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Appeals Court Strikes Down Marriage Ban in Virginia, Ruling Will Also Affect Carolinas and West Virginia

Today the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Virginia’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.

This is a historic step forward for equality in the South. Beyond Virginia, the ruling will also affect the other states covered by the 4th Circuit, including North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia, which have similar bans in place. In West Virginia, the district judge considering the challenge to the state’s ban said last month that he would not proceed until the federal appeals court had ruled.

In the majority opinion, the judges noted that bigotry and fear cannot be the basis for the denial of equal rights under the law:

We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable. However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws.

…The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual's life. Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.

For those who claim that marriage bans are legitimate because they were adopted by popular vote, the court quoted a Supreme Court case from 1964:

A citizen’s constitutional rights can hardly be infringed simply because a majority of the people choose that it be.

That one sentence perfectly encapsulates why courts matter.
 

PFAW Foundation

What Hobby Lobby Shows Us About the Supreme Court and Civil Rights Laws: Winners and Losers in the Roberts Court

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This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

In its recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the conservative 5-4 majority -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy -- did something that may appear very unusual. In divided cases, these five justices have the reputation for interpreting very narrowly laws passed by Congress to protect civil rights. So why did they interpret so broadly the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law passed by Congress to protect the important civil right of religious freedom? The answer, unfortunately, is all too clear. Comparing Hobby Lobby with the two rulings in civil rights law cases issued by the Court over the last year, the key factor that explains how the conservative majority ruled is not precedent, the language of the statute, or congressional intent, but who wins and who loses.

Let's start with last year's rulings, both of which concerned Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bans employment discrimination. In University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, the majority ruled very narrowly in interpreting Title VII, deciding that the only way that employees can prevail on a claim that they have been fired in retaliation for raising job bias claims is to prove that they would not have been discharged "but for" the retaliatory motive. This was despite the fact that in order to strengthen Title VII, Congress added language to the law in 1991 to make clear that plaintiffs should prevail if they show that discrimination was a "motivating factor" in a job decision. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissecting Justice Alito's attempt for the majority to draw a distinction between retaliation and other claims under Title VII, the net effect of the majority's ruling was to make it harder to prove a Title VII retaliation claim than before the 1991 law and with respect to other civil rights statutes that don't explicitly mention retaliation. The 5-4 majority had "seized on a provision adopted by Congress as part of an endeavor to strengthen Title VII," she concluded, "and turned it into a measure reducing the force of the ban on retaliation."

In Nassar, in ruling against a doctor of Middle Eastern descent in a case also involving egregious ethnic and national origin discrimination, Alito disregarded clear legislative history and language showing Congress' broad intent, as well as the interpretation of the law by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Interestingly, towards the end of his opinion, Alito appeared to reveal a key consideration behind the majority's decision. The ruling was important, he explained, to "the fair and responsible allocation of resources in the judicial and litigation systems." After all, he pointed out, retaliation claims "are being made with ever-increasing frequency," although he did not even consider how many have been proven meritorious. Agreeing with the EEOC and the plaintiff on the "motivating factor" standard, he wrote instead, "could also contribute to the filing of frivolous claims." As Justice Ginsburg put it, the majority "appears driven by zeal to reduce the number of retaliation claims against employers."

The other 2013 Title VII ruling also reflected an extremely narrow reading of the law. Vance v. Ball State University concerned a complaint by an African-American woman that she had been subjected to racial harassment and a racially hostile work environment. Under prior Title VII Court rulings agreed to by both conservative and moderate justices, the employer itself is often liable for such harassment claims when the harassment is committed by an employee's supervisor. But in Vance, in an opinion by Justice Alito, the familiar 5-4 Court majority significantly narrowed Title VII. It ruled that such vicarious employer liability applies only when the harassment is committed by a manager who can fire or reduce the pay or grade of the victim, not when it is committed by a manager who does not have that power but does control the day-to-day schedules, assignments, and working environment of the victim.

