All posts by Elizabeth Boylan

Columbia Law Experts Denounce Federal Guidance Allowing Religious and Moral Discrimination in Contraceptive Coverage

Press Statement: October 6, 2017

Liz Boylan, eboyla@law.columbia.edu, 212.854.0167

Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) condemns the Trump administration for issuing sweeping new rules today that roll back the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s birth control benefit, by broadening exemptions for employers who claim religious or moral objections to offering birth control to their workers. These regulations place the religious and moral views of employers above the health and wellbeing of their workers and gut the contraceptive coverage provision of the ACA by dramatically reducing access to affordable birth control. Rather than protecting religious freedom for all Americans, these regulations are part of the current administration’s ongoing effort to advance a limited set of conservative religious beliefs while limiting the liberty and equality rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and religious minorities.

For over seven years, the religious right has waged a battle to limit the scope of preventive health care services covered by the ACA, including essential reproductive health care. In 2014, they won a significant victory when the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that secular for-profit companies could assert religion-based waivers from the duty to include health care coverage for contraceptives in their employee health plans. The Court’s opinion hinged, however, on the fact that women would still have access to such care, which would be covered by their insurance plan rather that their employer. After another three years of litigation and intense lobbying, anti-choice advocates have at long last succeeded in making it possible for employers to entirely cut off their employee’s access to contraceptive coverage, not only because of their religious objections, but now because of their moral objections as well.

In depriving workers and their families of essential health care coverage, the regulation violates both the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. By requiring workers to bear the cost of their employer’s religious beliefs, the regulation conflicts with a clear line of Supreme Court cases which hold that where a government-created religious accommodation imposes serious harms on others, it ceases to be a valid protection of personal faith and instead becomes an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

“With these new rules, the federal government is giving the green light to employers to discriminate against their women workers, and those seeking access to reproductive care, in the name of religious liberty or individual moral belief,” said Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School and Faculty Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project. “The fundamental health care needs of working women are now held hostage by right wing interest groups,” Franke concluded.

As PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program (RJP) has noted in the past, these types of rules have an especially devastating impact on women of color. Women of color have higher unintended pregnancy rates than their white counterparts and face increasing difficulties in accessing care. Eliminating these disparities requires increasing access to contraception and family planning resources, which allow women of color to plan whether and when they have a child, which research has shown provides them with greater financial stability and freedom. “Research shows that teen pregnancy rates have dropped to an all-time low in recent years due to increased access to affordable, quality contraception and education about family planning,” said Kira Shepherd, Director of PRPCP’s Racial Justice Program. “Native Americans, Black communities and Latinas, who have the highest teen pregnancy rates of all communities, stand to be harmed the most by these new rules, which limit young women’s and people’s ability to make informed choices about their reproductive health and lives. Here, the Trump administration has once again shown that it cares little about the health and wellbeing of communities of color.”

“President Trump’s repeated efforts to ban immigration from majority-Muslim countries—which a circuit court said drips ‘with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination’—demonstrate that the administration is not concerned with protecting religious freedom for everyone,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of PRPCP. “These rules are just another demonstration of the ongoing effort to push conservative religious beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction onto others who do not share those beliefs.”

Access a .pdf of this statement here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Release-ACA-10-6

Learn more about PRPCP’s staff here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Staff

For more information on the PRPCP, visit our website: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

 

Columbia Law Experts Denounce DOJ Religious Liberty Guidance as Attack on Religious Liberty and Fundamental Equality Rights

Press Statement:
October 6, 2017

Contact:
Liz Boylan,
eboyla@law.columbia.edu, 212.854.0167

Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) denounces the memorandum released today by the Department of Justice (DOJ) entitled the “Federal Memorandum for Religious Liberty Protections.” This document, and its implementation guidance misinterpret the meaning and scope of religious liberty under the Constitution and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), demonstrating this administration’s continued commitment to elevating a particular set of religious beliefs over the safety and equality rights of women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and religious minorities.

As we have previously noted, we are concerned that this guidance will lead to the inappropriate and destructive under or non-enforcement of a host of essential health, labor, and antidiscrimination laws and policies. “Today’s DOJ guidance will have tangible consequences for a range of communities, including LGBTQ communities, particularly those who rely on government-funded services and programs to live and survive,” said Ashe McGovern, PRPCP’s Legislative and Policy Director. “This guidance essentially requires all federal agencies to incorporate the Department of Justice’s flawed interpretation of religious liberty law when considering new rules, programs, or guidance, and will undoubtedly lead to discrimination and denial of services, by granting legal impunity to organizations and programs that discriminate with taxpayer funds.”

