The Supreme Court today announced that it will hear several cases involving the accommodation for religious nonprofits seeking to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage requirement. This is not a surprise; as People For the American Way Foundation wrote in its Supreme Court 2015-2016 Term Preview:
Under the accommodation, the employers simply tell the insurer or the federal government of their objection, at which point the insurer must offer the coverage separately to employees who want it. This way, the employees can get the coverage without their employers having to contract, arrange, or pay for it. But some religious nonprofits assert that even the accommodation violates their religious liberty under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Under RFRA, no federal law imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise can be sustained unless it is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government purpose.
The list of circuit courts that have roundly rejected this argument is long: The DC Circuit, the Second Circuit, Third Circuit, the Fifth Circuit, the Sixth Circuit, the Seventh Circuit, and the Tenth Circuit. But in September 2015, the Eighth Circuit ruled in favor of the nonprofits and found the accommodation violated RFRA. Now that there is a circuit split, it seems likely that the Supreme Court will take up the issue via the appeals from one or more of these circuit decisions.
The premise of those challenging the accommodation is a severe distortion of RFRA and of the very concept of religious liberty set forth by the Court’s hard-right conservatives in the 5-4 ruling in Hobby Lobby. That law was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1993 as a means to protect the free exercise of religion. But conservative ideologues have sought to transform RFRA from a shield into a sword, one that they can use to violate the rights of third parties. The right wing’s enthusiastic embrace of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis shows just how far they want to extend the reasoning of Hobby Lobby.
Here, the conservatives argue that filling out a form so that insurance companies can know about their legal obligations to provide certain coverage is a substantial burden on the exercise of their religion. That strained reasoning is a cynical use of religion to deprive women of needed healthcare, an effort to force women employees to live by their employers’ religious strictures rather than their own. But what the Supreme Court said about the First Amendment in a 1985 case called Estate of Thornton v. Caldor is equally true of RFRA:
The First Amendment . . . gives no one the right to insist that in pursuit of their own interests others must conform their conduct to his own religious necessities. [quoting from a lower court opinion by Judge Learned Hand]
Justice Kennedy, who voted with the Hobby Lobby majority, is likely to be the deciding vote in this case. His concurrence in Hobby Lobby hinted that he might not go as far as his fellow conservatives in granting people the latitude to use RFRA to deprive others of their rights:
Among the reasons the United States is so open, so tolerant, and so free is that no person may be restricted or demeaned by government in exercising his or her religion. Yet neither may that same exercise unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling. In these cases [involving for-profit employers] the means to reconcile those two priorities are at hand in the existing accommodation the Government has designed, identified, and used for circumstances closely parallel to those presented here [the accommodation for religious non-profits].
Given the circuit split on the accommodation for religious nonprofits, the Supreme Court had little choice but to take this issue on. They do have a choice, however, in how they rule. Hopefully, a majority of justices will take the first step in restoring RFRA to the law it was intended to be.
The Supreme Court finished its session on Monday, ending a term filled with landmark decisions regarding fair housing, marriage equality, and healthcare.
On Wednesday, PFAW hosted a telebriefing for members about the end of the Court’s term and the implications of several cases. PFAW Communications Director Drew Courtney moderated a dialogue among PFAW Senior Fellows Elliot Mincberg and Jamie Raskin, Right Wing Watch researcher Miranda Blue, and PFAW Executive Vice President for Policy and Program Marge Baker.
Raskin covered Obergefell v. Hodges and Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. He first noted that Obergefell would not be possible without the “many decades of intense social struggle and millions of people coming out of the closet” which created a momentous societal shift in public opinion of LGBT rights. The Arizona case, which effectively obstructed state legislature’s gerrymandering efforts, was also a huge triumph for democracy, because, as Raskin notes, “the whole point of democracy is that power begins and resides with people.”
Mincberg discussed King v. Burwell as well as Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project—two cases that, according to Mincberg, represent “attempts by the far right to push legal theories that had been rejected by the lower courts over and over again.” The fair rulings in both cases have led many analysts to assume an overall shift left in the Court; however, Mincberg asserts that their inclusion on the docket in the first place contradicts this assumption.
Finally, Blue reviewed reactions from the Religious Right regarding the marriage decision from this session. Presidential candidates and conservative pundits alike have voiced their disapproval of the decision, with responses ranging from terrorist attack predictions to calls for a revolution. “This is a defining moment for the Religious Right,” said Blue. “It’s a test of whether the movement can survive into the future as it exists now.”
At the end of the briefing, Courtney asked the panelists about the next session of the court, including a union case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, that was recently added to the docket. Raskin labeled the case as “the new wedge to destroy unions,” and another GOP attempt to use legal doctrine to undermine progressive initiatives like public sector unions.
Listen to the full briefing here:
People For the American Way Action Fund today endorsed a slate of young progressive candidates running for the Michigan State Legislature. The endorsements are part of PFAW Action Fund’s Young Elected Progressives (YEP) program that supports progressive candidates age 35 and younger. The Michigan candidates endorsed today are a diverse mix of progressive leaders who are positioned to make Michigan’s legislature be more inclusive and accountable.
