Fair Housing for LGBT People Rejected in Louisiana

On March 31, the day before the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) marked the beginning of Fair Housing Month, Louisiana lawmakers said "no" to affording greater protections for LGBT people under state housing discrimination law.

Under current law, Louisiana protects the ability "to compete for available housing on an open, fair, and equitable basis, regardless of race, color, religion, [and] sex." House Bill 804, introduced by Representative Jared Brossett of New Orleans, would have added to the list protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and marital status.

Unfortunately, Monday's House committee vote ended in a 13-5 defeat of Representative Brossett's bill.

Equality Louisiana has shown that Louisianans strongly support on the side of housing fairness:

Equality Louisiana polls shows 93.7% oppose LGBT housing discrimination

But the opposition didn't miss a beat. The Times-Picayune's Laura McGaughy reported:

Kathleen Benfield, from the conservative Christian organization the American Family Association of New Orleans, also testified against the bill on behalf of the Louisiana Family Forum's Gene Mills, who she said could not make the hearing.

She said the issue presented by the bill was "to protect certain sexual practices outside of marriage" and said this isn't a civil rights issue since sexual identity and gender expression are not "immutable" like race and "can change over time." She also said Brossett didn't present proof that homosexuals are being discriminated against in Louisiana.

"In my opinion, this legislation is a solution in search of a problem -- that there is not a problem," said Benfield.

Right Wing Watch has more on the American Family Association.

In other news on the fight for LGBT equality, Illinois moves toward banning sexual orientation conversion therapy while Minnesota falters on that front, and marriage equality developments continue to unfold in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Check out PFAW’s website for more LGBT equality updates.

PFAW

Florida Puts Hold on Voter Purge, North Carolina Lifts the Veil on Voter ID Law

When we last checked in with the controversial Florida voter purge, advocates and media alike were speculating over what route Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner would take in 2014, with Detzner's office considering comparing its voter records with the US Department of Homeland Security's federal citizenship database known as Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE).

Now we know: the purge is off for 2014.

The about-face on Thursday by Secretary of State Ken Detzner resolves a standoff with county elections supervisors, who resisted the purge and were suspicious of its timing. It also had given rise to Democratic charges of voter suppression aimed at minorities, including Hispanics crucial to Scott’s reelection hopes.

Detzner told supervisors in a memo that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is redesigning its SAVE database, and it won’t be finished until 2015, so purging efforts, known as Project Integrity, should not proceed.

“I have decided to postpone implementing Project Integrity until the federal SAVE program Phase Two is completed,” Detzner wrote.

As the Brennan Center reported in 2008, election officials across the country are routinely striking millions of voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.

Florida has an especially troublesome history with this practice, so voting rights advocates will have to keep a close eye on what shape it takes next year.

Also this week, in North Carolina US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ruled that lawmakers must release correspondence related to the formation of the state's new voter ID law, saying that though some records might be shielded, many are considered public.

Dale Ho of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project:

North Carolinians have a right to know what motivated their lawmakers to make it harder for them to vote. Legislators should not be shrouding their intentions in secrecy.

Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice:

Defendants have resisted at every turn disclosing information about their reasons for enacting this discriminatory law. Today's ruling will help ensure the court has a fuller picture of why the voting changes at stake are so bad for North Carolina voters.

In other voting rights news, Colorado considers recall election changes, Pennsylvania ID remains in legal limbo, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker approves (mostly) of the state's new voter suppression law.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

Urgent Action Needed on Georgia Early Voting Bill on Last Day of Legislative Session

Updated March 21: Georgia's legislative session closed without final action being taken on HB 891. According to Facing South, "House sponsors declined to take up a vote on the revised bill, and HB 891 was dead." The report quotes Kelli Persons of League of Women Voters of Georgia, "The message here is that it's very important . . . to pay attention to what's happening at the local level," in reference to the bill's impact on municipal early voting.

