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"I Think of Voting as a Chess Move, Not a Valentine."

A version of this post first appeared on the Young People For blog.

In a piece published last week in The Nation, the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit spoke powerfully about the importance of voting as a strategic choice rather than a solemn duty. Writing, “I think of voting as a chess move, not a valentine,” she evoked sentiments that resonated with many young progressive activists: that in casting our ballots we cannot invest all our hopes in any one candidate or institution but that through the act of voting, we’re making a deliberate choice of who we want to work with.

Over the past several months, nearly 60 Civic Engagement and Vote Fellows with PFAW Foundation’s Young People For Program have organized in 24 states to mobilize their communities in today’s local, state, and federal elections.

Our organizers have ensured prisoners in Suffolk County, Massachusetts’s pre-trial detention program have access to their absentee ballots. They’ve organized marches through Hattiesburg, Mississippi to the polls, convened conversations with immigrant and refugee communities in Kentucky about civic engagement, supported vote organizing in the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota, and worked with local government to explore pathways which would allow undocumented people to potentially cast ballots in municipal elections.

In doing so, our Fellows have organized not only because they know tonight’s electoral outcomes will shape our political landscape for years to come; they organized because they knew that building power — building movements — requires a tangible effort to bring our communities from the margins to the center of our society’s social, political, and economic concerns.

We are committed to holding space for our communities to not only survive the peaks and valleys of electoral politics but grow a robust, pluralistic democracy which addresses our needs and reflects our dreams for the future. To echo Solnit’s closing words, “We need to build a road through elections toward justice, to get on that road and never stop.”

PFAW Foundation

SCOTUS Schedule Speaks a Thousand Words

The Supreme Court clearly can't proceed with certain cases it accepted before the current vacancy opened until the Senate fills that vacancy.
PFAW Foundation

Lester Holt, Let’s #FirstDebateDemocracy

Of the many pressing issues this election cycle, there is one that must be addressed first in order to accomplish much of anything else: the issue of democracy itself. Without fundamental reforms to how our political system operates, complex problems like climate change, racial injustice and economic inequality will only worsen as our elected officials continue to cater to wealthy donors rather than serving the interests of “We the People.”

People For the American Way joins our allies in calling on Lester Holt, the moderator of the first presidential debate on September 26, to ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump about their respective plans to deal with the issues of unchecked money in politics, efforts to undermine the functioning of the Supreme Court, and attacks on voting rights. The American people deserve to know what their next president will do to deal with these structural problems that hinder progress on countless issues facing our nation.

Take money in politics as an example. Hillary Clinton has made reforming the current campaign finance system a key pillar of her campaign ever since she announced her candidacy. She has called for a constitutional amendment overturning Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United, a small-donor matching system, and increased disclosure of political contributions. Furthermore, while she would prefer to reach bipartisan agreement with Congress, Clinton has said that absent such agreement, she will use her legal authority to issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has yet to offer any proposed solutions. While he consistently rails against a ‘rigged’ system, he has failed to explain how he would address this issue. If anything, he has boasted about how much money he has donated to politicians in the past, and how they were always “there for me.” Bragging about participating – and benefitting from – pay-to-play politics is hardly a case for reform, let alone an agenda to implement reform.

On September 26, the nation will tune in to watch the first presidential debate of this cycle. Democracy issues have already been cemented as a pivotal theme this election cycle, particularly given the quest for reform that fueled the campaign of Bernie Sanders, educating an entire generation of voters on the perils of Citizens United and our country’s big money system. If Lester Holt and NBC want to set the course of conversation in the right direction, and strike at the root of many problems that are of great consequence to the American people, they should commit to ensure that we #FirstDebateDemocracy.

PFAW Foundation

NC Voting Restrictions Struck Down as Intentionally Discriminatory

A three-judge circuit court panel unanimously agrees that North Carolina passed its law with the intent to discriminate against African Americans.
PFAW Foundation

June Shows Why November is the Most Important Month for the Supreme Court and our Rights

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Before it adjourned for the summer in late June, the Supreme Court issued a series of important decisions, or non-decisions, on affirmative action, immigration, abortion, and other subjects. As with the Court’s actions since last October, and particularly since the death of Justice Scalia in February, the most significant message sent by these developments is this: the elections this November will be absolutely critical to the future of the Court and to all our rights and liberties.

