Local Government Employment Buoys Stagnant Public Sector

Today’s BLS February jobs report shows a slight improvement in public sector employment, with local government employment responsible for the majority of the gains.

Total public sector employment is up 7,000 jobs in February; local governments added 4,000 jobs, and state governments added 3,000. There were no gains in Federal government employment. Within local government employment, local governments (excluding education) added 2,600 jobs, and local schools added 1,200.

Despite these improvements, local government employment remains 512,000 jobs below its July 2008 post-recession peak.

March jobs report graphic

View the January Local Government Jobs Report.

christy-mcfarlandAbout the Author: Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

Recent FCC Proceedings Highlight Importance of Equity, Local Control

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Speaks On Net NeutralityFormer FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks to the media on the importance of net neutrality on December 1, 2010 at the headquarters of the FCC in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Like so many aspects of our national infrastructure, internet service has become such an integral part of our work, our personal lives, and our social interactions that we tend to take it for granted; we don’t often pay much attention to the World Wide Web until we no longer have access to it. That all changed last Thursday, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on two widely-publicized proceedings: one related to the issue of net neutrality, and another regarding petitions filed by telecommunications utilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to overcome state barriers to the expansion of municipal broadband networks. In two 3-2 votes, the FCC supported the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions to preempt state laws restricting municipal broadband networks, and adopted a new Open Internet Order which reclassifies broadband Internet access as a common carrier telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

These decisions speak to the basic tenets of democracy and equity. The internet, which is one of our country’s most sound economic engines, has also developed into a carrier of social good. It protects our right to free speech, broadens our access to information, and enables us to communicate across physical boundaries. Policies that view and protect these services as institutionalized goods to which the public should have unrestricted access reflect democratic ideals and a spirit of equality among all citizens.

Despite their relative obscurity in the public lexicon, the recent decisions made by the FCC are the product of debates in which policy wonks and advocates have been engaged for years. The issues around which the decisions are based received more public attention and increased media coverage in recent months as a result of many factors, including President Obama’s official statements addressing these topics and television personality John Oliver’s rousing (and hilarious) explanation of net neutrality on his late-night television show. This extra attention prompted a massive outpouring of comments submitted to the FCC during the proposed rules’ public comment periods. There were over 4 million comments submitted regarding the Open Internet proceedings – more than any other policy issue in the Commission’s history. This sent the clear message that, despite John Oliver’s declaration of this topic as “boring,” the American people recognize the gravity and importance of these decisions.

Municipal Broadband

Perhaps you followed our previous series on the ins and outs of municipal broadband, which provided a basic overview of muni-broadband networks. Municipal (muni) networks, also referred to as community networks, are built and managed by and within city or regional boundaries. In the case of the recent FCC decision, two cities with existing community networks located in states that subsequently passed anti-muni laws petitioned to expand broadband service outside of their current footprints in response to numerous requests from neighboring unserved and underserved communities. The FCC found that provisions of the anti-muni laws in these states are barriers to broadband deployment, investment and competition, and conflict with the FCC’s mandate to promote these goals. The Commission voted to allow Chattanooga and Wilson to expand their existing networks. Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel voted in favor of the petitions, and in their statements underscored the importance of broadband as a necessity for local growth and opportunity and highlighted the value of municipal broadband in meeting these goals, particularly in areas where service was not provided by industry.

This represents a success for cities, underscoring the importance of local control in infrastructure investments that serve cities’ needs. In response to the FCC’s decision, NLC CEO & Executive Director Clarence Anthony stated that “today’s vote underscores the critical role of local governments in providing broadband services that are integral to a strong, 21st century economy that benefits residents and strengthens communities. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., are examples of the successful role local governments can play to ensure that high-speed, affordable broadband is available to our cities’ residents. While their petitions to the FCC only apply to their individual municipal broadband initiatives, today’s ruling sets a precedent that acknowledges the need for local flexibility to meet individual community needs. Each community is different, and local governments must have the flexibility and authority to make the best choices for their residents.”

Open Internet/Net Neutrality

The term “net neutrality” is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. This principle became the ideological basis of the internet as we know it today; the idea of a free and open communications infrastructure did more to catalyze a new age of human connectivity than any other advancement in recent history. It also ushered in a new age of business by modernizing economic transactions and offering the perfect platform for entrepreneurs. Those who wished to start a business but lacked capital could simply build a web presence – thus, the internet became the incubator of the everyman.

