Religious Liberty

The Myth of American Christians as Persecuted Minority, part 256

The claim that American Christians are facing horrible persecution for their religious beliefs – and are on the verge of being rounded up and thrown into jail by tyrannical secularists – has been a staple of Religious Right groups’ rhetoric for decades. And as conservative evangelicals’ anti-gay views have lost popular support, they’ve doubled down on their claims that gay rights are incompatible with religious liberty. In recent years, conservative Catholics have joined in crying “religious persecution” in response to the advance of marriage equality for same-sex couples and the Obama administration’s requirement for insurance coverage of contraception.

On CNN’s Belief Blog, correspondent John Blake has given voice to these claims in a post titled “When Christians become a ‘hated minority.’” That headline hinted that this piece would be problematic. And that was confirmed with the opening sentence, which cites the Family Research Council’s Peter Sprigg, who goes on to say that anti-gay Christians are victims who are being forced into the “closet.”

Where to begin?

We could start with the problem of Peter Sprigg being a spokesperson for tolerance. In Blake’s story, Sprigg is quoted saying “Maybe we need to do a better job of showing that we are motivated by Christian love” and “Love is wanting the best for someone, and acting to bring that about.” It’s hard to square Sprigg’s assertion that he is motivated by the best interests of gay people, given that he:

  • has called for the criminalization of homosexual conduct both in the U.S. and abroad;
  • said he would like to “export” gays from the U.S. rather than support legislation to give same-sex couples equal treatment under immigration law;
  • dislikes the idea of a gay judge, because he says gays don’t make good role models;
  • opposes making children raised by a same-sex couple eligible for social security benefits if a parent’s spouse dies;
  • dismisses anti-bullying and safe-school programs as attempts to indoctrinate impressionable children
  • has suggested that schools should be allowed to fire openly gay teachers and coaches;
  • has cheered the kidnapping of a child by a mother who refused to abide by a court’s order to share custody with her former partner.

Sprigg says the “real goal of homosexual activists” is not protection from discrimination or marriage equality, but is “to create a society in which it is unacceptable for anyone, ever, anywhere to say that homosexual conduct is wrong, or that homosexual relationships are anything other than fully equal to heterosexual ones.” The CNN piece also cites Bryan Liften, a professor at Moody Bible Institute, saying Christians should be able to publicly say that God designed sex to take place within a marriage between a man and a woman.

Should be? If you haven’t noticed, plenty of Christians have been saying that loudly and proudly and with millions of dollars they have used to enshrine that belief into a majority of state constitutions. People like Sprigg and his boss Tony Perkins, Brian Brown from the National Organization for Marriage, and any number of conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops have pretty much an open invitation to say so on national television and before state legislative and congressional committees. Not to mention through their own radio and television networks and vast church networks. Or from the platform of the Republican convention.  Freedom of expression, including anti-equality expression, is alive and well.

The CNN post does include Christians with differing views on gay rights, and who acknowledge that simply claiming religious backing for one’s beliefs does not insulate those views from criticism in the public arena. Neither does disagreement equate to discrimination or persecution. Conservative Christians did not see it as a form of religious discrimination to enshrine their view of marriage into laws and state constitutions; but as public opinion shifts and more states make equality the law, they warn of dire threats to their freedom.

Among the Religious Right horror stories linked to in the CNN piece are complaints about pastor Louie Giglio’s withdrawal from President Obama’s second inaugural ceremony in the face of criticism about anti-gay remarks that surfaced online. Criticism of those remarks – even anger and disappointment among pro-equality Obama supporters over Giglio being given a place of honor at the inaugural – does not mean, as some pundits claimed, that people of faith are no longer welcome in the public square. Anyone who heard the prayers, music, and speeches at the inaugural would see that such claims are ludicrous.

It should be noted that Religious Right groups made similarly shrill claims that the addition of sexual orientation to federal hate crimes laws would result in preachers being thrown into jail for quoting scripture on homosexuality. And they claimed that allowing gay members of the armed forces to serve openly would destroy the military. Those claims have been proven to be not just wrong but ridiculous.

Baker quotes evangelical blogger Joe Carter (who used to work at Family Research Council), warning that young people will abandon anti-gay churches “for fear of being called haters.” What is far more likely is that many young Christians will leave anti-gay churches because they have gay friends and disagree with both the anti-gay theology and anti-equality policy positions of the Religious Right. And some may continue to hold traditional theological views on homosexuality while supporting legal equality as a civil matter. Polling shows that the generation gap on LGBT issues is huge within as well as outside the evangelical community – and that many young Christians are disillusioned with the anti-gay fixation of many church leaders.

The CNN piece finishes blogger Carter saying “he foresees a day when any church that preaches against homosexuality will be marginalized. Just as many churches now accept divorce, they will accept sexual practices once considered sinful.”

So let’s end with a consideration of divorce. The Catholic Church denies its religious blessing to divorced couples who get remarried without obtaining a religious annulment of their previous marriage. Many evangelical churches also frown on divorce. But all marriages – first, second, third, or fourth – are treated equally under civil law (good news for Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh!).  Yet no one is arguing that the status quo on divorce amounts to an attack on religious freedom – or that Christians who oppose divorce have been marginalized or hounded out of the public square. Their religious beliefs about divorce coexist with public policy that reflects societal reality and the opinions of a religiously diverse America. 

Congressmen Scalise and Gohmert Fall for Debunked Fox News Story on Supposed Plan to Court Martial Christians

Fox News correspondent Todd Starnes likes to report on culture war issues and frequently highlights examples of supposed anti-Christian persecution. He plucks the examples from Religious Right media outlets, which then turn around and point to Starnes’ Fox News stories for validation.

Fox example, one recent Starnes story alleged that a New York school was forcing girls to kiss each other as part of an anti-bullying seminar. But the ‘forced lesbianism’ story was baseless [PDF], and the school superintendent had to write to Starnes to urge him to, you know, report stories accurately [PDF].

In another instance of shoddy journalism, Starnes claimed that the military was deliberately blocking access to a Southern Baptist website as part of a “Christian cleansing” of the armed forces by the Obama administration. Well, as it turns out, the website was automatically blocked over malware issues and the Southern Baptist Convention’s own director of information systems acknowledged that there was malware on the SBC website, not any anti-Christian animus in the military, was responsible for the mishap.

So it came as no surprise to learn that a new Starnes column about the military getting ready to court martial Christians, since picked up by organizations like the Family Research Council, was also completely groundless.

Starnes contends that Obama administration officials are working with church-state separation activists to begin kicking Christians out of the military and cracking down on their religious freedom.

As Warren Throckmorton points out, the Defense Department guidelines on proselytizing and religious bias that has so enraged Starnes and others was actually put in place in 2008 during the Bush administration and the language clearly “draws a distinction between simply speaking about one’s faith and coercion.” Throckmorton also notes that Starnes twisted a statement from a Pentagon spokesman “to make it seem as though the outcome of religious proselytizing cases would be court martial.”