“These candidates are the best and brightest young progressive candidates running for the legislature in Michigan,” said PFAW Political Director Randy Borntrager. “They are people-oriented folks from all walks of life who will fight for social, economic, and environmental justice, and promote equality for all. Their leadership in their communities demonstrates a progressive vision that will benefit all Michiganders.”
People For the American Way Action Fund is proud to endorse the following Michigan YEP candidates for 2014:
• Stephanie Chang – MI House District 6
• Jon Hoadley – MI House District 60
• David Knezek – MI Senate District 5
• Kristy Pagan – MI House District 21
• Rebecca Thompson – MI District 1
• Robert Wittenberg – MI House District 27
People For the American Way Action Fund today announced its endorsements of a slate of young progressive candidates running for the Michigan State Legislature. The endorsees include a diverse mix of 35-and-younger candidates running for the Michigan state House of Representatives and state Senate, representing a new generation of progressive leaders who will put Michigan’s legislature back-on-track towards a common sense, inclusive, accountable public policy agenda for the state’s future. Their leadership represents a progressive vision that will benefit all Michiganders as they fight for social, economic, environmental justice and equality for all.
The endorsements are part of People For the American Way Action Fund’s Young Elected Progressives (YEP) program. YEP evaluates and endorses young progressive candidates age 35-and-younger in their bids for elected office around the U.S. at all levels.
People For the American Way Action Fund is proud to endorse these Michigan YEP candidates for 2014:
Stephanie Chang – MI House District 6
Running for Michigan’s House of Representatives District 6, Stephanie Chang is a Michigander whose dedication to the community has benefited many. Chang has worked around the state advocating for Affirmative Action, serving as a mentor for Detroit Asian Youth Project, and promoting a fair justice system. Chang’s knowledge and breadth of experience in Michigan make her an important leader for the state as she fights for social, economic, and environmental justice. Visit Stephanie’s page for more details.
Jon Hoadley – MI House District 60
Jon Hoadley is the clear choice to represent Michigan’s 60th District in the state House of Representatives. Hoadley, a small business owner and member of several advocacy organizations in Kalamazoo, is deeply ingrained and in tune with the needs of his community, which makes him the ideal representative. He has already worked to better Kalamazoo advocating for full LGBTQ equality, creating strong and sustainable public schools, and protecting the environment. Visit Jon’s page for more details.
David Knezek – MI Senate District 5
David Knezek is running for Michigan state Senate’s 5th District and has proven that he is the ideal candidate for the position. Knezek is a true leader, having been promoted to the rank of Sergeant during his time in the U.S. Marine Corps. At the University of Michigan-Dearborn, he was elected Student Government President, and in his senior year of college he was elected to be a Michigan state representative. Knezek has proven that he will advocate for his community and improve education, public safety, and job opportunities for Michigan citizens. Visit David’s page for more details.
Kristy Pagan – MI House District 21
Born and bred in Michigan, Kristy Pagan is the ideal candidate for the 21st District of Michigan’s state House of Representatives. She has worked in Washington, D.C. as a legislative aide and a national grassroots organizer. Her determination to serve coupled with her knowledge of and dedication to Michigan will serve the state well. Pagan is a true progressive, and has both the resolve and the passion to reform Michigan’s educational system, advocate for women and children, and improve job growth. Visit Kristy's page for more details.
Rebecca Thompson – MI District 1
Rebecca Thompson is running for election to the 1st District of the Michigan state House of Representatives. Thompson was born and raised in Detroit, and overcame experiences with poverty and homelessness to become a leader in the community. She has worked tirelessly to better Detroit for everyone, using her own experiences to positively impact those around her. Thompson is passionate about affordable education, improving safety, protecting women’s rights, and advocating for her community. Visit Rebecca's page for more details.
Robert Wittenberg – MI House District 27
Robert Wittenberg is running to represent District 27 in the Michigan state House of Representatives. After being inspired by his parents’ and brothers’ work, he is determined to follow in their footsteps and serve his community. As a public servant, he advocates for full equality for the LGBTQ community, increased public transportation, and access to healthcare for all. Visit Robert's page for more details.
Today People For the American Way Action Fund announced its endorsement of Ariana Kelly for delegate in Maryland’s 16th Legislative District.
Ariana Kelly currently serves Maryland’s 16th District in the House of Delegates. She is one of six primary candidates for the three delegate seats. First elected in 2010, Kelly is the former national campaign director for MomsRising.org. Prior to that she served as executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, and served on the board of directors of the Democratic Women’s PAC of Maryland. A lifelong Democrat and native of Bethesda, Kelly is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As delegate, she has been a strong advocate for women’s rights, education, and access to healthcare. She serves on the health and government operations committee, the insurance subcommittee, and the bi-county agency committee. Kelly was named Legislator of the Year by the Mental Health Association of Maryland, won the Young Woman of Achievement Award from the Women’s Information Network, and is secretary for the Women Legislators of Maryland.
