Update, February 28, 2014:State representative Sam Teasley, the first sponsor listed on the bill, told Mother Jones that he has taken the controversial language out of the bill, so that it is now identical to the longstanding federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He wrote, "After introducing the bill, a number of citizens expressed concerns that the language could be construed in a way that might encourage discrimination. I do not believe that the bill as introduced does that. It was most certainly not my intent and frankly, as a man of faith, that would be inconsistent with what my faith teaches me. My faith teaches that all people, regardless of belief system, are to be treated with dignity and respect." The Senate version of the Georgia bill has reportedly been taken off of the calendar.
A bill moving swiftly through the Georgia House of Representatives would allow business owners who believe homosexuality is a sin to openly discriminate against gay Americans by denying them employment or banning them from restaurants and hotels.
The proposal, dubbed the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, would allow any individual or for-profit company to ignore Georgia laws—including anti-discrimination and civil rights laws—that "indirectly constrain" exercise of religion. Atlanta, for example, prohibits discrimination against LGBT residents seeking housing, employment, and public accommodations. But the state bill could trump Atlanta's protections.
The Georgia House bill's text is largely identical to controversial legislation that passed in Arizona last week. The Arizona measure—which is currently awaiting Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's signature—has drawn widespread protests from LGBT groups and local businesses. One lawmaker who voted for the Arizona bill, Sen. Steve Pierce (R-Prescott), went so far as to publicly change his mind.
Georgia and Arizona are only the latest states to push religious freedom bills that could nullify discrimination laws. The new legislation is part of a wave of state laws drafted in response to a New Mexico lawsuit in which a photographer was sued for refusing to work for a same-sex couple.
Unlike similar bills introduced in Kansas, Tennessee, and South Dakota, the Georgia and Arizona bills do not explicitly target same-sex couples. But that difference could make the impact of the Georgia and Arizona bills even broader. Legal experts, including Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, warn that Georgia and Arizona's religious-freedom bills are so sweeping that they open the door for discrimination against not only gay people, but other groups as well. The New Republic noted that under the Arizona bill, "a restaurateur could deny service to an out-of-wedlock mother, a cop could refuse to intervene in a domestic dispute if his religion allows for husbands beating their wives, and a hotel chain could refuse to rent rooms to Jews, Hindus, or Muslims."
"The government should not allow individuals or corporations to use religion as an excuse to discriminate [or] to deny other access to basic healthcare and safety precautions," Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wrote in a letter to a Georgia House Judiciary subcommittee on Sunday.
State representative Sam Teasley, the first sponsor listed on the bill, did not respond to request for comment Monday.
"The bill was filed and is being pushed solely because that's what all the cool conservative kids are doing, and because it sends a message of defiance to those who believe that gay Americans ought to be treated the same as everybody else," writes Jay Bookman, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Passing it would seriously stain the reputation of Georgia and the Georgia Legislature."
Kansas set off a national firestorm last week when the GOP-controlled House passed a bill that would have allowed anyone to refuse to do business with same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs. The bill, which covered both private businesses and individuals, including government employees, would have barred same-sex couples from suing anyone who denies them food service, hotel rooms, social services, adoption rights, or employment—as long as the person denying the service said he or she had a religious objection to homosexuality. As of this week, the legislation was dead in the Senate. But the Kansas bill is not a one-off effort.
Republicans lawmakers and a network of conservative religious groups has been pushing similar bills in other states, essentially forging a national campaign that, critics say, would legalize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Republicans in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, and Tennessee recently introduced provisions that mimic the Kansas legislation. And Arizona, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have introduced broader "religious freedom" bills with a unique provision that would also allow people to deny services or employment to LGBT Americans, legal experts say.
"This is a concerted campaign that the religious Right has been hinting at for a couple of years now," says Evan Hurst, associate director of Truth Wins Out, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes gay rights. "The fact that they're doing it Jim Crow-style is remarkable, considering the fact that one would think the GOP would like to be electable among people under 50 sometime in the near future."
Several of these measures have sprung up within a short period of time. The Kansas bill was introduced by Republican state Rep. Charles Macheers on January 16. On January 28, Idaho state Rep. Lynn Luker (R-Boise) introduced a bill that would prohibit the state from yanking the professional licenses of people who deny service or employment to anyone (including LGBT customers) on the basis of their religious beliefs. (There's an exception for emergency responders.) Luker has since pulled that bill back into committee, to address concerns about the language being discriminatory.
