human rights

Roberts Court Not Likely to Help Victims of Human Rights Abuses

Victims of Argentina's "dirty war" may be prevented from suing a corporate giant whose subsidiary collaborated in human rights abuses.
PFAW Foundation

Department of Education takes another stand for LGBT youth

In October and December of 2010, the Department of Education took a stand for LGBT youth by issuing guidance to address bullying in schools, especially as it relates to federal education anti-discrimination laws. One of those laws, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. While the language does not specify sexual orientation and gender identity, the Department has made clear that harassment on these grounds, under certain circumstances, violates Title IX.

Yesterday, the Department of Education released new guidance, this time focusing on the right of students under the Equal Access Act to form extracurricular clubs, including gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

Secretary Arne Duncan:

Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar student-initiated groups addressing LGBT issues can play an important role in promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments. Nationwide, students are forming these groups in part to combat bullying and harassment of LGBT students and to promote understanding and respect in the school community. Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students. By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.

[ . . . ]

It is important to remember, therefore, that the Equal Access Act’s requirements are a bare legal minimum. I invite and encourage you to go beyond what the law requires in order to increase students’ sense of belonging in the school and to help students, teachers, and parents recognize the core values behind our principles of free speech.

The announcement was met with strong support across the safe schools community.

Eliza Byard, Executive Director, Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network:

Secretary Duncan's Dear Colleague letter is a clear signal to schools and school districts that they may not discriminate against students who seek to form Gay-Straight Alliances. We are grateful to the Department of Education for supporting students' rights, attempting to prevent discrimination and affirming the positive contributions Gay-Straight Alliances make to the life of our schools, right alongside other non-curricular clubs.

Laura Murphy, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office:

Gay-straight alliances can play a crucial role in improving students’ lives. Just as with other extra-curricular groups and clubs, students have a federal legal right to form GSAs. Our public schools should be promoting fairness and acceptance, not discrimination.

Human Rights Campaign:

Gay-Straight Alliances are powerful forces in our schools. Not only do they offer a safe and supportive environment for LGBT students but they allow straight allies to show their support. One of the most powerful impacts that a GSA can have, however, is on those students who aren't even members - the very existence of a GSA shows students who may still be coming to terms with their orientations that someone at their school cares.

PFAW agrees that every student, LGBT or not, has the right to be educated in the same way, including equal access to extracurricular clubs. Click here and here for more information.

PFAW

A Reminder of the Mendacity of the Bush Administration

The Washington Blade is reporting on a seemingly frivolous lawsuit launched by a former high-level Bush Administration official that tells us a lot about anti-LGBT zealotry and the mendacity of the previous administration. It involves RICO, the federal racketeering statute.

Scott Bloch was President Bush's choice to lead the Office of Special Counsel, the agency designated to protect federal employees from illegal discrimination and to ensure whistleblower protection. During Bush's first term, he ordered the removal of all information on filing complaints of sexual-orientation discrimination from OSC's website and brochures. And he didn't exactly protect whistleblowers in his own office. As reported by Talking Points Memo back in 2007:

Bloch himself has been under investigation since 2005 for a variety of infractions, including retaliating against employees who took issue with internal policies and discriminating against those who were gay or members of religious minorities. At the direction of the White House, the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been pressing on with an investigation of Bloch.

During the investigation, Bloch bypassed OSC's tech staff and hired "Geeks On Call" to scrub his office computer files. He was finally removed from office in the final year of the Bush Administration. Last year, he pleaded guilty to contempt of Congress for hiding the computer caper from a House committee.

Now, according to the Blade, Bloch is going after the gays and his former Republican colleagues:

Two gay Obama administration officials and the Human Rights Campaign were lumped in as defendants with former Bush administration operative Karl Rove and more than a dozen others in a federal racketeering lawsuit filed by anti-gay Bush official Scott Bloch.

[The lawsuit] charges the defendants – including former GOP Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia – with conspiring to force Bloch out of his job as head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel through a trumped up criminal investigation, according to Courthouse News Service, which first broke the story. ...

One of the Obama officials being sued is Elaine Kaplan, who ran OSC during the Clinton Administration.

In his lawsuit, Bloch alleges that the Bush White House demanded that he back off from reversing Kaplan's polices at the Office of Special Counsel, saying White House aides threatened to arrange for his dismissal if he failed to comply with their request.

Bloch and his wife, who are representing themselves in the case, filed their suit under a federal statute called the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. The statute allows both criminal and civil charges to be brought in cases where the government or a private party alleges that others conspired to commit an illegal act or to damage a person or a business through a "criminal enterprise."

