"Parental Rights and Responsibilities" Act
A dangerous piece of legislation with the benign title of Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1995 (H.R.1946/S. 984) has been put on a 'fast track' to push it through Congress before the November elections. Sponsored by Charles Grassley (R-IA) in the Senate with Rep. Mike Parker (R-MS), Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK) and 149 House co-sponsors, the bill is a product of the Christian Coalition's 'Contract with the American Family' and reflects several initiatives to amend state constitutions. Similar legislation has been introduced in about half the states and has already passed the Indiana legislature.
If this federal bill were to become law, any individual or Religious Right organization would be empowered to challenge in federal court virtually any decision of public schools, libraries, health and welfare programs. In addition, it could prevent a minor's access to comprehensive health care and sex education programs and thwart child abuse and child labor laws. The so-called Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act (PRRA) asserts that the "right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children" is a "fundamental right" which "includes but is not limited to" the right of a parent to direct or provide the education of one's children including reasonable corporal discipline, and direct or provide the religious training of one's children.
Proponents claim that increasing government intervention has brought attacks on a parent's right to govern the upbringing of children. These groups (mainly from Far Right and Religious Right organizations) propose that the way to counter such 'abuses' is to allow for a private right of action -- asking a federal judge to determine whether a parent's rights have been ignored. If this were to become law, any state or local statute, ordinance or regulation, including school board actions, could be overridden. Critics see this legislation as fundamentally undermining our traditional democratic processes of consensus-building and majority rule.
Many PRRA provisions may sound harmless enough to the average parent, but what the bill seeks to do is allow anyone through litigation to stop any school or clinic or social service program to which they may object. Scores of organizations from the educational, religious, legal, social service, women's, and child welfare fields have gone on record opposing the bill and have developed extensive analyses of the harm that will ensue should PRRA be passed.
Educators have estimated that the cost to defend local school districts against lawsuits could be in the billions, thus potentially bankrupting school systems. PRRA can be read to nullify child labor laws and inhibit enforcement of child abuse laws, and to require school districts to allow curriculum and materials decisions to be made by each parent rather than educators.
Educational groups believe that the legislation, if enacted, would allow students the right to carry guns or other weapons to school, that it will give parents the right to have their children opt out of certain courses the parents don't like or to sue a teacher for saying anything in class they don't like, and will give parents the right to require that public school districts pay private and sectarian school tuition so that parents can exercise their fundamental right to direct the education of their children by enrolling them in a private school of choice. In reality, the legislation is a back door entry to public funding of religious schools.
Additionally, other analysts assert that a PRRA law would inhibit sexual abuse investigations, deter reporting of cases of suspected child maltreatment, put domestic cases inappropriately in federal court, and enable litigious parents to disrupt systems designed to protect children. The philosophical underpinning of PRRA is that children are the property of parents, an antiquated and exploitive view that went out with the horse and buggy.
Critics, including NOW, have cited the mischief that could be done to sex education, contraception, and health care services currently available to adolescents. NOW wrote members of House of Representatives in March that the PRRA would likely "undermine carefully formulated state laws permitting minors to consent to critically important health care services, such as family planning, abortion, and the testing and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Virtually every state has enacted legislation protecting confidentiality for adolescents to receive care for sexually transmitted diseases, and many states have assured confidential care for family planning services, abortion services, or pregnancy-related care. Further, life-saving efforts such as condom distribution programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS could be halted by the passage of this bill."
Lawyers and judicial experts evaluating PRRA express serious concern about the vagueness of the language and, specifically, about the provision that would establish an extraordinarily high standard of proof, in that a government official may only prevail in a lawsuit by demonstrating that the actions were "essential to accomplish a compelling government interest." If this were to become law, NOW wrote in its letter to House members, it would "place state and local officials charged with the public welfare continually on the defensive. Communities and government programs may become paralyzed in the face of expensive lawsuits brought by a single aggrieved parent attempting to force his or her views or proper education or health care."
Contact your Senator, House members, state legislators, and local officials to alert them to the many dangers of the so-called Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1995. Tell them they must stop this bill at the committee level now. Mark-up of the legislation is scheduled for April 17th in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts. Bill analyses and talking points are available from the NOW Action Center.
