What Muslim Ban? A Religious Liberty Hearing in the Trump Era

Re-blogged from Religion Dispatches
Originally post, February 16, 2017

Today the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the “State of Religious Liberty in America.” What was perhaps most striking about the hearing was how dated many of the speeches and arguments felt—as if an Obama-era hearing was being held nearly a month into the Trump administration.

Three of the witnesses and many of the congresspersons who spoke conjured a world in which a hostile federal government seeks out well-meaning and peaceful Christians for baseless persecution, and in which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represents the greatest threat to religious liberty. Meanwhile, other legislators and a lone witness desperately tried to redirect the conversation to the fact that President Trump campaigned on a platform of Islamophobia and recently admitted that he intends to prioritize immigration by Christian refugees. No speaker brought up other salient religious liberty issues, such as a recently-filed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claim challenging the Dakota Access Pipeline and an increased interest in using RFRA to resist immigration law.

The witnesses at the hearing included Kim Colby of the Christian Legal Society, Casey Mattox of Alliance Defending Freedom, Hannah Smith of Becket, and Rabbi David Saperstein, who served as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom under President Obama.

The first three of these, all from conservative organizations that advocate for broad religious exemptions, pushed a narrative of religious persecution fueled by several fundamental misrepresentations: first, that efforts to combat anti-LGBTQ discrimination, or to provide access to contraception, constitute malicious anti-Christian harassment rather than attempts to expand access to jobs, services, housing, and health care; second, that groups seeking anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice exemptions want merely to “live-and-let-live” when in fact many of these organizations have consistently sought to ban LGBTQ relationships and abortion; and third, that issues around sex, marriage, and reproduction constitute the primary site for religious liberty disputes in the current political climate.

Sticking to their anti-Obama talking points, the speakers seem not to have grasped that it may become increasingly difficult to claim the mantle of “religious liberty” without speaking out against the Islamophobic rhetoric adopted at the highest levels of government, and the dramatic rise in anti-Muslim hate groups across the country.

While Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas sought in his remarks to pit religious minorities against each other, claiming that the legacy of the Holocaust was preventing Germany from adequately screening out Muslims that “hate Jews,” Representative Steve Cohen—Tennessee’s first Jewish congressperson—called Islamophobia the “latest form of dog-whistle politics” and noted that he himself had received an increased number of “jabs” for his faith in recent months. Thus Trump’s EO on immigration has shed a clear spotlight on what many advocates and legislators mean when they use the phrase “religious freedom”—and what they don’t.

Furthermore, no one in the room seemed to have fully grappled with the fact that expanding a right to religious accommodations may come back to haunt conservatives, as progressive faith leaders and religious practitioners search for ways to employ RFRA for their own spiritual practice, including helping Syrian refugees, protecting the environment, or providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

None of this is to understate the continued relevance of anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice religious exemptions. Legislators have promised to re-introduce—and the President has promised to sign—the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), which would sanction religiously-motivated discrimination against same-sex couples and unmarried pregnant and parenting persons. Many states continue to propose similar exemptions. And the recently-leaked Executive Order on religion, if signed, would provide legal cover for even large companies to defy laws that conflict with certain religious beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction.

But as significant as those measures remain to LGBTQ families, unmarried parents, and women, what was left unsaid during the hearing is of equal import: the religious right may not have a monopoly on the “religious freedom” platform for long, especially if they continue to ignore the new free exercise and establishment clause battles being waged in the courts, legislatures, and streets.

Trump Attempts to Pit LGBTQ Communities, People of Color, and Women Against Muslim Refugees and Immigrants

Trump’s latest executive order highlights what is becoming standard practice within his administration: obscuring the destructive impact of an action on some marginalized communities by couching it in a feigned concern for “protecting” others.

Reblogged from Rewire News

At the tail end of a relentless first week of presidential action targeting the environment, immigrants, reproductive health care, Native communities, and the free speech rights and employment of federal workers, President Trump signed an executive order to halt refugee resettlement and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The order suspends the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program and bans entry of persons from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

On the whole, the order is dangerous, misguided, and deeply rooted in this administration’s commitment to a xenophobic, racist, and Islamophobic agenda. However, two sections in particular highlight a manipulative tactic that is becoming standard practice within the Trump administration: obscuring the destructive impact of an action on some marginalized communities by couching it in a feigned concern for “protecting” others.

