Religious Freedom

House GOP Follows Orlando Tragedy with a License to Discriminate

On July 12, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the so-called First Amendment Defense Act, an odious anti-LGBT bill that would redefine and hijack the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty.
PFAW

The Movers Behind The Anti-LGBT 'Religious Liberty' Movement

This post originally appeared on Right Wing Watch.

In the first few months of this year, for the second year in a row, more than 100 anti-LGBT bills have been introduced in state legislatures, many of them promoted under the banner of protecting religious liberty.  A new report by People For the American Way Foundation, “Who is Weaponizing Religious Liberty?,” explains that “it takes a right-wing village to turn a cherished American principle into a destructive culture-war weapon.”

The report makes clear that the wave of anti-equality legislation promoted in the name of religious liberty is not an outgrowth of local conflicts but the latest step in a long-term campaign by national Religious Right legal and political groups to resist legal equality for LGBT people. As Americans have come to know and embrace their LGBT family members and friends, harsh anti-gay rhetoric has become less effective, says the report, leading social conservatives to try to reclaim the moral and political high ground by reframing debates over marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections as questions of religious liberty.

These efforts are being promoted by “a network of national Religious Right organizations that oppose legal recognition for the rights of LGBT people,” notes the report, which profiles some of the leading organizations while noting that they “represent the tip of the iceberg of a much larger movement that is trying to eliminate legal access to abortion and roll back legal protections for LGBT people, couples, and families — and trying to do so in the name of religious liberty.”

The groups covered in the report include:

·         Family Research Council and FRC Action

·         Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action

·         National Organization for Marriage

·         Alliance Defending Freedom

·         Liberty Counsel

·         American Family Association

·         Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

·         American Principles Project

The report includes links to additional resources on the organizations behind the Right’s use of religious liberty as political strategy for resisting equality. 

PFAW Foundation

“Hobby Lobby II” Distorts the Principle of Religious Freedom

The following is a guest blog by Rev. Faye London, a member of the VASHTI Women’s Initiative within People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.

The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell case – which has now been consolidated with similar cases under the name Zubik v. Burwell – is a continuation of a strategy by the Right to gut the Affordable Care Act since they have been unable to repeal it. All of these cases are framed as "religious freedom" cases, yet trying to limit women’s reproductive freedom is based on a twisted understanding of what the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was meant to address.

Congress passed RFRA more than 20 years ago when the Supreme Court refused to protect native and indigenous individuals from being denied government benefits because of drug tests detecting peyote, a substance that was used in their religious ceremonies. RFRA was passed to protect people from having their free exercise of religion violated by the government.

Like so many others, this law has become a victim of targeted reinterpretation. In 2014, the Hobby Lobby decision made it legal for a corporation to act as an individual with regard to religious freedom. It also redefined religious freedom, so that people and corporations could use RFRA to avoid obeying laws that offend their religious beliefs, but don’t actually limit their free exercise of religion. Several states also considered laws intended to make it legal for any person or business to cite religion in order to ignore laws prohibiting discrimination against same gender loving people. And while that aspect of the debate was all over the news, the threat to women’s health posed by laws like this grew quietly in the background.

The case now at the Supreme Court attacks a vital piece of the puzzle by which ACA protects women's health by requiring health insurance to include contraception coverage without charge. There is an accommodation already in the law that sets an alternative route to coverage for women who work for nonprofit religious organizations that disapprove of contraception. All the organization has to do is fill out a very short and simple form or write a letter stating that as an organization they do not want to provide contraception, and they are relieved from that responsibility and the government takes over, directing the insurance company to pay for the contraception rather than the religious nonprofit. The Little Sisters of the Poor organization and others are saying that signing a one-page form is an "undue burden" on them morally, as it still constitutes participation in opening the way for women to access "sinful" contraceptive care.

This new trend is just another way to strip rights from poor people who depend on these services for survival. It is not about religious freedom. The accommodation is sufficient to protect the Little Sisters' religious freedom. This is about controlling women's bodies (and particularly poor women's bodies, since women of means can afford to pay out of pocket), in order to make space for those who would relieve themselves of any responsibility for ethical treatment of their employees or the public.

PFAW Foundation

Discriminatory "Religious Freedom" Bill is Bad for Our State

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

I am one who believes that we must be vigilant about protecting true religious liberty, which has been a guiding principle throughout our country's history. As the First Amendment makes clear, all people have a right to practice, or not to practice, any religion they choose. Laws that truly protect individuals' exercise of religion prevent the government from infringing on our rights.

