Discrimination Has No Place In Our Hearts or Our Workplaces

The following is a guest post by Rev. Dorothy Chaney, a licensed Baptist minister in Miami and a member of People For the American Way’s African American Ministers in Action.

I have lived in Florida all my life, but here’s something I didn’t always know: in my state, you can be fired for being gay.

It’s true – although most of us don’t realize it. Here in Florida, we lack both a state and federal law protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) employees from workplace discrimination. That means that even if you are the most dedicated employee – always on time, always going that extra mile – you can still be fired because of who you are or who you love.

That’s not right.

Why? First of all, because ensuring that all of us have the opportunity to provide for our families is a core American value. Passing a bill in Congress called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would help make sure that LGBT workers across the country are protected from workplace mistreatment. It’s simple – if you work hard, you shouldn’t be fired because of attributes that have nothing to do with your work performance.

Second, my religious beliefs mean I am dedicated to supporting those in need. As Bishop Gene Robinson pointed out in 2011, “The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are filled with admonitions that we will be judged by the way we treat our most vulnerable members.” He wrote that we are “morally bound” to take care of those who are marginalized, such as LGBT Americans.

He’s right. As a Christian minister, I have worked for many years to lift up those most vulnerable in our communities, from counseling women facing unplanned pregnancies to speaking out in support of those needing access to health care. I have come to see that in order to continue my work for justice, I also need to speak out in support of employment protections for LGBT members of my community. Though faith traditions and leaders may have differing beliefs about sexuality, surely we can agree that every person should be treated with dignity in their place of work. Every person should be able to be open about who they are without fearing for their job.

Finally, not only is passing ENDA the moral thing to do, it’s also the popular thing to do.  That’s true here in Florida and also across the country. New polling estimates that more than 60% of Floridians support ENDA.

Unfortunately, those who don’t support these protections are using dishonest arguments to try to mislead the public about the legislation. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, for example, has claimed that if ENDA is passed, “Our freedom of religion will be destroyed.”  This is certainly not true. The ENDA bill even carves out a specific exemption so it will not apply to religious corporations, societies, associations, and schools.  The fact is, it goes the extra mile to protect religious liberty, and it is supported by a broad array of religious groups. The bottom line is that ENDA is in no way an attack on religious liberty any more than existing anti-discrimination laws are.

Others are using repugnant arguments in an attempt not just to defeat the bill, but to attack and malign LGBT members of my community. Last year, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition went as far as using the Newtown tragedy in a misguided attempt to turn public opinion against ENDA. Referencing a school district anti-discrimination policy in nearby Orange County, Florida, Lafferty argued that while parents are concerned about “protecting our children” in the wake of the Newtown shooting, they should be worried about ENDA’s “devastating effects” as “people with some real issues [play] out their personal problems in the classroom.” These kinds of lies about our LGBT neighbors underscore why the discrimination protections are needed in the first place.

It is my hope that all of our elected officials will choose to stand on the side of pro-equality majorities rather than with those pushing hurtful lies about LGBT Americans. I was heartened to see that Sen. Nelson has signed on as a cosponsor. Now it’s time for Sen. Rubio to step up to the plate, as well.

Because at the end of the day, discrimination is discrimination.  It has no place in our hearts and no place in our workplaces.


The Republican Electoral Rigging Plan Is Back

It’s all been quiet on the election-rigging front for a while—so quiet that you might have thought the Republicans’ plan to rig the electoral college had been quietly dropped. Sadly, that’s not the case.

Florida state Rep. Ray Pilon introduced a bill last week to change how the state apportions its electoral college votes. Under his plan, the state would award its electoral college votes by congressional district. If this plan had been in place in 2012, Florida would have awarded an extra 15 electoral college votes Mitt Romney. Indeed, as Think Progress points out, if every state used this plan, Romney would have won the election.

That massive hypothetical shift is partly due to another plank of the Republicans’ plan to rig elections in their favor: gerrymandering congressional districts. If states like Florida award their votes by congressional district, then the Republican party in those states can create a huge advantage for themselves by gerrymandering their congressional district maps. This part of the plan is already complete in many states, where we won’t have an opportunity to try and reverse some of this gerrymandering for nearly 10 years (and two presidential elections).  Florida’s GOP would certainly benefit from such a plan, where the last round of redistricting created a map that will, in the words of the Washington Post, help “cement their overwhelming majority in the state’s delegation for a decade to come.”

