Not All the Same: Christian Right’s Hobby Lobbyization of State RFRAs

Things hit the fan in the wake of the signing of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by Governor Mike Pence (R). He and other defenders of the bill argued that it was the same as the other state RFRAs, as well as the federal RFRA signed by President Clinton. Discrimination was not intended, so what was everyone so upset about?

The claim that the bill did not intend to protect discrimination collapsed, as many publications and LGBTQ civil rights activists (such as the Indiana ACLU) quickly proved that discrimination was exactly the intent. The resulting national controversy compelled Indiana to offer “clarifying” legislation.   But it is revealing how important it was to conservatives that the bill not be seen as discriminatory – using false claims about the federal and other state level RFRAs as a cover. But also revealing is their attempt to reinterpret the intentions of the authors of the federal and other state RFRAs.  This is of a piece with the long-term Christian Right campaign to redefine religious liberty in the country in terms favorable to their theocratic vision.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) is joined by Christian Right leaders as he signs the Hobby Lobbyized RFRA into law.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) is joined by Christian Right leaders as he signs the Hobby Lobbyized RFRA into law.

The way they went about it is instructive. Conservative Republican politicians, their apologists (such as New York Times columnist David Brooks), and allied groups suggested that the bills are essentially the same.  Even some Christian Right leaders like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council bent the truth, claiming that Indiana merely joined “19 other states in aligning themselves with federal religious freedom law.”  (Even though the state-level Christian Right leaders who backed the bill, and stood behind Gov. Pence when he signed it, have been clear about their intentions.)

The Times’ own reporting cited legal scholars, including Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke, who said that the Indiana is not the same as the federal law or the Illinois state law supported by President Obama when he served in the Illinois State Senate.

“[Franke] and other legal experts said the Indiana law expands the parties who could ask for relief on religious grounds to include a wider range of corporations, if individuals with ‘substantial control’ of the business share the same religious beliefs.

The Indiana measure also grants parties the right to bring legal action to prevent a ‘likely’ burden on religious belief, even before any burden is imposed. And it expands the situations in which the protection could be invoked to include disputes between private parties engaged in lawsuits, even if they do not involve any direct actions by a government agency.”

The fact is that the federal RFRA, and most of the past state RFRAs, apply only to government actions. The original purpose of the legislation was to restore individual religious liberty taken away by the Supreme Court in the case of Employment Division v Smith, which involved Native Americans being denied state unemployment benefits in Oregon because they had been fired for using the illegal drug peyote in traditional religious ceremonies. The Court ruled that they had no legal recourse, so Congress sought to narrowly set a standard essentially reversing the Smith decision.  A later Court ruling limited the reach of the federal RFRA to the actions of the federal government only, hence the beginning of the state level RFRAs.

However, since the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell Supreme Court ruling in 2014, Christian Right agencies like Alliance Defending Freedom, the Becket Fund, the Mormon Church, and their allies at the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, have pushed state level RFRAs that extend certain provisions to corporations and individuals allowing measures of discrimination in the face of religious claims that to provide services to LGBTQ people violates their consciences.

The Hobby Lobby case, for the first time, granted a private business religious standing under the First Amendment. In that case, the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores was allowed to claim a religious exemption from providing employees with healthcare insurance covering four kinds of contraceptives, because the company owners believe (medical science not withstanding) that they are abortifacients.

Borrowing language from the federal RFRA, on which the original case filed by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty was based, Justice Alito, writing for the majority, said the government’s requirement that Hobby Lobby provide this contraceptive coverage imposed a “substantial burden” on their religious liberty, and that there are ways of accomplishing the “compelling government interest” in ensuring that women have access to these drugs, by the “least restrictive means.”  Justice Ginsburg, writing in dissent, was concerned by the potential sweeping implications of the decision. “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” Ginsburg wrote, “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.”

The first of these Hobby Lobbyized RFRAs was passed in Arizona, but was ultimately vetoed by the governor. A similar bill was passed and signed into law in Mississippi, while other such bills have been stalled in other states.

Justice Ginsberg’s concerns are being realized in the efforts to insert Hobby Lobbyized provisions into state RFRAs.  What is curious is that are engaging in an odd and easily refutable historical revisionism in claiming that the Hobby Lobbyized RFRAs was the intention all along—even though the federal RFRA was passed in 1993.

The turning point in the national controversy was probably the debacle on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, when Governor Pence repeatedly claimed that the Indiana bill was the same as the others, and refused to say whether or not he supported anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Pence claimed that the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into federal law by President Bill Clinton more than 20 years ago. And it lays out a framework for ensuring that a very high level of scrutiny is given any time government action impinges on the religious liberty of any American. After that, some 19 states followed that, adopted that statute. And after last year’s Hobby Lobby case, Indiana properly brought the same version that then state senator Barack Obama voted for in Illinois before our legislature. And I was proud to sign it into law last week.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on April 2nd that Pence’s talking points did not square with the facts. Pence is correct except that the Indiana bill is not the same as the federal RFRA and most of the state RFRA’s – including Illinois – but the post-Hobby Lobby timing is telling. The shorthand for the bill around the legislature was “the Hobby Lobby bill.”

In the wake of the controversy over the Indiana bill, Arkansas changed their proposed RFRA before it was passed to ensure that it could only be invoked in cases where the government is a party, just as in the federal version. While the struggle over the definition of religious freedom is far from over, the battle lines are becoming clearer.

Promoting Anti-LGBTQ Bullying in Schools: Focus on the Family’s “Day of Dialogue”

Though framed as a “free-speech initiative” dedicated to preserving students’ “religious freedom,” Focus on the Family’s annual Day of Dialogue functionally serves as an anti-LGBTQ promotional vehicle, encouraging and equipping young Christians to express condemnation of homosexuality and “transgenderism” to their LGBTQ peers.

Day of Dialogue (DoD) emerged as a response to the National Day of Silence (DoS), an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which aims to bring attention to anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools. Participants take a daylong vow of silence, symbolically representing the constant institutional silencing of LGBTQ students and their allies. This year’s DoS will be observed on April 17th. As is true every year, DoD is scheduled to take place the day before.

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Day of Silence: This youth-led advocacy campaign—valued by many as an important time of protest, reflection, remembrance, and solidarity—traces its history back to 1996, when a group of students at the University of Virginia organized the first DoS in response to a class assignment on nonviolent protests. Encouraged by the success of their event, UVA students Maria Pulzetti and Jessie Gilliam made it their mission to turn DoS into a nationwide campaign, and the following year, similar actions took place at nearly 100 college and university campuses. By 2008, students at over 8,000 schools across the country were making their silence felt, and the campaign has become increasingly widespread—DoS events are now organized around the world, in places like Russia, Singapore, and New Zealand.

Beginning in 2005, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund) launched the precursor to DoD—“Day of Truth,” an anti-LGBTQ response designed to “counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda.” Focus on the Family (FOTF) took over and rebranded the project in 2010.