The Tennessean and Stars and Stripes have also debunked the story, but don’t tell Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who in an interview with Starnes said that Obama is trying to make Christian service members leave their faith:

“Under President Obama’s military you are no longer allowed to share your faith,” he said – noting that the policy is putting Christians in a tough position. “Do you follow President Obama or do you follow God and the teachings of Jesus?”

“That’s pretty tough when your commander in chief puts you on the horn for that dilemma,” he added.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) similarly told Tony Perkins on Washington Watch earlier this week called the story “yet another attack on religious liberty that we’ve seen from the Obama administration.”

Perkins: The idea that members of the military who share their faith, directly or indirectly, could be potentially court martialed, is this stunning or what?

Scalise: It’s frightening and shocking. Unfortunately it is yet another attack on religious liberty that we’ve seen from the Obama administration and it’s just been an endless assault from so many different angles. Of course it comes off the heels of the FDA approving the morning-after pill. There are just so many things that this administration is doing that go against a lot of the Christian beliefs that this country was founded upon and I think it really needs to be pushed back hard on.

While the victimhood narrative of oppressed white straight evangelicals is beloved by the Religious Right and trumpeted by Fox News, conservative activists may want to at least try to find real incidents of persecution and real journalists if they want people to ever believe them.

PFAW Foundation Statement on the Passing of Bob Edgar

People For the American Way Foundation president Michael Keegan released the following statement on the passing of Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause:

“All of us at People For the American Way Foundation are saddened to learn of the passing of Bob Edgar, a true progressive hero. Bob devoted his life to public service, as a member of Congress, a leader for progressive people of faith and a tireless advocate for our democracy. His kindness, good humor and commitment to holding our nation up to its highest ideals were an inspiration to all who were fortunate enough to work with him. He will be sorely missed.”
 

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FRC Blames 'Sexual Liberalism' and 'Family Breakdown' for Mass Murders

The Family Research Council is joining many of its fellow right-wing groups in celebrating Wednesday’s Senate filibuster of a bill that would have expanded background checks on gun sales. In an email to supporters yesterday, the group claims that gun violence prevention legislation isn’t needed because it wouldn’t have stopped the Boston marathon bombing. What is to blame for recent mass murders, the group claims, is “the government’s own hostility to the institution of the family” compounded by Congress’ supposed encouragement of  “abortion, family breakdown, sexual liberalism, or religious hostility.”

In the aftermath of horrible tragedies like Newtown, the government desperately wants to do something--even if that something is the wrong thing. There seems to be this notion, at least among liberals, that more laws will protect us--but as we all witnessed in Boston, that isn't necessarily the case. The government can't make us safer until it recognizes that the problem isn't the instruments of violence--but the environment of it. Stronger background checks wouldn't have prevented the deaths of three people at the finish line on Monday, any more than it would have stopped Floyd Corkins from walking into our lobby and shooting Leo Johnson.

If Congress wants to stop these tragedies, then it has to address the government's own hostility to the institution of the family and organizations that can address the real problem: the human heart. As I've said before, America doesn't need gun control, it needs self-control. And a Congress that actively discourages it--through abortion, family breakdown, sexual liberalism, or religious hostility--is only compounding the problem.

Corsi: ACLU Promoting Pedophilia, Leading Us Back to Paganism

Master birther Jerome Corsi visited the Janet Mefferd show last week to promote his new book Bad Samaritans, a “scorching expose” of the American Civil Liberties Union. Like with most of his work, Corsi’s analysis of the ACLU is light on the truth and heavy on the grand conspiracy theories. He tells Mefferd that the ACLU is now promoting pedophilia “as the next sexual horizon” and seeking to indict pastors with non-existent hate speech laws. All of this, Corsi argues, means that “we’re headed right back to the paganism, maybe a broader form of paganism, that was the ancient world.”

Corsi: The ACLU has championed same-sex marriage, and along with same-sex marriage advocates, got a very effective public relations campaign arguing, you know, ‘How would you deny these two men who are in love or two women the ability to be happy,’ emotional issues. But now the ACLU is doing two things. One, they’re pushing the envelope, they’re arguing that pedophilia should be accepted next, as the next sexual horizon that is just a sexual orientation, and we should accept it as natural.

Mefferd: That’s sick.

Corsi: And they’re also arguing that any of the, the clergy, silencing the Church and ministers so that anybody who speaks out on a moral issue, objecting to, say, same-sex marriage on a moral or scriptural basis from Judeo-Christian principles, that’s hate speech and the person’s committing a crime. I mean, the left is not going to be tolerant when the window is fully pushed open and anyone who objects to their agenda is going to be suspect and silenced. And the problem is that if we continue to expand, you know, if every form of human behavior, sexual behavior, that can be imagined is all accepted and legitimated, well then we’re headed  right back to the paganism, maybe a broader form of paganism, that was the ancient world, rejected by Christianity at the fall of the Roman Empire.

Mefferd: Oh, it’s exactly the case.
 

Starnes Accuses Obama Administration of 'Religious Cleansing of the Military'

Fox News commentator Todd Starnes has taken it in upon himself to chronicle what he sees as an “attack on Christianity” within the military under the Obama administration. So far, the main evidence he’s turned up is an email sent by an Army officer about anti-gay groups and an unauthorized slide in a training presentation listing Christianity as a possible source of religious extremism. These, however, are enough for Starnes to conclude that, as he put it to the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins yesterday, “politically correct Obama administration officials” are conducting a “sort of religious cleansing of the military”

Starnes told Perkins that his concerns are shared by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who believes “there is an anti-Christian movement afoot at the Pentagon.”


Starnes: It should be shocking and surprising, but unfortunately, for me it’s not, because I’ve been covering this attack on Christianity that’s within the ranks of the military, not just the Army, since President Obama was inaugurated. And we have seen an onslaught of attacks, the sort of religious cleansing of the military at the hands of these politically correct Obama administration officials operating out of the Pentagon.

...

Perkins: This is a fundamental, this is our first freedom. We cannot lose it, we must defend it with our abilities through the political process. That’s how we do that. Todd, what’s the next step on this? What do you think is going to happen next?

Starnes: I think we are going to see some movement on Capitol Hill. We’ve got some lawmakers that are very upset. Congressman Steve King out of Iowa, I had a chance to talk to him, and he believes there is an anti-Christian movement afoot at the Pentagon. And I think we are going to see more people standing in the gap for our fighting men and women. These are folks putting their lives on the line so that we might have religious liberty, and their religious liberty is being denied? It’s just unconscionable.
 

North Carolina Drops Official Religion Bill

After vocal opposition from People For the American Way and others, Speaker Thom Tillis of the North Carolina House announced yesterday that a resolution stating that North Carolina has the power to declare an official religion would not be brought to a vote.  In effect, this means that the resolution has been dropped. 

The bill claimed that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment does not apply to states.  But as People For the American Way President Michael Keegan noted in a statement on Wednesday,

“There’s no question that any attempt to establish an official state religion is blatantly unconstitutional. That’s true whether it’s North Carolina or the federal government.”

