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:
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?
People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics is grounded in our commitment to religious liberty and church-state separation, and in the recognition that fundamental constitutional values sometimes come into creative tension. Where to draw the lines in any particular situation can be a challenge, and even people who generally agree on constitutional principles may disagree about how they should apply on a given policy question. Nothing demonstrates this complexity more than the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure that American women have access to contraception and reproductive health services while addressing objections that such requirements would violate the conscience of some religious employers.
Religious Right groups and their allies at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have for months been portraying the Obama administration’s proposed rules requiring insurance coverage of contraception as totalitarian threats to religious liberty, even after the administration adjusted its initial proposal to address those concerns. Some Religious Right leaders are sticking with their ludicrous “tyranny” message even after the Obama administration today released a further revision that broadens the number of religious groups that will be exempt from new requirements while still guaranteeing women access to contraception.
In describing the policy proposal, HHS Deputy Director of Policy and Regulation Chiquita Brooks-LaSure told reporters, “No nonprofit religious institution will be forced to pay for or provide contraceptive coverage, and churches and houses of worship are specifically exempt.” Under the plan, women who work for such organizations would have access to no-cost contraception coverage through other channels.
Here’s where it gets interesting: The new proposal won praise both from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America – and from right-wing ideologue Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who called it “a sign of goodwill by the Obama administration toward the Catholic community.”
In contrast, the proposal was slammed by the far-right Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America – and by Catholics for Choice, which said, “While protecting contraceptive access under the ACA is a win for women, the administration’s caving in to lobbying from conservative religious pressure groups is a loss for everyone.” Catholics for Choice warned that a broadened exemption for religious groups “gives religious extremists carte blanche to trump the rights of others” and that women working at Catholic organizations “are wondering whether they’ll be able to get the same coverage as millions of other women, or if their healthcare just isn’t as important to the president as their bosses’ beliefs about sex and reproduction.”
James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, portrayed the approach as a win-win. “As Catholics United said from the very beginning, reasonable people knew it was right to be patient and hopeful that all sides could come together to solve this complex issue. The White House deserves praise in alleviating the Church’s concerns.”
Leading advocates for women’s heath praised the new approach. Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood said the group would be taking a look at the details, but said “This policy makes it clear that your boss does not get to decide whether you can have birth control.” A statement from NARAL Pro-Choice America said the group“is optimistic that these new draft regulations will make near-universal contraceptive coverage a reality.”
Meanwhile, anti-choice advocates that have been pushing for rules that would exempt even individual business owners who have objections to providing contraceptive coverage for their employees complained that the new exemption would not extend to private businesses.
Concerned Women for America President Penny Nance said the new rules show Obama’s “intent to trample the religious liberties of Americans” and said, “When religious groups and individual Americans are forced to deny their deeply held religious convictions, it is not called “balance,” it’s called “tyranny.” The Family Research Council repeated Religious Right characterizations of the previous accommodation as an “accounting gimmick.”
People For the American Way believes that the government has a compelling interest in ensuring that women have access to family planning services. Indeed, Dr. Linda Rosentock, dean of the UCLA's school of public health and a member of the Institute of Medicine committee that was part of the review process on the HHS regulations, testified last year that the Centers for Disease Control has ranked family planning as one of the major public health achievements of the 20th Century.
People For the American Way is also deeply concerned about the efforts by Religious Right groups and its conservative Catholic allies to re-define “religious liberty” in unprecedented ways that would allow groups to take taxpayer dollars without abiding by reasonable regulations such as anti-discrimination requirements – and to allow private employers and others to claim exemption from all kinds of laws based on “religious” or “moral grounds.”
In this case, we believe the Obama administration has acted in good faith to promote the nation’s public health interests while addressing concerns that those policies might burden religious liberty. Our courts have long recognized that religious liberty, like the freedom of speech, is not absolute, and that policymakers must often balance competing interests. That is what the administration has done.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when Republicans started complaining that President Obama's second inaugural address was too "partisan" and lacked "outreach" across the aisle. But who was left out? What did they find "partisan"? The acknowledgement of climate science? The idea that women should receive equal pay for equal work? The nod to civil rights struggles of our past and present? The hope that no American will have to wait in hours-long lines to vote? The defense of the existence of a social safety net? The determination to offer support to the victims of a historic storm and to find real answers to the epidemic of mass shootings? In the not-too-distant past, none of these would have raised eyebrows except on the very, very far right. But I guess that's the point: what was once the radical fringe is now in control of the Grand Old Party.
In many ways, Monday's inauguration ceremony was a Tea Party Republican's nightmare-come-true. The openly gay poet. The Spanish sprinkled into the benediction. The one-two-three punch of "Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall." It was the embodiment of all that the far right has tried to wall itself off from as the country begins to include more and more of the real America in its democracy.