Decrying Day of Silence as anti-Christian intolerance, FOTF argues that “students who dare to share a biblical viewpoint are made to feel like they’re doing something illegal.” In effect, they are trying to flip the script on who’s oppressed and who’s oppressive in order to defend anti-LGBTQ bullying. While DoD materials explicitly denounce bullying, as Zach Ford, editor of ThinkProgress LGBT at the Center for American Progress, points out, “Even if DoD participants do not attack or harass their targets, the stigma they encourage through condemning homosexuality helps maintain an unsafe climate for students with consequences that can last a lifetime.”

Sadly, anti-LGBTQ stigma needs no encouragement. While many LGBTQ advocates have celebrating significant legal gains (such as marriage equality) across the country in the last few years, schools continue to be hostile and dangerous environments for LGBTQ young people—who may face bullying or intimidation by fellow students, teachers, administration officials, or other students’ parents. According to GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, 74 percent of LGBT youth nationwide were verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation, and 55 percent because of their gender expression. As a result of feeling unsafe or uncomfortable, 30 percent missed at least one day of school in the past month alone.

Homo lockerAnd the consequences of an anti-LGBTQ climate are real and devastating: students who have experienced prejudice-motivated bullying and victimization are more likely to attempt suicide, become clinically depressed, or contract a sexually transmitted disease by early adulthood.

In response to overwhelming evidence that LGBTQ young people are disproportionately targeted for bullying and harassment (and the tragic consequences of this persecution), social justice advocates have been rallying support for the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) since 2010.

Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which addressed discrimination on the basis of sex, SNDA would expressly prohibit discriminatory treatment towards students on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools. While federal statutory protections currently address discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and disability, no such federal protections exist for LGBTQ people. As the National Center for Lesbian Rights explains, SNDA seeks to address this discrimination loophole [for public school students] by providing them with “meaningful legal recourse and effective remedial option in a manner that is similar to other civil rights claims made under the 14th Amendment.”

However, the Religious Right—backed by a coalition of right-wing legal institutions, including ADF, the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), Liberty Council, and The Becket Fund—argues that Christians are the true victims of persecution in need of protection—in bakeries, in flower shops, and in schools across the country (reinforcing their false framework of Christianity vs LGBTQ people, which completely discounts the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people who are also Christian). This is the oppositional force behind the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws that are cropping up in state after state—laws that functionally aim to redefine religious liberty as a right to discriminate on the basis of an individual’s beliefs or non-beliefs. This corruption of religious freedom protections from something that once served as a shield to protect individual beliefs into something that is increasingly used as a sword of religious authoritarianism is a threat to anyone who falls outside of the Religious Right’s narrowly defined moral vacuum and the very foundation of pluralism the U.S. was built upon.

While bullying, harassment, violence, and isolation continue to prematurely end the lives of LGBTQ young people, the organizers of DoD insist that young Christians are the real martyrs. As part of their ongoing effort to paint Christians as innocent victims of the “homosexual agenda,” ADF has pledged to provide pro-bono legal assistance to any DoD participants who “encounter unconstitutional roadblocks to their free speech rights.”

Sadly, free speech is only a privilege of the living. Had suicide not robbed us of their presence, Taylor Alesana, Tyler Clementi, Blake Brockington, Seth Walsh, Maddie Beard, and countless other young LGBTQ victims of suicide would probably have a lot to say about who is being persecuted and who is not.

Chain Restaurants Post Record Profits While Lobbying to Pay Workers Less

Restaurants have shifted labor costs onto the backs of tipped workers and their customers—and some big chain restaurants are lobbying state lawmakers to keep it that way.

Tipped workers are hurting in America. In the restaurant industry, where the majority of the nation’s six million tipped employees work, over 20 percent of those workers live in poverty. According to an analysis by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, of the tipped restaurant workers who are parents, 40 percent say they must rely on free public school lunches to feed their kids. This, and other types of public assistance tipped workers rely on, costs taxpayers $9.4 billion per year according to a report released today from ROC United.

Yet merely raising the minimum wage won’t help many of these workers. In the states where it is legal, their employers only pay them a sub-minimum hourly wage of $2.13 per hour. Their customers, through tips, pay the remainder of their salary. Restaurants have shifted nearly the entire cost of servers’ labor onto the backs of the workers and their customers—and the National Restaurant Association (NRA) is lobbying in some statehouses to keep it that way.

Employees at Darden-owned Red Lobster. Image via glassdoor

Employees at Red Lobster. Image via glassdoor

Large chain restaurant owners and their hired lobbyists have recently swarmed state legislatures such as Minnesota and Rhode Island. Why? They want to prevent any new laws that would require restaurants to pay their tipped workers a base hourly wage greater than the sub-minimum wage currently allowable.

The NRA (led by former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, past presidential hopeful, and Religious Right darling Herman Cain) negotiated the sub-minimum wage with Congress on behalf of the restaurant industry in the mid-1990s, and it has been stuck at $2.13 ever since. A handful of states, including Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and Washington, have passed laws to bring the tipped wage up to match the minimum wage paid to other workers. Other states have raised the tipped minimum wage by tiny amounts—in Arkansas, for example, it’s $2.63. But now the NRA and its lobbyists are trying various legislative maneuvers to stop more states from doing the same.

Employers are required to pay the difference—but many don’t

Technically, if a worker didn’t make enough in tips to equal the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, their employer is required under the Fair Labor Standards Act to pay the employee the difference. But evidence suggests this almost never happens.

ROC United published a report last year showing an 84 percent noncompliance rate among 9000 cases investigated by the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor. Again, 84 percent of the restaurants investigated did not pay what they were required to pay, so many of those workers likely made less than minimum wage.

What is more, anyone who has spent years waiting tables in diners and family-style restaurants, as I have, can corroborate that it is rare for an employer to pay them the difference–called the tip credit– if they failed to get enough tips to equal $7.25 per hour. Server Tiffany Kirk recently told CNN Money that she can barely make ends meet on her income–and she’s one of the lucky ones whose employer does pay the tip credit. “Kirk said she is fortunate that the owner of “Howl at the Moon” follows the law and pays her at least the Texas minimum wage of $7.25 if her tips don’t add up. Many businesses don’t.”

Ondre Anderson, a server at a “casual fine dining” establishment in New York City, spoke to the New York Times about this in February. “When you’re working for $5 an hour, that’s basically just food money for the month,” said Mr. Anderson, 33, who added that he hoped to earn enough to move from a homeless shelter in Queens into an apartment. “We never know where our tips are coming from. Some people tip and some people don’t.”

Business owners and lawyers defend the current system of tipped wages with either fairy tales about highly-paid servers, or with straight denial. NRA spokesman Scott DeFife recently told NPR that “Tipped employees at restaurants are among the highest-paid employees in the establishment, regularly earning $16 to $22 an hour…Nobody is making $2.13 an hour.” Other defenders of big business, such as employer-side labor law blogger John E. Thompson, maintain that “there is no such thing” as a tipped wage, because employers must make up the difference between the minimum wage and the $2.13 subminimum. As we’ve seen, in practice this rarely occurs.

