News Law and Policy

New Lawsuit Claims Mississippi School District Engaged in Pervasive Anti-LGBT Bullying

Jessica Mason Pieklo

According to a new federal complaint, gender non-conforming students in one Mississippi school district faced daily abuse and harassment by fellow students and teachers.

A lawsuit filed in federal court this week accuses the Moss Point School District in Mississippi of failing to stop anti-LGBT bullying and harassment of students.

The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), on behalf of student Destin Holmes, claims the harassment at Magnolia Junior High School was so bad she was eventually driven out of the district. In one instance, Holmes alleges that when she turned to school officials for help, the principal at the time called her a “pathetic fool” and said he didn’t “want a dyke in this school.” Holmes’ complained about her treatment, which sparked an investigation that revealed district students, faculty, and administrators had targeted LGBT students because of their nonconformity to gender stereotypes, as well as their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Following the investigation, the SPLC demanded the district take action to remedy the abusive and hostile climate, but the school district declined.

According to the lawsuit, the school district violated Holmes’ equal protection rights as well as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. In addition to Holmes’ allegations, the complaint also describes anti-LGBT bullying encountered by other district students, including the harassment of a transgender student and the assault of an openly gay male student. The complaint details allegations of how Holmes and other students perceived as LGBT were subjected to anti-LGBT slurs on a daily basis, including being physically threatened or attacked by peers. According to lawyers for the SPLC, many of the incidents happened in front of teachers or were reported to school officials, but school officials did little to stop the abuse.

The lawsuit comes the same week the Supreme Court declined an appeal of a case looking to hold a Pennsylvania school district responsible for the ongoing and repeated bullying of a high school student by a peer, and as the failure of college campuses nationwide to adequately address sexual assault on campus makes headlines almost daily.

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“We are disappointed that the district fails to see the serious harm its deliberate inaction causes its students,” said Anjali Nair, SPLC staff attorney, in a statement. “District officials who are entrusted with the safety and education of all students not only ignored, dismissed and even blamed victims for the abusive behavior of faculty and other students, they also participated in discriminatory acts.”

Culture & Conversation Politics

Latino Votes Count or ‘Why Would They Be Trying to Suppress Them?’: Dolores Huerta on What’s at Stake in 2016

Ally Boguhn

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta told Rewire. Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their vote might be suppressed in the first place.

Republican nominee Donald Trump launched his campaign for president in June 2015 with a speech notoriously claiming Mexican immigrants to the United States “are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists.”

Since then, both Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party at large have continued to rely upon anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric to drum up support. Take for example, this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio—whose department came under fire earlier this year for racially profiling Latinos—was invited to take the stage to push Trump’s proposed 2,000-mile border wall. Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that Trump’s campaign had worked with the sheriff to finalize his speech.

This June, just a day shy of the anniversary of Trump’s entrance into the presidential race, People for the American Way and CASA in Action hosted an event highlighting what they deemed to be the presumptive Republican nominee’s “Year of Hate.”

Among the advocates speaking at the event was legendary civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, who worked alongside César Chávez in the farm workers’ movement. Speaking by phone the next day with Rewire, Huerta—who has endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—detailed the importance of Latinos getting involved in the 2016 election, and what she sees as being at stake for the community.

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The Trump campaign is “promoting a culture of violence,” Huerta told Rewire, adding that it “is not just limited to the rallies,” which have sometimes ended in violent incidents, “but when he is attacking Mexicans, and gays, and women, and making fun of disabled people.”

Huerta didn’t just see this kind of rhetoric as harmful to Latinos. When asked about its effect on the country at large, she suggested it affected not only those who already held racist beliefs, but also people living in the communities of color those people may then target. “For those people who are already racist, it sort of reinforces their racism,” she said. “I think people have their own frustrations in their lives and they take it out on immigrants, they take it out on women. And I think that it really endangers so many people of color.”

The inflammatory rhetoric toward people of color by presidential candidates has led to “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom,” according to an April report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The organization’s analysis of the impact of the 2016 presidential election on classrooms across the country found “an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.” Though the SPLC did not name Trump in its questions, its survey of about 2,000 K-12 educators elicited up more than 1,000 comments about the Republican nominee, compared to less than 200 comments mentioning other presidential candidates still in the race at that time.

But the 2016 election presents an opportunity for those affected by that violent rhetoric to make their voices heard, said Huerta. “The Latino vote is going to be the decisive vote in terms of who is going to be elected the president of the United States,” she continued, later noting that “we’ve actually seen a resurgence right now of Latinos registering to vote and Latinos becoming citizens.”

