People For Blog

PEOPLE FOR BLOG

People For the American Way's New Spanish-Language Radio Ad Calls Out Marco Rubio

In anticipation of Marco Rubio’s announcement that he is running for President, People For the American Way launched a Spanish-language radio ad criticizing Rubio for his dangerous agenda that ignores the interests of working families, including Latinos. The ad makes clear how Rubio is no different from the rest of the GOP; his far-right positions should disqualify him from the Presidential ticket.

The ad runs this week, starting Monday morning, on Spanish-language radio stations in Miami, FL and Denver, CO.

Listen to the radio ad here:

You can find full Spanish and English transcripts here.

PFAW

Lindsey Graham Says We Need an Amendment to Fix Money in Politics

At an event with a local television station in New Hampshire this weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham was asked a question about what he would do to fight big money in politics. In his response, Graham pointed to the need for a constitutional amendment to address the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United:

Well, Citizens United has gotta be fixed. Y'all agree with that? You're gonna need a constitutional amendment to fix this problem. I was for McCain-Feingold, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that provisions in McCain-Feingold basically no longer apply.

You're gonna get sick of watching TV in New Hampshire. So the next President of the United States needs to get a commission of really smart people and find a way to create a constitutional amendment to limit the role of super PACs because there's gonna be like $100M spent on races in New Hampshire — which'll be good for this TV station — ripping everybody apart. You don't even know who the people are supplying the money, you don't even know their agenda. Eventually we're gonna destroy American politics with so much money in the political process cause they're going to turn you off to wanting to vote. [emphasis added]

This is not the first time Sen. Graham has spoken out against the big money takeover of our elections. In March, Bloomberg’s David Weigel wrote about a comment Graham made to a voter — again, in New Hampshire — about his desire to see some “control” over money in politics so it won’t “destroy the political process.”

While voicing support for an amendment is important, when the Senate voted in September on the Democracy for All Amendment, a proposal that would overturn decisions like Citizens United and help get big money out of politics, Sen. Graham voted against it.

So here’s a follow-up question for Sen. Graham: Will you back up your words with action? Will you work with your colleagues in Congress who are already pushing for an amendment and help tackle the issue of big money in politics? 

PFAW

#DemandDemocracy: Congressman Sarbanes Supports Solutions to #GetMoneyOut

Americans are fed up with the amount of money being spent in our political system. Fortunately, some members of Congress understand this frustration and are fighting for solutions to level the political playing field and create a democracy that is truly of, by and for the people.  

In this installment of our #DemandDemocracy video blog, Congressman John Sarbanes from Maryland’s third district discusses his support of []such solutions, including the Democracy for All Amendment, a constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, and the Government By the People Act, a bill intended to empower small donors in elections.

On the fifth anniversary of Citizens United, January 21st of this year, a suite of reform bills referred to as the “Defend Democracy” legislative reform package was introduced to the 114th Congress. The reform package consists of the Democracy for All amendment, the Government By the People Act and several other bills aimed at addressing the influence of big money in politics. A broad range of organizations have endorsed these solutions and are currently working to mobilize their members around advocating for them.

PFAW’s #DemandDemocracy video blog series is a collection of short videos that highlight how big money in politics affects — and often stalls progress on — a range of other critical issues.

PFAW

The GOP Finally Allows a Judicial Confirmation Vote

The Senate is back from their two-week recess with a lot on their plate. First and foremost, they need to have a vote on Loretta Lynch, who was cleared by the Judiciary Committee back in February. But while this is a prominent illustration of Mitch McConnell’s refusal or inability to run a competent Senate, there are other examples that don’t get as much attention.

For instance, judges. Later today, the Senate is scheduled to vote to confirm Alfred Bennett to the Southern District of Texas. But if McConnell is expecting congratulations, he should expect to wait a long time … just as he forces judicial nominees to wait for a confirmation vote.

More than three months into the 114th Congress, and we are finally seeing the first judicial confirmation vote. As PFAW noted when the Senate went out a couple of weeks ago, the GOP-controlled Senate's failure to confirm President Obama’s judicial nominees stands in stark contrast to how the newly Democratic-controlled Senate treated George W. Bush’s judicial nominees in his final two years.

