by James C. Nelson, Justice, Montana Supreme Court (Retired)
There is gathering national support acknowledging that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens are simply that—citizens—with the same rights, privileges and obligations as other citizens. In response, some States, along with various fundamentalist religious and conservative organizations are fighting for a legally protected right to discriminate. This right to discriminate is grounded in the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause. As the theory goes, being able to discriminate against LGBT citizens is necessary to preserve the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion for these States’ fundamentalist religious heterosexuals and conservative organizations.
This stratagem is not only patently specious; it is legally insupportable.
Contrary to the homophobic fear-mongering by religious fundamentalists and conservatives, there is no legal support for the notion that a State which has recognized the equal rights of LGBT citizens can force a religious organization to adopt those same views. If Religion X condemns gay people, the State cannot, require Religion X to perform a gay or lesbian marriage or change its doctrinal beliefs against homosexuality under threat of governmental penalty. Indeed, if the State attempted to do that, it would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. And, of course, for that reason, no State has made any such demands on any sectarian organization.
Yet, in Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Ohio and Utah religious and conservative organizations and, in some cases, their supporters in the state legislatures are actively promoting the adoption of laws that would permit any individual or group to discriminate in a variety of contexts based on religious beliefs. Such laws would allow business owners, for example, to discriminate against LGBT customers in much the same fashion that businesses run by racists once discriminated with impunity against people of color. A government official could deny same-sex couples basic services and benefits based solely on that official’s religious beliefs. Indeed, Arizona has even proposed to allow the denial of equal pay to women and the abrogation of contractual rights in the name of religion. In other words, one’s personal religious beliefs trump legal obligations imposed generally upon and for the benefit of all.
by Mary Beth Tinker, Petitioner, Tinker v. Des Moines
* Editor’s Note: Ms. Tinker is currently traveling the United States to promote youth voices, free speech and a free press as part of the Tinker Tour. For updates, follow the Tour on Twitter and read its February 2014 newsletter. You can support the Tour at startsomegood. The Tour ends on March 7.
The smiling face of a seventh-grader named Jake is on my laptop screen. Jake is explaining why he wrote “We will never forget you, Newtown... 12/14/12” on the front of his shirt last year after the Newtown Elementary School shooting. On the back of the shirt, he wrote the name of every person who had been killed there. He explains that he did it because “I felt very emotional. That school was close to mine.”
When Jake wore the shirt to school the day after the shooting, the principal asked him to remove it, a possibility that Jake’s parents had prepared him for. He refused, and was sent home. Later, the parents heard that school administrators were worried that students would be upset by the shirt, and that a parent had complained.
Jake went back to school, but the experience inspired a new interest: students’ rights. Now, he’s doing a documentary for National History Day on “rights and responsibilities” that will feature the Supreme Court case, Tinker v Des Moines, in which I was a plaintiff.
Jake is asking why I wore an armband to school when I was in eighth grade back in 1965, knowing—like him—that I would get in trouble. He’d also like to know how the case led to the Supreme Court and a landmark victory for students’ rights on February 24, 1969.
A few days ago on the campus of the University of Mississippi, someone (reportedly two males) draped a Confederate flag on a statue honoring James Meredith and hung a noose around its neck. Meredith was the African-American student who courageously desegregated the University of Mississippi in 1962, weathering a storm of ugly protest, riots and threats of violence. This act was, by any measure, deeply disrespectful and hateful.
University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones responded by stating of those who did this: "Their ideas have no place here, and our response will be an even greater commitment to promoting the values that are engraved on the statue—Courage, Knowledge, Opportunity, and Perseverance."
This poses an interesting question. How should the University of Mississippi respond? What does it mean to say that these "ideas have no place here"? Assuming the individuals who did this were students, should the university expel or otherwise discipline them? Are there "ideas" that "have no place" on a university campus?
Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, released a statement praising the Senate Judiciary Committee for its favorable report of Debo Adegbile to be the Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. In the statement, Ifill says Adegbile “has precisely the type of broad civil rights experience that is required at this pivotal moment in our country.”
Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required federal review of voting laws in states with a history of voter discrimination. Adam Ragusea of NPR reports from Macon, Georgia on the repercussions felt by the city’s minority voters.
Human Rights Watch explores the legal and ethical implications of a growing trend among probation companies to “act more like abusive debt collectors than probation officers.”
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009 and has been a vital tool in the battle against wage discrimination ever since. Writing for Roll Call on the anniversary of the bill’s passage, Lilly Ledbetter and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Deborah J. Vagins reflect on the legacy of the Ledbetter Act, the importance of the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act and the necessity of executive order.
Last year, the Senate eliminated its 60-vote supermajority requirement for most judicial and executive appointments after Senate Republicans chose to filibuster an egregious number of President Obama’s nominees. In an article for The Blog of Legal Times, Todd Ruger explains why it is likely that the Senate’s power to filibuster nominations will remain applicable to our nation’s highest court.
Writing for the Center for American Progress, Joshua Field examines the current state of the Voting Rights Act, post-Shelby County. In his report, Field addresses the need to combat voting-related discrimination and the role our federal courts must play going forward.
In an article for The National Law Journal, Tony Mauro examines the ACLU’s First Amendment fight against the Supreme Court’s ban on protesting on the Court’s plaza.