The following is a guest blog by Beth Huang, 2010 Fellow of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program.
Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in two critical cases with major implications for working women. The Supreme Court ruled once again that corporations are people, this time conferring religious rights that trump workers’ rights to access full healthcare. In a dissent to the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg noted “that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month's full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.” Justice Ginsberg’s dissent reveals the real impacts of denying coverage of contraception for low-wage working women -- something the slim five-justice, all-male majority fails to comprehend.
To compound the attack on working women, five male Justices severely undermined the ability of care workers – 95 percent of whom are women – to collectively bargain in the case Harris v. Quinn. This assault on working people stems from the Justices’ view that the care workers in the case are not “real” public employees and thus the union cannot charge the appropriate agency fee to all of them for its bargaining services. This ruling serves the interests of anti-worker extremists at the expense of these invaluable workers who care for our families and our children.
It’s clear: a majority of Justices are trampling over the rights of working women. In light of these attacks, it’s time to organize for gender equity and economic justice for working women.
Back in 2010 when I was a student, Young People For helped me develop organizing skills that have led me to effectively advocate for and with women and workers. Through my work in student labor organizing as an undergraduate and since graduation, I have seen that workers’ rights are women’s rights, from having access to comprehensive healthcare to having a voice on the job. To build an economy that works for today’s students and youth, we need to organize locally and train new leaders in the broad effort to advance our agenda for gender equity and economic justice.
At the Student Labor Action Project a joint project of Jobs with Justice and the United States Student Association, we’re doing just that by building student power to advance an agenda that protects the rights of current workers and promotes a more just economy for students to enter when they graduate. Our campaigns focus on demanding funding for public higher education, which we know is a major source of good jobs and upward mobility for women and people of color; pushing back on Wall Street profits that fuel the student debt crisis; and raising the working conditions for Walmart workers, 57 percent of whom are women.
The Supreme Court’s decisions last week underscored the urgency of organizing for these changes. Women’s access to equal rights, power in the workplace, and comprehensive healthcare depends on it.
Days after the Supreme Court handed down its damaging 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, SCOTUS issued an order that underscored the danger that Hobby Lobby poses for women’s health.
In Wheaton College v. Burwell, SCOTUS temporarily granted relief to Wheaton College, a religious institution that is “categorically” opposed to providing contraceptive services, from the contraception coverage compromise solution that the Court explicitly endorsed in Hobby Lobby. The order says that Wheaton may be exempt from submitting a form that would inform the government that they object to covering birth control. Wheaton College argued that submitting this form would make it “complicit in the provision of contraceptive coverage.” The temporary order indicates that the Court’s majority may accept this problematic argument.
In what Think Progress called a “blistering dissent” to the order, Justice Sonia Sotomayor — joined by the two other female Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — sharply criticized the order. Sotomayor wrote in the dissent:
“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.”
While this order is temporary until the case may be heard in front of the Court, the female Justices’ strong dissent demonstrates not only the division within the Court, but also the importance of having diversity on our courts. Women on the bench provide a critically important perspective on all cases, but especially those that deal with women’s lives. It is more important than ever, when women’s rights are under assault, that women are more fairly represented at all levels of government.
WASHINGTON — In response to today’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., People For the American Way Foundation President Michael Keegan released the following statement:
“Arguing that ‘closely held’ for-profit corporations have religious rights and can use those ‘rights’ to deny needed health care to employees is absurd. Threatening to prevent millions of women from accessing birth control doesn’t protect anyone’s religious liberty — it is a distortion of the very idea of religious liberty.
“Unfortunately, this decision is not surprising coming from a Court that ruled only four years ago that corporations have the political rights of real people. Hobby Lobby is one more step in the Supreme Court majority’s ongoing attack on the rights of everyday Americans, handing corporations even greater power over our lives. What rights will corporations be given next? This decision opens up a minefield, potentially paving the way for all kinds of harmful claims in the name of corporate religious rights.”
Earlier this year, People For the American Way Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin authored a report on the case titled, “The Gospel of Citizens United: In Hobby Lobby, Corporations Pray for the Right to Deny Workers Contraception.”
