The following is a guest post by Roeland Park Councilwoman Megan England, member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
Before a city council vote last week in Roeland Park, Kansas, it was legal in our town to refuse or terminate housing, services, or employment for someone on the basis of who they are or who they love. I didn’t believe that our community would tolerate this kind of treatment for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors and friends. As a councilmember, I felt the obligation to ensure that everyone — regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or military status — has the opportunity to live, work, and contribute here.
This spring, Councilwoman Jennifer Gunby and I introduced a non-discrimination ordinance providing protections for the LGBT community and others. This seemed like the right thing to do for many reasons. First, it’s fair and just. It shows that our town, like so many others, values diversity and inclusion. It highlights the shared values of our community. It’s good for our economy, since it attracts businesses and visitors who want to feel that everyone is welcome in our town. It supports a strong and productive workforce and happier, healthier communities. What’s more, many of our neighboring towns were already a few steps ahead of us. Cities like Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri have had similar non-discrimination protections for over 20 years. In every corner of the country, cities and towns are increasingly understanding the importance of passing laws that prevent discrimination. And we were thrilled last week when Roeland Park finally did, too.
However, we still face an uphill battle in the larger fight for equality. In my work on this ordinance, I’ve learned that many people — even members of the press — are still unaware of the lack of federal protections in place for the LGBT community. There’s no end in sight to congressional gridlock in Washington, and it may be a while before our state of Kansas has the leadership necessary to wipe discrimination from the books. My hope is that other local elected officials will realize, like I did, that they have the power to make a simple but profound change in the lives of those they are sworn to represent. While change may be slow nationally, at the local level we have a tremendous opportunity to protect and serve our constituents, and to drive progress and innovation.
When Councilwoman Gunby and I began this process, we thought change might come quickly; we didn’t expect five months of revisions, public hearings, and tense discussions. While much longer and more difficult than we imagined, I now realize the importance of that process. It reaffirmed my respect for the political process. I saw the benefits of engaging the community in a critical dialogue, and in bringing light to the issue week after week. In some of the more difficult moments, when I wasn’t sure that the ordinance would ultimately pass, I wondered if it had all been worth it. One local transgender man answered that for me by sharing the story of how speaking publicly for the first time and simply telling his personal story encouraged young trans people to reach out to him for support and guidance. It was this act of kinship, of humanity and community, that reinforced for me the importance of the process no matter the outcome.
When focused on the big picture, we sometimes fail to see the smaller impacts of our work, the daily reverberations. But now, with both the ordinance in place and many conversations started, our community is all the better for it.
In the wake of the recent uproar about an expansive “right to discriminate” bill that was vetoed in Arizona, on Thursday Mississippi governor Phil Bryant quietly signed similar legislation, the so-called Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, into law.
Mississippi State Senator Derrick Simmons, a member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, has been a vocal opponent of the distressing law. On the floor of the state Senate last week, Sen. Simmons, who is African American, said:
If you have never been discriminated against, you don't know how that feels…. I urge you to vote against this bill because it legalizes discrimination.
On Friday he spoke out again in a powerful op-ed outlining some of the negative repercussions his state may see now that, in Simmons’ words, “the worst outcome has occurred”:
Businesses wishing to discriminate against any person under state law could use “religious exercise” as a defense to justify their actions.
Federal and state laws do not let business owners with religious objections to “mixing the races” refuse service on religious grounds. We do not let business owners with traditional views of sex roles refuse to sell certain products to women or not hire married women for full-time jobs on religious grounds. Yet the way this bill is written could open the doors to many other types of discrimination.
…The Jim Crow laws ended in 1965. I was born 11 years later. I never witnessed those horrible years. I don’t want to see any shadow of the Jim Crow era, but this bill could turn back the clock. Arizona stopped it from happening when Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill in her state. I was praying for the same here; however, Mississippi just doesn't have the will to do what is right. Mississippi is burning again.
The worst outcome has occurred - Governor Bryant has signed the discriminatory bill into law. Yes, we can hope the Mississippi court system will recognize the importance of enforcing protection from discrimination, but we can act locally. We must ask our counties and cities to pass non-discrimination ordinances so our friends of all races, colors, creeds and orientations can find oases from prejudice in the great state of Mississippi.
The following is a guest blog from Zane Ballard, a Fellow in affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program.
In spite of the nationwide outcry over Arizona’s SB 1062, the “Turn Away the Gays” bill vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer last month, some far-right legislators across the country have continued to claim that gay rights present a threat to their religious freedom. In my state of Mississippi, conservative legislators have pushed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 2681), which is similar to the vetoed Arizona law. When the Mississippi State Senate passed SB 2681 on January 31, some senators said they did not even realize its implications. Mississippi Sen. David Blount, for example, said he “was not aware…of this intention or possible result” when he voted – that is, the result of legalizing discrimination.
The version of the bill passed by the Senate would have allowed businesses to deny service to individuals based upon the belief that “state action or an action by any person based on state action shall not burden a person's right to exercise of religion.” It would have allowed broad, almost unchecked discrimination by any business that claimed its “exercise of religion has been burdened or is likely to be burdened” by serving a customer. This could have included refusal to serve LGBT persons, people of color, or those of non-Christian or no faith, all on the basis of an individual exercising their religion.
Yesterday the discriminatory bill faced a major setback when the House voted to replace most of the text of the bill with language establishing a committee to study the issue. The study committee will be examining the bill closely in search of any possible way that the language could be usable without promoting discrimination. But according to the Mississippi ACLU, “Senate Bill 2681 remains a looming threat. The results of the study committee that was established by the amendment that passed the House today may go to conference. If the conference committee reaches an agreement, its report must be approved by both houses by April 2nd.”
