First Amendment

The AFA Suddenly Decides The First Amendment Applies To More Than Just Congress

It seems as if the entire Religious Right is in high dudgeon right now over a situation in which lawyers representing the city of Houston sought to subpoena sermons from local pastors as part of a lawsuit filed by anti-gay activists in response to the rejection of their petitions calling for a referendum on a newly enacted anti-discrimination ordinance.

The city has already backed down, but that is not stopping Religious Right groups from hammering away at city officials and using the issue to promote their persecution complex, even if doing so undermines their own previous stances, as it does with groups like the American Family Association.

Today the AFA climbed on board the outrage bandwagon, sending out an action alert slamming Houston Mayor Annise Parker and urging activists to contact her to voice their outrage over this purported violation of the First Amendment:

The mayor is demanding that sermon notes, emails, videos, and any negative comments about homosexuality or the mayor herself, be turned over to her. If the pastors refuse, the mayor has threatened to charge them with contempt of court and possible fines or jail time.

...

The mayor is using intimidation, threats and bully tactics in an attempt to silence anyone who will not embrace her lesbian lifestyle.

Does the First Amendment mean nothing to Mayor Parker? Does religious freedom and freedom of speech mean nothing to Mayor Parker? Does the people’s petition process mean nothing to Mayor Parker?

This is a rather odd position for the AFA to take since Bryan Fischer, the AFA's Director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy and the organization's primary spokesperson, has repeatedly gone on record stating that the First Amendment only applies to Congress.

In addition to asserting that the First Amendment only protects Christianity and not other religions like Mormonism or Islam, Fischer also insists that the First Amendment was designed only to constrain Congress, which means that state and local government are not bound by its language prohibiting the establishment of an official religion or interfering with its free exercise.

Fischer has made this case time and again while arguing that local government are free to discriminate against non-Christian religions or appear to explicitly endorse Christianity, asserting that both are perfectly constitutional since the First Amendment applies only to Congress:

First, the amendment applies only to Congress. "Congress shall make no law..." No other entity is restrained by the First Amendment. Since the amendment applies only to Congress, it is legally, historically and constitutionally impossible for a state, a county commission, a city council, a school board, a school principal, a school teacher or a student to violate the First Amendment. This is for one simple reason: none of them is Congress. Violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do.

If the First Amendment only applies to Congress when it comes to establishing or discriminating against religion, as Fischer contends, then logically it must also only apply to Congress when it comes to restricting the free exercise of religion. And if that is the case, then city officials in Houston could not have possibly violated the First Amendment rights of local pastors by subpoenaing their sermons due to the simple fact that they are not Congress.

Fischer has repeatedly said on his AFA radio program and written on the AFA's website that "violating the First Amendment is something only Congress can do." If that is true, then why is the AFA now fuming about city officials in Houston supposedly violating the First Amendment, since that is not even technically possible, according to the organization's primary spokesperson?

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Sarah Palin So Clueless About First Amendment Even Fox News Has to Set Her Straight

Palin has been pushing her flawed interpretation of the First Amendment in defense of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. Watch!
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What Persecution Looks Like

Nothing like putting things in perspective.

At the end of a week in which Religious Right leaders, cable TV pundits, and conservative politicians acted as if freedom were being destroyed because a rich TV star was suspended for making offensive racist and anti-gay comments, the Parliament in Uganda passed a bill that threatens gay people with life in prison.

And with that vote, all the alarmist bluster about persecution from Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal and every Religious Right leader who saw a chance to boost year-end fundraising by jumping on the martyrdom bandwagon was made to look ridiculous.

This week’s news gave us plenty of evidence about real persecution, and it had nothing to do with Duck Dynasty. The face of persecution is not Phil Robertson, but the terrified LGBT people in Uganda who fear that they are about to be hunted.  Persecution looks like gay teenagers in Russia being beaten by thugs, and like gay parents who have the ability to leave Russia fleeing because anti-gay political leaders are threatening to take their children from them. Persecution looks like LGBT people all over the globe whose lives and freedom are threatened by new laws that enshrine discrimination and define them as criminals. Persecution looks like LGBT teens in Jamaica facing vigilante violence.  And on and on.

