Newest Religious Right Tactic: Sue to Get Civil Servant Dough and Block Gay Rights
cyncooper printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Dec 03, 2006 at 01:44:08 PM EST
A lawsuit filed in Michigan is the latest legal tactic of the Religious Right to pick the public pocket, while picking and choosing which public laws it will deign to follow. Conservative religious groups want access to government employee donation pools while reserving the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

This is the third case of its type filed this year by Religious Right legal organizations, Alliance Defense Fund and Christian Legal Society. In late September, a federal district court in Wisconsin issued a decision supporting the Religious Right position. Florida settled with them. While going virtually unnoticed, this new legal tactic is gaining steam and may be setting up a case for the Supreme Court.  

The three cases have been filed in Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan. All have been brought by The Alliance Defense Fund and the Christian Legal Society, (motto "Seeking Justice with the Love of God -- Luke 11:42.")

The latest, filed on November 3, 2006, is the Michigan case, which claims that the Christian Legal Society and others should be allowed to participate in charity pools of state government employees - United Way type programs.  But, the lawsuit demands, religious groups should not be forced to sign statements of nondiscrimination, as other participants do.

The decision five weeks earlier in Wisconsin was touted by the Christian Legal Society:"Victory for Wisconsin faith-based organizations." The federal district court ruled on September 29, 2006 that the Christian Legal Society and other religious organizations can discriminate and still participate in Wisconsin State Employees Combined Campaign, giving Religious Right organizations access to some of the $2.8 million in government employee donations.

The lawsuits all come from the same source. Designated as the plaintiff is the innocuous-sounding "Association of Faith-Based Organizations" or AFBO.  This wafer-thin "association" is located at the same Springfield, Virginia address as the Christian Legal Society, and with the same phone number.

Significantly, one of the three "leaders' listed on the website is Gregory S. Baylor, Director of Christian Legal Society's litigating arm, the Center for Law and Religious Freedom.  The other two are Thomas C. Berg, Co-Director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy in Minneapolis, and Carl H. Esbeck, legal counsel to the National Association of Evangelicals, active in the Federalist Society and former director of the Justice Department's Task Force on faith-based initiatives.

In other words, these people have in-depth knowledge of the law on faith-based funding and are picking their targets. The cases are custom-designed to place religious ideology as superior to gay rights. The lawsuits are a deliberate effort to push theocractic measures forward.

Records of the Virginia State Corporation Commission indicate that the Association of Faith-Based Organization first organized on March 27, 2006, only days before becoming a plaintiff in its first lawsuit to gouge employee contribution programs. The trio of "leaders" seem to believe that the AFBO name has the right ring for a string of lawsuits and a possible trip to the U.S. Supreme Court to reshape the law.

According to documents in the Wisconsin case, the AFBO claims as members (surprise!) the Christian Legal Society. Other than that, its Wisconsin list is puny: the Pro-Life Wisconsin Educational Task Force, Teen Challenge International-Wisconin, Advocates International and Mission Aviation Fellowship.

The case was a set-up from the get-go. In 2005, the Christian Legal Society applied to be in the pool eligible for state employee funds, but deliberately refused to check off that it complied with non-discrimination requirements.

In Michigan, CLS applied at the same time under the name of "Neighbor to Nation," which it describes as its "umbrella" group.   Neighbor to Nation (originally Share America!) is incorporated in Virginia at the same Christian Legal Society address.

In applying for the donation pool in Michigan, CLS's Gregory Baylor attached a letter saying Neighbor to Nation would not sign the non-discrimination clause because it is a religious entity "organized around a shared commitment to Jesus Christ." Carefully avoiding any anti-gay references, the letter said board members and employees must sign a statement of faith and the group reserves the right to take religious beliefs into account in deciding whom to represent.

"Moreover, a person's participation in extramarital sexual conduct might disqualify them for membership in, employment with, or the receipt of certain services from CLS.

It is CLS's view that the policies and practices described ... do not constitute "discrimination," which is properly defined as the invidious reliance upon irrelevant characteristics.  Nonetheless, we acknowledge that our understanding of the term "discrimination" is not universally held.  Indeed, it has been our experience that many contend that CLS's policies and practices constitute "discrimination" on the basis of religion and marital status.

CLS has a fundamental right, protected by the U.S. Constitution, to hold and practice the policies described in this letter.  Michigan may not, consistent with the law, deny CLS participation in the campaign based upon its policies and practices, which are solidly rooted in orthodox, historic Christianity."

Behind this piety is one simple word: homophobia. The Wisconsin case was a pre-emptive strike, since the state did not require a statement of anti-gay discrimination.

But religious groups latched onto a 2002 letter by the state head of administration, describing groups that might be affected if an anti-gay discrimination policy were adopted (e.g. Catholics United for Life, Prison Fellowship Ministries, Boy Scouts).

Religious groups, such as the Christian Military Fellowship and others, are currently among the 400 charities in the Wisconsin program.

So why the fuss to bring a test case? The answer is probably in Connecticut. A case from there (cited below) ruled the other way, placing gay protection from discrimination as a higher value. The Religious Right lawyers may be aiming to undermine it as precedent and also to get the Supreme Court to reverse it by securing conflicting decisions from elsewhere.

Wisconsin helps them. The decision (Association of Faith-Based Organizations v. Bablitch), authored by the controversial and mercurial Judge John Shabaz, said:

Plaintiff’s members have a constitutional right to expressive association which entitles them to limit membership in their organizations to those who share common religious views ….

Plaintiff’s members also have a constitutional free speech right to solicit funds from state employees.

The judge concluded that Wisconsin “unequivocally supports the right of religious organizations to control their internal governance” by permitting religious employers to discriminate in hiring and letting the department of family services to fund religious organizations without challenging their internal governance.

Kicking out religious discriminators in the donations program would be “a stark single exception,” said the judge.

In the Connecticut case, Boy Scouts of America v. Wyman [335 F.3d 80 (2d Cir.2003)] the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said in 2003 that the state did not have to include the Boy Scouts in a state donations program. Connecticut law expressly prohibited state agencies from providing support to organizations that discriminated based on sexual orientation, and the Wisconsin court found this to be the central difference to reaching its opposite conclusion.

Another case brought by the AFBO in Florida was settled with a proposed change of rules for inclusion in the Florida State Employees Charitable Campaign. The change has yet to be effectuated.

CLS and ADF (which has as founders James Dobson of Focus on Family, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, and James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries) are not only aiming to open up new pools of Religious Right funding, but to put new obstacles before gay and lesbian rights.

National legal organizations that care about gay rights need to sit up and take notice. These three copycat lawsuits indicate that CLS and ADF are intent on marching forward: no doubt, more lawsuits are on the way.

The case from Connecticut on charitable giving argues loudly for state level laws prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians.  Because Connecticut had a law, the state didn't have to open up special benefits, such as participation in a fundraising program, to groups that discriminate --  even those that use religion as a justification.

by cyncooper on Sat Dec 02, 2006 at 08:38:31 PM EST

Know what hooked me? Your report that all these fascist organizations have the same address.

by Josh Thomas on Mon Dec 18, 2006 at 01:31:33 AM EST

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