Earlier this month we told you about legislation in Georgia that would reduce the availability of early voting in municipal elections. While it was welcome news that the bill was amended to keep early voting at three weeks, requiring cities to pass their own legislation if they wanted to make further cuts, the League of Women Voters of Georgia is now reporting a flaw in the language that could take municipal early voting down to zero.

According to the League, it's time to act:

Please call, email, facebook/twitter & fax . . . Lt. Governor Cagle and Senate members,

And tell them to protect early voting and STOP HB 891 or FIX HB 891 before allowing a vote. It is a discredit to democracy to ask our Senators to vote on a flawed bill!

There is an "agreement" to correct the error before HB 891 is signed into law, but it should be fixed now – or stopped. Timing is especially critical as today, March 20, is the last day of Georgia's legislative session.

In other voting rights news, a federal judge has ruled in the Arizona-Kansas proof of citizenship case, early voting expansion suffers a setback in Louisiana, Virginia voter ID implementation moves forward – ahead of schedule, and Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans alike are speaking out against voter suppression.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

From "Right to Discriminate" to "Don't Say Gay," Standing up in Tennessee

With "right to discriminate" bills making news across the country, Tennessee's "don't say gay" battle continues to have a lasting – and inspiring – impact.

In 2011, Tennessee made national headlines for its effort to pass a "don't say gay" bill that would have prohibited educators from discussing any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality with students in kindergarten through eighth grade. This not only applied to lessons in classrooms, but to all discussions between educators and students. Any acknowledgement that LGBT people exist was officially prohibited, a cruel effort to isolate and declare as abnormal any children who were LGBT or who had LGBT family members (including parents).

It's come back in various forms since then, but it has yet to become law – thanks in part to courageous young people like Marcel Neergaard, who has consistently spoken out against the legislation and its chief sponsor, John Ragan, and who has also advocated for policies to protect LGBT students in the Volunteer State.

This week, Marcel wrote for the Huffington Post:

I know I am not alone in my struggles. I know I have to be happy with the progress LGBTQ people have made. I also know that it's not okay to be called out for being different. I know I can be helped by Tennessee's Dignity for All Students Act (HB927). It is important to say students cannot be harassed, intimidated or bullied because they are gay or perceived to be gay. The Dignity for All Students Act specifies many other groups, like kids who are bullied because of their religion, race, gender, gender identity or gender expression. It even helps the kids who are brave enough to be friends with students who are "different."

I'm not the only gay youth in Tennessee. I'm not the only gay kid in Oak Ridge. I'm not even the only gay student in my school [–] I'm just someone who is standing up. I know I have written about bullying many times, but this is still happening to kids like me everywhere and I refuse to let it continue. I will go on educating my school system, and the people around me who believe the gay stereotypes, but we [cannot] do this alone . . . We need . . . to convince legislators that students everywhere deserve safe places to learn. We also need people to encourage our representatives, who are supposed to represent us, to pass bills like the Dignity for All Students Act and federal legislation such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act. I want to make sure other kids do not have to go through what I have. This week I will be in Nashville for Advancing Equality on the Hill Day talking to my senator and (hopefully) representative about making schools safer for kids like me. What will you do?

Marcel's words ring especially true in the month leading up to the Day of Silence, an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that is meant to draw attention to the "silencing effects" of anti-gay harassment and name-calling in schools and to be a way for students to show their solidarity with students who have been bullied.

As we approach April 11, this year's Day of Silence, PFAW will be doing its part to spread Marcel's message – the idea that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.

In the meantime, check out Big Bullies: How the Religious Right is Trying to Make Schools Safe for Bullies and Dangerous for Gay Kids and its 2012 update.

In other LGBT news, Wisconsin marriage equality advocates are trying to get their litigation on the fast track.

Check out even more news from our friends at GLAAD, the Victory Fund, and the Washington Blade.

PFAW

Florida Senate Committee Takes Up Voting Rights Bill

At the same time pro-democracy advocates in Wisconsin were speaking out against their state's latest suppressive legislation yesterday, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee in Florida also had election reform on the agenda.

