any number of nightmare situations. Restaurant owners who refuse to serve same-sex or interracial couples. Domestic violence shelters that turn away unmarried mothers and their children. Adoption agencies that refuse to place a child with parents of different faiths.

It's not the first time Georgia has considered passing a "right to discriminate" bill. Why are our state representatives wasting time, again and again, pushing legislation that would harm Georgians and threaten to drive businesses out of the state? The bill's sponsor even admitted last week that the legislation could protect the Ku Klux Klan as a "faith-based" organization. This bill is too extreme for Georgia, plain and simple. 

While the new title of part II of HB 757, "the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia," may sound like it's about true religious protection, the bill is actually a cynical attempt to turn the idea of religious liberty into a sword to attack other people's rights, rather than to truly shield their own religious practices from improper government interference. That's not what religious liberty is about. Moreover, using religion as a tool to harm others is an idea that a strong majority of Georgians reject. According to new data from the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of Georgians oppose allowing small businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds.

Many faiths, including my own, teach that we should fight for the oppressed. Disguising a push for a "right to discriminate" under the mantle of First Amendment religious freedom is an insult to those moral principles. It's an insult to people of faith who take seriously the call to walk with, and fight for, the most vulnerable among us. 

As a Baptist pastor and as a Georgian, I urge our legislators to do the right thing by rejecting HB 757. On the senate floor, Sen. Nan Orrock said, "Be able to tell your grandchildren that you didn't vote for state-sanctioned discrimination." To that, I say: Amen.

Rev. Timothy McDonald III is Senior Pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and Co-Chair of People For the American Way's African American Ministers In Action.

PFAW Foundation

Why The Right's Response To Marriage Equality Is Anything But Principled

This post by PFAW and PFAW Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon was originally published in the Huffington Post. 

Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and other conservative leaders have recently lashed out against the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality by proclaiming that local clerks who don't personally agree with marriage equality should not be required to issue marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples - even though it's their job to provide that service to the public.

Their logic is fundamentally flawed. Civil marriage is a civil function, not a religious one. Government employees allowing someone to access their legal rights are not doing anything religious, nor are they condoning the actions being licensed any more than with any other type of license.

That's why when government employees in our country have had religious objections to divorce and remarriage, they have still had to do their jobs. And when government employees have had religious objections to interracial marriages, they have still had to do their jobs. So, too, have government officials with other religious objections to whether or how certain couples get married.

But when the particular religious belief in question is opposition to lesbians and gays, that's apparently a different matter altogether. Now, suddenly, we're told that government employees need to have their religious liberty "protected."

A principle of religious liberty that is invoked only in the context of one particular religious belief is no principle at all. It is a pretext.

The far-right movement that is coalescing around these "protections" allowing civil servants to impose their religious beliefs on others and deny them service does not have clean hands in this regard. While they proclaim loudly that they just want to "live and let live," the policies they have pursued vigorously for decades have aggressively sought to prevent LGBT people from having basic human rights. The Right's new clamor for "protections" is just another form of homophobia.

If the religious right simply wanted to "live and let live," they would not have spent these past decades seeking to impose their religious beliefs about homosexuality on others both through custom and through force of law. They would not have boycotted television networks for airing shows portraying LGBT people as ordinary people. Nor would they have screamed bloody murder when popular celebrities came out of the closet. They would not have fought to prevent us from raising children. They would not have battled to ensure that surviving members of couples be denied Social Security survivor benefits. They would not have opposed letting us serve our country in the intelligence services or in the military. They would not have put so much energy into convincing Americans that we are sexual predators going after their children. They would not have tried to bar us from teaching in public schools. They would not have threatened us with criminal prosecution just for our private, consensual sexual conduct.

Whether it's religious refusals specific to marriage, more general Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in a post-Hobby Lobby world, or Sen. Mike Lee's misleadingly named "First Amendment Defense Act," the Right is yet again attacking LGBT people. With a growing number of Americans - and now the Supreme Court - affirming that the right to marry is a right guaranteed to all regardless of sexual orientation, some on the Right have come to understand that their best tactic to fight marriage equality is to couch their homophobic goals with the language of "religious liberty" instead of explicitly speaking out against LGBT rights. But it's up to all of us to make sure that they do not succeed in these efforts to portray themselves as virtuous defenders of religious liberty, because in reality they're just waging another war against LGBT people.
 