But the state legislature is considering a bill (HB 757) that, though framed in the language of protecting First Amendment religious freedom, at its core is about one thing: discrimination. HB 757 was recently amended and passed by the state Senate and is now being considered by the House. As Americans United explains it, the bill would allow "any individual or 'faith-based' business, non-profit entity, or taxpayer-funded organization to ignore any law that conflicts with their religious beliefs about marriage." In other words, businesses and organizations could cite religion in order to refuse service to certain groups of people.

This bill could lead to any number of nightmare situations. Restaurant owners who refuse to serve same-sex or interracial couples. Domestic violence shelters that turn away unmarried mothers and their children. Adoption agencies that refuse to place a child with parents of different faiths.

It's not the first time Georgia has considered passing a "right to discriminate" bill. Why are our state representatives wasting time, again and again, pushing legislation that would harm Georgians and threaten to drive businesses out of the state? The bill's sponsor even admitted last week that the legislation could protect the Ku Klux Klan as a "faith-based" organization. This bill is too extreme for Georgia, plain and simple. 

While the new title of part II of HB 757, "the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia," may sound like it's about true religious protection, the bill is actually a cynical attempt to turn the idea of religious liberty into a sword to attack other people's rights, rather than to truly shield their own religious practices from improper government interference. That's not what religious liberty is about. Moreover, using religion as a tool to harm others is an idea that a strong majority of Georgians reject. According to new data from the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of Georgians oppose allowing small businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds.

Many faiths, including my own, teach that we should fight for the oppressed. Disguising a push for a "right to discriminate" under the mantle of First Amendment religious freedom is an insult to those moral principles. It's an insult to people of faith who take seriously the call to walk with, and fight for, the most vulnerable among us. 

As a Baptist pastor and as a Georgian, I urge our legislators to do the right thing by rejecting HB 757. On the senate floor, Sen. Nan Orrock said, "Be able to tell your grandchildren that you didn't vote for state-sanctioned discrimination." To that, I say: Amen.

Rev. Timothy McDonald III is Senior Pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and Co-Chair of People For the American Way's African American Ministers In Action.

PFAW Foundation

Why The Right's Response To Marriage Equality Is Anything But Principled

This post by PFAW and PFAW Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon was originally published in the Huffington Post. 

Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and other conservative leaders have recently lashed out against the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality by proclaiming that local clerks who don't personally agree with marriage equality should not be required to issue marriage licenses or perform weddings for same-sex couples - even though it's their job to provide that service to the public.

Their logic is fundamentally flawed. Civil marriage is a civil function, not a religious one. Government employees allowing someone to access their legal rights are not doing anything religious, nor are they condoning the actions being licensed any more than with any other type of license.

That's why when government employees in our country have had religious objections to divorce and remarriage, they have still had to do their jobs. And when government employees have had religious objections to interracial marriages, they have still had to do their jobs. So, too, have government officials with other religious objections to whether or how certain couples get married.

But when the particular religious belief in question is opposition to lesbians and gays, that's apparently a different matter altogether. Now, suddenly, we're told that government employees need to have their religious liberty "protected."

A principle of religious liberty that is invoked only in the context of one particular religious belief is no principle at all. It is a pretext.

The far-right movement that is coalescing around these "protections" allowing civil servants to impose their religious beliefs on others and deny them service does not have clean hands in this regard. While they proclaim loudly that they just want to "live and let live," the policies they have pursued vigorously for decades have aggressively sought to prevent LGBT people from having basic human rights. The Right's new clamor for "protections" is just another form of homophobia.

If the religious right simply wanted to "live and let live," they would not have spent these past decades seeking to impose their religious beliefs about homosexuality on others both through custom and through force of law. They would not have boycotted television networks for airing shows portraying LGBT people as ordinary people. Nor would they have screamed bloody murder when popular celebrities came out of the closet. They would not have fought to prevent us from raising children. They would not have battled to ensure that surviving members of couples be denied Social Security survivor benefits. They would not have opposed letting us serve our country in the intelligence services or in the military. They would not have put so much energy into convincing Americans that we are sexual predators going after their children. They would not have tried to bar us from teaching in public schools. They would not have threatened us with criminal prosecution just for our private, consensual sexual conduct.

