All posts by Kira Shepherd

PRPCP’s Faculty Director Katherine Franke Sheds Lights on Controversial Religious Liberty Bill at Congressional Hearing

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On July 12th, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s Faculty Director Katherine Franke spent a few hours testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a hearing on the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA). This Act would prevent the government from penalizing, fining, or denying tax subsidies, grants, or benefits to individuals or groups because they act in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage “is or should be recognized as the union” of two individuals of the opposite sex or two individuals of the same sex, or that “extramarital relations are improper.” In other words, the Act gives religious objectors blanket immunity to discriminate against others in the name of their religious beliefs about sex and marriage.

Unsurprisingly, the harms that FADA would impose on same-sex couples and families were a main focus of the hearing. Professor Franke’s testimony was particularly important, however, because she additionally discussed how the bill would interfere with civil rights protections and impact those who have had sex outside of marriage, including pregnant women and single parents.

The impact that FADA has on those who have had “extramarital relations” is oftentimes left out of the conversation when FADA, which is mostly described as an anti-LGBTQ bill, is discussed in the media. This could be because of the vagueness of the term “extramarital relations” or because it is hard to determine who has had sex outside of marriage and who has not, making the bill’s impact on those involved in “extramarital relations” less clear than its impact on same-sex couples. However, one surefire way to identify someone who has had such a relationship is the presence of a child outside of marriage. This makes the Black community an easy target for religious objectors who find “extramarital relations” morally wrong and objectionable — in 2012, 36% of Blacks over the age of 25 had never married, compared with 16% of whites, [1] and 70% of Black children are born to non-married parents.[2]

FADA could harm people in non-marital relationships, or who have children while unmarried, by giving religious objectors who want to discriminate the green light to bypass a wide range of laws enforced through fines and litigation by government agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Department of Labor (DOL), and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For example, FADA could prevent the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from enforcing the Fair Housing Act against a landlord that advertises it will not rent to unmarried parents; prevent the federal government from denying Title X funding to a health clinic that provides family planning care only to married patients; and prevent the federal government from denying a grant to a religiously affiliated shelter that refused to house single mothers. Because of the many health and economic burdens and discriminatory practices that Blacks have faced in this country, it seems unjust that religious objectors would be able to compound these harms and discriminate against Blacks and other people of color in the ways described above.

FADA’s language on “extramarital relations” could also negatively impact domestic partnership laws, such as those in the District of Columbia, which create important property and support rights for individuals who register as domestic partners. These rights are similar to those that married couples have, including inheritance rights, alimony, and equitable division of partnership rights. Under FADA, individuals and groups could discriminate against a same- or opposite-sex couple in a domestic partnership if motivated by religion. For example, FADA could prevent the D.C. government from taking action against a retirement plan that refuses to provide annuity benefits to someone in a domestic partnership, a benefit that D.C. grants to those who are unwed.

FADA gives religious objectors blanket immunity to discriminate against those in extramarital relationships or married to someone of the same sex. If passed, the Act would not only harm those in the LGBTQ community; as a population that is less likely to be married and more likely to have a child while unmarried, FADA’s protections for those opposed to “extramarital relations” would impose a particular harm on Black communities.

[1] Wendy Wang and Kim Parker, Record Share of Americans Have Never Married, Pew Research Center, (September 24, 2014) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/09/24/record-share-of-americans-have-never-married/

[2] Brady E. Hamilton et al., Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics Reports 41 Volume 64, Number 12 (2015) http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_12.pdf

ACLU Charges Federal Government with Violating the Reproductive Rights of Refugee Girls

by Kira Shepherd

Under the federal government’s watch, refugee girls are being denied access to emergency reproductive health services that they desperately need. This is what the ACLU is arguing in their latest effort to keep overly broad religious exemption claims from infringing upon women’s rights and reproductive freedom. In late June, the civil liberties group filed a complaint charging the U.S. government with violating the First Amendment’s prohibition on establishment of religion by funding faith-based organizations that deny the unaccompanied minors they serve abortion and contraceptive access.