The FCC’s recent vote allowed for the regulation of the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, treating it as a public utility and allowing the Commission to regulate it as such. The new rules enable the FCC to prohibit paid prioritization, which would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block or restrict certain content, essentially dividing the internet into “fast lanes” for companies and higher-paying customers and “slow lanes” for the general public. More information is available in the FCC’s press release on this topic.

The FCC’s net neutrality ruling will not subject ISPs to rate regulation, tariff unbundling or any other new taxes or fees. However, opponents of net neutrality have already proposed counter-legislation and threatened lawsuits. The FCC has braced itself for a bevy of aggressive litigation.

Better for Cities

The FCC decision on municipal broadband represents a major win for local policy makers in that they restored local control and enabled the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson to provide improved services in their communities. Municipal broadband networks offer high-speed internet access at affordable prices; they encourage economic development in cities and towns; they help local government and municipal services to function more efficiently; and most importantly, they meet the specific needs of a community as defined by its citizens. Municipal networks underscore the notion that internet access is a right, not a privilege, and that local governments can and should intervene to ensure that this right is protected equally for all Americans.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

A Quick Look at All Local Government Cases on This Year’s Supreme Court Docket

Summary of all local government cases on the 2014-2015 Supreme Court docketThe Supreme Court’s 2014-2015 docket is now complete. While the same-sex marriage and Affordable Care Act cases will receive the most attention, the docket is chock-full of cases significant to local government. (Jung Soo Kang/Getty Images)

The State and Local Legal Center’s (SLLC) Midterm Review article summarizes all the cases accepted and already decided that will affect local government. Expect decisions in all the cases by the end of June.

Here are some highlights:

Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona and Sheehan v. City & County of San Francisco are probably the most significant cases of the term for local government. Depending on how the Court rules, both could impact every city and county in the United States. The issue in Reed is whether sign codes may treat some categories of temporary signs more favorably than others. If the Court holds they cannot, virtually all local governments will have to rewrite their sign codes. In Sheehan the Court will decide whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to arresting a mentally ill suspect who is armed and violent.

The question in Los Angeles v. Patel is whether a hotel registry ordinance which allow police officers to inspect registries without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. Even if your city or county doesn’t have a hotel registry ordinance it is likely to be affected by this case. In many states mobile home parks, second-hand dealers like pawnshops and junkyards, scrap metal dealers, and massage parlors are subject to registration and inspection laws and ordinances.

The Court has already decided one of the two Fourth Amendment traffic stop cases it will hear this term. In Heien v. North Carolina the Court held that a police officer’s reasonable misunderstanding that North Carolina required two working rear brake lights did not invalidate a traffic stop. In Rodriguez v. United States the Court will decide whether a police officer violated the Fourth Amendment by requiring a driver to stay a few minutes after an already-completed traffic stop to wait for back up before his canine performed a dog sniff.

In Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project the Court will decide whether disparate-impact claims can be brought under the Fair Housing Act. This is the third time the Court has agreed to hear this issue; the two previous cases settled. Local governments have found themselves on both sides of this issue.

Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans will be the Court’s second ruling on the newly-minted government speech doctrine. The Court will decide whether Texas can reject a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate Flag because license plates are “government speech.”

The Court will decide a number of employment cases this term including EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch. The issue is whether an employer can be sued for failing to accommodate an employee/applicant’s religion because the employer failed to ask if a religious accommodation was needed. Until this case the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the applicant/employee had to ask for a religious accommodation.

While the Court has been clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits excessive force against pretrial detainees the Court has not been clear about what exactly that means. In Kingsley v. Hendrickson the Court will articulate the substantive requirements for an excessive force claim brought by a pretrial detainee

T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell is one of the few local government cases already decided. The Court held that local governments must provide reasons when denying an application to build a cell phone tower. The reasons may be included in council meeting minutes issued at the same time as the denial letter.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

New Award Recognizes Innovative Affordable Housing Policies & Programs

This is a guest post by Jess Zimbabwe and Michelle McDonough Winters.