Whether it's religious refusals specific to marriage, more general Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in a post-Hobby Lobby world, or Sen. Mike Lee's misleadingly named "First Amendment Defense Act," the Right is yet again attacking LGBT people. With a growing number of Americans - and now the Supreme Court - affirming that the right to marry is a right guaranteed to all regardless of sexual orientation, some on the Right have come to understand that their best tactic to fight marriage equality is to couch their homophobic goals with the language of "religious liberty" instead of explicitly speaking out against LGBT rights. But it's up to all of us to make sure that they do not succeed in these efforts to portray themselves as virtuous defenders of religious liberty, because in reality they're just waging another war against LGBT people.
 

PFAW

North Carolina Pastor Speaks Out About Discriminatory 'Religious Freedom' Marriage Law

In response to a bill authorizing public officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages becoming law in North Carolina this morning, Dr. Terence K. Leathers – a pastor at Mt. Vernon Christian Church in Clayton, North Carolina and a member of People For the American Way's African American Ministers In Action – released the following statement:

“Shame on our legislature for making this harmful and unnecessary bill become law. As a pastor, I believe this is not only a blow for the dignity of all North Carolinians but also a blow for true religious liberty.

“Governor McCrory did the right thing when he vetoed this bill, and the fact that our legislature overrode it shows just how far they will go in misusing the principle of religious liberty in order to discriminate. This is a sad day for our state.”

Last week, Dr. Leathers published an op-ed in The Huffington Post calling on the legislature not to misuse religious freedom to license public officials to discriminate.

PFAW

Pamela Geller Is Not a Hero, But...

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post.

I am grateful to live in a country where even someone as hateful as Pamela Geller can speak her mind. She can smear President Obama as the "jihadist in the White House" and speculate that he "choked up" with tears when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden. She can say that Pope Francis' call for "affection and respect" towards Muslims means he has "become an imam." She can compare Jewish Americans who support President Obama to Nazi appeasers and call comedian Jon Stewart "the most disgusting Jew on the planet." She can suggest banning Muslims from becoming airline pilots. She can then claim that anyone who doesn't want to hear her speak is "enforcing the Sharia."

I am also grateful to live in a country where the law protects Geller's right to say these things.

Sunday's incident, in which two gunmen tried to attack an anti-Islam event that Geller and virulently anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders hosted in Texas, was deeply troubling. Our freedom of speech means nothing if people are too afraid to speak. We saw this in a different context earlier this year when Sony pulled a raunchy geopolitical buddy comedy from theaters under threat of terror attacks. Say what you will about Pamela Geller, she has not backed down from any of her vile positions under fear of violence.

But it's important to remember that the fact that she was attacked for her speech doesn't make Geller a hero, or her speech any less hateful. As Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall put it yesterday, "a hate group is a hate group the day after someone takes a shot at them just like it was the day before."

Local Muslim groups had the right idea when they stayed away from Geller's event,declining to protest so that they wouldn't give Geller the attention she so desperately wanted. Those who expose her hateful rhetoric -- like my PFAW colleagues -- also do important work, making sure the public knows that just because she is targeted by violent idiots doesn't make her a serious thinker or a hero.

I know that Geller won't back down from her hateful rhetoric after this event-- in fact, the attempted attack will probably embolden her and cause some to take her more seriously. And we shouldn't stop criticizing Geller -- or, as she puts it, "enforcing the Sharia" -- when she's wrong.

As People For the American Way wrote in 2009 in response to a renewed spate of inflammatory right-wing rhetoric, Americans must "be willing to use their First Amendment freedoms to challenge those who exploit their political positions or media megaphones to promote lies that are intended to inflame rather than inform, that encourage paranoia rather than participation, and whose consequences are at best divisive and at worst, violently destructive."

PFAW

Gov. Pence's Claims Ignore Indiana "Religious Freedom" Law's History

Indiana's Mike Pence is less than convincing in his claims about that state's new RFRA law.
PFAW

Hobby Lobby Comes Home to Roost as States Consider "Religious Freedom" Legislation

This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Over the last twenty years, 19 states have passed laws modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was enacted in 1993 with broad bipartisan support. But just this year, almost the same number, 15, have seen such bills introduced, generating enormous controversy across the country, particularly in Indiana where Gov. Mike Pence signed the new state RFRA into law.

