Legislation

Efforts to End DADT Stalled in Key Senate Committee

The Senate Armed Services Committee has confirmed that a scheduled November hearing on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) has been indefinitely postponed. The delay has been attributed to the pressures of Committee work on other issues, including the recent shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas and the possibility of sending additional troops to Afghanistan.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin said that one possibility for ending DADT could be attaching the legislation to the 2011 Defense Reauthorization Bill, a tactic that was used to pass hate crimes legislation this year. This approach is supported by the White House and several Democratic leaders in the House.

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D.C. Strikes Down Anti-Marriage Equality Initiative

The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics issued a memorandum today keeping anti-marriage equality legislation off the ballot in the District of Columbia. A public hearing was held on October 26, 2009 on the “Marriage Initiative of 2009”, which would establish that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in the District of Columbia.” D.C. law currently recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions and there is pending pro-marriage equality legislation in the D.C. council. Board Chairman Errol R. Arthur said today,

“We have considered all of the testimony presented to the Board and understand the desire to place this question on the ballot. However, the laws of the District of Columbia preclude us from allowing this initiative to move forward.”
Bishop Harry Jackson proposed the initiative and is leading the push for anti-marriage equality legislation in D.C.
 
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Health Care and the Politics of Anti-Choice Activists

Anti-choice politics have become dangerously entangled with health care reform as evidenced by the troubling vote in the House of Representatives over the weekend for the Stupak-Pitts amendment. The legislation makes it virtually impossible for private insurance companies participating in the proposed new health care system to cover abortion services.

In an effort to maintain the status quo and avoid the use of federal funds to cover abortion care, the House had fashioned a compromise that required all health insurance plans to separate public and private dollars, thereby insuring that no tax dollars would be used to cover abortion services. At the urging of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that approach was rejected as unworkable; what was adopted instead, in the Stupak-Pitts amendment, is a radical departure from current law.

And, in an interesting note, here’s a must read op-ed from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Catholics for Choice pointing out that the system for separating out public and private dollars rejected by the House as unworkable employs the same principle for segregation of funds that the Catholic bishops have routinely used for managing federal funds they receive to ensure that tax dollars don’t finance religious practice.

Please sign our petition to Senator Reid urging him to help keep the Stupak-Pitts amendment out of the Senate health insurance reform bill.
 

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A Not-So-Great End to a Very Good Week

In many ways it was a very good week for anyone interested in LGBT equality. Marriage equality legislation took a big step forward in the District of Columbia, federal hate crimes legislation was signed into law after a decade long fight, and today the President reauthorized the Ryan White Act and announced that he would take the final steps to rescind the HIV travel ban. So it’s too bad that the week ended on a disappointing note.

In a brief filed today in federal court, the DOJ moved to dismiss the challenge against DOMA lodged by the state of Massachusetts on behalf of the legally married same-sex couples in the state who are nevertheless being denied federal benefits.

To be clear: Massachusetts is right in this case and the DOJ is wrong. DOMA is unconstitutional and should be struck down.

But the brief (much like most of the other briefs we’ve seen) took pains to point out that the President is defending the law not because he likes it, but because he’s compelled to. In fact, the brief points out, the President is opposed to DOMA and supports its repeal.

Great. Let’s do that.

It’s time for the President to make clear that repealing DOMA is a priority, and that his support is more than lip service. No one expects repeal to be immediate, but it won’t happen without Presidential leadership.

Then we can have good weeks, that are just plain old good weeks.

(If you want to push the process forward, don’t forget to sign our Dump DOMA petition.)
 

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Gearing Up for Enforcement of Hate Crimes Prevention Act

It was a thrill to be at the White House celebrating the historic enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. And now hot off the presses is this memo from Tom Perez, the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division, demonstrating how seriously the Justice Department takes its charge under this law. It';s addressed to U.S. Attorneys around the nation encouraging their active participation in delivering on Attorney General Holder's steadfast commitment to vigorous enforcement of the Act and to "develop[ing] ways that the Justice Department can educate communities about the new law and prevent hate crimes from occurring in the first place."

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Obama Honors Shepard and Byrd by Signing Hate Crimes Law

Today marks an historic step forward in the fight for equality. With the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, President Obama sent loud and clear the message that freedom from violence is a right all Americans should enjoy.

As I watched the President put pen to paper, I couldn't help but reflect on my own memories of the tragedies that befell Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. in 1998. How gripped the country was by each man's story. How years later I saw a stage production of Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project. I'll never forget the emotion that overcame one of my friends in the audience. He was struck by the fact that Laramie wasn't so different from his hometown. What happened to Matthew could have happened in his backyard. It could happen just about anywhere without people and a government willing to stand up to fear and hate. Today we stood up.

Enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is all the more remarkable for affirming a positive protection for gender identity - a first in federal law. In showing how far we've come, this action also shows how far we have yet to go. Just two years ago, a battle was fought over whether to include gender identity protections in employment discrimination legislation. ENDA's enactment with gender identity intact will hopefully be the next great achievement for the LGBT community, and for us all.

As the late Senator Kennedy so famously said, "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

Click here for today's statement from Reverend Timothy McDonald of African American Ministers in Action and Michael B. Keegan of People For the American Way.

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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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Perez Says Justice Department Will Attack Gay Discrimination

Tom Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, has celebrated the imminent passage of legislation that will allow the Justice Department to prosecute discrimination against the LGBT community.

Pending legislation includes hate crimes legislation that passed the House last week and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

In a speech to his colleagues, Perez said, "We must fight for fairness and basic equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters who so frequently are being left in the shadows [and to] ensure that there's a level playing field in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are judged by the content of their character."

Perez’s announcement is a welcome step forward for ending discrimination against the LGBT community in a division that has traditionally focused little attention on LGBT equality issues.

Perez began his position in the Civil Rights Division only last week after failed attempts by Senate Republicans to block his confirmation. Senate Republicans have continued to block well-qualified nominees like Perez from being confirmed to important offices, especially Dawn Johnsen’s nomination to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

Sign the PFAW petition to confirm Dawn Johnson so that she too can restore justice at the Justice Department.

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Hate Crimes Legislation Passes the House

Last night, the House passed the Department of Defense Authorization bill in a 281 to 146 vote. Attached to the legislation was the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which will expand current hate crimes law to cover acts of violence motivated by a victim's sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity.

The bill passed despite Republican opposition to the hate crimes provision and accusations that it would prosecute "thought crimes." People For the American Way President Michael B. Keegan said in a statement:

Last night's vote was an important step towards finally enacting these hate crimes protections into law. This bill will help ensure that fewer Americans will become victims of violence simply because of who they are, while at the same time providing strong First Amendment protections. Limited hate crimes protections have existed for years on the basis of race and religion. It's long past time to expand this to include other targeted groups. I'm especially proud that this bill includes protections based on gender identity-the first time gender identity will receive positive protection in federal law.

The Byrd/Shepard Act is expected to pass in the Senate next week, the same week as the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student murdered in 1998 because he was gay.

PFAW

Hate Crimes Legislation One Step Closer to Becoming Law

Last night, in a 178-234 vote, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act moved one step closer to becoming law. This legislation protects victims of hate crimes based on disability, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. 

The vote was taken on what's called a motion to instruct conferees - this one would have instructed those negotiating a final Defense Authorization bill to remove the hate crimes language included by the Senate. In a series of speeches (item 35) fit only for Right Wing Watch, the motion's supporters tried to take down this critical update to "equal protection under the law." Thankfully, their efforts were to no avail, and the Shepard/Byrd bill may soon reach President Obama's desk. A few minor hurdles remain, but we hope to see it signed within the next week.

With the stroke of a pen, the President will have an opportunity to send loud and clear the message that freedom from discrimination is a right all Americans should enjoy. And we cannot forget that this action would affirm - for the first time in federal law - a positive protection for gender identity.

Click here for more information from People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action.

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Correcting the Court

Exhibit A from last term of the Roberts Court's conservative judicial activism is the Gross age discrimination case where the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, reached out to decide an issue that hadn't been briefed and changed the law in a way that will make it much harder for older workers to prove that they were discriminated against in the workplace. Today, three key Democratic leaders, Senators Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy and Rep. George Miller, announced plans to introduce a bill to correct the Court's error. As noted in the coverage of the announcement, this is the second time in a year that Congress has reached out to correct the court, the first being the Lilly Ledbetter legislation, the first measure signed into law by President Obama in January of this year.

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Happy Constitution Day!

At People For, our mission is to promote and defend constitutional values, so September 17th, Constitution Day, has a special place in our heart. Senator Robert Byrd passed legislation to create Constitution Day in 2004, and we wanted to celebrate this year by sharing clips from some of our Constitution reading events from years past.

In 2009 Senator Byrd reads the Preamble:

In 2006 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reads Article 3:

In 2004 Richard Gere reads Article 1, Section 3:

and Article 5 and 6:

In 2004, Betty Friedan reads the 19th Amendment:

In 2009, Ana Marie Cox reads the 18th Amendment:

and the 21st Amendment:

In 2009 Michael York reads the 25th Amendment:

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African American Ministers In Action Participate in Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Hate Crimes

AAMIA Members Revs. Frank Dunn and Joseph Smith attended yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (S.909), where Committee Chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) acknowledged the work of AAMIA toward passage of this critical legislation. Witnesses included Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., Author Janet Langhart Cohen, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary Professor Dr. Mark Achtemeier, US Commission on Civil Rights Commissioner Gail Heriot, The Heritage Foundation’s Brian W. Walsh, and the Anti-Defamation League Washington Counsel Michael Lieberman. You can view the webcast of the hearing here.

