First Amendment

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

Sarah Palin So Clueless About First Amendment Even Fox News Has to Set Her Straight

Palin has been pushing her flawed interpretation of the First Amendment in defense of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. Watch!
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PFAW Supports House Amendment Against NSA Spying

An amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill would impose much-needed limits on the NSA's unconstitutional surveillance program.
PFAW

DC Circuit Strikes Another Blow Against Working People

The DC Circuit says a rule requiring businesses to inform workers of their legal rights unconstitutionally forces businesses into compelled speech.
PFAW Foundation

Shredding the Constitution in North Carolina

North Carolina legislators introduce a resolution declaring that the state can establish a religion and that federal courts can't declare laws unconstitutional.
PFAW

Richard Mourdock and the Supreme Court

If Mitt Romney wins the election, his Supreme Court justices would empower far-right politicians like Richard Mourdock to codify their religious beliefs into law.
PFAW

Richard Mourdock's Religion Trumps Everyone Else's

The GOP candidate's explanation for why he'd outlaw abortion in the case of rape raises serious questions about the role of religion in making government policy.
PFAW

Freedom for 'Phobes

It has been known for years that Chick-fil-A supports right-wing groups. The company has given out gift cards at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit. At a recent Religious Right gathering, a speaker talked about how wonderful it was to live and work in Atlanta, where, he said, there’s a Baptist church on every corner and the streets are paved with Chick-fil-A.

So I am no fan of Chick-fil-A, but I’m a big fan of freedom, and that includes Chick-fil-A’s freedom to open its restaurants, even in cities where progressive political leaders don’t like the reactionary politics promoted by the company and its owners.

There’s been a robust campaign by advocates for LGBT equality to call more attention to Chick-fil-A’s contributions to “traditional family” groups, which total in the millions of dollars. But the feathers really flew when company president Dan Cathy made comments in an interview with Baptist Press bragging about his company’s position on marriage – “guilty as charged” -- and his comments to an Atlanta radio station.

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” said Cathy.

I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about,” he added.

It’s no surprise that Cathy’s comments have stirred supporters of LGBT equality to respond. Much of that response has been in the best traditions of free speech and protest. In Washington, D.C., this week, the Human Rights Campaign organized a protest in front of a Chick-Fil-A food truck. Other activists have rallied outside Chick-Fil-A stores and some students have protested the company’s presence on their campuses.

In addition, a number of political leaders have spoken out in defense of marriage equality and in opposition to the company’s support for discrimination. Twenty years ago, I would never have imagined elected officials taking the time to publicly criticize a business on behalf of the ability of same-sex couples to get married. It’s a good thing – a sign of amazing progress.

But a couple of politicians have gone too far – suggesting that the power of government should be used to prevent the company from opening restaurants based on its political donations and the positions of its owners. That’s not a good thing. As a matter of principle, the government shouldn’t treat individuals differently based on their political or religious beliefs, or companies based on the political activities and contributions of their owners.  As others have noted, we wouldn’t want cities or states to have the power to prevent the opening of stores whose owners support LGBT equality or other progressive causes. 

People For the American Way’s headquarters is located in the District of Columbia, where elected officials have recognized that LGBT people should be treated equally under the law. DC’s progressive public policies stand in stark contrast to the anti-equality work of groups like the Family Research Council, but we would never suggest that the DC government could or should have prevented FRC from planting its headquarters in the center of downtown DC. Our commitment to freedom and equality should extend to those who don’t share it.

PFAW Foundation

America as a Christian Nation Panel Highlights

On November 8, 2011, People For the American Way Foundation hosted a forum at the National Press Club entitled America as a ‘Christian Nation’ – A conversation with experts on religion, history, law and the Constitution. The panel of experts discussed the historical and political forces behind the often-peddled myth that America was founded specifically as a Christian Nation and the effects of this narrative in today’s religious and political dialogue. Highlights are below, and you can find the full video with the transcript here.

Peter Montgomery, Senior Fellow at People For the American Way Foundation, provides background information on the notion of America as a “Christian Nation” and introduces the panel.

Dr. John Ragosta, author and Resident Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, describes the historical significance of 18th and 19th century evangelical Baptists’ insistence on the separation of church and state.

Dr. John Ragosta compares religious nations that have officially sectarian governments with the United States' experience under the doctrine of the separation of church and state and challenges the misleading statements and faulty evidence cited by figures such as David Barton to advance the myth that America is a “Christian nation.”

Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin, a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way Foundation and the Director of the Law and Government program at American University’s Washington College of Law, describes the ways in which David Barton's ideology is at odds with the Constitution and its ban on religious tests for holding public office.

Jamie Raskin explains why interpreting the Constitution as a religious document is inaccurate, and betrays the original meaning of the First Amendment and denies two centuries of American jurisprudential development.

Dr. Julie Ingersoll, author, associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida and contributor to Religion Dispatches, analyzes the incorporation of David Barton’s biblical views into conservative policy.

Dr. Ingersoll identifies some of the subtle language used by Dominionists and Christian Reconstructionists, including a focus on “sphere sovereignty.”