Other parties named as defendants in the lawsuit include the Executive Office of the President, the Office of Special Counsel, the National Treasury Employees Union, and several government watchdog groups, including the Government Accountability Project.

Bloch and his wife are representing themselves against this giant conspiracy. One has to wonder if the reason Bloch is representing himself is because no other lawyer could be paid to take it.

Bloch makes up in zealotry what he seems to lack in competence, and he is the person Bush chose to head of the Office of Special Counsel. Despite his disregarding of the law in order to hurt gays and strike back at whistleblowers, the White House kept him on. It was only after the FBI investigation and the embarrassing computer episode became public that he was removed from office. That says everything you need to know about the Bush Administration and its commitment to the rule of law.

PFAW

Appeals Court Starts Hearing Prop 8 Case Today

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has just begun hearing an appeal of the decision that struck down California’s gay marriage ban. The court will be considering the legal arguments laid out by Judge Vaughn Walker in his decision to strike down Prop 8 in August. As it does so, the Court will rely on the substantial factual record that Judge Walker gathered in the original trial—much of which demolishes the “facts” presented by anti-gay activists.

You can watch the proceedings live here:

...and follow the Constitutional Accountability Center’s live blog at the Huffington Post.

Whatever the Ninth Circuit decides, the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court. Back in August, People For’s Michael Keegan wrote about the stakes involved for the Right:

For years, the Right has watched its anti-gay agenda lose credibility as public acceptance of gays and lesbians has steadily grown and intolerance has declined. And that trend is going strong, as young people of all political stripes are more likely to know gay people and more willing to grant them equal rights and opportunities, including the right to marriage. A CNN poll this month found that a majority of Americans think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry--the first time gay marriage dissenters had slipped solidly into the minority in a national poll. Even in California, where Proposition 8 passed on the ballot in 2008, a poll earlier this year found a majority now support same sex marriage rights. Indeed, this change is even visible on the Right, where the fight against equality is being waged by an increasingly marginalized movement. Who would have ever thought that Ann Coulter would be booted from a right-wing conference for being "too gay friendly"?

Of course, basic human rights should never be decided by majority vote--they are guaranteed by the Constitution. But, on the issue of gay rights, the Right Wing now finds itself up against both the Constitution and the will of a steadily increasing majority.


 

 

PFAW

People For and Progressive Groups Urge Senate to Break Confirmation Gridlock

This week, People For and 46 other progressive groups sent a letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate urging them to end the backlog of judicial nominees before the end of this session of Congress. Republican obstruction has prevented dozens of nominees from even receiving a vote on the Senate floor, leaving the federal court system with over 100 vacancies and the slowing down the process of bringing more diversity to the federal bench. Read the full letter:

Dear Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell:

The undersigned organizations strongly urge you to end the troubling backlog of judicial nominees that exists to date in the 111th Congress. The obstruction of many of President Obama’s nominees through filibuster threats and anonymous “holds” is hindering the important work of our judicial branch, particularly in the many areas of our nation that now face judicial emergencies due to unfilled vacancies on the bench.

Throughout the 111th Congress, President Obama has worked with the Senate on a bipartisan basis to select extraordinarily well-qualified judicial nominees who could easily be confirmed by wide margins and begin serving the public, if brought to a vote before the full Senate. Yet a troubling number of these nominees, many of whom have been cleared by the Committee on the Judiciary with little or no opposition, have been blocked from up-or-down confirmation votes for reasons that defy explanation. Indeed, many of President Obama’s judicial nominees who have been confirmed, to date, have been confirmed by unanimous votes – but only after languishing for many months on the Senate floor, raising significant doubts about the legitimacy of the ongoing delays in confirmation proceedings.

Due to arcane floor procedures that allow a single member to impede the important business of the Senate, our judicial branch has reached a state of crisis. Out of 872 federal judgeships, 106 are currently vacant, with 50 of those vacancies now characterized as “judicial emergencies” in which courts are being overwhelmed by filings that cannot be considered. As a result, a growing number of Americans, from all walks of life and across all economic strata, are finding it increasingly more difficult to assert their legal rights and to have their fair day in court.

In the meantime, the Senate is badly failing in its constitutionally-mandated role of considering the nominees that President Obama has selected. Prior to entering its pro forma session, the Senate failed to confirm any of the 23 nominees who are currently pending on the Senate floor, 17 of whom advanced through the committee process with no opposition whatsoever. Moreover, 11 of the pending nominees would fill seats designated as judicial emergencies – and more than half of the pending nominees are people of color, while 10 of them are women, who would bring badly-needed and long-overdue diversity to our judicial branch.