Section one of the order states that “the United States [will] not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry and hatred … or those who would oppress members of one race, one gender, or one sexual orientation.”

Trump’s attempt to couch this order in paternalistic, hollow concern for LGBTQ communities, communities of color, and women is both dangerous and insincere. It directly ignores the lived experiences of Muslims within those communities, falsely implies that Islam’s principles are inconsistent with equality and justice, and is in direct contrast with the hostility Trump, his administration, and his appointees have exhibited toward these communities domestically and abroad. It is also a clear attempt to exploit support for these communities in a way that obscures the order’s oppressive effect on Muslim immigrants and refugees.

Trump has made clear, through his campaign rhetoric, cabinet appointments, and vice presidential selection, that he has no interest in protecting the rights of women, communities of color, or LGBTQ people. Despite superficial statements claiming he strongly supports LGBTQ rights, Trump, Vice President Pence, and most of their cabinet appointees have a strong commitment to laws that would harm LGBTQ and reproductive rights, including the First Amendment Defense Act and similar state bills. Trump also campaigned heavily on a “law and order” platform, which has demonized undocumented immigrants and communities of color by pushing forward a false narrative about the problem of “inner-city” crime—a term that has long been coded as racist and intended to target Black communities in particular.

Secondly, the order’s alleged commitment to rejecting bigotry rings particularly false because it is apparently aimed at prioritizing the resettlement of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. While it does not name Christians explicitly, the order directs the secretary of the State Department, in consultation with the secretary of Homeland Security, “to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” Absent from the order, of course, is any prioritization of the communities Trump claims he is invested in protecting from supposedly dangerous Muslim refugees and immigrants.

Last week, Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network that he intended to help persecuted Christians with his new refugee policies, because, he claims, they have been “horribly treated” in the refugee resettlement process, despite evidence showing that Christian and Muslim refugees have been approved for resettlement at roughly the same rate in recent history.

As others have also pointed out, although Trump has claimed a strong support for “religious liberty,” the selective religious beliefs that he supports seem to be grounded more in a self-serving version of Christian nationalism than justice for communities directly harmed by his particular brand of white, cis-hetero Christian supremacy. Although there might be a vocal minority of Christian leaders speaking out in support of reducing or banning Muslims from entering the United States, “leaders of nearly every Christian denomination, along with those of other faiths” criticized the action, which they argued does “not reflect the teachings of the Bible, nor the traditions of the United States,” reported The Atlantic.

During the weekend, large-scale protests erupted across the country, prompting federal judges in New York, Massachusetts, Washington State, and Virginia to hold emergency hearings, which resulted in temporary orders halting enforcement of the order. Despite judicial intervention, there continues to be reports of people and families, even those with visas and green cards, being detained for hours without food or access to lawyers at airports across the country—and some have already been deported. Adding to the confusion, Trump has continued to defend the order and the Department of Homeland Security has issued a statement emphasizing that despite court orders, the ban will stay in effect.

The framing of this order should serve as a reminder to advocates, journalists, and others to remain vigilant in calling out and resisting Trump’s attempts to pit some of our important justice and equality interests against others—particularly when the communities in question are not inherently at odds, and the administration has no intent in furthering the substantive rights of those communities.

Trump’s Executive Order Barring Muslims is Unconstitutional

PRESS STATEMENT

FROM: 
Public Rights/Private Conscience Project

RE: Trump’s Executive Order Barring Muslims is Unconstitutional

DATE: January, 30 2017

MEDIA CONTACT: Elizabeth Reiner Platt, elizabeth.platt@law.columbia.edu, (212) 854-8079

Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project joins with thousands of lawyers, law professors, and legal organizations across the country in announcing that President Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order writing a religious preference into U.S. policy is unconstitutional. The Order—issued late Friday afternoon, hours after the administration recognized Holocaust Remembrance Day—suspends the entire U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, declares that “entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States,” and cuts off entry into the U.S. for certain nationals of majority-Muslim countries. Several provisions of the order are clearly intended to block immigration by Muslim refugees while providing a preference for some Christian refugees to escape violence and persecution by resettling in the U.S. The Executive Order amounts to both a form of state sponsored discrimination against persons of one particular faith and a religious preference for persons of another faith, in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

While the Refugee Admissions program is suspended, Trump’s Executive Order nevertheless allows entry of refugees on a case-by-case basis if the administration deems their admission “in the national interest,” specifically mentioning members of minority religions abroad. When and if the program is reinstated, the Order directs the agencies to “prioritize” members of minority religions. The Order also directs agencies to recommend legislation to the President that would “assist with such prioritization.” There is no Constitutionally-legitimate reason why the U.S. should prioritize the entry particular religious groups, or determine that the entry of certain religious believers is or is not in the “national interest.” While written in ostensibly neutral language, it is apparent that the Order’s preference for refugees who are religious minorities in their country of origin is intended to shut out Muslim refugees.