The proposal highlighted the extremes that Tea Party Republican lawmakers are willing to go to in order to push their dangerous ideology – even when it means ignoring core principles on which our nation was founded, such as religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  

UPDATE (4/8/13): North Carolina Representative Harry Warren, one of the sponsors of the resolution, has now publicly stated that he “regret[s] any embarrassment or concern that it has caused the citizens of Rowan County and North Carolina,” calling the resolution “poorly written.”  Warren’s explanation is, however, still problematic.  He says he wanted a resolution that county officials have the right, despite the Establishment Clause, to open their proceedings with specifically Christian prayers.  That, of course, flies against the Constitution. 
 

 

PFAW

Shredding the Constitution in North Carolina

North Carolina legislators introduce a resolution declaring that the state can establish a religion and that federal courts can't declare laws unconstitutional.
PFAW

PFAW: North Carolina Bill to Establish State Religion Threatens Bedrock American Values

Bill makes clear how radical tea party Republican lawmakers are when it comes to pushing their ideology on the rest of us.

Phyllis Schlafly Implores Tea Partiers to 'Save America' From Karl Rove, Federal Takeover of Toddlers

The Religious Right and the Tea Party have not exactly been responding well to GOP strategist Karl Rove’s plan to spend big money bringing down unelectable Tea Party candidates in primaries or to RNC chairman Reince Priebus’ suggestion that the party make over its messaging.

Add to the list of right-wing discontents Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, who this week sent out a six-page fundraising appeal urging supporters to “join together to save America” from Rove and his fellow “Establishment bullies.”

Schlafly blames Rove and the “Establishment” for every Republican president or presidential candidate since Reagan, all of whom she labels “RINOs.” But she sees hope for the “emergence of a new Reagan Republican Party” in the persons of senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, and former senator Jim DeMint.

As for the rest of the party, “Establishment Members of  Congress are doing nothing to stop Obama’s grab to put all 2 to 5 year-olds under federal control,” she warns.

Excerpts from the letter are below. All emphases are in the original.

Dear Fellow American,

The battle for control of the Republican Party has begun and I am asking you to answer the call to action!

The Establishment Republicans want to lead the Party down the road of big-government spending and globalist entanglements by selecting our nominees, deciding what issues they talk about, and controlling all the political money.

They want grassroots conservatives and the Tea Parties to shut up and just do what they are told. The future of America depends on how you and I respond to this challenge.



Let me tell you where we are in this battle, and how fierce it has already become. I need your help!

After Ronald Reagan’s two terms were over, the Establishment operatives (sometimes called RINOs – “Republicans In Name Only,” or country-club Republicans, or “moderates”), grabbed control of the Republican Party and gave us a series of losers as presidential candidates such as Bob Dole and John McCain.

And don’t forget their choices of George H.W. Bush (who betrayed his “no new taxes, read my lips” promise), and George W. Bush who gave us phony “compassionate” conservatism (which really meant big deficit spending) and even tried to put the U.S. in an open-borders North American Union.

The Establishment and Karl Rove even supported Gerald Ford against Ronald Reagan in 1976.

We can’t afford to let that crowd pick our candidates again. But Rove now thinks he should be the “decider” of which primary candidates are “electable” and which are “unelectable.”

Please vote NO on his dreadful scheme.


We must sound the alarm and rally activists from Alaska to Florida about the embarrassment that Karl Rove and his big-government allies – posing as “moderates” – are to the Republican Party.

The Establishment is trying to purge the Tea Party conservatives from the Republican Party. Let’s be clear – we welcome the Tea Partiers.

We must show the nation that Republicans – true conservatives – don’t want Karl Rove, or any Establishment guru to run the Republican Party off a cliff.



Fortunately, we are seeing an emergence of a new Reagan Republican Party. In 2010 and 2012, Republicans elected some real conservatives to the Senate after defeating Establishment candidates in the primaries: Rand Paul in Kentucky (who defeated Mitch McConnell’s choice), Ted Cruz in Texas (who defeated a fabulously wealthy Establishment candidate), and Marco Rubio in Florida (who defeated Establishment candidate Florida Governor Crist, who then showed his true colors and became a Democrat).

Jim DeMint (now with Heritage) and Mike Lee of Utah were two other successful non-Establishment Republican Senators. It’s time for the grassroots to take control of the Republican Party away from the elitists who want to choose our candidates, tell them what to say, and how to vote.

Our litmus test for Republican primary candidates should be: “Are you a Karl Rove candidate?”



The Establishment is doing nothing to stop Obama from his announced plan to promote a Zero Nuclear World by cutting our nuclear missile force and refusing to modernize our anti-missile system.

The Establishment is doing nothing to stop Obama from taking over the curriculum of our public school system – a plan that is unwanted by Americans, illegal and unconstitutional. Establishment Members of  Congress are doing nothing to stop Obama’s grab to put all 2 to 5 year-olds under federal control through federal daycare, early childhood education, Pre-K, and mandatory all-day Kindergarten.



We absolutely must join together and save America. Time is running out. Eagle Forum is ready to lead the way, but we need your active support.

Please return your Conservative Activist Pledge right away. The conservative grassroots must rally and fight back.

And please, make the very most generous donation to Eagle Forum you possibly can. We’ve beaten Establishment bullies in the past, and with your help we will do it again!

Faithfully,

Phyllis Schlafly
 

Challenging the Right's Religious Liberty Claims

The ongoing campaign by the Religious Right and its conservative Catholic allies to redefine religious liberty in America – which has been covered extensively by PFAW and Right Wing Watch – is the focus of a new report released on Monday by Political Research Associates, a think tank that also monitors right-wing organizations. “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights,” was written by Jay Michaelson, who published a condensed version in the Daily Beast.

Michaelson’s report reviews the organizational players and the strategies they employ, among them: mixing fact and fiction; claiming that there is a war on religious liberty; and reversing the roles of victim and oppressor to portray as religious liberty “victims” people who claim a right to discriminate against others. He notes that Religious Right disinformation has had some success in shaping public opinion: in Minnesota last year a large plurality of marriage equality opponents believed that if marriage equality became the law, churches would be forced to solemnize same-sex marriages, even though there is universal agreement that the First Amendment guarantees that churches are free to choose which relationships to bless or not to bless.

The PRA report includes the following recommendations for social justice advocates:

1. Define and publicize the campaign to redefine religious liberty

2. Organize a unified response

3. Counter misinformation

4. Reclaim the religious liberty frame

5. Develop academic responses

6. Leverage religious communities

7. Ongoing research and monitoring

Religious liberty was also the topic of a forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., cosponsored by the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project, Moment Magazine, and the Committee on Religious Liberty of the National Council of Churches. Moment, an independent Jewish Magazine, has also published a special Religious Freedom issue for March/April 2013.  At the conference, two large panels brought together a range of religious and secular voices to discuss and debate the meaning of religious liberty and the claims that liberty is under attack in the U.S. today.

Charles Haynes, the First Amendment expert who heads Newseum’s religious liberty committee, noted that the broad coalition that came together to back the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the 1990s is no longer.  Michael Lieberman, director of the Civil Rights Policy Planning Center for the Anti-Defamation League, suggested a reason: that the coalition had intended RFRA to be a shield against government restrictions on the free exercise of religion, but that conservative groups had turned RFRA into a spear used to attack anti-discrimination laws.

