Category Archives: Religion

Attorney General Session’s “Religious Liberty Task Force”: DOJ Evangelists for the Religious Right

Cross-posted to Medium.com
On Monday, July 30th, the Department of Justice (DOJ) held a “Religious Liberty Summit” at which Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department would be developing a “Religious Liberty Task Force.” Attorney General Sessions explained that the task force “will help the department fully implement our religious liberty guidance” — referencing a DOJ guidance document on “Principles of Religious Liberty” issued in October of 2017 — “by ensuring that all Justice Department components… are holding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt, and how we conduct our operations.”

Attorney General Sessions notes that this is the “next step” for the DOJ and the Trump administration to ensure the application of the “religious liberty guidance” issued by the Department of Justice in the fall of 2017. The guidance document that the task force is charged with implementing was promulgated in accordance with President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” President Trump signed the Executive Order in question in a ceremony on May 4th, 2017, the “National Day of Prayer,” in the White House Rose Garden. The guidance document, “Principles of Religious Liberty” was issued on October 7, 2017, from Attorney General Sessions in a Memorandum for all Executive Departments and Agencies, available here.

While “religious liberty guidance” and the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” may sound innocuous, they are far from it; the guidelines speak to an interpretation of religious liberty that is frequently used by the Religious Right to deny and undercut the rights of marginalized individuals in the United States. In a statement released by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project on the “religious liberty guidance” last fall, our scholars analyzed and characterized its edicts as such:

This document… misinterpret[s] the meaning and scope of religious liberty under the Constitution and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), demonstrating this administration’s continued commitment to elevating a particular set of religious beliefs over the health, safety and equality rights of women, LGBTQ[+] people, people of color, and religious minorities.

The “Principles of Religious Liberty” memorandum issued by the Department of Justice in October 2017 contains several examples of how the rhetoric of “religious liberty” has been mobilized by the Christian Right to enable individuals and businesses to deny rights and services to persons based on their religious beliefs. This insidious tactic undercuts equity and equality measures guaranteed by the constitution and a wide range of national and state laws. Cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop — wherein baker Jack Phillips refused to bake a cake for the wedding of a same-sex couple on the basis that doing so would unduly burden his religious beliefs– have raised the visibility of this issue. What’s at stake is far more serious than cake, however: Similar cases include that of EEOC v. Harris, in which a funeral home fired Aimee Stephens, a transgender employee, for expressing her gender identity through clothing. The Funeral home asserted that Stephens’ gender expression was in violation of the Funeral home’s “closely held religious beliefs.” While the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Equal Employment Commission and Aimee Stephens, a petition has been filed for the case to be heard by the Supreme Court.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project has written extensively on the DOJ guidance in the DOJ Memorandum on “Principles of Religious Liberty,” as well as President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which instructed Attorney General Sessions to develop the guidance. Our analyses have demonstrated how the Trump Administration and the Attorney General have sought to coopt the meaning of “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” in order to privilege certain conservative religious views as a form of white Christian supremacy:

In April of this year, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project co-authored a report with the Center for American Progress, “Religious Liberty for a Select Few.” The report, available here, highlights how the actions of the Justice Department enable and promote discrimination in and by the Federal Government using the tools of the Justice Department and the Executive Branch.

The report, “Religious Liberty for a Select Few” follows a series of earlier works produced by the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, which address concerns about how the Trump Administration is using a limited vision of “religious liberty” to promote a specific agenda. These works are outlined below:

· In October 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project published a statement critiquing Attorney General Sessions “Principles of Religious Liberty” issued in a DOJ Memorandum for all Executive Departments and Agencies on October 7th, 2017.

· In July 2017, Ashe McGovern, Legislative and Policy Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, wrote on the potential harms of the — at the time — anticipated guidance on religious freedom from Attorney General Sessions, in a blog post, “Trump’s ‘Religious Freedom’ Guidance Likely Imminent and Harmful to LGBTQ Communities and Others.”

· In May 2017, Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, wrote a blog post addressing President Trump’s Executive Order on Religious Liberty and Freedom of Speech titled, “’Religious Liberty’ Executive Order Will Limit, Not Enhance, Religious Freedom.”