PFAW

North Carolina Pastor Speaks Out About Discriminatory 'Religious Freedom' Marriage Law

In response to a bill authorizing public officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages becoming law in North Carolina this morning, Dr. Terence K. Leathers – a pastor at Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton, North Carolina and a member of People For the American Way's African American Ministers In Action – released the following statement:

“Shame on our legislature for making this harmful and unnecessary bill become law. As a pastor, I believe this is not only a blow for the dignity of all North Carolinians but also a blow for true religious liberty.

“Governor McCrory did the right thing when he vetoed this bill, and the fact that our legislature overrode it shows just how far they will go in misusing the principle of religious liberty in order to discriminate. This is a sad day for our state.”

Last week, Dr. Leathers published an op-ed in The Huffington Post calling on the legislature not to misuse religious freedom to license public officials to discriminate.

PFAW

Pamela Geller Is Not a Hero, But...

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post.

I am grateful to live in a country where even someone as hateful as Pamela Geller can speak her mind. She can smear President Obama as the "jihadist in the White House" and speculate that he "choked up" with tears when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden. She can say that Pope Francis' call for "affection and respect" towards Muslims means he has "become an imam." She can compare Jewish Americans who support President Obama to Nazi appeasers and call comedian Jon Stewart "the most disgusting Jew on the planet." She can suggest banning Muslims from becoming airline pilots. She can then claim that anyone who doesn't want to hear her speak is "enforcing the Sharia."

I am also grateful to live in a country where the law protects Geller's right to say these things.

Sunday's incident, in which two gunmen tried to attack an anti-Islam event that Geller and virulently anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders hosted in Texas, was deeply troubling. Our freedom of speech means nothing if people are too afraid to speak. We saw this in a different context earlier this year when Sony pulled a raunchy geopolitical buddy comedy from theaters under threat of terror attacks. Say what you will about Pamela Geller, she has not backed down from any of her vile positions under fear of violence.

But it's important to remember that the fact that she was attacked for her speech doesn't make Geller a hero, or her speech any less hateful. As Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall put it yesterday, "a hate group is a hate group the day after someone takes a shot at them just like it was the day before."

Local Muslim groups had the right idea when they stayed away from Geller's event,declining to protest so that they wouldn't give Geller the attention she so desperately wanted. Those who expose her hateful rhetoric -- like my PFAW colleagues -- also do important work, making sure the public knows that just because she is targeted by violent idiots doesn't make her a serious thinker or a hero.

I know that Geller won't back down from her hateful rhetoric after this event-- in fact, the attempted attack will probably embolden her and cause some to take her more seriously. And we shouldn't stop criticizing Geller -- or, as she puts it, "enforcing the Sharia" -- when she's wrong.

As People For the American Way wrote in 2009 in response to a renewed spate of inflammatory right-wing rhetoric, Americans must "be willing to use their First Amendment freedoms to challenge those who exploit their political positions or media megaphones to promote lies that are intended to inflame rather than inform, that encourage paranoia rather than participation, and whose consequences are at best divisive and at worst, violently destructive."

PFAW

Gov. Pence's Claims Ignore Indiana "Religious Freedom" Law's History

As he has since signing Indiana's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Governor Mike Pence today insisted that the law does not allow discrimination. As reported in the Indianapolis Star:

[Pence] stressed that RFRA was about "religious liberty, not discrimination" and emphasized that the law does not give anyone the right to turn away customers on religious grounds.

"This law does not give anyone the right to discriminate...This law does not give anyone the right to deny services," he said.

Let's rewind the tape to the legislative debate over the bill. Senate Amendment # 4 would have added a key provision to the bill that would have made Gov. Pence's words accurate.

This chapter does not apply to:

(1) IC 22-9-1 (Indiana civil rights law); or

(2) any state law or local ordinance that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

However, the state Senate defeated this amendment by a lopsided vote of 10-40.

The Indiana House was equally insistent that the bill not be amended to provide any protection to state and local anti-discrimination laws. House Amendment # 5 would have added the following text to the law:

For purposes of this chapter:

(1) the protection of civil rights; or

(2) the prevention of discrimination;

is a compelling government interest.

Unlike the Senate amendment, this would not have completely exempted anti-discrimination laws from attack under RFRA. Nevertheless, this more moderate effort to make it harder to bypass such laws was still too much for the House, which overwhelmingly rejected the amendment in a 31-60 vote.