However, a desire to vote may not always be enough. Latinos, along with other marginalized groups, face many barriers when it comes to voting due to the onslaught of voter restrictions pushed by conservative lawmakers across the country—a problem only exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling gutting portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) meant to safeguard against voter suppression efforts. The 2016 election season will be the first presidential election without those protections.

As many as 875,000 eligible Latino voters could face difficulty voting thanks to new restrictions—such as voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, and shortened early voting periods—put into place since the 2012 elections, a May analysis from the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials found.

When it comes to restrictions like this, Huerta “absolutely” saw how they could create barriers for those hoping to cast their ballot this year. “They’ve made all of these restrictions that keep especially the Latino population from voting. So it’s very scary,” said Huerta, pointing to laws in states like Texas, which previously had one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. (The state has since agreed to weaken its law following a judge’s order).

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta went on.

Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their voting rights might be targeted in the first place. “What we have to think about is, if they’re doing so much to suppress the vote of the Latino and the African-American community, that means that that vote really counts. It really matters or else why would they be trying to suppress them?”

Appealing to those voters means tapping into the issues Latinos care about. “I think the issues [Latinos care about] are very, very clear,” said Huerta when asked how a presidential candidate could best appeal to the demographic. “I mean, immigration of course is one of the issues that we have, but then education is another one, and health care.”

A February survey conducted jointly by the Washington Post and Univision found that the top five issues Latino voters cared about in the 2016 election cycle were jobs and the economy (33 percent), immigration (17 percent), education (16 percent), health care (11 percent), and terrorism (9 percent).

Another election-year issue that could affect voters is the nomination of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Huerta added. She pointed out the effect justices have on our society by using the now-decided Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case as an example. “You know, again, when we think of the presidents, and we think of the Supreme Court and we know that [was] one of the issues that [was] pending in the Supreme Court … whether what they did in Texas … was constitutional or not with all of the restrictions they put on the health clinics,” she said.

Latinas disproportionately face large barriers to reproductive health care. According to Planned Parenthood, they “experience higher rates of reproductive cancers, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections than most other groups of people.” Those barriers are only exacerbated by laws like Texas’ HB 2, as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health explained in its amicus brief in the Whole Woman’s Health case prior to the decision: “Texas Latinas already face significant geographic, transportation, infrastructure, and cost challenges in accessing health services.”

“H.B. 2’s impact is acute because of the day-to-day struggles many Latinas encounter when seeking to exercise their reproductive rights,” wrote the organization in its brief. “In Texas, there is a dire shortage of healthcare facilities and providers in predominantly Latino communities. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured adults in the country, and Texas Latinos are more than twice as likely as whites to be uninsured …. Additionally, the lack of public and private transportation creates a major barrier to accessing health services, especially in rural areas.”

As Rewire’s Tina Vasquez has reported, for undocumented women, the struggle to access care can be even greater.

Given the threats cases like Whole Woman’s Health have posed to reproductive rights, Huerta noted that “Trump’s constant attacks and misogynist statements” should be taken with caution. Trump has repeatedly vowed to appoint anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court if elected.

“The things he says without even thinking about it … it shows what a dangerous individual he can be when it comes to women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights,” said Huerta.

Though the race for the White House was a top concern of Huerta’s, she concluded by noting that it is hardly the only election that matters this year. “I think the other thing is we have to really talk about is, the presidency is really important, but so is the Senate and the Congress,” said Huerta.

“We’ve got to make sure we get good people elected at every level, starting at school board level, city council, supervisors, commissioners, etc. state legislatures …. We’ve got to make sure reasonable people will be elected, and reasonable people are voted into office.”

Analysis Law and Policy

Do Counselors-in-Training Have the Right to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People?

Greg Lipper

Doctors can't treat their patients with leeches; counselors can't impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Whether they’re bakers, florists, or government clerks, those claiming the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people have repeatedly sought to transform professional services into constitutionally protected religious speech. They have grabbed headlines for refusing, for example, to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings-all in the name of “religious freedom.”

A bit more quietly, however, a handful of counseling students at public universities have challenged their schools’ nondiscrimination and treatment requirements governing clinical placements. In some cases, they have sought a constitutional right to withhold treatment from LGBTQ clients; in others, they have argued for the right to directly impose their religious and anti-gay views on their clients.

