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An Alaska state court judge this week temporarily blocked a law that created a narrow definition for when abortions were "medically necessary" and therefore covered under Alaska Medicaid.
The law, SB 49, gives doctors a strict list of 21 reasons someone on Medicaid would qualify for a "medically necessary abortion," pulling language from a 2001 decision by the state's Supreme Court which declared that Alaska was required to cover abortion care for women in the Medicaid program when their physicians found them "medically necessary." The law has been criticized for discriminating against low-income women by preventing them from accessing proper abortion care with Medicaid funds.
The politicians who passed this law were playing a dangerous game of keep away with women's health by trying to withhold Medicaid coverage from qualified women, said Brigitte Amiri, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A woman shouldn't have to choose between paying her heating bill and protecting her health. But that will be the reality if this law stands, with the end result that a woman in the state of Alaska will have worse health care simply because she's poor."
This case marks the second time Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest has challenged the law as unconstitutional. They are represented in the current case by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ACLU, the ACLU of Alaska, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Susan Orlansky of Anchorage. Both times, their lawsuits have caused a temporary block on the law as the challenge continued through legal proceedings.
This decision ensures that Alaskan women facing difficult economic circumstances will not have crucial insurance coverage taken away if they need to end a pregnancy, Janet Crepps, senior counsel with the Center for Reproductive Rights said in a statement. The Alaska state constitution protects women against discrimination in the provision of insurance coverage for the full range of reproductive health care, and we will continue to defend this right against those who seek to take it away.
A federal judge ruled California's death penalty unconstitutional, finding that the sentence "serves no penological purpose."
US District Judge Cormac J. Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a strong condemnation of the state's capital punishment system in a 29-page ruling filed Wednesday. Judge Carney criticized the state of limbo the California system creates for those receiving the death penalty, calling it an "arbitrary" and "unpredictable" sentence.
Ernest Dewayne Jones, the plaintiff in the case, was first put on death row 19 years ago. In April 1995, Jones was charged with the rape and stabbing murder of his girlfriend's mother. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Jones trial played out a few doors away from the much-publicized O.J. Simpson trial without drawing comparable fanfare or legal resources, opening up the question of whether poorer defendants are disadvantaged in the system. Judge Carney's decision vacates Jones' death sentence.
California has the nation's largest death row population, but has not executed anyone since 2006, when a federal court found problems with the lethal injection procedure. California voters, however, approved the death penalty in 1972, 1978, and narrowly again in 2012, with 48 percent of Californians voting to replace it with life in prison without parole.
Wednesday's decision is not expected to lead to any immediate changes. A spokesperson for Attorney General Kamala Harris said the office is reviewing the ruling.
7/16/2014 - New Federal Guidelines On Pregnancy Discrimination Align with Pregnancy Discrimination Act
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its pregnancy discrimination guidelines this week for the first time in over 30 years. The new language reiterates the policies outlined in the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and classifies discrimination against pregnant employees as a form of sex discrimination.
The guidelines were approved 3-2 Monday. The guidelines make it clear that an employer cannot discriminate against a worker based on pregnancy, childbirth or any related medical condition. They also disallow discrimination against someone based on whether or not they have been pregnant in the past, or want to get pregnant in the future.
"Pregnancy is not a justification for excluding women from jobs that they are qualified to perform, and it cannot be a basis for denying employment or treating women less favorably than co-workers similar in their ability or inability to work," EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien said in a press release this week. "Despite much progress, we continue to see a significant number of charges alleging pregnancy discrimination, and our investigations have revealed the persistence of overt pregnancy discrimination, as well as the emergence of more subtle discriminatory practices."
In a Q-and-A section on the EEOC's site about pregnancy discrimination, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act is explained as banning employers from firing, refusing to hire or demoting a woman if pregnancy, childbirth or any related condition was the reason for the action. The EEOC guidelines were released in part for those who may not have been aware of the cited federal laws, in order to make the requirements better understood and known.
"I think it will make a really big difference," Joan C. Williams, a law professor whose work is cited in the EEOC's new guidelines, told the Associated Press. "This is also the direction the courts have begun to go in, and that's why the EEOC said, 'Yeah, that makes sense.'"
Pregnancy discrimination complaints in the US increased by 71 percent between 1992 and 2011. Many women nationwide, especially those in low-income jobs, are forced to take unpaid leave or leave their jobs altogether during their pregnancy. Almost two-thirds of first-time mothers work while pregnant, including 90 percent of those mothers who work into their last two months of pregnancy. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a piece of national legislation currently stalled in Congress, would update and strengthen the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to ensure that pregnant women are not denied necessary accommodations at work.
Affirmative action survived a federal appellate court in Texas on Tuesday. In a 2-1 split, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the University of Texas at Austin can consider race in the admissions process.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote, "We find force in the argument that race here is a necessary part, albeit one of many parts" of UT Austin's admissions plan.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP-LDF) applauded the outcome of the case. The NAACP-LDF represented the Black Student Alliance at UT Austin and Black Ex-Students of Texas in the Fisher litigation. "This decision should stand as a declaration of the ongoing importance and legality of affirmative action efforts that holistically evaluate applicants for admission in higher education," Ifill said.