It would be nice to think that Governor Pence was right, and that this law didn't open the door to discrimination. But that is exactly what the law does, and its history makes that even clearer.  If Pence wants to "clarify" that the state's RFRA law won't allow denial of service, he can point legislators to amendment language that would make that as clear as day.

PFAW

Hobby Lobby Comes Home to Roost as States Consider "Religious Freedom" Legislation

This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Over the last twenty years, 19 states have passed laws modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was enacted in 1993 with broad bipartisan support. But just this year, almost the same number, 15, have seen such bills introduced, generating enormous controversy across the country, particularly in Indiana where Gov. Mike Pence signed the new state RFRA into law.

Why the huge uptick now? As one of those involved in the original drafting and passage of RFRA in 1993, I think it's a combination of the perceived dangers to the far right from the move towards LGBT marriage equality and the perceived opportunity created just last year by the 5-4 Supreme Court's rewriting of RFRA in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Even before the Supreme Court agreed to decide the marriage equality issue, the far right has highlighted the supposed dangers to small businesses like bakers and florists who do not want to serve LGBT couples because of religious objections. Under RFRA as passed in 1993, and under the protection from the First Amendment's Free Exercise doctrine that it was meant to restore, RFRA wouldn't have offered much help. First, neither had been applied to non-religious corporations, which had never been thought to have religious freedom rights. Second, it would have been very hard to argue that a neutral law banning discrimination against LGBT people would have created a "substantial burden" on actual religious exercise, which is required to qualify for a RFRA-type exemption. For example, in one case the Supreme Court rejected the claim that requiring federal welfare recipients to submit social security numbers was such a burden even when it conflicted with an applicant's religious beliefs. And even if such a burden were created by obeying an anti-discrimination or other general law, pre-Hobby Lobby law would not have helped a religious claimant: as the Court ruled in rejecting a religious exemption to a requirement that a religious farmer withhold social security taxes, such an exemption would improperly "operate to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" and others.

But then came Hobby Lobby.

In that case, writing for a bare majority of the Court, Justice Alito ruled that religious objections by a corporation's owners exempted them under RFRA from providing contraceptive coverage through insurance to employees under the Affordable Care Act. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, rather than interpreting RFRA to restore prior case law, the majority interpreted it as going beyond prior Court decisions to maximize benefits to religious claimants. In particular, she explained, the Court effectively re-wrote RFRA so that it could be invoked by for-profit corporations, and so that the original law protecting individuals against a "substantial burden" on the exercise of religion was transformed to allow claims by a business owner that complying with a neutral law offended their religious beliefs in some way. Under the majority's view, Justice Ginsburg suggested, RFRA could be interpreted to "require exemptions" in cases where religious beliefs were used to justify actions that discriminated on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Pointedly, Justice Alito responded only that "prohibitions on racial discrimination" would be safe from a RFRA exemption claim, but said nothing about gender or LGBT status.

So for far-right activists and legislators concerned about LGBT marriage equality and other rights, Hobby Lobby provided the perfect opportunity: pass state RFRA laws and effectively grant a religious exemption claim from LGBT anti-discrimination laws and local ordinances, based on the Court's re-writing of RFRA's language. Indeed, in communicating with supporters about the Indiana RFRA law, the far-right Family Research Council specifically called it the "Hobby Lobby bill."

Even better, rhetoric directed at outsiders could be cloaked in general language about protecting religious freedom, not attacking LGBT rights. Supporters could even invoke Democratic supporters of RFRA like President Clinton and claim that neither RFRA nor its state counterparts had been interpreted to allow discrimination, as Indiana Gov. Pence has tried to do. These claims ignore the fact that it wasn't until last year that the Supreme Court effectively rewrote the language in RFRA so that it was transformed from a shield for religious liberty into a sword against anti-discrimination protections. And previous supporters like President Clinton have made clear their opposition to this year's state RFRA proposals.

Under pressure, the neutral façade of recent state RFRA proposals has crumbled. When pushed to amend a state RFRA proposal in Georgia to make clear that it could not be used against anti-discrimination ordinances, a Georgia legislator admitted that one of the reasons for the bill was to allow it to be invoked by the small business owner who had religious objections to providing services to an LGBT couple. And when an amendment was added in the Georgia House Judiciary Committee to state that the RFRA bill was not to be used against discrimination laws, the bill was promptly tabled on March 26, with a supporter stating that the amendment would "gut" the bill.

