Policy Updates

On the Hill Updates: December 18, 2020

Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice

Trump administration continues attacks on reproductive health care

On December 16, the Trump administration announced two actions aimed at limiting access to reproductive health care in specific states using federal religious refusal laws. First, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the University of Vermont Medical Center alleging that its policy for providing abortion care violates the federal Church Amendment, which specifies that receipt of federal funding under certain laws does not require any individual to perform or assist in sterilization or abortion procedures if those procedures are contrary to the individual’s religious or moral beliefs. Second, the Department of Health and Human Services announced they are withholding $200 million per quarter in federal Medicaid funds from the state of California, claiming that California’s abortion coverage requirement is a violation of the federal Weldon Amendment. The Weldon Amendment is actually a subsection of the Hyde Amendment found in Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies appropriations bills; the rider prohibits federal agencies and programs and state and local governments that receive money under the bill from “discriminating” against individuals, health care facilities, insurance plans, and other entities because they refuse to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.

Let’s be clear: allowing the personal beliefs of health care entities and providers to override patient care jeopardizes public health and lives. Religious liberty is meant to be a shield protecting free exercise, not a sword used to advance the administration’s anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ agenda and to deny vulnerable patients needed care. What’s more, stripping our nation’s most populous state of federal Medicaid dollars — meant to provide essential insurance coverage and services to people who are struggling financially and are already facing multiple, intersecting barriers to accessing health care — in the midst of a raging global pandemic is morally bankrupt and absolutely unconscionable. NCJW strongly opposes all religious refusals laws, clauses, and regulations and supports the EACH Woman Act (HR 1692/S 758) to ensure abortion coverage in federal health programs and to prohibit interference in private insurance coverage of abortion.

Federal Courts

Senate votes to maintain all-white Seventh Circuit

On December 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed Thomas Kirsch for the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in a 51-44 vote, making it the only all-white appellate court in the nation. Thomas Kirsch, who now fills Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s former seat, is the fifth nominee named by President Trump to the Seventh Circuit, none of whom were people of color. In addition to this move adding to the dire lack of diversity on our federal bench overall, the Seventh Circuit presides over 7.5 million people of color between Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. The circuit lost its only judge of color early in the current administration due to retirement, and President Trump has only named white nominees since then. Adding to this, President Obama had named Myra Selby, the first woman and Black woman on the Indiana Supreme Court, to this seat in January 2016. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refused to hold a confirmation hearing for Selby, keeping the seat open for President Trump to eventually fill with now Justice Amy Coney Barrett. NCJW opposed the confirmation of Kirsch and continues to fight for a diverse federal bench that reflects the communities it serves.

Senate continues to focus on unqualified judicial nominee instead of COVID relief

On December 17, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) filed cloture on Thompson Michael Dietz, who has been nominated for a 15-year appointment to the US Court of Federal Claims. The full Senate is expected to vote on Saturday, December 19. By his own account, Dietz has not tried a case during his law practice. While he does have fifteen years of experience in federal government contracts, he lacks the litigation experience necessary for this federal judiciary position. Notwithstanding, it is unprecedented for the Senate to be confirming judges during a lame-duck Congress — it has only happened one time and with bipartisan support. With COVID cases on the rise across the country and no relief package in months, the Senate needs to get their priorities in order and focus on the immediate needs of the American people. NCJW opposes Dietz; prioritizing judges over people in the middle of a pandemic is shameful and misguided.

SCOTUS rejects religious school COVID challenge

The Supreme Court on December 17 declined to exempt religious schools in Kentucky from a state order to temporarily shutting down in person instruction at elementary, middle, and high schools due to the coronavirus. The case was brought by a Christian school in Kentucky and the Attorney General. While similar to other cases restricting religious services that have already come before the Court, in this instance, the state closed all K-12 schools, not just the religious ones — indicating no hostility to religion. Further, the Court noted the temporary order is due to expire shortly. The Court did leave open the possibility that the case could be brought back to the Court should the governor issue another school closing order. Justices Alito and Gorsuch issued separate dissents.

Human Needs

Lawmakers scramble to address COVID and budget

As this update goes to press, Congress has yet to pass a budget bill to keep the government funded beyond 11:59 pm ET on December 18. Lawmakers are also continuing negotiations on the contours of a COVID relief bill expected to be attached to the larger $1.4 trillion government funding measure. Based largely on the bipartisan proposal circulated last week, the $900 billion relief package could include $600 in individual payments (including mixed-status families) and $300 per week for 10 weeks in supplemental Unemployment Insurance benefits — with aid to state and local governments, and emergency child care and paid sick leave absent from the bill. While not as robust as we would like, NCJW is pleased these items are included. Still at issue is a Republican demand to end the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending program, which could hamstring the incoming Bident administration’s ability to provide future aid without congressional action. Thanks to calls from advocates, the current draft does not include a liability shield for businesses. Importantly, the details and programs could change as negotiations continue. If lawmakers can’t agree to pass another short-term continuing resolution, it is expected that the government will shut down for a brief period as negotiators work to finalize details and pass a package in both chambers to send to the president’s desk for signature. In addition to stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits, NCJW is fighting for inclusion of critical programs: an extension of rent forgiveness, eviction moratorium, emergency paid leave, state and local aid, and increases to nutrition assistance.

  • Take Action! Call your lawmakers TODAY! As COVID cases climb and our economy plummets, this could be our last chance for a meaningful package to meet the urgent needs of American workers and families.

Sign-On Letters

  • On December 14, NCJW joined 80 organizations on a statement expressing the need for President-elect Joe Biden to name an attorney general of the United States and other senior leadership of the U.S. Department of Justice who have strong records with regard to civil rights enforcement and justice reform.
  • On December 14, NCJW and 50 other organizations representing a diversity of stakeholders joined a letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission urging withdrawal or suspension of action on the Compliance Manual Section on Religious Discrimination.
  • On December 15, NCJW joined 79 organizations on a women’s community letter to the President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris transition urging a COVID relief package that centers Black and Brown women, including immigrant women.

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