A Rose Center panel reviews a model of the Mueller Airport redevelopment in AustinA Rose Center panel reviews a model of the Mueller Airport redevelopment in Austin, which includes both for-sale and for-rent homes—25% of the total units on the site—that are affordable to families making less than 80% of the area median income. (photo: Jess Zimbabwe)

Housing affordability is a serious concern for cities across the US. The Joint Center for Housing Studies has reported that 35 percent of Americans and half of all renters are “cost burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This is a crisis that impacts not only families who stretch their budgets – and their commutes – to afford appropriate housing, but also the economic competitiveness of cities as businesses struggle to attract and retain qualified workers.

To recognize governments that are leading the way to solutions in housing, the ULI Robert C. Larson Housing Policy Leadership Awards recognizes policies and programs that are taking innovative approaches to housing affordability. This year’s call for entries for the Larson Awards, and their companion award program for affordable and workforce housing developments, is open until March 16. The program has honored eight state and local programs since its establishment, six of which went to cities or municipal housing departments:

2014
• City of Austin, Texas, for a comprehensive approach to housing policy. Designated by the US Census Bureau as the “nation’s capital for population growth,” the city of Austin is tackling its affordable housing shortage through a variety of mechanisms. In addition to the housing trust fund and general obligation bond funding, the city implemented planning and development policies and programs that encourage the production of affordable housing – securing affordability for more than 18,000-units since focusing on this crucial issue.

• City of Pasadena, California, for a comprehensive approach to housing policy. Since 2000, Pasadena’s housing policy and programs have resulted in the development of over 5,000 housing units in transit-oriented areas, including 1,370 units of affordable and workforce housing. Pasadena’s commitment to its housing vision, community engagement, and informed dialog has produced a highly integrated and effective mix of goals, policies, and programs for its 2014-2021 housing element plan.

2013
• Baltimore Housing, Baltimore, Maryland, for the Vacants to Value Program. After losing nearly a third of its population since the 1950s, Baltimore Housing launched the Vacants to Value program to help attract 10,000 new residents. The program has leveraged over $25 million in private capital and worked across city agencies to transform vacant housing stock into workforce housing.

• Park City Municipal Corporation, Park City, Utah, for creating workforce housing choices in a resort community. Aiming to reduce the burden on local businesses created by high seasonal job turnover, Park City has supported the creation of workforce housing by providing financial incentives including grants, land donation and fee waivers. The city has coupled these efforts with an inclusionary housing ordinance, homebuyer assistance and rental programs for municipal employees to create and maintain workforce housing opportunities and a more sustainable community.

2012
• New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, for the New Housing Marketplace Plan. A culture of innovation, leadership and collaboration have helped the New Housing Marketplace Plan to create or preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing—nearly 5,000 of which are workforce units – since 2003.

2011
• City of San José, California. Over the last 30 years, the City of San José, the center of Silicon Valley, has become one of the toughest places in the country to find affordable housing. In response, the City adopted a variety of policies and programs that have created 10,600 units of workforce housing. Its policies extend beyond project finance to include long-term planning and periodic revision of its zoning code to reduce regulatory barriers.

Is your community doing something innovative or impactful to address the need for affordable and workforce housing? If so, help spread the word and apply for recognition.

About the authors:

Jess Zimbabwe Headshot 150x150Jess Zimbabwe is Executive Director of the Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, a program of the National League of Cities, in partnership with the Urban Land Institute. She’s an architect, city planner and politics junkie. Follow Jess on twitter at @jzimbabwe and @theRoseCenter.

 

Michelle Winters Headshot 150x150Michelle McDonough Winters is Senior Visiting Fellow for Housing at the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. Follow her at @mkmwinters and the Terwilliger Center at @ULIHousing.

Why We Host the Congressional City Conference in March

DC neighborhoodColorful rowhouses near the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest D.C. (Getty Images)

We host our annual Congressional City Conference in March for a number of reasons. Most importantly, March is when Congressional action begins to take place. Before March, new members are likely to still be figuring out the ropes; after March, you’ll find that many other people will be competing for your representative’s time. So we’ve planned the conference with a specific strategy in mind: maximizing the return on your advocacy efforts, and enabling you to get in on the ground floor and advocate for your city while your legislators are all ears.

As a serendipitous bonus, March also happens to be a great time to visit Washington, D.C. You know that the District is home to the three pillars of federal government, and you may have visited many of our marble-clad monuments before – but there’s a city beyond the tourist brochures and textbooks, and spring is the ideal season to discover all that the nation’s capital has to offer. Although we’ll be keeping you busy during the conference, we encourage you to take some time before or after to explore both the grandeur and the grittiness of our city.