As of now, the fate of RFRA bills in Georgia and elsewhere is uncertain and Gov. Pence has asked the legislature for an amendment to "clarify" that Indiana's RFRA law cannot be used to deny services to anyone. That would be a welcome step - one that flies in the face of the clear intent of some of the bill's backers, which was clearly to enshrine such a "right" for Indiana businesses. Language has been adopted elsewhere to make clear that state RFRAs cannot be used against anti-discrimination bills; such a provision is currently in Texas' RFRA, although there is a proposal to remove it. Before Hobby Lobby, such language might not have been necessary. After Hobby Lobby, it is crucial.

PFAW

Georgia Pro-Discrimination Bill Exposed, But It Could Still Pass

While Georgia's misleadingly named Religious Freedom Restoration Act may still pass the state legislature before it adjourns, it had a major setback when its conservative supporters' true goal was exposed. Like similar bills being pushed across the country, it is masked as simply a measure defending religious liberty, but it is really a vehicle designed to give legal cover to discrimination. By a one-vote margin, the House Judiciary Committee amended the bill so it could not be used to trump anti-discrimination laws, with three Republicans joining all the committee's Democrats. The bill's supporters then voted to table the bill rather than advance a bill that no longer allowed discrimination.

But the bill isn't dead. Until the Georgia legislature adjourns on April 2, anything can happen. In fact, the House Judiciary Committee announced late Friday that it would resume considering the bill on Monday. But in some encouraging news, that meeting has been cancelled. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

A specially called meeting of the House Judiciary Committee set for Monday was cancelled, leaving the future of the ‘religious liberty' bill in doubt.

...

The back-and-forth on the bill comes as Indiana deals with the backlash from adopting a similar law that has led to calls of boycotts and the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in tourism and economic development. Indiana Gov. Mike Spence on Sunday told ABC News the law is not about discrimination but refused to say whether it would permit a business owner to refuse service to someone with whom they disagree.

As Georgia legislators are learning, this is a bill that has the public's attention, and people are not happy with it. When the Judiciary Committee heard public testimony on the bill last week, far more people showed up than the committee chairman was willing to make time for. Among those who went to the state capitol to testify was Rev. Tim McDonald, senior pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, former President of Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, and current co-chair of African American Ministers In Action at PFAW. He was ultimately unable to offer his testimony in person, but he submitted it in writing. Rev. McDonald wrote, in part:

Equality and basic rights should never yield to discrimination. But this bill would legalize discrimination, and it does so by distorting the concept of religious liberty.

Many other religious leaders here in Georgia have agreed and have opposed this bill. So have conservatives like former state attorney Michael Bowers, and businesses like Wal-Mart, which has opposed similar legislation in Arkansas.

It is clear that rather than fixing a problem, this bill would create problems, often for the most vulnerable among us. Handing people the right to use the mantle of religious liberty to harm others is wrong. My faith teaches me that I should speak out against proposals that could deny basic rights to others, especially when it's being done in the name of religion.

During the public testimony, bill supporters kept returning to one misleading talking point: Although the bill mirrors a federal RFRA that has been on the books for 20 years, as well as several longtime state RFRAs, opponents couldn't point to a case where the law was used to enable otherwise illegal discrimination. Rev. McDonald addressed this in his testimony:

[This bill threatens to allow discrimination] even though, and in large part because, the bill's language tracks the language of the federal RFRA. State courts are likely to follow the guidance of the United States Supreme Court in how to interpret this almost identical language. Unfortunately, with last June's 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court gravely misinterpreted that federal law. Five Justices ruled, for the first time, that for-profit corporations can invoke the law, and they essentially excised from the statute the requirement that it can be triggered only by a substantial burden on actual religious exercise. Under Hobby Lobby, having your religious beliefs offended is enough. So a state court following the Hobby Lobby logic could easily equate a business owner's being religiously offended by a gay employee or a customer's "lifestyle choice" with a significant burden on the owner's religious liberty. That is why the bill transforms religious liberty protection from a shield into a sword.

Keep an eye out for this. Until the legislature adjourns, the bill can come back to life, and conservatives in Georgia could succeed in weaponizing religious liberty in their state as Indiana did last week.

PFAW