On January 30, a coalition of Republican senators and representatives in South Dakota introduced a bill that would have allowed a business to refuse to serve or people due to their sexual orientation, or be compelled to hire someone because of their sexual orientation. Under this measure, a gay person who brought a lawsuit charging discrimination based on sexual orientation could have faced punitive damages of no less than $2,000. The bill also declared that it is protected speech to tell someone that his or her lifestyle is "wrong or a sin." The bill was killed this week by the state Senate judiciary committee.
On February 5, Republicans introduced legislation in both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature allowing a person or company to refuse to provide services such as food, accommodation, counseling, adoption, or employment to people in civil unions or same-sex marriages, or transgender individuals, "if doing so would violate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the person." (Government employees are excluded.) State Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) tells Mother Jones that he sponsored the bill because "a person shouldn't get sued for choosing not to participate in a person's wedding." But this week, the bill's lead sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), shelved the measure until next year after facing heavy criticism. And in Oregon, voters could have the opportunity this year to vote on a ballot initiative that would also allow people to refuse on religious grounds to support same-sex couples.
In addition to these bills, lawmakers in Arizona, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have recently introduced Religious Freedom Restoration Acts with a provision that could also allow discrimination against LGBT Americans. These state-sponsored RFRAs, which aim to stop new laws from burdening religious exercise, are nothing new—29 states already have some kind of RFRA in place through legislation or court action. But legal experts say that these particular bills are unique in that they allow individuals—and in some states, businesses—to cite religion as a defense in a private lawsuit. In the past, courts have been split on the issue. But in 2012, in New Mexico, a photographer tried to use religion in court as grounds for refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding. Last year, the photographer's studio lost its discrimination lawsuit. The bills are a direct reaction to that lawsuit, say multiple legal experts. "The Kansas bill is more obvious, but some of these RFRAs will have similar effects…they're just as bad," says Maggie Garrett, legislative counsel for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
The RFRAs and the bills that target same-sex marriage have been pushed by Republican lawmakers, but in some cases, they were first promoted or drafted by a network of conservative Christian groups. According to the Wichita Eagle, the American Religious Freedom Program (ARFP)—which is part of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative organization founded in 1976—crafted the language for the Kansas bill. Brian Walsh, executive director of the ARFP, which supports religious freedom measures, acknowledges that his group consulted with the legislators on the bill, but he says that lots of other groups did as well: "We gave them suggestions and they took some of them." Walsh says that ARFP was contacted by legislators who wrote the Tennessee bill and that the group frequently talked to legislators in South Dakota about "religious freedom" but not the state's specific bill.Julie Lynde, executive director of Cornerstone Family Council in Idaho, one of many state groups that are part of Citizen Link, a branch of Focus on the Family, told Al Jazeera America, "We've been involved in working on the language" of the Idaho bill. Another member of Citizen Link, the Arizona Policy Center, has been active in supporting the Arizona bill. And the Oregon ballot initiative was proposed by Friends of Religious Freedom, a conservative Oregon nonprofit.
Walsh told Mother Jones he believes these bills, particularly the one in Kansas, have been misunderstood, and the aim is not to facilitate discrimination against the LGBT community. "Our goal—and we suspect the goal of others—has been to try to find the right balance between fully protecting religious freedom and other civil liberties so that both sides of the marriage debate can coexist harmoniously," he says. But Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU, takes a different stance: "These bills are discriminatory, pure and simple."
"This seems to be a concerted Hail Mary campaign to carve out special rights for religious conservatives so that they don't have to play by the same rules as everyone else does," says Hurst, from Truth Wins Out. "In this new up-is-down world, anti-gay religious folks are 'practicing their faith' when they're baking cakes or renting out hotel rooms to travelers. On the ground, [these bills] hurt real, live LGBT people."
The company behind the Oscar-nominated film Dallas Buyers Clubsued 31 people in a federal district court in Texas this month for allegedly using the legal file-sharing service BitTorrent to download the movie illegally. The lawsuit is one of thousands that have been brought by companies against BitTorrent users in recent years, in an effort to crack down on Americans who are stealing movies, music, porn, books, and software. But it could have a tough time. Recently, several federal judges have ruled that key information—computer internet protocol (IP) addresses—used by film studios and others to target supposed thefts is insufficient proof to proceed with the lawsuits. And copyright experts say that even though companies are still winning lots of settlements, these firms are going after fewer plaintiffs at once than they were a few years ago. This suggests that their ability to pursue large piracy cases has been hampered.