On a pleasant day, the National Mall is a delightful place to take a tree-lined stroll or a break for lunch on one of the park benches. And if you haven’t visited the Smithsonian museums along the Mall since high school, this is your chance to take advantage of a walkable strip of artworks and historical artifacts. As you make your way along this historic pathway lined with cherry trees and budding tulip flowers, stop inside the museums and you’ll find everything from cursed diamonds and movie props to nuclear missiles and other military relics. You may even stumble upon some of the personal belongings of our nation’s forefathers.

D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood

D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood is known for its restaurants, eclectic shops and nightlife. (Getty Images)

Want to get to know the real D.C.? You won’t need to travel far from your hotel. Located in the Northwest quadrant of the city, the Marriott Wardman Park is situated between two distinct neighborhoods – one elegant, and one eccentric. Head north to the residential neighborhood of Cleveland Park, and you’ll find stately old manors and the occasional bookstore or coffee shop. Head south to Adams Morgan, and discover your new favorite cuisine as you explore a hodgepodge of funky bars, mural-splashed walls, ethnic eateries, and quirky shops crammed with off-beat art. Between these two neighborhoods, you’ll experience two sides of the city that you won’t see on TV or read about in most guidebooks.

In the end, you’ll find that Washington, D.C. is a diverse city full of hidden gems – for more suggestions, check out these NLC staff recommendations!

Mari Andrew bio photoAbout the author: Mari Andrew is the Senior Associate of Marketing at the National League of Cities. She works hard to help city leaders build better communities, and believes the world would be a better place if people wore more creative clothing.

LED Street Lights: Energy Savings Likely to Outweigh Initial Costs for These Three Cities

LED streetlights on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in MinnesotaLED streetlights, such as those found on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., can provide better visibility while reducing emissions and cutting cities’ energy bills by more than 60%. (Joe Ferrer/Getty Images)

Nearly every boulevard, avenue, road or side street in America is lined with opportunities to reduce energy consumption and save important municipal dollars. Street lights in the United States are estimated to use as much energy as six million households, and the energy bills cost local governments more than $10 billion per year.

Due to recent advances of LED and other solid state lighting options, modern streetlights have the potential to cut those figures by 50% or more.

This is why the Obama Administration has challenged mayors around the country to retrofit their lights and install modern, high efficiency lighting. The Presidential Challenge for Advanced Outdoor Lighting sets a goal of upgrading at least 1.5 million poles by May 2016, tripling the previous goal to upgrade 500,000.

The challenge is backed by extensive resources in the Better Buildings Outdoor Lighting Accelerator, which contains financial calculators, case studies, and more. The Solid State Street Lighting Consortium, a DOE-managed peer group of cities pursuing lighting upgrades, also has technical specifications and market reports to help cities through the procurement process.

Thanks to early adopters like Raleigh, Los Angeles and Seattle, many of the concerns surrounding technical issues and public acceptance have been debunked in the last few years, illuminating the path for others to follow. Costs for both energy use and maintenance have proven lower under the new systems. In surveys conducted for the city of Seattle, more than 85% of respondents approved of the new lights.

For many city leaders, though, the decision isn’t quite that clear. As with any major retrofit, the upfront capital cost can be daunting. Los Angeles, for example, has replaced more than 140,000 lights in four years, yielding an annual savings of more than 60%. Even with a payback period estimated at just seven years, the initial cost has been reported to be $57 million. Given the constraints on local budgets, it can be difficult to justify a costly upgrade for a system that is already functioning.

Additionally, some city officials may be waiting to see if those installation costs continue to drop before they convert. Between 2011 and 2013, the cost of new LED streetlights fell an estimated 50%. Even then, the price was four times that of high-pressure sodium lights. In the short term, waiting may result in further savings and an even more efficient LED product.

Nonetheless, the takeaway is overwhelmingly positive. A tipping point seems to have been reached as the rate of adoption accelerates. If the President’s challenge is met, and the 1.5 million poles achieve the same efficiency and CO2 reductions as Los Angeles, it will create a reduction of more than 369,000 tons of emissions each year.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Open Data Is Finally Making A Dent In Cities

This post originally appeared on Fast Company’s Co.Exist blog.

