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.
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.