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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

Supreme Court Upholds Sectarian Prayer at Official Meetings

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today overturned a ruling by the Second Circuit appeals court and upheld the practice of an upstate New York town that begins its council meetings with prayers that are almost always given by Christian clergy. Religious Right groups are celebrating the ruling; Ralph Reed announced that his Faith and Freedom coalition would use the ruling to “redouble its efforts” to encourage more prayers at city and county government meetings. Both the decision and the Religious Right's responses are likely to invite more religiously divisive church-state conflicts.

Justice Clarence Thomas used his concurring opinion to argue, as he has before, that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not apply to the states at all; in other words, he believes there is no constitutional reason that a state cannot have an official religion. Fortunately, the decision in this case is far narrower than that.

It is, as Justice Stephen Breyer says in the opening sentence of his dissent, a “fact-sensitive” case. It did not revolve around the question of whether legislative prayer is unconstitutional – the Court has previously upheld legislative prayer in Marshv Chambers – but in part whether the way clergy were invited to give prayers to open town council meetings was sufficiently inclusive. In Breyer’s words,

“The question in this case is whether the prayer practice of the town of Greece, by doing too little to reflect the religious diversity of its citizens, did too much, even if unintentionally, to promote the ‘political division along religious lines’ that ‘was one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect.’” [quoting from the Court’s 1971 decision in Lemon v Kurtzman]

Also at issue was whether a town council meeting, at which members of the public are appealing to councilmembers for specific action, is more susceptible to being a coercive environment than a prayer given by a chaplain to a group of lawmakers about to start their legislative day. For example, the council hears debates on individual applications from residents and business owners seeing zoning permits and other licenses. In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan recognizes that the Court has upheld the historical tradition of legislative prayer, but writes that the town hall meetings in Greece are a kind of hybrid, “occasions for ordinary citizens to engage with and petition their government, often on highly individualized matters.” That, she says, requires special care that each member of the community is respected as an equal citizen, something the Town of Greece has not done.

While the plaintiffs in the Town of Greece case did not argue that town leaders were motivated by religious bias, they argued that the selection process led almost exclusively to prayers being given by Christian ministers, and to prayers that were not just ceremonial invocations but quite explicitly sectarian. Kagan writes that town meetings need not be religion-free zones, saying that “pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality,” but concluded that the board of the Town of Greece did nothing to recognize religious diversity, and that its practice “does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” She offered a hypothetical of a Muslim resident coming before the board to see a zoning variance to build an addition on her home:

“But just before she gets to say her piece, a minister deputized by the Town asks her to pray ‘in the name of God’s only son Jesus Christ.’ She must think – it is hardly paranoia, but only the truth—that Christian worship has become entwined with local governance. And now she faces a choice—to pray alongside the majority as one of that group or somehow to register her deeply felt difference….She does not wish to be rude to her neighbors, nor does she wish to aggravate the Board members whom she will soon be trying to persuade. And yet she does not want to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, any more than many of her neighbors would want to deny that tenet. So assume she declines to participate with the others in the first act of the meeting—or even, as the majority proposes, that she sands up and leaves the room altogether…At the least, she becomes a different kind of citizen, one who will not join in the religious practice that the Town Board has chosen as reflecting its own and the community’s most cherished beliefs. And she thus stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives.

Everything about that situation, I think, infringes the First Amendment…That the Town Board selects, month after month and year after year, prayergivers who will reliably speak in the voice of Christianity, and so places itself behind a single creed. That in offering those sectarian prayers, the Board’s chosen clergy members repeatedly call on individuals, prior to participating in local governance, to join in a form of worship that may be at odds with their own beliefs. That the clergy thus put some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders. That the practice thus divides the citizenry, creating one class that shares the Board’s own evident religious beliefs and another (far smaller) class that does not. And that the practice also alters a dissenting citizen’s relationship with her government, making her religious difference salient when she seeks only to engage her elected representatives as would any other citizen.”

Kagan writes that the Court majority opinion reflected “two kinds of blindness.” First, it missed the difference between traditional legislative prayer and the setting of the town council, a difference she described as a “chasm,” and the fact that the prayers in Greece are mostly addressed to the public rather than lawmakers. She said the majority “changes the subject” rather than addressing the sectarian content of the prayers delivered in Greece, such as those invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These are not, as she says, the recitation of “God save the United States and this honorable Court” invoked at the beginning of Supreme Court sessions.