In 2007, the Judiciary Committee under Chairman Patrick Leahy hit the ground running. There were numerous nominees from the previous Congress approved by the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee but left unconfirmed at the end of 2006. Rather than force them into new hearings for the benefit of the new committee members, Chairman Leahy arranged for quick votes instead. The Committee also processed several first-time nominees. As a result, by end of March 2007, the Senate had confirmed 15 new judges.

And today, even though there are four judicial nominees who were approved by the Judiciary Committee without opposition way back in February, McConnell is today allowing a vote on only one of them.

Why no vote for Jill Parrish, who would fill a vacancy in Utah that has been open for more than a year? Why no vote for George Hanks of the Southern District of Texas, who would fill a vacancy that has been open for nearly as long? Why no vote for Jose Rolando Olvera, who would fill a judicial emergency in the same district that has been open since the end of 2012?

If McConnell wants to be taken seriously as someone who is guided by anything other than sheer partisanship, he surely has not shown it in the way he has exercised his responsibilities as Senate Majority Leader. Unfortunately, the ones who pay the price are the individuals and businesses whose access to justice is hampered by the lack of enough judges on the bench.

PFAW

Maryland Passes Bill Bolstering Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated People

Today the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would allow people to regain the right to vote as soon as they are released from prison. The legislation rights a wrong in current Maryland law, which denies people voting rights until their entire sentence has been completed, including probation and parole. Without this bill, thousands of formerly incarcerated Marylanders — many of whom are people of color — will continue to be needlessly forced to stay home on Election Day.

PFAW activists in Maryland and members of PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action have been working with allies to help change this, calling their state representatives and urging them to support the immediate restoration of voting rights.

Disenfranchising those who have served their time in prison hampers the process of reintegration and shamefully blocks thousands of Americans from participating in elections. It worsens the discrimination already faced by formerly incarcerated people — who pay taxes, work, and contribute to their communities — and it weakens our democracy.

Passage of this bill is a big step forward in the movement for voting rights for all. Now it’s up to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to sign it and help make the state’s democratic process as fair and accessible as possible.
 

PFAW

The Courts Have to Matter to LGBTQ Americans

The following is a guest post by Erik Lampmann, a 2011 Young People For (YP4) Fellow. It is cross-posted on the Alliance for Justice blog and the YP4 blog.

Federal courts routinely hand down judgments that affect everyday Americans at an immediate, painful, and personal level – for good or ill.

Consider the case of Seamus Johnston, a transgender student expelled by the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (UPJ) for his use of male restrooms and gym facilities on campus. When he sought redress for his experiences at the hands of UPJ, U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled he had no room to claim discrimination since he was being treated in accordance with his sex as assigned at birth and had not had sex reassignment surgery.

In some ways, Johnson was warranted in thinking he was free to live openly as a transgender man since UPJ offers gender identity and expression protections under its student nondiscrimination statement. Indeed, Johnson had lived openly and without significant difficulty as a man since 2009 — even having taken advantage of men-only exercise courses. Only in 2011 was Johnson first confronted for using a men’s locker room. After issuing Johnson citations, barring him from certain facilities, and eventually arresting him, the university expelled him for his attempt to use the bathroom in which he felt most at peace and which he believed he was permitted to use by university policy. In his appeal for justice, Johnson didn’t ask for much — simply that a university that purports to protect students based on “gender identity and expression” allow him a modicum of relief as a transgender person rather than criminalizing his attempts to live authentically.

Essentially, Judge Gibson acknowledged Johnson’s self-identification as a transgender man, but she didn’t think it really mattered in the context of the Equal Protection Clause or Title IX.  Flatly ignoring guidance from the Department of Education encouraging institutions of higher education to recognize transgender and gender non-conforming students’ right to protections under Title IX, Judge Gibson left Johnston, and other transgender students, without protection from sex discrimination. She wrote:

While Plaintiff might identify his gender as male, his birth sex is female … It is this fact … that is fatal to Plaintiff’s sex discrimination claim. Regardless of how gender and gender identity are defined, the law recognizes certain distinctions between male and female on the basis of birth sex. Thus, even though Plaintiff is a transgender male, his sex is female.

