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Insurance Reform Decision from Supreme Court Welcome News to Women, Minorities

28 Jun

The U.S. Supreme Court decision today upheld the linchpin of the Affordable Care Act by ruling 5-4 that the government can tax individuals who choose not to buy health insurance.

The principal opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

  • Five members of the Court agreed that the requirement that individuals either purchase health insurance or make an additional payment on their federal income taxes – the so-called individual mandate – was a constitutionally permissible tax imposed on those who did not purchase health insurance.
  • The individual mandate was thus upheld even though five members of the Court, including Chief Justice Roberts, rejected the government’s principal argument that the individual mandate was a proper exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause.
  • Five members of the Court also agreed that Congress could withhold new Medicaid funds from states that did not expand their Medicaid coverage as required by the new health care law, but could not withhold funds for pre-existing Medicaid programs.

“The ACLU welcomes today’s decision, which recognizes that Congress has the constitutional authority to fix a health care system that does not work for millions of Americans,” said Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU legal director. “The decision is especially welcome for disadvantaged minorities, who are more likely to be uninsured, and for women, who are more likely to suffer gaps and discrimination in their health care coverage. We trust that the states will recognize those needs and accept the additional funds that the federal government is offering under the new law to expand Medicaid coverage for needy individuals.”

The American Civil Liberties Union joined with the NAACP on a friend of the court brief which is available online.

In Wisconsin, Governor Walker restated his opposition to insurance exchanges and President Obama’s insurance reform plan. He also signed a bill into law that would ban abortion coverage in any potential health insurance exchanges in Wisconsin. We testified against the bill and continue to oppose discriminatory limits on women’s health care services or insurance coverage.

The text of this blog post can also be found on the national ACLU’s website.

“Sensitive Issues:” Myths vs. Facts about the new Sex Ed Law

27 Oct

Sex Ed in Wisconsin: New State Standards
The Healthy Youth Act, a new law passed earlier this year that the ACLU of Wisconsin supported, raises the state standards for how public schools offer human growth and development courses. Now if schools offer sex ed, it should be non-discriminatory, fact-based, age-appropriate, and comprehensive in covering the benefits and function of FDA-approved methods of birth control. The comprehensive approach to sex ed is the most effective way to teach young people the facts about human sexuality so that they can make healthy choices in their adolescence and into their adult lives.

Since the new law was passed, and in the wake of the Cedarburg School District decision to segregate “sensitive issues” by requiring parents to opt their children into a comprehensive program, opponents of the Healthy Youth Act have promoted myths about the rights of parents and schools. Cedarburg’s decision has been criticized by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, by a physician and Cedarburg curriculum advisory committee and the District of Public Instruction.

And yet, social conservatives like op-ed writer Patrick McIlheran (in his Journal Sentinel column), GermantownNOW blogger Al Campbell and Charlie Sykes (on his October 19th show – part 3) are calling the new law an “oppressive” effort for the state to take power away from parents and school boards.

The Myth of Decreased Parental Control
First, critics suggest that parents don’t have control over their kids’ education regarding sex ed. The Healthy Youth Act continues to protect the right of parents to exempt their children from material they find objectionable. When a school district has a clear plan for human growth and development lessons, parents have the power to work with the school to make alternative arrangements. Additionally, the new law gives parents greater power in reviewing the curriculum at any time. Schools have the responsibility to ensure that exempted students have an equal, alternative assignment and do not face any grade penalty or discrimination for opting out. It is also common for parents to serve on the local school board’s curriculum advisory committees, as they do in the public meetings in Cedarburg. Parents’ rights and voices continue to be protected in the new law. But the law recognizes that young people and our state’s public health benefit when complete information about sexual health is offered to all students in our schools.

