News Law and Policy

Obama Administration Files Amicus Brief Backing Legislative Prayer

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Obama administration sided with Republican lawmakers in states like Indiana and Texas to back the practice of prayer at government meetings.

The Obama administration has taken sides in a significant new test case on the separation between church and state, urging the Supreme Court to allow prayers at the beginning of government meetings. The administration lays out its arguments in a newly filed amicus brief in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case that questions whether the prayer practices at town council meetings of a small town in upstate New York violate the First Amendment. The case could drastically expand the types of legislative prayer practices considered constitutional.

Greece, New York, with its approximately 94,000 residents, has a five-member Town Board that conducts official town business at monthly public meetings. Before 1999, the board opened these meetings with a moment of silence. In 1999, the board’s supervisor changed the practice and started inviting local clergy to offer an opening prayer.

The board lists the prayer in each meeting’s official minutes, but it insists it does not review the language of any prayer before it is delivered nor does it censor any prayer for content. As of 2010, the Town Board had not adopted any written policy governing its selection of prayer-givers or any other aspect of its opening prayer practice; but according to the briefing, as a matter of practice, an employee in the Office of Constituent Services would invite local clergy to deliver opening prayers. Initially, town employee solicited clergy by telephoning all the religious organizations that were listed in the local community guide, which is published by the Greece Chamber of Commerce. The employee later compiled a “Town Board Chaplain” list of individuals who had accepted invitations to give prayers. That employee and her successors would then select guest chaplains by calling individuals on the list approximately a week before each meeting until they found someone willing to deliver a prayer.

Until 2008, the list included only Christian congregations and clergy. Nearly, but not all, of the religious congregations located within petitioner’s borders are Christian. A map introduced into evidence during the lower court proceedings shows one Buddhist temple and one Jehovah’s Witness church located in the town’s borders and several Jewish congregations located just outside of its borders. Nothing in the record indicates that any of those organizations were listed in the community guide. Additionally, from 1999 through 2007, every individual who delivered a prayer at a Town Board meeting was Christian.

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The practice was eventually challenged by residents who argued it was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The lower court disagreed and upheld the practice. But the federal appeals court reversed the decision, holding that when the “totality of the circumstances” of the town’s practice was examined, “the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.” In the appellate court’s view, the town’s practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within its borders “virtually ensured” that “a Christian viewpoint” would be represented by prayer-givers.

In its brief, the Obama administration does more than just defend the historical practice in Congress of opening daily sessions with prayers. It goes one step further to provide a complete embrace of religious-oriented prayers at government meetings, with one caveat. It’s a significant position for the administration to take given the multitude of policy battles it’s embroiled in over its alleged hostility toward religious rights. But much like its negotiations with members of the religious right over contraceptive coverage, the administration takes pains to accommodate religious beliefs and assumes a level of good faith simply not supported in the record. The administration argued in its brief:

Where, as here, legislative prayers neither proselytize nor denigrate any faith, the inclusion of Christian references alone does not constitute an impermissible advancement or establishment of religion. So long as the goal of the government-backed prayer is not to recruit believers or criticize a given faith then the practice should be supported. Neither federal courts nor legislative bodies are well suited to police the content of such prayers, and this Court has consistently disapproved of government interference in dictating the substance of prayers.

The Obama administration is not alone in weighing in on the case. Attorneys general in 23 states, including Indiana and Texas, have also filed briefs urging the Supreme Court to uphold prayer in government meetings.

The Court has not yet set a hearing date for this case.

Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats Employ ‘Dangerous,’ Contradictory Strategies

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.

The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.

DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.

Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishing its policy goals.

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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue. When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”

Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.

“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.

Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”

“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.

While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.

“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”

Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.

Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”

Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.

Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.

Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”

Despite what Jackson described as a commitment to the constitutionality of her laws, the Supreme Court in March blocked admitting privileges from taking effect in Louisiana. Louisiana’s law is also nearly identical to the Texas version that the Court struck down in June’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.

Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”

She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.

“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”

The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.

Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active” chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.

Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.

As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.

Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.

Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.

Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.

If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”

Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.

“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.

She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.

Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.

“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.

Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”

That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.

“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”

Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.

“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”

To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”

“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”

“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”

News Law and Policy

Obama Administration Once Again Steps Up for Transgender Rights

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A regulation to be published this week mandates all employees and visitors at federally operated facilities have access to restrooms that align with their gender identity.

The Obama administration this week made another push for advancing transgender rights, announcing a new regulation that requires all people at federally operated facilities, whether an employee or visitor, have access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

As reported by Buzzfeed, the regulation, which will be posted this week in the Federal Register, will affect thousands of people and about 9,200 properties operated by the federal government. Those facilities employ roughly 1 million federal civilian workers.

The regulation makes clear that transgender people do not need to complete any medical procedure to qualify to use the restroom that aligns with their gender, nor can transgender people be restricted to single-occupancy restrooms.

This is the latest move by the Obama administration to advance transgender rights in both the workplace and schools. Federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Education have issued guidances that state discriminating against transgender people by mandating they use restrooms and facilities that align with their biological sex rather than their gender identity violates federal civil rights laws.

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More than 20 states run by Republican lawmakers have pushed back against the administration’s efforts to protect transgender people from discrimination at work and at school, filing a federal lawsuit arguing the Obama administration has overstepped its authority in issuing the guidance. Those lawsuits argue that legal bans on sex discrimination do not cover transgender rights.

That question—whether existing civil rights laws and their prohibitions on sex discrimination prohibit discrimination against transgender people—could be the next big civil rights case to land before the Supreme Court.

A Virginia county school board adopted a policy that mandates students in their schools use restrooms that align with their biological sex rather than gender identity. Gavin Grimm, a Virginia student, challenged the policy, arguing it violated his civil rights.

Both a federal court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Grimm and blocked the school from enforcing the policy. The Roberts Court this month stepped in and ruled the policy should take effect while the Court considers the school board’s request to take Grimm’s case next term. In the meantime, Grimm will start the school year with his school’s policy in place.

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