Current federal law prohibits any preference, priority, or discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas on account of the applicant’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence – religion is not on the list, 8 U.S.C. § 1152(a)(1)(A). Yet, under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the new Trump immigration Executive Order is clearly unconstitutional. The state may not “act[] with the intent of promoting a particular point of view in religious matters,” nor may it “aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another.” Similarly, the state’s laws and policies must be neutral with respect to religion and between religions – that is, it may not favor adherents of one religion over another. The Court, and Justice Kennedy in particular, has taken the view that the Establishment Clause together with the Free Exercise Clause embrace an anti-persecution principle – expressly linking the religion clauses to the Equal Protection clause’s non-discrimination norm. In the words of Chief Justice Rehnquist, “we have sometimes characterized the Establishment Clause as prohibiting the State from ‘disapprov[ing] of a particular religion.’” Thus, there are many grounds on which to challenge the new anti-immigrant Executive Order, both for persons holding valid immigrant visas and for those seeking new visas or refugee status. One of those grounds is that this odious new policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

While the Order leaves open the confounding questions of what constitutes a religious “minority” considering the great diversity of beliefs and practices within major world religions, as well as how the State will identify religious adherents, it is clear from both the face of the Order and the context around its creation that Trump’s actions are intended to discriminate based on religious belief. President Trump has pledged to instate a Muslim ban throughout his campaign, and he has now taken a significant step to fulfill this promise. “At its core, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment forbids the U.S. government from determining which religions or religious beliefs are or are not acceptable, desirable, or American,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of PRPCP. “This Order violates that crucial limitation.”

“It is alarming that one of the Trump Administration’s first policies is to issue a religious litmus test for refugees and immigrants seeking entry to the U.S.,” observed Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Faculty Director of PRPCP. “If the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stands for anything it is that the state must neither prefer or discriminate members of any particular religious tradition when it issues policy.”

Report: Church, State & the Trump Administration

PRESS RELEASE

JANUARY 30, 2017 

Trump and Cabinet Nominees Seek to Restrict Muslim Rights, Break Down the Wall Between Church and State

MEDIA CONTACT: Ashe McGovern
amcgovern@law.columbia.edu

A new document issued by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) at Columbia Law School outlines the numerous areas in which the Trump administration will seek to advance particular conservative Christian tenets, restrict the rights of religious minorities, and break down the barrier between church and state. Enactment of the administration’s policy priorities would call into question the careful balance that currently exists between the First Amendment and other fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The report, entitled Church, State & the Trump Administration, highlights the ways in which the new administration’s early executive actions and cabinet nominations, as well as his campaign rhetoric and proposed policies, indicate hostility toward religious liberty guarantees of the First Amendment and an intentional disregard for other fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The report will continue to be updated in the coming weeks as the administration takes further action.

Despite his stated commitment to religious freedom, during his first week in office President Trump has issued an Executive Order that clearly expresses an official State preference for Christianity, and disapproval of Islam. Furthermore, Trump has consistently demonstrated that his policies will be grounded in the concerns of certain conservative Christian groups. His Executive Order reinstating a significantly expanded version of the anti-choice global gag rule, an expected Executive Order sanctioning anti-LGBTQ discrimination, and his selections for cabinet appointments all point to an administration that will seek to further particular religious ideals while breaking down the barrier between church and state.

President Trump and cabinet appointees appear to hold a deeply flawed understanding of the First Amendment, and particularly the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from favoring or disfavoring any religious group or belief. If confirmed, many of his appointees are likely to implement policies that will harm the rights of religious and other minorities, particularly Muslim communities, LGBTQ people, and communities seeking access to adequate healthcare and protection of their reproductive rights. A recently released report by PRPCP also highlights the ways in which communities of color are particularly harmed by the religious exemptions that President Trump, Vice President Pence, and others in his cabinet have championed.