The plaintiff in the case, Abigail Fisher, first filed suit against the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Fisher, a white student, alleged that she was the victim of racial discrimination. Fisher argued that the use of affirmative action created an unfair disadvantage, and ultimately led to her being denied admission to the university.
The case was argued before the Supreme Court in 2012. Last June, the Court issued a brief 13-page decision calling on the lower courts to apply a "strict scrutiny" test when considering the merit of Fisher's argument, meaning courts would need to determine on their own if the use of race was absolutely necessary, and that no other alternative could be explored to create a diverse student body. Though supported by a broad majority, the potential for a total overhaul of affirmative action was not out of reach. In separate opinions, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas wrote that they would have supported elimination of affirmative action had they been asked to do so.
Judge Emilio Garza, the single dissenting judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, argued that the UT Austin failed to provide "sufficient evidence that would prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity."
Lawyers for the plaintiff plan to appeal. If an appeal goes forward, the case could return to the Supreme Court.
A new study shows that the wage gap between tipped and non-tipped workers is the widest it's ever been in American history.
1966 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) created protections to hotel, restaurant and other service employees, but also created a sub-wage for tipped workers with the expectation that an employee's tips, when added to the sub-wage, would match or exceed the minimum wage. In effect, the tipped wage created a subsidy for service employers, exempting organizations that used tipped labor from paying full wages.
According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), tipped laborers face much more stringent economic outcomes than their full-wage peers. According to the study, the poverty rate among non-tipped workers is 6.5 percent - but among tipped workers, it rests at at 12.8 percent. More than half of the people represented by this overwhelmingly female demographic are more likely to rely on public assistance as a permanent wage subsidy. The authors of the EPI study note that public assistance was never meant to become "part of the business strategy for low-wage employers." They also found that the tipped laborer workforce is currently the largest it has ever been.
In their own research focused on tipped workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) found that one in three tipped workers are parents, and of that number one in six rely on free and reduced lunch programs to feed their children. Poverty rates dramatically rise to 25% among tipped workers who are people of color. However, overall poverty decreases in states with higher minimum wage rates.
The Department of Labor recognizes tipped employees as those who "customarily and regularly" receive $30 or more per month in tips. According to the PolicyMatters Journal, that breaks down to $1.50 a day in tips each month. Employers are required to pay tipped workers $2.13 per hour. An employer can claim a "tip credit" up to $5.12, the difference between the direct wage they're required to pay and the $7.25 federal minimum wage. According to the Department of Labor, an employer should make up the difference if a worker's tips do not cover the difference.
The $2.13 tipped minimum wage has not changed since 1991, when it made up half of the overall minimum wage floor of $4.25. Today, the tipped minimum wage makes up just 29 percent of the regular federal minimum wage of $7.25. The Economic Policy Institute found that the real, inflation-adjusted value of the tipped wage and the federal minimum wage are both lower today than they were in 1966.
Some states and local jurisdictions are moving to raise their own minimum wage. A few states, like Minnesota, Delaware, and West Virginia, are also working to include tipped wage workers in those increases. However, organizations like the National Restaurant Association, the most prominent restaurant industry lobby, have succeeded in defeating many local and federal efforts to raise the tipped minimum wage.
7/14/2014 - Massachusetts Lawmakers Work to Restore Protections for Abortion Clinics Following McCullen
The state of Massachusetts is expected to soon push legislation providing greater protections to reproductive health clinics following the Supreme Court's ruling in McCullen v. Coakley.
According to the Associated Press, the Massachusetts state legislature expects to file a bill this week that would provide greater protections for abortion clinics despite the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the state's law that created a 35-foot-buffer zone around reproductive health clinics last month. The buffer zone law, created after the 1994 murders of two individuals at separate clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts by anti-choice extremist John Salvi, was meant to reduce the harassment, intimidation, and violence which had previously taken place outside of the state's abortion clinics and curb anti-choice extremists' access to women seeking reproductive health care.
In the days following the Supreme Court's decision, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley tweeted, "#SCOTUS may not like our buffer zone but our commitment to protect women's healthcare access remains." Now, Coakley, Governor Deval Patrick, other lawmakers, and local women's rights groups have all signaled their support for a bill that would respect the free speech rights of protesters while at the same time strengthening existing laws that provide for the safety of clinic workers and patients as they enter reproductive health care facilities.
Speaking to hundreds of people gathered at the Supreme Rally in Boston last week, Gov. Patrick petitioned supporters to get involved in the push to draft new legislation. "Come make a claim on your government and tell your stories," he said, "above all, because we have to build the record that will sustain the legislation I believe we can move and get enacted before the session ends at the end of this month."
Anti-abortion groups have threatened more legal action if the state moves forward with a new law. Attorney General Coakley envisions greater police power to break up crowds, although few details of the proposed bill have been disclosed.