Restaurants can afford to compensate workers fairly

Tipped employees such as servers do earn vast, ever-increasing profits, but those profits go almost exclusively to the restaurant owners—with little to none of the increase benefitting the workers and their families. The industry projects that it will make a record-high $709 billion in sales in 2015. This number has steadily increased for six years running. One can reasonably conclude that the restaurant industry overall has recovered from the 2008 recession.

The biggest of these employers, chain restaurant owners such as Darden (which owns Olive Garden and several other brands) and Disney, take the money their tipped (and other) workers have made for them and use it to lobby against better wages for those same workers. They donate to the political campaigns of lawmakers who will vote against a fair wage and other worker-friendly policies such as paid sick days. They pay into the National Restaurant Association’s coffers, and the NRA then pays millions to lobby Congress and in the states to do various things to block the rights of restaurant workers. For example, one NRA-funded GOP lawmaker proposed a bill a few weeks back in Minnesota, that would re-set the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to $8 per hour and—but would cap it there. What sort of position is that to take on behalf of a wildly profitable industry?

The industry is flush with the cash its employees earn. Restaurant owners can certainly afford to pay a living wage. One might ask why they are using the money their workers have made for them to lobby so hard—and so publicly—against them.

The overlooked Indiana outcomes that could haunt the Christian Right

I think there are two underreported features of the fallout from Indiana that we should make sure do not get lost in the hoo ha.

One is that people are getting it that religious freedom does not and must not equal the right to discriminate. The other is that people are also broadening and deepening their understanding of what they basically already know:  the Christian Right’s view on these things is not shared by all of Christianity.

The Indiana RFRA, as originally written, allowed people to invoke their religious beliefs to deny commercial services to LGBTQ people – but Republican political leaders did not want to admit it. History may recognize Governor Pence’s disastrous interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week as a turning point, not only in the battle over the state’s RFRA, but in the struggle over the definition of religious freedom in our times.

Stephanopoulos repeatedly sought to get Pence to say how the bill did not constitute discrimination and whether or not he himself supported discrimination, but each time the Governor awkwardly weaseled his way out of answering the question.

Meanwhile, the state faced economic boycotts, street demonstrations, a skeptical press, and the RFRA faced a rising chorus of denunciation from a wide range of groups and individuals across the country—including the Republican Mayor of Indianapolis.

The state legislature and Gov. Pence quickly changed course and passed a “clarification,” while publicly explaining that their religious freedom law did not equal discrimination and that this was not their intention.

While not perfect, the legislative clarification barred a religious liberty defense by businesses accused of discrimination for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity – although it does allow religious non-profit organizations to continue to discriminate.

The Christian Right, which had supported the original bill, was outraged. What good is a religious freedom bill if it doesn’t give you the right to discriminate?  That is the question – since a central strategy of the Christian Right in recent years has been to reframe issues of reproductive rights and homosexuality in terms of religious freedom.

I reported here (before the Indiana RFRA blew up) that 50 Catholic and evangelical leaders, including National Organization for Marriage founder Robert P. George and Baptist megachurch Pastor Rick Warren, signed a 2015 anti-marriage equality manifesto that essentially argued that anyone who supports or in any way accommodates same-sex marriage cannot call themselves a Christian.

They also claimed that acceptance of marriage equality is the result of a “deceptive pseudo-freedom that degrades our ­humanity.  Genuine freedom,” they concluded, “is found in ­obedience to God’s order.”

This notion is not unique to the pre-Indiana ideologues. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council denounced the clarification.

Remarkably, he blamed “Big Business” and “the intolerant Left” for “gutting” religious freedom in Indiana, and empowering “the government to impose punishing fines on people for following their beliefs about marriage.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who leads the religious liberty committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops are undeterred.

“Individual or family-owned businesses as well as religious institutions should have the freedom to serve others consistent with their faith,” Lori said in a statement.

What Lori meant of course, is that people who believe as he does should have the right to refuse service to people they do not approve of.

A second feature of the Indiana debacle, which we should not lose sight of, is that the Christian Right is losing the battle for the public perception that its views on religious freedom and LGBTQ people represent all of Christianity.

The Christian Right has never represented all of Christianity of course, and the Indiana episode provided us with an outstanding example.

Even before the sports organizations, businesses, and celebrities, one of the first national organizations to speak out against the Indiana RFRA was The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainline Protestant denomination with a half-million members, headquartered in Indianapolis.

The church’s denunciation of the bill was widely reported. Ultimately, the Disciples pulled their 2017 convention out of the state in protest over the law, the likely inadequacies of the then planned clarification, and the state’s lack of anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and sexual identity.

“As a Christian church, we affirm and support religious freedom,” General Minister and President Sharon Watkins said in a prepared statement. “It is, in fact, a core principle…  We are also strongly committed to an inclusive community — just as Jesus welcomed all to the table.”

The Christian Right’s strategy has suffered some powerful losses of late. It is good to take notice.

UPDATE: Since I first published this piece, the Disciples of Christ has decided to return their 2017 convention to Indianapolis.  Sharon Watkins wrote:

Locating our assembly in Indianapolis, now that our concerns have been addressed, positions us more strongly as a moral voice in the movement for equal protection under the law for all.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will continue to advocate for wholeness and dignity for all people. We are a church of an open table where all are welcome in Christ’s name.

Indianapolis is now a more welcoming place for all our assembly-goers than it was when we originally decided on Indianapolis for our 2017 site.

PRA Founder Jean Hardisty’s Reflections on the Last 30 Years

This interview with PRA founder Jean Hardisty was published in our Fall/Winter 2011 newsletter, celebrating PRA’s 30th anniversary. It is republished here in honor of Jean, who passed away in March.

What motivated you to study the political Right?

I spent eight years in academia in the 1970s as a political scientist and my field was contemporary political philosophy. I’d become quite interested in neo-Conservatism (Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Norman Podhoretz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick) and saw that this ideology had the potential to catch on in the U.S. It had a focus on individualism, supported capitalism, was avidly anti-communist, and was not entirely incompatible with Christian fundamentalism, so it seemed to me that it would have appeal at that time of growing backlash against my own historical period—the 1960s.

Jean V. Hardisty, 1945-2015

Jean V. Hardisty, 1945-2015

I was motivated by intellectual curiosity and a growing disillusionment with the wisdom of the voting public. In 1978 I left academia, feeling that the campus life was too isolating. I went to work for the ACLU for a year, then, in Chicago, where I lived at the time, I opened was was then known as Midwest Research. Very quickly we grew to a staff of three!

What were PRA’s founding principles?