“Despite his insistence that the protection of religious liberties is a top priority, Trump has made clear, through executive orders and cabinet appointments, that he seeks only to prioritize a version of white Christian nationalism and supremacy, that, if left unchecked, would create tangible harms to many marginalized communities—and violate fundamental liberty and equality guarantees under the Constitution,” said Ashe McGovern, Associate Director of PRPCP.

“Religious freedom is fundamentally inconstant with the State’s endorsement of particular religions or religious beliefs,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, PRPCP’s director. “Anyone committed to free exercise rights should be deeply concerned with Trump and his cabinet’s apparent distain for the separation of church and state.”

“The new administration has shown a disturbing commitment to write the First Amendment out of the U.S. Constitution,” said Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Faculty Director of PRPCP.   “In its first week in office the Trump White House has been remarkably aggressive in both embracing a particular religious agenda in violation of the Establishment Clause and discriminating against people whose faith it disfavors in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Franke continued.

Read the full report here.

 

Unmarried and Unprotected: How Religious Liberty Bills Harm Pregnant People, Families, and Communities of Color

PRESS RELEASE

FROM: PUBLIC RIGHTS/PRIVATE CONSCIENCE PROJECT

RE: New Report Reveals That Religious Exemptions Laws Disproportionately Harm Communities of Color

MEDIA CONTACT: Kira Shepherd, 215-908-4825, ks3377@columbia.edu

New York, NY – A new report shows how recent legislative efforts to expand religious liberty rights, such as the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), allow religious objectors to violate laws that protect against pregnancy, familial status, and marital status discrimination. These measures will disproportionately impact women of color who are more likely to become pregnant and raise families when unmarried. The report issued by Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/ Private Conscience Project (PRPCP), entitled Unmarried and Unprotected: How Religious Liberty Bills Harm Pregnant People, Families, and Communities of Color, highlights. the under-examined negative consequences of many religious exemption bills – how overly-broad religious exemption laws can be used to undermine sexual liberty and equality rights.

Many recently proposed religious exemptions bills, most notably FADA, which President Trump has highlighted as a top legislative priority, would confer special protections for the religiously motivated belief that sexual relations should only take place between married different-sex persons. By allowing religious objectors to defy all laws that conflict with their religious beliefs about sex and marriage, FADA and similar bills would significantly undermine the reach of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, Fair Housing Act, and Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Such exemptions would permit (if not encourage) religious objectors to engage in a wide range of discriminatory acts against unmarried pregnant and parenting persons, including denial of employment, housing, public benefits, and access to social services. An earlier report by PRPCP offers an overview of state and federal religious exemption bills.

Although these bills have the potential to harm anyone who has had sex when unmarried, people of color, especially African Americans, would particularly suffer their effects. This is because among all racial groups, African Americans are the most likely to have and raise children outside of marriage. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, 70% of African American children are born to parents who are not married, followed by 67% percent of Native American children, and 53% percent of Hispanic children, compared with 35% for children born to white women. In addition, because most women of color earn less than white women and are less likely to have financial cushions, religious exemptions laws that sanction employment, housing, and benefits discrimination stand to present women of color with far greater financial burdens.

“This report shows that policymakers across the nation are leveraging religion to push forward crude and discriminatory laws that impose extreme financial, dignitary, and emotional harm on women of color and their families,” said Kira Shepherd, Associate Director of PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program. “These laws could turn back the clock on some of the progress this country has made towards racial justice. They have the potential to take us back to a dark era where certain religious views were used as a justification for legal discrimination.”

PRPCP Director Elizabeth Reiner Platt said, “Women of color already face disproportionately high rates of pregnancy discrimination. In the name of protecting religious beliefs, FADA and similar state-level exemptions would impose yet another burden on many low-income families and families of color.”

Read the full report here.

PRPCP is a think tank based at Columbia Law School whose mission is to bring legal academic expertise to bear on the multiple contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine other fundamental rights to equality and liberty. To learn more about the organization visit our website at: http://web.law.columbia.edu/gender-sexuality/public-rights-private-conscience-project.

PRPCP is on Facebook and Twitter.  Follow us to keep up to date with the latest information regarding our research, programs, and events.

