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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

America's History of Amending the Constitution to Expand Democracy (And Overturn the Supreme Court)

The 28th Amendment would overturn cases like Citizens United and enhance political democracy and the First Amendment.
PFAW Foundation

Dakotans File Suit, All Fifty States Now Have Either Marriage Equality or a Legal Challenge in Progress

First we heard from South Dakota on May 22, where Rosenbrahn v. Daugaard has been filed on behalf of six couples. Two weeks later, on June 6, Newville was back in court putting the last state on the board by filing Ramsay v. Dalrymple on behalf of seven North Dakota couples.
PFAW Foundation

Same-Sex Marriages Continue in Wisconsin After Federal Judge Denies Motion to Stay

Since last Friday’s ruling by Federal Judge Barbara Crabb that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, hundreds of same-sex couples have lined up to get marriage licenses across the Badger State. Immediately after receiving the ruling, clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties began issuing marriage licenses, and in both areas, facilities stayed open late on Friday and continued issuing licenses on Saturday. Officiants, including judges, ministers, and commissioners, married couples on-site at their respective county courthouses.

Similar to actions in other states where courts have struck down same-sex marriage bans, Wisconsin’s right-leaning GOP Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen filed multiple motions to “preserve the status quo” attempting to stop same-sex marriages from happening.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 48 of the state’s 72 counties were issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the ongoing legal battle. Wisconsin’s Vital Records Office is accepting the licenses, but holding them until they receive further guidance from Van Hollen.

For its part, the ACLU filed a proposal of how to implement same-sex marriage in the state. If approved, the plan would force Governor Scott Walker, Attorney General Van Hollen, and county clerks across the state to treat all same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally under the law.

Judge Crabb is set to have another hearing on June 19th.

PFAW Foundation

BREAKING: Wisconsin Marriage Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

A District Court judge ruled today that Wisconsin’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is unconstitutional.  Judge Barbara Crabb relied on equal protection law to strike down the ban:

"My task under federal law is to decide the claims presented by the plaintiffs in this case now, applying the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court," she said. "Because my review of that law convinces me that plaintiffs are entitled to the same treatment as any heterosexual couple, I conclude that the Wisconsin laws banning marriage between same-sex couples are unconstitutional."

Congratulate Wisconsinites by sharing our graphic below:

 

PFAW Foundation

Still In Store from the Supreme Court in 2014

There is about a month remaining before the end of the Supreme Court’s current term, which is expected to be at the end of June.  The Roberts Court has already done great damage in the cases it has decided so far.  The far-right’s ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC drove another dagger into the heart of our democracy by empowering the wealthiest and most powerful among us to exercise even more control over our election.  Town of Greece v. Galloway continued the arch-conservatives’ goal to undermine the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

But there are many important cases remaining to be decided over the next several weeks.  Depending on how the Court rules, the entrenched power imbalance already harming our democracy could be significantly worsened.

Recess appointments and sabotage of the executive branch:  NLRB v. Noel Canning.

This case has the potential of completely remaking the president’s recess appointment authority from how it has been understood and exercised since the 1800s.  The recess appointment power has long been used by presidents of both parties during all kinds of recesses, not just those occurring annually between sessions of Congress.  And it has always been used to fill vacancies regardless of when those vacancies first became open.  But that may soon change.

It’s important to note that this case arose out of far-right conservatives’ efforts to nullify laws they don’t agree with.  In this case, the laws in their crosshairs were those protecting workers, which they sought to undermine by preventing the National Labor Relations Board from having enough members to conduct business.  Specifically, Republicans blocked the Senate from holding confirmation votes on President Obama’s  nominees to the NLRB, finally provoking him to make recess appointments in January of 2012.  This was during a vacation period when the Senate was meeting for pro forma sessions for a few minutes every few days, a practice that came about for the specific purpose of preventing recess appointments.

The Supreme Court has been asked to answer several questions:  (1) Can a recess appointment be made only during the recess between two sessions of Congress (which occurs once a year and can last only a split second), or can it be made during any recess?  (2)  Can the Senate use pro forma sessions to turn what would otherwise be a recess into a non-recess, thereby preventing recess appointments?  (3)  Is a recess appointment limited to those vacancies that first became open during the same recess during which the appointment is made?

Attacks on public sector unions:  Harris v. Quinn.

