People For the American Way’s 2012 Right Wing Watch In Focus report, “Predatory Privatization,” included a section on the pernicious private prison industry. The report documented that, for all the talk of efficiency and accountability among lawmakers pushing privatization, the evidence pointed to a different reality: private prisons often deliver worse service, at higher costs to the taxpayer, with little accountability. One reason: massive spending by prison corporations on lobbying and political contributions.
Today, Think Progress points to new evidence: a sordid tale of prison privatization in Ohio. It links to a timeline produced by the ACLU of Ohio that chronicles the abysmal record of the Lake Erie Correctional Institute in the 18 months since Ohio sold the prison to the Corrections Corporation of America.
In that short period, the prison flunked two inspections, with independent reports documenting “filthy, broken facilities, as well as much higher rates of crime and violence in and around the prison.”
What about accountability? Think Progress notes:
Despite Lake Erie’s multiple violations of state standards, Ohio has stubbornly maintained its infatuation with private prisons. The state plans to outsource prison food to Aramark, a private vendor already under investigation in Kentucky for multiple contract violations, including serving old food that had not been stored properly and overbilling the state.
Republican-dominated state legislatures are all too eager to ignore the private prison industry’s dismal record. CCA and other companies like GEO are paying well to maintain their massively profitable government contracts; the industry spent $45 million on lobbying in the past decade. CCA has done especially well for itself, rebounding from near bankruptcy in 2000 to rake in a net income of $162 million in 2011.
People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch has been closely following the Right Wing’s reaction to this week’s marriage equality arguments at the Supreme Court – which ranges from awkward homophobic discussions to outright threats of revolution.
Last night, our director of communications, Drew Courtney, went on PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton to discuss the Right’s reaction to the marriage cases. Watch it here:
The ongoing campaign by the Religious Right and its conservative Catholic allies to redefine religious liberty in America – which has been covered extensively by PFAW and Right Wing Watch – is the focus of a new report released on Monday by Political Research Associates, a think tank that also monitors right-wing organizations. “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights,” was written by Jay Michaelson, who published a condensed version in the Daily Beast.
Michaelson’s report reviews the organizational players and the strategies they employ, among them: mixing fact and fiction; claiming that there is a war on religious liberty; and reversing the roles of victim and oppressor to portray as religious liberty “victims” people who claim a right to discriminate against others. He notes that Religious Right disinformation has had some success in shaping public opinion: in Minnesota last year a large plurality of marriage equality opponents believed that if marriage equality became the law, churches would be forced to solemnize same-sex marriages, even though there is universal agreement that the First Amendment guarantees that churches are and will always be free to choose which relationships to bless or not to bless.
The PRA report includes the following recommendations for social justice advocates:
1. Define and publicize the campaign to redefine religious liberty
2. Organize a unified response
3. Counter misinformation
4. Reclaim the religious liberty frame
5. Develop academic responses
6. Leverage religious communities
7. Ongoing research and monitoring
Religious liberty was also the topic of a forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., cosponsored by the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project, Moment Magazine, and the Committee on Religious Liberty of the National Council of Churches. Moment, an independent Jewish Magazine, has also published a special Religious Freedom issue for March/April 2013. At the conference, two large panels brought together a range of religious and secular voices to discuss and debate the meaning of religious liberty and the claims that liberty is under attack in the U.S. today. It's impossible to give complete coverage in a blog post but here are some highlights.
Charles Haynes, the First Amendment expert who heads Newseum’s religious liberty committee, noted that the broad coalition that came together to back the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the 1990s is no longer. Michael Lieberman, director of the Civil Rights Policy Planning Center for the Anti-Defamation League, suggested a reason: that the coalition had intended RFRA to be a shield against government restrictions on the free exercise of religion, but that conservative groups had turned RFRA into a spear used to attack anti-discrimination laws.
One central principle of PFAW’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics became clear: while people can agree on the broad principle that religious liberty protects the freedom to live in accord with one’s religious beliefs, that consensus breaks down quickly when deciding how law and policy should react when religious liberty comes into tension with other constitutional principles like equality under the law. Indeed, panelists strongly (but civilly) disagreed on to what extent organizations – whether religiously affiliated institutions or business corporations – should be able to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws or the HHS requirement for insurance coverage of contraception.
Richard Foltin of the American Jewish Committee argued for a shades-of-gray, rather than a black-and-white approach, saying organizations should be viewed on a spectrum, with churches and sectarian institutions on one end and corporations at the other. Foltin said the AJC has submitted amicus briefs in favor of marriage equality at the Supreme Court, but also believes that there are significant religious liberty questions that courts will have to deal with as marriage equality is implemented. (As noted at another point during the day, the states that now recognize marriage equality all have somewhat different religious exemptions.)
Michaelson proposes five tiers of organizations with differing levels of claims to religious liberty: churches/denominations; religious organizations; religiously affiliated organizations; religiously owned business, and religious individuals. The right-wing, he says, keeps trying to “move the sticks” from the first three groups to the latter two. He notes that the Mormon Church owns extensive business interests, including shopping malls, and says that if business owners are allowed to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws and other regulations based on religious belief, many employees will have their rights and interests restricted.
