Sutherland Institute & Religious Right Orgs Create False “Religious Liberty”

Posted By on August 22, 2014

image source

image source

Do the principles of religious freedom (a.k.a. religious liberty) mandate exemptions from employment and workplace non-discrimination laws? According to many conservatives in Utah, yes. But while these Religious Right leaders claim to be championing the rights of the religious, their theocratic redefinition of these important concepts leave every individual at risk.

Less than a few weeks after the Salt Lake City Council passed Utah’s first non-discrimination law in November of 2009, prohibiting employment and housing discrimination on the sole basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, the local affiliate of the State Policy Network, Sutherland Institute, began a full-blown press push for what they called “religious exemptions.” According to Sutherland president Paul Mero, business owners and apartment complex owners who had personal religious objections to LGBTQ people should be exempted from the new law and allowed to fire LGBTQ people from their jobs or evict them from their homes without consequence.

This religious exemptions argument was not unique to Mero and Sutherland, but was part of a nationwide undertaking by Religious Right leaders—particularly from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF, now doing business as Alliance Defending Freedom, which rose to prominence providing legal counsel and defense for Prop 8 in California—to begin using this new strategy more aggressively. The same argument had been used to attempt to derail civil rights laws several decades ago by the precursors conservative organizations to Sutherland, ADF, and the Heritage Foundation, such as the racist John Birch Society. The arguments had failed back then, but with new packaging and better PR spin, the Right predicted that they could have much more success today. And they were right.

The arguments have taken hold and while every year more conservative Republicans in Utah seem to resign to the inevitability of the passage of a statewide version of the non-discrimination laws (every reputable poll shows roughly 73 percent support for the laws among the public), almost without exception you can hear each of them call for a change to the language of the proposed law, allowing for such religious exemptions.

Sutherland Institute themselves launched a new initiative this last year as a kind of last-ditch-effort to slow the inevitable passage of the bill. Presented as a coalition of Religious Right organizations, Sutherland partnered with the local affiliate of the Eagle Forum, as well as the local affiliate of Family Watch International (one of the conservative evangelical organizations involved in the creation of the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda and other African nations) to form “FairToAll,” which they use to attempt to hammer home their claims about the nature of religious liberty.

It is no coincidence that the website for this new group was registered by none other than the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, which was not only involved in Prop 8, but also the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS case, and was also one of the primary authors of the infamous Arizona “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which would have allowed business owners to use supposed faith objections to not only discriminate against LGBTQ employees but to also reject LGBTQ customers as well. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to guess that ADF provided much of the funding for the FairToAll project, which included weeks of expensive prime-time television ads (one of which Sutherland was forced to take down for outright lying about the bill forcing BYU to allow mixed-gender dorm rooms).

So with such a massive buildup, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, and a nationally-coordinated campaign to promote religious exemptions, is there actually anything to their claims.

According to Tarso Luís Ramos and Fred Clarkson of the nonprofit Political Research Associates, the religious liberty claims Utah conservatives are putting forward are deeply twisted versions of the what the nation’s founders put forward.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” The First Amendment to the Constitution begins with this foundational defense of individual conscience against the edicts of religious institutions backed by the coercive power of government. We may have different views of how we can protect religious liberty for the sake of everyone, but until recently there has been a rough consensus that religious liberty centers primarily on maintaining the rights of individuals.

This foundational principle, and our common understanding of what it means, is facing a sustained, coordinated attack from leaders of the religious right, who insist that businesses have the right to discriminate against employees and customers according to their owners’ religious beliefs. This redefinition of religious liberty effectively transforms the Framers’ shield against religious tyranny into a sword institutions can wield to impose religious dictates on individuals in the marketplace.

In other words, Utah conservatives are attempting to take the principle meant to protect each and every individual’s right to believe (or not) as they see fit, free from pressure or coercion from a state-backed institution, and give it solely to business owners and landlords by endowing them with the right to use claimed religious beliefs to harm others who do not conform to their personal religious views.

The true principle of religious freedom is already built-in to the non-discrimination lawsallowing for LGBTQ employees and tenants to live without harassment, while business owners and landlords are remain free to believe whatever their conscience or religion dictates.