This case is about home care personal assistants (PAs) in Illinois, who provide in-home care under two of its Medicaid programs to people with disabilities and other health needs.  But it has the potential, should the Roberts Court wish, to deliver a crippling blow to public sector unions nationwide.

Illinois PAs are classified as state employees for the purposes of collective bargaining and work under a common “agency shop” agreement:  If the employees in a particular group choose to have a union represent them, the government employer recognizes that union as their exclusive representative.  When the union carries out its collective bargaining functions, it does so on behalf of all the employees, regardless of whether they actually join the union.  Members pay dues to support this activity on their behalf.  To prevent “free riding,” the law requires non-union members to pay their fair share to support the basic collective bargaining activities being done on their behalf, but not to support non-collective bargaining activities such as political campaigning with which they might disagree.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that such arrangements for public employees are consistent with the First Amendment, dating back to a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  But that precedent is threatened in this case as petitioners – backed by the anti-worker National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation – call for the Roberts Court to overrule Abood.  According to the PAs who brought this case, the arrangement violates their First Amendment freedom to choose with whom to associate.  They also claim that exclusive representation violates their right to petition the government on matters of public policy, since the subject of their negotiations is the functioning and budgets of state Medicaid programs.

As Justice Kagan noted during oral arguments, this “would radically restructure the way workplaces across this country are run,” imposing so-called “right to work” regimes on all public employment throughout the United States.  In so doing, it would substantially drain the coffers of public sector unions, which has been a longtime political goal of conservative extremists.

Unfortunately, the far-right Justices on the Roberts Court have already demonstrated their eagerness to join in the political attack on workers.  Two years ago, in Knox v. SEIU (another case involving public sector unions), they severely undercut another longtime precedent that had enabled public sector unions to protect workers’ rights by deciding an issue that wasn’t before them, ruling against the union on an issue that it had not even had a chance to argue.  As Justice Sotomayor pointed out in her dissent, the majority was acting in violation of the Court’s own rules to achieve this result.  Whether they will show a similar eagerness to undercut public sector unions remains to be seen.

Corporate religious liberty rights:  Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.

These cases have the potential to give religious liberty rights to for-profit corporations, and to empower their owners and managers to ignore laws on health insurance coverage, employment discrimination, and other areas based on their religious beliefs.

Under the Affordable Care Act and HHS guidelines, employers generally have to provide certain preventive health services, including FDA-approved contraception, to women employees.  The cases challenging this requirement involve several companies and their owners.  Conestoga Wood is a for-profit corporation with 950 employees, owned by members of the Hahn family.  Hobby Lobby is an arts and crafts chain store with over 500 stores and about 13,000 full-time employees, owned by members of the Green family.  The Greens also own a corporation called Mardel, a chain of 35 for-profit Christian bookstores with about 400 employees.

The Greens and the Hahns have religious-based opposition to the use of some of the contraceptives covered by the law.  They claim that the law violates not only their own religious freedom, but also the religious freedom of the large for-profit corporations they run.  The primary law at issue in the cases is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), enacted in 1993.  Under RFRA, a federal law cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it advances a compelling government interest in the least restrictive manner.

A key question for the Justices is whether a for-profit corporation is a “person” covered by RFRA.  Unsurprisingly, before this litigation, no court had ever found that for-profit corporations have religious liberty interests either under RFRA or under the First Amendment.  Yet a divided Tenth Circuit ruled for Hobby Lobby: They concluded that since corporations have First Amendment political speech rights under Citizens United, it follows that they also have First Amendment religious rights, and that RFRA should be interpreted to include them as “persons.”  As PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin has written, “the outlandish claims of the company involved would not have a prayer except for Citizens United, the miracle gift of 2010 that just keeps giving.”

The next question is whether the coverage requirement is a substantial burden on the families’ (and possibly corporations’) exercise of religion, even though they are not forced to use or administer the contraception, or to affirm that they have no religious objection to it.  Since the ones providing the health insurance are the corporations and not the individual owners, a ruling in favor of the owners would have implications for a concept basic to American law: that a corporation is a legally separate entity from its owners.

If the Justices find a substantial burden on the corporations or their owners, then they will determine if the government interest (furthering women’s health and equality) is a compelling one, and if the coverage provision advances that interest in the least restrictive manner.