“Ariana Kelly is a committed champion for women, survivors of domestic violence, and children, who has established herself as a true leader,” said Randy Borntrager, PFAW Political Director. “She is a true progressive leader who will fight for a better future as delegate.”
Visit Ariana Kelly’s campaign website for more details.
In a 5 to 4 decision released today, the Supreme Court upheld President Obama’s Affordable Care Act legislation, enacted by Congress in 2010 to address rising healthcare costs and reduce the number of Americans without health insurance.
People For the American Way President Michael Keegan released the following statement:
“Today’s decision is an important win for the American people. The Court recognized that our Constitution gives Congress the authority to address the challenges that face our nation—and that Congress acted appropriately by using its power to address the crisis in our health care system.
“What’s shocking about this decision is that it isn’t unanimous. By any reasonable standard, the constitutionality of Obamacare is not a close question. Ultra-conservative ideologues have been remarkably successful in pushing the Court far, far to the right and in using the Court to advance their political ideology. If the right-wing Justices on this Court want to write our laws, they should run for Congress; if they’d rather remain on the bench, they should do their own jobs, not someone else’s.
“Today’s close call will make the Supreme Court a major issue for progressives and independents. Mitt Romney’s decision to appoint Robert Bork as his chief advisor on judicial nominations makes it clear that he’s interested in stacking the Court with more of the kind of Justices who wanted to scrap protections for children and people with preexisting conditions. Voters will remember this decision when they go to the polls in November.”
To no one's surprise, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has rejected President Obama's compromise that respects both the rights of women to contraception and the religious liberty of employers who are affiliated with religious organizations opposed to birth control. Under the compromise, church-affiliated organizations will not be paying for contraception, and insurance carriers will bear the cost of providing it to women without a co-pay or deductible. The Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities quickly announced that their concerns had been addressed, and that their religious liberty would not be impaired by the modified rules. Some Republicans such as Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are similarly satisfied.
Yet the Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as Republican congressional leaders and presidential candidates, are declaring that the compromise is part of a larger war against religious liberty. Senate Republicans are even suggesting that the birth control coverage requirement threatens the religious liberty of employers completely unconnected to religious organizations. But since these forces have so often similarly and wrongly categorized many government policies they disagree with, it is hard to take the claim seriously.
Religious liberty is one of the core protections of the United States Constitution, one whose importance cannot be overstated. And there are times when it may be proper to allow certain religious-based exemptions from generally applicable laws, such as conscientious objector status in a military context. But those are the exceptions, not the rule: We generally do not give people the right to be exempt from laws they disapprove of simply because their disapproval is religiously based.
In the current debate over health insurance, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and its partners use the language of universal religious liberty. But their February 10 news release explaining why they oppose the coverage requirement makes clear that they are making this claim only for the religious liberty of people who share their specific religious beliefs about contraception and abortion:
First, we objected to the rule forcing private health plans — nationwide, by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen—to cover sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion. ...
Second, we explained that the mandate would impose a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider such "services" immoral: insurers forced to write policies including this coverage; employers and schools forced to sponsor and subsidize the coverage; and individual employees and students forced to pay premiums for the coverage. We therefore urged HHS, if it insisted on keeping the mandate, to provide a conscience exemption for all of these stakeholders—not just the extremely small subset of "religious employers" that HHS proposed to exempt initially.
Their statement was notably silent about conscience protections for other religious beliefs. They have not been talking about the right of employers from denominations that generally reject modern medical intervention to not provide their employees health insurance at all. Matthew Yglesias asked in a blog post this week if they would rush to the defense of an employer named Abdul Hussain who refused on religious reasons to offer employees health insurance that lets employees visit doctors of the opposite sex. If you really thought the principle of religious liberty was at stake, would you be satisfied with a fix that addresses only your religious beliefs but ignores everyone else's?
Whether it's contraception, marriage equality, or abortion, "religious liberty" has too often been used as a feint to disguise an aggressive demand for special rights. Specifically, the radical right regularly demands exemptions for conservative Christians and those who share their beliefs from laws they don't like.
Even when they promote "conscience" legislation with broad language that seems to be applicable to all religious beliefs, their selectivity in demanding such laws is telling. For instance, the "conscience" provisions in marriage equality legislation are generally expressed in general terms not specific to gays and lesbians' marriages, but those provisions are only inserted into state law when gays and lesbians are finally allowed to marry. Such provisions were being pushed last year in Maryland, for instance, but when the marriage equality bill failed to pass, self-proclaimed religious liberty proponents on the right made no effort to adopt the conscience provisions that would then have only affected opposite-sex married couples. Nor are right-wing groups loudly demanding such religious liberty provisions in states with DOMA-style laws like Texas, Oklahoma, and Utah. In states like these, where marriage rights for same-sex couples are foreclosed, the right is not demanding the type of "conscience" provisions for groups not providing services to married couples that they demand in states where gays can marry. In cases like these, what they claim is a general religious liberty protection is clearly designed to hurt one group and one group only.
Consider the irony of right-wing groups who crusade against what they call "special rights" for LGBT people demanding statutory exemptions solely for their own particular religious beliefs. Can there be a better example of demanding "special rights?"