In the meantime, advocates on the ground in Mississippi will continue to watch closely as the process unfolds. Last week, I joined students from Mississippi State University and Millsaps College, representatives from Equality Mississippi, and other concerned Mississippians on the steps of the state capitol to demonstrate against the bill. Protestors had also planned to be present during a House Judiciary Committee meeting that day, in hopes that they would be duly represented by those they had elected. However, these concerned Mississippians were unable to sit in on the committee meeting, which ended seven minutes before it was even scheduled to even begin.
Even though the bill has been stalled, the work to keep this discriminatory law off the books continues. The Gulf Coast Lesbian & Gay Community Center in Mississippi has organized an action on the steps of the state capitol for March 26 at 12 pm, to once again draw attention to the bill and to highlight the general lack of protections for LGBT people in our state. In the wake of momentum generated in response to SB 2681, it would not be surprising to see the pro-equality energy of those in the state carrying over into other channels. This could include support for non-discrimination ordinances in cities across Mississippi, or even a statewide piece of legislation preventing discrimination and preserving the real ideal of southern hospitality.
Ryan Hurst is the membership services program coordinator for affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, a bill that would have made it legal for businesses and employers to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people if it was due to a “deeply held religious belief.” Many Arizonans and national leaders on both sides of the aisle vehemently opposed it, including members of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network. US Representative Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09) and Arizona State Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar spoke out on MSNBC. Tovar also said in a statement:
SB 1062 permits discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. With the express consent of Republicans in this legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation.
Supporters of SB 1062 and legislation like it have argued that it is necessary to protect the “right” of business owners to deny services to LGBT Americans. Why does fighting this flawed assumption matter? Why would LGBT Americans want to patronize a business that is trying to discriminate against them?
It matters because our values define who we are as a people. Do we want to be an America that permits discrimination because we disagree with someone? An America that legislates away the dignity of a group of our fellow citizens? The desire to have and feel dignity is something that reaches into our very core. It is why African American students refused to get up from lunch counters during the civil rights movement. Though the circumstances behind those heroic acts were different, at least one of the core motivating factors is the same – the desire to have dignity and be valued as a human being.
We as a nation decided to set precedent as a result of the civil rights movement, that we would not allow ourselves to be defined by hate and ignorance, and that discrimination based on race, gender, disability, national origin, and religion would not be tolerated. Why would we hold love to a different standard? Like religion, it is deeply personal and central to who we are, and our freedom regarding that area of our lives is recognized as basic to the very concept of liberty. And we can no more change who we love than change our race, sex, or national origin.
Unfortunately Arizona was not alone in proposing a bill that would allow businesses to deny services to LGBT Americans. In all, 12 states had similar bills simultaneously working their way through their state legislatures. In the fallout from SB 1062, most of these states quietly killed these bills with little fanfare. But a few states like Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota are still considering similar legislation, and Oregon is even considering a ballot initiative.
It is time for us as a country to be bold and unapologetic about our rejection of discrimination. It is important for us to have conversations about why our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and neighbors and friends deserve dignity and equality. We must not be afraid to speak out in opposition to these bills if they are introduced in our state, and we must exercise our right to vote by removing elected officials from office that choose to support legislation that diminishes the dignity of others.
In the Tea Party, it’s all the rage these days to declare everything unconstitutional – Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, disaster relief, federal civil rights laws, health care reform, basically any law that enables the federal government to take on national-scale problems.
One of the main strategies that the Tea Party has been using to push this extreme and regressive view of the Constitution is pushing aside the Commerce Clause, the clause in the Constitution that gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.”
The Commerce Clause, long recognized by courts as the rationale for important progressive economic programs, has come under fire from opponents of health care reform, who are arguing in the courts – with mixed success -- that the clause does not allow the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate.
In a new report, People For the American Way Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin argues that “a powerful case can be made “that the Commerce Clause is “the most important constitutional instrument for social progress in our history.”
Without it, Congress could not have passed the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Clayton and Sherman Anti-Trust Acts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition of race discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other places of public accommodation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and dozens of other federal statutes protecting the environment and establishing the rights of citizens in the workplace and the marketplace.
Why, then, does the Commerce Clause seem pale and dull next to the Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses?
Perhaps it is because these provisions clearly declare radiant principles of liberty and equality that translate into easily understood and intuitively attractive protections against arbitrary government power.
Because the Commerce Clause has been a powerful instrument of social reform over the last century, its meaning has periodically provoked deep jurisprudential controversy. This is ironic since the Court routinely and unanimously upheld congressional assertion of a comprehensive federal commerce power before broad democratic purposes entered the picture. The commerce power became the target of virulent attack by corporate conservatives when progressives and labor gained political influence and used this power as the constitutional basis upon which to regulate and improve the character, terms and conditions of the American workplace and marketplace in favor of large numbers of the American people.
Raskin follows the Commerce Clause from its origins at the Constitutional Convention, through the Lochner era, when an activist court “put the Commerce Clause in a straightjacket” to strike down federal worker protection laws and other attempts to regulate interstate commerce, to the late 1930s, when the court returned to a more expansive view of the clause, allowing progressive economic programs and civil rights reforms to flourish, to the Rehnquist Court, which again began to narrow down the scope of Congress’s constitutional regulatory power, to challenges to the Affordable Care Act, which threaten to take us back to the Lochner era.