Yesterday, People For the American Way members participated in a special telebriefing to discuss the Supreme Court term that wrapped up this Monday and to unpack some of the critical decisions handed down by the Court this year. The call, which was kicked off by PFAW President Michael Keegan and moderated by Director of Communications Drew Courtney, featured Senior Fellows Jamie Raskin and Elliot Mincberg, as well as Executive Vice President Marge Baker.
Discussing Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Raskin explained the case and the damaging implications of the 5-4 decision. Highlighting the “extreme and extravagant” claim made by Hobby Lobby that its religious rights were violated, Raskin described the court’s decision that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act covers “closely held” corporations and noted that this creates a “dangerous expansion of corporate personhood.” Raskin described how this exemplifies the Court in the Citizens United era, where the far right Justices regularly find ways to rule so they can enhance the power of corporations.
Mincberg also provided background on RFRA and explained how the law was distorted and expanded in this decision far beyond what anyone had in mind when it passed by an enormous bipartisan majority 20 years ago.
Members wanted to know what actions can be taken to help address the imbalance in the Court and the troubling decisions made by the Roberts’ Court in the last few years. Baker addressed the issue of rebalancing the Court, emphasizing the importance of presidential elections on the Court’s make-up.
Listen to the full audio of the telebriefing for more information.
Religious Right groups are celebrating yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding sectarian prayer at official public meetings – like city council sessions – and narrowly defining what would amount to unconstitutional religious coercion of people attending. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway.
Though divided on their reasoning, the Court’s five conservative Justices upheld a practice in which, month after month, year after year, town leaders reached out to Christians and Christians only to offer opening prayers at town meetings, prayers that were often quite sectarian in nature. The very few exceptions were in response to this lawsuit. Although town leaders said that members of other religions could lead the opening prayer if they asked to, they had hardly let that be widely known, and they continued to reach out only to Christians.
SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston characterized the Court’s ruling as “[s]topping just short of abandoning a historic barrier to religion in government activity.” Conservative and religious groups hostile to church-state separation are gushing over the ruling and hope it is a sign of more to come.
The Becket Fund signaled that it hopes yesterday’s decision will just be the first step in further dismantling rulings upholding church-state separation. From Deputy General Counsel Eric Rassbach:
“The Court’s landmark decision today echoes the wisdom of the Founders. Not only did the Court uphold the centuries-old practice of legislative prayer, it also started the work of bringing the entire law of church and state onto a firmer foundation in the words of the Constitution.”
David Corman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the Town of Greece:
“Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced,” he said. “Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”
The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer celebrated the ruling as a “monster win” and said it was proof that “we are fighting a winnable war,” because the “Supreme Court has ruled that you can have sectarian prayers, prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, to open any legislative session, any lawmaking body – a county commission can do it, a city council can do it, a state government can do it.”
Fischer he went on at great length endorsing Justice Clarence Thomas’s position that the First Amendment does not limit states’ constitutional right to, for example, declare the Southern Baptist Church to be the official state church and force people to support the church with taxes. Fischer, in fact, called Thomas “a stud on the issue of religious liberty.” (Fischer says he wouldn’t personally support coercive state establishment, but he supports Thomas’s constitutional analysis, and says it should be applied to interpret that the federal government has no right to tell public schools whether and how prayer is permitted.) Fischer is delighted that the Supreme Court’s majority decision discussed the fact that the Continental Congress opened with “emphatically Christian” prayer.
Hallelujah! Today YOU helped score a VICTORY at the U.S. Supreme Court, reaching the pinnacle of seven years of work and prayer with The Pray In Jesus Name Project.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it's OK for pastors to pray "in Jesus' name" at city council meetings.
"The court today has upheld our first and most fundamental freedom. The court has rejected the idea that as citizens we must check our faith at the entrance to the public square. We applaud the majority on the court for getting that right. This is an historic victory for all Americans of faith and for the common-sense reading of the Constitution itself. The Court's affirmation of the right of Americans to practice their faith in public life and the public square is a major win for the religious liberty we have always cherished.”
Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition called it a victory that would empower Religious Right activists to push elected officials to bring sectarian prayer into more official settings:
Reed also announced that, armed with today’s Supreme Court decision, Faith & Freedom Coalition would redouble its efforts to encourage opportunities for prayers offered at meetings by town boards, city councils, and county commissions nationwide. The organization has in the past mobilized public support for local officials who have allowed such prayers at government meetings.
“Speech honoring God and invoking His blessing on our land should be welcomed, not treated with hostility,” said Reed. “With today’s decision, the government officials that faith-based voters help to elect can provide a forum for such expressions without fear of being reversed by future courts.”
Concerned Women for America celebrated, saying the decision “lifts up the best in our country.” CWA President Penny Nance managed to slam what she said has been “a push to establish atheism as the official religion of our land” and claim that the Supreme Court’s ruling was a win for everyone, “even the staunchest atheists.”
Those who object to these practices do not seek to exercise their religious liberty; they merely feel hostile towards other people’s religious practices and seek to silence them. They seek to silence those with whom they disagree….
The Founders of this great nation benefited and relied heavily on prayer to seek the guidance they needed to establish the foundations of our nation. When the first Congress met on September 7, 1774, it began with an amazing prayer “in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.” No religious oppression or favoritism followed from that practice, only the blessings of freedom and liberty, including the freedom of religious thought, belief, or even non-belief.
Everyone wins, including the staunchest atheists, when we allow the free exercise of religion or non-religion according to a person’s conscience.
Fox News pundit Todd Starnes, who specializes in promoting fictitious threats to religious freedom, declared that “the Obama administration has been waging a war against people of the Christian faith,” somehow neglecting to mention that the Obama administration had actually weighed in on the side of the Town of Greece and its overwhelmingly Christian prayers. Starnes said it is “always a good day when the anti-Christian folks get smacked down by the Supreme Court” but said the fact that it was a 5-4 decision should be a “wake-up call” for Americans that elections matter.
Gary Bauer made the same point:
Here's the good news: The Supreme Court today upheld public prayers, even Christian prayers, at government meetings in 5-to-4 decision.
But that is the bad news too! The free exercise of religion depends on just one vote….
Now a win is a win. But don't miss the fact that this victory for religious liberty was won by the narrowest of margins. One more liberal appointment and the Supreme Court could easily ban prayers before town council meetings and legislative sessions. If that were to happen, our Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto would surely be next.
Your vote at the ballot box has a direct impact on our federal courts. Federal judges, including those on the Supreme Court, are appointed (by the president) and confirmed (by the Senate) by the men and women we elect to public office.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today overturned a ruling by the Second Circuit appeals court and upheld the practice of an upstate New York town that begins its council meetings with prayers that are almost always given by Christian clergy. Religious Right groups are celebrating the ruling; Ralph Reed announced that his Faith and Freedom coalition would use the ruling to “redouble its efforts” to encourage more prayers at city and county government meetings. Both the decision and the Religious Right's responses are likely to invite more religiously divisive church-state conflicts.
Justice Clarence Thomas used his concurring opinion to argue, as he has before, that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not apply to the states at all; in other words, he believes there is no constitutional reason that a state cannot have an official religion. Fortunately, the decision in this case is far narrower than that.
It is, as Justice Stephen Breyer says in the opening sentence of his dissent, a “fact-sensitive” case. It did not revolve around the question of whether legislative prayer is unconstitutional – the Court has previously upheld legislative prayer in Marsh v Chambers – but in part whether the way clergy were invited to give prayers to open town council meetings was sufficiently inclusive. In Breyer’s words,
“The question in this case is whether the prayer practice of the town of Greece, by doing too little to reflect the religious diversity of its citizens, did too much, even if unintentionally, to promote the ‘political division along religious lines’ that ‘was one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect.’” [quoting from the Court’s 1971 decision in Lemon v Kurtzman]
Also at issue was whether a town council meeting, at which members of the public are appealing to councilmembers for specific action, is more susceptible to being a coercive environment than a prayer given by a chaplain to a group of lawmakers about to start their legislative day. For example, the council hears debates on individual applications from residents and business owners seeing zoning permits and other licenses. In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan recognizes that the Court has upheld the historical tradition of legislative prayer, but writes that the town hall meetings in Greece are a kind of hybrid, “occasions for ordinary citizens to engage with and petition their government, often on highly individualized matters.” That, she says, requires special care that each member of the community is respected as an equal citizen, something the Town of Greece has not done.
