Category Archives: Advocacy

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

 

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.

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

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.

PRPCP’s Comment Regarding Zubik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will SCOTUS Call the “Bluff” of Religious Liberty Activists?

Originally posted at Religion Dispatches on November 9, 2015.

By Kara Loewentheil

If the announcement that the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage requirement (CCR) makes you feel like you’re experiencing deja vu, you’re not exactly wrong.

After Hobby Lobby, the Administration took a slow and leisurely approach to creating new regulations for the accommodation process. Finally released in July, the regulations, among other things, instituted a process for those non-profit religious organizations (NPRO) that objected to the original accommodation.

Under the revised accommodation process, the NPROs do not have to directly inform their insurance provider or third-party administrator (meaning an entity that administers their insurance plan even if the organization pays for it themselves, which is called being “self-insured”) of their objection.

Instead the NRPO can inform the government, and the government will inform the insurance company or the TPA, which then has to provide the contraceptive coverage itself. (That is, unless the TPA is actually exempt, like the TPAs that are a form of an insurance plan called a “church plan”—the federal government lacks the ability to regulate those plans under ERISA and cannot require them to provide the coverage.)

If that seems silly—well, on some level, it kind of is. And here’s why: Inserting the government into the communication process was meant to address the complaint by some NPROs that even informing their insurance company or TPA of their objection to contraception made them complicit in the eventual provision of contraceptive coverage to their employees.

But it was never clear why an NPRO that objected to informing their insurance company or TPA was going to feel just dandy about informing the government so the government could inform the insurance company or the TPA.

In fact, of course, they didn’t—instead, various NPROs that had objected to the original form of the accommodation continued to object to the revised form of the accommodation. Until recently all the circuit courts to consider these claims had ruled against them, but then the 8th Circuit upheld a grant of preliminary relief in one of these cases, and now here we are, with the Supreme Court granting cert to several of the consolidated cases to consider a variety of questions involving NPROs’ objections to contraceptive coverage and RFRA’s requirements.

At bottom though, the question is fairly simple: Is the Supreme Court going to call the objectors’ bluff? I don’t say “bluff” because I think the NPROs are insincere—it’s not about their sincerity at this point. But the “bluff” in all of these developments is that there even exists some way of providing contraceptive coverage that the objecting NPROs would find acceptable.

And it’s been clear for a while now that the only solutions they would find acceptable are factually impossible outcomes in our current system: e.g., single-payer health care, or a government-funded birth control insurance program. Of course those are outcomes that the same organizations would be lobbying heavily against if they were proposed to Congress!

What’s really at issue here is whether the Supreme Court is going to allow religious objectors to completely opt-out of laws by continually re-defining the burden on their religious exercise, regardless of the impact on third parties and the harms done to them. And you can bet if that strategy succeeds here, we’ll see it in use very soon in other contexts, like exemptions to LGBT non-discrimination laws and marriage equality protections. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.