· In May 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project released a joint statement with the Council on American Islamic Relations addressing concerns about the potential impacts of President Trump’s “Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” on religious minorities, available here.

· In January 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project published “Church, State, and the Trump Administration,” a report focusing on the promises of the Trump campaign related to faith and religion, and the actions undertaken during President Trump’s early tenure in regards to faith and the separation of Church and State.

The DOJ’s “Religious Liberty Task Force” will no doubt continue the administration’s work of advancing particular conservative religious beliefs about sexual health and autonomy, intimate and family partnerships, and pregnancy under the guise of religious liberty. This so-called “freedom” comes at a steep price, however, particularly for women, sexual and gender minorities, people of color, and religious minorities.


A full list of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s writing on the way the Trump Administration and Attorney General Sessions actions regarding “Religious Freedom” and “Religious Liberty” follows below:

Report: Religious Liberty for a Select Few: The Justice Department Is Promoting Discrimination Across the Federal Government
Sharita Gruberg, Frank J. Bewkes, Elizabeth Reiner Platt, Katherine Franke, Claire Markham
April 3, 2018
https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/reports/2018/04/03/448773/religious-liberty-select/

Columbia Law Experts Denounce DOJ Religious Liberty Guidance as Attack on Religious Liberty and Fundamental Equality Rights
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
October 6, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/10/06/columbia-law-experts-denounce-doj-religious-liberty-guidance-as-attack-on-religious-liberty-and-fundamental-equality-rights/

Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Guidance Likely Imminent and Harmful to LGBTQ Communities and Others
Ashe McGovern
July 20, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/07/20/religiousfreedomharmslgbtq/

Joint Statement by CAIR and PRPCP on President Trump’s EO on “Religious Liberty
The Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York and Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
May 15, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/05/15/joint-statement-by-cair-and-prpcp-on-president-trumps-eo-on-religious-liberty/

“Religious Liberty” Executive Order Will Limit, Not Enhance, Religious Freedom
Elizabeth Reiner Platt
May 4, 2017
http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/publicrightsprivateconscience/2017/05/04/religious-liberty-executive-order-will-limit-not-enhance-religious-freedom/

Church, State, and the Trump Administration
The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project
January 30, 2017
https://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/gender-sexuality/PRPCP/prpcp_trump_church_state.pdf

PRESS RELEASE: New Report Details Consequences of Trump Administration’s Overly Broad Guidance on Religious Liberty

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 3, 2018

SUBJECT:
New Report Details Consequences of Trump Administration’s Overly Broad Guidance on Religious Liberty

CONTACTS:
Elizabeth Boylan, 212-854-0167, eboyla@law.columbia.edu
Sam Hananel, 202-478-6327,shananel@americanprogress.org

April 3, 2018, Washington, D.C.  Obama-era rules prohibiting discrimination in dozens of federal programs could be undermined by the Trump administration’s controversial guidance on religious liberty, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress and Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project.

The report’s authors identified at least 87 regulations, 16 agency guidance documents, and 55 federal programs and services funded by taxpayer dollars that could be undercut by the October guidance issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. These include programs that provide health care, shelter, foreign aid, and assistance to victims of violence as well as veterans.

From unfair treatment to outright exclusion, the Trump administration has misinterpreted religious liberty in a way that harms the fundamental rights of women, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities. Under the new guidance:

  • LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence could be turned away from federally funded domestic violence shelters.
  • Organizations contracting with the government could force any unaccompanied LGBTQ immigrant children in their care into conversion therapy.
  • A government contractor could cite a religious belief as a reason to refuse services without risking the loss of federal funding—for example, not housing LGBTQ youth under federal programs.
  • Hospital workers could refuse to provide emergency contraception to sexual assault survivors by claiming that it conflicts with a religious belief.
  • Clinics abroad that are funded by the U.S. government could refuse to treat LGBTQ people living with HIV.

“This guidance is a deliberate attempt to undermine the legal rights and dignity of LGBTQ people,” said Sharita Gruberg, associate director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report. “It uses the guise of religious liberty to advance discrimination.”