Ben Carson’s “Judeo-Christian Nation” Vision Threatens Housing Equality

Today, former Presidential candidate Ben Carson is appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hearing on his nomination to become Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. HUD is the federal agency tasked with administering and overseeing a wide range of vital housing programs and services, with a budget of over $32 billion. It is also the agency responsible for enforcing the federal Fair Housing Act, or FHA, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin, in the selling, renting or securing of funds for a dwelling.

Throughout his campaign for President, Carson argued that he would ground his role as a government official in his own religious principles—which he contends do not require him to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, or LGBTQ, people or Muslim communities, among other groups. Carson’s confirmation as Secretary of HUD would call into question whether this important role as HUD Secretary will be faithfully executed and whether the agency will continue to adequately protect those whose existence Carson deems to be in conflict with a properly organized “Judeo-Christian nation.

LGBTQ Communities

Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has made clear that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution requires states to license marriage certificates to same-sex couples, Carson has stated emphatically that he does not support same-sex marriage, calling it an “extra right” and the LGBTQ people seeking it, “abnormal.” During his run for president, he strongly supported Kim Davis, the infamous Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, arguing that LGBTQ people should not be able to force their “way of life upon everybody else.” He has also asserted that Congress should fire federal judges who support marriage equality and pass a law to nullify the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, comparing LGBTQ people to those who practice bestiality and pedophilia.

Carson has also stated numerous times that transgender people’s desire to be legally recognized as their authentic selves is the “height of absurdity,” and should not be forced upon “normal people” by “secular progressives.” He also claims that gender is a biological fact, grounded in both biblical and genetic truths, despite contrary consensus from the country’s leading medical associations and the lived reality of actual transgender people.

Muslim Communities

Carson’s brand of biblical governance also distorts the lived experiences of Muslim Americans, despite his alleged commitment to religious freedom and liberty. Leading Muslim American groups have widely questioned the impact of Carson’s statements about Islam on his ability to govern fairly.

For example, in response to questions on whether he would support having a Muslim president, Carson claimed that “Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of [their] public life and what [they] do as a public official, and that’s inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution,” going on to say he would not support a Muslim President unless they disavow their faith.  During a speech at Iowa University, Carson claimed that Islam is actually not a religion, but is instead “a life organization system” that has an “apocalyptic vision.”

These statements exist, ironically, in tandem with his insistence that “it is absolutely vital that we do all we can to allow Americans to practice their religious ways, while simultaneously ensuring that no one’s beliefs infringe upon those of others.”

Significant Gains May be Lost

Carson’s potential confirmation, and insistence on misunderstanding or ignoring constitutional and legislative protections for vulnerable communities, is both dangerous and will likely damage the protective framework created by the Fair Housing Act and regulations promulgated by HUD under the Obama administration.

For example, in 2012 HUD released urgently needed regulations to ensure LGBTQ people have equal access to housing and housing services, and in 2016, it extended those protections to emergency homeless shelters that were not previously covered.  These policies have been important not only because of the high rates of discrimination that LGBTQ people,  particularly transgender people of color, experience in housing, but also because LGBTQ people can still be denied housing and shelter in most states, absent federal protections from HUD. Further, Muslim Americans also report experiencing significant discrimination in housing, and under the Obama administration, both HUD and agencies including the Department of Justice, have been committed to forming partnerships to combat Islamophobia.

As Secretary of HUD, Carson would have the power to nullify and dismantle anti-discrimination gains made under the Obama administration. He would also have the ability to significantly weaken enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, and his statements indicate that he is likely to do just that for communities he deems unworthy of equal protection.

Religious Discrimination Removed from National Defense Bill

In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, a Congressional aide confirmed that the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will not contain what has come to be known as the “Russell Amendment.” The Amendment would have required the Federal Government and all of its agencies to allow federally-contracted religious organizations and associations to discriminate against current and potential employees when those employees do not share their employers’ religious beliefs or adhere to the tenets of their employers’ religion. These exemptions already exist in private employment contexts, but the Amendment would have codified the requirement for all federally-contracted programs, which collectively employ approximately 28 million people, or more than 20 percent of the American workforce.