One central principle of PFAW’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics became clear: while people can agree on the broad principle that religious liberty protects the freedom to live in accord with one’s religious beliefs, that consensus breaks down quickly when deciding how law and policy should react when religious liberty comes into tension with other constitutional principles like equality under the law. Indeed, panelists strongly (but civilly) disagreed on to what extent organizations – whether religiously affiliated institutions or business corporations – should be able to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws or the HHS requirement for insurance coverage of contraception. 

Richard Foltin of the American Jewish Committee argued for a shades-of-gray, rather than a black-and-white approach, saying organizations should be viewed on a spectrum, with churches and sectarian institutions on one end and corporations at the other. Foltin said the AJC has submitted amicus briefs in favor of marriage equality at the Supreme Court, but also believes that there are significant religious liberty questions that courts will have to deal with as marriage equality is implemented.  (As noted at another point during the day, the states that now recognize marriage equality all have somewhat different religious exemptions.)

Michaelson proposes five tiers of organizations with differing levels of claims to religious liberty: churches/denominations; religious organizations; religiously affiliated organizations; religiously owned business, and religious individuals. The right-wing, he says, keeps trying to “move the sticks” from the first three groups to the latter two.  He notes that the Mormon Church owns extensive business interests, including shopping malls, and says that if business owners are allowed to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws and other regulations based on religious belief, many employees will have their rights and interests restricted. 

Author Wendy Kaminer argued that the religious liberty of institutions is over-protected rather than threatened, saying that she believes some claims for religious liberty are actually demands for religious power to impose their beliefs on others.  If business owners are allowed to claim a religious exemption from generally applicable civil rights laws, she asked, what would be the limiting principle to such claims? Could business owners cite religious beliefs to ignore child labor laws, or to refuse to hire married women?  Kaminer challenged what she called an emerging legal double standard: when it comes to taking government funds, advocates say religious organizations need a level playing field and should be treated like every other organization. But when it comes to free exercise claims, and groups like Catholic Charities say they shouldn’t be subject to generally applicable laws, they don’t want a level playing field but special privileges.

Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that overblown rhetoric about threats to religious freedom is damaging to public understanding of religious liberty. She suggests that the first response to someone who talks about threats to religious liberty should be to ask them what specifically they are talking about.  For example, while people may be concerned when they hear about “an assault on religious liberty,” most Americans do not see a problem with requiring religiously affiliated institutions to abide by anti-discrimination laws or meet contraception requirements.

Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen suggested that on church-state issues, the Supreme Court justices could be divided into three camps: religious supremacists, advocates of “religious neutrality,” and strict church-state separationists.  The separationists, he said, had their heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, but that the courts have been moving more toward a “religious neutrality” approach, which he said in some cases is really a cover for the religious supremacists yearning for an openly religious state.  He said a landmark of the triumph of “neutrality” over separation was the 1995 Rosenberger case, in which the court said a public university could not deny funding from a religious publication because of its religious nature.  In the future, he said, Justices Breyer and Kagan may be willing to embrace a “religious neutrality” approach in hopes of winning votes to try to keep Robert and Kennedy from joining the Scalia-Thomas religious supremacists.

Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has filed lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate and which has urged the Supreme Court to uphold Prop 8 and DOMA, portrayed religious liberty issues not as part of a culture war but as the necessity in a pluralistic society of recognizing that differences exist and allowing everyone the maximum ability to live according to their beliefs. He suggested that most church-state conflicts are blown out of proportion and can be resolved relatively easy with a willingness to work around individual religious liberty claims. Kim Colby of the Christian Legal Society endorsed that view, and noted that the Supreme Court will likely be deciding cases in the near future about what constitutes a “substantial burden” on a person’s religious beliefs and what might qualify as a “compelling state interest” that would justify that burden.

Michaelson challenged Rienzi’s portrayal, saying that “religious liberty” itself has become a code word for a new tactic in the culture war against LGBT equality and reproductive rights, and that it was wrong to pretend there would be no victim if a business owner were granted the right, for example, to ignore laws against anti-gay discrimination.  Pharmacies, he said, used to have lunch counters that were segregated. Would it have been OK to justify that discrimination by saying there was another lunch counter down the street, the argument used by advocates for allowing pharmacists to refuse to provide some drugs based on their religious beliefs?

The ADL’s Lieberman said that from his perspective as an advocate for minority religions these do not seem like small or easily resolved issues, and said there was a clear prospect that individual rights would not be safeguarded if, for example, majoritarian school prayer were permitted.  Hoda Elshishtawy, legislative and policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council also noted the reality of a major power differential between members of majority and minority religions.  Dan Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, noted that there are widespread abuses in public schools, citing an example of a South Carolina public school that set aside a day explicitly intended to try to convert as many students as possible to Christianity.

Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, who moderated the first panel, noted that even on the day the First Amendment was passed, not everyone agreed with it or agreed with what it meant. We’ve been working it out ever since then and can’t quit, he said.  Charles Haynes made a similar point in his closing remarks, noting that in spite of all the differences evident in how we apply First Amendment principles, the ability to continue having the conversation is a reminder of how well those principles have worked to protect religious liberty in an increasingly diverse nation.

Challenging the Right on Religious Liberty

The ongoing campaign by the Religious Right and its conservative Catholic allies to redefine religious liberty in America – which has been covered extensively by PFAW and Right Wing Watch – is the focus of a new report released on Monday by Political Research Associates, a think tank that also monitors right-wing organizations. “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights,” was written by Jay Michaelson, who published a condensed version in the Daily Beast.

Michaelson’s report reviews the organizational players and the strategies they employ, among them: mixing fact and fiction; claiming that there is a war on religious liberty; and reversing the roles of victim and oppressor to portray as religious liberty “victims” people who claim a right to discriminate against others. He notes that Religious Right disinformation has had some success in shaping public opinion: in Minnesota last year a large plurality of marriage equality opponents believed that if marriage equality became the law, churches would be forced to solemnize same-sex marriages, even though there is universal agreement that the First Amendment guarantees that churches are and will always be free to choose which relationships to bless or not to bless.

The PRA report includes the following recommendations for social justice advocates:

1. Define and publicize the campaign to redefine religious liberty

2. Organize a unified response

3. Counter misinformation

4. Reclaim the religious liberty frame

5. Develop academic responses

6. Leverage religious communities

7. Ongoing research and monitoring

Religious liberty was also the topic of a forum at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., cosponsored by the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Education Project, Moment Magazine, and the Committee on Religious Liberty of the National Council of Churches. Moment, an independent Jewish Magazine, has also published a special Religious Freedom issue for March/April 2013.  At the conference, two large panels brought together a range of religious and secular voices to discuss and debate the meaning of religious liberty and the claims that liberty is under attack in the U.S. today. It's impossible to give complete coverage in a blog post but here are some highlights.