“Jeff Sessions’ guidance document, which dramatically misinterprets religious exemption law, is already being used to limit access to reproductive health care,” said Elizabeth Reiner Platt, director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project and co-author of the report. “As agencies continue to implement it, the guidance threatens to limit enforcement of an enormous range of health, employment, and anti-discrimination protections.”

Religious liberty is a foundational American value. The Trump administration is abusing religious exemptions and disregarding the First Amendment’s prohibitions against the government preferring particular religious viewpoints. This guidance would allow federal officials, service providers, and corporations to use their religious views to infringe on the rights of others.

President Donald Trump’s ideologically motivated appointees are likely to carry out this guidance across the federal government by issuing new rules, reinterpreting existing rules, or reallocating federal funds to faith-based service providers. At the same time, rather than upholding the rights of LGBTQ people and women, Sessions has directed Justice Department lawyers to defend those who would cause harm to third parties.

Read the report: “Liberty and Justice for a Select Few: Jeff Sessions’ Guidance on Religious Liberty Is Promoting Discrimination Across the Federal Government” by Sharita Gruberg, Frank J. Bewkes, Elizabeth Platt, Katherine Franke, and Claire Markham.

For more information or to talk to an expert, please contact Sam Hananel at shananel@americanprogress.org or 202-478-6327, or Liz Boylan at eb2596@columbia.edu or 212-854-0167.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s mission is to bring legal academic expertise to bear on the multiple contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine other fundamental rights to equality and liberty.  We undertake approaches to the developing law of religion that both respects the importance of religious liberty and recognizes the ways in which too broad an accommodation of these rights threatens Establishment Clause violations and can unsettle a proper balance with other competing fundamental rights.  Our work takes the form of legal research and scholarship, public policy interventions, advocacy support, and academic and media publications.

The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to promoting a strong, just and free America that ensures opportunity for all. We believe that Americans are bound together by a common commitment to these values and we aspire to ensure that our national policies reflect these values. We work to find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems and develop policy proposals that foster a government that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Many doctors are motivated by their moral and religious beliefs to provide abortions. Why doesn’t HHS care about their consciences?

Cross-Posted to the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s Medium Page.

Related: PRPCP’s Comment submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, here.

Over the past few years, the news has been filled with stories of religious hospitals that ban abortions even during medical emergencies, pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception, and even a certain large arts and crafts chain store that objects to providing contraceptive insurance coverage for its employees. Conservative groups have advocated for increasingly broad laws and policies that allow such objectors to refuse to provide a wide range of medical care, regardless of their patients own beliefs or medical needs. Most recently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of a new rule that would give medical providers, insurance companies, and employers a broad right to deny abortion, sterilization, contraception, LGBTQ+ health care, and other services that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs.

With such a pervasive focus on religious health care refusals, it’s easy to forget that many healthcare professional’s religious and moral beliefs point in the opposite direction— supporting the right to individual bodily autonomy and access to medically appropriate and comprehensive health care. Unfortunately for such providers, the proposed HHS conscience rule entirely fails to protect them. Under the rule, while no health care employer can require its employees to participate in abortion, sterilization, or certain other services, employers are free to prohibit employees from providing this care.

For countless doctors and nurses, the dictates of their conscience drive them to provide abortion care, despite the risks this poses to their professional career and personal safety. To give just a few examples: Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist while serving as an usher in his Lutheran Church, referred to his work providing abortion care as a “ministry.” Two members of Dr. Tiller’s staff echoed this view, stating respectively, “I felt I was doing the Lord’s work,” and “God put me here to do this work.” Dr. LeRory Carhart, an abortion provider and observant Methodist, stated in an interview, “I think what I’m doing is because of God, not in spite of God.” Dr. Sara Imershein has described providing abortion care as a “mitzvah,” and said that “No one should be able to step in the way of what I consider to be my moral obligation.” Last year, Dr. Willie Parker wrote an entire book describing his spiritual journey toward becoming an abortion provider and activist. Dr. Curtis Boyd, a Unitarian, first became an abortion provider when he was asked by a minister and member of the Clergy Consultation Service to perform the procedure illegally prior to Roe v Wade. Dr. Boyd explained, “Finally, my work had the larger meaning I’d sought. My religious ideals became immediate and personal.”

