First they came for women’s healthcare….

So, Pennsylvania voter, you thought the 2010 election was about state government spending and a sluggish economy. Ha! Sucker.

No, apparently the top priority in our state Senate is not filling the approximately $4 billion budget hole for next year or wrestling with job growth or figuring out what to do about our looming crises in state pensions and corrections. Instead, the very first bill to be passed out of a Senate committee this session is on abortion. That is not a typo.

Despite the many challenges facing our commonwealth, the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee yesterday passed Senate Bill 3. This bill would ban insurance companies from offering abortion coverage in the health insurance exchanges created by the federal Affordable Care Act, aka healthcare reform, except in cases involving rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. Even the rape and incest exceptions come with hurdles that could lead women to not have coverage.

(Pause for background: The exchanges provide a place where insurance companies can find more customers and customers can find lower rates because they are participating in a group, rather than as individuals. Essentially, it’s a way for people without health insurance to shop for it. The exchanges were created by the federal law but will be administered by the states.)

Numerous senators and their staffers thought they were voting to prohibit coverage for taxpayer-funded abortions. The ACLU would oppose that, too, because we don’t think poor women should be denied safe and critical care, but SB 3 goes much further. It completely bans insurance companies from covering abortion for customers in the exchanges, including those who pay for the coverage with their own money.

In fact, the Affordable Care Act already prohibits patients who get government subsidies from using the subsidies for abortion coverage. If a woman who participates in the exchange wants abortion coverage, she must get separate coverage and make a separate payment with her own money.

SB 3 wedges the government between a private insurance company and its customer. Talk about a government takeover of healthcare.

Looming over this debate is the recent indictment of Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia. Dr. Gosnell is accused of running an abortion clinic in which he allegedly killed live babies and one woman.

What our legislators don’t get- and what we as civil libertarians have to push- is that there will be more Dr. Gosnells if the government continues to make it difficult for women to access safe abortion care. The Gosnell story gives us a look at a dark day in the future, if women cannot get the care they need. The back alley abortion will return.

We don’t want to get to that day. SB 3 must be stopped.

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Standing in the schoolhouse door

Earlier this week, two state senators announced their intention to introduce legislation to offer state-funded school vouchers to low-income students. They framed their legislation as a civil rights issue, and one senator went so far as to suggest that opponents of the bill (like the ACLU of PA) are “like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue the segregation of the ‘60s.”

It’s true that access to a good education is a civil rights issue. Children in this country who aren’t getting a quality education are almost always poor and often racial or ethnic minorities.

But the opponents of this school voucher plan have as much claim to the civil rights flag, if not more, than the proponents. The greatest amount of “choice” in “school choice” belongs to the private schools themselves. Private, religious schools can discriminate against kids and parents on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability, and gender.

In the late 1980s, a racial discrimination lawsuit was filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, claiming racial bias in the Philadelphia Catholic School system. A state court ruled that the school system of the archdiocese is exempt from the public accommodations provision of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, our non-discrimination law.

All private schools can discriminate against kids and families on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or familial or marital status because they are not protected classes in the PHRA.

Public schools, meanwhile, take everyone.

The ACLU of PA opposes this legislation because private schools discriminate and because it funnels state money to religious institutions. If the supporters of the bill want to have a discussion about civil rights, let’s have that discussion.

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Philadelphia: LGBT Town Hall and Happy Hour TONIGHT, 6:30 PM

If you are in or around Philadelphia and you’re a member of the LGBT community (and that includes straight supporters!) we invite you to join us tonight at 6:30 PM at the William Way Community Center, 1315 Spruce Street in Philadelphia.

Join the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Equality Pennsylvania and the Human Rights Campaign to discuss the challenges facing Pennsylvania’s LGBT population now and in the future.  The Town Hall will take place from 6:30 until 8:30, when we’ll move to Tabu Lounge and Sports Bar , 200 South 12th Street, where we can drown our sorrows in drink specials.  

This meeting is one of many that the ACLU, Equality PA and the HRC will be hosting around the state.  If you can’t make it to Philadelphia, we hope you will join us when we gather in your region!

Photo by Flickr user terry6082 Books, available under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License.