The Myth of Decreased Local Control
Critics also say that the law decreases local control over a school’s curriculum. This is hardly the case. The law raised state standards to ensure that young people receive information about reproduction and relationships that is comprehensive, fact-based and non-discriminatory. However the decision on how curriculum is designed and taught continues to rest in the hands of the instruction advisory committees and the school board members themselves. The Healthy Youth Act doesn’t require schools to teach human growth and development, but then schools would have to inform parents about the lack of education their children would receive. While evidence-based curricula packages are available to schools, the state Department of Public Instruction’s website has a toolkit that has resources for both schools and parents to teach human growth and development that works for their community. The state law outlines definitions but does not mandate a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

The Myth of Explicit Classroom Instruction
Reading opinion from social conservatives, one might think that the Healthy Youth Act is mandating that our local schools peddle pornography to children. But when the voices of criticism of comprehensive sexuality education come from radical, anti-contraception organizations like Pro-Life Wisconsin, misinformation needs to be countered with basic facts about the language of the new law.

The state law says that instruction must be “medically accurate” which means that it is based in science, approved by major medical journals and that instruction is reviewed by experts. Instruction must be “age-appropriate” or “suitable to a particular age group of pupils based on cognitive and emotional capacity.” School board members across the state might struggle with what they think age-appropriate means to them, but with puberty and adolescence come questions and young people deserve to get the facts about human sexuality.

State law does not require schools to “teach homosexuality.” The law does, however, require that instruction is free of bias against pupils of any race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnic or cultural background or against sexually active pupils or children with disabilities. In the wake of recent suicides of gay teens and the attention paid to preventing bullying and discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation or non-traditional gender identity, classroom time devoted to teaching respect would do all Wisconsin schools some good. Wisconsin schools that offer comprehensive sexuality education should include time for discussion on the issues faced by LGBT youth and how schools can be safe places for everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

State law does not require schools to “teach masturbation.” No place in the law mentions the word “masturbation,” nor does it define masturbation as a normal part of a healthy human sexuality. The law does say that instruction should include information about “reproductive and sexual anatomy and physiology, including biological, psychosocial and emotional changes that accompany maturation.” When proponents of abstinence-only instruction critique a comprehensive approach, do they believe that students would have fewer questions about masturbation if they receive no answers to their questions about relationships, reproduction or contraception?

What Parents, Teachers and Youth Rights Advocates Can Do
Download our resource pages (PDF) with “Questions for Parents to Ask About Sex Education” and “Ten Ways to Work for Comprehensive Sexuality Education.” Teachers and curriculum advisory committee members can visit the Department of Public Instruction’s webpage on human growth curriculum for more information on how to design lesson plans that work and nondiscriminatory. The ACLU of Wisconsin also has resources to share with teachers for effective lesson plans that can meet the improved state standards for schools across the state. Email the ACLU of Wisconsin for more information.

ACLU of Wisconsin Applauds the Passage of the Healthy Youth Act

29 Jan

The ACLU of Wisconsin applauds the passage of the Healthy Youth Act, the legislation that will raise state standards for public school human growth and development instruction. The Healthy Youth Act will give Wisconsin teens the tools they need to make healthy and responsible life decisions by providing comprehensive sexuality education that is age appropriate and medically accurate.

“Our state legislators looked at the facts about current teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates in Wisconsin and took action in support of educating students,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Community Advocate Stacy Harbaugh. “Armed with the facts about reproduction and how to protect themselves from risk, the Healthy Youth Act will help young people make healthier choices.”

The Healthy Youth Act will better honor equal protection, free speech and freedom of religion in our public schools. Students have the right to ask their teachers questions about reproduction and teachers should be able to answer them with age appropriate facts. Human growth and development curriculum on relationships and reproduction should recognize equality in gender and sexual orientation. Our schools should also respect religious diversity and this legislation ensures that curriculum will not promote a bias against religion. All parents will have the right to inspect teaching materials at any time and will continue to be able to take their children out of portions of the curriculum with which they disagree.