7/11/2014 - Revenge Rape in India Leads to Three Arrests
A man in eastern India was arrested for allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl this week in "retaliation" for the girl's brother having allegedly sexually assaulted a woman.
Three people were arrested in connection with the event: the alleged rapist, the brother of the girl (charged with molestation), and a member of the village council accused of ordering the crime. After the alleged attack, the girl was taken to the hospital and gave a statement to the police.
The AP reports that village councils, mostly in rural India, are empowered to resolve disputes and issue decrees on a broad range of topics, often using their power to enforce gender norms.
This is not the first rape case in India that has received international attention this year. In May, two girls who were allegedly gang-raped were found hanging in a tree in Northern India, and earlier this year a woman was gang-raped in West Bengal, apparently based on orders from village elders who did not approve of the woman's relationship with a man.
After the 2012 gang rape and murder of a girl in Delhi, pressure has been increasingly put on the country's government to take rape more seriously. The Indian government strengthened anti-sexual violence laws in the wake of widespread protest, but more work must be done to ensure safety.
A Tennessee woman was arrested Tuesday under a new state law that criminalizes drug dependent mothers.
The Tennessee measure, signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam in April, prohibits "the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if [the] child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug."
The new mother was arrested and charged with simple assault just two days after giving birth. The infant tested positive for amphetamine, which is not a narcotic according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. There have also been no reports that the newborn was addicted to the drug or harmed by exposure.
Advocates have criticized the Tennessee law, noting that the fear of criminal penalties will discourage pregnant women struggling with drug dependency from seeking care. Medical associations like the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics have spoken out against these types of measures because they push women out of the health care system for fear of prosecution.
Tennessee is the first state to pass a pregnancy-outcome law through the legislature. According to the Guttmacher Institute [PDF], 18 states consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse under civil child welfare laws, and 3 consider it grounds for civil commitment. 15 states require health care professional to report suspected drug abuse by pregnant women, and 4 require subsequent drug testing. However, only 18 states have drug treatment program that target women, only 10 provide pregnant women with priority access to state-funded programs, and only 4 prohibit discrimination against pregnant women in those programs.
A new law just took effect in Georgia that bans coverage of abortion in health plans purchased in the state health insurance marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). These health insurance policies can now only cover abortion "in the case of medical emergency,"but not in cases of incest or rape.
The law, called the "Federal Abortion Mandate Opt-Out Act," was signed by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal in April. Two state senate democrats and all state senate republicans voted in favor of the bill. At least 672,000 state health insurance plan members and dependents have insurance that is now affected by this newly active law.
"I'm furious. And I think every woman and enlightened gentleman in Georgia should be infuriated," State Representative Pat Gardner saidwhen the restrictions were passed. "This is a decision for a family and their doctor, not for a governor to make.
Georgia is now the 25th state to ban abortion coverage in private insurance plans bought through state health insurance marketplaces. The state had already had in place an administrative ban on abortion coverage for state employees. The new law makes that ban permanent and extends it to anyone who purchases private insurance through the marketplace.
In light of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, several LGBT rights groups have withdrawn their support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) citing increased concerns about the religious exemption included in the bill.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund on Tuesday was the first LGBT rights organization to withdraw its support ENDA on the grounds that the religious exemption, like the ACA exemption and accommodation for contraceptive coverage, might "be used as a similar license to discriminate across the country."The American Civil Liberties Union, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Transgender Law Center subsequently withdrew their support. In a joint statement, the groups noted, "The Supreme Court's decision in Hobby Lobby has made it all the more important that we not accept this inappropriate provision."
ENDA prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill, however, contains an exemption for religious organizations. According to the joint statement, "ENDA's discriminatory provision, unprecedented in federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, could provide religiously affiliated organizations including hospitals, nursing homes and universities a blank check to engage in workplace discrimination against LGBT people."
The Senate voted 64-32 to pass ENDA in November. It is unlikely to be taken up in the House. President Obama has announced that he will sign an Executive Order prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for federal contractors, but some religious groups have insisted that the President add a "robust religious exemption for groups with religious objections to homosexuality.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are expected to introduce the Protect Women's Health from Corporate Interference Act today to reverse the Hobby Lobby decision and ensure that for-profit corporations could not use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to avoid complying with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) contraceptive coverage benefit. The bill would maintain the religious exemption and accommodation. Several religiously affiliated non-profits have challenged the ACA, despite the accommodation, as a violation of their religious freedom.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), joined by members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and advocates from numerous organizations including the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), called attention yesterday to the myriad human rights and labor issues that are being sidestepped as closed door meetings on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) go forward in Ottawa, Canada.
The TPP is a proposed regional free trade agreement that addresses a broad range of issues, including trade in goods and services; regulation of intellectual property, Internet access, and foreign investments; as well as labor and environmental regulations. The United States, Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam are all negotiating parties in the TPP, making it the world's largest free-trade zone in history if a final deal is reached.
