January 05, 2016
By Erik R. Fleming, Legislative Strategist
The 2016 Mississippi Legislative Session promises to be intriguing. There will be a host of new faces roaming the Capitol in both houses and a number of issues will dominate the session, primarily education funding, changing of the State Flag and the allocation of the $1.5 billion BP settlement. However, the ACLU of Mississippi will push a set of legislation that we believe will be topics of substantive debate as well.
This legislation protects all Mississippians from discrimination and is the major focus of our “We Are ALL Mississippi” Campaign, which will affect a culture change in our state. With the support of a coalition of organizations, the Campaign holds our state accountable and stands on our bedrock values: respect, equality, and acting with decency towards our fellow man. We are asking the state legislature to protect everyone and prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, immigrant status, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation. WE ARE ALL MISSISSIPPI!
Imprisoning citizens because of debt is unconstitutional in the United States. However, we have seen a resurgence of “debtors’ prisons” that has put thousands in jail for being too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets or other minor misdemeanors, under the cover of contempt of court. A clear definition of an indigent defendant has never been established in Mississippi, therefore, adequate representation has been arbitrary and incarceration as a result of an inability to pay fines, fees and court costs has been almost certain. The ACLU of Mississippi is introducing legislation that clearly defines indigency, establishes a substantial right for poor people to be represented by counsel in court, and limits the courts’ ability to incarcerate citizens for failure to pay fines in a timely manner. No one should be forced to face jail time because of their inability to pay fines.
We will resubmit legislation to amend Section § 37-7-321, of the Mississippi Code of 1972 that requires all School Resource Officers (SROs) complete a uniform statewide training program prior to being permitted to serve in a school. That curricula should include, at a minimum, training on child and adolescent development; cultural competence; violence de-escalation; identifying a student’s social, emotional and mental needs; alternatives to use of force; and due process protections for students. Currently, school districts that qualify for MSCOPS grants for SROs send their officers to a comprehensive training program. This legislation will provide a safety net for all school districts, in that they would have competent officers to compensate for the 20% attrition rate of potential SROs that do not complete the MSCOPS training.
Police search thousands of cars each year at Mississippi traffic stops, usually looking for guns or drugs, through a simple request for a driver to consent. Drivers often don’t know that they can say no, or may feel coerced and isolated by the side of the road. However, law enforcement does not need permission to search a car if there is evidence of reasonable suspicion of a crime. The ACLU of Mississippi is introducing legislation to ensure that drivers understand their constitutional right to say no to a request to search by requiring written consent with a simple disclosure. This will cover instances when an officer doesn’t have a warrant, is not making an arrest, or does not have probable cause. Written consent improves policing as well as protects public safety and civil liberties.
Body cameras have the potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers. They are a win-win, helping to protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time guarding against false accusations of abuse. The challenge body cameras present is the potential for invasion of privacy, while also balancing the strong benefit in promoting police accountability. We will introduce legislation that ensures that body cameras will serve to protect the public, without becoming another system for routine surveillance. While our legislation will not mandate that all Mississippi law enforcement officers be equipped with body cameras, it will, for the sake of public confidence in the integrity of valued privacy protections, make sure that those that are equipped will do so within a framework of strong policies.
The ACLU of Mississippi looks forward to working with the 174 members of the Mississippi State Legislature to obtain the successful passage of these measures, while at the same time remaining vigilant to defeat any legislation that goes against our core principles of reformation, justice, equality, and freedom.
May 08, 2015
By Jennifer Dalven, Reproductive Freedom Project
A recent analysis of abortion attitudes by The New York Times came to the right conclusion: The divide on how Americans feel about abortion is much smaller than partisan politics would have us believe.
But there's a bigger idea that the piece in the Times — and the poll it relies on — missed: All too often, we're still asking the wrong questions when it comes to gauging public opinion on abortion. We're too focused on questions at the margins — death versus abortion, rape, and incest or abortion under all circumstances or no circumstances. These questions do little to illuminate the reality of most women's lives and the range of feelings people have about abortions that happen in the real world.