While a victory for either the corporations or their owners would directly harm women’s health, it could also open the door to employers being able to exempt themselves from other laws that they have religious objections to, such as anti-discrimination protections.

Women’s Access to Reproductive Health Clinics:  McCullen v. Coakley.

The Court is being asked to overrule a 2000 precedent upholding buffer zones around reproductive health clinics.  The current case involves a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around such clinics (with exceptions for employees, patients and others with business there, and people passing through on their way somewhere else).  Anti-choice advocates claim this violates their freedom of speech because it restricts only people with a particular viewpoint.

The lower courts disagreed, citing the 2000 case of Hill v. Colorado, where the Supreme Court upheld a buffer zone making it illegal to approach within eight feet of people at clinics for the purpose of counseling, education, or protesting.  (This applied anywhere within 100 feet of the clinic.)  That 6-3 decision analyzed the law as a content-neutral regulation of speech that was reasonable in light of the importance of protecting unwilling people’s right to avoid unwanted conversations and their right to pass without obstruction.  However, two of the conservative Justices in the 6-3 majority have been replaced by far more conservative Bush nominees:  Rehnquist (by Roberts) and O’Connor (by Alito).  Since Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas dissented in the 2000 case, there may very well be five votes to not only strike down the Massachusetts buffer zone but also to overrule Hill completely.

As noted in an amicus brief that PFAW Foundation joined, the Massachusetts law applies to people regardless of the content of their speech and is a content-neutral way to ensure that women can enter the clinics to exercise their constitutional rights.  The law does not prevent abortion opponents from approaching women who are more than 35 feet from the clinic entrance (as opposed to the Colorado law, which prohibited unwanted close contact anywhere within 100 feet of the clinic). And the record in this case shows that anti-choice advocates have consistently been able to distribute literature to individuals approaching clinics, as well as to have quiet conversations with them.

Nevertheless, many felt after oral arguments that five conservative justices were likely to strike down the Massachusetts law.  If they do, we will see if they also overrule the 2000 precedent, opening the floodgates to another era of efforts to block women from exercising a deeply personal constitutional right.

Regulating greenhouse gases:  Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (and several companion cases).

In these cases, industrial interests and their allies are attacking the EPA’s ability to effectively regulate their greenhouse gas emissions.

In Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles, since they easily fit within the CAA’s broad definition of “air pollutant.”  This ruling, resisted by the Bush Administration, allowed the Obama Administration to adopt regulations on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks in 2010.

Under the EPA’s longstanding interpretation of the Clean Air Act, once EPA regulation of a pollutant from mobile sources (like cars and trucks) goes into effect, that pollutant is automatically subject to regulation under EPA rules for stationary sources (like factories and power plants).  Those regulations involve permitting requirements for facilities emitting pollutants over statutory thresholds.  But greenhouse gases are emitted in far greater volumes than other pollutants, and millions of industrial, commercial, and even residential sources exceed the statutory threshold.  The EPA recognized that immediately adding these millions of stationary sources to its permitting programs would impose tremendous costs to both industry and to state permitting authorities.  So in what is called the “Tailoring Rule,” the agency chose to move gradually, initially subjecting only the largest sources of emissions to mandatory greenhouse gas permitting, and planning a gradual phase-in for others, with planned rulemakings on how best to accomplish that phase-in.

Industrial interests, the Chamber of Commerce, and their conservative allies in state government have challenged the EPA rules.  They argue that since the addition of greenhouse gases to the stationary sources permitting programs would cause what they characterize as results not desired by Congress (such as bringing huge numbers of buildings, including churches, schools, bakeries, and large private homes into the programs), it means that greenhouse gases are not the type of pollutant to which these permitting programs apply.  And that lets the major industrial contributors to greenhouse gas pollution off the hook.  They also claim that the Tailoring Rule is a rewrite of the Clean Air Act, which only Congress can do.  So we end up with hyperbolic right-wing talking points in Supreme Court briefs, like this from Southeastern Legal Foundation:

This case involves perhaps the most audacious seizure of pure legislative power over domestic economic matters attempted by the Executive Branch since Youngstown Sheet & Tube [the 1952 case striking down President Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean War].

