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June 25, 2014 0

One Year After Shelby, Voters Are Getting Wet

Today marks the one year anniver­sary of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court struck down key parts of the land­mark Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the

Sec­tion 5 of the VRA requires fed­eral gov­ern­ment approval for any elec­tion law changes—issues rang­ing from polling site loca­tions to redraw­ing con­gres­sional dis­trict lines—in juris­dic­tions with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing prac­tices. But one year ago, the Supreme Court held uncon­sti­tu­tional the for­mula used to deter­mine which states and local­i­ties would have to sub­mit their vot­ing changes to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, find­ing its ori­gins in vot­ing sta­tis­tics and statutes from decades past too atten­u­ated to jus­tify present day fed­eral intervention.

In Shelby, Chief Jus­tice Roberts cited advances in minor­ity vot­ing and reg­is­tra­tion in the cov­ered juris­dic­tions, not­ing that African Amer­i­can turnout sur­passes white turnout in some of the pre­vi­ously cov­ered states.

But Jus­tice Gins­burg, in her pow­er­ful dis­sent, analo­gized strik­ing down key parts of the VRA to “throw­ing away your umbrella in a rain­storm because you are not get­ting wet.” In essence Jus­tice Gins­burg pre­dicted that, with­out the pro­tec­tions of the VRA, voter sup­pres­sion prob­lems would rain down on those for­merly cov­ered juris­dic­tions once more.

Indeed, a new report by the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Human Rights sug­gests that the skies remain omi­nously over­cast. Moments after the Supreme Court announced its deci­sion, Texas imple­mented voter ID and redis­trict­ing laws pre­vi­ously held invalid under Sec­tion 5. Alabama and Mis­sis­sippi sim­i­larly moved for­ward with voter ID laws pre­vi­ously held at bay. Weeks after the deci­sion, North Car­olina acted to elim­i­nate same-day voter reg­is­tra­tion, restrict early vot­ing, and enact one of the tough­est voter ID laws in the country.

Vir­ginia fur­ther tight­ened a voter ID law pre­vi­ously approved by the Depart­ment of Jus­tice in a more lenient form. Around the coun­try, leg­is­la­tors con­tinue to intro­duce new bills that threaten to restrict the right to vote.

The impact of these laws on minor­ity vot­ers remains to be seen, and some face legal obsta­cles before going into effect. Recent fed­eral court deci­sions in Wis­con­sin and Penn­syl­va­nia inval­i­dat­ing voter ID laws demon­strate that avenues may remain for fed­eral enforce­ment of vot­ing rights. And efforts are ongo­ing to revive Sec­tion 5 through lit­i­ga­tion and through new leg­is­la­tion. But the devel­op­ments in the one year since Shelby County serve as an impor­tant reminder that the right to vote remains ten­u­ous and must be vig­i­lantly pro­tected, par­tic­u­larly with­out the safe­guards of Sec­tion 5.

On this one-year anniver­sary of Shelby, take action and urge Con­gress to restore Sec­tion 5 by pass­ing the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014.

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June 20, 2014 2

Public H.S. Graduation In Church? Good News, Bad News From High Court

The good news is that the U.S. Supreme Court recently denied hear­ing an appeal of a lower court case — Doe v. Elm­brook School Dis­trict - which effec­tively affirms sep­a­ra­tion of church and state prin­ci­ples in the pub­lic schools.   The bad news is that Jus­tice Scalia issued an alarm­ing dis­sent which uses the Court’s already dis­turb­ing May 5th leg­isla­tive prayer deci­sion —  Greece v. Gal­loway  — to advance his long­stand­ing con­sti­tu­tional world view against church-state separation.religion-public-schools-supreme-court

The Sev­enth Circuit’s Elm­brook deci­sion involved a school district’s use of a church for high school grad­u­a­tions cer­e­monies over nine years.  Alter­na­tive sec­u­lar loca­tions were avail­able, but the dis­trict super­in­ten­dent, who is a mem­ber of the church, approved its use.  Dur­ing grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies, the church refused to cover a 15–20 foot Latin Cross at the front of the sanc­tu­ary.  Bibles and hym­nal books remained in the pews.  And the church lobby, which is the only route for vis­i­tors to the sanc­tu­ary and a nat­ural con­gre­gat­ing point, con­tained reli­gious lit­er­a­ture, much of which addressed chil­dren and teens, sym­bols, ban­ners, and posters. The Sev­enth Cir­cuit ruled that these cir­cum­stances con­sti­tuted uncon­sti­tu­tional reli­gious endorse­ment and coercion.

Jus­tice Scalia’s appli­ca­tion of the Greece deci­sion in the pub­lic school con­text is akin to putting a square peg in a round hole.  Greece involved a nar­row, historically-based excep­tion to the Estab­lish­ment Clause for leg­isla­tive prayer, which has no rel­e­vance beyond that con­text.  But that fact did not get in the way of Scalia using the deci­sion to issue a dis­sent pro­mot­ing his view of the First Amendment’s Estab­lish­ment Clause merely pro­hibit­ing an offi­cial state reli­gion and gov­ern­ment com­pelled worship.  