Standing in the rain, Rep. DeLauro cited the numerous health and environmental concerns, as well as egregious human rights and labor rights abuses that members of Congress want to see addressed before moving any further with negotiations.
"It is no wonder that nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose granting 'fast-track,' and 178 House members from both parties have publicly declared their opposition to it," Rep. DeLauro said, referring to legislation that would force Congress to vote, up-or-down without the ability of offering any amendments, on whether to approve the trade deal. "TPP is a non-starter. There is no appetite for the deal, neither in the Congress or in the country as a whole."
Rep. Marc Pocan (D-WI) called out the Sultan of Brunei's new penal code, and that negotiating partner's decision to stone gays, lesbians, and people convicted of adultery, to publicly flog women who have had abortions, and issue prison sentences for women wearing "indecent" clothing. "We should not be providing special trade privileges to countries that continue to violate human rights and restrict equality," Rep. Pocan said. "The United States has had a long tradition of using our influence as a world leader to try to improve human rights across the globe, and we're doing the exact opposite in the Trans-Pacific Partnership."
Last month, 12 women's rights groups, led by the Feminist Majority, issued a letter to President Obama calling for the White House to suspend TPP talks if Brunei was not removed from the negotiating table, or until the sultan revoked the new laws. Feminist Majority Policy Director Gaylynn Burroughs reiterated those terms yesterday.
"Human rights and women's rights can never take a backseat to profit and trade," Burroughs said. "The United States should not condone these laws by conducting business as usual with Brunei. We have to seek to use all available and appropriate policy tools to pressure the sultan to change his new penal code."
In recent weeks, President Obama said he wanted to see a deal completed on the agreement by November. Talks over the terms of the agreement have been underway since 2010, but as in the past, critics say this week's TPP meetings in Ottawa include limited, if any, participation by public stakeholders or elected officials. Members of Congress have called for increased transparency, especially important as some groups charge that multinational corporate interests are thoroughly represented in the negotiations through "trade advisers."
One in four Americans lived in a high-poverty area in 2012, according to Changes in Areas with Concentrated Poverty: 2000 to 2010, a recently released report that analyzes data from the United States Census Bureau and the American Community Survey.
The 77 million Americans who live in poverty areas - defined as an area where over one-fifth of the residents earn incomes below the current poverty line of $23,600 for a family of four - is a significant increase from the 18 percent recorded by the Census Bureau in 2000. Southern states, which have been found to have a higher percentage of low-income public school students than others, have especially seen their numbers grow. In 2012, 57.3 percent of people living in the south lived in poverty areas, up from 46.7 percent in 2000.
The increase has affected Americans across the board, but the report found that Africans Americans are the most likely to live in poverty areas, at 50.4 percent, followed by American Indians and Alaska Natives. About 20.3 percent of white Americans live in poverty areas.
The growth of poverty areas can largely be attributed to exclusionary zoning and the migration of affluent people into suburban areas, according to Paul Jargowsky, a professor of urban research and education at Rutgers University and an analyst of the report. Exclusionary zoning occurs when suburban districts set requirements for joining a neighborhood, such as large minimum house sizes, that are impossible to meet for lower-income families. These policies contribute to highly segregated neighborhoods.
"You have many, many politically independent suburbs that use exclusionary zoning to create housing only for families with higher incomes," said Jargowsky. "As families with wealth move further and further out of urban areas you develop these very high-poverty neighborhoods where the schools begin to fail, you have high crime and low wages."
On top of higher crime, lower wages, and schools lacking in resources, low-income families living in concentrated poverty areas often face a lack of job opportunities and lack of access to good housing conditions and health services. The report acknowledges that some government programs focus on these neighborhoods to alleviate poverty and other issues that face their residents. However, more needs to be done.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon last week vetoed a 3-day waiting period for abortions and issued a fiery response to state lawmakers who signed off on the measure. Now, the Republican-led legislature is threatening to override when Missouri's state session resumes next term.
The bill was passed by the Missouri legislature in May. It was one of 30 anti-abortion bills proposed by this session alone. Had Governor Nixon signed the bill, Missouri would have joined South Dakota in having the longest waiting period for an abortion with no exception for rape or incest. As it stands, Missouri's current 24-hour waiting period gives no special consideration to victims of rape or incest.
In his veto letter, Gov. Nixon deemed the 24-hour waiting period "extensive" and blasted lawmakers for venturing to triple the mandatory wait time. "I cannot condone the absence of an exception for rape and incest," the Governor stated. "This glaring omission is wholly insensitive to women who find themselves in horrific circumstances, and demonstrates a callous disregard for their well-being."
Gov. Nixon charged that the new law would ultimately re-victimize survivors, saying "government would mandate that she, too, endure more suffering, even after she has undergone the extensive counseling and consent process that already exists under Missouri law."