As the Constitutional Accountability Center noted in their amicus brief supporting the EPA, the agency’s gradual approach satisfies rather than subverts the central purpose of the Clean Air Act:

This is not a suspension of the relevant statutory provisions nor a failure to enforce the CAA as written.  To the contrary, EPA is setting priorities based on both practical realities and its limited resources, biting off no more than it or, as important, the regulated entities themselves, can chew at any given time. This phase-in of the CAA’s requirements is not a rewrite of the statute, and it is fully consistent with the executive authority vested in the President by Article II of our enduring Constitution and the separation of powers evidenced in the Framers’ design.

PFAW Foundation

YEO Evan Low, US Senator Tammy Baldwin, Anne Kronenberg, and Others Dedicate the Harvey Milk Stamp

Last week, the highly-anticipated Harvey Milk stamp made its debut in a White House dedication ceremony featuring a roster packed with dynamic speakers including Evan Low, a Campbell, California city councilmember and participant in PFAW Foundation's Young Elected Officials Network, who recounted his personal story and stressed the importance of electing LGBT Americans to public office.
PFAW Foundation

Countering the Conservative Campus Crusade

The following is a post by Gabriela De Golia, Advocacy Associate for affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program.

Last week, in a speech in support of a constitutional amendment to reduce the influence of big money on our political system, Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “No one should be able to pump unlimited funds into political campaigns.”  On political spending, Sen. Reid noted, the “Koch brothers are in a category of their own.”

Indeed, the Koch brothers’ influence in shaping our national political dialogue is stronger than many realize. In March the Center for Public Integrity wrote about David and Charles Koch’s financial investments in colleges and universities—the nation-spanning “campus of Koch Brothers Academy.” By pouring millions into schools across the country, the Koch brothers bankroll academic programs to promote their economic and social ideologies. They champion regressive political philosophies and create a pipeline for youth to become engaged in conservative activism. In effect, the Koch brothers are leading a crusade to funnel young people into the conservative movement.

However, we in the progressive movement are also investing in our youth. Despite not having as much money as oil tycoons, key players in the progressive movement understand the power of youth and are fighting back with a long-term progressive infrastructure. Programs like Young People For (YP4) of People For the American Way Foundation provide young progressive leaders the tools to create systemic change, roll back conservative advances, reclaim our democracy, and fight for justice.

By teaching young adults to identify key issues in their communities, create concrete action plans, and mobilize others through organizing and advocacy, YP4 helps Millennial change-makers build power to win on progressive issues. For example, through our program’s Money in Elections campaign, young activists have held rallies, gathered petitions, protested banks, and spoken at national events in support of reclaiming our democracy. Ariel Boone, a 2009 YP4 Fellow, lead a successful campaign urging the University of California at Berkeley to divest $3.5 million out of Bank of America and reinvest these funds in a local bank that contributes millions to the surrounding community. Last year 2013 Fellow Brendien Mitchell spoke alongside Senator Bernie Sanders and other pro-democracy movement leaders at a rally to get big money out of politics on the steps of the Supreme Court. These are but a couple examples of how YP4 is supporting young people in taking a stand against corporate influence in our political system.

As YP4 enters its tenth year, we continue to recognize that to build a movement, you need to think long-term. From recruiting youth from marginalized communities into our Fellowship program, to assisting them in getting more voters to the polls through our voter engagement programs, to training them to run successful campaigns through our Front Line Leaders Academy, we support youth every step of the way of their leadership journey.

Often in conversations about politics and civic participation, young adults are afterthoughts, considered an “apathetic” audience that doesn’t vote. But Millennials are far more engaged than given credit for. In fact, today’s young adults are anything but disengaged. Despite being the first generation to be economically worse-off than their parents through no fault of our own, Millennials are far more likely to do community service than older generations. About half of us vote, and we currently account for over 20 percent of the voting-eligible population in the US – and that number is growing as more of us turn 18. We must constantly overcome conservatives’ best attempts to keep us from the polls, efforts which in themselves show how much power we hold over the political process – no one would try to disenfranchise us if we didn’t matter. And last but certainly not least, we are the most diverse and progressive generation in recent history.

Ironically, two individuals who spend enormous amounts of money to influence the civic lives of young adults represent political leanings at odds with much of the Millennial generation’s values. The Koch brothers singlehandedly influence the US political arena more than almost anyone else thanks to their nearly limitless pool of oil money. They are two of the most radical and influential right-wing leaders today who are attempting to abolish the minimum wage, get rid of Social Security, defund the Affordable Care Act, equate money with speech, and lead the transformation of American democracy into an oligarchy.  As shown in the Center for Public Integrity report, in 2012 they gave nearly $13 million in tax-deductible donations to higher education institutions, including many that are often considered “liberal,” to promote their ideologies.