Start with immigration. The Court split 4-4 on the challenge brought by Texas and other states to the president’s executive actions that would have kept families together by shielding undocumented parents of U.S. citizens from deportation and, in total, helped more than 4 million people across the country. The result of the tie vote is that the lower court decision stands without any opinion by the Court, so that a nationwide injunction by a single Texas federal judge against the president’s orders remains in effect. Although the Court doesn’t reveal who voted how in 4-4 splits, it’s almost certain that the four votes against the orders came from Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas, joined by Justice Kennedy.

The Court was also split 4-4 in another important case in June, concerning whether Indian tribal courts can rule in civil cases (this one involving an assault) against non-tribe members who do business on Indian land. Altogether, the Court issued 4-4 non-decisions in five cases this term, the most in more than 30 years – a direct result of Republican Senators’ unprecedented blockade of the Garland nomination.

In several other important cases in June, Justice Kennedy sided with the Court’s moderates and produced positive decisions. This included a decision striking down an extremely restrictive Texas law that seriously and improperly limited women’s access to abortion by imposing draconian requirements on abortion clinics, as well as a decision approving a University of Texas plan to increase diversity on campus through affirmative action in admissions.

So does this mean that we have nothing to fear even if the Republican blockade of President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the vacant seat on the Court succeeds and a President Trump places a right-wing conservative on the Court, because Kennedy is voting with the Court’s four moderates? Absolutely not!

First, the immigration non-decision itself shows that Kennedy – the author of Citizens United and part of the 5-4 majorities in Shelby County and Hobby Lobby and so many other cases damaging our democracy and our rights – unfortunately sides all too often with the Court’s far right wing. That was also shown earlier this term when an apparent 4-4 deadlock forced the Court to essentially punt in the Zubik case, leaving the important question of access to contraceptives and employer religious questions in limbo until the Court again has nine members. Whether than ninth seat is filled by President Obama (or by President Clinton if the Republican blockade continues) or by a President Trump is critical.

In addition, the age of the current justices makes clear that there will likely be additional vacancies during the first term of the next president. Three justices will be above 80 during that time, older than the average retirement age for justices. The president who fills these vacancies could easily tip the balance of the Court, not just on the issues the Court dealt with in June, but also on the environment, money and politics, LGBT rights, voting rights, access to justice, protection from government abuse, and many more. And the answer to whether we have a Senate that is willing to do its job and actually hold hearings and vote on nominees, unlike the current Republican Senate that has refused to even hold a hearing for Judge Garland after more than 100 days, will be crucial as well. Election Day 2016 truly is judgment day for the Court and for all of our rights and liberties.

PFAW Foundation

Remembering Courageous Activist Muhammad Ali

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali died this weekend at the age of 74. In addition to being an extraordinary athlete -- 'The Greatest of All Time' -- Ali was also a courageous activist who publicly challenged racism throughout his life. 

Ali was also a friend of People For the American Way. In 1981, PFAW founder Norman Lear and director Jonathan Demme created a series of PSAs to emphasize that the right to freely express opinions was a critical piece of the American way.

The spots end with the tagline: "Freedom of thought. The right to have and express your own opinions. That's the American Way." Ali appeared in two of them, below. We're proud that Muhammad Ali was a part of our organization's history, and we're proud to honor his legacy with our ongoing work to fight bigotry and protect our basic rights. 

PFAW Foundation

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

This post originally appeared on Right Wing Watch.

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

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

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

The groups covered in the report include:

·         Family Research Council and FRC Action

·         Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action

·         National Organization for Marriage

·         Alliance Defending Freedom

·         Liberty Counsel

·         American Family Association

·         Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

·         American Principles Project

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

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court Punts in Zubik Case – and Shows Again the Crucial Importance of a Fully-Staffed Supreme Court

The Supreme Court issued a brief unsigned opinion today in the Zubik case, and vacated the conflicting opinions on whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows religious nonprofits to effectively take away Affordable Care Act-required contraceptive coverage from their employees. The result is to punt the issue away until the Court again has nine justices, reinforcing again why the Court must have a full complement of justices and why the Supreme Court is such a critical issue in the 2016 elections.

