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

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. 
 

 

PFAW

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.”

PFAW

Speaking of Class Warfare…

One of the most absurd things to come out of American politics in recent months is the allegation that the president’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans – bringing them back to the levels they enjoyed under Clinton -- amounts to “class warfare.”

In the Huffington Post last week, PFAW’s Michael Keegan called the GOP’s renewed cries of “class warfare” both “ironic and cynical.”

If you want to see what class warfare really looks like, you need look no further than Texas, where a group of oil companies has successfully lobbied to have a government panel re-examine a very large tax break that they were previously denied, and are now on the verge of receiving a $135 million gift from the state. Who’s paying for that gift? Public schools.

Here’s how the oil companies, led by Valero, are wrangling the refund from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to the AP:

Valero first asked for the refund for six of its refineries in 2007, and wants payment retroactive to that year. Since then, at least four other companies have asked for the same retroactive refund.


Valero argues the units should be exempt under a Texas law that says industrial plants don't have to pay taxes on equipment purchased to reduce on-site pollution. The law saves companies millions, and is meant to encourage investment in new technology.


At first, the request was denied. The commission's staff said the hydrotreaters reduce pollution in diesel and gas, not necessarily at the plant. In fact, staff said, the hydrotreaters actually increased sulfur dioxide pollution near the refineries because the toxic gas is now burned off in a flare.


Valero appealed, and the panel's chairman, Bryan Shaw, said last April that the Legislature likely intended a broader interpretation of the law. He instructed his staff to research whether they could award partial exemptions to Valero. Shaw declined to be interviewed for this story, saying it could present a conflict because the issue will be brought before him again.


Shaw, the environmental commissioner who encouraged the panel to take a new look at the oil company tax refund, was hand-picked for his post by Gov. Rick Perry. He’s an odd choice to head an environmental quality panel – as Mother Jones reported last week, he’s a climate change skeptic who has a long history of siding with industry over environmental groups.


But Gov. Perry’s ties to the oil industry run deep – since 1998, he’s raked in $11 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, including $147,895 from Valero, the company that’s leading the effort to get the $135 million tax refund.


While oil companies enjoy expensive access to the governor and an ally at the top of one of the committees charged with holding them accountable, it’s the state’s children who are breathing polluted air and whose schools are being asked to pay for new corporate tax breaks. From AP:


Now, the AP's analysis shows, the Pasadena Independent School District may have to refund $11.3 million to two refineries if commissioners grant the request.


Early Monday, Gonzales and others handed out fliers, collected petition signatures and offered $10,000 cookies and brownies at a mock "bake sale" designed to raise awareness about the money at stake. Eight Houston schools planned similar mock sales for later in the day.


The mom-turned-activist said she learned about the refineries' requests while unsuccessfully lobbying earlier this year to convince Perry and the Legislature to dip into the state's so-called rainy day fund to ease cuts to the schools.


Gonzales lives near a miles-long stretch of refineries, where massive pipes and stacks light the night like skyscrapers do in other cities. An intense, burnt chemical scent hangs over the town.


"You smell it. That's what we're known for. Stinkadena because of the refineries," Gonzales said. "There are days when we can't go out because our children's asthma is that bad ... and then they want money back?"
 

PFAW

What You Talkin' Bout, Willard?! YOU Attacking Harvard?

Willard Mitt Romney absolutely refuses to let the words that come out of his mouth be dictated by reality. He recently insisted that "corporations are people." Now, in an attempt to portray himself as some sort of "everyman" instead of the millionaire tycoon that he is, he's attacking President Obama for his ties to Harvard faculty. But judging by his associations and resume, Romney himself might as well keep a residence in Cambridge and have his own reserved parking space on Harvard's campus.

We say it again: What you talkin' bout, Willard?!

From Talking Points Memo:

Mitt Romney once again criticized President Obama for taking his advice from the "Harvard faculty lounge" in a speech in Florida on Thursday. He's repeated the line on the campaign trail despite being a Harvard alum himself and counting Harvard faculty among his own top advisers.