Since 2013, it is estimated that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have crossed the border fleeing violence and poverty back home, or to be reunited with family members in the U.S.  Experts estimate that as many as 60 to 80 percent of women and girls who make this journey are raped on their way to the United States.[1] When unaccompanied minors cross the border, they are more often than not apprehended by federal agents and placed in shelters funded by the federal Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR). In 2014, nearly 57,500 unaccompanied minors were apprehended and transferred to ORR shelters.[2]

ORR issues grants to private entities, including a number of religiously affiliated organizations, to care for migrant minors until they are placed with family members in the U.S. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is one of ORR’s largest religious-affiliated grantees; it received $10 million in 2014 alone to care for unaccompanied minors. The USCCB and all the organizations that they subcontract with, such as Catholic Charities, explicitly deny their clients access to contraception and abortion – even in cases where the clients were raped or sexually abused

Take for instance the story of one young refugee, mentioned in the ACLU complaint, who was raped by one of her guides on her journey to the U.S. The minor found out she was pregnant while in ORR custody at a Catholic Charities facility in Miami, and became distraught at the possibility that she would not be allowed an abortion. After threatening to kill herself if she could not get an abortion, she was admitted to a hospital for suicidal ideation. After leaving the hospital, she found out that the Catholic Charities she was staying at refused to take her back because she was seeking to terminate her pregnancy.  His House, another religious organization that receives federal funding, refused to admit her as well. She was transferred to another facility and ORR eventually approved her request for funding for an abortion.

According to the ACLU, the federal government violated the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state by permitting the USCCB and other organizations to impose religiously based restrictions on the services unaccompanied immigrant minors received with taxpayer funds. In addition, the ACLU asserts that the federal government violated a number of statutes— including the Homeland Security Act, which states that government programs must fully protect the interests of unaccompanied immigrant minors — as well as an ORR regulation requiring all ORR-funded providers to provide unaccompanied immigrant minors who are victims of sexual assault with access to reproductive healthcare.

The ACLU started investigating the USCCB’s contraception and abortion refusals after hearing reports from workers at religiously affiliated organizations charged with caring for refugee teens. Workers claimed that some organizations were imposing their beliefs on minors by forcing them to leave the program if they needed reproductive care. After hearing these reports, the civil liberties organization made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents to determine the full scope of the problem and the government’s role. According to the documents they received, the government gave a few religiously affiliated organizations, such as USCCB and its sub grantees across the country, permission to refuse on religious grounds information about, access to, or referrals for contraception and abortion, even if the young person in their care has been raped. The government provides funding to USCCB through Catholic Charities to provide care for undocumented minors in a number of states across the country – including Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

This lawsuit is asking the court to step in and ensure that all religiously affiliated federal government grantees provide their clients with necessary and required care. If the ACLU wins, it will be a huge blow to religious organizations that have been imposing their religious views on refugee girls, denying them their reproductive rights. These organizations would have to start providing all mandated services to their clients or forgo federal grant funding.  If written broadly enough, the suit could even stop religiously affiliated government grantees from practicing other types of discrimination based on their religious beliefs, such as anti-LGBTQ discrimination. The question that the court should answer in this case is whether the government violated the Establishment Clause by advancing and endorsing a particular set of religious beliefs. And the answer appears to be an overwhelming yes. By allowing USCCB to impose its religiously based restrictions on services offered through a federal program, ORR has essentially subsidized USCCB’s religious beliefs. USCCB utilized a government contract to further its religious belief that abortion and contraception are wrong and impermissible. As the ACLU argues, that violates the guarantee of neutrality towards religion enshrined in the Establishment Clause.

[1] Ester Yu-His Lee, Faith Groups are Trying to Block Emergency Contraceptive from Raped Migrant Children, ThinkProgress (March 5, 2015) http://thinkprogress.org/immigration/2015/03/05/3627571/faith-refugee-contraception/.
[2] GAO Report, Unaccompanied Children, HHS Can Take Further Actions to Monitor Their Care, available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/675256.pdf.

5 Ways that Religious Exemptions Threaten Communities of Color

Five Reasons Why People of Color Should be Worried About Religious Exemptions

Yesterday Ebony.com published an article by the Public Rights/Private Conscience’s Associate Director of Racial Justice Kira Shepherd, which discussed five reasons communities of color should be worried about religious exemptions.  These reasons included the potential for religious objectors to use religious exemptions to justify race discrimination, the intersectional discrimination faced by LGBTQ people of color in society, and the long-standing history of the religious right using religious liberty to justify racist legislation and policies.  To read the full article, see the following link at Ebony.com:  http://www.ebony.com/news-views/religious-liberty-discrimination#axzz4BfPXd3N4

Protecting Rights Holders from Harm: Democrats Introduce the Do No Harm Act

Dozens of religious liberty laws were introduced into state legislatures this year, designed to address manufactured threats to religious believers. In fact, religious liberty rights are amply protected by state and federal law in every state, yet religious conservatives have been on the offensive to use religion as part of a backlash against same-sex couples gaining the right to marry, and against the rights of transgender people to equality and dignity.