Why the huge uptick now? As one of those involved in the original drafting and passage of RFRA in 1993, I think it's a combination of the perceived dangers to the far right from the move towards LGBT marriage equality and the perceived opportunity created just last year by the 5-4 Supreme Court's rewriting of RFRA in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Even before the Supreme Court agreed to decide the marriage equality issue, the far right has highlighted the supposed dangers to small businesses like bakers and florists who do not want to serve LGBT couples because of religious objections. Under RFRA as passed in 1993, and under the protection from the First Amendment's Free Exercise doctrine that it was meant to restore, RFRA wouldn't have offered much help. First, neither had been applied to non-religious corporations, which had never been thought to have religious freedom rights. Second, it would have been very hard to argue that a neutral law banning discrimination against LGBT people would have created a "substantial burden" on actual religious exercise, which is required to qualify for a RFRA-type exemption. For example, in one case the Supreme Court rejected the claim that requiring federal welfare recipients to submit social security numbers was such a burden even when it conflicted with an applicant's religious beliefs. And even if such a burden were created by obeying an anti-discrimination or other general law, pre-Hobby Lobby law would not have helped a religious claimant: as the Court ruled in rejecting a religious exemption to a requirement that a religious farmer withhold social security taxes, such an exemption would improperly "operate to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" and others.

But then came Hobby Lobby.

In that case, writing for a bare majority of the Court, Justice Alito ruled that religious objections by a corporation's owners exempted them under RFRA from providing contraceptive coverage through insurance to employees under the Affordable Care Act. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, rather than interpreting RFRA to restore prior case law, the majority interpreted it as going beyond prior Court decisions to maximize benefits to religious claimants. In particular, she explained, the Court effectively re-wrote RFRA so that it could be invoked by for-profit corporations, and so that the original law protecting individuals against a "substantial burden" on the exercise of religion was transformed to allow claims by a business owner that complying with a neutral law offended their religious beliefs in some way. Under the majority's view, Justice Ginsburg suggested, RFRA could be interpreted to "require exemptions" in cases where religious beliefs were used to justify actions that discriminated on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Pointedly, Justice Alito responded only that "prohibitions on racial discrimination" would be safe from a RFRA exemption claim, but said nothing about gender or LGBT status.

So for far-right activists and legislators concerned about LGBT marriage equality and other rights, Hobby Lobby provided the perfect opportunity: pass state RFRA laws and effectively grant a religious exemption claim from LGBT anti-discrimination laws and local ordinances, based on the Court's re-writing of RFRA's language. Indeed, in communicating with supporters about the Indiana RFRA law, the far-right Family Research Council specifically called it the "Hobby Lobby bill."

Even better, rhetoric directed at outsiders could be cloaked in general language about protecting religious freedom, not attacking LGBT rights. Supporters could even invoke Democratic supporters of RFRA like President Clinton and claim that neither RFRA nor its state counterparts had been interpreted to allow discrimination, as Indiana Gov. Pence has tried to do. These claims ignore the fact that it wasn't until last year that the Supreme Court effectively rewrote the language in RFRA so that it was transformed from a shield for religious liberty into a sword against anti-discrimination protections. And previous supporters like President Clinton have made clear their opposition to this year's state RFRA proposals.

Under pressure, the neutral façade of recent state RFRA proposals has crumbled. When pushed to amend a state RFRA proposal in Georgia to make clear that it could not be used against anti-discrimination ordinances, a Georgia legislator admitted that one of the reasons for the bill was to allow it to be invoked by the small business owner who had religious objections to providing services to an LGBT couple. And when an amendment was added in the Georgia House Judiciary Committee to state that the RFRA bill was not to be used against discrimination laws, the bill was promptly tabled on March 26, with a supporter stating that the amendment would "gut" the bill.

As of now, the fate of RFRA bills in Georgia and elsewhere is uncertain and Gov. Pence has asked the legislature for an amendment to "clarify" that Indiana's RFRA law cannot be used to deny services to anyone. That would be a welcome step - one that flies in the face of the clear intent of some of the bill's backers, which was clearly to enshrine such a "right" for Indiana businesses. Language has been adopted elsewhere to make clear that state RFRAs cannot be used against anti-discrimination bills; such a provision is currently in Texas' RFRA, although there is a proposal to remove it. Before Hobby Lobby, such language might not have been necessary. After Hobby Lobby, it is crucial.

PFAW

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

Celebrating Religious Freedom

January 16 is Religious Freedom Day, which commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s approval of Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to the religious liberty protections in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In this year’s Religious Freedom Day proclamation, President Barack Obama writes,

Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals -- freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.

America proudly stands with people of every nation who seek to think, believe, and practice their faiths as they choose. In the years to come, my Administration will remain committed to promoting religious freedom, both at home and across the globe. We urge every country to recognize religious freedom as both a universal right and a key to a stable, prosperous, and peaceful future.