Author Wendy Kaminer argued that the religious liberty of institutions is over-protected rather than threatened, saying that she believes some claims for religious liberty are actually demands for religious power to impose their beliefs on others. If business owners are allowed to claim a religious exemption from generally applicable civil rights laws, she asked, what would be the limiting principle to such claims? Could business owners cite religious beliefs to ignore child labor laws, or to refuse to hire married women? Kaminer challenged what she called an emerging legal double standard: when it comes to taking government funds, advocates say religious organizations need a level playing field and should be treated like every other organization. But when it comes to free exercise claims, and groups like Catholic Charities say they shouldn’t be subject to generally applicable laws, they don’t want a level playing field but special privileges.
Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that overblown rhetoric about threats to religious freedom is damaging to public understanding of religious liberty. She suggests that the first response to someone who talks about threats to religious liberty should be to ask them what specifically they are talking about. For example, while people may be concerned when they hear about “an assault on religious liberty,” most Americans do not see a problem with requiring religiously affiliated institutions to abide by anti-discrimination laws or meet contraception requirements.
Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen suggested that on church-state issues, the Supreme Court justices could be divided into three camps: religious supremacists, advocates of “religious neutrality,” and strict church-state separationists. The separationists, he said, had their heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, but that the courts have been moving more toward a “religious neutrality” approach, which he said in some cases is really a cover for the religious supremacists yearning for an openly religious state. He said a landmark of the triumph of “neutrality” over separation was the 1995 Rosenberger case, in which the court said a public university could not deny funding from a religious publication because of its religious nature. In the future, he said, Justices Breyer and Kagan may be willing to embrace a “religious neutrality” approach in hopes of winning votes to try to keep Robert and Kennedy from joining the Scalia-Thomas religious supremacists.
Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has filed lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate and which has urged the Supreme Court to uphold Prop 8 and DOMA, portrayed religious liberty issues not as part of a culture war but as the necessity in a pluralistic society of recognizing that differences exist and allowing everyone the maximum ability to live according to their beliefs. He suggested that most church-state conflicts are blown out of proportion and can be resolved relatively easy with a willingness to work around individual religious liberty claims. Kim Colby of the Christian Legal Society endorsed that view, and noted that the Supreme Court will likely be deciding cases in the near future about what constitutes a “substantial burden” on a person’s religious beliefs and what might qualify as a “compelling state interest” that would justify that burden.
Michaelson challenged Rienzi’s portrayal, saying that “religious liberty” itself has become a code word for a new tactic in the culture war against LGBT equality and reproductive rights, and that it was wrong to pretend there would be no victim if a business owner were granted the right, for example, to ignore laws against anti-gay discrimination. Pharmacies, he said, used to have lunch counters that were segregated. Would it have been OK to justify that discrimination by saying there was another lunch counter down the street, the argument used by advocates for allowing pharmacists to refuse to provide some drugs based on their religious beliefs?
The ADL’s Lieberman said that from his perspective as an advocate for minority religions these do not seem like small or easily resolved issues, and said there was a clear prospect that individual rights would not be safeguarded if, for example, majoritarian school prayer were permitted. Hoda Elshishtawy, legislative and policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council also noted the reality of a major power differential between members of majority and minority religions. Dan Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, noted that there are widespread abuses in public schools, citing an example of a South Carolina public school that set aside a day explicitly intended to try to convert as many students as possible to Christianity.
Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, who moderated the first panel, noted that even on the day the First Amendment was passed, not everyone agreed with it or agreed with what it meant. We’ve been working it out ever since then and can’t quit, he said. Charles Haynes made a similar point in his closing remarks, noting that in spite of all the differences evident in how we apply First Amendment principles, the ability to continue having the conversation is a reminder of how well those principles have worked to protect religious liberty in an increasingly diverse nation.
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.”
Back in December, The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse wrote a great article explaining how the National Rifle Association has worked in concert with Republican senators to oppose many of President Obama’s federal judicial nominees – usually without anything close to a legitimate reason. The NRA’s “symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party,” Greenhouse wrote, led the group to oppose judicial nominees like Sonia Sotomayor, who had next to no record on the Second Amendment, and the party to chip in when the NRA didn’t like a nominee.
It is that symbiotic relationship that succeeded in sinking the nominations of two highly qualified women to federal courts this week. Both were unquestionably qualified and well-respected in legal circles. The NRA and the Senate GOP went after both for completely unfounded reasons.
Caitlin Halligan was President Obama’s nominee to fill one of four vacancies on the hugely influential Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Never mind that she had broad bipartisan support and sterling credentials. She had once represented a client, the state of New York, in a lawsuit against gun manufacturers. Back when John Roberts was being considered for the Supreme Court, Senate Republicans said that judicial nominees shouldn’t be held responsible for positions they took as lawyers on behalf of clients. But no matter. Senate Republicans twice voted to filibuster her nomination – most recently on Wednesday – never even allowing her an up-or-down vote.