"I think the trend is towards judges looking at [piracy] cases more carefully than they used to, requiring more upfront investigation," says Mitch Stoltz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "There may always be some judges who will simply rubber-stamp these cases…but there are fewer of those judges than before."
When companies bring copyright lawsuits, they often don't know the identities of the alleged pirates. (This was true in the Dallas Buyers Club case.) Instead, they use IP addresses, unique numbers assigned to each device on an internet network, to track the computers that have been used for illegal downloading. Then they ask a judge to issue a subpoena to the internet service providers, so they can obtain the name of the person associated with that IP address. If the judge approves this request, plaintiffs can make additional demands, such as seeking a copy of the person's hard drive. Armed with this information, the plaintiff then typically forces the defendants to settle. The average settlement ranges from $2,000 to $5,000, says Jeffrey Antonelli, a Chicago attorney who has represented numerous people accused of illegal BitTorrent use.
But this strategy isn't perfect. "IP addresses are continuing to be less and less of an indicator of the identity of a particular person or computer on the net," says R. Polk Wagner, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in intellectual-property law. The name connected to an IP address usually identifies who is the paying the internet bill, not who is doing the downloading. Ten years ago, most people didn't use wireless routers at home, but now, more than 60 percent of people do. And all the computers using a single wireless router have the same IP address. So if your tech-savvy neighbor is piggybacking off your wireless internet—and illegally downloading Mean Girls—you could take the heat. And Stoltz, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, points out that when people receive settlement letters, they are often scared into paying up—"even when they didn't download illegally, or had valid defenses."
Here's an example of how imprecise IP addresses can be in pinpointing a specific computer: In 2012, law enforcement tried to catch a person making online threats to local police in Indiana by tracing the person's IP address to a specific house. After a SWAT team broke down the door and tossed a couple of flashbangs into the entryway, they realized they'd gotten the wrong place. The home had an open wifi router. The threats were coming from down the street.
Recently, some judges have become more wary about granting subpoenas to companies who come to them with only IP addresses. Last month, a judge in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington at Seattle dismissed a case brought by the studio that produced Elf-Man—a direct-to-video Christmas movie—against 152 anonymous defendants. According to the judge, "simply identifying the account holder associated with an IP address tells us very little about who actually downloaded Elf-Man." In May 2013, a federal judge in California came down hard and issued a $81,320 fine against copyright holders that were "porno trolling" or going after people accused of downloading porn illegally. According to the judge, the plaintiff, Ingenuity 13 LLC, relied too heavily on IP addresses and did not do an adequate enough investigation to bring claims. And in May 2012, a federal district judge in New York reached a similar conclusion about IP addresses, as did a federal judge in Illinois the year before. Wagner notes, "Judges are increasingly realizing that [IP addresses] don't have a high degree of reliability, and they're not an accurate representation of who has control of the computer."
Antonelli, the Chicago attorney, takes a different position. "Sure, we've seen a sprinkling of courts that have taken this position," he says, "but in my opinion, it's not enough, especially when you look at just how many lawsuits are being filed. I don't see a trend yet." He notes, however, that studios are no longer going after tens of thousands of plaintiffs at once, like they were doing from 2011 to late 2012. In 2011, for example, the producers for Hurt Lockersued almost 25,000 BitTorrent users—and almost all the claims were voluntarily dismissed by the studio, because it was taking too long to track down all of the defendants via their IP addresses."That's certainly changed. Typically we see no more than 100 defendants…I think that was a smart move on the plaintiffs. Courts were losing patience," says Antonelli. Wanger adds, "It's possible companies think that if they sue fewer people who are doing more significant activities, that's a more defensible public relations approach." (The Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America didn't provide comment to Mother Jones as to whether studios are now going after fewer plaintiffs.)
For now, whether or not the Dallas Buyers Club producers will be able to successfully subpoena the alleged downloaders remains to be seen. (An attorney representing the producers did not return multiple requests for comment.) "It really depends on the judge assigned to the case," says Stoltz. He says movies studios should be able to bring claims that are plausible, based on the facts they gather before suing.