As we observe this day, let us celebrate America's legacy of religious liberty, embrace diversity in our own communities, and resolve once more to advance religious freedom in our time.

Melissa Rogers, a widely respected advocate for religious liberty who currently serves as special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also published a reflection on Religious Freedom Day.

Rogers celebrates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which passed Congress by unanimous consent in 2000 with backing from a politically and religiously diverse coalition. RLUIPA (pronounced R-loopa) has helped Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, people who practice Native American traditional religions and others protect their ability to meet and worship, and has helped people in prisons, jails, mental institutions, and state-run nursing homes preserve their religious freedom.

The values embodied in RLUIPA are universal ideals.  Department of Justice attorneys have provided technical assistance on issues involving construction of places of worship to government officials in Spain, Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries wrestling with these same issues.  In 2012, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee won the right to move into its new mosque with the help of a RLUIPA suit brought by the Department of Justice. On the day of the court decision, the mosque’s Imam, Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, remarked that America’s dedication to religious freedom can serve as a model for others around the world, and added:   “I think this is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the freedom and liberty that, in fact, exist in America and to teach our young people to believe even more in the U.S. Constitution.”

People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation celebrate religious freedom by working to uphold the First Amendment’s twin pillars of religious liberty: the Establishment Clause, which mandates the separation of church and state and prevents government from playing religious favorites, and the Free Exercise Clause, which protects individuals’ right to worship and exercise their faith free from government interference.

Religious liberty is central to the American Way, but it has also become a rallying cry for Religious Right leaders and their political allies, who all too often portray criticism as persecution, and policy disagreement as tyranny. That poisons our political climate.

Like other constitutional guarantees, religious liberty is fundamental but not absolute, particularly when it comes into tension with other principles like equality under the law or protecting public health. Advocates for religious freedom frequently disagree about how to apply religious liberty principles in specific cases, and where courts should draw the lines in cases balancing competing interests.  These are complex and often very contentious issues. People For the American Way Foundation’s “12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics” set out principles for bringing religion and religious values into the public arena in ways that are constructive rather than divisive. 

PFAW

North Carolina Drops Official Religion Bill

After vocal opposition from People For the American Way and others, Speaker Thom Tillis of the North Carolina House announced yesterday that a resolution stating that North Carolina has the power to declare an official religion would not be brought to a vote.  In effect, this means that the resolution has been dropped. 

The bill claimed that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment does not apply to states.  But as People For the American Way President Michael Keegan noted in a statement on Wednesday,

“There’s no question that any attempt to establish an official state religion is blatantly unconstitutional. That’s true whether it’s North Carolina or the federal government.”

The proposal highlighted the extremes that Tea Party Republican lawmakers are willing to go to in order to push their dangerous ideology – even when it means ignoring core principles on which our nation was founded, such as religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  

UPDATE (4/8/13): North Carolina Representative Harry Warren, one of the sponsors of the resolution, has now publicly stated that he “regret[s] any embarrassment or concern that it has caused the citizens of Rowan County and North Carolina,” calling the resolution “poorly written.”  Warren’s explanation is, however, still problematic.  He says he wanted a resolution that county officials have the right, despite the Establishment Clause, to open their proceedings with specifically Christian prayers.  That, of course, flies against the Constitution. 
 

 

PFAW

Advocate for Church-State Separation to Lead White House Faith Office

Good news out of the White House today for advocates of religious liberty and church-state separation: President Obama has selected Melissa Rogers as the new director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She will also serve as a Special Assistant to the President.

Rogers is a widely respected scholar on religious freedom and an exceptionally thoughtful advocate for the position that the separation of church and state is a cornerstone of religious liberty. People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation have frequently worked in coalition with Rogers, particularly during her tenure as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  She is also a former director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

Rogers was the first chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and in 2011 she was appointed to a subgroup of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Rogers steps into her new position at a time when the definition and scope of “religious liberty” are being strongly contested in the public arena, with conservative religious and legal groups using the term to challenge health care reform and push for broad exceptions to anti-discrimination laws.

In addition, Rogers will face ongoing questions about an issue left unaddressed during President Obama’s first term: the president’s campaign pledge to ensure that organizations using federal funds to carry out social services cannot discriminate with those funds in hiring staff.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone who could do a better job than Melissa Rogers at dealing with these challenges,” says People For’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker. “The American people need a thoughtful and convincing voice like Melissa’s to help us sort through the real religious liberty issues as well as the phony ones.”