We write to you at a time when our nation faces numerous challenges that cry out for bipartisan cooperation, including major economic challenges and continued international threats. We strongly believe that the continued obstruction of nominations will poison the political atmosphere, needlessly heighten partisan tensions, and make it far more difficult for the federal government to serve the public interest in any respect. These consequences are all but certain to continue into the 112th Congress and beyond.

For these reasons, in the remaining weeks of the 111th Congress, we strongly urge you to work together in a bipartisan fashion to proceed with confirmation votes on the two dozen judicial nominees who remain pending on the Senate floor. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

AFL-CIO

Alliance for Justice

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

American Association for Affirmative Action

American Association of People with Disabilities

American Association of University Women

American Federation of Government Employees

American Federation of Teachers

Americans for Democratic Action

Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum

Asian American Justice Center

Common Cause

Constitutional Accountability Center

Equal Justice Society

Families USA Foundation

Feminist Majority

Hispanic National Bar Association

Hispanics for a Fair Judiciary

Human Rights Campaign

Japanese American Citizens League

Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Lambda Legal

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

League of United Latin American Citizens

Legal Momentum

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

NAACP

NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.

National Asian Pacific American Bar Association

National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse

National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum

National Association of Consumer Advocates

National Association of Human Rights Workers

National Association of Social Workers

National Black Justice Coalition

National Congress of Black Women, Inc.

National Council of Jewish Women

National Disability Rights Network

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Fair Housing Alliance

National Partnership for Women & Families

National Urban League

National Women’s Law Center

OCA

People For the American Way

Secular Coalition for America

SEIU

Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund

Sikh Coalition

 

PFAW

Department of Education takes a stand for LGBT youth

October 28 marked the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. I recently wrote about how honoring Matthew is part of Making It Better. Not only must we make sure that the law bearing his name is effectively implemented, but we must also ensure school safety for LGBT youth – a fact not lost on the Department of Education.

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights has issued guidance to address bullying in schools, especially as it relates to federal education anti-discrimination laws. One of those laws, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. While the language does not specify sexual orientation and gender identity, the Department has made clear that harassment on these grounds, under certain circumstances, violates Title IX.

Although Title IX does not prohibit discrimination based solely on sexual orientation, Title IX does protect all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, from sex discrimination. When students are subjected to harassment on the basis of their LGBT status, they may also [. . .] be subjected to forms of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX. The fact that the harassment includes anti-LGBT comments or is partly based on the target’s actual or perceived sexual orientation does not relieve a school of its obligation under Title IX to investigate and remedy overlapping sexual harassment or gender-based harassment. [. . .] Had the school recognized the conduct as a form of sex discrimination, it could have employed the full range of sanctions (including progressive discipline) and remedies designed to eliminate the hostile environment.

Eliza Byard, Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, applauded the guidance.

The Departments of Education and Justice are rightly focused on the plight of certain religious students and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students who may not be receiving the full protections from bullying and harassment that are their right. While additional, specific protections are still needed, I commend this Administration for doing all in its power to protect vulnerable students.

David Warren, Director of Education at the Anti-Defamation League, further noted the importance of the guidance.

Federal leadership on this important issue is critical to ensure that schools are safe places for all students, and that they help foster a culture in which bias and bullying are not tolerated. The guidelines will help community members work together to promote a civil and respectful environment for children, online as well as offline.

As did the Human Rights Campaign, who went on to describe next steps.

In order to fully protect LGBT young people, HRC continues to call on the administration to go beyond today’s interpretation of existing law and come out in support of two important pieces of legislation: the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would explicitly prohibit discrimination by schools against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The Safe Schools Improvement Act would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
PFAW

LGBT Community Speaks Out Against Gold’s Gym

Karl Rove’s Super PAC American Crossroads has received millions of dollars in funding from TRT Holdings and its owner, Robert Rowling. TRT Holdings under Rowling’s leadership owns the companies Omni Hotels and Gold’s Gym. TRT Holdings donated $2,341,000 to American Crossroads, and Rowling himself gave the pro-GOP group $2.5 million. As reported in After Citizens United: A Look into the Pro-Corporate Players in American Politics, American Crossroads and its sister group Crossroads GPS plan to spend well-over $50 million to elect Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Now, activist Michael Jones, through the online community Change.org, is calling on consumers to hold Gold’s Gym accountable for the company’s substantial donations to the pro-corporate, right-wing political organization.