Although this is a positive development for those concerned with the potential consequences of the Amendment, the aide indicated that its removal is directly related to “new paths” that have opened up to address the Amendment’s intended purpose, indicating a related stand-alone bill may be introduced in the near future.  Steve Russell, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma, attached the contentious amendment to the NDAA in May, and it passed narrowly in a late night House vote. Today, that Amendment seems to have been stripped from the bill’s current version, which will likely come up for a floor vote on Friday.

Opponents of the Amendment claim that, had it passed, it would have been a direct and intentional threat to a 2014 Executive Order signed by President Obama (EO 13672), which prohibits federal contractors and sub-contractors from engaging in employment discrimination on the basis of a worker’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  EO 13672 amended an earlier Executive Order signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965—which has been enforced by subsequent Administrations—prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against their employees on the basis of religion, sex, race, and national origin.

Proponents of the Amendment argued that the measure would simply reinforce the current legal status quo, by incorporating exemptions for religious organizations found within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), both of which do provide limited nondiscrimination exemptions to religious organizations—but neither of which clearly apply in the context of federal contractors.

As opponents of the Amendment rightly point out, had it passed, the law would have undermined existing federal nondiscrimination protections not only for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) workers and communities, but also for communities of color, people living with disabilities, immigrant communities, women and gender non-conforming people, people of faith or no faith who hold different views than their employers, and others who would otherwise be protected under Title VII, the ADA, or other nondiscrimination regulations that federal agencies have already promulgated.

For example, under this Amendment, an organization, using federal funds, might refuse to hire a transgender person simply by claiming that their identity and non-conformity to certain sex stereotypes did not meet a tenet of that employer’s religion—namely, that if a person is assigned a particular sex at birth, they must have a particular gender identity or set of gender expressions. While the Supreme Court has ruled clearly that employment discrimination on the basis of sex stereotyping is a violation of Title VII—and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and federal courts have confirmed this applies to transgender and gender non-conforming people—the Amendment would have created a broad exemption for all federal contractors that fall under the exemption, without guidance on how existing nondiscrimination protections might be threatened or undermined.

Furthermore, proponents failed to address the unique constitutional concerns that arise under the Establishment Clause when government funds, as opposed to private funds, are used to promote and endorse religion and further discriminatory behavior against third parties. In this case, job applicants or current employees of religious organizations could have been directly harmed.

Although the removal of the Russell Amendment is welcome news to those concerned with its consequences, given the recent election outcome and the current list of proposed Presidential appointments, similar legislative and administrative efforts seem inevitable in the immediate future and over the next several years.

Welcome to Ashe McGovern, Associate Director, Public Rights/Private Conscience Project

September 12, 2016

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law is thrilled to welcome our newest staff member, Ashe McGovern. Ashe joins the PRPCP as Associate Director, filling the role held by the project’s Elizabeth Reiner Platt prior to her appointment as Director of the project in June of this year.  Ashe will be working with the PRPCP leading our efforts to analyze the scope and effects of legislative language that seeks to broaden religious liberty rights and will coordinate our work with state Attorneys General.

Before joining Columbia, Ashe was a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington, DC, where they engaged in state and federal public policy research, analysis, and advocacy with a focus on LGBTQ poverty and the criminalization of LGBTQ communities. Prior to CAP, Ashe worked as an Equal Justice Works Fellow at New York Legal Assistance Group, where they launched the LGBTQ Health and Economic Justice Initiative to provide direct legal services and advocacy to low-income LGBTQ communities in New York.

While a student at Cornell Law School, Ashe worked at several civil rights organizations including the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal, and was a Holley Law Fellow at the National LGBTQ Task Force. They additionally participated in legal clinics representing clients on a variety of matters, including clients experiencing violence in prison, families seeking lawful immigration status and low wage workers seeking union recognition. Ashe is the author of When Schools Refuse to Say Gay: The Constitutionality of Anti-LGBTQ “No-Promo-Homo” Public School Policies in the United States, 22 CORNELL J.L. & PUB. POLICY 465 (2012), and their work has been published in The Nation, NPR, Huffington Post, The Advocate, and ThinkProgress, among other sites. Prior to law school, Ashe worked as an adult education teacher in Brooklyn.

“Ashe’s experience and leadership working at the intersection of racial, economic, and sexual justice will strengthen the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s work illuminating the meaning and stakes of the rise of religious liberty claims in the current civil rights climate,” said Professor Katherine Franke, PRPCP’s Faculty Director.