Last Wednesday the defenders of equality went on the offensive themselves, introducing into Congress a law that would limit overreaching in the name of religion. Representatives Joseph Kennedy III and Bobby Scott introduced into the House of Representatives the Do Not Harm Act. The bill seeks to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law that was enacted in 1993 to protect religious minorities from discrimination but has since been used to infringe on the constitutional and statutory rights of third parties in the name of religion.

A few years ago, the Supreme Court’s overly broad interpretation of RFRA led to the Hobby Lobby decision where the Court found that certain for-profit entities could avoid compliance with a requirement in the Affordable Care Act ensuring contraceptive coverage at no cost to their employees by claiming a religious objection to doing so. After Hobby, many feared an increase in the number of people and institutions that sought to use religious exemption laws to limit the rights of third parties. However, if the GOP-led Congress passes the Do No Harm Act, religious objectors seeking to use overly broad interpretations of religious accommodations laws will be dealt a serious blow. The Act would not only protect the rights of women and LGBTQ folks, it would also protect the rights of people of color, a group less talked about in this context who stand to suffer great harm from some religious accommodation laws.

Let’s take the latest religious exemption case heard by the Supreme Court, Zubik v. Burwell, as an example of how some religious exemptions can cause great harm to communities of color. The plaintiffs in Zubik are non-profit religious organizations that refuse to comply with the accommodation that the government provides for faith-based entities that have religious objections to providing contraception coverage. These employers may notify either the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or their insurer of their religious objection to contraceptive coverage. The insurer itself then provides the contraceptive coverage to the employees, at no additional cost to either the enrollees or the objecting organization. Earlier this week the Court decided to punt this case back to the lower courts to work out a solution. If the plaintiffs in Zubik had won, thousands of women of color who work at religious non-profits, including universities, hospitals, and social service organizations would have been stripped of their right to no-cost insurance coverage for contraception. Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Denver was one of the employers that challenged the contraception requirement in Zubik. Like most nursing homes, the employees at the Little Sisters nursing home are women of color.

While these organizations employ women of all backgrounds, the case has huge ramifications for women of color since lack of access to quality reproductive health care plays a large role in the overall health disparities faced by communities of color today.

How so? The advocates of overly broad protections for religious liberty rights under RFRA, just like the plaintiffs in Zubik, want to be excused from complying with generally applicable laws (like anti-discrimination laws) even if doing so would impose a material harm on other people – such as denying their right to adequate health care, to equal opportunity in the workplace, or to a have their marriage universally recognized as valid.

The Do No Harm Act would fix this by limiting the reach of RFRA to situations where no harm is done to others. A reasonable clarification that balances the rights of religious liberty against other important rights. In fact, this approach is exactly what the Supreme Court has taken in interpreting the limits of the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections.

For this reason, the Do No Harm Act is necessary to protect the equal rights of people of color. Unfortunately, the threat posed by overly broad interpretations of religious accommodation laws to communities of color doesn’t end at Zubik. There is a real danger that such laws could strip away many of the rights and protections won by people of color over the last few decades. While federal laws including the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act contain strong protections against racial discrimination, those who wish to discriminate could also demand an exemption from federal antidiscrimination law under the current version of RFRA. Here, a religious objector would have to show that serving a particular group of people would burden their exercise of religion. Such race-based religious objections are not uncommon. A few months ago an interracial couple in Mississippi, a Black man and a Native American/Latina woman, were evicted from a recreational vehicle (RV) park because the landlord said his church opposed interracial marriages. The eviction forced the couple to move to another RV park with higher rent. If the Do No Harm Act is passed in Congress, the landlord would not be able to use religion as a license to engage in otherwise illegal race discrimination.

The Do No Harm Act can also be used as a tool for state legislatures and advocates hoping to push back against many of the state RFRA bills that have been popping up in state houses across the South. Many of these bills which were modeled after the federal RFRA have been used to provide religious objectors with a license to discriminate against not only LGBTQ folks, but racial minorities as long as the religious objectors can show that the state law placed a burden on their religion. For example, a number of state bills would allow a baker, a caterer, a rental hall, a photographer and others to refuse services not only to same-sex couples getting married but to interracial couples as well. If the Do Not Harm Act passes, state legislatures would be emboldened to pass similar amendment to state RFRAs.

This week’s introduction of the Do No Harm Act by two Democratic Congressmen marks a shift to the offensive for those who seek to create a reasonable balance between religious liberty and other fundamental rights, including equality. While we’ve been playing defense in state legislatures across the country, the bill marks the need for proactive measures to be taken in the fight for meaningful and sustainable anti-discrimination laws and protections for all citizens.