After criticizing Target and Best Buy for contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Minnesota political organization that supports a staunchly anti-gay candidate for Governor, supporters of LGBT equality are now attacking Gold’s Gym and its parent company, TRT Holdings. Most of the candidates American Crossroads supports also have astoundingly anti-gay and anti-equality opinions and records.

Jones has launched a petition that calls out Gold’s Gym, which “markets and caters to LGBT customers,” for using money from their corporate accounts to effectively support candidates “who want to take away civil rights for LGBT Americans.” Jones writes:

Who would have thought that giving money to Gold's Gym could have such ugly consequences for the LGBT community?

Among the candidates that the owner of Gold's Gym is working to elect include Nevada GOP senate candidate Sharron Angle, who is challenging Sen. Harry Reid. Angle, you might recall, has previously said that women who are raped should turn their lemons into lemonade, and that LGBT people should be barred from adopting children. And that's only the tip of iceberg. In years past, Sharron Angle put her blessing behind an insert that went out to voters that said homosexuality would lead to the destruction of the United States, and called gay people "sodomites" and "perverts." She even endorsed a statement that said there was no evidence to suggest homosexuality was biological, and that scientists who argue otherwise are flawed.

Thanks, Gold's Gym!

But Sharron Angle isn't the only candidate that American Crossroads is supporting. There's also Rep. Roy Blunt in Missouri, who is currently running for an open U.S. Senate seat in the state. Blunt has a whopping 0% rating from the Human Rights Campaign when it comes to legislation focused on the LGBT community, and has voted against the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and in favor of banning gay adoptions in Washington, D.C. And in his current campaign for U.S. Senate, he's made the preservation of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) a hot issue, suggesting that if he loses his race, DOMA will die and gay people will be allowed to get married all over the country. Ah, the horror!

Once again, thank you, Gold's Gym.

American Crossroads also supports Colorado’s Ken Buck, who said that homosexuality was a “choice…like alcoholism,” and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, who believes that gay and lesbian couples should not have the right to adopt children, among other anti-equality Republicans.

Now, four Gold’s Gyms in the San Francisco Bay Area just released a statement saying that they will leave the Gold’s Gym brand as a response to TRT Holding’s political donations.

In the end, corporations should not just face petitions from consumers to stop financing political groups, but should be restricted from spending money in elections in general. Nine in ten Americans want “clear limits on how much money corporations can spend to influence the outcome of an election,” and Gold’s Gym and other companies should know that the public does not want them using their money from their general treasuries to influence elections.

 

PFAW

And Support for Marriage Equality Keeps on Inching Up…

The Pew Research Center reported this week that fewer than half of Americans are opposed to same-sex marriage, the first time opposition has dipped below 50% since Pew began polling on the issue 15 years ago.

Opposition to marriage equality still edges out support, with 48% opposed and 42% in favor, but Pew’s data show’s a clear and steady trend toward acceptance of equal rights for gays and lesbians. And take a look at this chart showing how support breaks down among different age groups. The trend is remarkable:


In August, People For’s president, Michael Keegan, wrote in the Huffington Post, “The Right has won many important battles against gay rights, but they are losing the war...and they know it”:

For years, the Right has watched its anti-gay agenda lose credibility as public acceptance of gays and lesbians has steadily grown and intolerance has declined. And that trend is going strong, as young people of all political stripes are more likely to know gay people and more willing to grant them equal rights and opportunities, including the right to marriage. A CNN poll this month found that a majority of Americans think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry--the first time gay marriage dissenters had slipped solidly into the minority in a national poll. Even in California, where Proposition 8 passed on the ballot in 2008, a poll earlier this year found a majority now support same sex marriage rights. Indeed, this change is even visible on the Right, where the fight against equality is being waged by an increasingly marginalized movement. Who would have ever thought that Ann Coulter would be booted from a right-wing conference for being "too gay friendly"?

Of course, basic human rights should never be decided by majority vote--they are guaranteed by the Constitution. But, on the issue of gay rights, the Right Wing now finds itself up against both the Constitution and the will of a steadily increasing majority.

This isn’t to say that the Right Wing has been taking the hint that an anti-gay agenda might be a losing proposition in the long run. Rather, prominent figures on the Right seem to be trying to revel in homophobia as much as possible before the issue becomes marginalized. Opposition to the “homosexual agenda” was a major theme of last month’s “Values Voter Summit,” which drew GOP leaders (and aspiring GOP leaders) like Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Bob McDonnell. And even Glenn Beck, who drew flack from the far right for saying that gay marriage wouldn’t be a threat to the country, regularly invites pseudohistorian and professional homophobe David Barton—who recently opined that gay people were such a threat to the country that gay sex should be regulated—to lend his expertise to his program.