SPB 7068 – which cleared a procedural hurdle on March 10 and is expected to come back before the Committee later this month – addresses a number of issues, including the use of certain drop-off locations for the submission of absentee ballots. Last year, Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a directive against the use of some drop-off sites, such as tax collector offices and county library branches, despite their use in Pinellas County since 2008.

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark:

I do not understand why the secretary of state, the chief elections official for the state of Florida, would want to eliminate an option that voters have to participate by returning their ballot to the ballot dropoff locations.

Even US Senator Bill Nelson has joined the absentee ballot fray, telling Committee Chairman Jack Latvala:

The last thing Floridians need are laws that make it harder for them to exercise their right to vote.

Chairman Latvala hit back, claiming that Supervisor Clark needs to focus more on early voting and less on absentee ballots.

In other voting rights news, Minnesota moves closer to resolving its turf war over online voter registration, and Ohio considers putting voters' rights on the November ballot.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

Wisconsin Democracy Advocates Push Back Against Voter Suppression and Big Money in Politics

Today, under the banner of the Coalition to Protect Wisconsin Elections, a group of seventeen grassroots nonprofit organizations including People For the American Way gathered in the Wisconsin Senate Parlor to protest a batch of anti-democracy voting rights and campaign finance bills slated for Senate consideration tomorrow. The event included voters with their mouths taped shut to symbolize their voices being silenced by the proposed legislation as well as speakers from a range of progressive organizations, including PFAW regional political coordinator Scott Foval.

Speakers expressed opposition to a legislative package that will restrict access to a free and fair vote, allow unfettered spending on so-called political “issue ads,” and reduce transparency on reporting political activity in Wisconsin, including:

•  Senate Bill 324, restricting early voting hours and banning the option of weekend voting like “souls to the polls” drives organized by faith communities.

•  Senate Bill 267, making it more difficult for people to register to vote early.

•  Senate Bill 655, repealing current law to allow lobbyists to contribute directly to legislators starting April 15 of election years, even while the legislature is in session; lowering the bar for disclosing political contributions; and allowing unlimited Internet political activity without disclosure to the Government Accountability Board.

•  Assembly Bill 202, requiring poll observers to be allowed as close as three feet to poll workers, despite numerous complaints of harassing and intimidating behavior in recent elections.

Also under consideration, but not yet added to the official Senate calendar, is Senate Bill 654, which would rewrite the rules for disclosing political “issue ads” ahead of an election.  And currently seeking sponsors but not yet introduced is a bill that would eliminate same-day voter registration.

These bills could do serious damage to our democracy. In 2012, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites cast their ballots early. Several municipal clerks, who are responsible for administering elections, offered extended hours for voting to allow working people to participate in their democracy by casting their votes after work or on weekends.

In addition, the proposed new disclosure requirements would allow nearly unlimited, undisclosed political ad spending, both in broadcast and on the Internet, as well as increased allowances for solicitation activity for political bundling by political action committees and political conduits.

But “We, the People” are fighting back. Check out the video of today’s event below:

PFAW

AAMIA member and United Clergy of Greater Cleveland protest early voting cutbacks

Ohioans are continuing their stand against recent cuts to early voting, including in Cuyahoga County, where yesterday Reverend Dr. Tony Minor, of People For the American Way's African American Ministers in Action, stood with United Clergy of Greater Cleveland to protest in front of the Board of Elections.

Sunday early voting has been especially important to "Souls to the Polls" programs through which churches organize their congregations to turn out and vote early.

In other voting rights news, Florida and Wisconsin both have electoral reform on the legislative agenda. Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

Voting Rights News – 3/6/14

Ohio, a perennial hotbed of voter suppression activity, has been in the news recently for its brand new restrictive voting laws and its cuts to early voting. But Ohio is not the only state with voting rights issues on the agenda.

Here are a few others that you should know about.

Arizona – The SB 1062 veto was not the only action that Governor Jan Brewer took last week. She signed legislation repealing HB 2305, a 2013 law whose suppressive provisions affected infrequent voters wishing to remain on the permanent early voting rolls; community groups trying to get out the vote; third-party candidates and voter initiatives trying to get on the ballot; and more. While it's good news that this law is no longer on the books, some have expressed concern about robbing the people of the final decision.