Much of the piece centers on how Americans feel about two questions. The first is whether a woman who needs an abortion to save her life should be able to get one. Why are we still asking this? Is whether a woman should be forced to die rather than have an abortion really still up for debate when it comes to public opinion? I don't think so.
The other question examined at length concerns a woman who wants an abortion because of the sex of the baby. To set the record straight, that's a largely imagined scenario, designed in part by abortion opponents to communicate the stigmatizing idea that a woman who has decided to have an abortion is doing so for a frivolous reason. Not to mention that it's racist, relying on ugly stereotypes about women of color. Asking this question doesn't get at any kind of truth on abortion attitudes.
I'm thrilled that the analysis in the Times' got the real answer. But it's still not asking the right questions.
Women have abortions for complex reasons — to better take care of the children they already have, to pursue an education or career and improve their life circumstances, or simply because they know they are not in a position to be the best parent they can be.
For many years, it's been clear that when you ask people about how abortion impacts real women's lives — instead of party-line questions about abortion under all circumstances or no circumstances — you get surprising answers and high levels of agreement.
Vox recently took this wholly different approach. Instead of asking the standard questions, the poll asked questions like:
"Which comes closer to your view: The law says a woman has a right to an abortion. As long as this is the law, women should have access to safe and affordable abortion care. Or even though there is a right to abortion, we should work to reduce abortions by making it harder for women to access care."
"Think about a woman who has decided to have an abortion. How would you want that experience to be for her?"
"If a close family member or friend told you she decided to have an abortion, would you give her a lot of support?"
When you ask these types of questions, a much deeper, more nuanced, and more accurate picture of attitudes on abortion appears. In that picture, it's clear that Americans are in overwhelming agreement that a woman who has decided to get an abortion should be able to get one without additional hurdles. They're in overwhelming agreement that we shouldn't be passing laws that make a woman who has decided to get an abortion feel ashamed about her decision.And Americans agree that lawmakers who are determined to restrict access to abortion are moving our country in the wrong direction.
Buried in the Times piece, even with it's strange focus on scenarios that have little connection to most abortions, is one clear truth: "Focusing on the exact details of abortion decisions may reveal more about when Americans agree on this difficult issue than when they disagree."
December 23, 2014
By Brian Hauss, Legal Fellow, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
Emily Herx never imagined that she could lose her job for trying to get pregnant. But after working for more than seven years as a literature and language arts teacher at a Catholic school in Indiana, she was shocked to learn that her teaching contract would not be renewed: All because the in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment she was undergoing in an attempt to have a second child made her a "grave, immoral sinner" in the eyes of her religious employers.
Emily filed a federal lawsuit against the school and the local diocese for sex discrimination, pointing out that they had never fired a man for his involvement in infertility treatment. Her former employers responded by arguing that they should be exempted from federal anti-discrimination laws because their decision to fire Emily was motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs. Fortunately, the court held that religious schools do not have blanket permission to discriminate against lay teachers and allowed a jury to hear Emily's case.
Read the ACLU's friend-of-the-court brief here.
After a four-day trial, the jury found that the school and diocese discriminated against Emily on the basis of sex and awarded her $1.9 million in damages. This resounding victory for women's equality should send a message to employers everywhere that they cannot use religion to justify discrimination. And we owe it all to Emily's decision to stand up for her rights.
As Emily herself wrote in a blog post for the ACLU:
The emotional strain of infertility treatments, the loss of a job I loved so dearly, and my involvement in this case have all taken a toll on my family, my friends, and me. While I am grateful for the outpouring of support I have received from individuals across this nation, this has been a challenging and traumatic road. However, it is important to me to right the wrong that has been done when the Diocese and school discriminated against me.
My husband and I teach our son that doing what is right is important, even when it is hard. I am heartened that one day my son will be able to look at his mom with pride for standing up for what is right and just, even when it was a struggle to do so.
We all have a right to our beliefs, but the fundamental right to exercise religion is not an excuse to discriminate against others. That is why the ACLU works tirelessly to end the use of religion to discriminate.