Increasing the Minimum Wage
Efforts to pass legislation that would increase the minimum wage from $4.25 an hour to $5.15 over a period of two years were defeated by the Republican leadership in Congress, but Democrats will continue to press for an increase. The Senate failed by five votes to pass the bill, even though eight Republicans joined with all 47 Democrats to vote for an increase. Due to parliamentary maneuvering, 60 votes for passage were required instead of a simple majority. Democrats attempted to force a vote in the House, but lost, 228 to 192, in order to get the lower body on record. It is good election year politics to raise the minimum wage, Democrats believe, or at least to get Republicans who oppose an increase to vote on the issue.
Raising the minimum wage would benefit women the most, since the 58% of low wage earners are adult women, not teen-agers as some opponents have alleged. Furthermore, more than half of minimum wage workers are mothers and the sole income-earners for their households. In 1995, a single woman with two children earning the minimum wage, full-time year round, made $8,840 annually, a full 27 percent below the official poverty line for a family of three.
If the bill is not passed, the minimum wage value will soon fall to its lowest real level in 40 years. Because of inflation, the purchasing power of the dollar has fallen 45 cents in real value since its last increase in 1991. So with the 90 cent increase (combined with benefits from the Earned Income Tax Credit), it is calculated that the higher minimum wage will be enough to lift a family of four with a year-round minimum wage earner above the poverty level. More than 13 million hourly workers stand to benefit.
Contact your Republican members of the House and Senate to urge that they vote for the increase and thank Democratic Senators for pushing the measure. Note that the last minimum wage vote (also a 90 cent increase), in 1989, had strong bipartisan support and was supported by Sen. Bob Dole and Rep. Newt Gingrich. Emphasize the fact that millions of working poor families will benefit, many of them headed by single women. If Congress intends to promote a welfare-to-work policy for public assistance recipients, then members must assure that wages are adequate to support families.
Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA)
As of early April, there is still a possibility of including funding for the Women's Educational Equity Act and Title IV in the omnibus appropriations bill. Originally, proposals from both the House and Senate eliminated WEEA and state equity programs funded under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act. These programs, aimed at ending gender bias in education, were utilized to develop model efforts, materials, and curricula and have helped to improve educational experiences and expectations for young women. Losing these programs would amount to a serious reversal for gender equity in education and is opposed by NOW and other women's and educational organizations.
WEEA has supported successful efforts to identify barriers to girls' and women's educational achievements and, consequently, that information has helped to re-shape educational policies. New math and science opportunities have opened up; more awareness of women's contributions exists because of Women's History Month (pioneer funding by WEEA), and a WEAA-supported book, Failing at Fairness by Myra and David Sadker, details inequitable educational practices.
Additionally, Title IV-funded state programs are needed to ensure compliance with civil rights laws so that race, ethnicity or gender are not barriers to educational opportunities. Funds allow for training, materials, and strategies to make gender equity attainable in our schools.
Calls, faxes, letters, and e-mail messages should be sent immediately to your senators. In particular, the Senate members need to hear from NOW activists: Republicans - Hatfield, Cochran, Specter, Bond, Gorton, Mack, Jeffords, Gregg; Democrats - Byrd, Inouye, Hollings, Bumpers, Harkin, Reid, Kohl. Specter, Jeffords, Bumpers, and Kohl may be most open to restoring funds. The Clinton Administration requested only $4 million for WEEA and $7 million for Title IV state programs -- both amounts tiny fractions of the entire federal budget, but of immense importance to the education of young women.
Product Liability Legislation
In mid-March, Congress passed the misnamed Product Liability Fairness Act which limits the ability of individuals to sue after being injured by dangerous or defective products. President Clinton is expected to veto the bill and NOW, along with many other consumer and women's organizations, opposes the legislation. Citing the potential danger to women's health that is posed by new restrictions in the bill, a jointly-signed letter sent by NOW and other groups to the Senate reminded members of the Dalkon Shield, Copper-7 IUDs, silicone gel breast implants, and the DES drug which caused horrible birth defects.