Chicago-StOpen data can help you find your lost dog, make your commute more efficient, and make government more transparent – if cities will let it. (Getty Images)

What is the best way to get from 12th Street to Main, and should I take the subway, a bike, or rideshare? How many lobbyists are there in my city and more importantly, what are they doing? And, by the way, where did my dog go?

All of these questions and more can now be answered in cities as a result of open data. Beyond just its functional use for an increasingly app-dependent society, data collection and analysis is powering and redefining how we think about ourselves and how we interact with others, in almost every part of life. From who we date, to who we share our commute with to work, a whole new world is being created through access to useful, usable information.

As with a range of leading issues, cities are at the vanguard of this shifting environment. Through increased measurement, analysis, and engagement, open data will further solidify the centrality of cities.

In Chicago, the voice of the mayor counts for a lot. And Mayor Emmanuel has been at the forefront in supporting and encouraging open data in the city, resulting in a strong open government community. The city has more than 600 datasets online, and has seen millions of page views on its data portal. The public benefits have accrued widely with civic initiatives like Chicagolobbyists.org, as well as with a myriad of other open data led endeavors.

Transparency is one of the great promises of open data. Petitioning the government is a fundamental tenet of democracy and many government relations’ professionals perform this task brilliantly. At the same time that transparency is good for the city, it’s good for citizens and democracy. Through the advent of Chicagolobbyists.org, anyone can now see how many lobbyists are in the city, how much they are spending, who they are talking to, and when it is happening.

Throughout the country, we are seeing data driven sites and apps like this that engage citizens, enhance services, and provide a rich understanding of government operations In Austin, a grassroots movement has formed with advocacy organization Open Austin. Through hackathons and other opportunities, citizens are getting involved, services are improving, and businesses are being built.

Data can even find your dog, reducing the number of stray animals being sheltered, with Stray Mapper. The site has a simple map-based web portal where you can type in whether you are missing a dog or cat, when you lost them, and where. That information is then plugged into the data being collected by the city on stray animals. This project, developed by a Code for America brigade team, helps the city improve its rate of returning pets to owners.

It’s not only animals that get lost or at least can’t find the best way home. I’ve found myself in that situation too. Thanks to Ridescout, incubated in Washington, D.C., at 1776, I have been able to easily find the best way home. Through the use of open data available from both cities and the Department of Transportation, Ridescout created an app that is an intuitive mobility tool. By showing me all of the available options from transit to ridesharing to my own two feet, it frequently helps me get from place to place in the city. It looks like it wasn’t just me that found this app to be handy; Daimler recently acquired Ridescout as the auto giant continues its own expansion into the data driven mobility space.

We are a data driven society, from the private sector where consumer data drives the bottom line to the public sector where more and more outputs are being quantified and analyzed. New businesses are being created and existing firms are growing as companies use open data to build products that improve the lives of people living in and visiting cities. In whatever city you are in, data is a tool to make lives easier, create more robust two-way communications between the governing and governed, and increase and improve commerce.

In the National League of Cities’ newly released report, City Open Data Policies: Learning by Doing, we sought to find out what cities are currently doing with open data and what they could be doing far into the future. Working together with our partners at American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy, this publication is a resource for cities developing open data policies.

By opening data, cities are developing an unprecedented portal into the operations and functioning of government for the use of and to the benefit of community members, the private sector, and open government advocates. Enhanced data analysis and increased open data availability also allows us to envision a future where city services are radically transformed, leading toward a seamlessness of operations from city government to resident delivery. This forward momentum further reinforces that data has become the infrastructural backbone in the century of the city.

Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the author:Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.

Don’t Ask, Do Tell: NLC Joins SCOTUS Amicus Brief in Religious Accommodation Case

religious head scarfDo you think employers should ask job applicants about the clothing they might wear for religious reasons? Or should applicants disclose their religious accommodation needs without being asked? (Getty Images)

Traditional HR policy practices hold that employers shouldn’t ask prospective employees about protected characteristics such as age, sex, race, national origin, religion, etc. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently decided that if an employer thinks an employee may need a religious accommodation, then the employer must ask about his or her religion. Is the EEOC’s new view correct?

That is what the Supreme Court will decide in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores. Who must ask about the need for a religious accommodation, the employer or the employee/applicant? The State and Local Legal Center’s (SLLC) amicus brief argues the employee/applicant should ask.