Our opening occurred on the heels of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. I had followed the growth of the New Right and could see its influence in his campaign and administration. I felt its increasing power as a serious threat to everything I had spent my life working to support—efforts to advance equality, the women’s movement, gay rights, reproductive rights, anti-racism, militarism, and workers’ rights, to name a few. Meanwhile the Left and other progressives seemed to dismiss the New Right as a band of “hillbillies” and “rednecks.” My colleague Chip Berlet and I knew them to be White, middle-class business people, who were excellent political strategists. Our only goal at Midwest Research was to correct this misperception, on the grounds that if it were not corrected, the progressive movement would make serious and destructive mistakes in opposing New Right inititiatives.

Chip, Peggy Shinner, our board and I all agreed on a founding set of principles:

  • We would remain independent. In the past, most fight-the-right groups had been part of a left party or formation. We wanted and sought no affiliation, though we have developed innumerable collegial ties with other groups in the progressive movement.
  • We would back up everything we said with documentation and avoid rhetoric or inaccessible language.
  • We would operate with transparency and make our materials, including our substantial library, available to the public.
  • We would track only on leaders of the Right, not followers, and we would educate the public on the difference.
  • We would not promote hate, but instead would work to advance understanding.
  • We would defend free speech and other civil liberties, even when the speech itself was hateful.

Why did you feel you and your tiny staff were qualified?

Although I have always found it helpful to have a Ph.D., that alone is not a qualification to do this work. Rather, it requires an ability to think analytically, to work with great care and attention to detail, and to keep an open mind. In Chip’s words, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” The learning curve at PRA is very steep for incoming staff, and the work requires people who are not daunted by that. It also helps to be brilliant, as was the late Margaret Quigley. Surina Khan, Nikhil Aziz and Palak Shah all brought enormous skills and talent to PRA over the years.

What were your greatest hopes?

On a personal level, I wanted to do work that allowed me to look in the mirror in the morning and feel that I was doing my best to promote social justice. I felt that every that at PRA, which is not to say that the work wasn’t also frustrating, complex, and challenging. But to do this work in the way it should be done—with care and a certain amount of compassion—always made me proud, especially of the staff. We never felt that an olive branch was the best answer to the Right, but excellent public education is something to be proud of.

On an institutional level, I wanted PRA to play a constructive role in the progressive movement and to guide our supporters and colleagues with wisdom and how to understand the Right. I saw PRA as an organization that existed to serve the movement and the public, and I believe we did, and continue to, accomplish that. Our early work predated the Internet, but we were one of the first progressive organizations to have a high quality website.

What are you most grateful for?

Of course I am deeply grateful to our donors, some of whom have been with us since the beginning. It takes a profound understanding of movement structure and movement building to appreciate the role that PRA plays. Our supporters have had that understanding. Both individuals and foundations have been aware of the threat posed by the Right, even when the general public believes that the Right was “over” or “defeated,” as was the case with the election of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

As organizations struggle today with inadequate funding and our donors struggle with fewer resources to support us, we see smaller organizations going under every day. Further, there is a generational change in leadership of the movement that is both exciting and requires new thinking on the part of us older folks. I am grateful to live in “challenging times” and glad that I did not spend my life on the sidelines as the country has been ravaged by right-wing ideology, the Right’s devious tactics, and the mobilization of religion for political purposes.

What do you most regret?

I am tremendously disappointed that the progressive religious community has not stepped up in a more assertive way to stand against the Christian Right. And, of course, I regret that PRA has had to struggle for financial stability over the years and still does, despite wide acknowledgement of the high quality of its work. Fundraising would be easier if PRA were to trim its sails and speak less truth to power. I am proud to say that such a change is unlikely, if not to say out of the question.

How do you see PRA now that you are gone?

I think PRA is a better organization now than it was when I was the Executive Director. The material the organization generates is of greater volume and even more impressive, and the impact of PRA’s work is greater. While the transition was a bit rocky, it is now on very solid ground—with principles completely intact. Fundraising is still a challenge and is the one thing that may be PRA’s “Achilles heel.” But if there is any justice, PRA will be doing its work for years to come, as I become increasingly its proud godmother.

Anti-Choicers in Colorado Push to Protect the Not-Yet-Conceived

Last November, Colorado voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have defined personhood as inclusive of fetuses. This victory for reproductive rights, however, was won amid a slew of attacks on Coloradans’ reproductive freedom. Now, many of Colorado’s Republican lawmakers, armed with shoddy science, are pushing an agenda that prioritizes not only the not-yet-born, but the not-yet-conceived.

These lawmakers are working to ensure the demise of the Colorado Family Planning Initiative, a program focused on reducing rates of unintended pregnancy, particularly among teens and younger adults. The program makes long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), available at low or no cost to Colorado residents otherwise unable to afford such methods. IUDs and implants are highly effective, and because they last several years, they can be more practical for people unable to easily access a clinic to obtain short-term contraceptives such as birth control pills. However, the upfront cost of an IUD—ranging from $500 to well over $1000—is often prohibitive, and many on the Right want to keep it that way.

Colorado Rep. K.C. Becker wears earrings shaped like I.U.D.s in support of the

Colorado Rep. K.C. Becker wears earrings shaped like IUDs in support of the Family Planning Initiative.

With help from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which furnished the state with a grant to the tune of approximately $25 million, Colorado has been able to defray the costs of more than 30,000 LARCs for low-income, uninsured, and underinsured people who can become pregnant. But the pilot period funded by the grant is coming to a close, and the grant is not being renewed, leaving the program’s fate uncertain. State Representative K.C. Becker (D-Boulder) has introduced a bill that would provide $5 million in state funding for the program, but the legislation—which enjoys Republican co-sponsorship—faces strong opposition from certain Republican lawmakers. Senator Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud), for instance, erroneously claims that IUDs are abortifacients, which, under current state laws, would make them ineligible for state funding except in cases involving life endangerment, rape, or incest.

Lundberg and his allies are propelled by post-Hobby Lobby v. Burwell momentum. In January, Hobby Lobby served as precedent for a federal judge to approve requests from three Colorado companies wanting to circumvent the Affordable Care Act by offering employee health plans without coverage for sterilization or contraceptives. They also have substantial backing from right-wing organizations, including Focus on the Family (headquartered in Colorado Springs), Colorado Right to Life, and Personhood USA.

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Reproductive Justice—“the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments”—is a conceptual framework developed by women of color collective SisterSong. The founders of the movement describe it as “an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose multiple communities experience a complex set of reproductive oppressions.”

Given that the termination of this program would most affect the reproductive autonomy of low-income women, many of whom are of color, this is certainly a Reproductive Justice issue.

Crucially, when applied to the conflict in Colorado, this framework does not allow for easy demarcation between right and wrong. While access to LARCs is a critical component of full bodily autonomy for people who can become pregnant, it certainly does not guarantee bodily autonomy—indeed, programs meant to enhance access can further endanger bodily autonomy, especially for women of color. I wrote extensively about how programs which on the surface seem to be providing greater choice to women, often turn out to be little more than right-wing initiatives pushing a eugenics agenda among women of color.