Isn’t that how a society based on religious pluralism supposed to work? We are all allowed to believe as we will, as long as we don’t use those beliefs to harm others?

Utah Democrats Could Learn a Lesson From Massachusetts Republicans

Posted By on August 16, 2014

mass and utahUtah Democrats and Massachusetts Republicans have a lot in common, both hanging on by a thread in states that heavily lean the other way. Democrats in Utah hold only 18 percent of the seats in the state legislature, and in Massachusetts the Republicans control only 16.5 percent. Both of these two super-minorities also face the same frequent infighting debates over whether it’s better for their candidates to boldly campaign on their Party’s ideals, or if they should present themselves as more a “lite” version of the other. But there remains one major difference: While Utah Democrats haven’t held a single statewide office since 2001 (when Democratic Attorney General Jan Graham retired), Massachusetts Republicans manage to win the big races semi-regularly, and have a decent prospect of reclaiming the governor’s office this year.

So what is the big difference between the two groups? It’s all in the campaigning. Identify a problem, help voters understand how it hurts them, illustrate how your opponent will make it worse, and provide a solution.

Any state where a single Party controls a super majority is going to have scandals. It’s inevitable. Typically they’re pretty minor, but the perception of corruption in any form is the perfect opening for a candidate who knows what they’re doing.

Take Mitt Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial race. It was his second attempt to run for office (he was thrashed when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate seat in 1994), and he had severely damaged himself early on in the race when, after polling showed people found him out-of-touch with the working class, he released a series of ads showing him spending a day working in different professions—donning different outfits to herd cows and bale hay, unload a fishing boat, and haul garbage. Needless to say, working people found the ads extremely offensive, as he reduced their lives to little more than costumes.

Independent polling showed Romney losing as late as mid-October, only a couple of weeks from the election. But then something changed. His campaign began releasing new ads going after the Democratic candidate (who was the State Treasurer) for a minor-scandal that had hit earlier in the year that involved state pension funds doing badly in the stock market. The ads showed a tired and worn-out old hound dog that told voters that their “watchdog was asleep on the job.” The series of ads ran over and over, and Romney’s campaign workers talked about it at every door they knocked on. Taking it even further, he began going after his opponent’s husband, a former lobbyist, by attaching his name to the national Enron scandal.

The pension fund scandal really wasn’t that major. The investments the funds were in had performed poorly, but not so badly that they couldn’t recover relatively quickly. But that didn’t matter to the Romney campaign. They made it hurt, they talked with voters about how if they were to try and retire the day after the election, they’d be missing a good chunk of the money they were counting on.

The success of the tactic showed on election day, and Romney’s Republicans took the governor’s mansion.

Contrast that to Utah, which is still in the middle of the biggest political scandal to hit the state in decades (and likely the biggest in our lifetimes). Not a single person in the state hasn’t heard about the major embarrassment and (alleged) criminal activity of Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow. These two were some of the highest ranking Republicans in the entire state. Their dealings encompassed legislators, party officials, congressmen, mayors… there is literally no end in sight to how far this could potentially go. And yet, it seems like you have to pull teeth to hear any Democratic candidates talk about it other than vague “we need to clean up…” phrases. Why not make it hurt?

To be clear, I’m not talking about any one candidate in particular. Nor am I talking about all Democratic candidates in Utah (there are many who are doing a marvelous job). But in general there does seem to be a general lack of willingness to really take up the pitchforks and charge the hill.

It doesn’t even have to be the Swallow/Shurtleff scandal. There have been plenty of others over the past few years. Remember HB477? The bill run by then Representative John Dougall (R) (who we have since elected to the position of State Auditor) that Republicans in the legislature passed in only 3 days, and would have completely stripped both the citizens and the media of our ability to access emails and other communications between legislators and lobbyists? The voters in Utah were so outraged that hundreds and hundreds of Tea Partiers, Liberals, Anti-Choice, Pro-Choice, and LGBTQ community members all stood shoulder to shoulder at the Capitol demanding it be repealed.