Abercrombie & Fitch’s “Look Policy” prohibits headwear, requiring employees on the sales floor to wear clothing consistent with what Abercrombie sells in it stores. Samantha Elauf wore a head scarf to an interview at Abercrombie, but she didn’t ask for a religious accommodation. Rather than asking, her interviewer assumed Ms. Elauf was Muslim and wore the headscarf for religious reasons. Ms. Elauf was ultimately not hired because of the headscarf. The EEOC subsequently sued Abercrombie, alleging it violated Title VII by failing to accommodate Ms. Elauf’s religious beliefs. At trial, the EEOC’s expert testified that some women wear headscarves for cultural rather than religious reasons.

The Tenth Circuit ultimately held in favor of Abercrombie, finding that an applicant/employee “ordinarily must establish that he or she initially informed the employer that [he or she] adheres to a particular practice for religious reasons, and that he or she needs an accommodation for that practice” – steps which Ms. Elauf did not take.

The SLLC’s amicus brief argues that the applicant/employee should have to notify the employer of the need for a religious accommodation. After all, that had been the EEOC’s position until this particular case. A contrary position requires employers to make assumptions based on stereotypes about the physical characteristics that could indicate a person might practice a particular religion. Requiring employers to ask about an employee’s religion to avoid a failure to accommodate claim may lead to employers being liable for a disparate treatment claim. EEOC guidance says that an employer asking about a protected characteristic like religion may be used as evidence of discrimination in a disparate treatment case. And public employers don’t want to ask an applicant/employer about religion to avoid violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Amanda Kellar and Chuck Thompson of the International Municipal Lawyers Association wrote the SLLC’s brief, which was joined by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the International Public Management Association for Human Resources, the National Public Employer Labor Relations Association, and the National School Boards Association.

If Title VII stands for anything, it is that employers should not stereotype employees based on protected characteristics. Had Abercrombie & Fitch asked Ms. Elauf if she was a Muslim, they would have been doing just that: assuming that all women who wear headscarves do so for religious reasons.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Supreme Court Rules Correctional Institutions Must Allow Half Inch Beards for Religious Reasons

religious beardThe Supreme Court’s opinion in Holt v. Hobbs communicated a rather pragmatic view of the prison security risks created by short beards – namely, that the beards aren’t much of a risk at all given that they are not an ideal place to hide contraband. (Getty Images)

To the casual Supreme Court watcher, Holt v. Hobbs will probably be known and remembered more for John Oliver’s brilliant rendition of the oral argument featuring dogs posed as Supreme Court Justices, rather than what the Court held. But for Gregory Holt and other inmates who have been not been allowed to grow half inch beards, it is the holding they will remember.

The Supreme Court held unanimously that an inmate’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Rights Act (RLUIPA) were violated when he was not allowed to grow a half inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Cities, take note – this case will affect correctional institutions with no-beard policies and may provide lower court’s guidance in evaluating RLUIPA claims in the corrections and land use context.

Arkansas Department of Corrections (the Department) grooming policy prohibits inmates who do not have a particular dermatological condition from growing beards. Gregory Holt’s request to grow a half inch beard in accordance with his Muslim religious beliefs was denied.

RLUIPA states that the government may not substantially burden the free exercise of an institutionalized person unless the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The Eighth Circuit held that the Department satisfied its burden of showing that the no beards policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling security interests.

The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Alito, first concluded the lower court made three errors in concluding that the grooming policy didn’t substantially burden Mr. Holt’s religion. That he had other means of practicing his religion, that he was “credited” by his religion for attempting to follow his beliefs, and that not all Muslims believe men must grow beards were all facts that do not matter in a RLUIPA analysis.

While the Court agreed that preventing the flow of contraband in it facilities and preventing prisoners from disguising their identities are compelling state interests, it concluded that disallowing half inch beards isn’t the least restrictive means of furthering prison safety and security. The Court described the Department’s concern that prisoners may hide contraband in their beards as “hard to take seriously.” Only small items could be concealed, inmates could more easily conceal items in head hair, and beards can be searched. Photographing an inmate with and without a beard would solve the problem of an inmate changing his appearance to enter restricted areas, escape, or evade apprehension upon escaping. And the fact that the Department allows inmates to grow mustaches, head hair, and quarter inch beards for medical reasons – all of which could be shaved off “at a moment’s notice” – indicates that security concerns raised by quickly changing appearance are not “serious.”