Charles Haynes, the First Amendment expert who heads Newseum’s religious liberty committee, noted that the broad coalition that came together to back the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the 1990s is no longer.  Michael Lieberman, director of the Civil Rights Policy Planning Center for the Anti-Defamation League, suggested a reason: that the coalition had intended RFRA to be a shield against government restrictions on the free exercise of religion, but that conservative groups had turned RFRA into a spear used to attack anti-discrimination laws.

One central principle of PFAW’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics became clear: while people can agree on the broad principle that religious liberty protects the freedom to live in accord with one’s religious beliefs, that consensus breaks down quickly when deciding how law and policy should react when religious liberty comes into tension with other constitutional principles like equality under the law. Indeed, panelists strongly (but civilly) disagreed on to what extent organizations – whether religiously affiliated institutions or business corporations – should be able to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws or the HHS requirement for insurance coverage of contraception. 

Richard Foltin of the American Jewish Committee argued for a shades-of-gray, rather than a black-and-white approach, saying organizations should be viewed on a spectrum, with churches and sectarian institutions on one end and corporations at the other. Foltin said the AJC has submitted amicus briefs in favor of marriage equality at the Supreme Court, but also believes that there are significant religious liberty questions that courts will have to deal with as marriage equality is implemented.  (As noted at another point during the day, the states that now recognize marriage equality all have somewhat different religious exemptions.)

Michaelson proposes five tiers of organizations with differing levels of claims to religious liberty: churches/denominations; religious organizations; religiously affiliated organizations; religiously owned business, and religious individuals. The right-wing, he says, keeps trying to “move the sticks” from the first three groups to the latter two.  He notes that the Mormon Church owns extensive business interests, including shopping malls, and says that if business owners are allowed to claim exemption from anti-discrimination laws and other regulations based on religious belief, many employees will have their rights and interests restricted. 

Author Wendy Kaminer argued that the religious liberty of institutions is over-protected rather than threatened, saying that she believes some claims for religious liberty are actually demands for religious power to impose their beliefs on others.  If business owners are allowed to claim a religious exemption from generally applicable civil rights laws, she asked, what would be the limiting principle to such claims? Could business owners cite religious beliefs to ignore child labor laws, or to refuse to hire married women?  Kaminer challenged what she called an emerging legal double standard: when it comes to taking government funds, advocates say religious organizations need a level playing field and should be treated like every other organization. But when it comes to free exercise claims, and groups like Catholic Charities say they shouldn’t be subject to generally applicable laws, they don’t want a level playing field but special privileges.

Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said that overblown rhetoric about threats to religious freedom is damaging to public understanding of religious liberty. She suggests that the first response to someone who talks about threats to religious liberty should be to ask them what specifically they are talking about.  For example, while people may be concerned when they hear about “an assault on religious liberty,” most Americans do not see a problem with requiring religiously affiliated institutions to abide by anti-discrimination laws or meet contraception requirements.

Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen suggested that on church-state issues, the Supreme Court justices could be divided into three camps: religious supremacists, advocates of “religious neutrality,” and strict church-state separationists.  The separationists, he said, had their heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, but that the courts have been moving more toward a “religious neutrality” approach, which he said in some cases is really a cover for the religious supremacists yearning for an openly religious state.  He said a landmark of the triumph of “neutrality” over separation was the 1995 Rosenberger case, in which the court said a public university could not deny funding from a religious publication because of its religious nature.  In the future, he said, Justices Breyer and Kagan may be willing to embrace a “religious neutrality” approach in hopes of winning votes to try to keep Robert and Kennedy from joining the Scalia-Thomas religious supremacists.

Mark Rienzi of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has filed lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate and which has urged the Supreme Court to uphold Prop 8 and DOMA, portrayed religious liberty issues not as part of a culture war but as the necessity in a pluralistic society of recognizing that differences exist and allowing everyone the maximum ability to live according to their beliefs. He suggested that most church-state conflicts are blown out of proportion and can be resolved relatively easy with a willingness to work around individual religious liberty claims. Kim Colby of the Christian Legal Society endorsed that view, and noted that the Supreme Court will likely be deciding cases in the near future about what constitutes a “substantial burden” on a person’s religious beliefs and what might qualify as a “compelling state interest” that would justify that burden.

Michaelson challenged Rienzi’s portrayal, saying that “religious liberty” itself has become a code word for a new tactic in the culture war against LGBT equality and reproductive rights, and that it was wrong to pretend there would be no victim if a business owner were granted the right, for example, to ignore laws against anti-gay discrimination.  Pharmacies, he said, used to have lunch counters that were segregated. Would it have been OK to justify that discrimination by saying there was another lunch counter down the street, the argument used by advocates for allowing pharmacists to refuse to provide some drugs based on their religious beliefs?

The ADL’s Lieberman said that from his perspective as an advocate for minority religions these do not seem like small or easily resolved issues, and said there was a clear prospect that individual rights would not be safeguarded if, for example, majoritarian school prayer were permitted.  Hoda Elshishtawy, legislative and policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council also noted the reality of a major power differential between members of majority and minority religions.  Dan Mach, director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, noted that there are widespread abuses in public schools, citing an example of a South Carolina public school that set aside a day explicitly intended to try to convert as many students as possible to Christianity.

Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance, who moderated the first panel, noted that even on the day the First Amendment was passed, not everyone agreed with it or agreed with what it meant. We’ve been working it out ever since then and can’t quit, he said.  Charles Haynes made a similar point in his closing remarks, noting that in spite of all the differences evident in how we apply First Amendment principles, the ability to continue having the conversation is a reminder of how well those principles have worked to protect religious liberty in an increasingly diverse nation.

PFAW

PFAW: Perez Excellent Choice For Labor Secretary

WASHINGTON – People For the American Way today applauded President Obama’s nomination of Tom Perez, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, to be Secretary of Labor.

Michael Keegan, President of People For the American Way, said:

“Tom Perez is an excellent choice to head the Labor Department. Under his watch, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has been restored to the promise of its founding, fighting to protect the rights of military families, students, homeowners, people with disabilities, people of color, LGBT people, and those disenfranchised by restrictive voting laws. He has demonstrated strong leadership and a commitment to protecting the rights and dignity of all Americans. These traits will serve him well as Secretary of Labor.”
 

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CPAC Reject McDonnell Welcomed at Religious Right Prayer Breakfast

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was not officially welcomed at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, but he was invited to speak at Friday morning’s prayer breakfast hosted by Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition, along with a couple Members of Congress.

Not everybody was happy that McDonnell was on the premises: activists from the National Taxpayers Union and the insanely anti-gay Public Advocate USA gave out anti-McDonnell flyers and stickers to people entering the breakfast.  McDonnell’s sin against CPAC orthodoxy was his support for a transportation plan in Virginia that activists say violates a campaign pledge against raising taxes.  Public Advocate also complained that by praising the General Assembly’s approval of a gay district court nominee, McDonnell “BROKE HIS PLEDGE TO SUPPORT TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE.”

