Category Archives: LGBTQ Rights

Michigan Lawsuit Challenges Constitutionality of Religious-Based Discrimination by Child Welfare Agencies

Cross-posted to Medium.com

Last week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in Michigan challenging a set of laws passed in 2015 that enable state-funded child welfare organizations to discriminate against prospective parents and children on the basis of the organization’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” This case is one of the first to challenge a growing number of similar state laws that have passed recently. Specifically, Michigan’s laws state that “a child placing agency shall not be required to provide any services if those services conflict with, or provide any services under circumstances that conflict with, the child placing agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” In practice, faith-based service providers have been legally emboldened to deny adoptive and foster care opportunities to same-sex couples, including two sets of plaintiffs in the suit. The laws also seem to allow the child placement organizations to discriminate against other groups whose lives may not comport with the organization’s religious beliefs, including single or unmarried parents, LGBTQ youth under agency care, and those who subscribe to religious tenets that the organization does not support.

Michigan, like many other states, outsources child welfare services to private organizations through contracts and grants using taxpayer money. These organizations have significant responsibilities that the state would otherwise be obligated to undertake—including caring for and finding homes for children currently in state custody. Faith-based organizations make up nearly half of the agencies Michigan contracts with to do this work.

Legal and Constitutional Challenges

While the complaint does not challenge a privately funded agency’s right to place or care for children in accordance with their religious beliefs, the ACLU argues that because Michigan contracts with private agencies to provide services for children in state custody—and pays them with taxpayer funds—those agencies must meet the same legal and constitutional obligations as the state.

 In its complaint, the ACLU raises two important constitutional claims. First, they argue that Michigan’s actions violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which mandates a separation between church and state and thus bars the state from providing or refusing to provide government services based on religious criteria. They also argue that the Establishment Clause prohibits the state from “delegating a government function to religious organizations and then allowing those organizations to perform that government function pursuant to religious criteria,” which is exactly what these agencies are doing by denying services to same-sex couples based on religious belief. The ACLU also argues that the laws violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the state from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation through “instrumentalities of the state.” In this case, because the faith-based organizations receive state funds specifically to provide the services in question, they qualify as instrumentalities of the state. Finally, the complaint alleges that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), one of two agencies named in the lawsuit, is violating its own nondiscrimination protections by knowingly allowing child placing agencies to discriminate. DHHS’s Adoption Program Statement, also known as Publication 225, dictates that the department “will not discriminate against any individual or group because of race, religion, age, national origin, color, height, weight, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, political beliefs or disability.”

National Trends and Significance

The stakes in Michigan, and nationally, are significant. Michigan currently has 13,000 children in the foster care system, many of whom will wait years to find a family or will age out of the system without having been placed with one. This past year, Alabama, South Dakota and Texas passed similar laws, adding to the three states—North Dakota, Virginia, and Mississippi—that have already passed related laws.

Building off momentum in the states, Congress introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2017 (CWPIA) this year. Under that law, the federal government could withhold federal child welfare funds to states that choose not to contract with faith-based organizations, even if states terminate those contracts because the organizations have engaged in unlawful discrimination. If passed, CWPIA would put millions of dollars in federal funding at risk and make thousands of vulnerable children in foster and adoptive care even more vulnerable. Beyond the child welfare context, the Trump administration announced earlier this year that it will re-evaluate protocols and obligations for distributing federal funds to faith-based organizations across all federal agencies, likely resulting in significant consequences for a range of marginalized communities.

These child placement laws are part of national strategy adopted by faith-based organizations and national Christian Right organizations, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, to frame standard government oversight and enforcement of nondiscrimination protections as “discrimination”—not only in the child welfare context, but also where individuals and groups seek access to affirming healthcare, social services, education, housing, and employment. It is vital that advocates continue to challenge this problematic frame—in order to ensure that new and decades-old civil rights and nondiscrimination protections are not entirely nullified because legislatures are invested in giving unconstitutional supremacy to individual religious beliefs over all other rights. The Constitution requires that a proper balance be struck between individual religious beliefs and other fundamental guarantees under the Constitution—particularly where the government is instrumental in funding or facilitating discrimination.

Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Guidance Likely Imminent and Harmful to LGBTQ Communities and Others

Cross-posted on Medium.

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a closed-press speech at a summit hosted by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a group that has notoriously fought to undermine LGBTQ and reproductive rights for years under the guise of protecting religious freedom. Among other concerning statements, Sessions promised that he would soon issue guidance for all federal agencies to implement President Trump’s recently enacted “religious freedom” executive order:

The department is finalizing this guidance, and I will soon issue it. The guidance will also help agencies follow the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress enacted RFRA so that, if the federal government imposes a burden on somebody’s religious practice, it had better have a compelling reason. That is a demanding standard, and it’s the law of the land. We will follow it just as faithfully as we follow every other federal law. If we’re going to ensure that religious liberty is adequately protected and our country remains free, then we must ensure that RFRA is followed.