Just look at the red the congressional district maps in Pennsylvania[], where Obama won the popular vote by more than five percent but would have lost the majority of electoral college votes under a plan like Pilon’s. Indeed, congressional district maps throughout the country are so gerrymandered that while Democrats won the 2012 popular vote for House seats, we ended up with the second biggest GOP majority in 60 years.

It’s clear that this bill is another sad attempt to rig the game in the Republicans’ favor. It has nothing to do with fairness and democracy, and everything to do with partisan games. But just being sick of losing doesn’t give you the right to change the rules. Most people learned that as children on the playground, but it seems like the Republican party never got that lesson. The only way they’ll ever get these bills passed is if we let them get away with it, so it’s up to us to let them know that we’re paying attention. That’s how we’ve kept these bills from being passed in every other state that they’ve been proposed in over the past year, and that’s what we’ll do with this bill. 


Rubio Holding Up Nomination of Openly Gay African American Florida Judge

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has for months been single-handedly holding up the nomination of William Thomas, an openly gay African American Miami judge, to a federal district court.

Rubio’s indefinite hold on Thomas’ nomination is one of the most egregious examples yet of Senate Republicans using the obscure “blue slip” procedure to prevent home-state judicial nominees from even having a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under a Senate custom that has varied over time Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy will not advance a nominees’ consideration --  won’t even hold a hearing, let alone take a vote -- until both of that nominee’s home-state senators return a “blue slip” giving their permission for a nomination to go forward. The blue slip doesn’t indicate a senator’s approval of the nominee – the senator is still free to vote against the nominee and to lobby their fellow senators to do the same.  It just means that the nominee can be considered by the Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate. But if just one senator doesn’t return a blue slip, the nomination won’t see the light of day.

Republican senators have been routinely using this tactic of withholding blue slips in order to slow-walk President Obama’s judicial nominees. Currently, five nominees are being held back because one or both senators have refused to return blue slips. And all are women or people of color.

Because the blue slip process is secretive and little-known, senators are often able to get away with holding nominees this way with little public pressure and no public explanation.

Rubio, however, faced pressure from the Florida legal community in recent weeks for his failure to return blue slips for Thomas and another Florida nominee, Brian Davis. The senator finally gave in under pressure and allowed Davis’ nomination to go forward, but is digging in his heels on his blockade of Thomas.

Rubio’s stated reasons for blocking Thomas’ nomination are exceptionally flimsy. He has cited  two cases where he claims Thomas gave insufficiently harsh sentences in criminal trials; in one case, even the prosecutor has defended Thomas’ judgment and a local judge has written to Rubio to correct the record. In the other case the senator cites, Judge Thomas sentenced the defendant to death, which Rubio seems to think was insufficiently harsh. It is clear that there is no merit to the senator’s claims. Holding hearings on this nominee would help clarify that, if they were allowed to take place.

The real reason for Rubio’s blockade and his smear of Judge Thomas’ character, writes Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm, is plain and simple “crass Tea Party politics.”

Rubio has stated no compelling reason why Thomas should not have a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, where he can answer any of Rubio’s alleged concerns in the public record. 


Young People For Supports Florida Dream Defenders’ Courageous Sit-In

In what the Miami Herald is calling the “longest sit-in demonstration in recent memory,” a group of more than sixty young people called the Dream Defenders came to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office last Tuesday and have not left. 

Arriving at the Florida Capitol just a few days after George Zimmerman was acquitted, the group is pushing for a special legislative session to take up a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act which would repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground law and address racial profiling, the school-to prison pipeline, and more. Among the many young people in Gov. Scott’s office is Dream Defenders leader Phil Agnew, a 2005 graduate of PFAW Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) leadership development program, as well as eight to ten other current or former YP4 Fellows. 

Agnew told the Miami Herald that the work is broader than their specific demands: 

“It’s also about a paradigm shift,” Agnew said. “It’s about empowering the next generation.”

PFAW Foundation has been helping support the courageous young people at the Capitol in any way we can, from providing administrative and financial support – including meals – to sending video cameras to help document their experiences.  Young People For Director Joy Lawson highlighted the sit-in in a Huffington Post op-ed and is leading a powerful photo campaign collecting statements of support for the Dream Defenders. 

Together, we are showing the Dream Defenders, and the country, that young people are standing with them in this fight.