PFAW

Speaking of Class Warfare…

One of the most absurd things to come out of American politics in recent months is the allegation that the president’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans – bringing them back to the levels they enjoyed under Clinton -- amounts to “class warfare.”

In the Huffington Post last week, PFAW’s Michael Keegan called the GOP’s renewed cries of “class warfare” both “ironic and cynical.”

If you want to see what class warfare really looks like, you need look no further than Texas, where a group of oil companies has successfully lobbied to have a government panel re-examine a very large tax break that they were previously denied, and are now on the verge of receiving a $135 million gift from the state. Who’s paying for that gift? Public schools.

Here’s how the oil companies, led by Valero, are wrangling the refund from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to the AP:

Valero first asked for the refund for six of its refineries in 2007, and wants payment retroactive to that year. Since then, at least four other companies have asked for the same retroactive refund.


Valero argues the units should be exempt under a Texas law that says industrial plants don't have to pay taxes on equipment purchased to reduce on-site pollution. The law saves companies millions, and is meant to encourage investment in new technology.


At first, the request was denied. The commission's staff said the hydrotreaters reduce pollution in diesel and gas, not necessarily at the plant. In fact, staff said, the hydrotreaters actually increased sulfur dioxide pollution near the refineries because the toxic gas is now burned off in a flare.


Valero appealed, and the panel's chairman, Bryan Shaw, said last April that the Legislature likely intended a broader interpretation of the law. He instructed his staff to research whether they could award partial exemptions to Valero. Shaw declined to be interviewed for this story, saying it could present a conflict because the issue will be brought before him again.


Shaw, the environmental commissioner who encouraged the panel to take a new look at the oil company tax refund, was hand-picked for his post by Gov. Rick Perry. He’s an odd choice to head an environmental quality panel – as Mother Jones reported last week, he’s a climate change skeptic who has a long history of siding with industry over environmental groups.


But Gov. Perry’s ties to the oil industry run deep – since 1998, he’s raked in $11 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, including $147,895 from Valero, the company that’s leading the effort to get the $135 million tax refund.


While oil companies enjoy expensive access to the governor and an ally at the top of one of the committees charged with holding them accountable, it’s the state’s children who are breathing polluted air and whose schools are being asked to pay for new corporate tax breaks. From AP:


Now, the AP's analysis shows, the Pasadena Independent School District may have to refund $11.3 million to two refineries if commissioners grant the request.


Early Monday, Gonzales and others handed out fliers, collected petition signatures and offered $10,000 cookies and brownies at a mock "bake sale" designed to raise awareness about the money at stake. Eight Houston schools planned similar mock sales for later in the day.


The mom-turned-activist said she learned about the refineries' requests while unsuccessfully lobbying earlier this year to convince Perry and the Legislature to dip into the state's so-called rainy day fund to ease cuts to the schools.


Gonzales lives near a miles-long stretch of refineries, where massive pipes and stacks light the night like skyscrapers do in other cities. An intense, burnt chemical scent hangs over the town.


"You smell it. That's what we're known for. Stinkadena because of the refineries," Gonzales said. "There are days when we can't go out because our children's asthma is that bad ... and then they want money back?"
 

PFAW

What You Talkin' Bout, Willard?! YOU Attacking Harvard?

Willard Mitt Romney absolutely refuses to let the words that come out of his mouth be dictated by reality. He recently insisted that "corporations are people." Now, in an attempt to portray himself as some sort of "everyman" instead of the millionaire tycoon that he is, he's attacking President Obama for his ties to Harvard faculty. But judging by his associations and resume, Romney himself might as well keep a residence in Cambridge and have his own reserved parking space on Harvard's campus.

We say it again: What you talkin' bout, Willard?!

From Talking Points Memo:

Mitt Romney once again criticized President Obama for taking his advice from the "Harvard faculty lounge" in a speech in Florida on Thursday. He's repeated the line on the campaign trail despite being a Harvard alum himself and counting Harvard faculty among his own top advisers.

In a major address on foreign policy last month, Romney used the school as a punchline to decry Obama as overly weak in dealing with dictators. "That may be what they think in that Harvard faculty lounge," he said, "but it's not what they know on the battlefield!"

Romney has never served on the battlefield, but he does hold degrees from Harvard in business and law. That's one more than Obama, who has a law degree from the school and headed the Harvard Law Review. And it's not just Romney who has Crimson ties: The Boston Globe notes that three of his children have attended Harvard Business School.