While some providers describe their work in explicitly religious terms, others portray it as a moral or ethical duty. Dr. Leah Torres, for example, has discussed her “moral and ethical obligation” to provide abortion care. Dr. David Gunn, who was also murdered by an anti-abortion terrorist, traveled 1,000 miles and worked six days a week providing abortion care because, according to his son, he believed “people would suffer without care if he refused.” Dr. Warren Hern has described his decision to provide abortion care even at great personal risk in deep-seated moral terms, stating that “women need my help” and that “If women are not free to make decisions about their own lives and health, they are not free. And if women are not free, none of us are free.”

As PRPCP explains in a comment we submitted to HHS this week, the agency’s proposed rule grants sweeping protections to those who would deny health care to patients, while doing nothing to protect those whose moral or religious duty to provide care is prohibited by institutional policies. Not only do such imbalanced protections fail to safeguard patients’ health, they also fail to ensure the very right the rule claims to defend—the right of conscience.

Not only is this imbalance unfair, it is legally suspect. If nothing else, the religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment mandate that the government not take sides in a religious debate, or advance particular religious views at the expense of others. The proposed rule does exactly that—providing near-absolute protections for anti-choice religious views but extremely limited rights for pro-choice religious beliefs. (While providers cannot be punished for their activities outside the scope of their employment, they can be prohibited from acting on their religious obligation to provide comprehensive care within their job.)

The administration’s asserted interest in guaranteeing the right of “conscience” is belied by its one-sided policy, which protects only those to seek to deny health care and not those who seek to provide it.

From Birth Control to Death: Facing Black Women’s Maternal Mortality

Event Announcement
Friday, March 30, 2018
From Birth Control to Death: Facing Black Women’s Maternal Mortality
Barbara Jordan Conference Center | Henry J. Kaiser Foundation
1330 G Street, NW | Washington, DC 20005
1:00 pm – 2:30 pm

Eventbrite: www.bit.ly/birthcontroltodeath

America has the highest maternal mortality rate of any developed nation, according to the World Health Organization which found that between 700 – 1200 women died in the United States each year from pregnancy or childbirth complications. The United States’ maternal mortality rate has more than doubled since 1990, climbing from 12 to 28 deaths per 100,000 births.

We know that not all women are equally impacted by this phenomenon. According to NPR and ProPublica, Black women are 243% more likely to die in childbirth than white women. However, what many do not realize is that Black women’s vulnerability to maternal mortality is not a class determined issue. Factors that contribute to pregnancy and childbirth complications include damaging stereotypes about Black women’s strength and resiliency, and the pervasive notion that their pain is less real than that of their white women counterparts – factors that impact all Black women regardless of their socioeconomic success, academic achievement, and overall health and wellness.

As much as Black women have been valorized for their strength, we must recognize the elements of this myth that constitute relics of slavery. The indestructibility of Black women has long been an excuse for overwork and under-protection, a rationalization for our exploitation and abuse that has morphed into a dangerous stereotype that we have all too often internalized. These assumptions gravely imperil and undermine Black women’s health, both mental and physical, and lead to higher rates of heart disease, strokes, and maternal mortality.

Additionally, pregnant women of color are at greater risk of being deprived of a range of reproductive health services in many US states as a result of their disproportionate use of Catholic hospitals, according to a new report released on January 19th by the Columbia Law School Public Rights/Private Conscience Project (PRPCP) in partnership with Public Health Solutions. Bearing Faith: The Limits of Catholic Health Care for Women of Color compares racial disparities in birth rates at hospitals that place religious restrictions on health care.  Catholic-affiliated hospitals are governed by the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” a set of strict guidelines that prohibit doctors from providing contraceptives, sterilization, some treatments for ectopic pregnancy, abortion, and fertility services regardless of their patients’ wishes, the urgency of a patient’s medical condition, the doctor’s own medical judgment, or the standard of care in the medical profession.

The report finds that in many states, women of color are far more likely than white women to give birth at Catholic hospitals, putting them at greater risk of having their health needs determined by the religious beliefs of bishops rather than the medical judgment of doctors; This finding is especially troubling given that women of color already face a range of health disparities—including lower rates of insurance coverage and higher rates of pregnancy complications—which increases their need for comprehensive reproductive health care.