AAMIA and PFAW have submitted letters in support of the legislation, along with a fact sheet on the legislation, and myths and facts about hate crimes protections. AAMIA and PFAW have been out in front combating the lies from the right wing that this bill will silence pastors who speak out against homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

While they were at the hearing AAMIA staff and Rev. Joseph Smith caught up with author, playwright and producer Janet Langhart Cohen, a witness before the committee, and learned more about her Anne & Emmett Project, a play about a beyond-the-grave conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till. The play was scheduled to premiere at the US Holocaust Museum the week of the unfortunate tragedy at the museum where Officer Stephen Johns was killed in the line of duty by an avowed white supremacist.
 

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Broad Coalition Calls for Mormon Church to End Anti-Gay Policies

A broad group of current and former Mormons, non-Mormoms, gays, and heterosexuals united to call on leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to end their anti-gay policies and their involvement with anti-gay politics (California’s Prop. 8) and fundraising. Through their website, the coalition has launched a petition to “earnestly seek to create a climate for reconciliation between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and gays and lesbians who have been affected by the policies, practices and politics of the Church.” More from the petition:

We recognize that issues surrounding sexuality and gender orientation are complex; that understanding of these matters has evolved, especially over the past several decades, and are continuing to evolve as scientists, therapists, theologians and others continue to explore and ponder their meaning and significance; We believe that people of good will may have differing views about homosexuality, while maintaining amicable relationships.

True reconciliation requires that parties on both sides of this issue be willing to honestly examine their attitudes, behaviors (including past behaviors), policies and practices—and be open to understanding, forgiveness (both asking for and accepting), and apology.

The site includes links to the church’s historical involvement in gay marriage legislation, personal testimonies from gay and lesbian Mormons and a list of gay and lesbian Mormons who have committed suicide.
 

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Springtime of Marriage Equality

Spring 2009 continues to be a historic season of equality. Earlier today, the New Hampshire Senate passed a marriage equality bill. The House passed the bill last month. However, because of a small amendment made by the Senate, the bill has to go back to the House.

According to the Manchester Union Leader:

A bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New Hampshire passed the Senate today on a 13-11 vote.

The bill, amended on the Senate floor, draws a distinction between civil and religious marriage, and says that any two individuals have a right to join together in a civil marriage.

Last week Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Deborah Reynolds, D-Reynolds, opposed the bill and voted with a committee majority that it should be killed. She said voters in her district told her they favor the legislation, and urged the Senate to vote for an amendment that was drawn up Tuesday night.

She said the wording “gives everyone in the state the right to seek a civil marriage … This is a compromise that is respectful to both sides in this debate and meets our shared goals of equality in state laws for all the people of New Hampshire. The people of this sate share the core values of equality for all, tolerance and acceptance regardless of our differences”

In neither the House nor the Senate did the bill pass with anything approaching a veto-proof majority. So what will the governor do once the bill reaches his desk?

It’s not clear how Gov. John Lynch will handle the bill. He has he said thinks the word marriage should be reserved for a traditional heterosexual relationship. He has argued that the state’s civil unions law already protects the rights of gay and lesbian couples.

Nothing requires Lynch to sign the bill into law. He can let it take effect without his signature once it arrives on his desk.

If the governor is watching the polls to see what the electorate wants him to do, he should know that most support marriage equality. According to the Advocate:

The New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition has released a poll showing that 55% of New Hampshire voters support marriage for lesbian and gay couples, while 39% are opposed. ...

The poll also found that 63% of Independent and 34% of Republican voters in New Hampshire support marriage for lesbian and gay couples. Only 32% responded yes to a question asking if they would be “bothered” if same-sex couples could get a marriage license.

This comes one day after marriage equality legislation in Maine won a key joint committee vote. The bill now advances to the full House and Senate, which may vote on it as soon as next week.

The history of America is one of constant improvement, as each generation reaches out to some who have been treated as a threatening “other” and at last recognizes “them” as part of “us.” It’s a beautiful thing.

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What a Day for Marriage!

As we hope you’ve already heard, champagne corks are popping in Vermont where both houses of the state legislature successfully overrode the Governor’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation. And for those of us in DC, marriage equality is a step closer now that the District’s City Council enacted legislation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

We’re exceptionally proud of the fact that the legislation granting marriage equality in Vermont was co-sponsored by a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, Representative David Zuckerman.

And he’s just one of the YEOs doing great work for LGBT rights nationwide. You can read about other members working hard for equal rights for all in the most recent YEO Newsletter.

