Jamie Raskin Discusses Hobby Lobby and Corporate Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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


Defining Religious Liberty: Little Sisters' Little Victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to ACA's Contraception Coverage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Women’s Equality Day, Activists Recommit To Stand With Wisconsin Women at Noon Rally

To celebrate the 93rd Anniversary Women’s Equality Day on Monday, People For members joined hundreds of progressive allies on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison for the “Stand With Wisconsin Women” Rally.  The event opened with a song from the Solidarity Singalong participants, and featured Wisconsin women, activists, and legislators speaking out against the Wisconsin GOP’s war against women.

VIDEO: http://youtu.be/H2M9ovQY6nM


(Video credit: Scott Foval / PFAW.org)

“Thanks to the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, I will no longer pay co-pays for my birth control.  As a woman I will no longer be charged simply for being a woman, and attempting to control my own reproductive life,” said Kristina Nailen.  “I am still afraid.  I am afraid that after these nine years of accumulating debt just for my bachelors, graduating this year with 83,000 in debt before interest, that I will be able to manage my own health care and make my loan repayments.”

Nailen called on Governor Walker and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature to reverse their decision to cut the BadgerCare program, and immediately restore health care funding and provide access to more than 100,000 Wisconsin women who count on the program for their health care coverage.

The rally also featured a roster of activists, leaders, and legislators calling for equal pay for women,  for paid family leave legislation, and endorsing the return of legislation promoting common sense, true equality, and fairness for all citizens; including working women, low wage workers, same-sex couples, disabled persons, and immigrants.  Following the rally participants entered the Wisconsin capitol building to lobby Governor Walker and members of the Wisconsin legislature, demanding they refocus on creating well-paying jobs, and stop enacting anti-woman measures as distractions from economically-focused legislation.


Circuit Court Rejects Attack on Contraception Coverage

Yesterday, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition to prevent enforcement of the ACA's contraception coverage provision for owners of the Hobby Lobby chain, who disapprove of certain types of birth control. They claim that the law infringes on their religious liberty in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Under RFRA, federal laws cannot substantially burden the free exercise of religious beliefs unless they further a compelling government interest in the least restrictive manner possible.

As Reuter reports:

The company faces fines of up to $1.3 million daily if it disobeys the mandate, which takes effect on January 1 for Hobby Lobby, a $3 billion chain, and its smaller sister operation, Mardel, a Christian-oriented bookstore and educational supply company.

Both companies are owned by the Green family of Oklahoma City, whose patriarch, David Green, is ranked 79th on Forbes Magazine's list of the 400 richest Americans, with a net worth of $4.5 billion.

In rejecting the RFRA claim, the unanimous court agreed with the lower court, which had put the case succinctly:

[T]he particular burden of which plaintiffs complain is that funds, which plaintiffs will contribute to a group health plan, might, after a series of independent decisions by health care providers and patients covered by [the corporate] plan, subsidize someone else's participation in an activity that is condemned by plaintiff[s'] religion. Such an indirect and attenuated relationship appears unlikely to establish the necessary "substantial burden."

The corporation's owners, who are being represented by the right wing Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, have said they will take the case to the Supreme Court.

Several months ago, People For the American Way Foundation released 12 Rules For Mixing Religion and Politics, a publication designed to generate conversation on how to create and sustain a civic space reflecting our nation's Constitution and the values of respectful discourse. One of those rules states:

Government has a right to demand that religious institutions and individuals comply with reasonable regulation and social policy.

Just where to draw the line is a question where reasonable people can disagree. The requirement to provide certain health insurance for your employees – not for yourself, but for people you hire in a business you place in the public stream of commerce – seems a reasonable one.

PFAW Foundation

Far Right Poised to Reverse a Century of Progress with Romney's Court

With as many as three Supreme Court Justices possibly stepping down in the next four years, either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will have a profound and lasting influence on the nation's highest court. And since federal judges have lifetime positions, the president's impact will last decades after he has left the White House. That is why, as TPM reports today, conservatives are bullish that a Romney Court could reverse the great advances in justice of the past century.

Liberal-leaning Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 79, and Steven Breyer, 74, are likely candidates for retirement during a Romney administration, the GOP nominee has vowed to appoint staunch conservatives, and the influential conservative legal community will make sure he follows through.

Replacing even one of the liberal justices with a conservative, legal scholars and advocates across the ideological spectrum agree, would position conservatives to scale back the social safety net and abortion rights in the near term. Over time, if a robust five-vote conservative bloc prevails on the court for years, the right would have the potential opportunity to reverse nearly a century of progressive jurisprudence.