In a major address on foreign policy last month, Romney used the school as a punchline to decry Obama as overly weak in dealing with dictators. "That may be what they think in that Harvard faculty lounge," he said, "but it's not what they know on the battlefield!"

Romney has never served on the battlefield, but he does hold degrees from Harvard in business and law. That's one more than Obama, who has a law degree from the school and headed the Harvard Law Review. And it's not just Romney who has Crimson ties: The Boston Globe notes that three of his children have attended Harvard Business School.

But, hey, at least he's not taking his advice from the faculty lounge, right? Actually Romney relies on their expertise plenty. Meghan O'Sullivan, a former Bush aide, teaches international affairs at Harvard and reportedly advises him on foreign policy. His economic adviser for 2008 and 2012, Greg Mankiw, is a star professor there whose textbook is used at colleges around the country.

 

PFAW

Mitt Romney Still Thinks Corporations are People. They Still Aren’t.

Campaigning in Florida today, Mitt Romney doubled down on his recent claim that “corporations are people”:


Speaking to a town hall-style gathering at a Miami airport hotel, the former Massachusetts governor repeated the line he first said last month at the Iowa State Fair.


“I’ll communicate to the private sector, by the way, that we like you,” Romney said in response to a question about how to encourage banks to lend more money. “We like enterprise. I was in Iowa the other day, and people suggested that we just raise taxes on corporations.”


He went on: “I told them, corporations are people. … Raising taxes on corporations is raising taxes on people.”


While it’s true that corporations are owned by people, Romney intentionally ignores the basic purpose of corporations: to be a legal entities separate from human beings that own them, with different rights and responsibilities under the law. He also ignores the fact that many large corporations pay much less in taxes than actual human beings – GE, for instance, paid no federal income taxes in 2010.

Even if corporations were people, they’d be doing fairly well in today’s economy. Corporate profits have soared in the past year, even as more and more human beings are out of jobs and facing poverty.

When Romney made his first “corporations are people” remark, we responded with a petition and a TV ad in New Hampshire. Sounds like it’s time to dust that ad off:

 

 

PFAW

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry Confirmed to Attend Far-Right Values Voter Summit

The Family Research Council sent word today that GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is now confirmed to join Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Herman Cain at this year’s Values Voter Summit, a far-right extravaganza hosted by some of the most intolerant Religious Right groups in the business. Organized by the vehemently anti-gay Family Research Council, the event is also sponsored by the American Family Association and Liberty Counsel, among other right-wing groups.

Last year, we raised an alarm when Romney and Bachmann, along with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Rep. Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee attended the event. We were particularly concerned that these leaders would be willing to share the stage with the American Family Association’s spokesman Bryan Fischer, whose record of bigotry against gays and lesbians, Muslim Americans and American Indians, among others, is truly appalling.

Although Fischer is not yet listed as a confirmed speaker at this year’s event, attendees will have the honor of sharing the stage with some pretty extreme Religious Right activists, including Liberty Council’s Mat Staver, who opposes anti-bullying initiatives that protect LGBT kids and says that gay rights supporters have “a very militaristic anti-Christian viewpoint”; retired General Jerry Boykin, who thinks President Obama is using health care reform legislation to recruit an army of brownshirts loyal only to him; and Star Parker, who claims that black family life “was more healthy” under slavery than today.

And that’s not to mention the two main organizers of the event, the FRC and the AFA, which have both been listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their propagation of false anti-gay rhetoric.

Highlights of last year’s summit included FRC leader Tony Perkins simultaneously insulting gay troops and a number of key U.S. allies in Iraq and Afghanistan by declaring that countries that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in their armed forces are “the ones that participate in parades, they don't fight wars to keep the nation and the world free”; and Rick Santorum asserting that there are “no families” in impoverished neighborhoods.