While the plaintiffs in the Town of Greece case did not argue that town leaders were motivated by religious bias, they argued that the selection process led almost exclusively to prayers being given by Christian ministers, and to prayers that were not just ceremonial invocations but quite explicitly sectarian. Kagan writes that town meetings need not be religion-free zones, saying that “pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality,” but concluded that the board of the Town of Greece did nothing to recognize religious diversity, and that its practice “does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” She offers a hypothetical of a Muslim resident coming before the board to see a zoning variance to build an addition on her home:
“But just before she gets to say her piece, a minister deputized by the Town asks her to pray ‘in the name of God’s only son Jesus Christ.’ She must think – it is hardly paranoia, but only the truth—that Christian worship has become entwined with local governance. And now she faces a choice—to pray alongside the majority as one of that group or somehow to register her deeply felt difference….She does not wish to be rude to her neighbors, nor does she wish to aggravate the Board members whom she will soon be trying to persuade. And yet she does not want to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, any more than many of her neighbors would want to deny that tenet. So assume she declines to participate with the others in the first act of the meeting—or even, as the majority proposes, that she sands up and leaves the room altogether…At the least, she becomes a different kind of citizen, one who will not join in the religious practice that the Town Board has chosen as reflecting its own and the community’s most cherished beliefs. And she thus stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives.
Everything about that situation, I think, infringes the First Amendment…That the Town Board selects, month after month and year after year, prayergivers who will reliably speak in the voice of Christianity, and so places itself behind a single creed. That in offering those sectarian prayers, the Board’s chosen clergy members repeatedly call on individuals, prior to participating in local governance, to join in a form of worship that may be at odds with their own beliefs. That the clergy thus put some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders. That the practice thus divides the citizenry, creating one class that shares the Board’s own evident religious beliefs and another (far smaller) class that does not. And that the practice also alters a dissenting citizen’s relationship with her government, making her religious difference salient when she seeks only to engage her elected representatives as would any other citizen.”
Kagan writes that the Court majority opinion reflected “two kinds of blindness.” First, it missed the difference between traditional legislative prayer and the setting of the town council, a difference she described as a “chasm,” and the fact that the prayers in Greece are mostly addressed to the public rather than lawmakers. She said the majority “changes the subject” rather than addressing the sectarian content of the prayers delivered in Greece, such as those invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These are not, as she says, the recitation of “God save the United States and this honorable Court” invoked at the beginning of Supreme Court sessions.
Kagan cites George Washington’s well-known letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation, in which he assured members of that congregation that the First Amendment does not simply tolerate people of minority faiths, rather all possess the same “immunities of citizenship.”
For me, that remarkable guarantee means at least this much: When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. I believe, for all the reasons I have given, that the Town of Greece betrayed that promise. I therefore respectfully dissent from the Court’s decision.
Breyer also joined Kagan’s dissent, as did Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway.
In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court rulings on critical civil rights issues, a new poll finds increasing support for marriage equality and falling support for the high court itself.
A national Princeton Survey Research Associates poll found that 55 percent of Americans think that marriages of same-sex couples should be legally recognized – the highest level of support ever. A similar percentage (53 percent) believe that affirmative action programs are needed, and more Americans oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act (49 percent) than support it (40 percent). In other words, the American people are not on board with the Supreme Court turning back the clock on our civil rights.
So it is not surprising that Supreme Court approval ratings are falling. The Princeton poll found the lowest level of approval (43 percent) in eight years, with slightly more Americans disapproving of the way the court is doing its job (44 percent). Similarly, a Rasmussen poll released yesterday found that the percentage of likely voters who think the Supreme Court is doing a poor job is rising.