How about when Republican Representative Kevin Garn admitted to having a nude encounter with an underage girl in a hot tub, and when he finally dropped out, his colleagues in the legislature gave him a standing ovation when he announced his resignation?

Not your cup of tea? In 2007, Utah voters of all political stripes overwhelmingly voted to override the legislature and repeal school vouchers. Since then, legislators have changed the laws and made it almost impossible to get that kind of repeal initiative on the ballot ever again. And not only that, but Senator Howard Stephenson (R), who championed the voucher idea, has slowly but surely continued to pass privatization measures ever since. And Senator Aaron Osmond (R) just passed a law virtually eliminating all standards for homeschooled kids.

Still not your cup of tea? Remember how Governor Herbert stripped a $1 Billion UDOT contact from the winning bidder and awarded it to the corporation who had donated money to his campaign, and then gave the losing corporation $13 Million in hush money?

Or maybe you like all of them? The Utah legislature works just like Congress: few think it does a good job, but their own Rep and Senator are trying to fix it. Drive home the problems, help your constituents recognize how the incompetence of Utah Republicans is directly harming them and their family’s lives. And have a solution to fix the problem (more than just you’re a good person).

This year in Massachusetts, longtime popular governor Deval Patrick is retiring and the seat is opening up. The Republican on the ticket is Charlie Baker, while the Democrats will pick their candidate in a primary next month. While the Democrats fight it out amongst themselves, Baker is doing his damndest to take every little embarrassing scandal and attach it to each one of his opponents. He knows that if he can bang that drum loud enough, even in blue blue Massachusetts a Republican can win. Utah Democrats should be taking notes.


The Right is Lying–Hobby Lobby Decision RESTRICTS Religious Liberty for All

Posted By on July 7, 2014

Eric joined KXRK’s Radio From Hell morning show to discuss the recent Hobby Lobby decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. While the Religious Right likes to portray themselves as the hero-defenders of religious freedom, this ruling and their broader campaign to redefine religious liberty is actually all about stripping your rights, and allowing private institutions to force you to believe however they wish.

Listen here

Eric RFH

Quick Primer: Where (and What) Are All of the Same-Sex Marriage Cases in Utah

Posted By on June 9, 2014

marriage equality constitution

For those trying to keep track of where all the same-sex marriage cases are in the process, it can get really confusing. Here’s a quick recap and primer of what the different cases are and where they’re at:

Kitchen v. Herbert

This is the main case over the validity of Utah’s Amendment 3, the 2004 constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage (and civil unions) in Utah.

The law was struck down in December of 2013 by district judge Robert Shelby, who ruled that barring certain citizens from their right to get married was unconstitutional. The Utah Attorney General’s office failed to put in a request for the decision to be stayed if the judge ruled against them, so the ruling took effect immediately and over the next 17 days, nearly 1,300 packed county clerk offices across the state and were legally wed. Eventually, the AG’s office did request the stay, but Judge Shelby denied it as many couples had already been married. The state then asked the 10th Circuit court of appeals to put a stay on the ruling, but that court also denied the request. Utah then went to the US Supreme Court, who granted the temporary stay (17 days after the initial ruling), which put a halt to any future marriages while Utah appealed Judge Shelby’s request up to the 10th Circuit Court.

The state and the plaintiffs argued their case before the 10th Circuit earlier this year, and the ruling is expected to be handed down any day.

Possible Outcomes:

The 10th Circuit could either uphold Judge Shelby’s ruling that Amendment 3 was unconstitutional, or they could overturn the decision. Either way, it is expected that either the state of Utah or the plaintiffs will appeal their decision up to the Supreme Court. It is commonly anticipated that the 10 Circuit will rule 2 to 1 in favor of Judge Shelby’s ruling (aka, in favor of same-sex marriage).

The ACLU’s Lawsuit (Evans v. Herbert):

The second case moving forward right now is being brought by the Utah ACLU on behalf of the 1,300 legally wed same-sex couples. The state of Utah has refused to recognize their marriages, arguing that it shouldn’t have to recognize them until the appeal of the Amendment 3 case has concluded. The case began when the Utah Department of Health, acting on orders from the Utah Attorney General’s office, stopped adoptions by several of the newly-married couples which had already been approved by other Utah judges.