WASHINGTON –Chairman Patrick Leahy announced yesterday that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on June 25 on the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA), legislation intended to repair damage done by the Supreme Court last year in Shelby County v. Holder. People For the American Way's Executive Vice President Marge Baker released the following statement:
“Chairman Leahy and the Judiciary Committee should be commended for taking an important step toward correcting the damage done by last year’s Shelby decision. The right to vote is the most fundamental right in our democracy, which is why we need a modern, effective Voting Rights Act to protect it. We urge the Senate to move quickly on this, and the House to follow suit. With another national election looming, now is the time to move forward to protect the right to vote for all.”
The day of the Senate hearing will mark one year since the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby decision. While a bipartisan group of House members joined Chairman Leahy to introduce the VRAA in January, the House Judiciary Committee has yet to schedule a hearing.
Sometimes the damage from a bad court decision takes a while to make itself clear. Not so with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a town’s practice of beginning council meetings with prayers that are overwhelmingly Christian. Conservative political and legal groups called it a win for religious freedom, but it only took a few days to see just how much unnecessary and divisive conflict the Court’s decision could generate in communities across America.
Late last week the mayor of the New Jersey town of Carteret cited the Supreme Court ruling to justify cancelling the use of the borough hall for a Saturday naturalization ceremony. He was upset that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to allow the ceremony to begin with prayer. The INS says its rules are meant to ensure that naturalization ceremonies are "conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements." But Mayor Daniel Reiman said the INS could "host its godless ceremony someplace else." (It was held in Newark.)
What a sad object lesson for those aspiring American citizens and their friends and families. Who knows how many different faiths were represented among them? It shouldn’t matter, because one of the most precious benefits of being an American is that your rights and standing as a citizen do not depend on your holding any particular set of religious beliefs.
But don’t tell that to Al Bedrosian, a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. Last week after the Supreme Court ruling, Bedrosian declared that prayers to open board meetings should be given only by Christians. It is shameful that Bedrosian holds public office in Virginia, home of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the birthplace of the First Amendment. Bedrosian argued publicly several years ago that Christians should “rid ourselves of this notion of freedom of religion in America.” He said Christians “are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions” and called it one of the “greatest moments in US Senate history” when a group of Christians disrupted a Hindu religious leader who was giving an opening prayer.
Both Reiman and Bedrosian are misinterpreting the Court’s decision. But these episodes bring even greater clarity to a reality to which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court demonstrated “blindness” – in the words of dissenting Justice Elena Kagan. That is the exclusionary and divisive reality – as opposed to the theory – of government bodies opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.
The case decided by the Supreme Court came concerned the upstate New York town of Greece. For years, the town council has been inviting local clergy to open its meetings. Those clergy have been overwhelmingly Christian, and their prayers were sometimes highly sectarian, invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These were not, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, ceremonial invocations like the “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” which begins Supreme Court sessions.
The town’s prayer policy was challenged by two citizens (one Jew and one atheist) who felt coerced by the invitations to Christian prayer, and who felt as if they were being made outsiders in their own town based on their religious beliefs. They argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted as preventing the government from favoring religion in general or any religion in particular.
Some people, particularly those in the religious majority, have a hard time seeing why such prayer is a big deal. As Paul Waldman writes for the Washington Post, “the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”
But imagine, as Kagan did, a Muslim who has come before the city council seeking a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. When she is asked to join in prayer celebrating the divinity of Jesus, she has the option of not participating, or leaving the room. Either option identifies her as somehow different from her neighbors and from the councilmembers who will decide the fate of her request. A federal appeals court had ruled that the town’s practice was unconstitutional because, even if town officials had no bad intent, the consequence of the nearly uninterrupted parade of Christian prayers was to signal that Christianity was favored, and to make unequal citizens of people of other faiths or no faith.