There has been some state legislative maneuvering on this front: Tennessee, for instance, recently enacted a thinly veiled anti-LGBTQ measure that would allow counselors to deny service on account of their “sincerely held principles.” But when it comes to the federal Constitution, providing medical treatment—whether bypass surgery, root canal, or mental-health counseling—isn’t advocacy (religious or otherwise) protected by the First Amendment. Counselors are medical professionals; they are hired to help their clients, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and no matter the counselors’ beliefs. The government, moreover, may lawfully prevent counselors from harming their clients, and universities in particular have an interest, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, in preventing discrimination in school activities and in training their students to work with diverse populations.

The plaintiffs in these cases have nonetheless argued that their schools are unfairly and unconstitutionally targeting them for their religious beliefs. But these students are not being targeted, any more than are business owners who must comply with civil rights laws. Instead, their universities, informed by the rules of the American Counseling Association (ACA)—the leading organization of American professional counselors—merely ask that all students learn to treat diverse populations and to do so in accordance with the standard of care. These plaintiffs, as a result, have yet to win a constitutional right to discriminate against or impose anti-LGBTQ views on actual or prospective clients. But cases persist, and the possibility of conflicting court decisions looms.

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Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley

The first major challenge to university counseling requirements came from Jennifer Keeton, who hoped to receive a master’s degree in school counseling from Augusta State University. As detailed in the 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision considering her case, Keeton entered her professional training believing that (1) “sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces”; (2) “gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change”; and “homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.'”

It wasn’t those views alone, however, that sunk her educational plans. The problem, rather, was that Keeton wanted to impose her views on her patients. Keeton had told both her classmates and professors about her clinical approach at a university-run clinic, and it wasn’t pretty:

  • She would try to change the sexual orientation of gay clients;
  • If she were counseling a sophomore student in crisis questioning his sexual orientation, she would respond by telling the student that it was not OK to be gay.
  • If a client disclosed that he was gay, she would tell him that his behavior was wrong and try to change it; if she were unsuccessful, she would refer the client to someone who practices “conversion therapy.”

Unsurprisingly, Keeton also told school officials that it would be difficult for her to work with LGBTQ clients.

Keeton’s approach to counseling not only would have flouted the university’s curricular guidelines, but also would have violated the ACA’s Code of Ethics.

Her conduct would have harmed her patients as well. As a school counselor, Keeton would inevitably have to counsel LGBTQ clients: 57 percent of LGBTQ students have sought help from a school professional and 42 percent have sought help from a school counselor. Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ adolescents; that’s twice or three times the suicide rate afflicting their heterosexual counterparts. And Keeton’s preferred approach to counseling LGBTQ students would harm them: LGBTQ students rejected by trusted authority figures are even more likely to attempt suicide, and anti-gay “conversion therapy” at best doesn’t work and at worst harms patients too.

Seeking to protect the university’s clinical patients and train her to be a licensed mental health professional, university officials asked Keeton to complete a remediation plan before she counseled students in her required clinical practicum. She refused; the university expelled her. In response, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sued on her behalf, claiming that the university violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

The courts disagreed. The trial court ruled against Keeton, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the trial court’s ruling. The 11th Circuit explained that Keeton was expelled not because of her religious beliefs, but rather because of her “own statements that she intended to impose her personal religious beliefs on clients and refer clients to conversion therapy, and her own admissions that it would be difficult for her to work with the GLBTQ population and separate her own views from those of the client.” It was Keeton, not the university, who could not separate her personal beliefs from the professional counseling that she provided: “[F]ar from compelling Keeton to profess a belief or change her own beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, [the university] instructs her not to express her personal beliefs regarding the client’s moral values.”

Keeton, in other words, crossed the line between beliefs and conduct. She may believe whatever she likes, but she may not ignore academic and professional requirements designed to protect her clients—especially when serving clients at a university-run clinic.

As the court explained, the First Amendment would not prohibit a medical school from requiring students to perform blood transfusions in their clinical placements, nor would it prohibit a law school from requiring extra ethics training for a student who “expressed an intent to indiscriminately disclose her client’s secrets or violate another of the state bar’s rules.” Doctors can’t treat their patients with leeches; counselors can’t impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Ward v. Polite

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s follow-up case, Ward v. Polite, sought to give counseling students the right to withhold service from LGBTQ patients and also to practice anti-gay “conversion therapy” on those patients. The case’s facts were a bit murkier, and this led the appeals court to send it to trial; as a result, the student ultimately extracted only a modest settlement from the university. But as in Keeton’s case, the court rejected in a 2012 decision the attempt to give counseling students the right to impose their religious views on their clients.