Last month, district court judge Dale Kimball ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and ordered the state of Utah to grant the couples all benefits of marriage, as their marriages had been legally performed following Judge Shelby’s ruling. No stay was put in place, but Judge Kimball delayed his ruling from going into effect for 21 days, to give the state time to decide whether or not they would appeal.

Utah used up almost the entire 21 days before announcing that they would be appealing, and Attorney General Sean Reyes filed with the 10th Circuit, requesting that they put a temporary stay on Judge Kimball’s ruling while the appeal (and a request for a permanent stay) moves forward. The 10th Circuit granted the temporary stay. The Utah ACLU last week filed their own motion with the 10th Circuit, asking that the stay be lifted. Then, this morning, Utah filed another motion, telling the 10th Circuit that if they drop the stay, Utah intends to go to the Supreme Court to ask for the stay to be put back into place.

A ruling from the 10th Circuit on the stay could come as early as today.

The account Equality Case Files has posted all of the briefs in both cases, if you’d like to see them.

The Religious Right’s Campaign to Strip All Citizens of Religious Freedom

Posted By on June 5, 2014

Alex Brandon, AP

Alex Brandon, AP

**Originally Published on LGBTQ Nation and The New Civil Rights Movement**

Turn on any cable news show and you’ll hear conservatives, particularly from the Religious Right, giving long tirades about religious freedom and how the Left is seeking to strip it away from good God-fearing Americans. But if you watch how the Religious Right works in court, you know that it’s actually the other way around.

Religious freedom has been a strongly-held belief in America since the very beginning. All three branches of government have worked hard to preserve the rights of Americans to choose for themselves whether they wished to be Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Atheist, etc.. It’s a fundamental part of the system that our country built itself on: the right to believe as you will, and to change your mind about it.

Legislative bodies and the courts have centered those rights around the individual—allowing the individual to choose for themselves how they would or would not believe in a god, rather than imbuing an institution with the right to choose for them.

If you were to believe the talking points of conservative punditryland, you might think that the right to believe (or not) as you will is under attack from the Left, and that no-good liberals (particular the gays) are trying to force Americans to accept their wicked ways and deny those good God-fearing citizens their right to worship in peace.

But how is this actually playing out in the courts and in the legislatures?

Hobby Lobby

In the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby case before the U.S. Supreme Court right now, the owners of the private for-profit corporation Hobby Lobby chain are seeking an exemption from a provision within the Affordable Care Act that requires that the health insurance their employees receive include coverage for birth control methods such as morning after pills and IUDs. Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family (who happen to be evangelical Christians) say that they consider such birth control methods to be abortifacients—despite the medical and scientific community pointing out that they are not—and as such their company should be exempted from the Affordable Care Act because providing their employees with insurance coverage for such methods is a violation of their religious freedom.

Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

On April 1 this year (appropriately), the conservative-controlled Mississippi state legislature passed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was quickly signed into law by Governor Phil Bryant (R). The bill allows businesses to turn away customers and/or employees (such as LGBTQ people) because the owner of the business happens to disagree with them on a religious level.

A similar law was passed just a few months prior by the Arizona legislature, but Governor Jan Brewer had vetoed it after coming under enormous national pressure and media scrutiny.

Whose Rights?

What both of these situations highlight is the concerted effort by the leaders of the Religious Right to fundamentally alter the way religious freedom works. Where in the past it has always been applied to—and designed for—the individual, Christian Right legal organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund of Prop 8 notoriety) are seeking to strip those rights away from you and me, and bestow them upon businesses themselves. Those corporate religious beliefs can then be used to circumvent civil rights laws, if they happen to conflict with the businesses’ newly-bestowed conscience.

What does this mean for us? It won’t just affect LGBTQ people. If the only religious beliefs that matter are what your boss happens to believe, employees across the country will be forced into complying with those beliefs or risk their (and their family’s) livelihood and well being. If a business owner happens to belong to a faith that believes women should always be subservient to men, they could legally be allowed to deny women managerial positions (or not hire them at all). Muslims could refuse to hire Jewish workers, or keep them at lower pay rates than their co-workers. White business owners in the South could use religion as an excuse to deny service to Black customers.