Maybe the most stunning thing about the Right’s commitment to anti-gay politics is the continuing opposition to allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Pew found that Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly by a 2-1 margin—yet the Republican Party continues to side with a small minority of right-wing extremists dedicated to preserving Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
 

PFAW

Target apologizes, but will stay in politics

Why would two companies that received 100% ratings from the Human Rights Campaign's 2010 Corporate Equality Index give a combined $250,000 to a group backing a candidate with extreme anti-gay views? According to Target's CEO, the company was only trying to advance "policies aligned with our business objectives" when it contributed $150,000 to Minnesota Forward, a group whose sole purpose is to support the candidacy of State Rep. Tom Emmer, the Republican nominee for governor of Minnesota.

MN Forward is a creation of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, and its top priority is, of course, lowering the corporate tax rate. In fact, MN Forward is led by Brian McClung, who previously served as "government affairs director for the Twin West Chamber of Commerce" and ran the "group's political-action committee." Benefiting from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the organization already raised $1.1 million, much of it from corporate donors like Hubbard Broadcasting, Red Wing Shoe Co., Federated Insurance and Davisco Foods. Ultimately, MNForward hopes to obtain $2 to $5 million in order to run advertisements across the state promoting Emmer.

It's not a surprise that big business has rallied around Emmer, who repeatedly voted against consumer protection laws, such as "good faith" requirements for insurance companies, and raising the minimum wage. In fact, Emmer was rewarded with a perfect 100% rating from the Chamber of Commerce for his 2010 voting record. But Emmer is not only a consistent defender of corporations in the State House, but is also a leading opponent of gay rights.

He voted against a bill that would permit same-sex domestic partners to have rights over the burial of their deceased partners, and also opposed allowing domestic partners of state employees to collect health insurance. Emmer even voted against legislation that would mandate anti-bullying policies in public schools to protect LGBT youth. When a local Christian rock band's lead singer called the execution of gays "moral," Emmer refused to condemn the band, and instead called them "nice people."

While Emmer declined to denounce the viciously anti-gay rock band he has financially supported, he did take the opportunity to blast critics of corporate influence in elections as enemies of free speech.

In the end, faced with an outcry from shareholders and a boycott from consumers, Target's CEO apologized for the donations. However, the company did not say that it would stop making contributions; instead, it will create a review board to oversee future contributions.

No word yet from BestBuy and other companies who have financially backed MN Forward.

PFAW

Hatch: Defense of Thurgood Marshall is “Offensive”

Watching the Senate debate on Elena Kagan’s nomination yesterday afternoon, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly when Sen. Orrin Hatch called the backlash against the GOP’s anti-Thurgood Marshall campaign “offensive.” I heard correctly. Here’s the transcript:

While Ms. Kagan has not herself been a judge, she has singled out for particular praise judges who share this activist judicial philosophy. In a tribute she wrote for her mentor, Justice Thurgood Marshall, for example, she described his belief that the Supreme Court today has a mission to “safeguard the interests of people who had no other champion.” Ms. Kagan did more than simply describe Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy but wrote: “And however much some recent Justices have sniped at that vision, it remains a thing of glory.”

Justice Marshall was a pioneering leader in the civil rights movement. He blazed trails, he empowered generations, he led crusades. But he was also an activist Supreme Court Justice. He proudly took the activist side in the judicial philosophy debate. Some on the other side have suggested that honestly identifying Justice Marshall’s judicial philosophy for what it is somehow disparages Justice Marshall himself. I assume that this ridiculous and offensive notion is their way of changing the subject because they cannot defend an activist, politicized role for judges.

Among the members of the GOP who continue to cling to this line of attack, variations of the “I’m not disparaging Justice Marshall, I just don’t like his judicial philosophy” argument are a mainstay. The problem is, Justice Marshall’s work as a Supreme Court Justice—or his “judicial philosophy”—is a key part of his legacy. He’s a hero for his years of work rooting out segregation as a lawyer for the NAACP; he’s also a hero for his adherence, as a Supreme Court justice, to the Constitution’s promise of “protecting individual freedoms and human rights.”

When Hatch attacks Marshall’s work as a justice, he attacks his entire legacy. I won’t call that “offensive”—but I can’t say it’s wise, either.
 