As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, the majority's holding again contradicted guidance issued by the EEOC as well as Congress' broad purpose to eliminate workplace discrimination. In fact, she pointed out, not even the university defendant in Vance itself "has advanced the restrictive definition the Court adopts." But again, Alito's opinion betrayed part of the majority's true motives. Its narrow interpretation would be "workable" and "readily applied," Alito explained. And it would promote "the limitation of employer liability in certain circumstances."

Something very different happened in the next Supreme Court case interpreting a Congressional civil rights statute: 2014's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

In that case, the same 5-4 majority that narrowly interpreted Title VII in Vance and Nassar adopted a very broad interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). All nine justices agreed that RFRA was enacted by Congress in response to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which restricted the protection of religious liberty by the Court under the First Amendment. But the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby ruled that RFRA provides "very broad protection for religious liberty" - "even broader protection than was available" under the First Amendment in pre-Smith decisions. As Justice Ginsburg put it in dissent, the majority interpreted RFRA "as a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence." She explained further that this broad interpretation contradicted the language of the statute, its legislative history, and a statement by the Court in a unanimous ruling in 2006 that in RFRA, Congress "adopt[ed] a statutory rule comparable to the constitutional rule rejected in Smith."

This difference in statutory interpretation was critical to the majority's ruling in Hobby Lobby -- that for-profit corporations whose owners had religious objections to contraceptives could invoke RFRA to refuse to obey the Affordable Care Act's mandate that they provide their employees with health plans under which contraceptives are available to female employees. As Justice Ginsburg explained, no previous Court decision under RFRA or the First Amendment had ever "recognized a for-profit corporation's qualification for a religious exemption" and such a ruling "surely is not grounded in the pre-Smith precedent Congress sought to preserve." The 5-4 majority's broad interpretation that RFRA applies to for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby was obviously crucial to its holding.

In addition, however, the 5-4 majority went beyond pre-Smith case law in another crucial respect. Before a person can claim an exemption from a generally applicable law under RFRA, he or she must prove that the law "substantially burden[s] a person's exercise of religion." According to the majority, the corporations in Hobby Lobby met that standard by demonstrating that the use of certain contraceptives that could be purchased by their employees under their health plans would seriously offend the deeply held religious beliefs of their owners. As Justice Ginsburg explained, however, that ruling conflicted with pre-Smith case law on what must be shown to prove a "substantial burden." In several pre-Smith cases, the Court had ruled that there was no "substantial burden" created by, for example, the government's use of a social security number to administer benefit programs or its requirement that social security taxes be paid, despite the genuine and sincere offense that these actions caused to some religious beliefs. As Justice Ginsburg stated, such religious "beliefs, however deeply held, do not suffice to sustain a RFRA claim," except under the extremely broad interpretation of RFRA by the 5-4 Court majority.

As in the Title VII cases, Justice Alito's opinion for the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby was revealing about some of the majority's underlying concerns. In explaining the majority's decision to interpret RFRA as applying to for-profit corporations, Justice Alito noted that "[w]hen rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people" - in this case "the humans who own and control those companies" in the Hobby Lobby case. As Justice Ginsburg observed, the 5-4 majority paid little attention to the Court's pronouncement in a pre-Smith case that permitting a religious exemption to a general law for a corporation would "operate[e] to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" of the corporation.

Even though the Supreme Court's 2013-14 rulings that interpreted civil rights laws passed by Congress may seem different, a common theme animates them all. Whether the 5-4 majority interpreted the statutes broadly or narrowly, the losers in all of them were women, minorities, and working people, and the winners were employers and corporations. In the majority's own words, the result is the "limitation of employer liability" under laws like Title VII designed to protect workers and the "protecting" of the "humans who own and control" corporations under RFRA.