Accord­ing to Scalia, the Elm­brook deci­sion required Supreme Court review for two main rea­sons.   First, the Greece deci­sion elim­i­nated the impor­tant, decades-old endorse­ment test, which means that the Seventh’s Circuit’s con­clu­sion about the school dis­trict endors­ing reli­gion is void.  Sec­ond, the Sev­enth Circuit’s rul­ing on reli­gious coer­cion is invalid because in his view Greece stands for the across-the-board prin­ci­ple that there can­not be reli­gious coer­cion with­out state com­pelled reli­gious wor­ship, which did not occur in the Elm­brook case.

Advo­cates for sep­a­ra­tion of church and state greeted the Greece deci­sion with deep trep­i­da­tion.  Its dis­crete rul­ing allows overtly sec­tar­ian prayers in one-faith tra­di­tion before local leg­isla­tive bod­ies.  As a result, com­mu­nity mem­bers seek­ing redress from such pub­lic bod­ies – par­tic­u­larly those in the reli­gious minor­ity — will likely feel pres­sure to par­tic­i­pate in reli­gious obser­vances not of their own faith.  Fur­ther­more, the decision’s rea­son­ing could be taken out of con­text and used beyond the nar­row con­text of leg­isla­tive prayer.  Jus­tice Scalia’s dis­sent jus­ti­fies that fear.   Although his dis­sent is not bind­ing on any court, oppo­nents of the sep­a­ra­tion prin­ci­ple will undoubt­edly attempt to use it to for­ward their agenda in the pub­lic schools and beyond.


June 18, 2014 0

Honoring The Memory Of Murdered Civil Rights Workers

June 21 marks the 50th anniver­sary of the mur­ders of three young civil rights work­ers who trav­elled to Mis­sis­sippi for “Free­dom Sum­mer,” to help African Amer­i­can res­i­dents under­stand their con­sti­tu­tional rights and reg­is­ter to vote.  Fac­ing deep insti­tu­tional racism, fewer than five per­cent of the 500,000 black adults in Mis­sis­sippi were then reg­is­tered to vote.  Michael “Mickey” Schw­erner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Good­man, 20, knew they were risk­ing their lives for their cause. murdered-civil-rights-workers

On June 21, 1964, after they had inves­ti­gated the burn­ing of a black church, the three young men were reported miss­ing.    Forty-four days later, their bod­ies were found buried deep in a dam in Philadel­phia, Mis­sis­sippi.  The nation later learned that on their way back, the men’s car had been stopped for a pre­text traf­fic vio­la­tion and the three had been arrested and held for sev­eral hours.  On their release, they were fol­lowed and mur­dered by mem­bers of the Neshoba Coun­try Sheriff’s Depart­ment, Philadel­phia Police, and mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

When Mis­sis­sippi pros­e­cu­tors refused to press mur­der charges, fed­eral author­i­ties, led by Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­eral for Civil Rights John Doar, brought fed­eral crim­i­nal civil rights charges – with mixed results:  seven of the 18 defen­dants were con­victed, with sen­tences between three and ten years.  At the sen­tenc­ing in Decem­ber 1967, fed­eral judge William Harold Cox crudely explained, “They killed one nig­ger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.”  In 1999, a new gen­er­a­tion of Mis­sis­sippi law enforce­ment offi­cials reopened pro­ceed­ings, and in 2005 the State of Mis­sis­sippi indicted the Klan leader who had led the group.  ADL wel­comed his conviction.

The mur­ders in Mis­sis­sippi in 1964 out­raged the nation, pro­vid­ing addi­tional momen­tum to pro­pel pas­sage of the com­pre­hen­sive Civil Rights Act later that sum­mer – and the Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA), one of the most impor­tant, effec­tive civil rights laws – the fol­low­ing year.

We have come a long way as a nation since 1964, but vig­i­lance is nec­es­sary to retain that hard-earned progress.  In 2013, unfor­tu­nately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a crit­i­cal VRA pro­vi­sion in Shelby County v. Holder.  The League had urged the Court to uphold the Act in an ami­cus brief.  Instead, a nar­row Court major­ity elim­i­nated the for­mula to deter­mine which states must seek prior gov­ern­ment approval for vot­ing changes. The very day the deci­sion was handed down, a num­ber of states began enact­ing previously-blocked voter ID laws and redis­trict­ing mea­sures.

Now, fifty years later, the League is help­ing to lead a very large coali­tion work­ing to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion, pro­mote equal­ity, and pro­tect the same vot­ing rights for which Schw­er­mer, Good­man, and Chaney gave their lives. ADL is urg­ing broad sup­port  for the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA) which would cre­ate a new for­mula for pre-clearing vot­ing rights changes.

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