These contributions show that conservative leaders do understand the power of youth and the return they get from investing in youth leadership development opportunities. By shelling millions into programs for young conservatives since the 1970s and focusing on long-term capacity building rather than just mobilization during elections, conservatives see the fruits of their labor in congressional dysfunction and the weakening of our democratic processes.

But programs like YP4 are doing the work to turn this tide by developing young progressive leaders. As Andrew Gillum, Director of Youth Leadership Programs at People For the American Way Foundation, wrote earlier this year: “Investing in progressive young people is the key to ensuring our movement’s capacity to create and sustain social change for years to come.”

Creating change is hard and takes time, especially when up against big money like that of the Koch Brothers. But by investing in young people, the progressive movement can make a real difference in both the short and long terms. We simply cannot afford to not invest in youth.

PFAW Foundation

LGBT Equality Pioneer Harvey Milk Memorialized with New Stamp

Though the right-wing has long tried to rewrite Milk's legacy, it's clear that today is a day to celebrate how far the LGBT equality movement has come and to recognize the work that remains.
PFAW Foundation

Marriage Equality Now Law in 19 States, Only 2 Bans Remain Unchallenged

On Monday Oregon became the 18th state added to the win column when Judge Michael McShane struck down its ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Then on Tuesday Judge John Jones issued a similar ruling in Pennsylvania, followed Wednesday by the news that Governor Tom Corbett won't appeal – make that 19! Wednesday also brought the filing of a marriage equality lawsuit in Montana.
PFAW Foundation

Pennsylvania Marriage Ban Struck Down

Another day, another discriminatory ban struck down. Today a federal judge ruled in Whitewood v. Wolf that Pennsylvania’s 1996 ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. This victory for marriage equality follows closely on the heels of the striking of Oregon’s ban only yesterday and makes Pennsylvania the 19th state allowing same-sex couples to marry.

Congratulate Pennsylvanians by sharing our graphic below:

PFAW Foundation

Oregon Marriage Ban Struck Down

More good news from the fight for marriage equality: today a federal judge struck down Oregon’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples.

If you are feeling a sense of deja-vu, it’s understandable – the Washington Blade notes that this ruling is the “13th straight win for gay nuptials in the federal courts” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision last year, which struck down a key section of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act [emphasis added].

Given that decision, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum declined to defend the state ban, and the judge did not allow the right-wing National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to defend it. Earlier today NOM lashed out at the case, calling it “an ugly example of inappropriate cooperation between the Attorney General and the gay marriage lobby.”

Judge Michael McShane wrote:

It is at times difficult to see past the shrillness of the debate. Accusations of religious bigotry and banners reading "God Hates Fags" make for a messy democracy and, at times, test the First Amendment resolve of both sides. At the core of the Equal Protection Clause, however, there exists a foundational belief that certain rights should be shielded from the barking crowds; that certain rights are subject to ownership by all and not the stake hold of popular trend or shifting majorities.

As the Right continues to fight a losing battle to prevent loving couples from accessing the protections they need to take care of each other, we’ll keep fighting for nationwide equality.
 

PFAW Foundation

Six Decades Later, Still Fighting for Equality in Schools

The following is a guest post from the Reverend Dr. Merchuria Chase Williams, a former school teacher and a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.

Last month, sixty years after the Supreme Court threw out the toxic doctrine of “separate but equal,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked us to keep our “eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” She pointed out that in law and in daily life, race still matters deeply and cannot “be wished away.”

Justice Sotomayor wrote those words in a dissent to the Schuette decision that upheld Michigan’s state constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action, six decades after the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling that said schools may not be segregated by race. It’s no coincidence that both of these decisions were about education. If anything proves that race still matters in America, it’s our public schools.

While the 1954 Brown decision brought badly needed change and helped invigorate a nationwide civil rights movement, glaring racial inequalities persist to this day – and nowhere are they more evident than in the classroom. In recent years, school segregation has actually gotten worse rather than better. On average, a black student today goes to a school where 29 percent of her fellow students are white – a percentage that has dropped seven points since 1980. Students of color are less likely to have access to a broad range of math and science courses and are more likely to be suspended than their white peers. And according to the Center for American Progress, on average American schools spend hundreds less on each student of color than they do on each white student.