Since all these rulings interpret Congressional statutes, not the Constitution, Congress clearly has the authority to reverse them. In fact, Congress has done exactly that with respect to other 5-4 rulings by the Court that misinterpreted civil rights statutes to harm women and minority workers and benefit their corporate employers. As recently as 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act reversed a flawed 5-4 ruling that severely restricted workers' ability to file equal pay claims under Title VII. Congress is already considering legislation to reverse many of the effects of Hobby Lobby, a corrective effort that Senate Republicans have blocked by a filibuster to prevent the full Senate from even considering it. In our currently divided Congress, immediate prospects for the passage of such remedial legislation may not appear promising. But it is important to recognize the current 5-4 majority's pattern of favoring corporations and harming workers in its decisions interpreting federal civil rights laws, and to recognize and act on the ability to reverse these harmful rulings.

PFAW Foundation

Fourth Circuit Unanimously Upholds Obamacare Subsidies

Judge Davis's concurring opinion blasts the illogical premise and political nature of the anti-ACA lawsuit.
PFAW Foundation

Judge Strikes Colorado Marriage Ban

If you’re having trouble keeping track of the rapidly falling state marriage bans, you’re likely not the only one. In the latest of a dizzying streak of pro-equality decisions, a judge in Colorado struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban yesterday.

District Court Judge C. Scott Crabtree stayed the ruling, which means that same-sex couples in Colorado cannot yet begin to marry.

In his decision, Judge Crabtree plainly noted that the ban “bears no rational relationship to any conceivable government interest.” He also underscored the discrimination faced by same-sex couples in the absence of marriage equality:

‘The Court holds that the Marriage Bans violate plaintiffs' due process and equal protection guarantees under the Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution,’ Crabtree said in his ruling.

‘The existence of civil unions is further evidence of discrimination against same-sex couples and does not ameliorate the discriminatory effect of the Marriage Bans.’

PFAW Foundation

PFAWF Celebrates Confirmation of Julián Castro as U.S. HUD Secretary

Andrew Gillum is the Director of Youth Leadership Programs at  People For the American Way Foundation.

Julián Castro, current mayor of San Antonio, was just confirmed in the Senate by a 71-26 vote to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department. Castro, one of the earliest members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, is the first to become a Cabinet member.

I remember meeting Julián at our very first YEO convening in 2006, and being impressed with his passion to serve and better his community in Texas. We are incredibly proud of Julián and excited to see what he’ll accomplish in this new position. His proven leadership in fostering urban revitalization and economic growth make him a natural fit for this position, where he will be able to combat homelessness and help secure access to affordable, quality housing for more Americans.

Julián’s confirmation yesterday demonstrates how supporting young elected officials in our movement can reap tremendous results. I often say that YEOs are the state and local leaders of today as well as the national leaders of tomorrow. While Julián will be the first (former) YEO member to serve in a cabinet level post, I am sure he won’t be the last.

PFAW Foundation

The Supreme Court’s Attack on Working Women

The following is a guest blog by Beth Huang, 2010 Fellow of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program.

Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in two critical cases with major implications for working women. The Supreme Court ruled once again that corporations are people, this time conferring religious rights that trump workers’ rights to access full healthcare. In a dissent to the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted “that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month's full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.” Justice Ginsberg’s dissent reveals the real impacts of denying coverage of contraception for low-wage working women -- something the slim five-justice, all-male majority fails to comprehend.

To compound the attack on working women, five male Justices severely undermined the ability of care workers – 95 percent of whom are women – to collectively bargain in the case Harris v. Quinn. This assault on working people stems from the Justices’ view that the care workers in the case are not “real” public employees and thus the union cannot charge the appropriate agency fee to all of them for its bargaining services. This ruling serves the interests of anti-worker extremists at the expense of these invaluable workers who care for our families and our children.

It’s clear: a majority of Justices are trampling over the rights of working women. In light of these attacks, it’s time to organize for gender equity and economic justice for working women.

Back in 2010 when I was a student, Young People For helped me develop organizing skills that have led me to effectively advocate for and with women and workers. Through my work in student labor organizing as an undergraduate and since graduation, I have seen that workers’ rights are women’s rights, from having access to comprehensive healthcare to having a voice on the job. To build an economy that works for today’s students and youth, we need to organize locally and train new leaders in the broad effort to advance our agenda for gender equity and economic justice.