Before the Court in Zubik were a series of cases in which federal appeals courts had ruled that objections by religious colleges and other employers to contraceptive coverage had already been accommodated by the Administration by making clear that the coverage was to be provided by insurers and not involve any employer who expressed a religious objection, so that RFRA was not violated and coverage should continue. The more conservative justices on the Court, including Justice Kennedy, were nonetheless troubled by the claim that the religious employers were still involved in providing the coverage, at least by specifically having to provide notice to object to it. So the Court ordered supplemental briefing in the case on whether it was possible to continue to provide the coverage with no involvement by the employers, other than providing insurance that did not include contraceptive coverage.

In its opinion today, the Court vacated the decisions being considered in Zubik and directed that, on remand, the lower courts should give the government and the objecting employers the opportunity to try to resolve the issue, in light of what the Court characterized as the possibility, as expressed in the supplemental briefs, of ensuring that the coverage can be provided without involving the employers. If needed, the lower courts would then issue opinions on the issue, which could be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Interestingly, the Court also gave the same treatment to the single appellate court opinion that ruled in favor of religious employers and was not included in the Zubik case, vacating that decision as well to be reconsidered again if necessary. The Court specifically made clear that while this process is going forward, women covered by the insurance plans should “receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage," and that the “Government may not impose taxes or penalties” on the religious employers for failing to provide the formal notice of their religious objection which they had complained about in their lawsuits. In other words, no harm should occur to any of the parties while the government and the employers try to work out the problem and litigate it in the lower courts if necessary. A separate concurrence by Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg further emphasized that the decision does not resolve either way the substantive issues, including whether the religious employers do incur a “substantial burden” that triggers RFRA.

While both sides can therefore claim some temporary victory from the Court’s ruling, the clear loser is our American justice system. A crucial legal issue that clearly divides the justices on the Court concerning the application and meaning of RFRA and contraceptive rights remains unresolved. Despite the apparent optimism in the Court’s brief opinion, it seems unlikely that every  religious employer in the country will agree to any accommodation under which its employees will still get contraceptive coverage, so that the issue is very likely to remain unresolved and return to the Supreme Court again. Without nine justices on the Court, it seems clear that the Court will not be able to resolve the issue, just as it could not at present. That makes the issue of filling the current vacancy on the Court, and who will be the president that fills future vacancies on our closely divided Supreme Court, extremely crucial now and in November.

PFAW Foundation

In Memory of Doris Roberts, Longtime People For Friend and Supporter

The People For family was saddened to learn of the passing of Doris Roberts, a longtime friend and a committed supporter of our work.

Doris Roberts hugs founder Norman Lear at PFAW Foundation’s 30th Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles, December 2011.

For many years, Roberts was an active supporter of People For, speaking at and attending events, helping to spread the word about our work, even recording robo-calls for our campaigns. She was especially passionate about fighting for LGBT equality and acted as a strong advocate in the height of the AIDS crisis and beyond.

People For founder Norman Lear tweeted yesterday that he is “forever in her debt.”

Our thoughts today are with her family and friends. Doris Roberts’ commitment to making our country a stronger, more just place was inspiring – and she will be deeply missed.
 

PFAW Foundation

Equal Pay Day Shows How Far Women Still Have to Go

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post

Today marks “Equal Pay Day,” the day when women’s pay finally catches up to men’s pay from last year. You’ll have to forgive me for not cheering too loudly.

Each year Equal Pay Day highlights how far we still have to go in the fight for pay equity, and it’s striking how little headway has been made on closing the gap in recent years, with progress all but stagnating in the past decade. Across the board, women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts — a fact that takes on new significance in an election year where the views of the Republican presidential candidates on the gender pay gap range from dismissive to downright hostile.

But the numbers speak for themselves: according to the latest data, women earn on average 79 cents for every dollar that men earn. When you consider a full lifetime of work, the scope of inequality becomes far more dramatic. A new report from the National Women’s Law Center on the “lifetime wage gap“ shows that across 40 years of working, based on the current figures, women lose more than $430,000. When you break down the numbers by race, it’s even more stark; African-American women lose over $877,000, and Latinas more than a million dollars. When women are making hundreds of thousands of dollars less than men over a lifetime, it affects not only women’s financial stability while working and during retirement, but also the financial stability of our families.

Not to mention that it’s spectacularly unfair.

A gender pay gap exists for women in almost all occupations, from teachers to lawyers to cooks to mail carriers, and even in the entertainment field. Demos reports that for retail salespeople, the most common occupation in the country, the gender pay disparity is “particularly stark,” with women who are working full-time earning just 68 cents for each dollar earned by their male co-workers. For women struggling financially, the earnings lost simply for being a woman can mean the difference between barely making ends meet and being forced to choose between basic necessities like food and rent.