In sum, this decision reflects a sobering reality for LGBTQ people, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming individuals: The government — more specifically, a judge — holds the power to determine if the law protects how you define yourself.

This example dramatizes just one way that our courts fail to live up to the promise of the motto “equal justice under law” by protecting the vulnerable among us from exclusion and discrimination. I’ll admit that several years ago the result in this case might have led me to give up on the courts as an avenue for change.

Recent decisions from the Supreme Court and other federal courts have prompted some progressives to view the courts as a once-relevant institution home only to disconnected jurists. When we as progressives write off the courts and treat them as spaces where our communities were never meant to triumph, we concede the power to speak from our lived experience as those affected by the law and to shift the balance of power within the judiciary.

In reality, the legal knowledge of our communities paired with our deeply personal understanding of how the courts’ decisions impact real people gives us a tremendous power to affect the composition of the courts and to create legal precedents that respect rather than ignore our communities’ needs.

Seamus Johnston’s experiences with the justice system are then instructive for progressives building long-term judicial strategies. His loss in the Western District of Pennsylvania is but one battle in a much longer struggle for social justice.

The courts have to matter for LGBTQ Americans and so many others who find themselves on the losing end of cases like Johnston’s. They have to matter because we cannot afford to write off institutions, elected officials, or organizations as permanent friends or enemies. Rather, if we truly believe another world is possible, we have to build it brick by brick, precedent by precedent, judge by judge.

PFAW Foundation

New Report Examines Supreme Court’s “Citizens United Era”

People For the American Way Foundation's latest report explores the extreme pro-corporate jurisprudence of the Supreme Court in recent years, identifying parallels to the Court’s infamous Lochner era a century ago.

The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era” by PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin explores how the Roberts Court’s right-wing majority has established a precedent for privileging corporations over individuals, allowing corporations to enjoy the rights of the people while reducing the rights that people have against corporations.

Raskin writes:

“Corporations increasingly enjoy all the rights of the people, but the people increasingly have no rights against corporations. Indeed, as we shall see, the conservative majority on the Roberts Court not only interprets federal law in dubious ways to defeat corporate liability but often works its special wonders to preempt state laws that would hold corporations accountable for civil injuries they cause against patients and consumers.”

The report covers cases ranging from Hobby Lobby, which granted corporations religious rights to opt-out of requirements on women’s health, to Sorrell v. IMS Health, which struck down Vermont’s prescription confidentiality law, to Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, which allowed interlocking corporations to hide assets from individuals defrauded by investment advisors.

You can find the full text of the report here. 

PFAW Foundation

Warren Buffett: Citizens United Pushes U.S. Toward a Plutocracy

In a wide-ranging interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow released this week, Warren Buffett had some strong words about Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that have handed increasing political power to the super-rich. Responding to a question about income inequality, Buffett raised the issue of money in elections:

With Citizens United and other decisions that enable the rich to contribute really unlimited amounts, that actually tilts the balance even more toward the ultra-rich…The unlimited giving to parties, to candidates, really pushes us more toward a plutocracy. They say it’s free speech, but somebody can speak 20 or 30 million times and my cleaning lady can’t speak at all.

Watch the interview clip here:

PFAW

Half a Million Americans Urge President Obama to Shine a Light on Dark Money

This afternoon activists from PFAW and ally groups participated in a petition delivery at the White House calling on President Obama to issue an executive order requiring corporations that receive government contracts to disclose their political spending. More than 550,000 petition signatures were delivered in support of this executive order, collected by a collaborative effort of more than 50 organizations.

In addition to leaders from organized labor, civil rights, environmental and consumer protection groups, PFAW Director of Outreach and Public Engagement Diallo Brooks (pictured below), was one of the individuals to speak at the event. Highlighting the fact that transparency is essential to accountability, Mr. Brooks and other speakers reiterated the strong message sent by the half a million petition signers.