Inside the prayer breakfast, McDonnell (like the Coalition’s Executive Director Gary Marx an alum of Pat Robertson’s Regent University) was introduced by Rep. Randy Forbes and warmly received.  McDonnell gave a talk that was light on conservative red meat and focused on themes of faith and service, urging activists to pray for humility and wisdom.  He did say it is the job of public officials to get things done according to “Judeo-Christian principles.”  And he cited George Washington saying that the nation could not expect “the smiles of heaven” if it abandoned “eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself have ordained.”

Forbes, a leader of the congressional prayer caucus, said our nation’s problem is that God belongs on the throne, we’ve taken Him off, and we need to put Him back up there.  Forbes resorted to a caricature common among Religious Right leaders, complaining about people he said were trying to change the concept of church-state separation to mean that no one in government can speak about their faith and no one in church can talk about the government.

Also speaking was Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who invoked a mural of the radical abolitionist John Brown that portrays him with a Bible in one hand, a rifle in the other, and the tornado of the civil war approaching. He called the HHS requirement for insurance coverage of contraception a “tremendous threat” and an attack of religious liberty. “What would John Brown be doing now?” he asked, suggesting that Brown would be on his knees in prayer but also on his feet demanding action from Congress.  Huelskamp complained that his colleagues in Congress are not acting to protect religious liberty, and denounced their “deafening silence” on threats to marriage. Huelskamp has previously complained to Tony Perkins about “the folks on the left that would like to delete, exclude and repeal any religious liberties or any religious values throughout our entire government and our entire society.”

Rachel Campos-Duffy, a conservative activist, author, and Real World: San Francisco alum who is married to Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, talked about the dangers of churches and families having ceded territory to “an ever-expanding and insatiable government.” For example, Campos said, school breakfast programs for poor students give parents an excuse not to make breakfast for their own kids and just push them out the door rather than talking to them.

Ralph Reed didn’t make the breakfast, but Gary Marx delivered a version of Reed’s post-2012 “it’s not my fault” analysis. Marx ran through statistics on the millions of contacts the Faith & Freedom Coalition made with the 23.3 million evangelical and Catholic voters in its proprietary database, and he said five million more evangelicals voted in 2012 than in 2008, with 78 percent of them voting for Romney. He said the group is actively engaged in this year’s Virginia elections and pledged that 2014 will see the largest mid-term conservative turnout ever.

The breakfast opened with a prayer by Father John De Celles of St. Raymond Penafort Roman Catholic Church in Springfield, Virginia, and closed with a benediction from Rabbi Aryeh Spero of the Caucus for America, who called for a reaffirmation of our “national identity” as a “Judeo-Christian nation” and denounced those who threaten the country from within by trying to "dismantle" that heritage and usurp God’s will.

Footnote: Among the VIP attendees acknowledged from the podium was conservative mega-donor Foster Friess, who backed Rick Santorum’s presidential bid but who has more recently encouraged a more moderate approach to LGBT issues, which he has said is due to his familiarity with gay people, including his brother-in-law and his partner.  There was no mention at the breakfast of news that broke last night about Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s about-face on marriage after his son came out to him. 

FRC to Pastors: Now THIS is an Anti-Gay Sermon!

If the Family Research Council gets its way, evangelical Christians all across America will hear their pastor deliver a sermon written by an FRC official condemning homosexuality and the advance of marriage equality this weekend or next.  On March 26 and 27 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in cases involving California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and this week FRC emailed pastors urging them to hold a “Stand for Marriage Sunday” before then, providing links to a sermon and full-color bulletin insert recapping its main points.

The 4300-word suggested sermon and accompanying power point presentation start with the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and march through every Religious Right talking point on homosexuality, marriage equality, and the Satanic, anti-Christian, Nazi-like gay rights movement that is inviting the downfall of civilization. Here are the section heads and some highlights:

Section 1: The Divine Pattern

The sermon says God created men and women to complete each other, and actually includes, “Aren’t you glad God created Adam and Eve, and not just Adam and Steve?” It quotes James Dobson saying “More than ten thousand studies have concluded that kids do best when they are raised by mothers and fathers.” And it asserts that in both the Old and New Testaments, “one man and one woman in a marriage covenant relationship for life is the divine pattern.” (The sermon does not address the abundant inconvenient exceptions to one-man, one-woman marriage in the Bible.)

After reviewing all the ways marriage makes people, couples, and children happier, the section concludes:

God’s way works! Think about it. Every civilization in history is built upon the institution of marriage. It is the foundation. The happiness of couples, the welfare of children, the propagation of the faith, the wellbeing of society, and the orderliness of civilization are all dependent upon the stability of marriage according to the divine pattern. When this God-given pattern is undermined, the whole superstructure of society becomes unstable. Any deviation from the divine pattern invites disaster.

Section 2: The Deceptive Perversion

According to the sermon, homosexuality is a deceptive perversion, a sin that is “open rebellion against the divine pattern.” It cites the familiar “abomination” verses and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Section 3: The Definitive Problem

This section compares gay-rights advocates’ claims that people are born Gay or that “God made us gay” to Nazi propaganda. “They essentially practice Joseph Goebel’s Nazi philosophy of propaganda, which is basically this: Tell a lie long enough and loud enough and eventually most mindless Americans will believe it.” The sermon also compares homosexuality to other “sexual sins” such as promiscuity, adultery and pedophilia. “I do not believe,” it says, “that God would not place in your genetic code something that would damn your immortal soul.” [sic on the double negative]

Section 4: The Destructive Program

This section recounts the dangers of the “radical homosexual agenda,” its goal of “silencing critics in the clergy and Christian media,” and its conquest of the entertainment, educational, and legal arenas, citing a litany of familiar Religious Right horror stories about the alleged persecution of Christians who stand against the merciless gay rights steamroller.  And it pushes one of the primary talking points of Religious Right leaders and their conservative Catholic allies: that equality and religious liberty are fundamentally incompatible:

Where homosexual activists win legal approval, whether by court action or legislation, they often deny our full rights as Christians because a homosexual’s so-called “civil rights” and a Christian’s freedom of conscience and speech opposing homosexuality are mutually exclusive.

“Listen,” the sermon warns, “homosexual activists won’t stop at recognition, their aim is domination. They will not stop until they win over our children and our convicting voice is silenced.”

Section 5: The Determined Plan

These are the action steps FRC wants people hearing the sermon to take:

Action Step 1: Pray

The sermon calls on people to pray for spiritual revival and for “God’s mercy on a nation that is speeding toward Sodom, and hurtling toward Gomorrah.”

Action Step 2: Practice

This section says Christians give up their credibility to challenge the culture when their divorce rate is the same as everyone else’s, and urges people to follow biblical instructions on marriage and home life.

Action Step 3: Participate

This section is a direct rebuke to people who think politics are of the world, something Christians should stay out of. “Since God created the institution of government, would He want His people to stay out of it? No. If Christians don’t ‘render to Caesar’ (Matt. 22:21) and don’t function as ‘salt’ and ‘light’ (Matt. 5:13-16) in the arena of government, then we disobey the commands of Christ and allow Satan to prevail by default.”  The sermon urges people to write blog posts, use Facebook and Twitter, comment on news stories, knock on doors, contact elected officials, and join the March for Marriage being organized by the National Organization for Marriage and its allies in Washington DC on March 26.