Kagan cites George Washington’s well-known letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation, in which he assured members of that congregation that the First Amendment does not simply tolerate people of minority faiths, rather all possess the same “immunities of citizenship.”

Writes Kagan:

For me, that remarkable guarantee means at least this much: When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. I believe, for all the reasons I have given, that the Town of Greece betrayed that promise. I therefore respectfully dissent from the Court’s decision.

Breyer also joined Kagan’s dissent, as did Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway.

PFAW Foundation

Scalia's Mistake Exposes His Ideological Agenda

Justice Scalia's factual error in an EPA case dissent suggests he is approaching cases with an overly ideological lens.
PFAW Foundation

Sotomayor's Schuette Dissent

Justice Sotomayor analyzes a state constitutional ban on affirmative action through the lens of history and the reality of race in America.
PFAW Foundation

Applying McCutcheon's Logic to Voter ID Laws

If only the courts were as solicitous of the right to vote in elections as they are of the right to purchase them.
PFAW Foundation

In McCutcheon Decision, Talk of Constituents Seems Out of Place

Chief Justice Roberts waxes eloquent about responsiveness to constituents in an opinion about responsiveness to non-constituents.
PFAW Foundation

Supreme Court's McCutcheon Decision is Great News for Billionaires

The American people should have the power to prevent government of, by, and for the wealthy.
PFAW Foundation

Women Justices Press Important Questions During Hobby Lobby Arguments

Crowds of activists and advocacy groups gathered outside while the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. case.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not shy away from asking difficult questions that demonstrate the broad implications this case could have. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan voiced concerns regarding the implications of a ruling for the first time in our nation’s history that for-profit corporations have religious rights. Both justices questioned whether this decision would allow companies to deny access to coverage of not only contraceptive methods, but also of other lifesaving procedures employers might object to on religious grounds—like blood transfusions or vaccines.

The Huffington Post quotes Justice Kagan as saying, “There are quite a number of medical treatments that could be religiously objected to… Everything would be piecemeal, nothing would be uniform.”

Pushing the issue further, Justice Sotomayor asked, “How are courts supposed to know whether a corporation holds a particular religious belief?”

Similarly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

was a law that was passed overwhelmingly [by] both houses of Congress. People from all sides of the political spectrum voted for it. It seems strange that there would have been that tremendous uniformity if it means [corporations are covered].

She added…

[T]here was an effort to adopt a … specific conscience amendment in 2012, and the Senate rejected that… That amendment would have enabled secular employers and insurance providers to deny coverage on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions. It was specifically geared to secular employers and insurance providers. And that…was rejected.

Justice Kagan noted that RFRA was considered non-controversial when it passed, an unlikely reaction if it had been understood to open the door to employers citing religious objections to complying with laws relating to sex discrimination, minimum wage, family leave, or child labor.

Justice Kagan also noted that women are “quite tangibly harmed” when employers don’t provide contraceptive coverage. This decision, however, could have far-reaching implications beyond women’s reproductive rights since this case deals with some of the same core issues seen in “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s, as we pointed out yesterday morning.

PFAW Foundation

Judge Strikes Michigan’s Ban on Marriage for Same-Sex Couples

A federal judge ruled today that Michigan’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is unconstitutional, the latest in a string of state marriage equality victories.

The Associated Press reports:

U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman announced his ruling after a rare two-week trial that mostly focused on the impact of same-sex parenting on children.

There was no indication that the judge was suspending his decision. Attorney General Bill Schuette said he was immediately filing a request with a federal appeals court to suspend Friedman's decision and prevent same-sex couples from immediately marrying. The decision was released shortly after 5 p.m., when most county clerk offices in Michigan were closed.


PFAW Foundation

How Money in Politics Undermines Diversity in Elected Office

During a speech to a packed audience at the University of Washington on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was asked by a student what problems need to be fixed in order to see more women and people of color in government. 

Sotomayor’s answer, as reported by The Seattle Times, was simple: “Money.”