Julea Ward studied counseling at Eastern Michigan University; like Keeton, she was training to be a school counselor. When she reviewed the file for her third client in the required clinical practicum, she realized that he was seeking counseling about a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex. As the Court of Appeals recounted, Ward did not want to counsel the client about this topic, and asked her faculty supervisor “(1) whether she should meet with the client and refer him [to a different counselor] only if it became necessary—only if the counseling session required Ward to affirm the client’s same-sex relationship—or (2) whether the school should reassign the client from the outset.” Although her supervisor reassigned the client, it was the first time in 20 years that one of her students had made such a request. So Ward’s supervisor scheduled a meeting with her.

Then things went off the rails. Ward, explained the court, “reiterated her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.” She told university officials that while she had “no problem counseling gay and lesbian clients,” she would counsel them only if “the university did not require her to affirm their sexual orientation.” She also refused to counsel “heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way.” As for the professional rules governing counselors, Ward said, “who’s the [American Counseling Association] to tell me what to do. I answer to a higher power and I’m not selling out God.”

All this led the university to expel Ward, and she sued. She claimed that the university violated her free speech and free exercise rights, and that she had a constitutional right to withhold affirming therapy relating to any same-sex relationships or different-sex relationships outside of marriage. Like Keeton, Ward also argued that the First Amendment prohibited the university from requiring “gay-affirmative therapy” while prohibiting “reparative therapy.” After factual discovery, the trial court dismissed her case.

On appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Ward eked out a narrow and temporary win: The court held that the case should go to a jury. Because the university did not have a written policy prohibiting referrals, and based on a few troubling faculty statements during Ward’s review, the court ruled that a reasonable jury could potentially find that the university invoked a no-referrals policy “as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.” At the same time, the court recognized that a jury could view the facts less favorably to Ward and rule for the university.

And although the decision appeared to sympathize with Ward’s desire to withhold service from certain types of clients, the court flatly rejected Ward’s sweeping arguments that she had the right to stray from the school curriculum, refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients, or practice anti-gay “conversion therapy.” For one, it said, “Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.” Thus, the problem was “not the adoption of this anti-discrimination policy, the existence of the practicum class or even the values-affirming message the school wants students to understand and practice.” On the contrary, the court emphasized “the [legal] latitude educational institutions—at any level—must have to further legitimate curricular objectives.”

Indeed, the university had good reason to require counseling students—especially those studying to be school counselors—to treat diverse populations. A school counselor who refuses to counsel anyone with regard to nonmarital, nonheterosexual relationships will struggle to find clients: Nearly four in five Americans have had sex by age 21; more than half have done so by the time they turn 18, while only 6 percent of women and 2 percent of men are married by that age.

In any event, withholding service from entire classes of people violates professional ethical rules even for nonschool counselors. Although the ACA permits client referrals in certain circumstances, the agency’s brief in Ward’s case emphasized that counselors may not refuse to treat entire groups. Ward, in sum, “violated the ACA Code of Ethics by refusing to counsel clients who may wish to discuss homosexual relationships, as well as others who fail to comport with her religious teachings, e.g., persons who engage in ‘fornication.'”

But Ward’s approach would have been unethical even if, in theory, she were permitted to withhold service from each and every client seeking counseling related to nonmarital sex (or even marital sex by same-sex couples). Because in many cases, the need for referral would arise well into the counseling relationship. And as the trial court explained, “a client may seek counseling for depression, or issues with their parents, and end up discussing a homosexual relationship.” No matter what the reason, mid-counseling referrals harm clients, and such referrals are even more harmful if they happen because the counselor disapproves of the client.

Fortunately, Ward did not win the sweeping right to harm her clients or otherwise upend professional counseling standards. Rather, the court explained that “the even-handed enforcement of a neutral policy”—such as the ACA’s ethical rules—”is likely to steer clear of the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-exercise protections.” (Full disclosure: I worked on an amicus brief in support of the university when at Americans United.)

Ward’s lawyers pretended that she won the case, but she ended up settling it for relatively little. She received only $75,000; and although the expulsion was removed from her record, she was not reinstated. Without a graduate counseling degree, she cannot become a licensed counselor.