Comprehensive sexuality education enjoys a broad base of support including major medical organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Society of Adolescent Medicine, the American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association, and the Institute of Medicine. Comprehensive sex education is also supported by major educational organizations including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the National School Boards Association. More than 85 percent of Americans support school-based sexuality education programs that teach students how to use and where to get contraceptives.

The ACLU of Wisconsin has approximately 8,000 members who support its efforts to defend the civil liberties and civil rights of all Wisconsin residents. For more on the work of the ACLU of Wisconsin, visit our webpage. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at ACLUMadison and ACLUofWisconsin. Join the ACLU of Wisconsin today and help us fight for civil liberties in Wisconsin.

Q&A on Contraceptive Equity and Religious Discrimination: Budget Provision Thumbs Up

16 Jun

The Wisconsin Assembly just gave the green light to their version of the state budget this weekend. Contraceptive equity was one of the debated items: the policy would require all insurance companies that provide prescriptions to include contraceptive drugs and devices in their coverage.

Birth control is a basic part of health care for women and when most Wisconsinites get their health care through their employer, contraceptive equity is essential to workplace fairness.

But critics of the policy decry religious discrimination, particularly when citing religious-based health care providers’ health care benefits for their own employees. The ACLU of Wisconsin supports contraceptive equity and below is a Q&A with Executive Director Chris Ahmuty on how the policy strikes a constitutionally approved balance between the rights of patients, workers and institutions.

Should a nurses’ aide at a hospital owned by a Catholic religious order or the cafeteria lady at a Catholic parochial school be denied access to birth control because their employers’ are offended on “moral grounds”?
No. But, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference appears to want to be able to do just that. The conference has asked the Wisconsin Legislature to exempt Catholic institutions from a provision in the state budget that confirms the duty of all Wisconsin employers to include contraceptive drugs and devices among the drugs covered by their health insurance plans.

Do all employees of all Catholic institutions have to accept that their employers won’t allow them access to birth control even though it is medically indicated and morally acceptable to the employee?
No, unless the members of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference are able to exempt themselves and other Catholic affiliated agencies from fair employment laws regarding health insurance benefits. The conference would discriminate against workers who carry out the same jobs as workers at agencies that are not religiously-affiliated.

Is religious liberty impeded when religiously-affiliated employers are asked to abide by anti-discrimination laws?
No. Wisconsin and federal law already exempts religious institutions from the prohibitions on employment discrimination, if the employee in question is a member of the clergy or a religion instructor.

What should the Wisconsin Legislature do?
The ACLU of Wisconsin urges them to adopt this budget provision that lets all employers know, if they are going to provide prescription coverage in their health insurance plans, they must include contraceptive drugs and devices. The budget provision does not need to be amended. Section 3198d of Assembly Substitute Amendment 1 to AB75 codifies contraceptive equity.

What can I do to get contraceptive equity passed?
The ACLU of Wisconsin is a member of the Prevention First Coalition, a broad-base of organizations that support contraceptive equity and other important reproductive health care policies. You can be a part of the coalition and ask your state Senator to support contraceptive equity today.

Find out more about the work the ACLU is doing on protecting the balance between religious liberty and the right of women to have safe, legal and barrier-free access to reproductive health care.

Also check out Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin’s Nicole Safar on Wisconsin Public Radio defending contraceptive equity and women’s right to be free from discrimination in insurance coverage.

News update: prison rate quadrupled, ban racist mascots, Obama reviews BC denial regs, more

11 Mar

Prison population rate quadrupled
Wisconsin has been doing a great job warehousing people. Monday’s Pew Center on the States report on incarceration shows that our state quadrupled its prison population in the last 25 years. We’re in the top 10 of states with accelerated incarceration rates. Nationally, it’s more like one in 31 people is behind bars. It’s a complicated picture of why so many people are in jail, but the “truth in sentencing” trends in punishing crimes has led to the denial of parole for even non-violent crimes. You can see characters “getting out for good behavior” in old movies, but not in Wisconsin today. In his budget proposal, Governor Doyle suggests that we look at early release for some incarcerated people and put them on probation instead. Early release and probation is cheaper than the warehouse: $3.42 versus $78.95. Now if we can just let people with felony convictions vote when they are released, we might have a better budget for taxpayers and a truer democracy for citizens.

