All posts by Ashe McGovern

Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

Press Advisory: Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

Date: May 4, 2017

From: Columbia Law School, The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP)

Contact: Ashe McGovern | amcgovern@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0167

Potential Consequences of Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order

President Trump is set to sign a far-reaching and constitutionally problematic executive order today. Although a draft of the final order has not yet been released, it will likely mirror, at least in part, a similar draft that was leaked earlier this year. While more detailed analysis will be necessary once the final order has been released, the leaked order raises the following issues. Specifically, the order:

Defines “people” to include for-profit corporations—even corporations that do not have an exclusively religious purpose. The order defines a “person” to be consistent with 1 U.S.C 1, which includes for-profit corporations.  This means that where the order affirms the right of “people” to act in accordance with a particular set of religious beliefs, including opposition to LGBTQ equality, it enables for-profit corporations to act in a discriminatory manner. These companies would be shielded from government intervention and enforcement of otherwise applicable laws, as long as they assert that their behavior is in keeping with a particular set of “religious beliefs.” The order also defines “religious organization” to include closely held for-profit corporations “operated for a religious purpose even if its purpose is not exclusively religious and is not controlled by or associated with a house of worship.” Thus an organization that is primarily engaged in secular activities, but claims to have some set of guiding religious principles—which the order fails to limit or define—could qualify as a religious organization. It would then be granted the protections religious organizations are given under this order.

Grants broad exemptions from federal civil rights and nondiscrimination laws to private and nonprofit organizations that are funded by the federal government to provide social services, education, healthcare, employment opportunities or other services to the general public. The order states that “persons and organizations do not forfeit their religious freedom” when contracting with the federal government in delivering services to the general public. This means that private organizations, even those that are funded by the federal government, will be shielded from claims that they have violated civil rights and nondiscrimination law as long as they claim their behavior is in accordance with a set of religious beliefs that they are free to define. This also means that the federal government will be unable to require religious grantees to provide publicly-funded services on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Enables federal contractors to impose their religious beliefs on their workers as a condition of employment. The order states that all agencies must provide exemptions to federal contractors and grantees consistent with religious exemptions found within the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. These exemptions have been carefully tailored and limited by the courts, and do not currently apply to federal contractors. Applying them to federal contractors would impermissibly expand the exemptions, and allow federally-funded organizations to require that their employees follow particular religious beliefs or behaviors in order to remain employed.

Grants broad religious exemptions to federal employees acting in their official capacities as government workers, including workers that regularly interact with the public. The order requires agencies to “accommodate” the religious beliefs of federal employees, even where those beliefs conflict with their official duties as government employees. This could mean that a federal employee, who works for the Social Security Administration, for example, could refuse to process an application for a same-sex couple, a transgender person or a person of different faith, by stating that their religious beliefs prohibit them from doing so.

Directs relevant federal agencies to exempt any organization, whether religious or secular, from having to provide comprehensive reproductive services and healthcare to their workers. The order directs the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury to issue an immediate interim rule that “exempts from the preventative care mandate…all persons and religious organizations that object to complying with the mandate for religious or moral reasons.” The order also directs HHS to take “appropriate actions” to ensure that “any individuals” who purchase health insurance on the individual markets, including federally facilitated and state sponsored health insurance, have the ability to purchase insurance that does not provide coverage for abortion and “does not subsidize plans that do provide such coverage.” This means that any for-profit employer can be granted a religious exemption from the requirement that they or their health plans provide contraceptive and family planning services. This would substantially broaden the Supreme Court’s holding in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which applied only to closely-held corporations. The order would also require state and federal exchanges to include plans that prohibit family planning services. Furthermore, it would preempt state laws that require health plans to cover birth control and abortion.

Allows federally-funded child welfare services and agencies to discriminate on any basis, including on the basis of race or religion, if doing so would “conflict with the organization’s religious beliefs.” This includes organizations that “provide federally funded child-welfare services, including promoting or providing adoption, foster, or family support services for children, or similar services.” This means that organizations that provide foster or adoptive services would be empowered to discriminate against same-sex couples, people of other faiths, unmarried people, or others whose relationships or behaviors do not conform to the organization’s particular religious beliefs.

Allows religious organizations and houses of worship to engage in political lobbying, while still maintaining their tax-exempt status. Specifically, this order would allow an organization that is speaking on a “moral or political issue from a religious perspective” to endorse or support political candidates. Currently, the tax code prohibits all 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. This provision would exempt religious organizations—and only religious organizations—from that mandate. The order also prohibits the Department of Treasury from imposing any tax penalty or burden to any organization that acts in accordance with beliefs that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy physiology or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.”

Enacts far-reaching requirements on all federal departments and agencies to promptly rescind any rulings, directives, regulations, guidance, positions, or interpretations that are inconsistent with the order. This means that directives, rulings, regulations, guidance and interpretations that do not provide expansive religious exemptions may be rescinded or withdrawn by any agency or department of the federal government. This could include already existing protections enacted under the Obama administration for LGBTQ communities, women, and people of color, in their ability to seek access to reproductive services, employment, healthcare, education or social services.

Access a .pdf of this Press Advisory here.

For more policy analyses from the PRPCP, see our Policy Page, here.

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.

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.