PRPCP is also concerned that the regulation oversteps the boundaries of DOJ’s power, by improperly encroaching onto the judiciary’s duty to interpret important and sensitive questions regarding the meaning and scope of religious liberty. RFRA was passed by Congress in 1993 as an effort to support and protect religious minorities who experience discrimination, and to ensure that courts carefully balance religious liberty rights with other fundamental rights to equality and justice. “The DOJ has decided to put its thumb down on a scale that Congress carefully designed by enacting RFRA, and that courts have since interpreted as such, in a way that disregards the fundamental rights of those experiencing religious-based discrimination,” says McGovern.

The DOJ’s misinterpretation of RFRA and religious liberty law generally is likely to decrease rather than increase religious plurality. Inappropriately-broad exemptions run the risk of allowing religious objectors to become religious enforcers, permitting employers, health care providers, landlords, and service providers to impose their religious views on others who do not share them. “PRPCP is especially wary that complex questions regarding religious freedom and its limits are being made by cabinet members that appear to oppose the separation of church and state, and have supported discrimination against religious minorities,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the PRPCP. “Jeff Sessions has long sought to narrow the reach of the Establishment Clause, even suggesting in 2016 that states could establish an official religion. He has been an adamant supporter of the President’s anti-Muslim travel ban. This raises questions about his commitment to true religious freedom and plurality.”

“Ultimately,” McGovern says, “the DOJ’s guidance not only enables what advocates are calling a ‘License to Discriminate’ against LGBTQ communities, although that intent is clear. This guidance is also an attack on our Constitution, and the careful balance it strikes between religious liberty and other fundamental rights to equality and justice.”

Access a .pdf of this statement here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Release-DOJ-10-6

Learn more about PRPCP’s staff here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Staff

For more information on the PRPCP, visit our website: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

Joint Statement By CAIR and PRPCP on President Trump’s EO on “Religious Liberty”

Joint Statement
By the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York &
Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project

May 15, 2017

As advocates for free exercise of religion, civil rights, and religious pluralism, we are deeply concerned that President Trump’s recently signed Executive Order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” will serve to limit, not protect, religious freedom. The order was signed on May 4, 2017, in a ceremony that included Christian musician Steven Curtis Chapman and statements by Pentecostal televangelist Paula White, Baptist Pastor Jack Graham, Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl, Rabbi Marvin Heir, and Vice President Mike Pence. While the executive order—unlike a prior leaked draft—does not single out particular religious beliefs for special protection, we are nevertheless concerned that the broad discretion it offers to federal agencies will have the effect of favoring majoritarian faiths at the expense of religious minorities.

Religious Liberty Guidance Provision

Section 4 of the order directs the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.” This provision suggests that the administration plans to take an aggressive approach in affirmatively interpreting federal religious accommodation laws, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), to grant exemptions from federal law to religious objectors. Religious exemptions are often essential to protecting religious minorities when neutral laws and policies unintentionally burden their beliefs and practices. For example, religious exemptions have ensured that Sikhs, Muslims, and Jews in the military and other workplaces are able to wear religious headwear despite uniform rules. However, President Trump’s order signals an intent to construe religious exemptions more broadly than in the past; such wide discretion is likely to disproportionately protect majoritarian beliefs, perhaps at the expense of religious minorities and other marginalized communities. The Executive Order’s signing ceremony was representative of a larger and pervasive bias in the way that this administration has interpreted “religious liberty”: neglecting, if not, affirmatively denying, the rights of religious minorities – especially Muslims.

So too, this administration is committed to expanding too broadly the notion of religious liberty for some people of faith over others. In particular, inappropriately-broad exemptions run the risk of allowing religious objectors to become religious enforcers, and to impose their views on third parties. Faith-based exemptions from health, employment, and civil rights laws would protect religious health care providers, employers, and landlords, at the expense of workers, patients, and tenants who do not share their beliefs. It is important to note that overly-broad interpretations of religious exemptions threaten religious liberty itself, even among Christians, since even members of the same faith often hold divergent views on many moral and philosophical issues. For example, many Christians as a matter of their faith support reproductive rights for women, equality for LGBTQ people, and religious pluralism in the workplace, public accommodations and elsewhere. Nevertheless, religious minorities are at particular risk of being coerced into abiding by or supporting dominant religious beliefs. This is especially true for minority religions that already face significant mistrust and discrimination, including Muslims, Sikhs, and nonbelievers. Other communities—including LGBTQ people, unmarried families, and those seeking reproductive health care— may also be harmed if the DOJ takes an overly-expansive approach to federal religious exemption law that allows religious objectors to impose their beliefs on others.