Ban racist mascots
There is some attention being paid to the proposed law to ban racist mascots, including this editorial from the Appleton Post Crescent. Having a law that recognizes why race-based mascots for public schools are inherently an act of government discrimination would be a step in the right direction. The proposed law is fair, gives the community a chance to raise their voice in opposition to the mascot, and gives the Department of Public Instruction the responsibility of having a hearing on it.

Obama reviewing Bush rule on birth control denial
On the reproductive rights front, <a href="
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701104_pf.html”>President Obama is taking a look at what can be done about Bush’s end-of-term passage of the unbalanced Department of Health and Human Services regulations on religious-based refusals of reproductive health care, including birth control prescriptions. The ACLU took a stand against the HHS regs because they gave too much power to health care providers to refuse prescriptions and care, even at the expense of patient safety. In a time of recession, high unemployment rates and chronic numbers of uninsured women, access to birth control and other reproductive health care services should not be compromised. Now that the Obama administration is reviewing the regulations, the ACLU hopes that an effective solution can be found to restore the balance between health care workers’ right to religious liberty and patients’ rights to barrier-free reproductive health care.
Read more about how the ACLU was among the hundreds of thousands of comments about the HHS regs before their passage.

Local events:
Community potluck and film screening on the criminalization of free speech activity at the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities 2008
Saturday, March 28, 7:00 pm, Madison Infoshop, 1019 Williamson St. Get an update on activists jailed for the political organizing of protesters. Suggested donation $5-10. www.terrorizingdissent.org

Prison issues film series (2nd Thursday of every month
Thursday, March 12, 7:00 pm, Rainbow Bookstore, 426 W Gillman St.
Wisconsin Books to Prisoners sponsors the films which will be shown in Wisconsin prisons one week and to the public the following week in order to facilitate a discussion between those inside and outside the system.
This month – “Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House”
“After gaining unprecedented permission from the Justice Department to gain access to the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, two indie filmmakers spent 5 weeks inside ‘the walls’ and produced a hard-edged and shocking expose of incarceration in the U.S.”

ACLU continues to defend reproductive freedom one step at a time

22 Jan

Check out Louise Melling’s original post on the Daily Kos.

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade:

In the wake of President Obama’s inauguration and on the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it is tempting to use this occasion to recite a litany of policies we want our new legislators to enact: from ensuring contraceptive equity in Wisconsin, to reversing the Bush administration’s midnight rule allowing a broad range of health care providers to refuse basic reproductive health services, to rescinding the global gag rule that withholds international aid from family planning services.

While these policy changes are important, they all will remain vulnerable to the ebb and flow of politics if we do not also do our part to change the public conversation about abortion. Reproductive freedom is essential to ensuring equality: we each must be free to make profoundly personal decisions about our reproductive lives without unwarranted government intrusion. As with all freedoms, there are limits. But a government that respects the personal integrity of its people both interferes in these essentially private decisions as little as possible and helps ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make these decisions responsibly.

We can continue with the politics of abortion we have known for a generation, one that has exploited ambivalence and fear for political gain. Or we can learn from this past year and take this moment of opportunity and hope to start a new conversation, one that begins with the understanding that both the decision to have a child and the decision to have an abortion come from a place of profound respect for the value of life and a strong commitment to ensuring a better life for all.

Another step toward equality in Wisconsin is to encourage our legislators to ensure contraceptive equity. Judges have ruled on the need for insurance companies to cover prescription contraceptives and outpatient services so as not to discriminate on the basis of gender. Writing contraceptive equity into law is fundamental to any efforts to reform health care, protect workers and stand up for gender equality.

– Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director, ACLU of Wisconsin
– Louise Melling, Director, national ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project