Georgia – Early voting in municipal elections could be cut even further if HB 891, which has already passed through the Georgia House, is signed into law. In 2011, the available early voting period dropped from forty-five days to twenty-one days, and the new proposal would narrow it to just six days. It would also prevent municipalities from adding their own evening and weekend hours. While a House amendment made some changes, opposition is still clear among advocacy groups, and it remains to be seen what will happen in the Senate.

Michigan – Good news in the Great Lakes State: Flint legislators Woodrow Stanley (House) and Jim Anancich (Senate) are asking for a hearing on no-excuse absentee voting.

North Carolina – As litigation challenging last year's law moves forward, its suppressive impacts are becoming even clearer. While the law reduces early voting days, Governor Pat McCrory had said that it doesn't actually cut early voting because it keeps the same number of available hours on the books. Well, one-third of counties now have the go-ahead to make those additional cuts during the upcoming May primary. And Appalachian State University looks like it will once again be without its own early voting site.

Wisconsin – The NAACP/Voces de la Frontera and League of Women Voters cases challenging the state's photo ID law were heard by the state Supreme Court last week, and a ruling is expected by the end of June. Separate federal challenges to the law were heard in November; their rulings could come any day.

PFAW will continue its work on behalf of a 'Voters In' vision to enact needed reforms and will step up and counter threats when the right to vote is under attack.

Looking for even more news? Check out our friends at the Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

GOP Senators Fail to Support Their States' Judicial Nominees

Because of Republican refusal to let Majority Leader Reid hold confirmation votes, there are 32 judicial nominations languishing on the Senate floor. They could be confirmed in a day, and even in a few minutes. But with Republicans filibustering all judicial nominees, the Senate will have to spend weeks doing nothing but engaging in needless "post-cloture debate" before finally being able to confirm these 32 nominees.

All these nominees have had the support of their home-state senators, many of whom are Republicans. But with the GOP blocking votes on those same nominees, that support seems to be in name only.

For instance, Arkansas senators Mark Pryor (D) and John Boozman (R) were united in their strong support of nominees James Moody and Timothy Brooks before the Judiciary Committee last fall. Both nominees were approved by the committee unanimously, Brooks in October and Moody in November. But since then, Republicans have prevented them from having confirmation votes. Yesterday, Pryor went to the Senate floor to request unanimous consent to hold a confirmation vote, which Republican Chuck Grassley objected to. Boozman, however, did not speak up for the nominees or against his party's sabotage of the federal courts in Arkansas.

Such silence characterizes most if not all of the Republican senators who seem not to be protecting their states' nominees:

Illinois (Mark Kirk): Manish Shah (Northern District) and Nancy Rosenstengel (Southern District) were both approved by the Judiciary Committee by unanimous voice vote on January 16 and February 6, respectively. Rosenstengel would fill a vacancy that has been officially designated a judicial emergency by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.

Kansas (Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran): Nancy Moritz (Tenth Circuit) and Daniel Crabtree (District of Kansas) were both approved by the committee by unanimous voice vote on January 16. Crabtree would fill a judicial emergency and would fill a vacancy that opened back in 2010; Moritz's vacancy opened in back in 2011.

Maine (Susan Collins): Jon Levy has been awaiting a confirmation vote since January 16, when the committee approved him overwhelmingly. Sen. Collins spoke glowingly about Levy when he was nominated and when he appeared before the Judiciary Committee. But now what he needs is for her to have a conversation with her fellow Republicans about letting him have a confirmation vote.

Missouri (Roy Blunt): Douglas Harpool was unopposed when the committee approved his nomination on January 16. He would fill a seat that became vacant ten months ago when a sitting judge passed away.

Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey): Gerald McHugh and Edward Smith were both among those approved by the committee on January 16, Smith unanimously and McHugh with a bipartisan 12-5 vote. Sen. Toomey has noted that "Judge Smith will sit in the Easton courthouse, which has lacked a sitting federal judge since 2004, thus ensuring that the people of the northern Lehigh Valley will once again have close, ready access to the federal judiciary." But unless Toomey can get his party to relent, the people of the northern Lehigh Valley will have to wait.

Tennessee (Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker): Pamela Reeves, who would be the first woman federal judge in the state's Eastern District, was approved by the Judiciary Committee by unanimous voice vote in November, yet has not been allowed a simply yes-or-no vote. Since then, she has been joined by Sheryl Lipman, who was similarly approved unanimously last month.

Utah (Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee): Carolyn McHugh would be the first woman from Utah to serve on the Tenth Circuit. Both her senators are actually on the Judiciary Committee. Last year, Hatch said he hoped the Senate would "act quickly" in confirming her, and Lee said he would work to "ensure her speedy confirmation." But this year? Despite her unanimous approval by the Judiciary Committee, Hatch and Lee's party hasn't allowed her to take her seat on the Tenth Circuit.

Wisconsin (Ron Johnson): James Peterson would fill a seat that has been vacant for more than five years, and which has been designated a judicial emergency. Last year, Sen. Johnson recommended him to the White House and urged his fellow Senators toward a "swift confirmation." He was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support by the Judiciary Committee last week, but he and the two other nominees advanced that day found themselves at the back of a line that already had 29 people on it. If Johnson wants a "swift confirmation," he might ask his fellow Republicans to let up and allow votes on all those other nominees.

In all these cases, courtroom vacancies could be filled if only Republicans would allow it. Each of these Republican senators has to decide whether GOP leader Mitch McConnell deserves a show of loyalty more than their constituents deserve a fully functioning system of justice.

PFAW

Wisconsin Marriage Equality Lawsuit and the Judicial Vacancy Crisis

The ACLU of Wisconsin announced Monday that it is suing in federal court to vindicate the freedom to marry of four same-sex couples. They note that Wisconsin not only prohibits same-sex couples from marrying, it has a "Marriage Evasion Statute" that makes it a crime for Wisconsin residents to leave the state to enter into a marriage that is void in the state:

Wisconsin law subjects same-sex couples to an additional harm that is unique among states that deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry. The only way for Wisconsin couples to get the federal protections that come with marriage is for them to go out of state to marry. But Wisconsin law says that may be a crime punishable by nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

The federal lawsuit has been filed in the Western District of Wisconsin, a district with a longstanding vacancy that has been designated a judicial emergency by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. The Western District has only two active judgeships, and one of them has been vacant for more than five years. Even if the vacancy were to be filled this instant, the Judicial Conference of the U.S. has asked Congress to create a new judgeship there so the work of justice can get done.

President Obama's first nominee was blocked by Senate Republicans from 2009-2011. Hopefully, Obama's current nominee (James Peterson) will fare better. The ABA panel that evaluates judicial nominees' qualifications unanimously gave him its highest rating. The Judiciary Committee has vetted him fully and was scheduled to vote to advance his nomination to the full Senate last week, but committee Republicans demanded and received a week's delay, as they have done with all Obama judicial nominees as a matter of course. But the vote has been rescheduled for this Thursday, at which point Peterson and two other nominees will find themselves at the end of an increasingly long line of bottled-up nominees unable to get a simple confirmation vote. Since Republicans have not consented to any confirmation votes so far this year, there are already 29 people in this bottleneck.

Both Sen. Ron Johnson and Sen.Tammy Baldwin support the nominee. Johnson has cited the judicial emergency and called for Peterson's "swift confirmation." Whether that happens will be up to Johnson's party leader, Mitch McConnell, whose approval is needed before the Senate can hold confirmation votes on the 29 nominees ahead in line without undergoing time-consuming cloture motions, votes, and more than 200 hours of post-cloture debate.

As the marriage equality lawsuit shows, federal courts deal with critically important issues that have an enormous impact on people's lives. But the justice system needs judges to work, and that requires a functioning Senate willing and able to carry out its essential functions.

PFAW