October 02, 2014
By Jennifer Dalven, Reproductive Freedom Project
Picture this: You are 17 years old, in your senior year of high school, and you've just learned you're pregnant. You'd like to be able to turn to your parents for support but you know you can't. After all, they kicked your older sister out of the house when she got pregnant. But you have discussed your options with your aunt and a trusted counselor and decided to have an abortion.
You call a women's health center to make an appointment and are told that unless you get your parent's consent, you will have to go to court and essentially be put on trial in order to get the care you need.
That's right. Instead of a doctor, you get a trial.
Thanks to a new Alabama law, a teen who can't get a parent's consent has to undergo a gauntlet of questioning to get the abortion she needs. Because of this law, a prosecutor and a representative for the fetus, both of whom are charged with protecting the "state's interest in fetal life," (a.k.a. making sure the teen doesn't get an abortion), will cross-examine her.
That isn't even the half of it. In their quest to ensure that the teen can't get an abortion, the new law allows the prosecutor and fetus's representative to tell other people in the young woman's life -- including her teachers, pastor, employer, relatives, and friends – that she is pregnant. And to haul them in to court to testify against her.
No, I am not kidding.
Now, we all want our daughters to come to us if they get pregnant, and thankfully most do. But we all know that, unfortunately, some just can't. Some teens don't come from good families, and some teens don't come from safe homes. Putting these teens on trial is not the answer. The cruel irony of this law is that it means teens from troubled families, those who need our help and support the most, will struggle the most to get it.
I have been working for almost two decades to ensure that teens like these are able to get the medical care they need. In all that time, I don't think I have ever seen a law aimed at young people as misguided and mean spirited as this one. That's why I am proud to say that this week the ACLU went to court to challenge it. We did it because not only is it wrongheaded and dangerous, the new law is also flat-out unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court has made clear that if a state decides to require teens to get a parent's consent to get an abortion, it must also have a confidential and expeditious alternative for those teens who can't turn to a parent. In passing this law – which allows the prosecutor and a representative for the fetus to tell anyone they want about the minor's pregnancy – Alabama politicians snubbed their nose at this long-standing constitutional requirement and thoroughly eliminated any expectation of privacy.
And worse than that, they have put young women in harm's way, creating a situation that might force them to take matters into their own hands. Given what we have seen the last few years, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. In state after state, from Texas to Ohio to Wisconsin and so many others , we have seen extremist politicians who are willing put women's health in jeopardy all to score political points. This is one more example of that.
We all want teens to be safe, but this law is cruel, dangerous, and unnecessary. To protect the young women of Alabama, we can't let it stand.
August 08, 2014
June 30, 2014
Employers Allowed to Use Religious Beliefs to Refuse to Comply With Law Requiring Contraception Coverage
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, email@example.com
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of closely held corporations that sought an exemption to a federal law requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception. The owners of the plaintiff companies – Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based craft supply store chain, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania furniture company – cited religious objections to contraception as a reason not to comply with the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union, religious organizations, other civil rights and women’s health groups, business leaders, and members of Congress filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that the companies’ owners cannot impose their personal religious beliefs on employees to withhold coverage for health services with which they disagree.
"This is a deeply troubling decision. For the first time, the highest court in the country has said that business owners can use their religious beliefs to deny their employees a benefit that they are guaranteed by law," said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. "Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but that freedom does not include the right to impose beliefs on others. In its ruling today, the Court simply got it wrong."
More information about these cases can be found at:
June 26, 2014
MDHS approves ACLU, ACLU of MS and MS Center for Justice Request for Delay of House Bill 49 Implementation
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 26, 2014
JACKSON, Miss. – On June 24, Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) agreed to a request to delay the implementation of House Bill 49, a law that would require TANF applicants to complete a questionnaire and possibly be drug tested, until the end of a public hearing comment period. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU of MS) and the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) made the request on June 20 citing the Mississippi Administrative Procedure Law that states an agency is not permitted to adopt the law “until the period for making written submissions and oral presentations has expired.”