But, hey, at least he's not taking his advice from the faculty lounge, right? Actually Romney relies on their expertise plenty. Meghan O'Sullivan, a former Bush aide, teaches international affairs at Harvard and reportedly advises him on foreign policy. His economic adviser for 2008 and 2012, Greg Mankiw, is a star professor there whose textbook is used at colleges around the country.

 

PFAW

Mitt Romney Still Thinks Corporations are People. They Still Aren’t.

Campaigning in Florida today, Mitt Romney doubled down on his recent claim that “corporations are people”:


Speaking to a town hall-style gathering at a Miami airport hotel, the former Massachusetts governor repeated the line he first said last month at the Iowa State Fair.


“I’ll communicate to the private sector, by the way, that we like you,” Romney said in response to a question about how to encourage banks to lend more money. “We like enterprise. I was in Iowa the other day, and people suggested that we just raise taxes on corporations.”


He went on: “I told them, corporations are people. … Raising taxes on corporations is raising taxes on people.”


While it’s true that corporations are owned by people, Romney intentionally ignores the basic purpose of corporations: to be a legal entities separate from human beings that own them, with different rights and responsibilities under the law. He also ignores the fact that many large corporations pay much less in taxes than actual human beings – GE, for instance, paid no federal income taxes in 2010.

Even if corporations were people, they’d be doing fairly well in today’s economy. Corporate profits have soared in the past year, even as more and more human beings are out of jobs and facing poverty.

When Romney made his first “corporations are people” remark, we responded with a petition and a TV ad in New Hampshire. Sounds like it’s time to dust that ad off:

 

 

PFAW

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry Confirmed to Attend Far-Right Values Voter Summit

The Family Research Council sent word today that GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is now confirmed to join Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Herman Cain at this year’s Values Voter Summit, a far-right extravaganza hosted by some of the most intolerant Religious Right groups in the business. Organized by the vehemently anti-gay Family Research Council, the event is also sponsored by the American Family Association and Liberty Counsel, among other right-wing groups.

Last year, we raised an alarm when Romney and Bachmann, along with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Rep. Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee attended the event. We were particularly concerned that these leaders would be willing to share the stage with the American Family Association’s spokesman Bryan Fischer, whose record of bigotry against gays and lesbians, Muslim Americans and American Indians, among others, is truly appalling.

Although Fischer is not yet listed as a confirmed speaker at this year’s event, attendees will have the honor of sharing the stage with some pretty extreme Religious Right activists, including Liberty Council’s Mat Staver, who opposes anti-bullying initiatives that protect LGBT kids and says that gay rights supporters have “a very militaristic anti-Christian viewpoint”; retired General Jerry Boykin, who thinks President Obama is using health care reform legislation to recruit an army of brownshirts loyal only to him; and Star Parker, who claims that black family life “was more healthy” under slavery than today.

And that’s not to mention the two main organizers of the event, the FRC and the AFA, which have both been listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their propagation of false anti-gay rhetoric.

Highlights of last year’s summit included FRC leader Tony Perkins simultaneously insulting gay troops and a number of key U.S. allies in Iraq and Afghanistan by declaring that countries that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in their armed forces are “the ones that participate in parades, they don't fight wars to keep the nation and the world free”; and Rick Santorum asserting that there are “no families” in impoverished neighborhoods.

Apparently the tone of last year’s event and the guest list of this year’s haven’t given any pause to the top GOP presidential candidates, who are eager to recruit the support of even the most extreme leaders of the Religious Right. That Romney is returning to VVS is an important reminder that, despite his self-styled “moderate” image, he is just as beholden to extreme Religious Right interests as the rest of the field.
 

PFAW

Rick Perry Confused About the ‘American Way’

Is it the American Way to make the children of undocumented immigrants live as second-class citizens?

The question came up in last night’s GOP presidential debate, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asked about the policy in his state allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities. “It doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is, that is the American way,” Perry said. “No matter how you got in to that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you, and that’s what we’ve done in the state of Texas, and I’m proud that we are having those individuals being contributing members of our society, rather than telling them ‘you’re gonna be on the government dole.’”

Perry was met with boos from the crowd.

Rep. Michele Bachmann equated the Texas law to the federal DREAM Act (which is much broader and which Perry also opposes), saying, “I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws who are here in the United States illegally. That is not the American way.”