Action Step 4: Proclaim

This section urges people to tell those in the “homosexual lifestyle” that they do not have to remain “slaves to sin” but can pray away the gay.

Let’s stand along these poor misguided and lost people trapped in Satan’s snare. Let’s love them out of that sinful and destructive lifestyle! ... But let’s also exercise our rights as Christian citizens! Listen, we can make the difference. Together, Christians all across America can protect and preserve marriage for our children and our children’s children. Let’s stand for God’s plan for marriage because our future depends on it. And all of God’s people said: Amen!

Advocate for Church-State Separation to Lead White House Faith Office

Good news out of the White House today for advocates of religious liberty and church-state separation: President Obama has selected Melissa Rogers as the new director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She will also serve as a Special Assistant to the President.

Rogers is a widely respected scholar on religious freedom and an exceptionally thoughtful advocate for the position that the separation of church and state is a cornerstone of religious liberty. People For the American Way and PFAW Foundation have frequently worked in coalition with Rogers, particularly during her tenure as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  She is also a former director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest University Divinity School.

Rogers was the first chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and in 2011 she was appointed to a subgroup of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Rogers steps into her new position at a time when the definition and scope of “religious liberty” are being strongly contested in the public arena, with conservative religious and legal groups using the term to challenge health care reform and push for broad exceptions to anti-discrimination laws.

In addition, Rogers will face ongoing questions about an issue left unaddressed during President Obama’s first term: the president’s campaign pledge to ensure that organizations using federal funds to carry out social services cannot discriminate with those funds in hiring staff.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone who could do a better job than Melissa Rogers at dealing with these challenges,” says People For’s Executive Vice President Marge Baker. “The American people need a thoughtful and convincing voice like Melissa’s to help us sort through the real religious liberty issues as well as the phony ones.”

PFAW

Right-Wing Voucher Push Undermines Public Education & Constitution

Religious Right leaders and anti-government ideologues have shared a decades-long dream: to dismantle public education through a system of vouchers that would divert taxpayer funds out of public schools and into religious schools and other private academies.  For some, privatizing education is primarily a religious or ideological project. For others, the billions of dollars that flow through public schools is a tempting source of cash. For some it’s both.  Whatever the incentive, voucher proponents are finding success.  A renewed push for the creation and expansion of voucher and voucher-like schemes is contributing to a disturbing rise in public education dollars being diverted to schools that face little to no oversight or public accountability and teach religious dogma at the expense of science.

Most recently, on February 28, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that Douglas County’s voucher program – labeled a “Choice Scholarship Program” in accord with the messaging tactics of Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz – does not violate the state Constitution’s explicit prohibitions against public funding for religious education, even though 18 of the county’s 23 “private partner” schools are religious.  As reported by the Associated Press, dissenting Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Steve Bernard wrote, "In my view,[the Colorado Constitution] prohibits public school districts from channeling public money to private religious schools. I think that the Choice Scholarship Program is a pipeline that violates this direct and clear constitutional command." 

The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State say they will appeal to the state Supreme Court.  Heather L. Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief said “Public education funds should be used to help improve our public schools, not to promote religion in violation of the state constitution.”  Unfortunately, the Colorado case is not the first in which courts have been willing to go along with voucher plans.  In 2011, in a 5-4 ruling, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority allowed an Arizona tax-credit / voucher program to stand while weakening the ability of citizens to challenge programs that divert public funds for religious purposes.

State legislators and their corporate backers in the American Legislative Exchange Council have pushed similar voucher-like tax breaks in other states, often employing the language of “choice” and “options” to divert public attention from the intent and effect of these schemes.  After conservative victories in state elections in 2010, governors and legislators in many states, including Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Florida, pushed to create or expand programs that divert public education dollars into religious schools and other private academies.

Among the most aggressive is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is basically pushing an effort to privatize public education in his state.  He has instituted a massive voucher program grounded in the “model legislation” pushed by ALEC, which honored Jindal in 2011 with its Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award.  Think Progress notes that Jindal’s plan will divert huge sums from public schools:  “Since the public schools will lose commensurate funding every time one of their students opt for a voucher, the state’s public school system could by some estimates lose up to $3.3 billion annually once the program is fully implemented. “

Ed Kilgore noted last summer in Washington Monthly:

In heading his state in the direction of universally available vouchers rationalized by public school failure, Jindal is not, of course, holding any of the private school beneficiaries accountable for results, or for common curricula, or, it appears, for much of anything. A big chunk of the money already out there is being snapped up by conservative evangelical schools with exotic and hardly public-minded curricular offerings, with the theory being that any public oversight would interfere with the accountability provided by “the market.” So if you want your kid to attend, at public expense, the Christian Nationalist Academy for Servant-Leader Boys & Fecund Submissive Girls, that’s okay by Bobby.

Lack of accountability is a real concern.  While proponents of voucher programs paint a picture of a poor student being given a chance to attend an elite private academy, most of those schools have few openings, meaning that the “choice” offered to many students and parents is something far different, including fly-by-night schools with little track record of their own.  According to the Louisiana Budget Project,

Louisiana requires almost no accountability from voucher schools....While voucher students are required to take the same assessment tests as public school students, there are no penalties for private schools if they fail to measure up to their public counterparts. In fact, Gov. Jindal vetoed language in a 2011 appropriations bill that would have removed participating schools if their students’ scores lagged those in the lowest performing schools in the Recovery School District, which incorporates most New Orleans public schools.

So if public schools have lousy test scores, they're failures and their students all get vouchers. But if the private schools have lousy test scores, then....nothing. Presumably the magic of the free market will fix them up.

In June 2011, an investigation by Miami New Times found a breathtaking lack of oversight and accountability in Florida’s voucher program for disabled students, likening it to “a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats.”

In addition to defunding public schools at the expense of unaccountable private schools, voucher programs end up using tax dollars to promote sectarian religious education and proselytizing. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops describes Catholic schools as central to the church’s “New Evangelization.”   And in Louisiana and elsewhere, tax dollars are being used to support schools that teach young-earth creationism, revisionist U.S. history published by fundamentalist Bob Jones University, and other religious dogma applied to civics, politics, and literature. 

The Agenda Behind the Voucher Agenda

During “National School Choice Week,” which ran from January 27 to February 3, the Heritage Foundation published a special report, “Choosing to Succeed,” which included a call for abandoning the “myth” and “relic” of the common school.  In January, Americans for Prosperity published a report blaming the federal government for the failure of education reform and promoting vouchers and voucher-like tax schemes, such as Pennsylvania’s “Education Improvement Tax Credit.” 

On February 5, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he argued that education funds should follow students whether they “choose” public, private, or charter schools. He asserted, “One of our priorities this year will be to move heaven and earth to fix our education system for the most vulnerable.”  It is important to understand that targeted voucher programs that allow students from poor families, children with disabilities or students in underperforming schools to attend private schools that will accept them are not the ultimate goal of school privatizers. They are a tactical means to a much larger strategic end, which is the end of public education altogether, as pushed by David Koch in his run for the White House in 1980. As Milton Friedman, intellectual godfather of the movement, said “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.”