The founder of the website Die Troll Die, who goes by the name John Doe, says that he started his website to fight alleged copyright trolls after being sued for copyright infringement—something he claims he didn't do. He says he's happy to see that the tide is turning against companies using IP addresses to bring lawsuits. He told Mother Jones via email, "I can say first-hand that being threatened with a lawsuit because someone else used your internet connection is a horrible experience."
On Friday, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the Missoula County Attorney's Office in Montana, alleging that it has found "substantial evidence" that prosecutors there systematically discriminate against female sexual-assault victims. According to the DOJ, the office considers sexual-assault cases involving adult women a low priority, often treats these victims with disrespect—quoting religious passages to one woman who reported assault, in a way that made her feel judged—and declines to prosecute some cases in which it has confessions or eyewitnesses, including a case in which Missoula police obtained incriminating statements from a man who admitted to having sexual intercourse with a mentally ill woman, who had asked him to stop.
"We uncovered evidence of a disturbing pattern of deficiencies in the handling of these cases by the County Attorney's Office, a pattern that not only denies victims meaningful access to justice, but places the safety of all women in Missoula at risk," wrote Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels for the Civil Rights Division, in a statement on Friday.
In a statement emailed to Mother Jones on Saturday, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg wrote, "I think that everything the DOJ is saying about our office is false. These people are as unethical as any I have ever seen. They obviously have a political agenda they want to push and the truth does not matter to them." Van Valkenburg also told The Missoulian, "There was no effort whatsoever by the DOJ to in any way inform me before they made this thing public." (A Justice Department spokeswoman told Mother Jones on Saturday that it has reached out to the Missoula County Attorney's Office "more than a half-dozen times over the past 21 months in an attempt to reach an amicable resolution." She added, "We remain confident in the integrity of our findings.")
Attorney General Eric Holder launched its federal investigation into how Missoula authorities handle sexual-assault cases in the spring of 2012. Last year, following the investigation, the Justice Department recommended that the University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department beef up resources to combat rape, and entered into agreements with both offices. In December 2013, the DOJ recommended that the Missoula County Attorney's Office enter a similar agreement. But since the Justice Department never issued a findings report for the prosecutor's office—like it did with the university and the police—Van Valkenburg said there wasn't sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to justify the demands. He also claimed that DOJ was overstepping its legal authority. This month, he declared that he was taking legal action against the DOJ, rather than make changes required by the settlement. Now, the Justice Department has released those findings, noting that the prosecutor's office failed to provide documents, information, or access to staff during the investigation.
A prosecutor allegedly told the mother of a five-year-old girl who'd been sexually assaulted by an adolescent that "boys will be boys."
According to the Justice Department's letter, in one instance, a deputy county attorney in Missoula allegedly quoted religious passages to a woman who'd reported sexual assault "in a way that the victim interpreted to mean that the Deputy County Attorney was judging her negatively for have made the report." In another case, the Justice Department spoke to a woman whose daughter was sexually assaulted, at the age of five, by an adolescent boy, who was sentenced to two years of community service for the crime. A prosecutor handling the case allegedly told the mother that "boys will be boys." Another sexual-assault victim discussing prosecution options was allegedly told by a deputy county attorney, "All you want is revenge."
The Justice Department reported that some women claimed they declined to pursue prosecution because of negative reports they'd heard about the prosecutor's office. A young woman who was gang-raped as a student at the University of Montana allegedly told the DOJ that her friend decided not to report her own rape to the police or prosecutors after hearing about her experience dealing with the prosecutor's office. In another case, a clinical psychologist who had counseled numerous sexual-assault survivors in Missoula allegedly told the Justice Department that after she, herself, was sexually assaulted, she was reluctant to have her case prosecuted, given the "horrendous" stories she'd heard.
In one case, a man confessed to raping a woman while she was unconscious. The prosecutor didn't bring charges, citing "insufficient evidence."