We are especially troubled by the fact that the order directs sensitive religious exemption decisions to be made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has a long history of supporting Islamophobic measures, organizations, and beliefs. This history includes:

  • In December 2015, then-Senator Sessions voted against a nonbinding amendment seeking to prevent a religious litmus test for people entering into the United States. During that vote, Senator Sessions said: “Many people are radicalized after they enter. How do we screen for that possibility, if we cannot even ask about an applicant’s views on religion?” Following the horrific shooting that targeted LGBTQ Latinx people at a nightclub in Orlando, Sessions warned Americans on FOX News Sunday to “slow down” on foreign born admissions into the United States, particularly those with Islamic backgrounds. “It’s a real part of the threat that we face and if we can’t address it openly and directly and say directly that there is an extremist element within Islam that’s dangerous to the world and has to be confronted.” In an interview in June 2016, Sessions said of U.S. immigration policy, “We need to use common sense with the who-what-where of the threat.  It is the toxic ideology of Islam.”
  • In October 2013, Senator Sessions asRanking Member of the Senate Budget Committee sent a letter to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in part demanding a justification for why the NEH was “promoting” Islamic cultures at the expense of Christian and Jewish cultures. The purpose of NEH’s Muslim Journeys program is to “offering resources for exploring new and diverse perspectives on the people, places, histories, beliefs, and cultures of Muslims in the United States and around the world.”
  • Sessions has also associated himself with anti-Muslim hate groups. In 2015, Sessions accepted the “Keeper of the Flame” award from the Center for Security Policy, whose leader Frank Gaffney has advanced the conspiracy theory that President Obama is Muslim and whose reporting the FBI has said “overstated” any threat Muslim observances pose to America. In 2014, Sessions accepted the “Annie Taylor Award” from the David Horowitz Freedom Center and he attended the group’s annual “Restoration Weekend” retreats in 2008, 2010 and 2013. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks hate movements in the United States, labels David Horowitz “the godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement.”

While Sessions has expressed hostility towards Muslims, he has long supported writing conservative Christian beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction into law. In one interview, he expressed doubt about admitting into the country Muslims who hold conservative views about sex and sexuality, suggesting that immigrants should be asked if they “respect minorities such as women and gays.” Despite this, he has been an ardent opponent of LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights, and was a sponsor of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a religious exemption law that would create special protections for those who believe that sex should only take place within a cisgender, different-sex marriage. Thus, we hold deep reservations that Attorney General Sessions will be willing and able to interpret religious exemption laws equally for all religions and beliefs, and will adequately consider the burdens that religious exemptions place on third parties.

Johnson Amendment Provision

The potential ramifications of the recently signed EO are especially worrying, given that President Trump joins a long line of Republican figures who support repeal of the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that prohibits tax-deductible non-profits (including universities, charities, and houses of worship) from participating or intervening in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Recent examples include the U.S. House’s Free Speech Fairness Act (which is supported by 57 Republican Representatives) and its companion bill in the U.S. Senate (which is supported by 5 Republican Senators).

For years, conservative political activists have fought against this provision, arguing that it amounts to an unconstitutional limitation of the First Amendment rights of religious leaders and houses of worship to comment on political activities. In contrast, political observers note that the repeal of the amendment, combined with the tax deductibility of 501(c)(3) donations, would effectively lead to taxpayers subsidizing political activism from houses of worship and other non-profits.

The operative provision of the executive order, Section 2, is quite limited: the Treasury Secretary is not to challenge the tax exempt status of religious organizations that speak “about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has . . . not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign . . . .” Since the IRS has never shown any interest in expanding tax-exempt enforcement against houses of worship, the order is, at most, a ratification of the status quo. For years, activists have flagrantly violated the Johnson Amendment, only to see the IRS refuse to respond or agree to generous settlements. Since 2008, conservative activists such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have hosted Pulpit Freedom Sunday a few weeks before Election Day, encouraging pastors across the country to talk electoral politics in church as part of a deliberate effort to draw scrutiny from the IRS so that ADF can launch a constitutional challenge to the law. ADF encourages Christian Pastors to engage in civil disobedience and “speak truth into every area of life from the pulpit.” To date, none of the participating pastors have faced IRS enforcement measures.