While we may no longer be legally separate, educational opportunities and conditions for our nation’s students are far from equal.

Despite these gaps, big funders on the Right continue to pour money into efforts to privatize the education system rather than strengthen the public education system that the vast majority of our nation’s children use. The Walton Family Foundation, created by the family that established Walmart, has pumped millions into efforts to expand private school vouchers, undermining the public schools that are, in education advocate Diane Ravitch’s words, “the heart of most communities.”

Those of us who have been working for many years to improve the education system in Atlanta and across the country know that we need to support and strengthen public education, not undercut it. We need to work to address ongoing education inequalities for students of different backgrounds, not pretend that race simply doesn’t matter or that racial inequalities do not exist. Let’s use the anniversary of this landmark decision to recommit ourselves to building an education system that truly provides equal opportunities to all of our nation’s children.

Today’s Supreme Court majority may not get it, but the millions of children failed by our school system do.
 

PFAW Foundation

Marriage Equality Lawsuit Filed in Alaska, Only Three State Bans Remain Unchallenged

Yesterday's filing is great news for these couples and countless other Alaskans wishing to bring marriage equality to their state, but on this issue Alaska is not The Last Frontier – three states remain with unchallenged marriage bans.
PFAW Foundation

Dangers of Supreme Court Prayer Ruling Quickly Become Clear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is not the American Way. 

PFAW Foundation

Marriage Equality Ruling in Arkansas Welcomed by Southerners for the Freedom to Marry

Wolfson and his organization have been working on a project called Southerners for the Freedom to Marry, and though we expect an appeal to the Arkansas ruling, it looks like the South is ready for change.
PFAW Foundation

Thanks to the Roberts Court, “Big Money” in Our Elections Is Only Getting Bigger

2014 is looking to be a bumper year for election spending. After the Citizens United ruling in 2010, that year’s midterms became a test case for how the newly-minted Super PACs and newly-empowered “dark money” groups would use their strength. They must have liked what their spending bought them, because this year they are back with a vengeance.

According to Open Secrets, spending by outside groups as of May 6th in this election cycle has approximately tripled from the amount outside groups spent in the same time period leading up to the 2010 midterms (leaping from $16.6 million in 2010 to $72.7 million in 2014). In 2006, this number was $2.5 million – that’s a twenty-nine-fold increase in just two midterm cycles.  At this rate, outside spending on this year’s midterms is set to far outpace even outside spending in the 2008 presidential election cycle.

The influence of outside spending groups has increased so much that in some races they are spending far more than the candidates themselves. Forty-nine percent of all election spending on this year’s midterms so far has come from outside spending groups. In hotly contested races, the proportion is even higher. In the North Carolina U.S. Senate race – which is the most expensive so far this cycle – 90 percent of all spending has come from outside groups, 58 percent of which are “dark money” groups not required to disclose their donors like Super PACs do.

The new era of “big money” election spending disproportionately benefits conservative candidates. Seventy-two percent of donors who had maxed out their aggregate contribution limits before the Supreme Court struck down those limits in April had contributed only to Republicans. Forty-five percent of these donors were in the finance industry.  In addition, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-linked “dark money” group, accounts for nearly one third of all independent expenditures on television advertising so far in this election cycle. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, just as reformers predicted, the Republican Party is forming “super joint fundraising committees” that pool large checks from big donors and – now unrestrained by aggregate contribution limits – redirect that money to long lists of candidate campaigns.

The consequences of the influx of “big money” into our elections are clear for the vast majority of Americans who can’t afford to write large check to candidates: they’re being squeezed out of the process. According to the Brennan Center, in current “high-dollar” federal races, only nine percent of funds have come from donations of $200 or less.

Simply put, these trends are disturbing. Even before Citizens United, it was becoming clear that money played an outsized role in our politics. The continued ability of corporations, special interests and wealthy individuals to spend limitlessly on elections calls into question the health of our democracy. The concentration of power away from the voters and towards the donor class creates the specter – and very real threat – of a Congress wholly populated by those elected by dollars, not votes. 

PFAW Foundation