Dr. John Kinney, dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University and pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Beaver Dam, Virginia, and member of People For the American Way Foundation's African American Ministers Leadership Council, argues against the notion that there is only one correct, “Christian” interpretation of the bible and public policy, and provides a progressive perspective on the role of the church in public and private life.

PFAW

Clarence Thomas Reminds Us (Again) Why the Supreme Court Matters

In a bit of good news, the Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of two Establishment Clause cases from Utah striking down as unconstitutional state-approved memorial crosses on public highways. But in dissenting from this decision not to take the case, Clarence Thomas has done us the favor of reminding Americans just how out of the mainstream he is.

While Thomas's dissent is an expansive critique of the Court's Establishment Clause jurisprudence, he does briefly remind readers just how far from the mainstream his views are.

Even if the Court does not share my view that the Establishment Clause restrains only the Federal Government, and that, even if incorporated [by the 14th Amendment to apply to the states], the Clause only prohibits "actual legal coercion," the Court should be deeply troubled by what its Establishment Clause jurisprudence has wrought. [emphasis added and internal citation removed]

Mitt Romney has made clear that he sees Clarence Thomas as the kind of jurist he would nominate to the Supreme Court. This is no surprise coming from someone who asked rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork to lead his campaign's legal advisory team.

Thomas's dangerously narrow vision of the Establishment Clause is a good reminder of how much is at stake when Americans vote for president in 2012.

PFAW

The Play Rick Perry Didn’t Want Performed

The Austin Chronicle has set up a new Twitter account devoted exclusively to digging up old stories on the shenanigans of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. They’ve pulled up some good stuff, including this story from last year on the governor’s involvement in shutting a planned student production of a controversial play at Texas’ Tarleton State University.

The play in question was Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, which provoked a furor from Religious Right groups when it was first released in 1998 because of its depiction of a gay Christ. The production was canceled after the playwright and theater staff received death threats, but it was later reinstated – with metal detectors at the door. People For the American Way Foundation was among the groups defending the right of the play to be put on in peace at the time, staging "A Quiet Walk for the First Amendment" in front of the theater on opening night.

How times have not changed. When a student at Tarleton State started working on a production of Corpus Christi last year, he ran up against opposition from none other than Texas’ Lieutenant Governor, David Dewhurst. Dewhurst issued a press release attacking the student production as a “lewd display” and “morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.” The backlash unleashed by Dewhurst’s statement was so strong that the professor in charge of the show ultimately decided to cancel it and three other student productions because of “safety and security concerns for the students.”


While Perry’s deputy was the public face of the opposition to the show, the Chronicle dug up a tidbit from the Texas GOP website that made it clear that the governor himself was not only aware of but also involved in the censorship effort:


In a "thank you" note on the Texas GOP Vote website, Conservative Republicans of Texas President Steve Hotze gives credit (a-hem) to Dewhurst for his moment of censoriousness, but then adds this interesting little factoid:


We also owe a debt of gratitude to Governor Perry for his behind the scenes work to stop the play at Tarleton State. Ray Sullivan, the Governor’s Chief of Staff, was notified of the play on Thursday and after discussing it with the Governor, the necessary steps were taken to ensure that its performance was canceled.


This all brings to mind the GOP’s latest successful censorship attempt, targeting a recent exhibition about gays and lesbians in American Art at the National Portrait Gallery. Like the criticism of Corpus Christi, the criticism of the exhibit centered on both its acknowledgement of gay people and on a depiction of Christ that some on the Religious Right found objectionable. The groups targeting the exhibit were led by the far-right Catholic League, which also, not coincidently, was a leader in the fight against the original production of Corpus Christi.

The success of Religious Right censorship campaigns depends, in a large part, on the willingness of elected officials to play along. In the 1980s and 1990s, Jesse Helms took on the role of censorship champion. In the most recent Smithsonian scandal, John Boehner and Eric Cantor were more than willing to echo the complaints of far-right groups like the Catholic League. And if Perry’s involvement in the Tarleton Corpus Christi incident is any indication, if he were president he would be happy to lend his hand to similar efforts.

PFAW

NY's Rogue Clerks Shirk Official Duties

Despite the hard-fought, passionate campaign in New York in which the people’s representatives ultimately voted to extend marriage equality to all New Yorkers, several city or county clerks responsible for signing marriage licenses have chosen not to certify same-sex marriages, citing personal religious objections.

Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs, but as government officials, our public employees have a responsibility to uphold the law. Town clerks are charged with enforcing the law, not writing it – and they certainly do not have the power to disregard their official responsibilities because of personal prejudice.

Even Justice Scalia recognizes that the First Amendment does not allow a person to cite his or her own religious beliefs as a reason not to obey generally applicable laws. "To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself."

New York’s marriage equality bill passed, in part, because of the last-minute passage of an amendment that made very clear that the law would not require religious institutions, private businesses or non-profits to recognize same-sex marriages. But if state employees were allowed to ignore laws on the job, those laws wouldn’t exactly be effective.

We expect our public officials to faithfully uphold the law. Anything less is an affront to the people they serve.

PFAW