Then today, Nevada District Court nominee Elissa Cadish withdrew her nomination over one year after she had been selected by President Obama. Her story was similar. Filling out a questionnaire in 2008, Cadish stated that under then-current law, the constitutional right to bear arms didn’t apply to individual citizens. She was correct. Two months later in a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court established for the first time that the Second Amendment does contain that right. Cadish made clear that she understood, and would follow, the new Supreme Court precedent.
But no matter. The NRA targeted Cadish and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller used a little-known Senate practice to keep her from ever even getting the chance to explain her views in front of the Judiciary Committee. Under committee procedures used by Chairman Patrick Leahy as a courtesy to his colleagues, a nominee is not granted a hearing unless both of her home-state senators give permission in the form of a “blue slip.” Heller simply refused to sign the blue slip for Cadish, thus single-handedly sinking her nomination.
The flimsiness of the arguments against Cadish and Halligan, and the fact that much of the opposition took place behind the scenes (in the case of Cadish without even a public hearing), betrays the real reason the NRA and the GOP were working to keep these women off the federal bench. They just don’t want President Obama to be nominating federal judges.
Last night, People For the American Way president Michael Keegan joined Rev. Al Sharpton and David Brock of Media Matters to discuss Bill O’Reilly’s most recent delusional outburst and the GOP’s reality problem. Watch:
Sean Hannity last night was clearly upset that Rep. Keith Ellison exposed him for what he is — a partisan hack — and he is now launching attacks on the congressman by recycling statements Ellison made in the 1990s about the Nation of Islam, a group that the congressman later vociferously denounced. He even wondered if “we have somebody then in Congress that is the equivalent of one side of what the Klan is?”
Hannity has attacked Ellison over his faith in the past, arguing that Ellison’s use of Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran during his symbolic swearing-in ceremony “will embolden Islamic extremists” and is no different from a congressman using “Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is the Nazi bible.”
While the use of inflammatory language and false claims is nothing new for Sean Hannity, we decided to use the segment as an opportunity to highlight the five Islamophobic smears regularly found on Fox News.
1. Obama is a Secret Muslim:
Fox News host Eric Bolling claimed that Obama “answers to the Quran first and to the Constitution second” and Hannity himself alleged that Obama “went to a Muslim school.” Regular contributors like Charles Krauthammer and Donald Trump have also floated the claim that Obama was raised as a Muslim and back in 2007, Fox News ran with the discredited story that Obama was a student an Islamic “madrassa” in Indonesia.
2. Park 51 Will be used for Terrorism:
Dick Morris, who just recently was booted from the network following his hilariously bad election predictions, said that the Park 51 Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero is planning to “train the same kind of terrorists” that attacked the U.S. on 9/11, warning the building will be a “command center for terrorism.” Bolling alleged that Park 51 is being built to represent “the people who flew planes” into the Twin Towers and Bill O’Reilly warned the project is housing “condos for Al Qaeda.”
3. Al Jazeera Conspiracies:
Fox News contributor Lisa Daftari warned that Al Jazeera’s acquisition of Current TV will activate terrorist “sleeper cells” in Detroit and regular Fox guest Michelle Malkin called the channel “a cheerleader for terror” and “a Trojan Horse for terror TV.”
4. Sharia law a-comin’:
Regular Fox News viewers may be under the impression that President Obama, public schools and NASA seek to impose Sharia law. The network also recently hired Herman Cain as a contributor, who insisted that Muslims should be prohibited from serving in high levels of government and that localities have a right to ban mosques because Muslims seek to introduce Sharia law, warnings Hannity readily endorsed.
5. ‘All Terrorists are Muslims’:
Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends claimed that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims” and Bill O’Reilly has implied that all Muslims were responsible for 9/11. Fox News regularly hosts anti-Muslim guests such as Brigitte Gabriel, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. In fact, Fox News host Laura Ingraham and contributor John Bolton prematurely blamed the far-right terrorist attack in Norway on government offices and a left-wing party youth summit on Muslims.
South Dakota’s state senate today passed a bill that would extend the mandatory 72 hour waiting period women face when seeking an abortion in the state to specifically exclude weekend days and holidays from counting towards the 72 hour period. Apparently, South Dakota’s Republican lawmakers think women aren’t able to think as well on weekends.
The AP reports:
The South Dakota Senate has given final legislative approval to an extension of what is already the nation's longest waiting period for a woman to receive an abortion.
Senators voted 24-9 Thursday to approve the bill, which has already been passed by the House. The measure will become law if signed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
Women seeking abortions in South Dakota currently must wait three days after seeing an abortion clinic doctor before they can have the procedure. The bill would make it so that weekends and holidays do not count in calculating the three-day waiting period.
The state House of Representatives approved the anti-choice legislation earlier this month, and it now heads to the governor’s desk.
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.