PFAW

The Ethical Imperative of Immigration Reform

One of the more interesting developments in the latest push for comprehensive immigration reform has been the split developing between conservative anti-immigrant groups who are committed to mass deportation at all costs and some right-wing evangelical leaders who have come out in favor of a compassionate and realistic approach to immigration reform.

In May, a coalition of conservative evangelical leaders announced their intention to gather support for “a just assimilation immigration policy.” Soon afterwards, of course, they made it clear that their definition of “just” does not include justice for LGBT couples.

On Wednesday, a number of those leaders spoke to the House Judiciary Committee on their support for ethical immigration reform—and its limits.

In the hearing on the Ethical Imperative for Reform of our Immigration System , immigration reform was discussed in the context of ethics and morals, and the committee heard testimonies from three religious leaders and one scholar about the problems and possible solutions for immigration reform in America.

Nobody at the hearing denied that the current immigration system is broken and untenable. Rev. Gerald Kicanas, Bishop of the Archdiocese of Tucson, contextualized immigration as a humanitarian issue with moral implications, underlining that our immigration system fails to protect basic human rights and dignity. He voiced his support for comprehensive immigration reform that would encompass features such as paying a fine, paying taxes, learning English, and waiting behind those who already applied legally to eventually gain citizenship, and argued that CIR would fulfill our moral obligation to protect immigrants under rule of law.

Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, echoed those sentiments, stating that when looking at the issue of immigration through a faith-based lens, individuals had a biblical mandate to care for others and act mercifully.

Both speakers advocated an earned path to citizenship, recognizing that deporting over 11 million immigrants was not only unfeasible, but immoral and inconsistent with the rule of law.

It’s troubling that the compassion Kicanas and Land are advocating stops at the equal treatment of gay people. Both are right that too often, pivotal issues like immigration reform become mired in politics and party-line ideology, and it’s important for leaders from different faith backgrounds to step up and have a conversation on the detrimental effects of our broken system of immigration on millions of families. But that discussion should include all families.
 

PFAW

DOD puts breaks on DADT repeal, veterans to lobby Congress

Late Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen urged Congress to hold off on repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell until the Pentagon completes its policy review. This was followed by a White House statement (cited by Washington Post and other media outlets) deferring to Secretary Gates.

Alexander Nicholson, a former Army interrogator discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell and current Executive Director of Servicemembers United, believes that the push for repeal is not the real problem.

This letter from Secretary Gates is a significant cause for concern for those who truly respect and support the gay military community.

PFAW agrees that careful thought must be given to a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But like Alexander Nicholson, we believe just as strongly that legislative action does not depend on the actions of the DOD Working Group. The Working Group was commissioned to study how to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – not whether it should be repealed. That’s the point on which Congress wants to act. They could do so as early as this month when work begins on the DOD Authorization bill. Congress should proceed now so that we are ready for implementation by December 1 – the deadline for completion of the Working Group report.

Aubrey Sarvis, Army veteran and Executive Director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, described this “fierce urgency of now” in his response.

As a result of the Commander in Chief's decision to defer to Secretary Gates' wishes and timeline, gay service members will continue to be treated as second class citizens, and any sense of fairness may well have been delayed for yet another year, perhaps for another decade.

Joe Solmonese, President of the Human Rights Campaign, continues.

[F]ailure to act this year will, without a doubt, continue to send the message to the thousands of gay and lesbian Americans serving their country in silence that their views and concerns, and the impact on them and their families, do not matter to the military leadership, including their Commander-in-Chief.

Advocates will not rest in their push for an end to LGBT discrimination and muzzled military service. In fact, we’re just one week away from the National Veterans Lobby Day. Hundreds of veterans will come to Capitol Hill to stand up and speak out for the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

PFAW

DC voting rights bill expected to move next week

DC has waited over 200 years to have a voting voice in Congress. Today the nation’s capital may be as close as it’s ever come to making that dream a reality.

On Wednesday afternoon came the breaking news that an agreement had been reached to move forward on the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act, which would give DC a full Representative with the same voting power as other House members. Just this morning, I joined a room full of concerned citizens and activists for a briefing lead by DC Vote and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. We then took to the halls of Congress in support of the Delegate’s tireless efforts on this issue.

Nobody is happy that this agreement comes at the price of right-wing interference in local affairs. But to go any longer without voting rights is an even higher price to pay. DC can’t keep fighting these intrusions without a meaningful way to say “aye” or “no” when those infamous bells ring calling members to the House floor. As Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights put it:

The civil rights community recognizes that it must be prepared to accept some setbacks in the name of long-term progress. Virtually every major piece of civil rights legislation, from 1957 onwards, has involved difficult and often painful tradeoffs. In this case, given the fundamental importance of gaining a vote in Congress, we are prepared to move forward with the voting rights bill.