Newsweek reported a week ago that Ethiopia had declared war on gay men this year, noting, “A representative from the Ethiopian Inter-Religious Council Against Homosexuality announced that the council was making ‘promising’ progress in convincing the government to introduce the death penalty to punish ‘homosexual acts.’”

How do American conservative religious and political figures respond to this kind of persecution? Not with shouts of outrage but with enthusiastic cheering. It is no small irony that many of those most loudly screaming "persecution" over Robertson's suspension have been equally vocal supporters of international efforts to literally criminalize homosexuality. 

Brian Brown, Pat Buchanan, Matt Barber, and a sad parade of other religious conservatives fawn over Russia’s violently anti-democratic strongman Vladimir Putin as if he were Christendom’s new Defender of the Faith. Putin, in Barber’s words, is being allowed to “out-Christian our once-Christian nation.” (Of course many American Christians want nothing to do with Barber or his interpretation of the faith.)

And to their lasting shame, American Religious Right leaders’ financial and political support have been inflaming anti-gay passions in Uganda for years.  Lou Engle and Scott Lively actually traveled to Uganda and helped rally support for the bill. The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, who takes such umbrage at FRC’s designation as a hate group, dismissed criticism of the Uganda law in its earlier and more sinister incarnation, calling the proposed law an effort to “uphold moral conduct.”

There’s no indication that the Uganda bill’s passage is causing any noticeable soul-searching among the far right.  Far from it. The American Family Association’s always-repellant Bryan Fischer invoked the Duck Dynasty flap in celebrating the passage of the anti-gay law in Uganda: “Uganda stands with Phil. Makes homosexuality contrary to public policy. It can be done.”

Actually, as offensive as Phil Robertson’s statements were, they pale in comparison to Fischer’s. Robertson hasn’t suggested, as far as I know, that gay people should be arrested and put in prison for life. And I seriously doubt that Robertson has ever traveled to Russia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, or Australia to promote legal discrimination against and criminalization of LGBT people or anyone who advocates for equality, the way right-wing figures like Engle, Lively, Brown, Mat Staver, Peter LaBarbera, Paul Cameron, and others have.

No worries about the Olympics on the American Right.  In fact the Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society is excited about having its 2014 “World Congress of Families” summit in Moscow, which they see as a new stronghold for “traditional values” against the secular moral squalor of Western Europe.

Conservative activists were prepared to see Phil Robertson as a victim of religious persecution because they’ve been primed for years with the “religious liberty” narrative being pushed by Religious Right leaders and their conservative Catholic allies. They portray criticism as persecution. They equate being on the losing side of policy debates with being under the heel of oppression. And when courts and legislatures struggle with the challenge of balancing religious liberty with other constitutional values like equality under the law, they see only black-and-white battles between good and evil.

Their rhetoric cheapens and distorts the meaning of terms like tyranny. Anti-religious persecution is a violent, heartbreaking reality for Christians in many parts of the world. But not for the privileged and powerful figures in the United States who wrap themselves in the mantle of martyrdom.

The next time you hear some talking head on Fox talk about persecution, think about people in the Central African Republic who are caught in sectarian violence verging on genocide. Or think about LGBT people whose lives and freedom are threatened every day in the name of Christian values.  

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RE: Taking Back Our Democracy: Responding to Citizens United and the Rise of Super PACs

12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics – A People For the American Way Foundation Report with a Foreword by Bill Moyers

Washington, DC – The proper role of religion in American politics has been the subject of vigorous – and sometimes toxic – debate for over two centuries. Today, in the midst of campaign-season claims about America’s founding as a “Christian nation” and hyperbolic rhetoric about religious persecution, People For the American Way Foundation calls for a more constructive conversation with a new report, 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, authored by PFAW Foundation senior fellow Peter Montgomery with a foreword by journalist Bill Moyers.