If Congress repealed the Johnson Amendment, or if President Trump implemented a more robust executive order on the topic, the effect would be strikingly asymmetrical. Christian and Jewish clergy (and other politically-secure religious traditions) would be empowered to bring faith and politics together at the very moment that Muslim clergy worry about the growing net of suspicion and surveillance being cast on their community. Unlike their counterparts in other faiths, Muslim clergy are primarily fearful of the local, state, and federal intelligence operations that target their houses of worship, and not without cause. Muslims already face increased scrutiny from law enforcement officials. For example, the National Security Agency and the FBI allegedly tracked email accounts of five Muslim American leaders between 2006 and 2008, according to an NSA spreadsheet of email addresses disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. More recently, over 100 people contacted the Council on American Islamic Relations to report that they were visited by the FBI prior to the 2016 election.

The effect would be particularly pronounced here in New York, where Muslims face additional scrutiny from the NYPD, which has a long history of suspicionless, warrantless surveillance of the Muslim community. According to the NYPD’s own inspector general, 95% of recent NYPD intelligence investigations targeted Muslim New Yorkers or organizations associated with Islam, and the NYPD has repeatedly inserted undercover agents everywhere from New York masajid to Muslim student groups at public colleges.

While President Trump’s May 4th executive order, self-styled as “Protecting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” was largely symbolic, it has disturbing implications for how measures that purportedly advance religious liberty can promote majoritarian religious institutions, while harming the minority faiths most in need of protection. Hopefully, the order isn’t a harbinger of more meaningful and substantive measures in the months and years to come.

_______________________________________________

Access a .pdf of this statement from the Council on American Islamic Relations and the PRPCP here.

For questions regarding this analysis, or to contact the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project regarding this or any other issues, contact:

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
Liz Boylan, Assistant Director for the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law
E-mail: eboyla@law.columbia.edu
Phone: 212.854.0167

To read other analyses by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, visit us on the web at: https://www.law.columbia.edu/gender-sexuality/public-rights-private-conscience-project.

 

Five Key Questions to Ask About the New Executive Order on Religious Liberty

Press Advisory: Five Key Questions to Ask About the New Executive Order on Religious Liberty

Date: May 3, 2017

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

Contact: Liz Boylan | eboyla@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0167 

Five Key Questions to Ask About the New Executive Order on Religious Liberty

In February, a draft of an Executive Order (EO) on religious liberty was leaked from the Trump Administration. This order would have had sweeping effects on the enforcement of federal law by all government agencies. In addition to harming LGBTQ communities, it would have had ramifications for unmarried pregnant and parenting women, patients seeking contraceptive care, religious minorities, cohabitating adults and others. President Trump is expected to sign an updated draft of the EO this week. The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) has outlined five questions to ask when analyzing and reporting on the new order.

For more thorough analyses of religious exemptions, please visit our website, which includes numerous publications on the legal and policy implications of funding organizations that discriminate based on religion, religious exemptions’ effect on women of color, and an analysis of the First Amendment Defense Act. Additional analysis of the EO will also be posted to our website in the coming days.

1) Who does the EO apply to?  

Religious exemptions are special rights that allow religious practitioners to violate laws that conflict with their sincerely-held beliefs. A religious exemption, like the forthcoming EO, can apply to houses of worship, religious organizations, and/or individuals. It’s important to read the definition of “religious organization” carefully, however, as this term can often include large corporations that appear secular, like a hospital system or even a for-profit company. The term “person” is generally defined by federal law to include for-profit, publicly-traded companies like Walmart and ExxonMobil. Thus if the EO provides religious exemptions to all “persons,” this would go beyond the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which held that closely-held, for-profit companies are entitled to religious exemptions under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

2) What religious beliefs are protected? 

Recent proposed and enacted religious exemptions, including a leaked draft of the EO, have singled out for special protection particular conservative religious beliefs about sex, marriage, and reproduction. These include the belief that: 1) marriage is the union of one man and one woman; 2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; 3) male and female refer to an individual’s sex as determined at birth; and 4) human life begins at conception. Providing government support for particular religious beliefs raises serious Establishment Clause and Equal Protection concerns, as highlighted by a recent federal court opinion.

However other parts of the previously-leaked EO appear to apply far more broadly. For example, the requirement that federal agencies should “not promulgate regulations, take actions, or enact policies that substantially burden a person’s or religious organization’s religious exercise” could cover any religious belief.

3) Who is authorized to grant a religious exemption?

RFRA is a broad religious liberty law that prohibits the government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. Typically, it is the judiciary’s responsibility to interpret and apply RFRA through litigation between a private party and the government. The leaked EO, however, orders federal agencies to interpret (RFRA) preemptively in deciding whether or not to enforce federal laws.

