Georgia Governor Vows To Veto Newly Introduced "Religious Freedom" Bill

On Tuesday, February 21, 20 Republican Georgia state senators dropped SB 233, a bill many are calling this year’s “religious freedom” bill. By Thursday, however, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal had already vowed to veto it. This is no real surprise considering Governor Deal vetoed a similar bill last year after it evoked large-scale opposition across the state and the country as well as threats of boycotts.

Hospitals Aren’t Churches: Why The Supreme Court Should Conclude As Much And Protect Hundreds Of Thousands of Pensions

UPDATE: On Thursday, February 23, 2017, Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case arguing that a hospital should not be able to take away employee pensions just because it's religiously affiliated. You can read the brief here. This post originally appeared on December 5.

From our Wall of Separation blog:

On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear three cases that could affect hundreds of thousands of employees nationwide. The cases— Dignity Health v. Rollins (Ninth Circuit), St. Peter’s Healthcare System v. Kaplan (Third Circuit), and Advocate Healthcare Network v. Stapleton (Seventh Circuit)— deal with the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, better known as ERISA. Many people’s eyes gloss over at the mere mention of ERISA, but here’s why we have been working on these cases, and why you should pay attention.

ERISA protects the retirement savings, and hence the financial security, of tens of millions of employees nationwide. The law requires that if an employer offers a pension plan, it must meet certain basic standards. These include, among others, (1) adequately funding the pension plan (to ensure that there is money available to pay the benefits promised to employees when those employees actually retire), (2) informing employees of key information about the plan (so that the employees will know whether the plan is adequately funded and precisely what it covers), and (3) insuring the plan (again, to ensure that the money is there when the employees need it). ERISA assures that the employer’s promises of guaranteed pension benefits will be met, allowing people to reliably plan for their retirement. And because of those guarantees, employees who receive pension plans treat those plans as a form of compensation: The benefits inform employees’ choices about where to work and how to negotiate their wages.

As important as ERISA is, however, Congress exempted houses of worship from its requirements. ERISA involves governmental regulation of employers’ finances and business organization, and applying it to houses of worship would raise some difficult legal questions because, as a matter of religious freedom and respect for church autonomy, the government generally does not intrude into the financial administration and management of houses of worship.

But here’s the problem: It’s not just houses of worship that have claimed the church exemption. Religiously affiliated hospitals across the country have decided that they should be entitled to be treated as churches under ERISA— and therefore have not been following ERISA’s requirements.

The upshot is that hundreds of thousands of employees of religiously affiliated hospitals—from janitors to doctors—who aren’t required to be of any particular faith and who perform overwhelmingly if not completely secular duties, aren’t getting ERISA’s protections. The hospitals promise their employees retirement benefits, which the employees depend on in planning for their futures, but then the hospitals don’t adequately fund the pension plans (meaning that there won’t be enough money to pay the employees what is due to them), and the hospitals don’t comply with legal requirements to give employees information about the plan (meaning that the employees have no notice that anything fishy is going on). Thus, it has turned out that hundreds of thousands of hard-working people across the country have traded higher wages for what they thought were better benefits. They have gone about their daily lives believing that they had ample savings for their retirement, only to find when the time comes that their employers won’t have lived up to their end of the bargain. The result: The employees have no nest egg for their retirement.

To make matters worse, religiously affiliated hospital groups are purchasing non-religiously affiliated hospitals at an incredible clip and then invoking ERISA’s church-plan exemption to defund existing employee pension plans at those hospitals, so that the employees who had, and relied on, a fully funded pension suddenly are left with nothing— and may not even be told that that’s happening.

Employees of the hospitals have been going to court to protect their legal rights to their hard-earned pensions. And in each case, Americans United has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the federal court of appeals to explain that ERISA’s drafters intended for the church exemption to protect religious liberty by preserving church autonomy and the Constitution forbids stretching the exemption to cover religiously affiliated hospitals. As we regularly explain to the courts, claims of religious liberty cannot be used to harm innocent third parties. And that’s precisely what is happening here.

Hundreds of thousands of employees nationwide are at risk of losing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in retirement funds. And they aren’t even being told that their money is being taken away from them. That’s just wrong. When these cases are heard in the Supreme Court, we will continue working to ensure that ERISA’s narrow exemption intended to avoid having the government muck around in church finances isn’t used to strip the financial security of hospital workers across the country.