To hear radical discourse on the implications of these issues, and the steps we must take moving forward to address these systemic injustices, join the African American Policy Forum at The Barbara Jordan Conference Center in Washington DC on March 30, 2018 from 1:00-2:30pm for the closing panel of their week-long program, #HerDreamDeferred 2018: From Birth Control to Death: Facing Black Women’s Maternal Mortality.

The panel will feature remarks from Kira Shepherd, Director of the Racial Justice Program with Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, among others, and will explore the ways in which stereotypes around the invincibility of Black women, their environmental circumstances and the gaps in culturally competent health care all intersect and interact to endanger Black women in specific and extreme ways.

Further details about this event may be found at Eventbrite; for questions about this program, contact Henone Girma at henone.girma@aapf.org, or Liz Boylan at eboyla@law.columbia.edu.

Media Advisory – Dignity Denied: Religious Exemptions and LGBT Elders

Dignity Denied: Religious Exemptions and LGBT Elders

Media Advisory: The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project joins SAGE and the Movement Advancement Project announce the release of a groundbreaking report entitled, Dignity Denied: Religious Liberties and Elder Care, on the negative impacts Religious exemption laws and policies have on elder LGBT persons in the United States, and how these policies put elder LGBT persons at risk of discrimination.

Date:
Friday, December 15, 2017
12:00 pm – 2:00 pm

Location:
Union Theological Seminary
Columbia University in the City of New York
3041 Broadway (at West 121 Street), Room 207
New York, NY 10027

Press Contact:
Liz Boylan
Associate Director, Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, Columbia Law School
212.854.0167 | eboyla@law.columbia.edu.

[NEW YORK] The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project is thrilled to join SAGE, the nation’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT elders, and the Movement Advancement Project in announcing the release of a groundbreaking report on how Religious exemption laws and policies have a disproportionately negative impact on elder LGBT persons in the United States.

The report will be launched with a panel discussion and luncheon on Friday, December 15th at Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary.  The program will detail the increased risks LGBT older adults face as a result of recent religious exemption laws and policies that enable a “right to discriminate.”

This program is free and open to the public.  Please RSVP via: utsnyc.edu/SAGE

  • Alex Sheldon, Research Analyst, The Movement Advancement Project
  • Audrey Weiner, President and CEO, The New Jewish Home
  • Carmelyn P. Malalis, Chair and Commissioner, New York City Commission on Human Rights
  • Fred Davie, Executive Vice President, Union Theological Seminary
  • Jonathan Soto, NYC Mayor’s Office: Executive Director of the Center for Faith and Community Partnerships
  • Katherine Franke, Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, Columbia Law School
  • Michael Adams, CEO, SAGE
  • Rose Saxe, Senior Staff Attorney, LGBT & HIV Project, American Civil Liberties Union
  • Sandy Warshaw, SAGE Constituent

“This report, and the amicus brief SAGE filed in the Masterpiece Cake case, clearly demonstrate that personal religious beliefs should never be a license to discriminate against LGBT people or anybody else,” says Michael Adams, CEO of SAGE. “That’s why we are bringing together aging experts, religious leaders, and our elders, to expose the dangers that so-called “religious exemptions” pose for LGBT elders who need care and services. We must not allow the doors of a nursing home or a critical care provider to slam in LGBT elders’ faces just because of who they are and whom they love.”

Columbia Law School Think Tank Files Amicus Brief in SCOTUS Case

In Masterpiece Cakeshop Case, Diverse Organizations Argue Anti-discrimination Laws Protect, Not Burden, Religious Liberty

For Immediate Release: October 31, 2017

Subject: Columbia Law School Think Tank Files Amicus Brief in SCOTUS Case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission

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

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

Yesterday, Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project and Muslim Advocates filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on behalf of a coalition of 15 diverse civil rights and faith organizations. At issue in Masterpiece Cakeshop is whether the owners of a Colorado public establishment may, due to their own private religious beliefs, refuse service to individuals because of their sexual orientation.