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Friday First Amendment Roundup: Interrupting the Constitution, Shielding Against Whistleblowers, and the Soledad Cross

Big week for civil liberties this week, with new lawmakers (and new House majorities) both in Harrisburg and in Washington.  PA State Representative Darryl Metcalfe is starting hard out of the gate, with an anti-baby bill and an anti-gay Constitutional amendment in his eager little hands.  As we always remind you, though, challenges to civil liberties come in all shapes and sizes.  Here’s a quick review of what you may have missed this week.

  • First and most exciting: in case you missed it, it’s legal again to swear in Pennsylvania.  Don’t say we never did anything for you.
  • The House of Representatives opened their new session with its first-ever reading of the U.S. Constitution, which opened the opportunity for a birther to give us the first-ever heckling of the House as they read the Constitution.
  • Not to be outdone, protesters several times interrupted the press conference by Darryl Metcalfe and his colleagues announcing their multi-state anti-baby bill.  Note the woman 46 seconds into the video urging the protesters to “respect [the speaker’s] freedom of speech and sit down.” 
  • The ACLU welcomed the new congress with polite urging to uphold and protect the rights and values enshrined in the Constitution.
  • It’s hard to say whether House members had a chance to read their nice letter from the ACLU before proposing the “Shield Bill,” which would make it a crime to knowingly and willfully disseminate any information “concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States.”  Aimed at whistle-blowers and organizations like WikiLeaks, there are also very serious questions about its potential limitations on journalists.  As an aside, the last time Congress passed a “Shield Bill,” it was intended to shield journalists against retaliatory prosecution.  
  • A Federal judge in Rhode Island ruled against the Rhode Island ACLU’s argument that the city of Narragansett’s “Orange Sticker Law,” aimed at curtailing loud college parties by quite literally labeling houses police consider a problem, is unconstitutional.
  • The Ninth Circuit, meanwhile, ruled that the “Soledad Cross” is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, and sent the case back to a federal court to determine whether the cross may be modified to pass muster, or must be removed altogether.
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All Daryl, All the Time

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe is keeping us busy this week. First there was his fringe idea of denying citizenship to babies born in the United States through state legislation, completely subverting the 14th Amendment.

Today we put out an action alert calling on our supporters to contact their state reps to ask them to not co-sponsor Metcalfe’s state constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships.

Yesterday I did an email interview with a staffer from, and while the piece turned out to be a profile of Metcalfe with no real analysis of the issues at hand- and, thus, minus my comments- the beauty of using the internets is that we can self-publish. So here’s the transcript of what I sent to The initial questions are about Metcalfe’s bill that mirrors Arizona’s “papers please” law.

PoliticsPA: On what grounds does ACLU object to such a bill?
Andy: The Arizona law is unconstitutional, and a federal court affirmed that position. The law is pre-empted by federal law on immigration and will inevitably lead to racial profiling.

The states don’t have the power to simply make up their own immigration laws. Certainly, state legislators have every right to be frustrated with the federal government, on any number of issues. But they don’t just get to take over that area of law because they’re frustrated. If state legislators were frustrated with how the federal government handles foreign policy, could they just take it over? Of course not. The same is true with immigration.

PoliticsPA: How would its enforcement affect immigrant communities in PA?
Andy: Passing this bill in PA would negatively impact relationships between immigrant communities and law enforcement. Immigrants- with or without papers- would be afraid to speak up as witnesses and as victims. The law enforcement community understands this, which is why so many of them spoke up when Metcalfe introduced the bill last session.

This bill would also scare away all immigrants and suggest that Pennsylvania is not a place where immigrants are welcome. Arizona’s census numbers were below expectations. Why? No one can say for certain, but it is reasonable to speculate that SB 1070 played a role in driving people away. There was certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence of that. This impacts federal funding for the state and how many members of Congress we have.

Immigrants also make our communities safer because they commit crime at a lower rate than natural born citizens. Hazleton’s crime rate dropped between 2000 and 2005 when it’s population increased 50% due to an influx of immigrants, as we proved in court. El Paso, TX, is one of the safest big cities in the country. And Arizona’s crime rate is the lowest its been in at least a decade and maybe more.

PoliticsPA: How would you respond to the claim that this bill would help PA’s economy?
Andy: That claim has no basis in fact. Every legitimate study of the economic benefits of immigrants, with or without papers, shows that immigration is a net economic gain.