Apparently the tone of last year’s event and the guest list of this year’s haven’t given any pause to the top GOP presidential candidates, who are eager to recruit the support of even the most extreme leaders of the Religious Right. That Romney is returning to VVS is an important reminder that, despite his self-styled “moderate” image, he is just as beholden to extreme Religious Right interests as the rest of the field.
 

PFAW

Rick Perry Confused About the ‘American Way’

Is it the American Way to make the children of undocumented immigrants live as second-class citizens?

The question came up in last night’s GOP presidential debate, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about the policy in his state allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. “It doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is, that is the American way,” Perry said. “No matter how you got in to that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you, and that’s what we’ve done in the state of Texas, and I’m proud that we are having those individuals being contributing members of our society, rather than telling them ‘you’re gonna be on the government dole.’”

Perry was met with boos from the crowd.

Rep. Michele Bachmann equated the Texas law to the federal DREAM Act (which is much broader and which Perry also opposes), saying, “I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws who are here in the United States illegally. That is not the American way.”

Perry is right that it’s not the American Way to punish children for the actions of their parents, which is why it’s odd that he’s against the federal DREAM Act, which would pave a path to citizenship for children who came into the country illegally who go to college or join the military. Perry seems to be trying to score “moderate” points for sticking up for his sensible policy in Texas, while having exactly the same view as Bachmann on a federal policy to achieve some of the same goals.

Watch the exchange:
 

PFAW

The 2012 GOP Field: Not Even Ronald Reagan Could Get This Nomination

Tonight, eight GOP presidential candidates will alight on sacred ground to some: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. As the candidates pay the required perpetual homage to the 40th president, the rest of us might take some time to reflect on just how far off the Reagan Ranch the Republican Party has gone.

Since the advent of the Tea Party, the Republican establishment has adopted a philosophy that you could call "Xtreme Reagan" -- tax cuts for the wealthy without compromise, deregulation without common sense, social conservatism without an ounce of respect -- that makes even a liberal like me almost miss the political pragmatism of the Gipper. It's terrifying that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a hard-line economic and social conservative, whose regressive economic policies as governor were to the right of Reagan, is now widely considered to be too far to the left to even be a contender.

Don't get me wrong -- I never was a fan of Ronald Reagan and his policies. But I miss the days when believing in science and being able to do basic budget math didn't make you a radical Socialist.

Reagan, a savvy politician, rode to power on the money of corporate America and the passion of an increasingly politicized Religious Right -- and, for the most part, gave both groups enough of what they wanted once he was in office to keep them both happy. But he also bucked those interests at some important points. Contrary to current Reagan hagiography, he raised taxes 11 times during his eight years in office -- including the largest corporate tax hike in American history -- when it became clear that pure trickle-down economics would be disastrous for the economy. And in 1981, over the objections of anti-choice groups, he nominated the highly qualified and politically moderate Sandra Day O'Connor to serve on the Supreme Court.

Today's Tea Party candidates, as they love to remind us, are beholden to the same interests. But they have taken the Reagan strategy a step further, turning the values of the Reagan coalition into a new, unyieldingly rigid conservative orthodoxy.

In the Tea Party orthodoxy, environmentalism isn't just bad for business, it's unbiblical. Tax cuts aren't just what the rich want, they're what Jesus wants . The Democratic president isn't just a liberal, he's a foreigner trying to destroy America from within. Conspiracy theories become hard-and-fast facts before you can change the channel away from Fox News. There's no compromise when you live in an air-tight world of unquestioned beliefs that become created facts.