People For the American Way believes that the right-wing should stay away from this bill. But we also believe it’s a tragedy that our Democracy has allowed DC residents to live without voting representation for over 200 years. Any citizen who pays taxes, and is otherwise legally eligible to vote, should be able to vote. And certainly no member of the armed services should be robbed of the right to vote simply because of where they live.

The fight will not be over even when DC can cast a House vote. It is high time the nation’s capital be given both House and Senate representation, with voting power in both chambers.

PFAW

African American History Awareness Month - A Chance to Prove

In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of Black people throughout American history. Today the celebration in the arts and science, public and private business industries, sports, domestic and foreign policy, and political, social and economic justice arenas continues throughout February and is now known as African American History Awareness Month.

Like others during these 28 days, I find myself hungry to learn of yet another person who, because of their thoughts, actions, motivation, "made a way out of no way". One Saturday evening I watched a PBS documentary titled "For Love of Liberty" and the sacrifices of African American soldiers who fought for a "cause greater than me".

Dating as far back as the Revolutionary War, it is the story of "America's Black Patriots." I watched images and heard narratives of those who faced ultimate racism and bigotry, but continued to sign up to for a chance to prove African Americans were worthy of dignity, humanity and full rights of citizenship. I also watched images of soldiers lynched in their uniforms as a message from extremist that no matter what their sacrifice, they would never be equal, honored or worthy.

This month I was afforded the opportunity to participate in a Congressional Black Caucus staff briefing on the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In preparing for this presentation I realized here was yet another group of military personnel, soldiers waiting for a "chance to prove" they were worthy. I found what may seem like an unlikely connection with those of the past who fought for love of liberty for others with no gains or recognition of who they were with those who fight today and serve this county honorably for the same reason.

The contributions of African American's to this country are substantial, but as important they are inspiring. Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback was the first non-white and first person of African American descent to become governor of a U.S. state, serving as the 24th Governor of Louisiana for an entire 35 days. Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was an educator, writer, and human rights leader. Vernon Johns was an African American minister and leader who was active in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans from the 1920s and is considered the father of the American Civil Rights Movement, having laid the foundation on which Martin Luther King, Jr. and others would build.

There are no ordinary sacrifices a person can make when their motivations and actions are for a cause greater than self. Religious and racial extremists haven't deterred those who seek that chance to prove their worthiness. As an African American, I am aware of what the insults of oppression, injustice and inequality can have on the mind and spirit of a persons and a people. I also know that separate is not necessarily equal. But I also have read and witnessed that "suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope."

I believe in revelation, the connection to historical moments, the legacy of persons and people in pursuit of "a chance to prove." This African American History Awareness Month I recognized the contributions of all men and women who served and are serving in our armed forces with profound appreciation for their sacrifices in pursuit of a chance to prove. In the words of what is known as the African American National Anthem by James Weldon Johnson, we must continue to celebrate, educate, and be inspired to "Lift every voice ... until victory is won."

PFAW

Marriage Equality Marathon

Almost 100 people testified on Monday, October 26 in a 7 ½ hour hearing on marriage equality legislation moving in the District of Columbia council. Another 169 people who signed up will testify on Monday, November 2. After that, marriage equality will move from committee to the full council and should be passed into law by the end of the year.

The hearing was inspiring and invigorating. I testified in support of the bill on behalf of People For the American Way and as a DC resident hoping to get married next year. I was at the halfway point of the hearing but stayed until almost 11 p.m. to hear everyone speak.

The good news is that pro-equality speakers, and pro-equality clergy, vastly outnumbered opponents. Included were other professional advocates from the Human Rights Campaign and the ACLU; a dozen pro-equality religious leaders, men and women representing many faiths, races, and ethnicities, among them Rev. Dennis Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church and Rev. Robert Hardies of All Souls Church, Unitarian, leaders of DC Clergy United for Marriage; pro-equality leaders from the local Democratic and Republican political parties; and a long list of DC residents, LGBT and not, testifying on behalf of themselves, their partners, their families and friends, and their children.

There were many moving moments: a young gay couple, one of them a vet, tightly holding hands and fighting back tears to testify; a heterosexual married man who testified with his seven-year old daughter at his side, because she already understands that it's wrong that the gay people in her life, including the parents of her best friends, aren't treated equally under the law; dozens of women and men speaking the truth about their lives, their eagerness to protect their loved ones, and their desire to be treated equally in the city that is their home.