The Justice Department also determined that, after a review of police files, "in some cases…Missoula Police officers had developed substantial evidence to support prosecution, but [the office] without documented explanation, declined to charge the case." According to the DOJ, in one case, police obtained a confession from a man who admitted to raping a woman while she was unconscious, and recommended that he be charged with rape and car theft. The prosecutor's office allegedly declined to bring charges, citing "insufficient evidence." In another case, a man admitted to having sex with a mentally ill woman, and said that at some point she asked him to stop and said that he was hurting her—but he wasn't sure when he'd stopped. The police also recommended rape charges in that case, and the prosecutor declined to bring charges, according to the Justice Department. The DOJ determined that the prosecutor's office declined to prosecute "nearly every case" involving nonstranger assaults on adult women who had a mental or physical disability, or who were intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.
The Justice Department noted that the prosecutor's office has made some recent improvements to the office, including requiring deputy county attorneys to attend sexual-assault prosecution training sessions. But the DOJ said that the office still needs to make the "commonsense" improvements it recommended in December. Van Valkenburg told The Missoulian over the weekend that he plans to proceed with his lawsuit and "DOJ should respond to our lawsuit, rather than try to poison the well with this stuff.” He also told Mother Jones the following in January: "The Missoula Police Department and our office have done a very good job of handling sexual-assault allegations regardless of what national and local news accounts may indicate."
Last year up to 110 million Target customers had their sensitive personal information stolen over the holidays in one of the largest data thefts in retail history. After stolen credit cards began to flood black market websites, Target offered all of its US customers one year of free daily credit monitoring to help them fend off identity theft. But credit experts and Consumer Reports say that this service is misleading victimized customers by providing incomplete monitoring—and advertising comprehensive reports for a fee.
"It's a misconception to think that you're getting full credit monitoring," says John Mackey, founder of Master Credit Solutions, which helps people rebuild their credit. "I live three or four miles from the Target headquarters in Minneapolis, and I want to go over there and tell them that it's deception that they're committing. The reports won't tell you squat."
Under federal law, Americans who are victims of identity theft are allowed to get a free credit report from the three major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Target's program, "ProtectMyID," promises to go further than that, providing several resources, including giving customers free credit monitoring for one year. Credit monitoring works by notifying consumers after fraudulent activity occurs—for example, if a new credit card has been opened in the victim's name—so that it can be quickly stopped. It doesn't alert customers if someone is actually using a stolen credit card, since that information doesn't show up on a credit report. "Free credit monitoring is like someone running up to you after a car accident and telling you, 'You just got in a car accident!'" John Ulzheimer, a credit expert at CreditSesame.com, told MarketWatch.
But according to Consumer Reports, Target's credit monitoring service isn't even as good as that—since it only checks one bureau, Experian, and this practice doesn't provide a full picture of a person's credit. When you buy a house, for example, lenders usually compare credit reports from all three major bureaus, since they get their information from different sources, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Target claims, "You do not need to purchase a credit score or additional reports from Equifax and TransUnion to receive the benefits of credit monitoring." And Greg Young, a spokesman for Experian, tells Mother Jones, "Single-bureau monitoring provides substantial awareness into whether or not new lines of credit have been opened, or attempted, in the individual’s name."
But experts disagree. Checking only one bureau means that "the service could miss fraudulent activity," Consumer Reports notes. Mackey adds that this could be a "huge, huge problem for consumers," because they might think that's everything is fine with their credit and apply for a loan when, in fact, their credit has been compromised by fraud.
The second problem with Target's program, according to credit experts, is that it appears to upsell comprehensive monitoring to victimized Target customers. After signing up for ProtectMyID, Experian offers customers three-bureau monitoring in addition to multiple credit reports and scores if they pay extra—as much as $75, according to Consumer Reports. Doug Pollack, chief marketing officer at ID Experts, a data breach prevention service, says that it's common practice for Experian to charge extra for supplemental services and encourage customers to enroll in the service after a year, for a fee. He believes, however, that "what Target is doing, providing a credit monitoring solution, is appropriate as far as we at ID Experts can see." Young, the Experian spokesman, adds that he doesn't believe Target and his company are upselling. "Ads offering associated products are part of the user experience," he says.
Target did not respond to comment for this article, but Consumer Reports says a Target spokeswoman "claimed not to have details about Target's decision-making process" and "reiteratedProtectMyIDs basic benefits." Consumer Reports concluded that Target's deal is "lemons" for Target customers and "lemonade" for Experian. "The retailing giant has fumbled a second time by providing second-rate credit-monitoring services," says the report.