For example, under the EO the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could interpret RFRA to exempt employers with a religious opposition to hiring transgender workers from compliance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It could then decline to bring suits on behalf of, or even provide right-to-sue letters to, transgender workers who are discriminated against because of their employer’s religious beliefs. In such instances, it could be difficult to challenge an agency’s overly-broad interpretation of RFRA.

4) Who is harmed?

It’s clear that the proposed EO will harm many LGBTQ people. Less obvious, however, are the sweeping effects it is likely to have on many other groups. The leaked version of the EO specifically protects religious opposition to sex outside marriage; a provision that could sanction discrimination against unmarried pregnant and parenting women and cohabitating, unmarried adults more generally. The leaked EO would also gut the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act, limiting coverage of necessary health care.  Religious practitioners, and especially religious minorities, could also be harmed. The EO would allow discrimination against those who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs. Further, it places government support behind particular religious beliefs that many religious observers do not share, such as the belief that a fertilized egg should be protected over the health of a pregnant person.

5) Are government contractors and employees included?

The leaked EO would provide broad religious exemptions to government contractors and employees, which poses particular Establishment Clause risks. It states that organizations do not “forfeit their religious freedom” when receiving government grants or contracts and orders agencies to provide religious exemptions to grantees. It also orders agencies to accommodate both federal employees and grantees who act upon the four particular religious beliefs outlined in question two, above. Thus the EO would allow faith-based organizations to place religious restrictions on the use of government funds, and to discriminate while carrying out government programs. It would also protect government employees who wish to act on their religious opposition to LGBTQ rights, extramarital sex, and reproductive health care.

Download a .pdf of this press advisory, here.

For more legal analyses from the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, see our policy page, here.

PRPCP Provides Testimony to New York City Council on Gender and Racial Equity Training

Press Release:
April 27, 2017

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

Subject:
Columbia Law School Think Tank Provides Testimony to New York City Council on Gender and Racial Equity Training

Contact:
Liz Boylan | eboyla@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0167
Ashe McGovern | amcgovern@law.columbia.edu | 212.854.0161

______________________________________________

April 27, 2017—On Monday, April 24, Ashe McGovern, Legislative and Policy Director of Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) testified before the New York City Council Committee on Women’s Issues on a bill that would require several city agencies to undergo training on “implicit bias, discrimination, cultural competency and structural inequity, including with respect to gender, race and sexual orientation.”

McGovern’s testimony outlines the merits of the bill, and encourages the council to expand its requirements to all city agencies, as well as to private city contractors. Private organizations that contract with the city receive billions of taxpayer dollars and are the primary source of many city-funded services. Any bill intended to combat discrimination within city programs, therefore, should apply to contractors. In addition, the current bill mandates training for only three city agencies—the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Social Services/Human Resources Administration—despite the fact that all agencies and their grantees are in need of the proposed training.

The testimony also draws attention to the unique legal concerns and challenges that arise when faith-based organizations—which are exempted from certain provisions of New York City’s human rights law—contract with the city to provide vital services. PRPCP explains that clear training on all contractors’ legal duty to provide comprehensive and nondiscriminatory care is essential to ensuring that the city does not use public funds to subsidize discrimination.

“While this bill is an important step in the right direction, it is vital that all city agencies, and the private organizations they contract with, be subject to cultural competency training and more stringent oversight,” said McGovern. “Last year alone, New York City provided over $4 billion to private contractors so that they could meet the city’s social and human service’s needs. LGBTQ communities, those seeking reproductive healthcare, and communities of color experience unique vulnerabilities in accessing these vitally important services. The Council should be cognizant of those vulnerabilities and adopt proactive measures to ensure that all agencies and contractors, whether faith-based or secular, do not engage in discriminatory behavior.”

The PRPCP’s mission is to address contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine fundamental rights to equality and liberty through academic legal analysis. PRPCP approaches the developing law of religion in a manner that respects the importance of religious liberty while recognizing the ways in which broad religious accommodations may violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Read the full transcript of McGovern’s testimony, here: http://tinyurl.com/McGovern424Testimony

Access a .pdf of this Press Release here: http://tinyurl.com/PR-McGovern-Testimony-424

See the agenda of the April 24 Committee meeting here: http://tinyurl.com/April24NYCCouncilAgenda

For more information on the PRPCP, visit the PRPCP’s webpage, here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

Columbia Law School Think Tank Submits amicus brief in Transgender Rights Case

Press Release:
April 25, 2017

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

Subject:
Columbia Law School Think Tank Submits amicus brief in Transgender Rights Case

Contact:
Liz Boylan, eboyla@law.columbia.edu, 212.854.0167

______________________________________________

April 25, 2017 Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP filed an amicus brief yesterday with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that raises the important question of whether employers can use religious liberty arguments to avoid compliance with federal non-discrimination laws. Specifically, it considers whether employers have the right to engage in sex discrimination if motivated by religious principles. The case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc., was brought on behalf of Aimee Stephens, a funeral home director who was fired after she came out to her employer as a transgender woman. In an unprecedented decision, the trial court held that the funeral home owner’s religious opposition to Stephens’ gender transition and identity entitled the employer to an exemption from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace.