When you look at the presidential candidates’ stances on pay equity, it’s clear that the 2016 election will be a pivotal moment for whether progress is possible in the near future. Trump claims to “love equal pay,” but says he won’t support the legislative efforts necessary to make it happen. At an event last year, he told a woman asking about the pay gap that “you’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Sen. Ted Cruz voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act and derided it as a “political show vote.” A 2014 newspaper investigation found that in Gov. John Kasich’s office, women were paid nearly $10 less per hour than men, yet on the campaign trail, Kasich blamed not discrimination, but paid leave laws, for causing the wage gap!

Despite Republicans’ dismissal of the issue, equal pay for equal work remains a goal rather than a reality for women across the country. And until we close the gap, Equal Pay Day will remain an unhappy reminder of this continuing inequality.

Kathleen Turner is an advocate and Academy Award-nominated actress, and serves on the board of People For the American Way’s affiliate, PFAW Foundation.

PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court Rules that Everyone Deserves Representation

Justice Ginsburg writes for a six-justice majority, rejecting an assertion that states must count only eligible voters when drawing legislative districts.
PFAW Foundation

“Hobby Lobby II” Distorts the Principle of Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW Foundation

Discriminatory "Religious Freedom" Bill is Bad for Our State

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PFAW Foundation

GOP vs. the Integrity of the American Judicial System

Intentionally crippling the Supreme Court for two consecutive terms would be the height of irresponsibility.
PFAW Foundation

Divided Supreme Court Issues Good Decision in Important Class Action Case

On Wednesday of this week, in an important case on class actions previewed last September by PFAWF, the Supreme Court handed down a good ruling for consumers concerning class actions. This was an unusual development for the Roberts-Alito Court, which has generally gone along with big business efforts to limit class actions as an important remedy. This time, although Roberts and Alito (and Scalia) dissented, six justices led by Justice Ginsburg rejected a corporation’s effort to hurt consumers.

Class actions are a crucial type of lawsuit that allows consumers and others with relatively small individual claims to band together and seek large amounts of damages to help hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing. In this case, Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, the corporation had violated federal law by sending unwanted telephone solicitations to some 100,000 people. Jose Gomez got one of those solicitations and filed a lawsuit, asking  for the maximum statutory remedy for himself of $1500 but also seeking to bring a class action on behalf of the tens of thousands of other people who received the unwanted solicitations. The corporation tried to end the suit by offering to pay Mr. Gomez  his $1500 and then arguing that its offer ended the lawsuit and the basis for the class action.  If allowed, that would give corporations an easy and inexpensive way to prevent most class action lawsuits.

The Supreme Court rejected the corporation’s ploy in a 6-3 vote. As Justice Ginsburg explained, if a plaintiff like Mr. Gomez rejects an offer, even if it is for the maximum amount that could be recovered individually, the case remains alive and able to be pursued  as a class action.  Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Alito and Scalia, dissented and argued, as they usually do, that the corporation should prevail , since it was willing to give Mr. Gomez “everything he asks for.” As Justice Ginsburg explained in response, that “would place the defendant in the driver’s seat”, improperly allowing corporations to spend minimal amounts to pay off individual plaintiffs and forestall class actions.

This decision will not remedy the damage that the Roberts-Alito Court has previously done, and could well do in the future, to limit class actions and harm consumers. And the Court left open the question of whether a corporation can stop a class action by formally placing the full amount of an individual’s claim in an account and getting a lower court to rule for the individual and dismiss the class action claim. This loophole should be closed by the Court, as the New York Times explained, to “protect what remains of the class action from the unrelenting efforts of business to undermine it.” At least in this case, however, even Roberts and Alito could not muster the votes needed to further harm consumers and help big business.

PFAW Foundation

Ginsburg Calls Out the Roberts Court's Empowering of the Powerful

Ginsburg writes that the Roberts Court has left consumers disarmed and without effective access to justice.
PFAW Foundation

SCOTUS Will Hear Latest Contraception Coverage Refusal Cases

The premise of these challenges to the ACA's contraception coverage accommodation is a severe distortion of religious liberty.
PFAW Foundation

Eliminating Courts, Eliminating Justice

Courts matter. That's why powerful interests are so dedicated to blocking ordinary people from having their day in court.
PFAW Foundation