Reproductive Justice advocate and activist Natasha Vianna challenges directed attempts at lowering teen pregnancy rates, writing, “Across the country, young girls of color are often being coerced and forced onto long-acting contraception like the IUD. This is not teen pregnancy prevention, this is abuse.” As Vianna aptly underscores, to treat teen pregnancy as inherently negative or harmful to young people who become pregnant is far more damaging than teen pregnancy itself is. Indeed, teen pregnancy need not be damaging at all, and resources spent “ending” it would be better devoted to ensuring that young parents have the resources and support necessary to parent without making sacrifices in other areas of their life.

Similarly, in “Women or LARC First? Reproductive Autonomy and the Promotion of Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptive Methods,” Anu Manchikanti Gomez, Liza Fuentes, and Amy Allina identify the relationship between reproductive oppression, particularly racism in family planning settings, and insufficiently careful promotion of LARCs. The authors cite studies, history, and current events to substantiate the claim that care providers respond differently to patients who are profiled as members of “high risk populations,” often directing these patients toward particular contraceptive methods. The report adeptly situates this phenomenon in “the long-standing devaluation of the fertility and childbearing of young women, low-income women and women of color in the United States, and the perception that these women have too many children.”

A study undertaken by Philliber Research Associates shows that in Colorado in 2008 (just prior to the onset of the initiative), unintended pregnancies occurred at disproportionately high rates among Latina women, African American women, and other women of color: groups whose reproduction is consistently demonized and pathologized. Consequently, unintended pregnancy can be used as a coded way to discuss population control among communities of color. The connections the authors draw between LARCs and coercive sterilization of populations of color must not be overlooked: while LARCs are, of course, reversible, they are costly to remove, and whether the initiative funds their removal—or whether their removal would be affordable after the program’s termination—is not clear.

Furthermore, a key aspect of the argument presented in “Women or LARC First?” is that LARCs ought not to be presented to patients as the ideal contraceptive, yet this is exactly the approach taken by Greta Klinger, the family planning supervisor for Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment. Klinger told the Washington Post, “If you have a drug that is 20 times more effective than other drugs, you will always start with that as your first option…What we did (in the Colorado Family Planning Initiative) is kind of flip the mindset, so rather than introducing all contraception as being on the same playing field, we said, ‘Let’s start with what is most effective.’”

Given that the appropriateness of LARCs must be evaluated on a patient-by-patient basis, it would seem that Klinger is most concerned with cost-effectiveness. It is telling that coverage of Colorado’s initiative tends to highlight both Colorado’s steep decline in teen pregnancy rates and the estimated amount of public funds saved in accordance with this decline. Mother Jones reports a state estimate of between $49 million and $111 million saved by Medicaid based on the number of births prevented. Moreover, a report issued by the Guttmacher Institute and co-authored by Klinger herself uses as a metric of success the numbers of infants receiving services through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Cost-benefit analyses such as this, when applied to reproduction, have eugenic implications.

Without question, there is value in programs that make contraceptive methods accessible and affordable to anyone who wishes to use them; these initiatives are no less than necessary. However, their conception and implementation must be careful, critical, and fully contextualized in the United States’ eugenic past and present. The impetus for such programs cannot be eliminating Medicaid costs or controlling populations (however coded the articulation of the latter goal may be). On the contrary, these projects must be impelled by the liberatory vision that SisterSong’s framework maps for us: a vision that strains against reproductive oppression and strives for a world in which all  people have full control over their reproductive lives.

Christian Right Culture Warriors Don’t Understand the Word “Family”

U.S. conservatives culture warriors have a busy 2015 scheduled. Pope Francis will be in Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families, and then the international culture-warring World Congress of Families will be in Utah in October. At these meetings, the word “family” will be used to demonize LGBTQ individuals and women. Oddly, the meaning of the word “family” will be assumed but not defined.

On Human Rights Day 2014, I joined a panel to speak before the United Nations under the theme “Love is a Family Value.” The theme was nicely chosen to debunk the misuse of the phrase “family values” by anti-LGBTQ and anti-women’s health activists who claim that sexual minorities and women’s rights are anti-family. To them, defending the “traditional family” means demonizing sexual minorities, women, and those who advocate equality and justice for all human beings.

It is important to define what is meant by “family,” because as the U.S. Right’s talking points are exported around the globe verbatim, there is no nuance as the words take on different meanings in different cultures. U.S. conservatives are quick to define it in narrow and gendered terms: the man should control the woman, while the woman should care for children, and thus father, mother, and children. As U.S. culture warriors working on the international scene, such as Sharon Slater of Family Watch International, advocate for their flawed interpretation abroad, the words are even more damaging than they are in the Western world, where they can be tossed aside as obvious rhetoric and hyperbole. In African communities, the word “family” means something very different. Across the continent in various nations, communities, and cultures, the phrase “extended family” does not even exist. Rather, “the family” encompasses every person to whom you are related, regardless of how remote—brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, second cousins, second cousins twice removed, etc. The list is endless.

Inclusive families

It is this family I am obliged to defend—and my gay uncle, niece, or cousin is still part of my family just as my child is! In my language for instance, umuntu wandi (literally, “my person”) is used for the family. What holds an African family together is not who one has sex with (as the Right wants us to believe), but love. When my friend David Kato was murdered, his family was broken, and stood by him. This picture is visible across Africa when LGBTQ people are killed—their families are destroyed too.

The Christian Right wants us to accept its definition of the family as final. Yet the family grows as humans learn to value other people’s humanity. Not long ago, women, Native Americans, and people who looked like me were considered less human. In fact, millions of Africans were exported as natural goods across the globe. Those who stood up to defend Black people were labeled as destroyers of civilization and the tradition upon which America was founded. The Bible, and in some cases the Koran, were also used to justify slavery, subordination of women, and colonization of Black people. Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and (my daughter’s favorite) Susan B. Anthony were all accused of destroying the family. Dr. King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and many White allies who fought for equality of the races were considered terrorists by the U.S. Christian Right. But such demonization did not stop them from demanding justice for the entire human family—today, these human rights defenders are idolized for doing what was right though not popular!

Love is a human and family value and ought not to be a crime—it is inherent in each one of us. To deny others the ability to love and to be loved is to rob them of their family life. It is to force them into hating themselves, as well as into life-denying situations, and ultimately to sentence them to death. It is this reality that racists and religious fundamentalists still fail to accept. It was once a crime for Blacks to marry Whites here in the U.S. and in various European colonies. Sacred scriptures (and the mantra of defending traditional family values) were corrupted to justify such injustice. Many families and lives were lost as a result. But today, interracial marriages are celebrated just as any other marriage—even if there are still those individuals or religions who believe it is wrong.