The District Court’s opinion rested on an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government—in this case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—from substantially burdening religious practice unless doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. According to the court, the EEOC should have advanced its interest in nondiscrimination in a way that was less burdensome to the employer’s belief that he “would be violating God’s commands if [he] were to permit one of the [Funeral Home’s] funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of [the Funeral Home].”

PRPCP’s amicus brief explains that the trial court’s interpretation of RFRA is unconstitutional. By requiring Stephens to adhere to her employer’s religious beliefs about gender, the accommodation would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which protects individuals from having to bear the significant costs of a religious belief they do not share. In addition, the accommodation would force the EEOC to participate in—rather than fight against—sex discrimination.

“While federal law provides robust protections to religious liberty, those rights are not absolute,” said Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law and Faculty Director of PRPCP. “The right to religious liberty reaches its limit when the accommodation of religious liberty results in the imposition of a material burden on third parties, as is the case here.”

“The District Court opinion transforms the EEOC from an agency that prohibits discrimination to one that enables and enforces it,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of PRPCP. “If upheld, this decision will devastate one of the country’s most important civil rights protections.”

The PRPCP’s mission is to address contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine fundamental rights to equality and liberty through academic legal analysis. PRPCP approaches the developing law of religion in a manner that respects the importance of religious liberty while recognizing the ways in which broad religious accommodations may violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Read a copy of the full amicus brief here:
http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-4-24

Read the district court opinion here: http://www.mied.uscourts.gov/pdffiles/14-13710opn.pdf

For more information on the PRPCP, visit the PRPCP’s webpage, here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

God in Captivity: A talk with Professor Tanya Erzen

On Monday, March 27th, 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project hosted Tanya Erzen to speak as part of a series of lunchtime lectures on Law, Rights, and Religion at Columbia Law School. Tanya Erzen is the Executive Director of the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound, and Associate Research Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at the University of Puget Sound; her work focuses on intersections of religion and faith in American politics and popular culture, with a focus on religion and conservatism in U.S. carceral systems. The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project engaged Professor Erzen in discussion on her recently published book from Beacon Press, God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration[1]. Following the program, Kira Shepherd, Associate Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s Racial Justice Program conducted a brief interview with Professor Erzen on the experiences that inspired her to write God in Captivity, the history of faith-based prison ministries in the United States, and the social and political implications of the prison industrial complex’s partnerships with faith-based prison ministries.

Watch the video of this talk here, and read the full transcript of Kira’s discussion with Professor Erzen, below.

Kira Shepherd:

Hi, Thanks for joining us today at the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project. Today we had a talk with Tanya Erzen, who talked about her book, God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith Based Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Can you tell me what drove you to write the book, and can you tell me a little more about what the book is about?

Tanya Erzen:

I actually lived in New York for quite some time and I taught – I was at Barnard when I had my Post-Doc., and at that time I taught in a women’s prison on the West Side Highway called Bayview[2], and I think that what struck me, being there, was that so often the groups that you saw coming in besides family members and loved ones were faith-based groups in such high numbers. Around that time, the same person who got me interested in teaching sent me a news article – it was about 2003 – that said that Florida had actually transformed all of their state prisons to faith-based character institutions[3]: this idea that rehabilitation would happen through some kind of relationship to a faith-based group or a religious tradition.

And what was interesting is that for so many years when you talked to people in prison, especially administration, but in the general public if you said, “A person in prison became religious” it was treated or met with a lot of skepticism – it was almost considered the ultimate con, right? “Everybody gets religion in prison”… and there was a real shift in that suddenly prison administrations were touting faith-based ministry and faith-based groups as the most effective form of rehabilitation and reform for the individual. It really comes out of my teaching college in a prison, and running the college program, and also really thinking about how we use the idea of transformation through education, and that’s the same language that faith-based groups use. What happens on the ground that’s different between education groups and faith-based groups, and how are they distinct – that’s a question I’ve been trying to consider.

Kira Shepherd:

In the book you talk about how there was a policy shift that led to the rise of faith-based ministries: Can you tell me a bit more about that shift – when it happened, and why it happened?