Perry is right that it’s not the American Way to punish children for the actions of their parents, which is why it’s odd that he’s against the federal DREAM Act, which would pave a path to citizenship for children who came into the country illegally who go to college or join the military. Perry seems to be trying to score “moderate” points for sticking up for his sensible policy in Texas, while having exactly the same view as Bachmann on a federal policy to achieve some of the same goals.

Watch the exchange:
 

PFAW

The 2012 GOP Field: Not Even Ronald Reagan Could Get This Nomination

Tonight, eight GOP presidential candidates will alight on sacred ground to some: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. As the candidates pay the required perpetual homage to the 40th president, the rest of us might take some time to reflect on just how far off the Reagan Ranch the Republican Party has gone.

Since the advent of the Tea Party, the Republican establishment has adopted a philosophy that you could call "Xtreme Reagan" -- tax cuts for the wealthy without compromise, deregulation without common sense, social conservatism without an ounce of respect -- that makes even a liberal like me almost miss the political pragmatism of the Gipper. It's terrifying that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a hard-line economic and social conservative, whose regressive economic policies as governor were to the right of Reagan, is now widely considered to be too far to the left to even be a contender.

Don't get me wrong -- I never was a fan of Ronald Reagan and his policies. But I miss the days when believing in science and being able to do basic budget math didn't make you a radical Socialist.

Reagan, a savvy politician, rode to power on the money of corporate America and the passion of an increasingly politicized Religious Right -- and, for the most part, gave both groups enough of what they wanted once he was in office to keep them both happy. But he also bucked those interests at some important points. Contrary to current Reagan hagiography, he raised taxes 11 times during his eight years in office -- including the largest corporate tax hike in American history -- when it became clear that pure trickle-down economics would be disastrous for the economy. And in 1981, over the objections of anti-choice groups, he nominated the highly qualified and politically moderate Sandra Day O'Connor to serve on the Supreme Court.

Today's Tea Party candidates, as they love to remind us, are beholden to the same interests. But they have taken the Reagan strategy a step further, turning the values of the Reagan coalition into a new, unyieldingly rigid conservative orthodoxy.

In the Tea Party orthodoxy, environmentalism isn't just bad for business, it's unbiblical. Tax cuts aren't just what the rich want, they're what Jesus wants . The Democratic president isn't just a liberal, he's a foreigner trying to destroy America from within. Conspiracy theories become hard-and-fast facts before you can change the channel away from Fox News. There's no compromise when you live in an air-tight world of unquestioned beliefs that become created facts.

Let's take a look at how the eight GOP candidates debating tonight have taken Xtreme Reaganism and made it their own:

  • Rick Santorum: Compared health care reform to drug dealing, said it will make Christians "less than what God created you to be," said it would "destroy the country"; compared gay relationships to "man-on-dog sex"; slammed the Supreme Court decision ensuring the right to access contraception.
  • Herman Cain: The most unabashedly anti-Muslim candidate in the field (and that's saying something!), proposed a religious test for office for Muslims who wanted to work for his administration.
  • Newt Gingrich: Where to begin? Maybe with the threat of a "secular atheist country... dominated by radical Islamists." Or with the threat of "gay and secular fascism." Or with his entire record as Speaker of the House of Representatives. You choose.
  • Ron Paul: Supposedly the most "libertarian" figure in the GOP, but does not support personal liberties for women or gay people. Still thinks the Voting Rights Act was a bad idea and we were better off before FEMA.
  • Jon Huntsman: The supposedly "moderate" candidate in the GOP field, enacted a highly regressive flat tax as governor of Utah, tried to eliminate corporate taxes, and banned second-trimester abortions.
  • Michele Bachmann: Calls homosexuality "personal enslavement," wants to reduce government to "its original size," says those who believe the science of evolution are part of a "cult following."
  • Mitt Romney: Believes whatever the Republican base wants him to believe, which these days is pretty far off the rails.
  • Rick Perry: Kicked off his presidential campaign by holding an event with the most extreme leaders of the Religious Right he could find, including a pastor who thinks that God sent Hitler to hunt the Jews and another who thinks that the Statue of Liberty is a "demonic idol."

This is the field that the Party of Reagan has produced to appeal to a right-moving and increasingly isolated base -- where the architect of health care reform has to run against himself, where the most libertarian still isn't willing to cross the Religious Right, and where the highest-polling has floated the idea of his state seceding from the union.

Listen tonight as you hear the homage to Ronald Reagan and consider how radical this party has actually become.

Cross posted on Huffington Post

PFAW