The anti-immigrant crowd hangs its hat on a study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group. The FAIR study produced only a gross number and did not consider the ways in which people without papers give back economically. In addition, more than 90% of the costs in the FAIR study were for education, and 75% of those students were natural born citizens. In other words, when anti-immigrant legislators cite the FAIR study, they are complaining about the costs of educating US citizens.

PoliticsPA: Rep. Matcalfe insists that the bill would not lead to racial profiling, citing provisions that law enforcement could only investigate someone’s legal status as a secondary issue. Do you think it would lead to racial
Andy: Yes. When the bill was introduced, Rep. Creighton told the Lancaster paper that an officer has to make a “subjective decision” when deciding whether or not to check a person’s immigration status. That’s exactly our point.

We have a case that illustrates this, even without this law in place. Our client was born in New Jersey and is of Puerto Rican descent. He was caught up in a drug sweep at his workplace. The drug charges were cleared quickly, but he was then held for three days for possible deportation. His driver’s license and his Social Security card were in his wallet, in the government’s possession, the entire time.

In western PA, there was a situation where a police officer asked a man for his papers while he sat on his front porch. It is inevitable that this bill, if enacted, will lead to racial profiling.

PoliticsPA: How does ACLU plan to combat this effort?
Andy: Well, we have a lot of work to do. We must convince community leaders, including the business community and law enforcement, to speak up, and we must organize at the grass roots level, too. I don’t think legislators hear enough from their constituents who are with us, and we have to change that.

PoliticsPA: How about his idea to limit birthright citizenship?
Andy: Here’s our press release on it. This bill is unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment protects the American values of fairness and equality. It ensures that a person’s citizenship does not hinge on who his parents are or where they came from. It stops citizenship from becoming a political football and from being prone to the discriminatory whims of the day. Without it, we would create a permanent underclass. Metcalfe’s bill would create a caste system in America.

If Metcalfe’s immigration bills somehow became law, it would cost the commonwealth a lot of money. The laws would be challenged, and the commonwealth would almost certainly lose.

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Metcalfe Off to a Quick Start with Unconstitutional Anti-Immigrant Bill

In session less than a day, and the Pennsylvania Legislature is already making us work.  State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County is proposing a state law that would attempt to subvert the 14th Amendment, denying birth certificates to U.S. citizen babies born in the United States to immigrant parents.  

Metcalfe announced his intentions today at a press conference with lawmakers from 40 other states, as a solution to America’s fictional problem with “anchor babies,” and the even-more-hysterical-and-fictional “terror babies.”  

The ACLU strongly opposes any such bill, and points out that no such state law will hold up in court against the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  That won’t stop Daryl Metcalfe and his companions from wasting taxpayer time and money on discrimination and fear-mongering.

Incidentally, you can catch Daryl Metcalfe, and ACLU of Pennsylvania Legislative Director Andy Hoover, discussing this issue on CNN’s “Situation Room” tonight.  We’re not sure exactly what time, but it should be between 5:00 and 7:00 PM.

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Will you watch the House read the Constitution?

The House is scheduled to open their session tomorrow with a public reading of the U.S. Constitution.  You can watch live on C-SPAN beginning at 10:00 AM. I’m sure it will be on around the office here – we’re all looking forward to the looks of shock and astonishment when they get to that part about “establishment of religion.”

This move by the new House majority certainly has stimulated debate.  Speaking for myself, while I might disagree with the motives behind this particular reading, I don’t see how starting a session by reading aloud the document Congress is sworn to uphold can be a bad thing.

One thing the Pope and I agree on (is it the only thing?  I wonder if he thinks chocolate is delicious…) is that it’s a lot easier to read a document out loud than to live by it.  My guess is even after a public reading of the Constitution, America is still going to need the ACLU.

Then again, maybe Congress will finish reading, wipe away their patriotic tears, and throw open the doors of Guantanamo Bay.  They draw up a repeal of DOMA on a napkin, and throw in repeals of USA PATRIOT and the Military Commissions Act while they’re at it.  As they’re joined in singing the little-known second verse of the Star Spangled Banner, Habeas Corpus returns from his nine-year vacation and all is right in the United States.

Wouldn’t that be a hell of day on C-SPAN.

So what are your thoughts on this public reading of the Constitution?  Will you be watching?

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