The Missouri state legislature passed the original bill only one vote shy of a super majority--enough to override of the Governor's veto next session. A new poll, however, conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and Public Policy Polling (PPP) shows that 50 percent of Missourians oppose the 72-hour waiting period, while 42 percent support it. Additionally, 71 percent of voters said they wanted to see the state legislature move on to economic issues instead of attempting to override the Governor's veto.
Democrats in the House and Senate are expected to introduce companion bills today to reverse the US Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby by prohibiting for-profit employers from refusing to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives.
"Your health care decisions are not your boss's business. Since the Supreme Court decided it will not protect women's access to health care, I will," said Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), who together with Mark Udall (D-CO), is a lead sponsor the bill in the Senate.
The Protect Women's Health from Corporate Interference Act will prohibit employers from refusing to offer health coverage - including contraceptives - guaranteed to their employees under federal law. The bill provides that no federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), permits employers from refusing to comply with the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
In its Hobby Lobby decision last week, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled that RFRA prevented the government from requiring closely held corporations to comply with the ACA contraceptive coverage benefit if the owners of those corporations objected on religious grounds.
The Hobby Lobby decision did not address the religious exemption for houses of worship or the accommodation provided to religious non-profits, and the "Protect Women's Health from Corporate Interference Act" maintains the exemption to the ACA contraceptive coverage benefit, as well as the accommodation. Several religious non-profits have mounted challenges to the ACA accommodation, and the Supreme Court just last week granted a temporary emergency injunction to Wheaton College, a Christian college in Illinois, ruling that the school - which qualifies for an accommodation - did not have to comply with the ACA, calling into question whether the accommodation itself would be found to violate RFRA.
A Senate aide told the Huffington Post that the bill could reach the Senate floor for a vote as early as next week, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Tuesday indicated strong support for the proposal. "The one thing we're going to do during this work period, sooner rather than later, is to ensure that women's lives are not determined by virtue of five white men. This Hobby Lobby decision is outrageous, and we're going to do something about it," said Senator Reid at a news conference. "People are going to have to walk down here and vote, and if they vote with the five men on the Supreme Court, I think they are going to be treated unfavorably come November with the elections."
Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), and Jerry Nadler (D-NY) will introduce an identical bill on the House side, but it is unlikely to move in that chamber.
The Delaware House of Representatives last week followed the Delaware Senate in passing a bill to protect pregnant workers from discrimination. It now goes to Delaware Governor Jack Markell to sign.
The state's House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill about a week after the White House Summit on Working Families, during which President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
"Right now, if you're pregnant you could potentially get fired for taking too many bathroom breaks clearly from a boss who has never been pregnant or forced unpaid leave," President Obama remarked at the Summit. "That makes no sense."
The Delaware bill prohibits employers from firing or otherwise penalizing pregnant employees who need reasonable accommodations to perform their jobs, and requires employers to grant reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers, such as allowing these workers to use a stool, drink water on the job, or avoid heavy lifting. Employers will also be unable to force pregnant employees onto unpaid leave.
The federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was passed in 1978 to prevent employers from legally discriminating against pregnant women in hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, career development, or benefits, yet pregnancy discrimination in the workplace still persists. A report released last summer by the National Women's Law Center(NWLC) demonstrates that many pregnant women are not given even basic accommodations during pregnancy, and many pregnant workers-especially those in lower-paying jobs or jobs traditionally held by men-are fired or forced to take unpaid leave when they request these adjustments.
Just last week, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear Young v. United Parcel Service, a case that may help determine whether the PDA requires an employer to provide workplace accommodations to pregnant employees.
North Carolina college students are joining the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the US Department of Justice in a challenge to restrictive state voting laws that they argue violate the 26th Amendment. The amendment states that the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age."
State legislators in North Carolina passed sweeping voter suppression laws last year, which include creating a strict voter identification law, ending same-day voter registration, cutting down the length of early voting, and eliminating a program that encourages high school students to register to vote before they turn 18. The voter identification law is particularly restrictive for college students because student identification cards (including those issued by state-run universities) and out-of-state driver's license will not be accepted - although military and veteran identification cards will be.
"There's an unprecedented effort nationally by Republican-controlled legislatures to restrict the franchise in a way we haven't seen in a long time" said Marc Elias, the election lawyer bringing the claim. "Young voting in particular is a part of that effort."
In a hearing today, lawyers in the case will ask a judge to temporarily delay implementation of parts of the law until the court determines whether to uphold or strike down the law in July 2015.
Several other states have passed or attempted to pass voter identification laws, including Texas, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Supporters of these law claim that the laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud. However, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, found that voter fraud is extremely rare. These voter suppression laws, however, do disproportionately affect the ability of certain groups to vote, in particular people of color, women, the elderly, and the poor. The Brennan Center found that in addition to students, 25 percent of eligible African-American voters and 18 percent of people aged 65 and up do not have a current government-issued photo ID card. In addition, 34 percent of women voters do not have an ID that reflects their current name.
