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June 28, 2016

Court Warns Mississippi Legislature on Efforts to Circumvent Marriage Equality

Yesterday, a federal court gave Mississippi’s legislature a stern warning about its efforts to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling.  The warning was made in the context of plaintiffs to a marriage-equality lawsuit asking the U.S. District Court for Northern Mississippi to reopen their case in a challenge to HB 1523, the State’s so-called “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” which goes into effect on July 1st.


Shortly after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, the District Court issued a permanent order making the marriage-equality ruling binding on the “… State of Mississippi and all of its agents, officers, employees, and subsidiaries….”

Earlier this year, however, the State enacted HB 1523, which broadly allows Mississippians to deny goods or services to their fellow citizens based on their own “religious beliefs or moral convictions” that marriage is limited to opposite sex couples.  One HB 1523 provision empowers clerks and their subordinates to refuse issuance of marriage licenses based on this religious or moral viewpoint provided that “… marriage is not impeded or delayed as a result of any recusal.”  But the statute contains no protections to safeguard against impediments or delays.

The plaintiffs rightly argue that HB 1523 conflicts with the District Court’s permanent order, and are insisting that it be revised to fully protect their 14th Amendment marriage-equality rights.

In granting the plaintiffs’ request to reopen the case, the Court found that HB 1523 “… may in fact amend Mississippi’s marriage licensing regime in such a way as to conflict with Obergefell.”  Furthermore, it warned that State legislature that:

[T]he marriage license issue will not be adjudicated anew every legislative session.  And the judiciary will remain vigilant whenever a named party to an injunction is accused of circumventing that injunction, directly or indirectly.

The plaintiffs’ request to the Court is part of a broader challenge to the constitutionality of HB 1523, which contains other provisions favoring particular religious or moral viewpoints, including limiting sexual relations to opposite-sex marriage and basing gender identity strictly on biological sex.   The law’s preferences are clearly inconsistent with the First Amendment’s free speech and establishment clauses.  Based on this court ruling, with its warning emphasizing judicial vigilance, there is reason to believe that the discriminatory HB 1523 will eventually be struck in its entirety.

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March 11, 2016

Turning Current Events Instruction Into Social Justice Teaching

Jinnie Spiegler
Director of Curriculum, Anti-Defamation League

This blog orig­i­nally appeared on Edutopia

Marriage equality, refugees seeking safety in Europe, the Confederate flag, police shootings of black and Latino men, the presidential election, Caitlyn Jenner, ISIS, and immigration are just a few of the news stories that inhabited the headlines this year on our phones, laptops, and newspapers. Unlike 20 years ago when teachers and parents had to intentionally raise current events topics with young people, nowadays students are already part of the conversation. Through their smartphones, social media outlets, and overheard conversations, they know what is happening. And yet, do students really understand the headlines they see? Do they have the chance to grapple with the information, or is it simply seeping into their psyche with no opportunity to ask questions, dig deeper, or explore how they feel about it?

Most educators feel a sense of responsibility to talk with their students about what’s going on in society and the world. Indeed, it’s the reason that many decided to become teachers in the first place. With topics both large and small — from the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality to the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards, from racism in policing to the school dress codes controversy — teaching about current events has enormous benefits for students. And it almost always has a social justice lens with which to learn, analyze, and discover.

Whether teachers have a few minutes, one class period, or an entire unit to spend on a current event topic, the opportunity is ripe with learning potential. Students’ high interest and motivation lay the groundwork for being an informed citizen and talking at home with parents and family members. Current events discussions offer ample opportunity for skill building (e.g. vocabulary development, reading and writing informational and analytical text, oral expression, critical analysis — all part of the ELA Common Core Learning Standards). Students can build and practice their social and emotional skills, and these topics often present an opportunity to connect the present with the past. Finally, because so many current events topics shed light on human and civil rights, teachers have an excellent conversational bridge as well as a lens for addressing equity and justice, a topic that so many young people are hungry to discuss.