For more about Ashe, please see their staff page at the PRPCP website, here.  To learn more about the PRPCP’s work, please see our homepage, here, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

PRPCP’s Comment Regarding Zubik

This week the Public Rights Private Conscience Project (PCPCP) submitted a letter to the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) in response to their request for information (RFI) regarding an accommodation for religious employers who do not wish to provide their employees with insurance coverage for no-cost contraceptive care, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The request came shortly after the Supreme Court punted a case on this very topic back to the lower courts, leaving religious freedom and women’s health advocates in limbo regarding the mandate’s fate.

The case, Zubik v. Burwell, combined separate challenges from religious non-profits to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate, which requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees. The religious accommodation to the mandate allowed religious non-profits to file a one-page form with the HHS to opt out, and made health insurance companies or third-party administrators responsible for stepping in to provide this coverage without involvement or funds from the employer. But the non-profits asserted that even this requirement violated their religious beliefs. The government holds that the accommodation complies with relevant laws protecting religious freedom, such as the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), which was enacted in 1993 to protect religious minorities.

In the RFI, the government states that their commitment to religious freedom and desire to find an accommodation that works for all led to the public information request.  The government also recognized that the Zubik decision “affect(s) a wide variety of stakeholders, including many who are not parties to the cases that were before the Supreme Court,” which they say increased their desire to find an effective solution to the problem presented in Zubik.

The RFI asks the public to comment on two alternatives to the ACA religious accommodation. The first alternative would allow religious non-profits to contract with insurers for coverage that did not include contraceptives and then the insurer would have to notify employees separately and explain that they would provide no-cost contraceptive coverage independent of the employer’s health plan. Here, the religious employer would only have to verbally notify the insurer of their objection, rather than through a form. The second alternative was for women employees to affirmatively enroll in policies that only covered contraceptives.

In the comment that PRPCP submitted we began by discussing how the existing religious accommodation does not offend RFRA:

“RFRA prohibits the government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The current accommodation meets this standard for two reasons: first, it does not impose a burden, much less one that is substantial in nature, on religious exercise and second, it is the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interests in ensuring access to contraceptives, a necessary part of basic preventative health care, and avoiding violations of the Establishment Clause.”

PRPCP then discusses how the alternative accommodations proposed by the plaintiffs would impose harms on employees and their families and risk violating the Establishment Clause. Here, we noted that a number of Supreme Court cases have held that the Establishment Clauses was violated when a government-created religious accommodation imposed serious harms on other private individuals. We stated:

“Both of the alternative accommodations put forth in the RFI would impose a significant harm on non-beneficiaries, most notably employees and their families. The first alternative, by providing ample opportunity for confusion, misrepresentation, and further RFRA litigation, would make employees susceptible to extensive gaps in necessary contraceptive coverage. Further, by making enforcement of the contraceptive mandate significantly more difficult, it would impose costs on both employees and the government. The second alternative would impose significant burdens on third parties by requiring health plans to create, and employees to seek out and enroll in, contraceptive-only health plans. These plans would likely face substantial administrative and financial difficulties. Furthermore, they would result in fewer employees and families having adequate access to contraceptive health care.”

Lastly, we mentioned how important seamless access to cost-free contraceptive care is for women of color, a conversation that is oftentimes left out of the discussion about religious accommodations to the ACA. PRCPC noted:

“Eliminating disparities in reproductive health care, including high rates of unintended pregnancy, involves increasing access to contraception and family planning resources. Access to contraception allows women of color to plan whether and when they will have a child, which research has shown provides them with greater financial stability and freedom.  Many women of color, who on average earn significantly less than white women, cannot afford to pay for quality contraception. For example, the IUD is considered the most effective form of contraception available on the market today and costs between $500.00 and $1,000.00 without insurance. Because of its high cost, among other factors, only six percent of Black women have used IUDs compared with seventy-eight percent who have used birth control pills, which have higher user failure rates.  Providing women of color with access to contraceptive coverage at no additional cost will help to reduce the reproductive health disparities that we see in communities of color. This is an important first step in ameliorating the overall health disparities between women of color and white women in the United States.”

We applaud the Department’s commitment to religious freedom as mentioned in the RFI, however hope this commitment does not outweigh its duty to uphold the rights of women seeking cost-free contraceptive coverage. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court dodged making a decision on this important