PFAW Foundation

GOP Obstruction of Judicial Nominees Continues

Republicans have yet to allow votes on all the judicial nominees who were left pending on the floor at the end of the previous Congress.

Why the National Conversation on Immigration Reform Is about My Family

I am a 24-year-old, proud Floridian. My parents came to the U.S. from Colombia many years ago, looking for a safe and opportunity-rich place to raise their daughters. From the time I was a toddler, I have spent my whole life here in Florida. I received a great public education, participated in sports, and served as a member of a Christian youth group. I am also an undocumented American.

What does that mean in my day-to-day life?  It means that despite my top grades in high school, I can’t get financial aid to go to college. It means that no matter how hard I study traffic rules or parallel parking, I don’t qualify for a driver’s license.  It means that though I am proud to have been raised here in America, there is no waiting list I can join to one day become a U.S. citizen.  The path is simply not there for me.

The Senate “Gang of 8” includes my senator, Marco Rubio, who has said he believes in a path to citizenship. “But,” I asked in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed last month,

“when push comes to shove, will Rubio support a meaningful path to citizenship? It can't be a path in name only; it must be clear and direct, not tied to arbitrary metrics around border security, like he has proposed. The path to citizenship can't be full of hurdles and trap doors, and it can't require a decades-long wait in line. No one should be blocked from citizenship and relegated to a lifetime stuck in second-class status.

Rubio's parents left Cuba and came to the U.S. for economic opportunity – the same reasons my parents left everything they knew, making sacrifice after sacrifice for my family's future. Would Rubio deny my family the same opportunity his family had?...It's time for Rubio to truly represent Florida – the immigrant families who came here seeking a better life and everyone who believes in a common-sense solution that doesn't involve deporting millions of hard-working men and women or forcing them into a permanent underclass. It's time for Rubio to step up, on behalf of his mother and my mother...”

And thousands of other mothers and fathers out there.  My parents had a dream that I could grow up in the United States and get a world-class education. My dream for my parents is that they can see me and my sisters thrive and fulfill our potential – and for them to be part of the American dream, too. Right now that dream seems distant for my mom, who was stopped while driving without a license over six years ago and is back in Colombia. My dream is now my parents' dream. A dream that immigration reform will include family reunification and that my mom will return to the United States. I miss her every day.

I’m a Young People For Fellow, a member of the United We Dream Network, an undocumented American, and most importantly a daughter to the most courageous woman I have ever known. I hope that no other family has to endure the separation that mine has, but I know that so many others are suffering the same heartbreak.

Our country needs immigration reform that creates a path to citizenship and keeps families like mine together.  The national conversation on immigration reform isn’t a distant policy debate – it’s a conversation about my life.

Evelyn Rivera, Seminole State College
Member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For Program



Federal education vouchers funding creationism curricula

Federally funded private school voucher and tax credit programs are more numerous than ever. Moreover, studies show that the curricula in many of these programs have included the teaching of creationism.

The Perils of Teaching About the Bible in Public Schools

Rob Boston at Americans United notes that the Arkansas House just voted to require the state’s Education Board to approve elective classes about the Bible if they meet appropriate standards.  The Supreme Court has said the Bible may be taught about in public schools when “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”

But teaching about the Bible without teaching it religiously is not an easy thing to do. It requires carefully designed curricula, well-intentioned and well-trained educators, and a commitment to meaningful oversight.  People For the American Way was part of a religiously and politically diverse group of organizations that worked together to produce the 1999 publication The Bible in Public Schools, a First Amendment Guide. That guide emphasized that how any such course is taught will determine whether it passes constitutional muster:

When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion – which is unconstitutional – and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair – which is constitutional.

But that’s not how if often works in practice. In 2000, People For the American Way Foundation published a scathing expose, The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Classes in Florida Public Schools. The PFAW Foundation investigation found that “Bible History” classes were often being taught more like Christian Sunday School classes from a sectarian, Protestant perspective. Bible stories were treated as literal history. Among lessons and exam questions asked of students:

  • "If you had a Jewish friend who wanted to know if Jesus might be the expectant [sic] Messiah, which book [of the Gospels] would you give him?"
  • "Compose an explanation of who Jesus is for someone who has never heard of Him."  
  • "Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?"
  • "What is Jesus Christ's relationship to God, to creation, and to you?"
  • "Who, according to Jesus, is the father of the Jews? The devil."