For all those reasons, conservative legal activists anticipate that a Romney win would be the culmination of their decades-long project to remake the country's legal architecture.

The article is must-reading for learning about the vision of America that a Romney Court would impose on us. As many people know, abortion rights would almost certainly be eliminated. But also in the crosshairs are the federal government's authority to run critically important programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. As the article makes clear, conservatives make no secret of their agenda.

The powers conservatives most want to limit are rooted in the Constitution's Spending and Commerce Clauses, which the Supreme Court already constrained in its decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act. The Supremacy Clause could also be circumscribed with one more conservative vote, potentially limiting people's ability to sue if government assistance laws are not properly implemented.

The ACA decision revealed that there are already four votes on the Court to prevent the Taxing Clause from being used to promote regulatory goals. And though the staunchest legal conservatives hope a fifth vote might lead to the eradication or restructuring of programs like Medicare and Social Security, [conservative professor Randy] Barnett cautions that the debate over the scope of that power dates “all the way back to Alexander Hamilton.”

The far right has long bristled against the vision of the Constitution as a document designed to give the federal power robust powers to pass laws addressing national problems and protecting ordinary people from being exploited from those who are far more powerful than they are. They hearken back to an era when a different arch-conservative Court “protected” the “economic liberty” of powerless workers to “agree” to work all day every day at slave wages under horrific conditions. Their cramped vision of congressional authority would severely undermine the American people's power to use Congress address national problems that states and cities alone cannot solve.

Jamie Raskin, a senior fellow at our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation, has written about how the far right's interpretation of the Constitution is at odds with the intent of the founders, and how a robust federal government is essential to giving the American people effective power over our own economic and social life.

The far right has long awaited a complete takeover of the Supreme Court, so they could return our country to a dark time when the economically dominant were able to abuse their power over others with impunity. They have been anxiously awaiting the day when they could retake power from the American people.

That day will be soon, if Mitt Romney becomes president and fulfills his promise to populate the Supreme Court with right wing ideologues.


Obama Talks About the Supreme Court

Rolling Stone published an interview with President Obama yesterday in which he discusses what would happen to the Supreme Court – and to the American people – if Mitt Romney wins the election and gets to fill the next Supreme Court vacancies.

When asked if Roe v. Wade would be overturned, the president responded:

I don't think there's any doubt. Governor Romney has made clear that's his position. His running mate has made this one of the central principles of his public life. Typically, a president is going to have one or two Supreme Court nominees during the course of his presidency, and we know that the current Supreme Court has at least four members who would overturn Roe v. Wade. All it takes is one more for that to happen.

President Obama also criticized Chief Justice Roberts' ruling that the Affordable Care Act, while a constitutional exercise of Congress's taxing power, was not constitutional under the Commerce Clause.

The truth is that if you look at the precedents dating back to the 1930s, this was clearly constitutional under the Commerce Clause. I think Justice Roberts made a decision that allowed him to preserve the law but allowed him to keep in reserve the desire, maybe, to scale back Congress' power under the Commerce Clause in future cases.

Although it was mentioned in the interview, the Court's ACA decision also limited Congress's ability to set basic program requirements in federal-state partnerships like Medicare.

If Mitt Romney fills the next vacancies on the Court, the far right Justices will be able to aggressively roll back congressional authority. It is through Congress that the American people are able to address national problems like healthcare, the environment, worker safety, and the economic safety net. And it is through Congress that the American people are most effectively able to hold corporations accountable for their actions when they harm the American people.

But it is through Mitt Romney's Supreme Court that the far right would severely weaken the power of the American people to act through Congress.


Don’t Forget Who John Roberts Is

Add this to the good news/bad news mix from the Supreme Court's healthcare decision: Because of the good news (Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act), we get the bad news that his standing among the nation's Democrats has significantly increased. This collective amnesia about who John Roberts is and what he has done is disturbing, especially since the direction of the Court is one of the most important issues upon which Democrats should be voting in November.

A new Gallup Poll shows wild fluctuations in Democrats and Republicans' assessment of Chief Justice John Roberts since their last poll in 2005, a change Gallup attributes to his role in upholding the Affordable Care Act. Roberts' approval rating among Republicans has plummeted 40 percentage points from 2005, falling from 67% to 27%. In contrast, his favorability among Democrats has risen from 35% to 54%. That the healthcare decision is a catalyst of this change is supported by a PEW Research Center poll last week showing that between April and July, approval of the Supreme Court dropped 18 points among Republicans and rose 12% among Democrats.