In a May 2011 article, researcher Rachel Tabachnik reviewed the history and financing of the school privatization movement. Its financial backers have been pouring millions of dollars into state politics for the past decade in order to build legislatures more to their liking.  Right-wing donors such as Betsy DeVos and the Walton Foundation funnel money through groups with media-friendly names like All Children Matter, its successor the American Federation for Children, and AFC-affiliated state-level political action committees like Students First, which raised more than $6 million for the 2010 election cycle in Pennsylvania.

“Like most other conservatives and libertarians, we see vouchers as a major step toward the complete privatization of schooling,” wrote Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast in 1997. “In fact, after careful study, we have come to the conclusion that they are the only way to dismantle the current socialist regime.” Heartland has received significant funding from right-wing foundations over the years, including the Charles Koch Foundation.

Another major ideological target is public employee unions, and teachers unions in particular.  A 2011 New York Times story about FreedomWorks’ lobbying for a Pennsylvania voucher program noted, “FreedomWorks is pushing anti-union legislation in several states, and saw the school choice legislation as part of that larger battle.”

School vouchers are just one part of the immensely complicated arena of education policy.  A wide array of strategies and policy proposals is often confusingly lumped together under the banner of “education reform” or “school choice,” terms that can encompass everything from curricula, student testing and teacher evaluation, charter and cyber-charter schools and more.  Some strategies may identify effective reforms that can be replicated and used to strengthen public schools and improve educational opportunity.  Others, like vouchers, are designed to weaken or dismantle public education altogether.

As parents, educators, and activists evaluate various education reform proposals, it is worth keeping in mind the question posed  by Stan Karp, in the Spring 2011 edition of Rethinking Schools, when he said that what is ultimately at stake in the school reform debate is “whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed – however imperfectly – by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?”

Note: this is the first in a series of posts about right-wing efforts to undermine public education, often in the name of education reform.

See also: Predatory Privatization, a 2012 Right Wing Watch In Focus report; and  Voucher Veneer: The Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education, a 2003 report from People For the American Way Foundation.

 

 

Tony Perkins: 'Totalitarian Homosexual Lobby' Out to Destroy Religious Freedom with ENDA

While the Supreme Court prepares to take up cases on marriage equality, the Family Research Council’s latest mailing [PDF] takes on ENDA – the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  “Like a B-grade 1950’s horror-movie, ENDA is coming back from the dead,” warns FRC President Tony Perkins. Perkins says President Obama is working with the “totalitarian homosexual lobby” to sneak ENDA into law, and if that happens, “Our freedom of religion will be destroyed.” The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer sounded a similar alarm in January.

“In fact,” says Perkins in his new letter, “under ENDA biblical morality becomes illegal.”

What ENDA would really do is simply extend existing protections against various forms of legal discrimination in the workplace to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The real point of the FRC letter is to raise money from people who think persecution of Christians in America is just around the corner, if not well under way:

“And no battle could be more urgently important than the battle against NEDA.  The rights of more than 60 million Americans – the right to live and share our faith and live according to biblical values – are literally at risk of being vaporized by a single vote of Congress or the stroke of the President’s pen.”

Polls show overwhelming public support for protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination on the job. But that doesn’t matter to FRC, which has a lot invested in convincing its supporters that LGBT equality is incompatible with religious freedom.  

Several years ago, FRC warned that a federal hate crimes law would be used to silence preachers.  Other religious right leaders said Christians would be tossed into jail for preaching against homosexuality. That legislation was signed into law in 2009; as Perkins himself makes clear, the freedom to trash-talk LGBT people has survived.

Federal education vouchers funding creationism curricula

Federally funded private school voucher and tax credit programs are more numerous than ever. Moreover, studies show that the curricula in many of these programs have included the teaching of creationism.
PFAW

'Religious Liberty' Panelist: Compromise is of the Devil

The Family Research Council hosted a panel discussion Wednesday on religious liberty in America.  If you have paid any attention at all to the frantic warnings from FRC’s Tony Perkins that tyranny is on the march, you could have guessed what was coming.  The overall theme of the conversation was that the HHS mandate for insurance coverage of contraception is a dire threat to religious freedom in America.  So are the advance of marriage equality and laws against anti-gay discrimination – or the “sexual liberty agenda.”

The panel featured three lawyers: Adele Keim of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Kellie Fiedorek of the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund) and Ken Klukowski of the Family Research Council.

Keim talked about Becket’s client Hobby Lobby, which is suing the Obama administration over the contraception mandate.  Or as Keim insisted on calling it, the contraception/abortifacient mandate. Keim argued that business owners are no less deserving of religious accommodation than churches or religiously affiliated nonprofits, saying “Americans do not lose their First Amendment rights when they go to work.” Of course by the standard she was invoking, many Americans could find their own rights and access to health care dictated by the religious beliefs of their employer.

The ADF’s Fiedorek focused on the “great peril” to religious liberty posed by the “agenda to expand sexual liberty and redefine marriage.”   She said in the conflict between sexual liberty and religious liberty, "people of faith" are "the ones being marginalized." She recounted a litany of such “persecution,” including now-familiar stories of a New Mexico photographer and a Colorado baker who were penalized under state anti-discrimination laws when they declined to serve same-sex couples celebrating commitment ceremonies.  Fiedorek compared cases in which businesses are required not to discriminate against gay couples to requiring an African American photographer to take pictures at a KKK event or a Jewish baker to create a cake decorated with a swastika.  She called it “particularly atrocious” that Catholic social service agencies were being required to abide by anti-discrimination ordinances – and were being “forced” to close.  She began and closed her presentation with quotes from the movie Chariots of Fire, ending with one that includes, “Don’t compromise. Compromise is a language of the devil.”

Klukowski talked about the role of religious freedom in the settling of America and the founding of the U.S.  And he recycled ridiculous religious right charges that the Obama administration believes not in freedom of religion but in the narrower “freedom of worship,” a notion that he said would be “profoundly disturbing” to the founding fathers.

The most interesting question from the audience focused on implications of the Bob Jones University case, and on whether the racialist Christian Identity movement could make the same religious liberty claims the lawyers were defending.  Why, the questioner asked, couldn’t the “conscience” rights the lawyers wanted for business owners not be claimed by a Christian Identity-affiliated business owner to deny doing business with African American people or interracial couples?

After a moment of awkward silence, Klukowski said that in the Bob Jones case, the Supreme Court had said the university could continue its racially discriminatory policies, but that its tax exemption was a benefit conferred by the government and could therefore be removed, especially in light of the post-civil war constitutional amendments addressing racial discrimination.  Klukowski did not directly address whether and how that principle could, would, or should apply to the current conversation about anti-gay discrimination.  He gave a confusing statement about what he said was the right of a business owner to throw someone out of their store for wearing a certain T-shirt or carrying a Bible.  The First Amendment, he says, allows people to be jerks in their private lives, but it was not clear whether he meant that the relationship between a business and its customers was “purely private” or falls into the category of public accommodation.

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