The following is a guest blog from Zane Ballard, a Fellow in affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For program.
In spite of the nationwide outcry over Arizona’s SB 1062, the “Turn Away the Gays” bill vetoed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer last month, some far-right legislators across the country have continued to claim that gay rights present a threat to their religious freedom. In my state of Mississippi, conservative legislators have pushed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 2681), which is similar to the vetoed Arizona law. When the Mississippi State Senate passed SB 2681 on January 31, some senators said they did not even realize its implications. Mississippi Sen. David Blount, for example, said he “was not aware…of this intention or possible result” when he voted – that is, the result of legalizing discrimination.
The version of the bill passed by the Senate would have allowed businesses to deny service to individuals based upon the belief that “state action or an action by any person based on state action shall not burden a person's right to exercise of religion.” It would have allowed broad, almost unchecked discrimination by any business that claimed its “exercise of religion has been burdened or is likely to be burdened” by serving a customer. This could have included refusal to serve LGBT persons, people of color, or those of non-Christian or no faith, all on the basis of an individual exercising their religion.
Yesterday the discriminatory bill faced a major setback when the House voted to replace most of the text of the bill with language establishing a committee to study the issue. The study committee will be examining the bill closely in search of any possible way that the language could be usable without promoting discrimination. But according to the Mississippi ACLU, “Senate Bill 2681 remains a looming threat. The results of the study committee that was established by the amendment that passed the House today may go to conference. If the conference committee reaches an agreement, its report must be approved by both houses by April 2nd.”
In the meantime, advocates on the ground in Mississippi will continue to watch closely as the process unfolds. Last week, I joined students from Mississippi State University and Millsaps College, representatives from Equality Mississippi, and other concerned Mississippians on the steps of the state capitol to demonstrate against the bill. Protestors had also planned to be present during a House Judiciary Committee meeting that day, in hopes that they would be duly represented by those they had elected. However, these concerned Mississippians were unable to sit in on the committee meeting, which ended seven minutes before it was even scheduled to even begin.
Even though the bill has been stalled, the work to keep this discriminatory law off the books continues. The Gulf Coast Lesbian & Gay Community Center in Mississippi has organized an action on the steps of the state capitol for March 26 at 12 pm, to once again draw attention to the bill and to highlight the general lack of protections for LGBT people in our state. In the wake of momentum generated in response to SB 2681, it would not be surprising to see the pro-equality energy of those in the state carrying over into other channels. This could include support for non-discrimination ordinances in cities across Mississippi, or even a statewide piece of legislation preventing discrimination and preserving the real ideal of southern hospitality.
Ryan Hurst is the membership services program coordinator for affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, a bill that would have made it legal for businesses and employers to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people if it was due to a “deeply held religious belief.” Many Arizonans and national leaders on both sides of the aisle vehemently opposed it, including members of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network. US Representative Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09) and Arizona State Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar spoke out on MSNBC. Tovar also said in a statement:
SB 1062 permits discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. With the express consent of Republicans in this legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation.
Supporters of SB 1062 and legislation like it have argued that it is necessary to protect the “right” of business owners to deny services to LGBT Americans. Why does fighting this flawed assumption matter? Why would LGBT Americans want to patronize a business that is trying to discriminate against them?
It matters because our values define who we are as a people. Do we want to be an America that permits discrimination because we disagree with someone? An America that legislates away the dignity of a group of our fellow citizens? The desire to have and feel dignity is something that reaches into our very core. It is why African American students refused to get up from lunch counters during the civil rights movement. Though the circumstances behind those heroic acts were different, at least one of the core motivating factors is the same – the desire to have dignity and be valued as a human being.
We as a nation decided to set precedent as a result of the civil rights movement, that we would not allow ourselves to be defined by hate and ignorance, and that discrimination based on race, gender, disability, national origin, and religion would not be tolerated. Why would we hold love to a different standard? Like religion, it is deeply personal and central to who we are, and our freedom regarding that area of our lives is recognized as basic to the very concept of liberty. And we can no more change who we love than change our race, sex, or national origin.
Unfortunately Arizona was not alone in proposing a bill that would allow businesses to deny services to LGBT Americans. In all, 12 states had similar bills simultaneously working their way through their state legislatures. In the fallout from SB 1062, most of these states quietly killed these bills with little fanfare. But a few states like Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota are still considering similar legislation, and Oregon is even considering a ballot initiative.
It is time for us as a country to be bold and unapologetic about our rejection of discrimination. It is important for us to have conversations about why our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and neighbors and friends deserve dignity and equality. We must not be afraid to speak out in opposition to these bills if they are introduced in our state, and we must exercise our right to vote by removing elected officials from office that choose to support legislation that diminishes the dignity of others.
In another win for the marriage equality movement, today U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia struck down Texas’ ban on marriage for same-sex couples. The judge wrote that "Texas' current marriage laws deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and in doing so, demean their dignity for no legitimate reason.”