Love is what makes a family. Throughout the Christian traditions, the Church has always understood the “family” as diverse. One good example is “the family” we find in religious communities (convents and monasteries) in various Christian Churches. In the Roman Catholic tradition for example, monks and nuns belong to the specific family. His Holiness Pope Francis belongs to a family of Jesuits—just as countless other monks and nuns do. One makes the choice to commit to such a lifestyle. If defending the traditional family means forcing everyone into heterosexual marriage, then monks and nuns can be said to be a threat to the family.

The Center for Families & Human Rights’ headline of our meeting at the U.N. was accurate:  “LGBT Activists Meet at UN, Promise to Keep Fighting.” Until hate is conquered by love across the globe, we will fight to defend love as a family value. Just as the world fought slavery, racism, sexism, and many other isms, we will keep fighting to defend the human family from any form of discrimination.

RELATED: Click the image to watch Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma speak at the U.N. on families.

RELATED: Click the image to watch Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma speak at the U.N. on families.

Like the rainbow, the human family has always been diverse! Anti-gay activists should understand that homophobia does not defend families, it destroys it. To defend the family should mean supporting loving relations in human communities. We are one human family—Black, White, Brown, Asian, straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, etc.—we all have a special place in the human family. To claim to defend the family while destroying our fellow human beings because of who they love and commit to live their lives with is hypocritical. We all have the duty to defend love over hate. It is not long ago that Jews and Tutsis were robbed of their place in the human family! The result is genocide. Is it not time we stood together and said enough is enough, one more life is too much?

Sexual minorities are not pleading for special rights or benefits. They are just seeking to take their own family’s rightful place at the table, free from fear or persecution. It is this family value that we must all protect, defend and uphold—for love is a family value worth defending and, in the case of many African sexual minorities, worth dying for!

The Continuing Appeal of Racism and Fascism

My recent PRA article “Drawing Lines Against Racism and Fascism” documented how cryptofascists and pro-White separatists are attempting to make inroads into progressive political and counter-cultural circles. It was based on a number of recent incidents where conflicts had arisen between antifascists and these untraditional Far Right activists. However, the dynamic I wrote about is so common that soon after the article was published, new events were reported in the media, and readers—who were previously unknown to me—shared their stories of similar encounters.

Some of these incidents came to light as comments on Walter Reeves’s Daily Kos post, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing; Racism, Anti-Semitism and Fascism: Infiltrating the Left,” which was based on “Drawing Lines.” In the lively discussion thread that followed, one commenter talked about encountering anti-Federal Reserve conspiracy theories (laced with anti-Semitism) at Occupy Wall Street, while a second had run into fascists in discussion circles about “ancient history and religion.”

The comments also revealed a more serious situation, involving a neo-Nazi man who regularly attends an atheist group’s meetings. One commenter wrote (in their own Daily Kos blog) that: “He seems to have a single focus: to bring up one of his many offensive topics (wildly racist ideology, holocaust denial, women should not be allowed to vote, gay bashing, praising Hitler…).” The blogger said the neo-Nazi continuously offended existing members with his comments and scared off new ones. His past forcible incarceration in a state mental health facility, along with his claims of gun ownership, intimidated the organizers enough that they were unable to stop his repeated disruption of the group.

Situations like the one involving this atheist group are complicated to deal with. But they underscore why progressive groups should both be prepared for such encounters, and have a plan ready to deal with them—comparable to having an evacuation route set and go bag ready for emergencies: you will probably never need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad it’s there.

“Drawing Lines” also recounted the story of a formerly imprisoned eco-activist who seems to have converted to a form of mystical fascism, and is now promoting his ideas in Pacific Northwest counter-cultural music scenes. Less than a week after my piece published, another former eco-prisoner—who also has converted to racist political views—popped back up. In 2008, while still in prison, this other activist was outed as having embraced racist ideology, and supporters cut ties with him. Now out of prison, an anti-fascist group put out a warning that he was attempting to worm his way back into the Seattle activist scene, particularly in animal liberation and Cascadian independence circles—both of which I had pointed to as targets of Far Right participation and/or cross-recruitment.

Interest by racists in the Cascadian independence movement (in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Canada’s British Columbia) has produced a reaction from antifascists.

Interest by racists in the Cascadian independence movement (in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Canada’s British Columbia) has produced a reaction from antifascists.

Less than two weeks after “Drawing Lines” was published, Ryan Giroux was arrested after a rampage in Mesa, Arizona, which left one dead and five injured. He is a skinhead who has been associated with the Hammerskins and Aryan Brotherhood, two of the most violent U.S. racist organizations. An old mugshot was circulated, showing him with a Thor’s Hammer tattooed on his face—a symbol associated with neopagan Heathenism (also discussed in “Drawing Lines”). While Giroux’s religious beliefs are unknown, the potential for the media to associate violent racism with the Heathen religious community as a whole prompted a quick response from Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR). They issued a statement saying their members “denounce Giroux, his associates, and any others who assisted him in perpetrating his terrible actions. … We call on all Heathens and Pagans to join us in standing for a Heathenry that is all-inclusive, genuinely tolerant, unquestionably opposed to bigotry, and rejects all who would co-opt our spiritual practice to advance their narrow-minded, dead-end, hateful agendas along with those who enable their continued presence.” HUAR also called for the ejection of supporters of the “racialist corruption of Heathen practice” and promised support for the Giroux’s victims.

No group (especially a minority religion) should be collectively held responsible for, or be obligated to denounce, the actions of individual adherents. However, if they do choose to respond to media coverage, HUAR’s statement—emerging from a community that is specifically targeted for recruitment from organized racists—is a solid example to follow.

Other instances of this phenomena were in Europe, but related to U.S. politics. The day after “Drawing Lines” was published, the U.S. government showed it was also following developments in post-Third Position fascism. In relation to the ongoing violence in Ukraine, which has spilled over into the United States, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control added Aleksandr Dugin to its sanctions list. Dugin promotes an aggressively expansionist form of Russian ultranationalism, derived from fascist strains like Third Positionism and the European New Right. In the United States, he is supported by New Resistance (which is named in my article), and is a former member of Russia’s National Bolshevik Party. In 2008, I wrote in The Public Eye magazine about this party’s popularity in post-Communist Russia, saying “the National Bolsheviks remain a powerful political movement today with a huge grassroots and youth base. As they grow older, they will remain influential in Russian politics for decades.”

Today, the U.S. government seems to agree with my assessment.

Finally, a number of people pointed out a situation in Britain that matched what I wrote in “Drawing Lines,” about the presence of people of color in groups that are explicitly inclusive of fascists, or promote or endorse White separatism. In this British situation, an animal rights declaration (called Non-Humans First) was written by a well-known animal rights activist, who is also a person of color. The declaration asks signatories to welcome racists into its fold, saying explicitly that “No one should be excluded from participation in animal rights activities based on their views on human issues.” (Signatories include groups which say they are based in Israel and Latin America.) The NHF declaration comes in the context of Far Right activists wanting to become involved in British animal rights activism. 

British animal rights activists opposed to a badger cull rejected calls to join forces with activists who were linked to Far Right groups.