Also critical to the Court’s analysis was the fact that most states and the federal government allow inmates to grow half inch beards for any reason.

The Court’s opinion in this case was partially a critique of the lower court opinions, which seemed to gloss over the requirements of RLUIPA rather than carefully apply them, and partially a pragmatic view of security risks created by short beards: “Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a ½ inch beard—and the same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes. Nevertheless, the Department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot, or naked.”

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

We Helped U.S. Communities Give 500 Backpacks to These Students in Need

The National League of Cities was represented at the recent U.S. Communities annual meeting and charity event by David Maloney, Program Manager, Strategic Partnerships and Emma Lieberth, Program Manager, Strategic Partnerships. U.S. Communities is the only national purchasing cooperative sponsored by NLC, the National Association of Counties (NACo), the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO), the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), and more than 70 state level organizations, including 29 state municipal leagues. For more information, visit uscommunities.org.

This post originally appeared on the U.S. Communities website and was republished with permission.

Fresno Unified School District photo

NLC helped U.S. Communities stuff 500 backpacks for students in need(top) Students from the Fresno Unified School District. (photo courtesy of the Fresno Unified School District)
(bottom) Paul Rosencrans of the Fresno Unified School District stands among the 500 backpacks NLC staff helped fill for students in need. (photo courtesy of U.S. Communities)

U.S. Communities, the leading national government and education purchasing cooperative, encouraged philanthropy by raising awareness for underprivileged students during its 2015 Annual Planning Meeting with staff, national sponsors, suppliers and Advisory Board members. Our second annual backpack charity event filled the hearts of all who participated and brought smiles to the students who received the donations. This year’s recipient was the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD).

Fresno, Calif., has the highest rate of unsheltered homelessness in the country, according to 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report by the The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Fresno Unified School District is the 4th largest school district in California, serving more than 73,000 students. Fresno Unified is committed to providing students with the greatest number of opportunities to boost student achievement. U.S. Communities recognized an opportunity to make a difference in this community and asked Paul Rosencrans, U.S. Communities Advisory Board member and Executive Director of Purchasing for Fresno Unified School District, to identify schools with the highest-need students.

Fresno Unified has a program called Project ACCESS (Achievement in Core Curriculum for Equity and Student Success) which oversees the enrollment of all homeless families into the school district. FUSD Project ACCESS/HHI Manager Nancy Horn explains, “This year, in the first semester alone, we enrolled 465 new homeless students in grades K through 12. It is such a joy to present a child with a backpack filled with school supplies. Students immediately put them on, and a smile creeps across their face. Many times, they don’t have anything that is their own because of being locked out due to eviction or being kicked out of a home they were sharing, so this gift can mean so much.” Throughout the year, Fresno Unified works to help needy students with what they need to be successful in school and at their “home for homework.“ At this point, we are out of backpacks – so your donation is coming at a perfect time,” says Nancy.

Following dinner on the first day of the meeting, volunteers formed assembly lines to fill each backpack with everything from pencils and water bottles to pocket folders, rulers and calculators. As the volunteers filled 500 backpacks with school supplies, inspirational notes were written to each student to let them know they were receiving these backpacks because we care. Paul Rosencrans was honored to accept these backpacks on behalf of Fresno Unified School District, and rented a truck to drive the large donation back to Fresno. “As I drive this rental truck filled with backpacks and supplies from San Diego to Fresno, I plan to take some time of reflection to be grateful for all the opportunities I have been given and what this means for each student that will receive their own backpack,” Paul said, as he also encouraged the audience to take some time to reflect on their own lives.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to give back this year with the help of our supplier partners and attendees who helped stuff each backpack. Their generosity showed a lot of heart, and we are proud to count them as part of the U.S. Communities family.” said Kevin Juhring, General Manager of U.S. Communities.

The 500 backpack donations were made possible by the generous donations from our supplier partners: Acro Service Corporation, Applied Industrial Technologies, BI, Inc., CARQUEST/Advance Professional, Cintas, Fisher Science Education, Gametime, Garland/DBS, Inc., Graybar, Haworth, HD Supply Facilities Maintenance, Herman Miller, Hertz Equipment Rental, The Home Depot, Independent Stationers, Insight Public Sector, KOMPAN, KONE, Kronos, Ricoh, ServiceWear Apparel and TAPCO.