The legislation puts a cap of $250,000 on punitive damages in product liability lawsuits or two times the compensatory damages, whichever is greater, except in cases involving small business defendants. Judges could override the cap in cases where conduct by manufacturers or sellers was "egregious." The cap on damages is interpreted by critics as an invitation to companies to ignore contrary studies, conceal the harmful nature of products, or avoid safety improvements to save money --knowing there is a fixed limitation on the financial liability for whatever damage ensues.
Let President Clinton know that you support him in a veto of this dangerous bill.
Late Term Abortion (D & X)
Just prior to Congress recessing for the Spring holiday, the House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the late term abortion (D & X) legislation (H.R. 1833/S. 939 - the so-called 'partial birth'-abortion ban) and sent it to the President. It did not contain any provision which would protect the health of the mother and, thus, President Clinton was expected to carry through on his promise to veto the measure. Passage of the D & X (Canady/Smith) bill marks the first time that Congress has banned a safe and effective medical procedure. Additionally, the measure specifies that physicians would be fined and jailed for up to two years.
This is the 14th action that the Republican-controlled Congress has successfully undertaken to whittle away at women's legal and constitutional right to choose whether they will have an abortion. The other losses are:
Contact your Senators and urge them to SUSTAIN the President's veto of the D & X ban. Reasons to cite are: this bill, if it became a law, would endanger the lives and health of hundreds of women each year. This late term abortion procedure, known as dilation and extraction (D & X), is a safe and effective method for addressing serious maternal and fetal health conditions and must remain available for use in rare circumstance.
Violence Against Women Program Funding (VAWA)
In one of the few gains made for women in the 104th Congress, substantial but not full funding of the Violence Against Women Act was allocated in the numerous Continuing Resolutions (CR) which have kept the government running during the budget stand-off. Some difficulty with launching new programs is being experienced due to constraints under the CRs, but the omnibus appropriations bill proposes total spending of $228 million for both Justice and Health and Human Services department domestic violence programs. (However, as of this date, White House and Congressional budget talks were making little progress.)
Indeed, cuts of 15% to 25% were made in the funds for Department of Health and Human Services programs of rape prevention/education ($35 million down to $28.5 million), reduction of sexual abuse of youth ($7 million down to $5.5 million), community programs ($4 million cut to $3 million). But an important gain was attained in the conference report for the omnibus bill with restoration of $15 million of a requested $18 million, most of such funds will be used for sorely needed construction of additional battered women's shelter space. Slightly more than $13.6 million has been whittled out of these programs by budget negotiators.
Prior to the current round, earlier cuts were made in the VAWA budget with the elimination of Justice department training programs for state and federal judges, a stalker reduction program, a campus assault study, and greatly reduced funding of televised testimony for child abuse victims.
NOW members are urged to call, fax, or e-mail their Senators and Representatives to urge NO MORE CUTS. "We need full funding now of these vitally important programs to save women's lives and please pass the omnibus appropriations bill for FY 96," should be the message.
HIV/AIDS Military Dismissal - A Partial Victory!
The U.S. Senate unanimously agreed to repeal a provision, previously enacted in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 1996, that mandated the immediate discharge of all service members infected with HIV. Pushed through by Rep. Bob Dornan (R-CA), the discriminatory measure would have required discharge of 1,049 HIV-positive men and women within six months and cut off all health care and other benefits to their dependents. The Pentagon does not support the dismissal requirement and current Department of Defense policy allows military personnel with chronic illnesses to continue to serve their country until their medical condition prevents them from doing so. The American Medical Association recently announced its support of the legislation.
Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and William Cohen (R-ME) and 56 co-sponsors moved for the repeal which they attached to the omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 3019) and which as of early April was still being negotiated in conference committee. Although a corollary effort was being led by Reps. Peter Torkildsen (R-MA) and Jane Harman (D-CA), the House had not passed the repeal and some resistance from the House conferees was being encountered.