President Obama has shared his support for reform on numerous occasions. Most recently, in his State of the Union address this January, the president called attention to the issue by speaking out against “dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter.” Obama went on to call for a “better politics.”

Rallies like the one held in Washington today also occurred in nearly 60 cities across 28 states, all encouraging the president to use his authority and issue an executive order to help bring about that “better politics.”

Have you added your name to the petition yet?

 

Fighting against Big Money in Politics: The One Year Anniversary of McCutcheon v. FEC.

Today, April 2nd, marks the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, McCutcheon v. FEC. The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to remove limits on the total amount of spending an individual could contribute over a two year period to a federal level candidates, parties, or political action committees. Previously, the law limited the amount of money an individual could spend to $48,600 for individual candidates or $74,600 to a party or political action committee over a biannual period. The plaintiff in the case, Shaun McCutcheon, claimed that the limit on political spending was a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Using a severely cramped definition of the type of corruption that campaign finance limitations can legitimately address, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “Congress may target only a specific type of corruption—‘quid pro quo’ corruption . . . Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties”. The court, agreeing with McCutcheon, said that having limits on aggregate spending and campaign contributions was unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment.

The impact the McCutcheon v. FEC decision had on the 2014 elections was enormous. There was no longer an aggregate restriction on the amount of money an individual could give to candidates, parties and political committees. One of the biggest impacts of the court’s decision was the expansion of joint fundraising committees as fundraising tools. Joint committees are committees where candidates can combine their separate committees, party committees, and PAC’s into one single committee that fundraises together. As a result, nearly four billion dollars was given to candidates, parties, and political action committees combined, the most money ever spent in any midterm election. In 2014, out of the ten Senate races where the most money was spent on candidates, six of them finished within a ten point margin of victory, while in the ten House races where the most money was spent on candidates in 2014, seven of them ended within a five point margin of victory.

The McCutcheon decision has solidified the need for a constitutional amendment because big donors can now give virtually unrestricted amounts of money to influence elections. This money is used to produce television ads for or against candidates, send out direct mail attacking opponents, and to boost a candidate’s own credentials. Such dependence on campaign cash results in our elected officials becoming further beholden to the big donors interests instead of their constituents.

 Fortunately, a nonpartisan movement is growing to get big money out of politics and overturn Supreme Court decisions like McCutcheonand Citizens United. Sixteen states, over 600 towns and cities, and over five million people have already gone on the record in support of a constitutional amendment that levels the political playing field and reduce the influence big money in our political system.

PFAW

If You Liked The Handling Of The Terri Schiavo Case, You'll Love President Jeb Bush

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

As Republican presidential hopefuls begin to pile into yet another clown car, we hear again and again that Jeb Bush is the sane, "establishment" choice for the job.

Anybody who thinks that Bush would provide a less radical alternative to the likes of Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee should just remember back to a decade ago, when Bush was at the center of one of the most egregious government intrusions into private lives in recent memory, a macabre cause célèbre that sickened people across the country but delighted the right wing. 

Ten years ago this week, Terri Shiavo died. She had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, many of which had been taken up with a legal battle between her husband, who wanted to remove the feeding tube that was all that was keeping her alive, and her parents, who wanted to keep it in place.

The Schiavo case was a weighty one. But the Religious Right, with the help of Jeb Bush and his big brother in the White House, turned it into a vicious, public culture-war battle. 

Who can forget when Bush, under increasing national pressure from the Religious Right, personally wrote to a judge in Schiavo's case? When Bush's lawyers and the Florida state legislature rushed through a blatantly unconstitutional law allowing the governor to issue a "one time stay" of a court order? When Bush convinced Republicans in Congress to intervene, with Bill Frist memorably offering a snap medical "diagnosis" of Schiavo on the Senate floor without ever seeing the patient?

Throughout the ordeal, Bush used every connection available to him to intervene in the Schiavo case. Even after Schiavo's death, he tried to instigate a criminal inquiry into her husband.