As you reflect on what and how to bring current events topics into your classroom, consider the following:

1. Thoughtfully consider who is in your classroom.

All current events topics have the potential to raise sensitive issues for students, especially around identity. Whether the topic brings up race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration, etc., think about the composition of your students. The young people who might identify with the topic personally will likely have a range of thoughts and feelings about discussing the topic: relief, embarrassment, annoyance, pride, excitement, or nothing at all. Do not assume that all of the students in that identity group know about or are interested in talking about the topic at hand, and be careful not to put those students in the position of being the “authority” or main possessor of knowledge on the topic. Do not ask or expect them to speak for all students in this identity group. If you anticipate that the topic could be very emotional for some students, consider speaking with them prior to the lesson.

2. Explore opinions and perspective.

Most news topics raise controversial issues with different points of view. Use the topic as an opening to help students understand what they believe and why they believe it. Provide opportunities to talk about and write their opinions on the issue. Engage them in reading about and listening to the opinions of others — their classmates as well as op-ed columnists and subject matter experts. This can and should complicate their thinking and propel them to question, change, and/or sharpen their points of view, and articulate those positions with evidence. Discussion, debate and dialogue should be foundations for these conversations.

3. Make the anti-bias, social justice theme explicit and clear.

Whatever the subject is, bring to the center of the discussion the specific aspect of diversity, bias, or injustice that it raises. For example, when discussing homelessness, explore the stigma and stereotypes of homeless people in the U.S. You may also need to provide some foundational skill development in understanding the language of bias, or give background information in order for students to understand a current controversy (e.g. understand the history of and discrimination against Native American people, including the history of mascots and symbols in sports, in order to make sense of the Washington Redskins’ name controversy).

4. Make the lesson interactive and use technology.

As much as possible, create interactive and engaging activities that also develop skills and expand knowledge. This could take the form of debates, mock trials, student surveys or interviews, small-group discussions, role plays, teach-ins, or a simpler activity. Take advantage of students’ interest and acumen in the digital world by integrating student blogs, photography and video, and social media platforms, and by following specific hashtags, infographics, and analysis of how social media has helped to facilitate current activist efforts.

5. Do something.

Topics in the news can easily lead to despair, anger, and hopelessness. Especially for young people, it is critical that we give them the perspective and tools to do something about the injustice they see in the world. Exposing students to the wide range of responses to injustice, including activism strategies both past and present, goes a long way toward their turning these negative emotions into positive actions. If possible, work together on a class project, and encourage students to get involved in larger efforts on issues that are important to them.

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September 3, 2015

Public Officials: If Your Religion Prevents You From Doing Your Job, Step Aside

Many of us make important decisions in our daily lives grounded in our religious values and beliefs. That should be respected, even perhaps, applauded. However when one chooses to take an oath of office or accepts a position as a public official in a secular constitutional democracy like ours, she has a responsibility to do the job she was hired to do. Rowan County Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis’s job requires her to issue marriage licenses to anyone who may legally get married.

LGBT Zip code

On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court formally recognized the dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people when it extended the freedom to marry to same-sex couples nationwide. The Court ruled that the Constitution forbids states to ban marriage for same-sex couples. Since the decision, a small minority of public officials, most notably Ms. Davis, have argued that they should be exempt from having to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing their sincerely held religious beliefs. The Supreme Court disagrees, and yet Davis continues to defy the Court by denying same-sex couples marriage licenses. Now, she and, at her directive, her staff, are refusing to issue marriage licenses making it impossible for anyone to obtain a marriage license in that county.

No one should question or challenge Ms. Davis’s religious beliefs. The fact that some news articles and commentators have criticized Davis’s beliefs as inconsistent or hypocritical is beside the point. The bottom line is that she has no right, constitutional or otherwise, to refuse to do the job the state of Kentucky pays her to do.

The reality, as ADL’s amicus brief argued, is that overturning marriage bans ensures that religious considerations do not improperly influence which marriages the state can recognize, but still allows religious groups to decide the definition of marriage for themselves. That remains true. Rabbis, priests, ministers cannot be compelled to participate in marriages of which they do not approve. Religions are not required to solemnize any kind of marriage they don’t want to recognize. However, that does not mean that government employees may abandon their duties nor may they seek to impose their religious beliefs on others by interfering with their constitutional right to marry.

If Ms. Davis or others feel that they cannot fulfill the duties they were selected to perform, they should step aside and allow others to serve the community.

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, ADL neither supports nor opposes any candidate for political office.

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