At the Student Labor Action Project a joint project of Jobs with Justice and the United States Student Association, we’re doing just that by building student power to advance an agenda that protects the rights of current workers and promotes a more just economy for students to enter when they graduate. Our campaigns focus on demanding funding for public higher education, which we know is a major source of good jobs and upward mobility for women and people of color; pushing back on Wall Street profits that fuel the student debt crisis; and raising the working conditions for Walmart workers, 57 percent of whom are women.

The Supreme Court’s decisions last week underscored the urgency of organizing for these changes. Women’s access to equal rights, power in the workplace, and comprehensive healthcare depends on it.

PFAW Foundation

Hobby Lobby, Wheaton College, and the Importance of Women Justices

Days after the Supreme Court handed down its damaging 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, SCOTUS issued an order that underscored the danger that Hobby Lobby poses for women’s health.

In Wheaton College v. Burwell, SCOTUS temporarily granted relief to Wheaton College, a religious institution that is “categorically” opposed to providing contraceptive services, from the contraception coverage compromise solution that the  Court explicitly endorsed in Hobby Lobby. The order says that Wheaton may be exempt from submitting a form that would inform the government that they object to covering birth control. Wheaton College argued that submitting this form would make it “complicit in the provision of contraceptive coverage.” The temporary order indicates that the Court’s majority may accept this problematic argument.

In what Think Progress called a “blistering dissent” to the order, Justice Sonia Sotomayor — joined by the two other female Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — sharply criticized the order. Sotomayor wrote in the dissent:

“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.”

While this order is temporary until the case may be heard in front of the Court, the female Justices’ strong dissent demonstrates not only the division within the Court, but also the importance of having diversity on our courts. Women on the bench provide a critically important perspective on all cases, but especially those that deal with women’s lives. It is more important than ever, when women’s rights are under assault, that women are more fairly represented at all levels of government.

PFAW Foundation

Another Damaging Supreme Court Term

The Roberts Court issued a number of damaging rulings this term, favoring the powerful and shaping the law to fit a far right ideology.
PFAW Foundation

Kentucky Marriage Ban Struck Down

Continuing the unbroken record of marriage equality wins since last year’s Supreme Court ruling against DOMA in the Windsor case, today a federal judge ruled unconstitutional Kentucky’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.

District Judge John G. Heyburn II wrote:

In America, even sincere and long-held religious beliefs do not trump the constitutional rights of those who happen to have been out-voted.

He dismissed the opposing arguments — including that the ban was good for the state’s economic stability and birth rates — out of hand, noting, “These arguments are not those of serious people.”

The judge has stayed the ruling for now, meaning that Kentucky couples can’t immediately begin marrying. But the decision is a significant victory for LGBT families in the Bluegrass State, where activists have fought courageously for equal rights for many years. Congratulations, Kentucky!

PFAW Foundation

How the Hobby Lobby Majority Distorted RFRA — and Why That’s Dangerous for All Americans

In its 5-4 ruling  today in Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority played fast and loose with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the law that provided the basis for the claim that religious liberty rights conflicted with the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As Justice Ginsburg’s dissent pointed out, the clear language and history of RFRA stated that it was intended to “restore” the protection of religious liberty that the First Amendment provided before Justice Scalia’s infamous decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which said that there was no protection for religious people whose religious practices were substantially burden by general laws. As a participant in drafting and helping get support for RFRA in the 1990s, I can testify personally that this was true. The broad coalition of groups and legislators – from PFAW to the National Association of Evangelicals, from Orrin Hatch to Ted Kennedy – would never have agreed otherwise. But the 5-4 majority in Hobby Lobby nevertheless claims that RFRA was, in Justice Ginsburg’s words, “a bold initiative departing from, rather than restoring, pre-Smith jurisprudence.”