In an unsigned order issued on Thursday, a majority of the US Supreme Court granted a temporary emergency injunction to Wheaton College, a Christian college in Illinois, ruling that the school does not have to comply with the Affordable Care Act (ACA)contraceptive coverage benefit, prompting a severe rebuke from the three women Justices.
The decision comes on the heels of the Court's 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that closely-held corporations do not have to provide health insurance coverage of contraception if the owners of the corporation object on religious grounds. In Hobby Lobby, a majority of the Court determined that the ACA violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), noting that the ACA contraceptive coverage benefit was not the "least restrictive means" of obtaining the government's goal to provide preventive health services to women. In reaching that conclusion, the Court cited the fact that the government had provided an accommodation to religiously affiliated non-profits who opposed birth control.
Now, however, the Court has signaled that the accommodation itself - which requires religiously affiliated non-profits to submit a form declaring that it objects to providing contraceptive coverage - may not survive.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, issued a blistering dissent of the majority's opinion and of the Court on the whole. "Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word," she wrote. "Not so today." Justice Sotomayor continued, "Let me be absolutely clear, I do not doubt that Wheaton genuinely believes that signing the self-certification form is contrary to its religious beliefs. But thinking one's religious beliefs are substantially burdened--no matter how sincere or genuine that belief may be--does not make it so."
Justice Sotomayor said the decision to grant Wheaton a temporary injunction "evinces disregard for even the newest of this court's precedents and undermines confidence in this institution."
The ACA requires health insurance providers to cover preventive health services - including all FDA-approved contraceptives, such as the pill, emergency contraceptives, and IUDs - without charging co-pays, deductibles or co-insurance. Religious employers, such as churches, are exempted entirely from the requirement. Certain non-profits, who object to contraception on religious grounds, can obtain an accommodation that would allow these groups not to provide contraceptives to their employees. If the non-profit has an employer-provided group health insurance plan, then the employer would submit a certification to the insurance issuer. The issuer would then have to provide contraceptive coverage. If the non-profit employer has a self-insured plan, one that relies on employer-contributions without outside insurance contributions, then the employer would contract with a third-party administrator who would pay for and process claims for contraceptive services.
122 non-profits have sued the Obama Administration, claiming that the self-certification form itself is a violation of their constitutional right to religious freedom.
The US Supreme Court will decide next term whether the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) requires an employer to provide workplace accommodations to pregnant employees if that employer also provides comparable accommodations to non-pregnant employees who become temporarily unable to perform their jobs without the accommodation.
The case - Young v. United Parcel Service - was brought by Peggy Young, a UPS delivery driver in Landover, Maryland. In 2006, UPS denied Young's request for a light duty assignment after Young was instructed by her medical provider to avoid lifting more than 20 pounds during her pregnancy. Although UPS had accommodated other employees who needed light duty assignments because of disability or injury, it forced Young to take an unpaid leave of absence - without health insurance - for the duration of her pregnancy. Young sued alleging pregnancy discrimination, but two lower courts ruled against her. The Supreme Court will now decide whether the PDA requires employers who provide accommodations to non-pregnant employees must provide comparable accommodations to pregnant workers.
The passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978 was championed by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Eleanor Smeal, then-president of NOW. The PDA explicitly recognizes discrimination against pregnant women as a form of sex discrimination and prevents employers from legally discriminating against pregnant women in hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, career development, or benefits. The PDA expanded economic opportunities for women, helped women maintain job stability, protected women against lost wages and costs associated with job loss, and contributed to families overall financial well-being. Yet, pregnancy discrimination in the workplace persists. A report released last summer by the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) demonstrates that many pregnant women are not given even basic accommodations during pregnancy, and many pregnant workers-especially those in lower-paying jobs or jobs traditionally held by men-are fired or forced to take unpaid leave when they request these adjustments.
"It's time to put the Dark Ages behind us. Women are still losing their jobs because of pregnancy." Employers routinely accommodate non-pregnancy-related disabilities as a matter of course, but pregnant workers are still second-class citizens in too many workplaces," said Emily Martin, NWLC Vice-President and General Counsel. "If a worker has a medical need for accommodation because of pregnancy, all too often she is forced to make an impossible choice: risk her own health and pregnancy to keep a job, or lose her income at the moment she can least afford it. These women and their families pay a steep price. It's time for the Supreme Court to clarify the law and put a stop to employers pushing pregnant workers out of work."
The Supreme Court is only the latest institution to weigh in on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is working on new guidelines that would clarify employment issues related to pregnancy under the PDA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and several state and local governments, including most recently Delaware, have passed laws to require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees, such as allowing a worker to sit on a stool rather than stand, permission to carry water and food on the job, and re-assignment to temporary light duty. Young's case also led Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley to pass the "Reasonable Accommodations for Disabilities Due to Pregnancy Act."
President Obama at the White House Summit on Working Families last month also called on Congress to act on the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which would clarify that pregnant employees are guaranteed the same workplace protections that are in place for other workers temporarily unable to perform job duties without reasonable accommodations. The PWFA would also prohibit an employer from forcing a pregnant worker to use unpaid leave if she is able to work with a reasonable accommodation.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that certain public sector employees who benefit from a labor union's representation will no longer have to pay union fees.