What would have pleased this faction, short of winning the presidential election? I imagine they would have preferred a paean to the America of their imaginations -- where the founders were flawless and prescient about the right to bear assault weapons and the Constitution was delivered, amendments included, directly from God; where there are no gay people or only silent ones, where the world is not getting warmer; where there have been no struggles in the process of forging a more perfect union. This, of course, would have been its very own kind of political statement -- and one that was just rejected by the majority of American voters.
If embracing America as it is rather than as a shimmery vision of what it never was constitutes partisanship, and if it turns off people who cling to that dishonest vision, let's have more of it.
"I am my mother's child. The one she told one day many years ago, as I laid on a hospital table that, 'God did not intend for your life to be like mine!' The forms had been signed, we were in agreement and I was tearfully rolled into the very cold, unfriendly operating room.
"It was 1974, one year after the landmark decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. I was fourteen and my mother was twenty-eight, on welfare with five other children. Fourteen at the time of my birth, she was what we now call 'an unwed teen mother.' On this day, at that moment, the decision was not about legislation or white men in suits far away. It was not about the doctor, the nurse, or the technicians. It was just the two of us and God."
I wrote those words, published in In Motion magazine, 15 years ago. I had at that point devoted more than a decade to working with the black church to fight for reproductive rights in my home state of Louisiana and in Washington, making sure that girls and women like me have not only reproductive choice, but reproductive justice -- the choice to determine our own futures and the justice that comes from a system that respects us as human beings with equal dignity and equal rights.
Today, on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and after 15 more years of fighting and praying, I see many reasons to celebrate. I am grateful for those who continue to fight for women's rights in the halls in Congress and in front of clinics; to the doctors and medical staff who risk their own safety to care for women in need; to the women who must shut out the noise of politics to make the most personal of decisions; and to the family and friends who stand behind them. Behind an issue that inspires so much venom and shouting, it's easy to forget that there are countless men and women who are quietly fighting for justice on a small, personal scale.
But on the national scale we see a very different picture. In 2012, state legislatures passed 92 laws restricting reproductive justice and many more followed in 2012. Republican presidential candidates and their allies in Congress went after women's right to birth control, claiming that an employer should decide whether a woman's health care covers her contraceptive care. Prominent figures on the right dismissed the wrenching circumstances of women who become pregnant by rape, claiming it wasn't possible or that some rapes are more "legitimate" than others. While so many Americans grappled with their own and their loved ones' decisions with decency and grace, our politicians experienced a crisis of empathy and a deficit of facts.
Particularly galling is the campaign by some far-right groups to promote the idea that legal abortion is a "genocide" of African Americans. This campaign seeks to paint black women as passive victims rather than as fully realized human beings facing real, tough choices. In the process, it has helped to make the political debate about reproductive rights even more about caricatures of women and less about real women.
Polling consistently shows that Americans' personal views of reproductive rights are not always the same as their political views. A recent poll by Planned Parenthood found that 23 percent thought abortion was "morally acceptable" and 40 percent said it "depends on the situation." That "depends" is important -- as has been the case with the LGBT rights, civil rights, paycheck fairness and gun violence prevention movements, sometimes strongly held political opinions must bend when they run up against the real experiences of a real person.
I celebrate 1974 and the start of my "pro-choice, pro-faith" journey. I have hope for the future of reproductive rights. Roe v. Wade still holds in the courts. And last year, as attacks on reproductive rights reached a fever pitch, women across the country rose up with their votes. Women didn't ask our politicians to make the personal political. But we must continue to fight back by making the political personal. This is about choice and it's about justice -- for every woman, no matter her story.
Today, after an overwhelming response from our members and supporters, members of PFAW’s staff delivered a whopping 178,000 petitions to House Speaker John Boehner calling on him to remove Rep. Michele Bachmann from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Last year, Bachmann earned rebukes from Democrats and Republicans alike when she accused Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and others of a secret allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood. In an interview first reported by PFAW’s Right Wing Watch, she alleged that “there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood.” Later, she accused President Obama of trying to implement Sharia law in the United States and abroad.
The petition states, "Members of the House Intelligence Committee are entrusted with classified information that affects the safety and security of all Americans. That information should not be in the hands of anyone with such a disregard for honesty, misunderstanding of national security, and lack of respect for his or her fellow public servants.”
Boehner, who is among the Republicans who condemned Bachmann’s allegations about Abedin, has not yet responded.
Last year, after Michele Bachmann launched a smear campaign against Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin and alleged that there had been “deep penetration” by the Muslim Brotherhood in high levels of government, People For the American Way launched a campaign to get Bachmann kicked out of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. On the Intelligence Committee, she has special access to sensitive national security information, which probably shouldn’t be in the hands of a fear-mongering conspiracy theorist. But this week, Bachmann announced that she had been reassigned to the Intelligence Committee, despite the protests.
