Monthly Archives: September 2016

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

New York City’s PreK Program’s Church State Problem

upk

New York City’s school system is no stranger to church state problems. Since 2005, the city has rented space for public schools in religious buildings, causing conflicts ranging from lease provisions that require students to be taken off-site for state-mandated sex education classes to students having to walk by crosses and other religious images as they make their way to school. Last year, the City awarded $19.8 million in funds to religious schools to hire security guards. This school year, New York City’s Department of Education will be dealing with another church state issue as the city enrolls the largest number of four year olds ever into its pre-kindergarten program.

In September, tens of thousands of pre-kindergarten students will be attending class for the first time as part of the De Blasio Administration’s hallmark universal full day pre-k (UPK) program, now in its third year.[1] In order to reach its enrollment goals, the city has been urging religious schools and community organizations to host the UPK program, since most public schools have reached capacity. The city is now providing religious schools roughly $10,000 per student, raising potential conflicts with church state laws. More problematically, under a guidance document issued by the De Blasio administration these religious schools are permitted to teach from religious texts, so long as they do so “objectively as part of a secular program of education,” and are allowed to preference hiring teachers that share the school’s religion. While schools must cover religious symbols on their exterior entrance and UPK class rooms, they need not do so where this is “not practicable.” De Blasio also issued a rule allowing UPK programs to hold breaks for optional prayer.

In New York State, citizens are protected from government advancement of religion by both the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” and the so-called “Blaine Amendment” of the New York Constitution. New York’s Blaine Amendment is more restrictive than the Establishment Clause, and maintains that the State should not use public money in aid “of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught.”[2]

Unfortunately, both of these protections have been substantially watered down over the years by federal and state court decisions that have allowed the government to fund religious schools through various programs. For example, the Supreme Court decision Agostini v. Felton upheld a New York State program that sent public school teachers into parochial schools to teach remedial education. The New York State Supreme Court found in College of New Rochelle v. Nyquist that a college’s affiliation with religion did not make it ineligible for state aid under the Blaine Amendment, unless the “affiliated religious denomination controls or directs the institution towards a religious end” or the college is “controlled or directed to a degree so as to enable the religious authorities to propagate and advance—or at least attempt to do so—their religion.”

Despite this case law, New York’s UPK program poses opportunities for violations of the Establishment Clause and Blaine Amendment. A significant issue is the fact that UPK students are so young. Some courts have placed heightened scrutiny in deciding whether there was an Establishment Clause violation when vulnerable groups, like young students, are involved. In Rusk v. Crestview Local Schools for example, a district court ruled that an elementary school violated the Establishment Clause by distributing flyers advertising community activities sponsored by churches to “impressionable elementary students” who might believe the activities were school-endorsed.[3] This decision was overruled by the Appeals court which found that the parents were the ones who would receive and observe the flyers not the kids, therefore quelling concerns that the flyers would leave an impression on the students. However, the district court’s decision shows that courts sometimes take the age and vulnerability of school students into account when deciding whether an act violates the Establishment Clause.

The potential for coercive indoctrination in the UPK program is real. Publicly-funded UPK programs are supposed be available for all students regardless of religious belief, and there does not appear to be any clear information on the City’s Pre-K Finder to let parents know that a program is housed in a religious institution. Thus, for example, a Muslim or atheist family could apply for a UPK program that is located in a Christian school either because they were not aware of its religious identity, they did not realize that such schools are permitted to teach religious texts, practice coreligionist hiring, and hold prayer breaks, or simply because of a lack of alternative options close to their home. This could leave the four-year-old child in a position where they have to see religious symbols that are in direct conflict with their religious teachings every day, wear a uniform bearing the religious name of their school, read religious materials, watch their fellow students break for prayer, and follow instruction from teachers and an administration that practices a faith different from their own. It is not hard to see how such a scenario could lead to impermissible indoctrination of an impressionable young mind.

Church state issues in education are complicated, especially in a city like New York which is one of the most religiously diverse cities in the nation.[4]   However, law and policy makers have a responsibility to make sure that students are in culturally and religiously sensitive learning environments that respect and pay homage to our city’s religious diversity. Children’s minds are too impressionable to be subjected to religious materials and practices that could potentially indoctrinate them with a particular religion.

[1] Ben Chapman, Mayor De Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Program Still Failing to Reach Some Families, New York Daily News (April 19,2016) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/poor-new-yorkers-left-free-universal-pre-k-article-1.2607773

[2] College of New Rochelle v. Nyquist, 326 N.Y.S.2d 765, 765 (1971)

[3] Rusk v. Crestview Local Schools, 220 F.Supp.2d 854 (6th Cir. 2002)

[4] Jed Kelko, America’s Most Religiously Diverse Cities, Citylab (Dec. 20, 2012) http://www.citylab.com/politics/2012/12/americas-most-religiously-diverse-cities/4227/