According to the decision in Harris v. Quinn, written by Justice Alito, unions can now only take dues from full state employees, not "partial public employees" - people that may be employed by an individual but who are paid by the state, like the Illinois home health care workers in the case. Illinois is one of 26 states that requires public sector workers to pay partial dues to unions. A 5-4 majority of the Court, however, found that such a requirement, as applied to "partial public employees," violates the First Amendment. Justice Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor.
The Harris decision will affect around 26,000 home care workers who are paid with Medicaid funds, as well as their patients. In the 10 years since home healthcare workers have been allowed to unionize in Illinois, there have been not only significant improvements in their working conditions but also significant improvements in training. "Wages have nearly doubled, from $7 to $13 an hour; training and supervision has increased, as well as standardization of qualifications, and workers now have health insurance," reported NPR's Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in January.
The ruling in Harris is expected to lead to a large loss of union members and therefore a loss of union services that improve working conditions for all people in the union industries, like negotiating contracts and providing legal representation for grievances.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court did not strike down Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 case that allows public sector unions to require fees from nonmembers who benefit from the union's representation.
Laws restricting access to abortion went into effect in Mississippi and Florida yesterday.
Mississippi law now bans abortion 20 weeks after a woman's last menstrual period, about 18 weeks gestation -beforefetal viability. Last May, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an Arizona 20-week abortion ban as an unconstitutional violation of Roe v. Wade. The Mississippi law makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest and includes only a narrow exception for medical emergencies or fatal fetal abnormalities. Earlier this year Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (R) announced his intention, during his state of the state speech, to "end abortion in Mississippi." As it stands, there is only one abortion clinic remaining in the entire state.
Also on Tuesday, a new Florida law went into effect banning abortion at any point in the pregnancy once a fetus is deemed viable unless two doctors certify in writing that it is necessary to protect the health and life of the woman. If two doctors are not available, one must certify in writing that a second was unable to consult on the matter. The law also further limits abortions after 24 weeks - allowed if the pregnant person's life or health is threatened - by removing mental health conditions as a reason to allow a late abortion.
The United Nations warned this week that due to the escalating crisis in the northern and western parts of the country, about 250,000 Iraqi women and girls - including almost 60,000 pregnant women - need urgent health care as soon as possible.
Recent violence in Iraq has displaced approximately one million people, overwhelming health facilities in parts of the country. The problem is especially acute for women in need of maternity care. The United National Assistance Mission for Iraq reports, for example, that the Erbil Maternity Hospital has had an influx of women seeking services and has had to discharge women from the hospital as little as three hours after delivery. Although the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) provided the hospital with reproductive health and delivery kits for emergency obstetric care, the kits only contain supplies for up to 1,200 deliveries, meaning that the supplies will run out in a few weeks.
UNFPA estimates that 1,000 pregnant women in Iraq will face life-threatening complications each month. The organization is calling for immediate action to help those in Iraq who are suffering as a result of the current crisis, including an estimated 20,000 women and girls who are at increased risk of sexual violence during this period.
The US Supreme Court ruled Monday that "gay conversion therapy," which aims to change the sexual orientation of children under the age of 18, is within a state's right to regulate and can therefore be banned. The Court upheld an August 2013 ruling by California's Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, which stated that "therapies designed to change sexual orientation for those under the age of 18 were outside the scientific mainstream and have been disavowed by most major medical groups as unproven and potentially dangerous."
The law's sponsor, California state senator Ted Lieu, called the conversion therapy "psychological child abuse."
"The Court's refusal to accept the appeal of extreme ideological therapists who practice the quackery of gay conversion therapy is a victory for child welfare, science and basic humane principles," Lieu said in an Associated Press story.
Opponents to the ban, primarily Conservative Christians, say the ban infringes on therapists' right to free speech. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled that because the ban covers professional activities including counseling and therapy by a licensed provider, it is under state jurisdiction and is not a threat to free speech. Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern called the ban "a narrowly tailored, eminently sensible way to curb a dangerous, suicide-inducing practice that is condemned by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Medical Association."
New Jersey also has a ban on the controversial therapy. A challenge to the ban will be heard in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on July 9. If the Circuit Court rules against the ban, the split decision among circuit courts may require the Supreme Court to revisit the issue, according to Time Magazine.
The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 along rigid gender and ideological lines that "closely-held" corporations could not be required to provide health insurance coverage for methods of contraception that violate the corporation'ssincerely held religious beliefs -- preventing employees who work for these companies from accessing certain FDA-approved contraceptives.
In a statement issued by the Feminist Majority Foundation, President Eleanor Smeal said the decision "not only deprives women of comprehensive healthcare, but it sets a terrifying standard in affirming the 'personhood' of corporations."