Opposing the measure were Bishop Harry Jackson, who leads the city's anti-equality forces, a handful of local civic activists, and a group of officials from the Catholic archdiocese of Washington and Catholic Charities. The most interesting back-and-forth of the night took place between the panel of Catholic leaders and Councilmembers David Catania and Tommy Wells over the scope of the religious liberty protections in the bill. Councilmember Catania had said earlier in the day that he was willing to consider changes to those provisions, but he and Wells were deeply skeptical of demands that Catholic Charities be given carte blanche to discriminate against same-sex couples in provision of services and treatment of its employees when 75 percent of its revenues are from public funds. Notably, a few panels earlier, Professor Joseph Palacios from Georgetown University had testified in favor of the legislation, citing recent research showing strong support for marriage equality among lay Catholics nationally and even stronger support in the District of Columbia.

The legislation is assured of passage: it was co-sponsored by nine of the 12 councilmembers, and another councilmember announced his support at the hearing. DC Mayor Adrian Fenty has pledged to sign it. Activists are working with congressional leaders to make sure that the legislation survives the legislative review period that DC's laws are subjected to. The council's overwhelming support for the measure was a source of frustration to some of the anti-equality speakers, who angrily denounced the hearing as a sham and demanded that the issue be put to a public vote. Earlier in the day, Jackson and other anti-equality speakers urged the District's Board of Elections to allow them to put marriage equality before the voters, even though the board had ruled earlier this year that doing so would violate DC law against putting human rights protections on the ballot.

Watch my testimony here: 

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Bishop Harry Jackson Challenges DC Board’s Decision to Forego Same-Sex Marriage Referendum

Not that this comes as a surprise to anyone, but Bishop Harry Jackson and other opponents of same-sex marriage have filed a lawsuit here in DC hoping to get a referendum on the ballot on whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

The civil suit against the District's Board of Elections and Ethics asks Judge Judith E. Retchin to overturn an election board ruling Monday that blocked a proposal to put the issue before the voters. Citing a District election law prohibiting votes on matters covered under the 1977 Human Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination against gay men, lesbians and other minority groups, the board said that a referendum would "authorize discrimination."

The plaintiffs asked for an expedited hearing. If the court or Congress does not intervene, recognition of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere will become law early next month, at the end of the required congressional review period.

"We are not going to sit by and allow an unelected board of bureaucrats to deny voters their rightful say on this issue and, by their action, allow the institution of marriage and the entire structure of our society to be radically redefined," said Bishop Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville and one of seven District residents who are plaintiffs in the suit.

Bishop Harry Jackson is touted in the Washington Post’s article as “one of seven District residents who are plaintiffs in the suit,” but Lou Chibbarro of The Washington Blade has found evidence that suggests otherwise.

For more information about Jackson’s crusade across the country to strip LGBT people of the equal protection under the law, see People For the American Way Foundation’s report Point Man for the Wedge Strategy.


 

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Homophobia and the Black Church Event

This week, People For Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council is co-sponsoring the Harambee* celebration at Howard Divinity School. 

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend one of the panels we sponsored, “Homophobia in the Black Church.” It was, if I do say so myself, pretty great.

The event is part of AAMLC's ongoing work to target homophobia in the Black Church.  And while it would be nice to say that everyone was in complete agreement on the subject, that would also be a little dull. That wasn’t a problem yesterday.

Instead, there was a rich and respectful conversation about homophobia, sexuality, history, theology, and the role religion to plays in our Democracy. (Which stands in stark contrast to the deception and fear mongering that the Right has used to exploit divisions on the issue.)

Harambee!

The panel was moderated by Rev. Tony Lee, Senior Pastor of Community of Hope AME Church in Temple Hills, MD, and featured:

  • Rev. Dr. Kenneth L. Samuel, Senior Pastor of Victory for the World (Stone Mountain, Ga.) and Vice Chair of the African American Ministers Leadership Council
  • Donna Payne, Associate Director of Diversity, Human Rights Campaign
  • Rev. Byron Williams, syndicated columnist and pastor of the Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, CA.
  • Rev. Dr. Ronald Hopson, psychologist and ordained minister. Dr. Hopson holds a joint appointment as a professor with the Howard University Department of Psychology and the School of Divinity.
  • Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, Fellow in Residence at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture

We had a sizable crowd, but if you weren’t able to attend, fear not: we’ll be releasing a transcript of the event in the near futures, and the conversation will be continuing throughout the year.

(* - "Harambee" is the Kenyan tradition of community self-help.  In case you were wondering.)

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