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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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.


Dangers of Supreme Court Prayer Ruling Quickly Become Clear

Sometimes the damage from a bad court decision takes a while to make itself clear. Not so with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a town’s practice of beginning council meetings with prayers that are overwhelmingly Christian. Conservative political and legal groups called it a win for religious freedom, but it only took a few days to see just how much unnecessary and divisive conflict the Court’s decision could generate in communities across America.

Late last week the mayor of the New Jersey town of Carteret cited the Supreme Court ruling to justify cancelling the use of the borough hall for a Saturday naturalization ceremony.  He was upset that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to allow the ceremony to begin with prayer. The INS says its rules are meant to ensure that naturalization ceremonies are "conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements." But Mayor Daniel Reiman said the INS could "host its godless ceremony someplace else." (It was held in Newark.)

What a sad object lesson for those aspiring American citizens and their friends and families. Who knows how many different faiths were represented among them? It shouldn’t matter, because one of the most precious benefits of being an American is that your rights and standing as a citizen do not depend on your holding any particular set of religious beliefs.

But don’t tell that to Al Bedrosian, a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. Last week after the Supreme Court ruling, Bedrosian declared that prayers to open board meetings should be given only by Christians. It is shameful that Bedrosian holds public office in Virginia, home of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the birthplace of the First Amendment. Bedrosian argued publicly several years ago that Christians should “rid ourselves of this notion of freedom of religion in America.” He said Christians “are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions” and called it one of the “greatest moments in US Senate history” when a group of Christians disrupted a Hindu religious leader who was giving an opening prayer.

Both Reiman and Bedrosian are misinterpreting the Court’s decision. But these episodes bring even greater clarity to a reality to which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court demonstrated “blindness” – in the words of dissenting Justice Elena Kagan. That is the exclusionary and divisive reality – as opposed to the theory – of government bodies opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.

The case decided by the Supreme Court came concerned the upstate New York town of Greece.  For years, the town council has been inviting local clergy to open its meetings. Those clergy have been overwhelmingly Christian, and their prayers were sometimes highly sectarian, invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These were not, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, ceremonial invocations like the “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” which begins Supreme Court sessions.

The town’s prayer policy was challenged by two citizens (one Jew and one atheist) who felt coerced by the invitations to Christian prayer, and who felt as if they were being made outsiders in their own town based on their religious beliefs. They argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted as preventing the government from favoring religion in general or any religion in particular.

Some people, particularly those in the religious majority, have a hard time seeing why such prayer is a big deal. As Paul Waldman writes for the Washington Post, “the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”

But imagine, as Kagan did, a Muslim who has come before the city council seeking a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. When she is asked to join in prayer celebrating the divinity of Jesus, she has the option of not participating, or leaving the room. Either option identifies her as somehow different from her neighbors and from the councilmembers who will decide the fate of her request.  A federal appeals court had ruled that the town’s practice was unconstitutional because, even if town officials had no bad intent, the consequence of the nearly uninterrupted parade of Christian prayers was to signal that Christianity was favored, and to make unequal citizens of people of other faiths or no faith.

Unfortunately, five Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying even an overwhelmingly Christian and sectarian prayer practice is OK unless there is a pattern of prayers denigrating other faiths or proselytizing or unless there is evidence that people are being legally coerced or punished for not participating. The Court has given a green light to “Christian Nation” advocates like Al Bedrosian to demand that their city council or county commission allow their official meetings to be regularly opened with explicitly Christian prayers.  Some Religious Right leaders have said that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Right now, practices vary. Some government bodies don’t bother with prayer; others invite clergy to open meetings, with guidelines that prayers be respectful or nonsectarian. But even that nod toward pluralism is at risk: Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said this ruling means government bodies can no longer make a distinction between nonsectarian prayer and “praying in Jesus’ name” and he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that will have an impact on a number of cases.”

It’s worth noting that some progressive Christians agree that “nonsectarian prayer” is a kind of oxymoron. But, says Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore, that is not a reason to push for sectarian prayer; it is instead a reason to do away with legislative prayer altogether. He writes that the effort to push more prayer in official settings is “offensive to those who pray as much as to those who don’t.” The pro-church-state-separation Baptist Joint Committee had filed a brief in the case stating that “prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of government.”

That brings us to a crucial distinction between what is constitutional and what is wise, particularly in a country that is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. As noted in People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, “Some things that are legally permissible may still be damaging to religious tolerance and civic discourse, and should be discouraged.”

The Supreme Court did not rule that legislative bodies have to begin their meetings with prayer; it ruled that the Constitution allows them to. In spite of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s portrayal of legislative prayer as a unifying force, it seems likely that an aggressive push for more sectarian prayer to open official meetings will be anything but unifying. Elected officials should think twice before going down that road.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he prays that the Court is showing a way toward “a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life.” But Moore is wrong: we already have a free marketplace of faith expression in America. The First Amendment has fostered a vibrant, flourishing, peaceful religious pluralism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Christian media has a massive presence on television, radio, and online. But what too many “Christian Nation” advocates want, and what the Court is opening the door to, is a system in which a religious majority can more easily use the institutions of government to promote its religious beliefs and label others as outsiders.

And that is not the American Way. 

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. 


North Carolina Drops Official Religion Bill

After vocal opposition from People For the American Way and others, Speaker Thom Tillis of the North Carolina House announced yesterday that a resolution stating that North Carolina has the power to declare an official religion would not be brought to a vote.  In effect, this means that the resolution has been dropped. 

The bill claimed that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment does not apply to states.  But as People For the American Way President Michael Keegan noted in a statement on Wednesday,

“There’s no question that any attempt to establish an official state religion is blatantly unconstitutional. That’s true whether it’s North Carolina or the federal government.”

The proposal highlighted the extremes that Tea Party Republican lawmakers are willing to go to in order to push their dangerous ideology – even when it means ignoring core principles on which our nation was founded, such as religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  

UPDATE (4/8/13): North Carolina Representative Harry Warren, one of the sponsors of the resolution, has now publicly stated that he “regret[s] any embarrassment or concern that it has caused the citizens of Rowan County and North Carolina,” calling the resolution “poorly written.”  Warren’s explanation is, however, still problematic.  He says he wanted a resolution that county officials have the right, despite the Establishment Clause, to open their proceedings with specifically Christian prayers.  That, of course, flies against the Constitution. 



Advocate for Church-State Separation to Lead White House Faith Office

Good news out of the White House today for advocates of religious liberty and church-state separation: President Obama has selected Melissa Rogers as the new director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She will also serve as a Special Assistant to the President.

Rogers is a widely respected scholar on religious freedom and an exceptionally thoughtful advocate for the position that the separation of church and state is a cornerstone of religious liberty. People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation have frequently worked in coalition with Rogers, particularly during her tenure as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  She is also a former director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

Rogers was the first chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and in 2011 she was appointed to a subgroup of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Rogers steps into her new position at a time when the definition and scope of “religious liberty” are being strongly contested in the public arena, with conservative religious and legal groups using the term to challenge health care reform and push for broad exceptions to anti-discrimination laws.

In addition, Rogers will face ongoing questions about an issue left unaddressed during President Obama’s first term: the president’s campaign pledge to ensure that organizations using federal funds to carry out social services cannot discriminate with those funds in hiring staff.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone who could do a better job than Melissa Rogers at dealing with these challenges,” says People For’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker. “The American people need a thoughtful and convincing voice like Melissa’s to help us sort through the real religious liberty issues as well as the phony ones.”