Yes, John Roberts upheld the ACA, but only as a tax. At the same time, he agreed with his four far right compatriots that it fell outside the authority granted Congress by the Commerce Clause, leaving many observers concerned that he has set traps designed to let the Court later strike down congressional legislation that should in no way be considered constitutionally suspect. He also joined the majority that restricted Congress's constitutional authority under the Spending Clause to define the contours of state programs financed with federal funds.

Just as importantly, Roberts's upholding the ACA does not erase the past seven years, during which he has repeatedly been part of thin conservative majority decisions bending the law beyond recognition in order to achieve a right wing political result. John Roberts cast the deciding vote in a number of disastrous decisions, including those that:

Oh, and then there's that little 5-4 Citizens United opinion that has upended our nation's electoral system and put our government up to sale to the highest bidder.

With a rap sheet like that – and this is hardly a complete a list – no one should be under the illusion that John Roberts is anything but a right-wing ideologue using the Supreme Court to cement his favorite right-wing policies into law.

Next term, Roberts is expected to lead the judicial front of the Republican Party's war against affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. Whether he succeeds may depend on whether it is Mitt Romney or Barack Obama who fills the next vacancy on the Supreme Court.


A Few Thoughts About the Supreme Court’s Obamacare Decision

First and foremost, today’s Supreme Court ruling was an extraordinarily important win for anyone who cares about healthcare. As Justice Kennedy’s dissent made clear, the Court’s most conservative members were on the verge of trashing the entire Affordable Care Act, including provisions ending discrimination because of preexisting conditions, allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health plans, and reigning in some of the worst excesses of the insurance industry. All of that was at stake today, and the Court’s ruling will allow millions of people to receive better, more affordable health care. Hallelujah for that.

But today’s ruling also shows how dangerously extreme our Court has already become.

To be clear: there should be no question that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. The Constitution’s text and history, bolstered by decades of precedent support the law. The fact that the nation was forced to endure a grueling legal drama over the Act’s fate says nothing about the constitutionality of the mandate itself (which has been supported by Republicans ranging from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich) and everything about the makeup of our federal courts. As John Cassidy pointed out yesterday at The New Yorker, the challenge to the Affordable Care Act is the result of decades of concerted work by the far Right:

Though the case against Obamacare that the Court is considering is a legal travesty, lacking in serious foundation, the moment is truly momentous. After thirty years of organizing, strategizing, and mobilizing, the conservative counter-revolution may be about to win its biggest victory yet: the striking down of a massive new government program, and, equally important, the overthrowing of a legal doctrine that Administrations of both parties have relied on for seventy years to regulate the economy.

In the wake of Roe and the Warren Court’s Civil Rights and religious liberty decisions, the Right realized that in order for its agenda to win in the Courts, it needed to change the judges. Judicial restraint aside, Conservative activists in black robes are powerful advocates for the Right’s extreme agenda, and Republicans have been relentless in placing partisan ideologues on the bench throughout the judicial system.

The four votes in favor of striking down Obamacare are a monument to that strategy and a promise of things to come. Twenty-five years after his own nomination was rejected by a bipartisan coalition, Robert Bork has a new job as Mitt Romney’s chief judicial advisor. If Romney wins in November, votes that upheld the Affordable Care Act will likely be replaced with votes to strike it down, legal niceties be damned.

Finally, it would be wrong to read this ruling—especially Justice Roberts’ portion of it—in isolation. Some supporters of the Act have been quick to applaud the Chief Justice’s vote to uphold the law, but the details of his decision and his broader agenda are profoundly disturbing. Not only does his ruling today carry frightening implications for future cases under the Commerce Clause--which undergirds a panoply of hard won progressive legislation—it says little about the issues most squarely in his sights. In voting to uphold Obamacare, Roberts paused only briefly from his ongoing gutting of laws protecting Civil Rights, women’s rights, environmental protections, clean elections and labor unions. It would be unconscionable if Roberts’ vote to uphold health care reform distracted from, say, the likelihood that he’ll eviscerate the Voting Rights Act next year.

All told, progressives shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate today’s ruling: a win is a win. But no one should forget that our Court has lurched dangerously to the right in recent years, and that if Mitt Romney achieves the White House in November, today’s narrow victory will become tomorrow’s devastating defeat.