Now, neither the Hobby Lobby case or the Mississippi law go so far as to completely open the floodgates for all of these civil rights abuses on their own, but each are significant cracks in the wall. And once precedent is set, the next exemption is that much easier to create.

If we are going to shore up the foundations of religious freedom, it’s going to take more than just quippy catchphrases. The Religious Right has been enormously successful capturing the dialogue, and painting all outsiders, particularly the LGBTQ community, as the enemies of our rights. We’ve got to help the nation understand that the leaders of the Right are seeking to not only strip the religious freedom of LGBTQ people, but of every citizen—no matter what their beliefs.

10th Circuit Hears Oral Arguments in Utah Marriage Case — Appears To Lean Toward Equality

Posted By on April 12, 2014

**Originally published at The New Civil Rights Movement on April 10, 2014**

Post image for 10th Circuit Hears Oral Arguments in Utah Marriage Case — Appears To Lean Toward Equality

(Denver)  The 10th Circuit Court today heard oral arguments in the Utah Amendment 3 same-sex marriage case. The judges are being asked to decide whether to uphold a lower court’s ruling which struck down Utah’s 2004 ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions. From all indications, it looks like Marriage Equality will see another court win.

Since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor, Marriage Equality has won 9 court battles around the country (and lost zero). But the Amendment 3 case is the first time Marriage Equality has been considered on the appellate court level.

Until now, Utah’s case has almost exclusively rested on the thoroughly debunked Mark Regnerus study which claims that same-sex parents are “unfit.” But after a Michigan judge ruled that the Regnerus study was “entirely unbelievable” a few weeks ago, Utah submitted a brief to the 10th Circuit late last night walking back their reliance on Regnerus.

That walk-back landed Utah’s Attorney General in some hot water with the 10th Circuit Court, with Judge Holmes (widely considered to be the swing vote of the three-judge panel) asking whether Utah’s dropping of the study took out the entire foundation of their argument.

Holmes was extremely pointed in other areas of his questioning as well, asking that if ‘it’s true that same-sex parents are unfit, doesn’t that mean that divorced heterosexual parents are unfit as well?’ Utah’s attorneys admitted that, yes, that would make divorced parents less than ideal as well. Holmes then pressed his point, asking why Utah isn’t seeking to make divorced parenting illegal too.

At one point, Utah’s hired outside attorney Gene Schaerr actually admitted to Holmes that “Yes, children of same-sex couples would likely do better if their parents were allowed to marry.”

Utah then switched gears, highlighting how, in 2004 when Amendment 3 was first passed, it was approved by just over 60 percent of Utah voters—and that the courts should not overrule the state’s right to define marriage and the will of the people (at least, their will in 2004).This time, it was Judge Lucero who hit back, asking “Has public policy ever been allowed to overrule constitutional rights in this country?”

Lawyers for the same-sex couples, meanwhile, focused in on prior SCOTUS cases such as Loving v. Virginia, which struck down bans on interracial marriage. The attorneys argued that, like same-sex couples, the civil right for citizens to marry the person of their choice was being trampled by individual states.

Insiders at the Denver courthouse say it appeared the judges seemed to be split on their ruling, and are predicting the court will hand down a final ruling of 2 to 1 in favor of Marriage Equality, with only Judge Kelly predicted to side with Utah.

Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Derek Kitchen, one of the plaintiffs in the case who is seeking to marry his partner, said he felt “humble and proud” to be a part of the case which could pave the way for Marriage Equality everywhere. He also shared an interesting story, saying that Utah Attorney General Reyes had spoken with him before the hearing began, and had apologized to him for putting Kitchen and his partner through so much grief in the case.

Reyes confirmed the story to reporters, and said that defending Amendment 3 is “his job.” He would not say what his personal feelings about it are. However, last night he filed a suit with the Utah Supreme Court, seeking to halt all currently underway adoptions in Utah by same-sex couples (who filed their paperwork before SCOTUS put a hold on same-sex marriages in the state).