“Money,” Sotomayor said to laughter. “No, seriously. Look at what’s happening in politics. What’s talking the loudest is money.” For more minorities and women to gain more of a foothold in government decisions, “we’re going to have to work the political system at the highest level,” she said.

Justice Sotomayor is right. Today our country is represented by leaders who, as a whole, look little like the electorate they are supposed to represent and serve. Women are a majority of the population, and yet only make up 20% of the Senate and 18% of the House, putting us 83rd in the world for women’s political representation. We have only one openly LGBTQ person and only a handful of people of color in the US Senate – in 2012 there were no African Americans. This picture is not only problematic in itself, but it also has broad implications for policy outcomes.

It’s true that we have also seen some promising developments in political representation in recent years. The 113th Congress is the most diverse in history, with a record number of women and minorities elected, as well as a number of firsts. As the policy director for the Young Elected Officials Network, I am heartened by the changing faces of leadership at all levels of government, and what this means for our country both symbolically and substantively. But, like Justice Sotomayor, I’m also concerned that our country’s money in politics problem is standing in the way of further progress.

Much has been said lately about the impact of money in politics on political representation. At The Atlantic’s Shriver Report summit on women and poverty in January, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted,

If you reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of civility in debate, more women will run for office… We say to women, we want you to go raise 12 million dollars, and by the way, subject yourself to 10 million dollars in negative publicity.

The influence of money in politics not only fuels corruption and the elevation of special and powerful interests, but it exacerbates the imbalance of power as a whole in our country by creating barriers to political representation for communities who are already marginalized. It perpetuates a system where the country is led by people who don’t understand the daily lived and embodied experiences of their constituents.

On Capitol Hill, we see the effects of this imbalance play out each day. From thwarted gun violence prevention efforts to legislation attacking women’s reproductive health voted on by committees and panels made up entirely of men, we continue to have elected leaders who side against the demonstrated wishes of its voters and with the moneyed interests.

We must pursue reforms that transform our electoral processes, even the playing field for all candidates, and restore the power to the people by reducing the outsized influence of big money and protecting the rights of voters. All indications show that we get better results for everyone when there’s diversity in governing bodies.

It’s both common sense, and a matter of basic human rights.

PFAW Foundation

Money Buys Political Access, New Study Confirms

We can file this under news that should shock no one: a new study has found that members of Congress and their top staffers are significantly more likely to meet with political donors than with other constituents. 

The study – carried out by researchers at Yale and UC Berkeley in partnership with CREDO Action – sought to answer the question, just how much do donations buy access to elected officials in our political system?

Matea Gold at the Washington Post explains the experiment:

Last summer, a group of CREDO fellows e-mailed congressional offices seeking meetings to discuss the measure, sending one of two different form letters.

The first e-mail had the subject line: “Meeting with local campaign donors about cosponsoring bill.” The body of the e-mail said that about a dozen CREDO members “who are active political donors” were interested in meeting with the member of Congress in his or her home district to discuss the legislation.

The second e-mail stripped out the donor references and instead said “local constituents” were looking to meet the member of Congress.

…The e-mails went out to 191 members of Congress – all members of the same political party – who had not already co-sponsored the bill….The results: Only 2.4 percent of the offices made the member of Congress or chief of staff available when they believed those attending were just constituents, but 12.5 percent did when they were told the attendees were political donors. [emphasis added]

Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel notes that the study could have implications for court cases like the infamous Citizens United v. FEC, which paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. In the majority Citizens United opinion, Justice Kennedy argued that “independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate.”

Terkel points out that the new study may debunk the claim that there isn’t evidence that “independent expenditures,” such as those made to a super PAC rather than directly to a candidate, can curry favor with elected officials:

In this experiment, the lawmakers knew nothing about the donors, such as whether they had donated to their campaign in particular, or how much they gave and when. In fact, they could simply have been a donor to a super PAC.

Even so, the Supreme Court’s too-narrow understanding of “corruption” as tit-for-tat exchanges (for example, political bribes) may limit the study’s implications for Citizens United and cases like it.  But it does throw into stark relief how problematic the Court’s frame for understanding political corruption continues to be. When money can buy access to elected officials, we have a serious democracy problem.
 

PFAW Foundation