Though the Court did not provide a definition of a "closely held" corporation (there are multiple state definitions), the Wall Street Journal reports that roughly 90 percent of all companies in the US are "closely held," and according to a 2009 NYU research study, roughly half of all private sector employees work for such corporations. Most of these corporations, however, have no religious affiliation, so it remains unclear how many women will be affected by the Court's decision yesterday. Currently, 30 million women have access to birth control without co-pays or deductibles because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Even as the Court decided that closely-held corporations could have religious rights protected by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the conservative majority minimized not only the importance of women's health but also the goal of women's equality.
Writing for the majority, Justice Alito suggested that "gender equality" might be too "broadly formulated" to satisfy a compelling government interest that would justify the ACA birth control benefit. This downplay of women's equality did not go unnoticed by Justice Ginsburg, who wrote, in dissent, that the government's interest in "women's well-being" is "concrete, specific, and demonstrated by a wealth of empirical evidence." Justice Ginsburg also noted that in providing for contraceptive coverage for women without co-pays or deductibles, Congress was acting on the understanding - articulated in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) - that "the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest delivered a statement on the Hobby Lobby decision yesterday, stating that "President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them." He continued, "Today's decision jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies . . . the owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits." The White House is calling on Congress to take action to ensure that the women and employees affected by the Court's decision will have coverage for contraceptive care.
At the White House annual LGBT Pride Month reception Monday night, President Obama reiterated his commitment to sign an executive order protecting transgender federal employees from discrimination.
President Obama told the crowd, "If Congress won't act, I will."He pledged that the Executive Order would include employees already protected on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the federal workplace, but it did not limit discrimination against employees on the basis of gender identification.
"Though this administration has previously interpreted existing law to cover transgender federal employees, updating the language of this executive order makes it 100% clear that transgender federal employees must be treated equally at work," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality stated.
Congress has failed to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) every term since it was first introduced in 1994. ENDA would protect people from discrimination in the workplace based on gender identity or sexual orientation. The Senate passed ENDA in November, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) opposes the bill and has yet to bring it to the floor.
Last week, Boehner announced his intent to file a lawsuit against the Executive Branch, alleging that the President is violating the Constitution by using the power of an Executive Order. In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopolous, the President called Boehner's lawsuit "a stunt." President Obama also announced his intent to address immigration reform by executive order.
The White House has not set a timetable for the non-discrimination executive order for transgender employees.
MISSISSIPPI - Two members of Feminist Majority Foundation's campus team were in Jackson, Mississippi this past week engaging with social justice groups on the subject of modern-day voter suppression.
National Campus Organizer Edwith Theogene and Campus Communications Associate Taylor Kuether attended plenaries, workshops, and breakout sessions centralized around voting and labor issues as part of Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary conference at Tougaloo College. They joined 1500 conference participants from 23 states, including 500 youth participants.
Theogene and Kuether also represented Feminist Majority Foundation in the conference's youth component, Freedom Summer Youth Congress. On Thursday, they trained a group of high school and college students to create student groups of their own, organizing around issues including voting rights.
Wednesday's workshops and sessions heavily featured the issue of voter suppression, the very issue that incited a groundswell of grassroots organizing in the summer of 1964, or Freedom Summer. This year, rather than fighting for equal voting rights, the issue is reclaiming voting rights that were stripped away by the Supreme Court last summer. The Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder gutted, with a slim 5-4 decision, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Court declared unconstitutional Section 4 of the act that established the formula determining which states, primarily in the South, with a history of prior racial discrimination needed to obtain prior federal approval or preclearance before a change in the state's voting laws could go into effect.
Hollis Watkins, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and National Chair of Freedom 50, spoke during a press conference about registering African American voters in the summer of 1964. "We gradually gave power not only to a few, but begin to spread the power among the masses of the people. When I say power, I'm talking about having the capacity to make things happen," Watkins said. "One of the ways that this would come about would be through registering a lot of our people to vote."
Derrick Johnson, Mississippi state president of NAACP, said a vote for every single person is imperative in the democratic system. "Voting is not about election cycles, it is about using our democratic currency," Johnson said. "The voter ID law is similar to the poll tax; it prevents African Americans from being able to vote."
Theogene attended for FMF a breakout session on Wednesday titled, "Voting Rights: 'Our Southern Strategy Taking the Leadership,'" receiving further training in voter rights issues both current and historic.
"How do we live in this post-Shelby world?" asked Theogene, "In 1964 we fought so hard for the voting rights act, and last year it was gutted. We're still fighting the same fight we fought in 1964. It may look different, but it's not."
"We need to use old strategies to inform new strategies," said Theogene, "this isn't a new battle. We need to come up with a strategy to break down a political platform built on excluding people, and that's why voting matters."
The Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference continued through Saturday. On Thursday, Theogene and Kuether trained students in grassroots organizing on their campuses in the areas of voting rights and other social justice issues as part of the conference's Freedom Summer Youth Congress.
Follow Theogene and Kuether's trip, including event recaps, photos, and live-tweets of conference sessions, at @FeministCampus.