Unfortunately, five Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying even an overwhelmingly Christian and sectarian prayer practice is OK unless there is a pattern of prayers denigrating other faiths or proselytizing or unless there is evidence that people are being legally coerced or punished for not participating. The Court has given a green light to “Christian Nation” advocates like Al Bedrosian to demand that their city council or county commission allow their official meetings to be regularly opened with explicitly Christian prayers. Some Religious Right leaders have said that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
Right now, practices vary. Some government bodies don’t bother with prayer; others invite clergy to open meetings, with guidelines that prayers be respectful or nonsectarian. But even that nod toward pluralism is at risk: Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said this ruling means government bodies can no longer make a distinction between nonsectarian prayer and “praying in Jesus’ name” and he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that will have an impact on a number of cases.”
It’s worth noting that some progressive Christians agree that “nonsectarian prayer” is a kind of oxymoron. But, says Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore, that is not a reason to push for sectarian prayer; it is instead a reason to do away with legislative prayer altogether. He writes that the effort to push more prayer in official settings is “offensive to those who pray as much as to those who don’t.” The pro-church-state-separation Baptist Joint Committee had filed a brief in the case stating that “prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of government.”
That brings us to a crucial distinction between what is constitutional and what is wise, particularly in a country that is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. As noted in People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, “Some things that are legally permissible may still be damaging to religious tolerance and civic discourse, and should be discouraged.”
The Supreme Court did not rule that legislative bodies have to begin their meetings with prayer; it ruled that the Constitution allows them to. In spite of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s portrayal of legislative prayer as a unifying force, it seems likely that an aggressive push for more sectarian prayer to open official meetings will be anything but unifying. Elected officials should think twice before going down that road.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he prays that the Court is showing a way toward “a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life.” But Moore is wrong: we already have a free marketplace of faith expression in America. The First Amendment has fostered a vibrant, flourishing, peaceful religious pluralism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Christian media has a massive presence on television, radio, and online. But what too many “Christian Nation” advocates want, and what the Court is opening the door to, is a system in which a religious majority can more easily use the institutions of government to promote its religious beliefs and label others as outsiders.
And that is not the American Way.
WASHINGTON – In response to the Supreme Court’s decision today in Shelby County v. Holder, People For the American Way Foundation President Michael Keegan released the following statement:
“As the Supreme Court swerves further to the right, our constitutional liberties continue to take a beating. Today, the Supreme Court seriously undermined an important piece of the premier civil rights legislation of the past century – legislation that civil rights heroes gave their lives for. This decision sends a chilling message to all those Americans who continue to face politically-motivated hurdles on their way to the ballot box.
“In his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts pledged to behave like an umpire—just calling balls and strikes, and staying out of the game. Today that umpire upended decades of civil rights law. His decision substitutes his own opinions for the findings of America’s elected representatives in Congress, who found numerous cases of ongoing, racially-based political gerrymandering and trickery. Moreover, it does so in an area in which the Constitution specifically and intentionally gives Congress wide discretion. Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act received near unanimous support in both houses of Congress just a few years ago, and was signed into law by President Bush. Today’s decision is a blatantly inappropriate exercise in legislating from the bench. Conservatives who have spent decades decrying judicial activism should take note.
“In two separate cases yesterday, Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to fix the damage done by decisions handed down by our nation’s highest court. That need is even greater today. Congress should move quickly to enact a coverage formula under Section 4 to protect voters whose right to participate in our democracy was badly undermined today. The American people deserve no less.”
WASHINGTON – In response to the Supreme Court decisions in Vance v. Ball State University, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, and Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, People For the American Way Foundation President Michael B. Keegan released the following statement:
“In three closely divided decisions today, the five far-right Justices again opted to side with powerful corporations rather than protect the rights of individual workers and consumers. These decisions are just the latest example of this Supreme Court majority’s ideological agenda that undercuts the rights of everyday Americans.
“In her Vance dissent, Justice Ginsburg hit the nail on the head when she described instances of real-life work harassment and noted that ‘as anyone with work experience would immediately grasp,’ the reality faced by workers is very different from the assumptions of the Court’s right-wing majority. But as the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc has proven again today, rulings from this court follow the dictates of power—not law—and are entirely disconnected from the realities of most Americans. The highest court in the land has made clear that it’s committed to laying a blueprint for corporations to have free rein to trample the rights of individuals.”