This twisting of RFRA was significant in two ways to the Hobby Lobby result. First, it allowed the majority to rule that for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby could claim rights under RFRA. As Justice Ginsburg pointed out, the Court had never so ruled before, since religious liberty protection properly belongs to individuals and religious institutions like churches. Second, it led to the majority’s ruling that there was a “substantial” burden” on religious exercise in the case, based on the claim that the religious beliefs of Hobby Lobby’s owners were offended by the ACA requirement. As Justice Ginsburg explained, pre-Smith law made clear that this kind of mere conflict with religious beliefs was not enough to prove a substantial burden. Instead, a requirement must actually restrict or burden  “what [the person] may believe or what he may do.” Under this analysis, Ginsburg explained, any burden in this case was too attenuated to be substantial. After all, Hobby Lobby was not required to purchase or provide contraceptives, but simply to deposit money into undifferentiated funds that finance a wide variety of benefits; it was up to individual employees whether to utilize contraceptives.

These concerns are much more than historical or theoretical. First, the majority’s rationale could deprive millions of Americans of contraceptive or other coverage under ACA. Even if restricted to closely held corporations, more than 50% of all American workers work for corporations that could similarly claim under Hobby Lobby that their religious beliefs are sincerely offended by providing coverage for contraceptives or other services, and that would be enough to trigger RFRA. Second, if a corporation can prove it is substantially burdened under RFRA because its owners or board have a sincere religious objection to a government requirement, they can make exactly those claims to try to exempt themselves from anti-discrimination and other workers’ rights laws. The Hobby Lobby majority tried to downplay this concern by Justice Ginsburg, but specifically mentioned only that laws banning racial discrimination should be safe from this claim. For example, what about laws banning discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation? The 5-4 majority opinion is almost an invitation to businesses to further distort RFRA by making such claims.

 

 

PFAW Foundation

Alito Leads Latest Attack on Unions

Alito and his conservative colleagues have already made clear their political zeal to harm public sector unions.
PFAW Foundation

Did Hobby Lobby Majority Undercut Its Own Argument?

The majority contradicts its own rationale for why Hobby Lobby won't open the floodgates to RFRA claims by large, publicly-traded corporations.
PFAW Foundation

Hobby Lobby: 'Closely Held' Does Not Mean 'Mom and Pop'

In the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby, the Court held for the first time ever that a for-profit corporation counts as a “person” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and that a “closely held” corporation basically shares the religious exercise rights of its owners.  This leads American law into a treacherous minefield, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg made clear in her dissent.

It’s worth pointing out, as Justice Ginsberg also noted, “’Closely held’ is not synonymous with ‘small.’” Hobby Lobby is a massive corporation employing some 13,000 people, but there are other closely held companies that are much larger. In a footnote, Ginsberg mentions family-owned Mars, Inc. and closely held Cargill, which are both among the largest five private companies in the country. Guess which is number two? Koch industries, with $115 billion in revenue and 60,000 employees. Brothers David and Charles Koch reportedly own 84 percent. Rounding out the top five private companies are Dell and Bechtel. Those five companies employ more than 436,000 people. What religious claims might their owners find useful to make in undermining laws that protect their workers?

PFAW Foundation

Hobby Lobby Opens Up a Minefield

The Hobby Lobby ruling opens the door to handing even more power to large corporations, including the power to ignore anti-discrimination laws.
PFAW Foundation

Roberts Court Strikes Down Clinic Buffer Zone Law

With the Chief Justice writing the majority opinion, the Roberts Court votes to strike down a Massachusetts clinic buffer law.
PFAW Foundation

Tenth Circuit Protects Right to Marry

A federal appeals court rules that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
PFAW Foundation

Indiana’s Marriage Ban Struck Down

In another win for equality, today U.S. District Judge Richard Young struck down Indiana’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Because the judge did not stay the ruling, the Indianapolis Star reports that couples can begin getting married right away.

Not a single state marriage ban has been able to withstand a challenge in federal court in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck down part of DOMA.

Congratulations, Indiana!

PFAW Foundation

Roberts Court Upholds but Limits EPA's Authority to Regulate Greenhouse Gases

In a mixed ruling, the Roberts Court shuts down some avenues of greenhouse gas regulation, while upholding others.
PFAW Foundation