We hope that you will join us in this fight. 

Follow Bradley Girard online at @BradleySGirard

Trump Administration Revokes Guidance On Civil Rights Protections For Transgender Students

Last night the Trump administration officially revoked an Obama-era guidance reminding public schools that a provision in a 1972 federal law known as Title IX prohibits discrimination against transgender students, including denying them access to the restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

Harming Religious Freedom: For Some Oklahoma Senators, It’s As Easy As 1, 2, 3

Oklahoma's SB 197, a "religious freedom" bill, passed out of the Oklahoma Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, along with two other extreme bills. This post from AU's Wall of Separation blog explains why this SB 197 and another bill that seeks to violate church-state separation are so dangerous.

Trump Administration Set To Withdraw Federal Guidance On Civil Rights Protections For Transgender Students

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance reminding schools that Title IX prohibits discrimination against transgender students, including denying them access to the restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are expected to rescind this guidance. 

Why Does South Dakota Want to Discriminate Against Vulnerable Children?

Earlier this week, the South Dakota House Health and Human Services Committee voted 5-2 to allow child placement agencies to substitute their religious beliefs for the child’s best interest, leaving us wondering why?

Majority Of Religious Americans Agree: Religious Beliefs Are Not An Excuse To Discriminate

According to new Public Religion Research Institute analysis, a clear majority of religious Americans oppose business owners using their religious beliefs to deny goods and services to LGBTQ individuals and couples. Indeed, religious freedom gives us the freedom to believe— or not— as we see fit. It does not, however, permit anyone to use religion as an excuse to discriminate.

Americans United And Allies Urge Virginia Senate Committee To Oppose Discrimination In The Name Of Religion

Americans United and allies sent a letter to Virginia's Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology to warn of the real harm that HB 2025, a state combo Pastor Protection Act and First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), could inflict on many Virginians. The bill, as written, could allow individuals, for-profit corporations, and even taxpayer-funded organizations use religious beliefs about marriage as an excuse to discriminate against their neighbors.

An Appalling Anti-LGBTQ Trump Order May Be Coming. You Can Help AU Stop It.

We will continue to fight for our neighbors— LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities, non-theists and anyone who faces discrimination based on someone else’s religious beliefs. But we need your help too. You need to contact the White House and tell the President to reject any executive order that sanctions discrimination in the name of religion. 

Trump’s High Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch: Another Scalia On Church-State Issues

Yesterday night, President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch's past judicial opinions are cause for grave concern, particularly his decisions regarding Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell.

Colorado’s Dangerous “Religious Freedom” Bill Dies

On Wednesday, a Colorado House committee voted to kill HB 1013, a state Religious Freedom Restoration Bill (RFRA) that was aimed at permitting businesses to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against people, particularly LGBTQ individuals and families. 

State Bills Threaten To Undermine LGBTQ Healthcare, Student Life, And Family Rights

State legislatures have not had much luck in passing sweeping bills like RFRAs or FADAs, but the record is mixed on more targeted “religious freedom” bills that could undermine LGBTQ rights in healthcare, student life, and families.

The Price Is Wrong: HHS Secretary Nominee’s Views On Religious Freedom Are Dangerous

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions wrapped up its hearing on Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education at 8:45 last night, and will be back at 10 this morning to hold another confirmation hearing. Up today: Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-GA).

Anti-LGBTQ State First Amendment Defense Acts Are Back In 2017

As state legislators return to work this month, we’re monitoring newly introduced “religious freedom” bills around the country that could harm our neighbors. As a refresher, we thought we would review the different types of “religious freedom” legislation we expect to see. First up, First Amendment Defense Acts.

The State Legislatures Are Back In Session And We’re Ready!

Right now, state lawmakers are trying to use religion as an excuse to discriminate, but we're ready to fight back! Our 2017 State Legislation Tracker is your one-stop-shop for news, resources and most importantly, how you can make a difference.

Sanderson Farms And Other Companies Are Opposing Harmful Mississippi Law In Court

We applaud companies like Sanderson Farms for recognizing that HB 1523 poses a threat to their employees and Mississippians as a whole. We hope that others join them in standing up to those who would harm our neighbors.