As Schiavo's husband chillingly told Politico this year, if Bush and others could do this to him and his wife, "they'll do it to every person in this country."

"That man put me through misery," he told the Wall Street Journal. "He acted on his personal feelings and religious beliefs, so how can he talk about limited government?"

It's no wonder that Bush is now downplaying his role in the Schiavo case. At the time, an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted the government to get out of the family's private struggle. But the case still has a strong resonance with the Religious Right, and to many of them Jeb Bush its hero.

Bush displayed a similar respect for "limited government" when, as governor, he tried to personally intervene to stop a 13-year-old girl and a 22-year-old rape victim from having abortions. These cases, like that of Schiavo, show an astounding willingness to ignore heart-wrenching personal stories in favor of an unyielding ideology; to blow up private stories into national culture war battles; and to sacrifice a stated idea of "limited government" to an intense state interest in a single person's most intimate decisions. 

And let's not forget Bush's comments during his first gubernatorial run comparing what he called "sodomy" to pedophilia and drunk driving - over the top, even for the right wing. Just this week, he immediately came to the defense of Indiana's legalization of discrimination only to walk back his comments in front of big donors. So much for his declaration that he is his "own man".

Bush may be the pick of the Republican establishment, who hope that maybe he won't come across as a crazy to mainstream voters. But his history in Florida shows that he is just as ready as Huckabee or Cruz to be the culture-warrior-in-chief, and has a record to prove it.

PFAW

Arkansas Governor Does Only a Partial Retreat on RFRA

Yesterday, the Arkansas legislature approved a so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" bill similar to Indiana's RFRA. Today, the governor surprised people by rejecting the bill as written and asking for changes. As CNN reports:

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he does not plan to sign the religious freedom bill that sits on his desk right now, instead asking state lawmakers to make changes so the bill mirrors federal law.

The first-term Republican governor said he wants his state "to be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance."

While the requested change would remove some of the dangerous aspects of the bills that differentiated them from the federal version, it would still leave the door open to state-sanctioned discrimination in the name of religion.

The federal RFRA dates back to 1993, and neither its text nor its purpose empower anyone to bypass laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination. However, as PFAW Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg has written, the Supreme Court drastically rewrote the law last year in its 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision:

[As Justice Ginsburg explained in her dissent,] the Court effectively rewrote 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.

That's why Gov. Hutchinson's call for a bill that matches the federal RFRA does not solve the discrimination problem. A state law tracking the federal RFRA and passed after Hobby Lobby is far more likely to be interpreted by the courts along the same lines. This is especially so since the bill's supporters regularly cite their desire to "protect" businesspeople who are religiously offended by same-sex couples from serving them.

The Arkansas and Indiana RFRAs have features making them even more open to be used as vehicles for otherwise illegal discrimination than the federal RFRA as transmogrified by the Roberts Court. But if Gov. Hutchinson succeeds in getting a bill that matches the federal version, he still will not have accomplished his stated goal of making Arkansas "known as a state that does not discriminate."

PFAW

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

As he has since signing Indiana's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Governor Mike Pence today insisted that the law does not allow discrimination. As reported in the Indianapolis Star:

[Pence] stressed that RFRA was about "religious liberty, not discrimination" and emphasized that the law does not give anyone the right to turn away customers on religious grounds.

"This law does not give anyone the right to discriminate...This law does not give anyone the right to deny services," he said.

Let's rewind the tape to the legislative debate over the bill. Senate Amendment # 4 would have added a key provision to the bill that would have made Gov. Pence's words accurate.

This chapter does not apply to:

(1) IC 22-9-1 (Indiana civil rights law); or

(2) any state law or local ordinance that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

However, the state Senate defeated this amendment by a lopsided vote of 10-40.

The Indiana House was equally insistent that the bill not be amended to provide any protection to state and local anti-discrimination laws. House Amendment # 5 would have added the following text to the law:

For purposes of this chapter:

(1) the protection of civil rights; or

(2) the prevention of discrimination;

is a compelling government interest.