The amicus brief argues that overly-broad accommodations of religious liberty, such as that requested by Masterpiece Cakeshop, undermine not just LGBT rights but religious liberty itself.  As the brief explains: “There can be no dispute that anti-discrimination laws have long played a crucial role in protecting the rights of religious minorities. Petitioners’ requested exemption will dramatically limit—if not completely eliminate—that protection.”

Today’s filing also highlights that interconnectedness of religious freedom and robust anti-discrimination laws.  In fact, the brief makes clear that our country’s “constitutional commitment to religious liberty has always entailed a corollary commitment to non-discrimination. Indeed, the integrity of the former has always relied upon the enforcement of the latter. ”

The coalition of civil rights and faith organizations that submitted this amicus brief to the Supreme Court represent the vast diversity within American faith communities.  The signatories include:  Muslim Public Affairs Council, American Humanist Association, DignityUSA, Sikh Coalition, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Capital Area Muslim Bar Association, Advocates for Youth, Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, National LGBT Bar Association, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and New Jersey Muslim Lawyers Association (NJMLA).

“The Supreme Court’s most significant religious liberty cases have drawn a connection between the protection of religious liberty and principles of non-discrimination,” said Katherine Franke, Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School.  “Masterpiece Cakeshop’s argument throws a wedge between these two fundamental American values, a position that poses a particularly dangerous threat to the rights of people of minority faith traditions.”

“Religious liberty and non-discrimination are inextricably tied to one another and should not be traded off against each other,” said Johnathan Smith, legal director at Muslim Advocates.  “When robust civil rights protections are undermined, religious groups have no recourse to defend themselves against discrimination.  A ruling in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop would undercut fundamental civil rights protections that are critical for maintaining this country’s longstanding commitments to religious freedom and religious pluralism.”

The amicus brief was authored by Columbia Law School’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, Muslim Advocates, and the law firm Hogan Lovells.  The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop on Tuesday, December 5.

A copy of the brief is available here.

Muslim Advocates is a national legal advocacy and educational organization that works on the frontlines of civil rights to guarantee freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths.

The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project is a think tank housed within the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. Our mission is to bring legal, policy, advocacy, and academic expertise to bear on the multiple contexts in which religious liberty rights conflict with or undermine other fundamental rights to equality and liberty.

 

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

 

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.

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

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

May 15, 2017

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

Religious Liberty Guidance Provision

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson Amendment Provision

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

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

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

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

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

 

“Religious Liberty” Executive Order Will Limit, Not Enhance, Religious Freedom

May 4, 2017 Today, President Trump signed an executive order that creates many more questions than answers about how the federal government intends to “protect the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life.” Several of its provisions raise serious cause for concern.

The order—unlike a prior leaked draft—does not single out for special protection particular religious beliefs about sex, marriage, or reproduction. Nevertheless, it still opens the door to agency under-enforcement of federal laws in ways that will harm, not enhance, religious liberty. In particular, Section 4 of the order, entitled “Religious Liberty Guidance,” directs the Attorney General to issue guidance on “interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law” to all federal agencies. This provision instructs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to interpret religious exemption laws, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), in ways that may cause significant harm to vulnerable communities.

For example, Sessions could attempt to limit government enforcement of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, or the Fair Labor Standards Act if he determines that enforcement will burden an individual’s or corporation’s religious liberty in violation of RFRA—even if a court would be unlikely to construe RFRA so broadly. More specifically, he could interpret RFRA to provide an exemption from Title VII of the Civil Right Act to employers who believe they have a religious obligation to proselytize to their non-Christian employees. If RFRA is interpreted by agencies to allow employers, landlords, healthcare providers and others to impose their religious beliefs on other individuals, this will significantly burden religious minorities who may find themselves shut out from participation in civic life.

While this order doesn’t require Attorney General Sessions to interpret RFRA and other exemptions in any particular way, we know that he has supported using ‘religious liberty’ as a tool to advance particular conservative beliefs while harming vulnerable communities—a position that many in Trump’s cabinet share. Furthermore, he has expressed hostility to religious minorities. While in the Senate, he voted against a proposed amendment that opposed placing a religious test on those entering the country, and he has called Islam a “toxic ideology.”

In the coming days and weeks, we will continue to update our analysis. Follow PRPCP’s policy page and blog for all of our most up to date information.