British animal rights activists opposed to a badger cull rejected calls to join forces with activists who were linked to Far Right groups.

One comment (made in response to an article that denounces NHF), highlights a conceptual point in “Drawing Lines.” The commenter, defending NHF, wrote that people who “are racist and believe in racial separation…should be for allowing animals their separation from the human race.” This illustrates how newer forms of White separatism differ from White supremacists in approaching and appealing to normally non-racist political, social, and cultural movements; therefore, separatists and supremacists should not be treated synonymously.

These recent examples show how similar situations are more common than one might think. What I showed in “Drawing Lines” is that, while Left-Right crossover movements are not uncommon, these new forms—such as individual people of color arguing for working with fascists under an inclusive umbrella that respects “diversity”—present new problems for progressive activists to wrangle with. While not always easy, I hope that “Drawing Lines” can help activists understand why this phenomena came about, and encourage them to make policies and plans with how to deal with these forms of cross-recruitment and participation by Far Right activists and their enablers.

Ed note. If you witness Far Right participation or cross-recruiting in progressive political circles, send me a tip: s.sunshine@politicalresearch.org.

 

Meet SHRM – the HR Association Lobbying & Suing to Roll Back Worker Rights

“If it happens that you don’t agree with one of SHRM’s positions, we ask that if you disagree you please refrain from that discussion.” –Kathleen Coulombe, SHRM Senior Associate for Government Relations, speaking to dues-paying SHRM members at its recent legal and legislative conference on how to lobby members of Congress


Human Resources doesn’t usually conjure up images of adversarial political activism. Yet contrary to its politically neutral image, the innocuously-named Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM, pronounced “sherm”) campaigns for public policies and mounts legal efforts to block workers’ rights. The group, which claims to have grown from 130,000 members in 2000 to now having 275,000 members globally, purports to represent individual human resources professionals across all industries. And indeed, it produces HR resources such as tip sheets and reports on how to comply with the law, workshops and trainings to earn professional certification, a trade magazine, and statistical analyses about the HR industry and the job market.

But lobbying to change the regulatory climate for business is one of its major unspoken goals.

Back in 2000, union-busting lawyer and then chair of SHRM Michael Lotito (from whom we will hear again later), said “If we had a market penetration—let’s say SHRM had 500,000 members, and 250,000 of them were in grassroots networks—we would be heard not because we shouted, but because we threatened to whisper.”  SHRM has quietly and steadily grown its lobbying operation to include a half-dozen staffers, a nationwide member lobbying network, a major legal and legislative conference, and even a satellite office in Sacramento, whose sole purpose appears to be lobbying at the California statehouse.

Though its stated mission is to “serve the needs of HR professionals and advance the professional practice of human resource management,” SHRM’s legislative agenda is instead aligned with that of big corporations such as McDonalds, and major GOP donors such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Openly working in concert with dark-money business lobbying groups such as the International Franchise Association, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business, SHRM has been speaking out in the press, filing lawsuits, and pushing state and national bills. These efforts are aimed at blocking the rights of workers to do everything from forming unions, to having guaranteed paid sick days, to getting health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Undercover at SHRM’s legislative conference

So how does SHRM speak to its own members about the need to block workers’ rights? I went undercover for Political Research Associates to SHRM’s annual gathering, the Legal and Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. March 22-24 to find out. More than 650 people attended the conference from all 50 states and D.C., each having paid between $1200 and $1500 for the ticket.

“We’re not going to see successful efforts to mandate paid leave at the federal level,” Mike Aitken, SHRM’s Vice President for Government Affairs, told the assembled members at the conference.  Aitken briefly outlined a sophisticated, multi-state strategy for fighting paid leave and higher wages, and not only defunding the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) – but suing in court to block its decisions. Aitken also alluded to SHRM’s use of member focus groups and questionnaires to form its policy positions. Though we were unable to locate any focus group or questionnaire results regarding policy positions, SHRM did this past week publish the results of a survey of its state legislative directors with questions about how engaged they are with SHRM. However, no actual SHRM members we spoke with said they have ever been contacted for their input on actual policy—and Aitken acknowledged that  “our Board is what shapes our policy positions.”1

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Other presenters at the conference included employer-side labor lawyers and HR consultants, each delivering a message of “we’re not an anti-union organization, but…” with confidence and uniform consistency. Unlike organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association(IFA) who co-sign and help to push SHRM’s anti-workers’ rights positions (who explicitly exist only to represent business interests), SHRM brings a grassroots base of HR professionals—people who are used to being peacemakers and finding compromises. In their regular professional practice, they are charged with complying with the law, rather than changing it to restrict the rights of employees. But SHRM tells members that it is also their job to pressure members of Congress and federal agencies to change the regulatory regime in favor of the largest employers.

The Chicken Little approach to “grassroots” anti-worker lobbying

How is SHRM selling its members the case for blocking employees’ rights, such as the right to earn paid sick leave and the right to choose a union? By telling them the sky is falling.

Lotito is now a shareholder in the employer-side labor law firm Littler Mendelson.  He gave a session at the conference entitled “The NLRB: New Relevance and New Challenges.”  During the session, his voice rising from a conspiratorial whisper to a roar of outrage, sermonizing on how a recent decision from the NLRB’s general counsel to treat McDonald’s franchisees as jointly liable with the headquarters could damage other businesses. He suggested that the joint-liability decision threatens the business-to-business relationships many companies have with their cleaning services, gardeners, and so forth, suggesting that any company could be viewed as somehow liable for the treatment of its subcontractors’ employees.

But the NLRB general counsel’s decision on joint liability narrowly applies only to cases brought by McDonald’s employees against the hamburger chain. As Steven Greenhouse recently reported in The New York Times, “’The Golden Arches is an employer, plain and simple,’ said Micah Wissinger, a lawyer who filed complaints on behalf of several McDonald’s employees in New York. ‘The reality is that McDonald’s requires franchisees to adhere to such regimented rules and regulations that there’s no doubt who’s really in charge.’”

Lotito, who co-chairs his law firm’s “Workplace Policy” subdivision, also criticized the NLRB’s recent decision to significantly shorten the 25-day window of time between when a union files for an election and when the election takes place. The new rule, which SHRM (echoing a US Chamber of Commerce talking point) dubs the “Ambush elections rule” in its printed policy statements and Powerpoint slides throughout the conference, goes into effect April 14.

Lotito’s old firm, Jackson Lewis, has made a lot of money advising employers on how to run an anti-union campaign during the existing 25 day window. As journalist David Bacon wrote in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2008:

“Campaign tactics include: In the weeks before these tainted elections, 51 percent of employers threaten to close if the union wins; and 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors. This conduct is effectively unpunishable, making a mockery of free elections. Signing cards is a safer, calmer process that workers control themselves, and workers keep the option of using either the cards or the election – their choice, not their employer’s.”