Let's take a look at how the eight GOP candidates debating tonight have taken Xtreme Reaganism and made it their own:

  • Rick Santorum: Compared health care reform to drug dealing, said it will make Christians "less than what God created you to be," said it would "destroy the country"; compared gay relationships to "man-on-dog sex"; slammed the Supreme Court decision ensuring the right to access contraception.
  • Herman Cain: The most unabashedly anti-Muslim candidate in the field (and that's saying something!), proposed a religious test for office for Muslims who wanted to work for his administration.
  • Newt Gingrich: Where to begin? Maybe with the threat of a "secular atheist country... dominated by radical Islamists." Or with the threat of "gay and secular fascism." Or with his entire record as Speaker of the House of Representatives. You choose.
  • Ron Paul: Supposedly the most "libertarian" figure in the GOP, but does not support personal liberties for women or gay people. Still thinks the Voting Rights Act was a bad idea and we were better off before FEMA.
  • Jon Huntsman: The supposedly "moderate" candidate in the GOP field, enacted a highly regressive flat tax as governor of Utah, tried to eliminate corporate taxes, and banned second-trimester abortions.
  • Michele Bachmann: Calls homosexuality "personal enslavement," wants to reduce government to "its original size," says those who believe the science of evolution are part of a "cult following."
  • Mitt Romney: Believes whatever the Republican base wants him to believe, which these days is pretty far off the rails.
  • Rick Perry: Kicked off his presidential campaign by holding an event with the most extreme leaders of the Religious Right he could find, including a pastor who thinks that God sent Hitler to hunt the Jews and another who thinks that the Statue of Liberty is a "demonic idol."

This is the field that the Party of Reagan has produced to appeal to a right-moving and increasingly isolated base -- where the architect of health care reform has to run against himself, where the most libertarian still isn't willing to cross the Religious Right, and where the highest-polling has floated the idea of his state seceding from the union.

Listen tonight as you hear the homage to Ronald Reagan and consider how radical this party has actually become.

Cross posted on Huffington Post

PFAW

‘What You Talkin’ Bout, Willard?’

If you watched TV in the 1980s, you surely remember this:

The TV show Diff’rent Strokes – which featured the iconic tagline “What you talkin’ bout, Willis”? – was produced by PFAW’s founder Norman Lear.

And when Norman heard that Mitt Romney – whose first name is actually Willard – was running for president, it rang a bell.

In a piece in Variety this week, Norman asks Willard Mitt Romney exactly what he is talking about:

"What You Talkin' Bout, Willard?"

By Norman Lear

I don't have to explain that line to Americans who grew up watching one of our production company's sitcoms, "Diff'rent Strokes", which ran for eight seasons between 1978 and 1986 and for years after in syndication. Any one who knows the show will recall this signature phrase repeated by the young Gary Coleman to his older brother when stupefied and maddened by something his brother just said, "What you talkin' bout, Willis?"

I know some people think Willard Mitt Romney is the only responsible adult
i n that implausible field of presidential hopefuls, but often he will say
 something so surprising and disingenuous in this seemingly endless campaign, 
I find myself thinking, 'What you talkin' bout, Willard?

Absent a profanity, I don't know a better reaction to Romney's declaration 
that "corporations are people." Of course he'd be correct if the people
 he's referring to are the billionaire Koch brothers. Or if they are the 
people who are setting up phony corporations for the purpose of supporting
 Willard Mitt Romney's candidacy with million dollar gifts, and they could of 
course include the Kochs.

"What you talkin' bout, Willard?" leaps to mind at the thought of the natty
 Harvard-educated Wall Street executive and former Massachusetts governor 
railing against "eastern elites" at the last Republican National Convention. And it aches to be shouted out when I am reminded that Willard Mitt Romney, 
seeking someone to head his legal team, chose a man whose reactionary views
 about the U.S. Constitution led to a bi-partisan Senate vote to keep him off 
the Supreme Court, Robert Bork.

Willard's embrace of Bork, despite his angry rants since then, such as those
 calling for active government censorship of popular culture, is clearly 
meant to signal far-right activists that they can count on more Supreme
 Court Justices in the mold of Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, who are all
 energetically working to make Romney's assertion that "corporations are 
people" a legal reality.

What are you talkin' bout, Willard?

 

PFAW