“We have taken the position that all provisions within this new law must be well defined. If not, the economic harm and family sanctions would be exponential and the livelihood of TANF recipients would be left to chance,” said Charles Irvin, Legal Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “The public has the right to engage in the functions of government in order to create a more perfect union and any opportunity to ease the burden on our most at risk citizens must be advanced.”
ACLU, ACLU of MS and MCJ identified legal and practical problems with the proposed rules and regulations related to the enactment of H.B. 49. The concern arises from the uncertainty of who will shoulder the costs of the screening as well as the treatment, the effect on households and children when individual TANF recipients fail to comply with the screening requirements and the privacy worries in the non-disclosure policy, among others.
Beth Orlansky, Advocacy Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, said H.B. 49 is a prime example of what happens when we put action before due diligence.
“The bill was rushed through to approval with little thought given to how it would affect the lives of those who fall under its authority,” Orlansky said. “This puts some of the most vulnerable children in our state at even greater risk. The state simply is not ready for the realities of this bill.”
The law was initially scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2014. It will be delayed due to a scheduled public hearing on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. at the Hinds County Extension Office on 1735 Wilson Boulevard in Jackson. The hearing, which is open to the public, will include commentary from TANF recipients, legislators and representatives from multiple advocacy organizations.
Find more about the hearing.
March 12, 2014
With the Mississippi House of Representatives on the verge of passing a bill that would legalize discrimination by commercial businesses throughout the state, more than 350 clergy leaders from across the country released a statement denouncing the bill and challenging their fellow Christians who support it to examine their conscience.
The “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which would allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation, is closely modeled on the Arizona bill that made national news last month when it was vetoed by Republican Governor Jan Brewer under a storm of controversy.
The signers represent hundreds of congregations and include Mississippi clergy leaders along with some of the most high-profile national evangelical and mainline protestant leaders in the country, including:
Bruce Case, Senior Pastor of Parkway Hills United Methodist Church in Madison, MS; Rev. Austin Hoyle, Youth Minister and Associate Pastor of Parkway Hills United Methodist Church in Madison MS; Rev. Michael McLaughlin, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, MS; Rev. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good; Rev. Dr. James C. Perkins, President-elect of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, IL; Noel Castellanos, CEO Christian Community Development Association; Mr. James Winkler, President of the National Council of Churches; Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and more.
The statement read, in part:
“These misguided efforts eerily echo Jim Crow laws that robbed African Americans of their basic human dignity. Businesses once barred not only blacks, but Jews and Asians from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or eating in restaurants even after Supreme Court rulings overturned segregation laws.”
Signers of the statement applauded those lawmakers who are rejecting the discriminatory legislation that would return to Mississippi to an era when religious claims and government policy were used to further Jim Crow laws.
Religious leaders’ stances on this issue will also shape the future of the church. A poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 55 percent of white evangelical Protestant Milliennials believe religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.
The full list of signers and the full text of the statement are below and can be found here. Signers’ affiliations are listed for identification purposes only.
As evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics we are alarmed by the pending Mississippi bill that would allow virtually anyone, including businesses, to discriminate against customers in the name of religious liberty. We call on Mississippi and all states to abandon legislation that threatens democracy, civil rights and religious freedom itself.
These misguided efforts eerily echo Jim Crow laws that robbed African Americans of their basic human dignity. Businesses once barred not only blacks, but also Jews and Asians from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or eating in restaurants even after Supreme Court rulings overturned segregation laws.
We must not allow faith to be used in the service of discrimination.
When we seek to codify legislation that discriminates against any class of people—no matter our diverse theological beliefs about marriage—we tarnish the treasure of religious freedom and the highest ideals of our democracy. Most of all, we are complicit in violating the Golden Rule that unites us as Christians—to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Pastor Bruce Case
Parkway Hills UMC
Rev. Austin Hoyle
Parkway Hills UMC
Youth Minister and Associate Pastor
Rev. Michael McLaughlin
First Presbyterian Church
...Read more on Faith in Public Life here.