Back in July, we published a rundown of Bachmann’s worst conspiracy theories. Since then, she’s added to her repertoire, claiming that President Obama has “enforced Islamic speech codes here in the U.S.” and is intent on imposing Sharia law at home and abroad.
You can sign PFAW’s petition to remove Bachmann from the Intelligence Committee here.
Back in April, the Senate passed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which since 1994 has provided funding and training for state and local law enforcement to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. The law has worked incredibly well: between 1993 and 2010, the rate of intimate partner violence fell by 67 percent and the reporting of domestic violence has increased dramatically.
But this week, the Violence Against Women Act expires because House Republicans refused to reauthorize it. They refused even to hold a vote on it, instead proposing a watered-down bill that the president promised to veto. What they objected to were the new bill’s increased protections for immigrants, LGBT people and Native American women, which Majority Leader Eric Cantor characterized as “issues that divide us.”
Now the new Congress will have to start the process of reauthorizing VAWA all over again. Until they do, women across the country will be left without the safety net that VAWA provides.
The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse has a great blog post up on the National Rifle Association’s little-known role in influencing Senate votes on federal judicial nominees. Greenhouse focuses on the NRA’s effort to scare Republican Senators away from voting for the Supreme Court nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – neither of whom had any actual Second Amendment record – and its successful effort to frustrate the DC Circuit nomination of Caitlin Halligan, who had once represented the state of New York in a gun control case.
These are the most prominent examples of the NRA’s efforts to keep qualified judicial nominees off the federal bench without reason. But there are plenty more examples out there. One of the most appalling is that of Elissa Cadish, who President Obama nominated to fill a district court seat in Nevada back in February. The NRA immediately got to work to stop Cadish’s nomination. Why? One month before the Supreme Court’s Heller decision – in which it overturned decades of case law to state that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own firearms – Cadish correctly answered a questionnaire about the current state of Second Amendment law. At the time, Cadish correctly stated that the law that she would follow as a district court judge did not include the individual right to bear firearms. After Heller, she clarified that she would of course follow current law, which now did include this right.
This was a sign of proper judicial restraint – district court judges are in the business of applying the law as interpreted by higher courts – but to the NRA it was an excuse to bring down a judicial nominee. The gun group strong-armed Nevada Sen. Dean Heller into opposing the nomination and that was that. Heller refused to give his permission for the Senate Judiciary Committee to even hold a hearing on Cadish (permission is traditionally required from both home-state senators), and her nomination foundered.
The NRA didn’t get involved with these judicial nominations because it had substantive reasons to oppose the nominees. It got involved because it is, in effect, a codependent wing of the Republican party. Greenhouse points out that it was Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell who reached out to the NRA about opposing Sotomayor, rather than the other way around. Senate Republicans want to stop President Obama from filling seats on the federal courts. They then used the NRA as a useful bludgeon to keep in line senators who might consider being reasonable. The NRA and the Republican leadership get what they want from this relationship. The rest of us get a gridlocked Senate, a vacancy crisis in the federal courts and nation awash in firearms.
Please take a moment to watch this end-of-the-year thank you message for you and all of PFAW's wonderful supporters around the world from PFAW founder Norman Lear:
Call it an occupational hazard for someone who pays close attention to the right wing in America. On Friday, even while my mind and heart were struggling with how to take in, much less make sense of, the news about the killings at a Connecticut elementary school, another part of me was steeling itself for what I knew was to come.
And come it has. Rather than contributing to constructive discussion about a way forward on issues like the insufficient availability of mental health treatment and the extravagant availability of equipment designed for large-scale killing, Religious Right leaders and their Tea Party allies have wasted no time in placing blame for the killing on their usual targets: liberals, teachers, religious pluralism, judges, and the separation of church and state. Yet again.
These past few days have reminded me how Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, while the smoke had not even cleared from the destruction of the World Trade Center, blamed liberals, feminists, gays, People For the American Way, and others for the attacks. Falwell was shamed into an apology, which he later recanted. But Religious Right leaders are showing no shame in using this tragedy to push their agendas in offensive and destructive ways.
On his radio station Monday morning, James Dobson cited lack of belief in God, legal abortion, the advance of marriage equality as reasons for the school shooting: "I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that's what's going on."
The American Family Association's Bryan Fischer also blessed his listeners with his personal insight into what he says was God's gentlemanly reason not to protect those children from harm:
God is not going to go where he is not wanted. Now we have spent since 1962 - we're 50 years into this now - we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost. Telling God, 'We do not want you in our schools.'...In 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools. In 1963 we kicked the word of God out of the schools. In 1980 we kicked the Ten Commandments out of schools. We've kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, 'Hey, I'll be glad to protect your children, but you've got to invite me back into your world first. I'm not going to go where I am not wanted. I am a gentleman.
Presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee made similar comments as did others. The Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody defended them from their critics, saying their views were shared by millions of evangelicals.
Why look at what these people are saying? Because of the real power they now hold. What they say is what keeps us from even discussing, never mind solving, this country's critical problems.
Even efforts to bring people together to comfort the suffering brought attacks. Operation Save America called Sunday's interfaith memorial service "an affront to Almighty God" and added that "We expelled God from school and banished Him from the schoolyard. He was replaced with metal detectors, condoms, policemen, anti-bullying policies, No-gun zones, and violence of unprecedented order."
One of the most dismaying statements came predictably from Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel, who responded to President Obama's remarks at the memorial service on Sunday with this tweet:
Absolute slime ball, #Obama exploiting memorial service to push radical#GunControl. His extremism knows no lows#Newtown
It is amazing what can be conveyed about our politics in 140 characters or less. It strikes me that Barber's tweet is emblematic of everything that the radical right has done to distort our political system and destroy our ability to even have a reasonable conversation about critical problems the country needs to solve.
Would that this was just about guns. This frenzied effort to forestall even a conversation about the ready availability of military-style weapons - and this is even before the NRA itself wades in - points to a larger picture.
Just five years ago, we were able to have some reasonable political conversations, even across party lines, about important issues like climate change and immigration reform. Of course, there were significant disagreements about the exact nature of the issues and the proper policy responses. But more recently, any effort to even acknowledge the existence of climate change runs up against a solid wall of denialism from the right wing and most importantly from legislators who now so fear the far right. Similarly, some conservatives who championed comprehensive immigration reform five or six years ago saw the effort savaged by the right wing who sounded the alarm of losing white America.
On the fiscal front, Grover Norquist's no-taxes-ever pledge, backed with the kind of political intimidation that deep-pocketed ideologues have perfected in the Tea Party era, have made it nearly impossible for the country to seriously address both its short-term job shortage and its long-term deficit problem. And we saw last year that the fear of a right wing primary challenge is much greater than the fear of damaging the credit rating of our country.
The horrific shootings in Connecticut may be leading some elected officials to consider tackling some problems that have been ignored or considered politically off-limits. But we should not have to rely on tragedies to overcome obstacles to needed action. While the far right's ideological enforcers can be counted on to fight any move by conservatives toward common sense and common ground, such movement is essential. As we are sometimes so painfully reminded, Americans need a functional political system, one with the ability to address urgent political questions to achieve much needed compromises. And quite simply, none of this can happen until we have political leaders with the courage to stand up against the far right's willingness to paralyze our country.
On Nov. 6, Americans turned out in massive numbers to reelect President Obama, take away seats from Republicans in the House and the Senate, and pass progressive ballot measures throughout the country. But it seems that Republicans in Washington and in states across the country just didn't get the hint. Despite all the talk of post-election "soul-searching," there doesn't appear to be any self-examination going on among those currently clinging to their seats in Congress and state legislatures.
Just look at Michigan. Just weeks after the state legislature's Republicans took a drubbing from voters, who cut their majority in the state House from 18 to 8 despite recent Republican gerrymandering, the state's GOP leadership went on a right-wing rampage.
First, they passed a package of so-called "right to work" laws that are meant to politically weaken unions and have the side effect of financially weakening the middle class. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was against "right to work" before he was for it, thanks to some powerful arm-twisting from corporate front groups.
Then, they got to work on some extreme anti-choice measures. One tries to force abortion clinics out of business by regulating them into the ground. It also places unnecessary burdens on women, including requiring them to prove they weren't "coerced" into seeking an abortion; prohibiting them from consulting with their doctor via videoconference; and requiring them to sign a death certificate and hold a funeral for the aborted fetus (this requirement, at least, has just been removed from the bill). Yet another bill would let doctors refuse to provide or employers refuse to cover any procedures they find immoral. This one isn't just about abortion - it could allow employers to refuse their employees insurance coverage for contraception, or even blood transfusions. Sounds familiar? The Blunt Amendment in the U.S. Senate - wildly unpopular except among the Senate GOP - would have done the same thing.
Anybody who was paying the least bit of attention to this year's elections would have noticed that two of the things voters find most repugnant about today's GOP is its blind allegiance to big corporations and its enthusiasm for regulating women's health.
Apparently the Republican Party wasn't paying attention. Or is just too beholden to the interests of the Corporate and Christian Right to care.
What's happening in Michigan is just a microcosm of the whole. In Ohio, immediately after an election shaped in part by the GOP's toxic attacks on women's health, Republican legislators got to work trying to defund Planned Parenthood. And in Washington, DC, Republican leaders are approaching fiscal cliff negotiations with the sole goal of protecting George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.
This isn't what I'd call "soul-searching."