What is more surprising is that both polls show that a greater percentage of Americans still believe that the high court is “too liberal” than believe it is “too conservative.” As PFAW President Michael Keegan pointed out in May, this is no accident:
“In recent decades, right-wing leaders have worked in popular culture to attack the courts as a liberal peril while successfully organizing to dominate and control legal institutions to create courts that no longer look out for the rights of all Americans. They have set up law schools and legal societies to promote corporate and right-wing commitments, have promoted the appointment of reactionary judges and Justices, blocked the appointment of even moderate jurists, and defined a legal agenda that subordinates individual rights to government power and public regulation to corporate power. Right-wing success in remaking the judiciary in the image of the Republican Party has not led conservatives to curb their bitter attack on ‘liberal judicial activism,’ a fantasy that is several decades out of date but indispensable to this smoke-and-mirrors operation.”
While conservatives continue to crow about “liberal judicial activism,” the American people are realizing that the Supreme Court’s conservative rulings on issues like voting rights and the rights of workers and consumers do not reflect their beliefs or the nation’s core constitutional values.
Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Sims, an openly gay legislator, was blocked from speaking on the floor of the state House on Wednesday by a colleague who believed Sims’ plans to speak about the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage decision would be in "open rebellion against God’s law.”
According to WHYY, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe raised a procedural objection to stop Sims from speaking during a part of the House session in which legislators often give wide-ranging remarks.
"I did not believe that as a member of that body that I should allow someone to make comments such as he was preparing to make that ultimately were just open rebellion against what the word of God has said, what God has said, and just open rebellion against God's law," said Metcalfe, R-Butler.
Metcalf is a far-right legislator who has sponsored a marriage amendment to the state’s Constitution and “birther” legislation, and called for overturning birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment in order to “bring an end to the illegal alien invasion.”
Sims, who said he appreciated the apologies and support he received from other Republican members of the House, has asked the legislature to reprimand Metcalfe for his comments.
While civil rights leaders are denouncing the 5-4 Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins is cheering. In an email alert sent at the end of the day on Tuesday, Perkins says, “With help from the U.S. Supreme Court, America may finally be turning a page on the racial politics that have haunted our last 50 years.” Oh, yes, giving a green light to the kind of blatantly discriminatory voter disenfranchisement efforts that we’ve seen in recent elections is certainly going to help America “turn the page” on racial politics.
Like other Religious Right leaders, Perkins loves to denounce “judicial activism” when judges uphold reproductive choice or legal equality for LGBT people. But he happily embraces this ruling in which a narrow Court majority rejected a huge bipartisan congressional vote that reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 on a matter in which the Constitution specifically and intentionally gives Congress wide discretion. Perkins complains that “Congress insisted on reauthorizing a Voting Rights Act that was rooted in one of the darkest chapters of U.S. history.” And he claims that “In recent days, the Voting Rights Act has been a tool for a liberal and politically-motivated DOJ to shape laws to its advantage.”
Perkins seems deeply concerned about “the red tape of the Voting Rights Act” that he said has been “unnecessarily handcuffing” states whose history of disenfranchisement meant that they had to have changes in voting procedures pre-approved by the Justice Department or by a three-judge District Court in the District of Columbia. In contrast, Perkins seems utterly unconcerned about more recent voter disenfranchisement campaigns waged by the GOP and its allies.
Perkins cites Chief Justice John Roberts’ disingenuous suggestion that the court was not acting in a way that would encourage discriminatory disenfranchisement. "Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting," Roberts insisted. "Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions."
Is there anyone who thinks Roberts and Perkins actually want the federal-government-hating Tea Party Republicans who are calling the shots in the House of Representatives to support the creation of a new formula that would subject more states to federal oversight? Perkins makes his thoughts on that point abundantly clear with this comment about the Justice Department: “And in an administration as corrupt as President Obama's is proving to be, the less power it has over the states, the better!”