Unlike the Senate amendment, this would not have completely exempted anti-discrimination laws from attack under RFRA. Nevertheless, this more moderate effort to make it harder to bypass such laws was still too much for the House, which overwhelmingly rejected the amendment in a 31-60 vote.

It would be nice to think that Governor Pence was right, and that this law didn't open the door to discrimination. But that is exactly what the law does, and its history makes that even clearer.  If Pence wants to "clarify" that the state's RFRA law won't allow denial of service, he can point legislators to amendment language that would make that as clear as day.

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

Georgia Pro-Discrimination Bill Exposed, But It Could Still Pass

While Georgia's misleadingly named Religious Freedom Restoration Act may still pass the state legislature before it adjourns, it had a major setback when its conservative supporters' true goal was exposed. Like similar bills being pushed across the country, it is masked as simply a measure defending religious liberty, but it is really a vehicle designed to give legal cover to discrimination. By a one-vote margin, the House Judiciary Committee amended the bill so it could not be used to trump anti-discrimination laws, with three Republicans joining all the committee's Democrats. The bill's supporters then voted to table the bill rather than advance a bill that no longer allowed discrimination.

But the bill isn't dead. Until the Georgia legislature adjourns on April 2, anything can happen. In fact, the House Judiciary Committee announced late Friday that it would resume considering the bill on Monday. But in some encouraging news, that meeting has been cancelled. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

A specially called meeting of the House Judiciary Committee set for Monday was cancelled, leaving the future of the ‘religious liberty' bill in doubt.

...

The back-and-forth on the bill comes as Indiana deals with the backlash from adopting a similar law that has led to calls of boycotts and the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in tourism and economic development. Indiana Gov. Mike Spence on Sunday told ABC News the law is not about discrimination but refused to say whether it would permit a business owner to refuse service to someone with whom they disagree.

As Georgia legislators are learning, this is a bill that has the public's attention, and people are not happy with it. When the Judiciary Committee heard public testimony on the bill last week, far more people showed up than the committee chairman was willing to make time for. Among those who went to the state capitol to testify was Rev. Tim McDonald, senior pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, former President of Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, and current co-chair of African American Ministers In Action at PFAW. He was ultimately unable to offer his testimony in person, but he submitted it in writing. Rev. McDonald wrote, in part:

Equality and basic rights should never yield to discrimination. But this bill would legalize discrimination, and it does so by distorting the concept of religious liberty.

Many other religious leaders here in Georgia have agreed and have opposed this bill. So have conservatives like former state attorney Michael Bowers, and businesses like Wal-Mart, which has opposed similar legislation in Arkansas.

It is clear that rather than fixing a problem, this bill would create problems, often for the most vulnerable among us. Handing people the right to use the mantle of religious liberty to harm others is wrong. My faith teaches me that I should speak out against proposals that could deny basic rights to others, especially when it's being done in the name of religion.

During the public testimony, bill supporters kept returning to one misleading talking point: Although the bill mirrors a federal RFRA that has been on the books for 20 years, as well as several longtime state RFRAs, opponents couldn't point to a case where the law was used to enable otherwise illegal discrimination. Rev. McDonald addressed this in his testimony:

[This bill threatens to allow discrimination] even though, and in large part because, the bill's language tracks the language of the federal RFRA. State courts are likely to follow the guidance of the United States Supreme Court in how to interpret this almost identical language. Unfortunately, with last June's 5-4 Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court gravely misinterpreted that federal law. Five Justices ruled, for the first time, that for-profit corporations can invoke the law, and they essentially excised from the statute the requirement that it can be triggered only by a substantial burden on actual religious exercise. Under Hobby Lobby, having your religious beliefs offended is enough. So a state court following the Hobby Lobby logic could easily equate a business owner's being religiously offended by a gay employee or a customer's "lifestyle choice" with a significant burden on the owner's religious liberty. That is why the bill transforms religious liberty protection from a shield into a sword.

Keep an eye out for this. Until the legislature adjourns, the bill can come back to life, and conservatives in Georgia could succeed in weaponizing religious liberty in their state as Indiana did last week.

PFAW