The Washington Post reports:
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia did not say gay marriages could be performed immediately. Instead, he stayed the decision, citing a likely appeal.
"Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution," Garcia wrote in his decision. "These Texas laws deny Plaintiffs access to the institution of marriage and its numerous rights, privileges, and responsibilities for the sole reason that Plaintiffs wish to be married to a person of the same sex."
Similar bans have been struck down in states across the country – most recently in Virginia less than two weeks ago. Today’s victory in a state with a whopping 26 million residents brings us one important step closer to nationwide marriage equality.
Ever since Arizona’s legislature passed a bill that would allow business owners to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers, pressure has been mounting on Governor Jan Brewer to veto the law.
The bill has drawn sharp criticism from LGBT and human rights groups (in addition to quick witted pizza shop owners and crewmembers of the Starship Enterprise) and now GOP politicians are lining up to call for it to be blocked. Last week, the state’s junior senator, Jeff Flake, tweeted his opposition to the law. This morning he was joined by the state's senior senator, John McCain. As if that weren't enough, TPM reports that state senator Steve Pierce, who voted for the legislation, is reversing himself and calling on Brewer to issue a veto.
It’s clear that the issue isn’t going away soon. Despite the already embarrassing attention that Arizona has received since the law was passed, Governor Brewer still has the opportunity to avoid adding another black mark on her state’s recent history. Millions of Americans are watching closely.
On Thursday evening a federal judge ruled that Virginia’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen stayed the decision pending appeal, meaning that while the ban has been struck down, the ruling will not immediately take effect.
Close on the heels of a federal judge’s decision earlier this week directing Kentucky to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, Judge Wright Allen’s decision makes Virginia the first state in the South where a statewide ban has been entirely struck down.
In the South and across the country, it’s clear that Americans increasingly believe it is wrong to block committed couples from the protections and responsibilities that only marriage can provide. As Judge Wright Allen wrote in her decision:
Our nation's uneven but dogged journey toward truer and more meaningful freedoms for our citizens has brought us continually to a deeper understanding of the first three words in our Constitution: we the people. "We the People" have become a broader, more diverse family than once imagined.
The following is a guest post by Cairo Mendes, a 2013 Fellow of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) program.
When I came to the U.S. in 2002, I remember being told on the way home from the airport that I was undocumented. I was told that if anyone knew this, our whole family would be deported and we would lose out on the “American Dream.” That was over ten years ago, but as I write this I cannot help but hold back emotions – a mixture of anger, sadness, and confusion. I feel this way because ten years later, millions of people in our country – including my mother – continue to live in limbo, in the shadows. We continue to be treated as second class citizens.
When I recently received a call informing me that I would be covered under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process, I was working at a factory, recycling wire. I remember the joy and relief I felt at that moment. For the first time I would be able to have a social security card and a work permit. I felt like maybe, just maybe, I too could be “normal” and get a driver’s license. Yet later that day, my happiness became bittersweet. My mom – my strong, heroic, single mother – would not be able to receive those same benefits. Still, when I got home later that day I realized how happy she was for me. It was then that I told her, looking straight into her eyes: “Mom, we will figure a way out of this. We will fight, we will march, and we will organize – we are going to figure out a way.”
When President Obama won reelection in 2012 after receiving 71 percent of the Latino vote (compared to Romney’s 27 percent), I felt for the first time that we were on the offensive. From the rhetoric coming from Washington to the energy within the immigrant rights movement in the weeks following the elections, immigration reform was finally a real possibility. But it has not been an easy road. Even though we were able to push the Senate to pass an immigration reform bill through our lobbying, organizing, and advocacy efforts, House leadership has – until very recently – been closed off to the calls for reforms, ignoring the cries of families throughout the country.
As a result, we ended 2013 with no bill delivered. The extreme right – small but loud faction of the Republican Party – managed to derail any efforts involving citizenship, and Speaker Boehner avoided putting the Senate bill up for a vote. His inaction could cost the Republican Party in the 2016 elections, since immigration reform is a top issue for Latino voters.
The Senate immigration reform bill is not perfect, but as families struggle to live day by day, comprehensive immigration reform is still a light at the end of the tunnel. It will make legalization – and hopefully citizenship – possible for many who have lived in the shadows until now, like my family.
This debate goes beyond stats about how many billions of dollars could be added to the economy as a result of reform. This is a moral issue. And it’s one that – if not resolved soon – will result in more deportations and more family separations that damage individual lives and diminish our country as a whole.
Because of Congress’ inaction, mothers and fathers are still being separated from their children and loved ones as 2014 begins. We cannot wait – our communities need relief now.
Today a federal judge found Oklahoma’s ban on marriages for same-sex couples to be unconstitutional. While this is great news, same-sex couples are not yet able to marry in the state because the decision is stayed – in other words, on hold – pending appeal.
As victories for marriage equality continue to stack up across the country, it is increasingly clear that the march toward full equality nationwide cannot be halted. Congratulations, Oklahoma!