Tanya Erzen:

Sure. Really, I mean, it starts in the 1970s. Chuck Holston, who was an aide to Nixon and went to prison for Watergate-related crimes came out of prison as a born-again Christian, wrote a book about it, and founded Prison Fellowship Ministry, which is the largest faith-based prison ministry group in the country, and they’re all over: both running entire wings of prisons and operating programs that are based on becoming born-again as an evangelical as a part of being rehabilitated. It is a time when the prison population is increasing at a dramatic rate and a lot of states are cutting budgets, because they can’t pay for services. So at the same time you have the rise of non-denominational conservative Christianity eclipsing mainstream main-line Protestantism as their congregations are dying, and a lot of these groups are set up to have small groups that go and do work in different sectors, and so there’s this whole corps of volunteers who could come in. And then also, policy-wise, more recently in the late 90s and 2000s, you have people who knew Chuck Holston and Pat Nolan and who work with Prison Fellowship Ministry, they’re lobbying Republicans around this idea that they have to address criminal justice reform as an issue of public safety and fiscal responsibility. So for the first time, instead of people being, you know, tough on crime, they’ve shifted the discourse to being “smart” on crime or “right” on crime. And that you have conservatives looking to dismantle or to reform prisons and to institute criminal justice reforms whether through better parole systems, different sentences for people who commit non-violent crimes, working to end sentences for juveniles and so forth in collaboration with more progressive groups like the ACLU, but the rationale for them is always sort of different and it has really transformed the landscape of criminal justice reform around the country and you have big donors like the Koch brothers who are funding conferences on criminal justice reform and trying to assert changes; that movement really emerges from the work of evangelical ministries, and evangelical ministries support the rationale of that conservative agenda because they’re doing the work of the state, but they are doing it as volunteers through – and in – a privatized manner: So if you see the prison as this over-bloated bureaucracy that sucks too much money, faith-based groups are the ideal solution, because they come in and they argue that they can do this more effectively and at a cheaper cost.

Kira Shepherd:

Can you talk about the impact that these ministries have on LGBTQ communities in prison?

Tanya Erzen:

I would say the impact is incredibly negative. There aren’t a lot of support groups to begin with for the LGBT men and women in prison and often, those groups, people are very marginalized. Because of laws like PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) [4], prisons have become really obsessed, legally, with questions of boundaries and any kind of reporting around gender. I think what that has done also has sort of squashed the possibility of certain people being out about their sexuality and meeting, but a lot of faith-based ministries have very socially conservative principles and theologically conservative principles in which they don’t see being gay as a legitimate way of being. So if you are a self-identified gay person, a gay man, or a lesbian or a trans person, you aren’t allowed to participate in ministries in many ways, and as I mentioned in my talk[5] they have formed ex-gay ministries to try to convert people from gay to straight, as fraught and as complicated as that is….I think, you know, this just furthers this idea of faith-based ministries… A “real” Christian Ministry – if you’re looking at it from a principle of forgiveness or justice – would [have a mission of] “I’m going to help and support everyone” as a principle. What [faith-based prison ministries] are doing is saying, “I will support and help you: I’ll give you education, I’ll help you with re-entry, as long as you believe what I believe” – and that is coercive, and it’s discriminatory.

______________________________________

[1] Beacon Press. http://www.beacon.org/God-in-Captivity-P1256.aspx. Retrieved 30 March 2017.

[2] History of Bayview Correctional Facility – A Vertical Institution: https://web.archive.org/web/20041205091718/http://www.geocities.com/MotorCity/Downs/3548/facility/bayview.html. Kasper, Ed (November 2001). “History of Bayview CF – A vertical institution”. New York State Correction Officer Informational Page. Archived from the original on 5 December 2004. Retrieved 29 March 2017.

[3] Florida State Statute 944.803, entered in 2003, available at www.leg.state.fl.us: http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0900-0999/0944/Sections/0944.803.html. Retrieved 29 March 2017.

[4] Information on PREA – from the PREA Resource Center: https://www.prearesourcecenter.org/about/prison-rape-elimination-act-prea. Retrieved 30 March 2017.

[5] Video from Tanya Erzen’s full talk on God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration with the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School is available here: https://www.facebook.com/emboylan1/videos/404885809867240/. Retrieved 30 March 2017.