"12 Rules" takes on a number of current debates, including those over required contraception insurance coverage, marriage equality, and the role of religion in the 2012 presidential campaign. This edition builds on earlier releases of "12 Rules" in 1984 and 1994.

The full report can be found online here. 

“Religious liberty is at the heart of what it means to be an American, but it is also at the center of some of our fiercest debates,” said Peter Montgomery. “How do we balance the constitutional principles of free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state when they come into tension with each other? And how can people of faith bring their religious values into the public arena without turning religion into a political club? As our religious landscape becomes increasingly diverse, it is important that we grapple with these issues in ways that are more constructive than divisive. We hope these Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics will launch many constructive conversations around these topics.”

“Our political climate is being poisoned by inflammatory charges of anti-religious and anti-Christian persecution,” said Michael Keegan, president of People For the American Way Foundation. “We can look around the world to see what religious persecution looks like, and we think it’s wrong to cry wolf over political and policy disputes. We are strong advocates for First Amendment freedoms. But something can be legal without being wise. The principles in this report should be embraced by people of all religious and political beliefswho long for a more respectful and responsible debate in the public arena.”

This new edition of "12 Rules" will be launched at an event in Washington, DC featuring a discussion with Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim American elected to Congress.

Read the full report, 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, here.  

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Freedom for 'Phobes

It has been known for years that Chick-fil-A supports right-wing groups. The company has given out gift cards at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit. At a recent Religious Right gathering, a speaker talked about how wonderful it was to live and work in Atlanta, where, he said, there’s a Baptist church on every corner and the streets are paved with Chick-fil-A.

So I am no fan of Chick-fil-A, but I’m a big fan of freedom, and that includes Chick-fil-A’s freedom to open its restaurants, even in cities where progressive political leaders don’t like the reactionary politics promoted by the company and its owners.

There’s been a robust campaign by advocates for LGBT equality to call more attention to Chick-fil-A’s contributions to “traditional family” groups, which total in the millions of dollars. But the feathers really flew when company president Dan Cathy made comments in an interview with Baptist Press bragging about his company’s position on marriage – “guilty as charged” -- and his comments to an Atlanta radio station.

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” said Cathy.

I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about,” he added.

It’s no surprise that Cathy’s comments have stirred supporters of LGBT equality to respond. Much of that response has been in the best traditions of free speech and protest. In Washington, D.C., this week, the Human Rights Campaign organized a protest in front of a Chick-Fil-A food truck. Other activists have rallied outside Chick-Fil-A stores and some students have protested the company’s presence on their campuses.

In addition, a number of political leaders have spoken out in defense of marriage equality and in opposition to the company’s support for discrimination. Twenty years ago, I would never have imagined elected officials taking the time to publicly criticize a business on behalf of the ability of same-sex couples to get married. It’s a good thing – a sign of amazing progress.

But a couple of politicians have gone too far – suggesting that the power of government should be used to prevent the company from opening restaurants based on its political donations and the positions of its owners. That’s not a good thing. As a matter of principle, the government shouldn’t treat individuals differently based on their political or religious beliefs, or companies based on the political activities and contributions of their owners.  As others have noted, we wouldn’t want cities or states to have the power to prevent the opening of stores whose owners support LGBT equality or other progressive causes. 

People For the American Way’s headquarters is located in the District of Columbia, where elected officials have recognized that LGBT people should be treated equally under the law. DC’s progressive public policies stand in stark contrast to the anti-equality work of groups like the Family Research Council, but we would never suggest that the DC government could or should have prevented FRC from planting its headquarters in the center of downtown DC. Our commitment to freedom and equality should extend to those who don’t share it.

PFAW Foundation
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