Given Sessions’ skewed prioritization of some, but not all, “religious liberty” rights over other fundamental equality guarantees under the Constitution, there is good reason to be concerned about the potential impact on LGBTQ and others, particularly Muslim communities, women, people of color, and those seeking access to reproductive healthcare.

As we discussed in our report Church, State and the Trump Administration, before taking office, Sessions made a career fighting against justice and equality for marginalized communities, including LGBTQ communities. While in the Senate, he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would have protected workers nationwide from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. He called the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which found that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees a right to marry for same-sex couples, “unconstitutional,” and “beyond what [he] considers to be the realm of reality.” He has also publicly opposed protecting LGBTQ people in federal hate crimes legislation and the Violence Against Women Act, voting against both bills while in the Senate. And when the reauthorization of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act came up for a vote, he opposed that too, claiming that explicit protections for vulnerable LGBTQ youth meant it “could have discriminated against faith-based organizations.”

Furthermore, Sessions supported the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) as an original co-sponsor. FADA would forbid the federal government from enforcing a wide range of health, benefits, and antidiscrimination laws against individuals and businesses who act on “a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” This could lead to sweeping discrimination against LGBTQ people and anyone who has had sex outside of a different-sex marriage, including unmarried pregnant and parenting women. As we’ve noted in a previous report, these types of exemptions have a serious and disproportionate impact on women and pregnant people of color.

Although no information has been leaked about the pending guidance, Trump’s previously leaked Executive Order, which was significantly longer than the one he ultimately issued, may provide some insight into what the guidance may prioritize. As we discussed in a report focusing on the potential consequences of the leaked Executive Order, this could include a range of harmful outcomes, including broad exemptions that would allow private and nonprofit organizations that contract with the federal government to violate federal civil rights and nondiscrimination laws in providing social services, educational opportunities, healthcare, employment or other services—with impunity.

If Sessions’ actions in the Department of Justice are any indication, the guidance is likely to create broad opportunities for agencies across the federal government to roll back Obama-era civil rights protections and other important constitutional guarantees, using “religious freedom” as a cover.

 

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.

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.

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[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.

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

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

WA Supreme Court: LGBT Discrimination No More About Flowers than Civil Rights Were About Sandwiches

Originally posted at Religion Dispatches, February 22, 2017

Last Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court issued a significant and unanimous decision in the ongoing dispute—being litigated in courts across the country—over whether antidiscrimination law must yield to the religious beliefs of business owners opposed to marriage equality. The case involved a florist, Barronelle Stutzman, who refused to provide floral arrangements for a wedding between same-sex partners because of her deeply held religious beliefs about marriage.

In prior cases including Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock and Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, courts have come down against business owners who refuse to provide goods and services for weddings between same-sex couples. Opinions in these cases have found that antidiscrimination laws are neutral, generally applicable measures that do not favor secularism over religion, or single out particular religious groups for ill treatment. The right-wing legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom represented the business owners in both of those suits, and is currently representing Stutzman, who says she plans to appeal Thursday’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The opinions in Elane Photography and Masterpiece Cakeshop have declined to analyze the application of LGBT antidiscrimination laws to religious objectors using the rigorous “strict scrutiny” test. This test, used to evaluate government actions that specifically disadvantage religion, requires a law to be the least restrictive (to the religious objector) means of achieving a “compelling” government interest.

In this latest opinion, State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, the court did subject Washington’s antidiscrimination law to the strict scrutiny test. They did so because the free exercise provision of Washington’s state constitution has been interpreted to be more protective of religion than the federal First Amendment, raising the possibility that the lower level of scrutiny required under the federal Free Exercise Clause may be insufficient.

While the court declined to hold that the strict scrutiny test was necessary when evaluating neutral laws under the Washington constitution, it found that applying antidiscrimination law to religious objectors satisfied even this demanding test. Importantly, the court recognized that providing exemptions for religious objectors was inherently inconsistent with the entire purpose of antidiscrimination law.

Stutzman had argued that applying the law to her could not be necessary to achieving any compelling government interest, since there was no “access problem.” In other words—since the couple could purchase flowers elsewhere, application of antidiscrimination law in this case served no purpose. In response, the court held:

We emphatically reject this argument…”[t]his case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches.” Br. of Resp’ts Ingersoll and Freed at 32. As every other court to address the question has concluded, public accommodations laws do not simply guarantee access to goods or services. Instead, they serve a broader societal purpose: eradicating barriers to the equal treatment of all citizens in the commercial marketplace. Were we to carve out a patchwork of exceptions for ostensibly justified discrimination, that purpose would be fatally undermined.

This statement strikes at the heart of the dispute between religious objectors and LGBT couples and families. Too often, the vital role that antidiscrimination law plays in establishing the equal place of long-subordinated groups in civil society gets lost or ignored in claims that focus on the availability of flowers or cake. Efforts to limit the scope of antidiscrimination law will not stop at wedding-related services (and, indeed, a federal judge ruled last summer that the religious beliefs of a funeral home owner justified his discrimination against a transgender employee). Washington’s opinion is clear on the real purpose of these laws: guaranteeing equality, not roses.