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Marriage Equality on the March

As if Ben and Jerry’s wasn’t enough reason to love Vermont, it looks like marriage equality legislation is moving forward in the state legislature:

A Vermont Senate committee voted to advance a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

The senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 on Friday to advance a bill that was the topic of an emotional public hearing on Wednesday that drew hundreds to the Statehouse.

Governor Douglas has said he opposes the bill, but hasn’t said that he’d actually veto it if it got to his desk.

Of course, even if same-sex couples in Vermont can get married, they’re still prevented from receiving the federal protections that marriage affords their heterosexual friends. Just another reason why we should Dump DOMA.

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Stop Voter ID in Texas

The New York Times editorial board probably didn’t write their piece today directly in response to a vote in the Texas State Senate yesterday, but they might as well have. 

From the NY Times editorial:

In last year’s presidential election, as many as three million registered voters were not allowed to cast ballots and millions more chose not to because of extremely long lines and other frustrating obstacles. Ever since the 2000 election in Florida, the serious flaws in the voting system have been abundantly clear. More than eight years later, Congress must finally deliver on its promise of electoral reform.

At a hearing last week, the Senate Rules Committee released a report sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the sorry state of voting. It said that administrative barriers, such as error-filled voting lists or wrongful purges of voter rolls prevented as many as three million registered voters from casting ballots. Another two million to four million registered voters were discouraged from even trying to vote because of difficulty obtaining an absentee ballot, voter ID issues and other problems.

More on the voter ID bill from the Dallas Morning News:

Senate Republicans pushed through a bill Tuesday that would require Texans to show a photo ID or two alternative IDs before voting, while Democrats shifted their efforts to derail the legislation to the House.

The measure, commonly referred to as "voter ID," was approved 19-12, with all Senate Republicans voting for the bill and all Democrats voting against it. A final vote will be required Wednesday before the proposal is sent to the House.

As if we need any extra barriers to an already broken system.

The article goes on to say that there’s a 50-50 chance of passage in the House. There are 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats in the House. That means your calls and advocacy are crucial. If you’re a Texas resident, make sure to call your representative and tell them that to stop this thinly-veiled attempt to keep certain kinds of voters – voters who wouldn’t vote for them – away from the polls.
 

PFAW

Voter Caging Bill Introduced in the Senate

Today, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), along with 10 of his colleagues, re-introduced his bill – the “Caging Prohibition Act” – that if enacted, would prevent political operatives from removing eligible voters from voting lists based on inaccurate and unreliable information. Like the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, originally introduced by then Senator Barack Obama, the need for this bill became increasingly evident in the most recent federal elections where we have seen an increase in dirty campaign tricks aimed at suppressing the vote.

From the press release:

The Caging Prohibition Act, which was first introduced in the 110th Congress, would prohibit interference with registration or voting based solely on unreliable information, such as a "caging list." Caging is a voter suppression tactic in which a political party, campaign, or other entity sends mail marked "do not forward" to a targeted group of voters - often minorities or residents of minority neighborhoods. A list of those whose mail was returned "undelivered" is then used as the basis for challenges to the right of those citizens to vote, on the grounds that the voter does not live at the address where he or she is registered. There are many reasons that mail is returned undelivered, however; an eligible voter could be overseas on active military service or a student registered at a parent's address.

The Caging Prohibition Act would mandate that anyone who challenges the right of another citizen to vote must set forth the specific grounds for that voter's alleged ineligibility and describe the evidence to support that conclusion, under penalty of perjury. Following allegations in 2008 that Republican Party officials in Michigan, Florida, Indiana, and Ohio were considering challenging the eligibility of voters who were on a list of people whose homes were subject to foreclosure, the sponsors updated last year's version of the Caging Prohibition Act to explicitly prohibit challenges based on the foreclosure status of a voter's residence.

People For the American Way is committed to passing legislation that will increase the franchise and eliminate barriers to the ballot. This is what a true democracy is all about. While this country may have passed a threshold in the 2008 elections such that those working to decrease the franchise were overtaken by voting right advocates and the massive participation of voters, we must still be vigilant in protecting the franchise lest we repeat the electoral tragedies experienced during the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Elections. Senator Whitehouse’s voter caging bill is a welcome step in this process and we encourage all Senators to support this bill in a timely fashion so that we can protect the rights of all voters.

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News From Newark

Readers of blogs like Towleroad and GayPolitics may have come across a story this week about Newark, Delaware City Councilman Ezra Temko, who pushed anti-discrimination legislation through the council, and came out in the process.

What you might not have read is that Ezra is also a graduate of People For Foundation’s Young People For and Front Line Leaders Academy, and is now a member of our Young Elected Officals Network. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ezra during some communications trainings in those programs, and would like to add that in addition to being a trailblazer, Ezra is also one of the nicest, most genuine guys I’ve gotten to know in my time at People For.

So congratulations Ezra, on bringing a little more fairness and equality to the Blue Hen State.

PFAW