Urge House conferees to adopt the Senate repeal provision on the HIV-positive military service members; it is a punishing provision that is not supported by defense officials or veterans groups. Republican House Conferees are: Livingston, Meyers, C.W. "Bill" Young, Regula, Jerry Lewis, Porter, Wolf, Walsh, and Vucanovich. Democrats are: Yates, Hoyer, Murtha, Wilson, Obey, Dickson, Hefner, Mollohan, and Beville.
Hate Crimes Statistics
The Senate held hearings in late March on the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which requires the U.S. Department of Justice to collect data on crimes motivated by prejudices against the victim's race, religion, ethnicity, disability, or sexual orientation. The original Hate Crimes Bill, which has expired, was the first bill of its kind designed to counteract widespread violence against gay and lesbian people. It is recognized as an important weapon for law enforcement personnel in determining how to respond to various crimes. Because the legislation has broad bi-partisan support it is expected to pass both houses. Unfortunately, gender still has not been included as a basis for "hate crimes" in the bill.
The Senate Judiciary committee currently is considering the bill, therefore, calls are needed to members Hatch, Thurmond, Simpson, Grassley, Specter, Brown, Thompson, Kyl, DeWine, and Abraham on the Republican side. Democratic members are: Biden, Kennedy, Leahy, Heflin, Simon, Kohl, Feinstein, and Feingold.
Urge them to support a permanent mandate to collect hate crime statistics.
Adolescent Family Life and Abstinence Education Act of 1966 & Adoption Promotion Act of 1996
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is expected to introduce two bills as part of a re-authorization of Title XX (which had expired in 1985), the Adolescent Family Life program, aimed at reducing the incidence of teen pregnancy. The programs, supported under Title XX, provide demonstration grants for a wide variety of locally-based efforts which address sexual abstinence, adoption alternatives, pregnancy and parenting.
Funding since the expiration ten years ago has been provided in the annual Labor, HHS, and Educations appropriations bills. Specter's appropriations subcommittee provided $7.7 million for FY 1996 for the Adolescent Family Life program; the new legislation would provide ten times ($75 million) that amount for this program. There is strong indication that the additional funding for such an increase will be taken out of Title X family planning programs. Even though no date has been set for hearings on re-authorization of Title XX, members of the Senate need to be aware that NOW members do not support raiding family planning programs to fund abstinence and adoption programs.
The Adoption Promotion Act of 1996 provides tax incentives to parents to encourage adoption. For qualified adoption expenses, the bill provides up to a $5,000 adoption tax credit ($7,500 for children with special needs such as older children, of various ethnic groups, or children with physical, mental or emotional handicaps). Other financial incentives and qualifications are included.
Contact your Senators to let them know you do not support funding Title XX programs for adolescent sexual abstinence and adoption incentives with funding from Title X family planning programs. Those programs have received bipartisan support for 25 years and are integral part of curbing inappropriate adolescent sexual behaviors as well as providing critically needed reproductive health care services for women and men --many of whom would not receive care otherwise.
The House Judiciary Committee will begin mark-up on April 17th for H.R. 2128, a bill that would repeal affirmative action programs, as described in the March 7, 1996 update. Contact the chairman and members to let them know you are opposed to legislation that would sanction sex and race discrimination. Chairman of the committee is Henry Hyde and Republican members are: Moorhead, Sensenbrenner, McCollum, Gekas, Coble, Smith, Schiff, Gallegly, Canady, Inglis, Goodlatte, Buyer, Hoke, Bono, Heineman, Bryant, Chabot, Flanagan, and Barr. Democratic members are: Conyers, Schroeder, Frank, Schumer, Berman, Boucher, Bryant, Reed, Nadler, Scott, Watt, Becerra, Serrano, Lofgren, and Jackson Lee.
This Legislative Update was compiled by the Government Relations/Public Policy Team at the National NOW office. Call Jan Erickson, Government Relations Director and GR/PP Team Liaison, at (202) 628-8669, ex. 725, if you have any questions. For copies of any of the above bills, visit Thomas or call your Senator or Representative at (202) 224-3121, who will send you copies free of charge. The update is mailed monthly to NOW leadership and to the NOW action alert list. Any member can get a copy of the update mailed to them for a yearly charge of $25.