There’s no clear timeline for when the Judges will issue their ruling. But seeing as how they asked for an expedited timeline to hear the arguments, it’s possible they may issue their opinion within the next few weeks.

UPDATE: The 10th Circuit has released the audio recordings of the hearing.

Listen in here

Image via Twitter

Follow Author Eric Ethington on Twitter @EricEthington

Utah Quietly Seeking ‘Emergency Relief’ To Halt Existing LGBT Adoptions

Posted By on April 11, 2014

*This article was originally published on The New Civil Rights Movement



Salt Lake City – While the eyes of Utah (and much of the nation) are on the 10th Circuit Court, which will hear oral arguments tomorrow on whether to uphold a lower court’s decision to strike the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Utah Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes has quietly filed a Petition For Emergency Extraordinary Relief with the Utah Supreme Court to allow the state to halt adoptions by LGBT parents already in motion.

After district court judge Robert Shelby struck down Amendment 3, the 2004 Utah law which banned same-sex marriage and civil unions, dozens of newly-wed couples immediately began filing for adoption. Some couples sought to adopt new children, while others filed to adopt the biological children of their spouses they are already raising (Utah law currently prohibits 2nd parent adoption by anyone not married to their partner).

The suit, filed by the Attorney General on behalf of the Utah Department of Health and the Office of Vital Records and Statistics, is seeking to overturn the rulings of multiple judges in Utah who signed the orders allowing the adoption proceedings to begin prior to the United States Supreme Court granting a stay on Judge Shelby’s ruling.

The Emergency Petition gives the adoptive parents only three days to respond, an extraordinarily limited amount of time for these parents to find an attorney, prepare their arguments/briefs, and file with the court. Not to mention the nightmare of court and legal costs that can pile up on these parents who just finished paying adoption costs.

Utah’s filing with the court adds insult to injury for the parents, claiming that if the Utah Supreme Court does not overturn the adoptions, they themselves will be harmed “as they may wrongly rely upon an illegally-issued birth certificate for other benefits or protections not provided by Utah law.” Utah goes on to ask that the adoptions remain on permanent hold until the State’s appeal of Judge Shelby’s ruling is concluded. Assuming the 10th Circuit Court follows the precedent of multiple other judicial bodies around the country, and upholds the ruling in favor of marriage equality, that means the hold on the adoptions would remain in effect as Utah inevitably appeals all the way to SCOTUS.

Equality Utah shared this story of one of the couples on their Facebook page:

Kimberly and Amber Leary started a family together in November of 2012. In an attempt to provide a safe, stable, nurturing family life for their daughter, as well as a legal framework under the law, Kimberly Leary began adoption proceedings so her daughter would not be a legal stranger to her under Utah law. Kimberly and Amber were legally married in Utah during the 16-day window last year. A judge approved their adoption and today the couple went to the Office of Vital Records and presented the judge’s order to receive a new birth certificate for the baby. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, deliberately instructed the director at the Office of Vital Records to disobey the judge’s order and withhold the birth certificate from Kimberly and Amber Leary, in effect, halting their adoption of their daughter.

Kimberly Leary “We are only asking for the state to comply with the court’s order to issue an amended birth certificate in our adoption case. To us, this is about creating a safe, and stable home for our daughter and making sure she has the kind of loving, nurturing environment that will allow her to thrive and succeed.”

Brandie Balken of Equality Utah, “This is unheard of and very disappointing. The state is asking the Utah Supreme Court to tell them they don’t have to follow the orders of judges who have granted adoptions. Enabling all children to become a part of permanent, lifelong families should be a defining goal of our state.”

Meanwhile, Utah’s case against marriage equality tomorrow will rely almost exclusively on the thoroughly debunked study by Mark Regnerus, as they argue that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to get married because children need to be protected from them.

See the full filing below (courtesy of openly-gay Utah State Senator Jim Dabakis).


Utah Attorney General's Petition for Emergency Extraordinary Relief to the US Supreme Court

Image via Facebook