Cash v. Hofherr

The latest anti-gay counseling salvo comes from Andrew Cash, whose April 2016 lawsuit against Missouri State University attempts to rely on yet murkier facts and could wind up, on appeal, in front of the more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In addition to his range of constitutional claims (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal protection of law), he has added a claim under the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The complaint describes Cash as “a Christian with sincerely-held beliefs”—as opposed to insincere ones, apparently—”on issues of morality.” Cash started his graduate counseling program at Missouri State University in September 2007. The program requires a clinical internship, which includes 240 hours of in-person client contact. Cash decided to do his clinical internship at Springfield Marriage and Family Institute, which appeared on the counseling department’s list of approved sites. Far from holding anti-Christian bias, Cash’s instructor agreed that his proposed class presentation on “Christian counseling and its unique approach and value to the Counseling profession” was an “excellent” idea.

But the presentation itself revealed that Cash intended to discriminate against LGBTQ patients. In response to a question during the presentation, the head of the Marriage and Family Institute stated that “he would counsel gay persons as individuals, but not as couples, because of his religious beliefs,” and that he would “refer the couple for counseling to other counselors he knew who did not share his religious views.” Because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates ACA guidelines, the university determined that Cash should not continue counseling at the Marriage and Family Institute and that it would be removed from the approved list of placements. Cash suggested, however, that he should be able to withhold treatment from same-sex couples.

All this took place in 2011. The complaint (both the original and amended versions) evades precisely what happened between 2012 and 2014, when Cash was finally expelled. You get the sense that Cash’s lawyers at the Thomas More Society are trying to yadda-yadda-yadda the most important facts of the case.

In any event, the complaint does acknowledge that when Cash applied for a new internship, he both ignored the university’s instructions that the previous hours were not supposed to count toward his requirement, and appeared to be “still very much defend[ing] his previous internship stating that there was nothing wrong with it”—thus suggesting that he would continue to refuse to counsel same-sex couples. He continued to defend his position in later meetings with school officials; by November 2014, the university removed him from the program.

Yet in challenging this expulsion, Cash’s complaint says that he was merely “expressing his Christian worldview regarding a hypothetical situation concerning whether he would provide counseling services to a gay/homosexual couple.”

That’s more than just a worldview, though. It also reflects his intent to discriminate against a class of people—in a manner that violates his program’s requirements and the ACA guidelines. Whether hypothetically or otherwise, Cash stated and reiterated that he would withhold treatment from same-sex couples. A law student who stated, as part of his clinic, that he would refuse to represent Christian clients would be announcing his intent to violate the rules of professional responsibility, and the law school could and would remove him from the school’s legal clinic. And they could and would do so even if a Christian client had yet to walk in the door.

But maybe this was just a big misunderstanding, and Cash would, in practice, be willing and able to counsel same-sex couples? Not so, said Cash’s lawyer from the Thomas More Society, speaking about the case to Christian news outlet WORLD: “I think Christians have to go on the offensive, or it’s going to be a situation like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, where you aren’t safe to have a guest in your home, with the demands of the gay mob.” Yikes.

Although Cash seems to want a maximalist decision allowing counselors and counseling students to withhold service from LGBTQ couples, it remains to be seen how the case will turn out. The complaint appears to elide two years’ worth of key facts in order to present Cash’s claims as sympathetically as possible; even if the trial court were to rule in favor of the university after more factual development, Cash would have the opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, one of the country’s most conservative federal appeals courts.

More generally, we’re still early in the legal battles over attempts to use religious freedom rights as grounds to discriminate; only a few courts across the country have weighed in. So no matter how extreme Cash or his lawyers may seem, it’s too early to count them out.

* * *

The cases brought by Keeton, Ward, and Cash not only attempt to undermine anti-discrimination policies. They also seek to change the nature of the counselor-client relationship. Current norms provide that a counselor is a professional who provides a service to a client. But the plaintiffs in these cases seem to think that counseling a patient is no different than lecturing a passerby in the town square, in that counseling a patient necessarily involves expressing the counselor’s personal and religious beliefs. Courts have thus far rejected these attempts to redefine the counselor-patient relationship, just as they have turned away attempts to challenge bans on “reparative therapy.”

The principles underlying the courts’ decisions protect more than just LGBTQ clients. As the 11th Circuit explained in Keeton, the university trains students to “be competent to work with all populations, and that all students not impose their personal religious values on their clients, whether, for instance, they believe that persons ought to be Christians rather than Muslims, Jews or atheists, or that homosexuality is moral or immoral.” Licensed professionals are supposed to help their clients, not treat them as prospective converts.

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