It has been a roller-coaster few weeks for marriage equality in Utah, where a legal battle over the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples continues and more than a thousand marriages are caught in limbo.
On Friday People For the American Way Foundation Major Gifts Associate Tyler Hatch reacted to the struggle in Utah, and his op-ed was featured by CNN.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of Kitchen v. Loving (Utah’s marriage equality case currently under review by the 10th Circuit) the issue of marriage equality is once again before the Mormon or LDS church.
I was raised LDS and went to church nearly every Sunday until I was 18. I participated in weekly youth meetings, attended Boy Scout outings, and was a leader within my church. By all accounts I appeared to be the model youth, however inside I was dejected. Severe depression, suicidal thoughts, and extreme self-loathing plagued my adolescent and teen years due to an overwhelming sense of guilt regarding my sexuality.
….Whether it is in the halls of elementary schools, the wedding chapel, or feeling secure and safe in the workplace there is much work to be done. LGBT equality is an issue that will surely grip our generation for years to come. As society becomes more accepting of LGBT individuals I remain optimistic that progress will be made, at least within civil society.
….There are no easy answers for the countless number of LGBT individuals with conservative religious backgrounds and the struggle to find an identity within that intersection is a fight that will continue throughout our lives.
The following is a guest post by South Dakota State Senator Angie Buhl O’Donnell, a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
Harvey Milk’s words inspired audiences throughout his life, but his most enduring words may have been the simple push to “come out, come out wherever you are.”
To me, that’s the most important legacy of the political leader we lost 35 years ago this week – his insistence on the far-reaching impact of the very personal act of coming out. Despite the potential downsides, despite the fact that it can feel easier not to come out, Harvey Milk knew that our community must be visible in order to make legal and social equality a reality.
While Milk spent much of his life in urban centers, I believe the urgency to make ourselves visible is even greater in places like South Dakota, where I live. It’s 2013, but some people still think LGBT people only exist in New York or San Francisco. As researcher Mary Gray has written, popular representations of rural LGBT people paint us as “out of place” in states like South Dakota – as people who need to “seek out belonging in an urban elsewhere to find happiness.” But LGBT people are in every part of our country, and we are increasingly visible in the political landscape.
Milk’s legacy has been a personal inspiration for me, as an openly bisexual elected official. Earlier this year, I became a Harvey Milk Champion of Change. While I was honored to be recognized by the White House with an award bearing his name, I actually had some hesitation about accepting. As a bisexual woman married to a man, I was worried about people thinking I didn’t really “deserve” it. But I realized that line of reasoning was not what Harvey Milk would have embraced. His legacy is about sharing your own identity, your own truth in whatever form that might take. Besides, there’s a “B” in “LGBT” for a reason.
The following is a guest post by Campbell, California Mayor Evan Low, a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.
In 2009, I became the youngest openly gay mayor as well as the youngest Asian-American mayor in the country. Some journalists wrote about how I was making history, but I like to point out that I was preceded by a number of other courageous “firsts.”
I became mayor 35 years after Kathy Kozachenko was the first openly LGBT person elected to public office, and 32 years after Harvey Milk – affectionately known as “the mayor of Castro Street” – was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the same state I serve today.
This week marks the anniversary of the tragic end of Milk’s short time in office, when he and Mayor George Moscone were shot and killed by Supervisor Dan White. But the legacy of Harvey Milk and other LGBT trailblazers is very much alive. Today there are more than 500 openly LGBT elected or appointed officials serving our country. Through their service and that of public officials representing other marginalized communities, it is clear that our democracy works best when our lawmakers reflect the nation’s diversity.
That’s not to say that things are always easy for LGBT elected officials. Like Milk, I have received my share of hate mail, with messages like: “We don’t want the homosexual agenda in our community.” As I have told reporters before, I don’t know what is on that so-called agenda, other than basic equality for all people.
One issue that’s certainly on my agenda is the end of the FDA’s ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. In a petition that now has more than 62,000 supporters, I wrote:
…recently, I hosted a blood drive on city property, but was banned from donating blood myself.
As the mayor of Campbell, providing for the welfare of the general public is a top priority. As a gay man, however, I am conflicted in my advocacy for blood drives. Under current U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, a man who has sex with another man is deferred for life from donating blood. The ban was imposed in 1983 when there were no reliable tests for screening blood for HIV/AIDS. It was also made during a time of mass medical confusion and cultural homophobia associated with HIV/AIDS. The current FDA ban is wildly outdated and perpetuates unfair labels against gay and bisexual men that live on through decades of discrimination.
These kinds of stereotypes are not unlike the ones Harvey Milk was fighting nearly four decades ago, and why he, like I do today, encouraged LGBT people to come out whenever possible – to dispel the harmful lies about our community with the truth. Stuart Milk, nephew of Harvey Milk and founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, continues his uncle's legacy, and we are so fortunate to have Stuart carry the torch.
In a tape Milk recorded before his death, he said, “I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement.” I think he would be proud of the movement that lives on in his spirit today.