SHRM is one of a handful of business lobby groups that is suing in federal court to block the rule’s implementation.2

Lotito explained that his firm also provided members of Congress with questions to use in a House Appropriations committee hearing the following day, March 24, on the NLRB’s budget. (You can watch that hearing here. Though we don’t know specifically which questions were provided by Littler, SHRM VP Mike Aitken told those at the conference that SHRM may attempt to fight the NLRB by adding a “rider to defund them through the appropriations process.” )

Having framed SHRM’s participation in the assault on workers’ rights as a matter of defending employers from onerous government regulations, Lotito was ready to unveil the Goliath that he says HR professionals should fear: unions. (He conveniently omitted the fact that unions now only represent just over 6% of the private sector workforce.) Again referring to the McDonald’s joint employer finding, Lotito explicitly named the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as the enemy:

“What I think is going to happen, what I would do if I were the SEIU, is on April 14th I would file 100 petitions in 20 different states against a whole bunch of franchisees alleging that there is a joint employment relationship between those franchisees and McDonald’s. I will win at least 50 percent of those elections and then I will demand… all kinds of information from McDonald’s Corp with respect to the underlying economics because they are the ones who are really controlling the purse strings with respect to the franchisee, so in order to have meaningful collective bargaining in theory I gotta have the franchisor with me, and I would use that as additional attack points. Or if I was really really really really tricky, on April 11th or 12th I’d go to McDonalds and say that on April 14th I’m going to file for elections, and as a result of that I’m going to bring your organization to a standstill. I’ve got an out for you though. I can be your best friend. I can tell everybody how great you are. All you have to do is agree to neutrality and card check…This is all about increasing union market share.”

Despite its studiously politically neutral and “we’re not anti-union” claims, SHRM has entered the public policy ring unmistakably on the side of big business and against workers’ rights. Whether its members accept its characterization of who the enemy is—and how many of them will unquestioningly sally forth to help block workers’ rights in the ongoing state and federal policy battles—remains to be seen.

End Notes

[1] SHRM’s website explains its process for determining policy positions thusly: “SHRM’s Government Affairs team partners with our Research Department to develop survey questions to take the pulse of the membership on what it feels about the issue.  Our Research Department may utilize the full SHRM Survey Report or a shorter Question of the Week format to obtain input from our members. In addition, Government Affairs staff gathers information by convening a series of public policy focus groups at the various SHRM national conferences, regional conferences and chapter meetings.

Once this input is gathered, staff develops a proposed public policy statement that is then subject to review by several SHRM Special Expertise panels who have jurisdiction over the subject area for their comment and review. The proposed public policy statement is then presented to the Board of Directors for its review and approval.” http://www.shrm.org/advocacy/publicpolicystatusreports/federal/pages/default.aspx#sthash.rXJAGapV.dpuf

[2] As economist Ross Eisenbrey noted in the Economic Policy Institute’s blog earlier this month, “The NLRB’s rule does away with an automatic 25-day delay between when employees file an election petition and the election occurs. The National Labor Relations Act does not mandate any such delay, but the anti-union lawyers treated it as a God-given right and claimed its elimination was ‘blowing up the election process’ and a denial of employer free speech rights. You’d think they were kidding, but they at least pretended to be serious.” In actual practice, the old rule has given employers enough time to harass, intimidate, and illegally fire workers involved in a unionization campaign, effectively lowering the number of union elections in US workplaces to 1453 in FY 2014– approximately two one-hundredths of a percent of all US workplaces.

The Campaign to Undermine Pro-LGBTQ Churches

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has recently been in the news for its historic approval of marriage equality. But in these news stories, you may have noticed that Christian Right organizations that are unhappy with the outcome are promoting the idea that people are leaving this and other churches because of their support for equal rights, and for rejecting the Right’s corrupt and redefined version of religious freedom. As is often the case, the Christian Right’s claims don’t hold much water.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA, is the fourth major denomination of mainline Protestantism to support marriage equality, following in the steps of the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. While these developments make news, generally unreported is that these churches came to their positions after years of careful deliberations, discussion and debate.  Unlike most of the opponents of marriage equality, these churches have democratic governance structures.

Also largely unreported is how outside Christian Right agencies have exploited the democratic polities of the mainline churches, in an effort to degrade their capacities to advance social justice.

The reasons for all this have everything to do with the successes of what the churches call their “social witness” across the 20th Century. From the enactment of child labor laws, to advancing the African-American civil rights movement, to ending the war in Vietnam, to elevating the role of women and of LGBTQ people, the major denominations of mainline Protestantism have provided moral authority, leadership, and resources that were vital to these movements for social change.

And yet, if you read most of the media you might be led to believe that the only reasons people leave these churches is because of their positions on such things as ordination of women and gay people; reproductive justice, and/or and marriage equality. The decline in membership in these churches is painfully real. But there is much more to the story of why people leave the churches and people they love.

One of the primary reasons for the departures is a sustained pressure campaign by external interests, seeking to pit mainline Christians against one another; manipulate democratic processes to be unnecessarily divisive; and ultimately diminish and displace these historic denominations which have held a place at the center of American culture for centuries.

One of the main agents in this war of attrition has been the Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), funded by the same group of conservative foundations that brought the likes of the Heritage Foundation to Washington, DC. IRD has been primarily funded by neoconservative and Christian Right interests that view the mainline churches as obstacles to their regressive, and sometimes overtly theocratic, political agendas.

For many years, IRD served as the hub of a national network of conservative denominational factions called the Association for Church Renewal. These organizations, which call themselves “renewal” groups, variously seek to neutralize church tendencies of which they don’t approve; drive out staff they don’t like; and seek to take over the churches, but failing that – take  as many churches and assets out of the denominations as possible.

Media of all sorts have tended to treat group spokespersons as credible voices of dissent, while turning a blind eye to the malevolent intentions of many of these groups and individuals. For example, James Tonkowich a minister in a schismatic denomination that split with PCUSA in 1970, served as the president of IRD from 2006-2009. He characterized the mainline churches as marked by “division, polarization, and discord.”  By 2012, he had not only became a Catholic, but claimed that the best way for Protestant churches to solve their problems was to, like Tonkowich, also become Catholic.

In short, the Christian Right’s narrative that mainline church membership is declining primarily because of differences over things like marriage equality unravels when subjected to scrutiny.

In the largest study of its kind ever conducted, scholars at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary debunked the narrative in 2007.  Noting media reports claiming people were leaving churches over issues related to homosexuality, the study found that the main reason people left churches was not due to theology or ideology, but because of unhappiness in the wake of bitter in-house conflict. “Congregations that have experienced major conflict,” the study concluded, “are quite likely to have declined in attendance.” But, the study continued, “congregations with no conflict during the previous two years are least likely to decline and most likely to grow.”

The antidemocratic elements that lead and underwrite IRD have been pleased to exploit the internal debates and manipulate the mechanisms of democratic governance in the mainline churches to achieve their larger ends. Their efforts have worked to some degree. But not nearly as well as they had hoped.