That expose led Florida officials to yank those classes and revamp the curricula.

But more than a decade later, similar problems persist, as the Texas Freedom Network documented in a January report that found classes designed more to evangelize students to a literalist, fundamentalist view of the Bible rather than to teach about its role in literature and history. Included in the lesson plans examined by TFN were characterizations of Judaism as a flawed and incomplete religion, Christian-nation approaches to US history, and material “explaining” racial origins via the sons of Noah.

Are Arkansas legislators and education officials prepared to invest in the development of curricula, the training of educators, and meaningful oversight into how the classes are taught?

PFAW Foundation

Still No Explanation From Grassley on Judiciary Committee Delays

This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved five nominees to serve on federal district courts in New York, California and Florida and on the US Court of International Trade. A week ago, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley postponed votes on all five nominations without giving a reason, a delaying tactic that he has used on 97 percent of President Obama’s judicial nominees who the committee has voted on.

Sen. Grassley did not explain the reason for the delay last week, when a coalition of Iowa and national groups urged him to stop such routine delays. And the reason remained unclear today, as all five nominees were approved without opposition.

These five nominees now join fifteen other federal judicial nominees awaiting confirmation votes from the full Senate. The Senate has made progress by scheduling confirmation votes on four unopposed district court nominees in the past week, but that small amount of progress isn’t nearly enough to fill the gaps in overworked federal courts. Seven of the nominees still waiting for votes would fill officially-designated “judicial emergencies.”

It would be easy, of course, for the Senate to hold votes on all of the remaining nominees before the end of the year. After all, most were approved by the Judiciary Committee many months ago. But Senate Republicans have continued to stall even nominees with strong bipartisan support. All the circuit court nominees waiting for votes have the support of their home-state senators, Republican and Democratic, and nearly all of the pending district court nominees were approved by the Judiciary Committee with unanimous or nearly unanimous bipartisan support. One circuit court nominee, New Jersey’s Patty Shwartz, has been waiting nine months just for an up-or-down vote from the Senate; Federal Circuit nominee Richard Taranto has also been waiting since March.

If the Senate fails to vote on these nominees during the lame duck, the confirmation process – from presidential nomination through floor vote – will have to start all over again next year.

Notable about the district court nominees approved by the Judiciary Committee today is that all are women or people of color, representative of President Obama’s efforts to bring diversity to the federal courts. The nominees also include New York’s Pamela Chen, who would become just the fifth openly gay person to be confirmed to a lifetime federal judgeship.


Restrictions on Early Voting and Voter Registration Used for Partisan Gain

Florida members of the African American Ministers Leadership Council said they were "appalled but not surprised" by the report and the claims that the restrictions exclusively targeted minority voters.
PFAW Foundation

Florida Federal Judge: We Need More Judges!

One of the district's vacancies could have been filled many months ago, if only Republicans would stop their blanket obstruction.

Court Rejects Florida's Efforts to Curtail Early Voting

In an opinion affecting 5 counties, a federal court rules that Florida's curtailed early voting would disproportionately harm African Americans.
PFAW Foundation

YEP Primary Winners

The results are in from Tuesday’s primaries, and People For the American Way is proud to commend seven Young Elected Progressives endorsees on their victories.

In Connecticut, PFAW applauds Assemblymen Matthew Lesser and James Albis, both running for reelection. Lesser, of Connecticut’s 100th district, has been a proven advocate for the middle class, education, and equal rights since he was first elected in 2010. Albis, a tireless voice for seniors and the middle class, was first elected in a 2011 special election. Both assemblymen face challengers in November, but are continuing their momentum into the fall’s general election.

PFAW also extends its congratulations to five YEP endorsees who emerged victorious in primary elections in Florida: Dwight Bullard, Andrew Gillum, John Alvarez, Leo Cruz, and Ricardo Rangel. While Bullard, winner of this year’s Barbara Jordan Leadership Award given by affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s YEO Network program, defeated four primary challengers in the state Senate’s 39th district, Gillum, YEO Network National Director, defeated three challengers to his Tallahassee city commission seat in a landslide victory. Elsewhere, openly gay state House candidate Alvarez continues to shatter ceilings, advancing onto the general election after an exciting 15 point victory. Cruz and Rangel, state Senate and House hopefuls, respectively, now also face challengers in November.

For more information on PFAW’s other Young Elected Progressives endorsees, click here, and be sure support these strong progressive voices!