February 12, 2014
Mississippi Legislators are once again playing politics with women’ lives and intruding into women’s private, medical decisions. Presuming that they know better than a woman and her doctor, legislators are considering a new ban on abortions after 20 weeks.
Every pregnancy is different and we cannot know all the circumstances surrounding a personal, medical decision to have an abortion. What we do know, is that women’s health and well-being should be supported and valued.
Two years ago the legislature and Governor Bryant took aim at the state’s only abortion provider and passed a bill requiring that doctors who perform abortions must have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Although they claimed – wrongly - that the bill would protect women’s health, they were clear that their purpose was to end abortion in Mississippi. The Jackson Women’s Health Clinic took the state to court and has been granted permission to operate pending the outcome of the litigation.
Mississippi is not the first state to consider a 20 week abortion ban. South Carolina is considering a ban and the Arkansas Legislature approved a measure banning most abortions at 12 weeks and another banning most abortions at 20 weeks. Gov. Mike Beebe vetoed both bills, saying they were unconstitutional, but lawmakers overturned both vetoes in bipartisan votes. The Arkansas ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the 12 week ban. Texas and Arizona have also passed 20 week abortion bans. The Arizona law was struck down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and in January the Supreme Court refuse to hear the case, leaving the Ninth Circuit decision in place.
Mississippi’s bill, HB 1400, trivializes women’s health and well-being by creating a cookie cutter approach to women’s healthcare and ignoring individual circumstances of Mississippi women and families. Imagine a woman who is happily planning for a new addition to her family and develops complications. Instead of being able to make the best decision for herself and her family, HB 1400 would force her to make the decision that legislators in Jackson choose; a decision that does not take her personal circumstances into consideration, a decision that requires her doctor to practice medicine based on politics, not best medical practices.
Women in Mississippi face new challenges to access safe legal abortion every year. We must stand firm; just because legislators don’t like the decision a woman might make, they cannot deny women access to basic constitutionally protected health care and the ability to work with her doctor to make the best decision, based on her own individual circumstances.
Mississippi already has some of the most restrictive laws in the country. It is time for our legislature and Governor to start putting women’s healthcare first and take positive measures to ensure every Mississippian has access to quality healthcare. If they really care about women’s health they should be working to expand Medicaid and implementing comprehensive medically accurate sex education programs in our schools. It is time to stop playing politics with women’s lives.
November 10, 2011
Posted by Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, Reproductive Freedom Project
The people have spoken: Twice in South Dakota; twice in Colorado and now in Mississippi. Red state, blue state — it doesn’t make a difference. The message to government is clear: Women’s lives matter. Respect for women, respect for their decisions about their health and families, respect for their basic rights, matters. So keep out of our bedrooms, our doctors’ offices, and our personal lives and do your @##@$*#& job already.
In case you missed it, the people of Mississippi voted yesterday to reject a so-called “personhood” amendment that would have criminalized all abortions without exception, including treatment for ectopic pregnancy and miscarriage, as well as some of the most common forms of birth control. No one believed they could do it and we owe this landmark victory--and a huge debt of gratitude--to the people of Mississippi who fought tirelessly and against all odds to defeat this extreme and dangerous initiative. Mississippi, reputed to be the most conservative state in the nation, now joins South Dakota (which has twice voted to reject abortion bans) and Colorado (which has twice voted to reject a “personhood” amendment) in saying enough is enough—stop playing politics with women’s lives.
Indeed, while this is a huge win for Mississippi, the effects of their victory will and should be felt nationwide. This past year saw an unprecedented legislative attack on the reproductive rights and health of women and families around the country. We saw bans on insurance coverage for abortion; laws that tried to strip any and all public funding from organizations that provide, or even talk about, abortions; and a law that would require any woman seeking an abortion to visit a crisis pregnancy center to be lectured by anti-abortion activists about why her decision is wrong. If anything, the vote in Mississippi tells us there is a huge disconnect between these politicians and the people they are supposed to represent. Yesterday’s vote should make it crystal clear that the American people do not support this extremist, anti-woman, anti-family agenda. The American people trust women, and it’s about time their elected representatives do so, as well.