Proposed New York State Health Regulation Contains Troubling Exemption: The PRPCP Responds to a Proposal on Abortion Access

Cross-Posted on the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law Blog, and at Medium
______________________________________________

Press Release:
March 29, 2017

From:
Columbia Law School, The Public Rights Private Conscience Project

Subject:
Proposed New York State Health Regulation Contains Troubling Exemption: The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project Responds to a Proposal on Abortion Access

Contact:
Liz Boylan, eboyla@law.columbia.edu, 212.854.0167

______________________________________________

A proposed New York State regulation requiring insurance plans to cover “medically necessary” abortions contains a broad religious exemption that would undermine the state’s longstanding commitment to reproductive health. The exemption—which is not required by New York’s Constitution or laws— defines the term “religious employers” to include large nonprofits and even some for-profit companies. In the face of a national movement to enact anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice religious exemptions, the regulation would set a harmful precedent by accommodating religion at the expense of other fundamental liberty and equality rights. On Monday, March 27th,  Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) submitted a comment on behalf of the PRPCP to the NYS Department of Financial Services “to express [] deep concerns regarding the regulations’ expansion of New York’s existing definition of religious employers.”

Noting that religious liberty is already robustly protected in New York, PRPCP’s comment states, “allowing an organization that operates in the public sphere to violate neutral employee health and benefit laws serves to reduce, not enhance, true religious pluralism.  This is especially true when such accommodations single out particular religious tenets, such as opposition to abortion, for special protection.”

“The proposed regulation would allow organizations to treat a medically necessary procedure overwhelmingly obtained by women differently than any other type of care,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt. “Rather than surrender to the troubling trend of protecting particular religious beliefs at the expense of reproductive health, New York should continue to be a national leader in guaranteeing access to comprehensive health care.”

The PRPCP’s mission is to address contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine fundamental rights to equality and liberty through academic legal analysis. PRPCP approaches the developing law of religion in a manner that respects the importance of religious liberty while recognizing the ways in which broad religious accommodations may violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Read the full letter from the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project here:
http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-3-27

Read the NYS Department of Financial Services Proposed Amendment here: http://www.dfs.ny.gov/insurance/r_prop/rp62a48text.pdf

For more information on the PRPCP, visit the PRPCP’s webpage, here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

EEOC Proposed Guidance Shows We Can Protect Religious Freedom & LGBTQ Rights

Press Release:
March 23, 2017

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

Subject:
EEOC Proposed Guidance Shows We Can Protect Religious Freedom & LGBTQ Rights

Contact:
Liz Boylan, eboyla@law.columbia.edu, 212.854.0167

March 23, 2017: While the President and Congress consider acts to expand religious exemptions at the expense of LGBTQ and other rights, a proposed federal regulation demonstrates that we can—and should—protect both religious and LGBTQ communities. The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) at Columbia Law School submitted commentary this week commending the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on their “Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment,” which protects the right of religious employees to discuss their beliefs while prohibiting religiously-motivated harassment in the workplace.

Professor Katherine Franke, Faculty Director for the PRPCP commented, “At a time when we are witnessing government officials engaging in both troubling violations of the Establishment Clause and blatant forms of religion-based discrimination, the EEOC’s proposed guidelines offer a reasoned and careful way to harmonize religious liberty and equality in the workplace.”

Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the PRPCP elaborates, “The proposed guidelines respect both the right to express one’s religious beliefs and the right to a safe and productive work environment. This kind of carefully tailored religious accommodation protects all workers from discrimination.”

The PRPCP’s letter notes that nearly one in three transgender workers, and up to 43% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, have faced employment discrimination. The proposed EEOC guidelines “appropriately explain that Title VII’s duty to accommodate religion does not amount to an official sanctioning of religiously-motivated harassment-including against LGBTQ employees, who already face pervasive discrimination in the workplace.”

The EEOC’s responsibility to protect religious minorities and LGBTQ persons is of critical importance, as the Trump Administration continues to issue Executive Orders that roll back LGBTQ protections and express disapproval of Muslims. Of particular concern is a potential Executive Order on Religious Freedom. If signed, the order could provide a special license for those holding certain conservative religious beliefs— including opposition to same-sex marriage, sex outside different-sex marriage, and abortion—to violate any regulations that conflict with these beliefs.

The PRPCP’s mission is to address contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine fundamental rights to equality and liberty through academic legal analysis.  PRPCP approaches the developing law of religion in a manner that respects the importance of religious liberty while recognizing the ways in which broad religious accommodations may violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which, “not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another.”[1]

Read the full letter from the PRPCP here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia-EEOC-Letter

For more information on the PRPCP, visit the PRPCP’s webpage, here: http://tinyurl.com/PRPCP-Columbia

The EEOC’s Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Unlawful Harassment is available here: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=EEOC-2016-0009-0001

________________________________

[1] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/establishment_clause

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.”