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In uphill fight, Dems make case for Equality Act

Supporters confident bill would pass if GOP leaders allow a vote

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Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) speaks at the reintroduction of the Equality Act at the U.S. Capitol on May 2. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Trump’s November victory and Republican majorities in Congress aren’t stopping Democrats from reintroducing legislation seeking to enshrine into law comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

At an event Tuesday at the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), lead sponsors of the legislation in their respective chambers of Congress, touted the Equality Act as a means to extend LGBT progress in the face of current obstacles.

Cicilline, lead sponsor of the Equality Act in the U.S. House, said the legislation has more supporters than ever in the House and “reflects the simple idea that everyone, including members of the LGBT community, is entitled to equal treatment under the law and right to live free of discrimination.”

“It’s long past time to guarantee that equal protection under the law applies to every single American regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that’s exactly what the Equality Act will accomplish,” Cicilline said.

Merkley, lead sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, said the Equality Act is the answer to the question of what constitutes a just and equal society.

“Every American deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” Merkley said. “Every American deserves to be able to pursue their full potential without the door of discrimination being slammed in their face. When we pass the Equality Act, non-discrimination will be the law of the land here in America once and for all, and that day could not come sooner.”

As when it was first introduced in the previous Congress, the Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit.

The bill also seeks to update federal law to include gender in the list of protected classes in public accommodation in addition to expanding the definition of public accommodations to include retail stores, banks, transportation services and health care services. Further, the Equality Act would establish that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a 1994 law aimed at protecting religious liberty — can’t used to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) invoked the recent ruling from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that found anti-gay discrimination on the job constitutes sex discrimination under current law, but said the Equality Act is needed to expand protections into other areas.

“Now we must pass the Equality Act to remove all doubt that sexual orientation and gender identity warrant civil rights protection, not just in the workplace, but every place,” Pelosi said.

Lawmakers at the event characterized the legislation as an effort to make a distinction between supporters of LGBT rights and their opposition in the White House and Congress.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, lamented being at “a different place” with Trump in the White House than expected when Hillary Clinton was leading in the polls.

“The truth is there has never been a more important time to keep up this fight, to lay out a vision for the kind of country that we all know we can be and to come together to pass the Equality Act,” Murray said. “Since the moment he walked into the White House, President Trump has laid out a hateful, damaging agenda to undo the hard won progress for the LGBTQ community.”

Upon its reintroduction in the 115th Congress, the Equality Act has a greater number of total co-sponsors in the House and Senate than ever before. The legislation has 195 co-sponsors in the House and 46 co-sponsors in the Senate. But the only Republican co-sponsor in either chamber is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), an LGBT-supportive Republican who this weekend said she plans to retire from Congress at the end of next year.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been a Republican who has taken the lead on pro-LGBT measures in the past, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but isn’t an Equality Act co-sponsor. The Washington Blade has placed a call to her office seeking comment on why she doesn’t co-sponsor the bill.

The remaining co-sponsors are all members of the Democratic caucuses. In the House, the only two Democrats who aren’t co-sponsors are Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.). Lipinski is a rare member of the Democratic caucus who’s known for holding anti-LGBT views. In the Senate, the only two Democrats who aren’t co-sponsors are Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.).

Despite the lack of Republican support in a Republican Congress, Cicilline expressed confidence Congress would approve the measure if the measure is allowed to come up for a vote when asked by a reporter about GOP support.

“It’s like so many things: The ultimate decision on whether or not this bill comes to the floor for a vote rests with the speaker of the House,” Cicilline said. “I have every confidence that if the bill came to the floor it would pass because I think most members of Congress recognize voting to continue practices of discrimination against individuals is un-American, and we would be successful in passing it.”

On the same day Democrats reintroduced the Equality Act, the Center for American Progress unveiled the results of a new report titled “Widespread Discrimination Continues to Shape LGBT People’s Lives in Both Subtle and Significant Ways,” which found 1 in 4 LGBT people report having experienced discrimination in 2016.

The Equality Act has been a source of heartburn for members of the civil rights community who fear the consequences of moving to the floor legislation that seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act. Poison pill or “religious freedom” amendments to the Equality Act could weaken the historic measure if they become law along with the Equality Act.

But that seems to be abating. Of the 47 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 46 are co-sponsors, including Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Cedric Richmond, chair of the caucus. That’s up from the last Congress when just more than two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus were co-sponsors of the legislation.

Trump is unlikely to support the legislation given anti-LGBT actions from the administration, such as reversal of Obama-era guidance protecting transgender kids from discrimination in school and ensuring they have access to school restrooms consistent with their gender identity. (The Equality Act was introduced just hours before a breaking news report in Politico that Trump intends to sign on Thursday a “religious freedom” executive order, which critics fear would enable anti-LGBT discrimination.)

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U.S. Federal Courts

Indiana GSA sues school district that banned Pride flags over another ban

“The treatment aimed at PHGSA by administrators is unwarranted- these students must be treated in the same manner all others are treated”

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Pendleton Heights High School in Pendleton, Indiana (Screenshot via WTHR NBC 13 News)

INDIANAPOLIS – A student led Gay-Straight Alliance at Pendleton Heights High School in Pendleton, Indiana filed suit against their school and the South Madison Community Schools District for banning public announcements and adverts in-school for their club.

Last Spring officials in the Schools District, in this suburban community 30 miles northeast of Indianapolis, ordered faculty members at Pendleton Heights High School to remove Rainbow Pride flags from classrooms. The Schools District labeled the flags “political paraphernalia”  and instructed the Spanish, French and art teachers to get the flags out of their classrooms saying the flags violate their school district’s “political paraphernalia” policy.

In the suit filed last Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of the Pendleton Heights High GSA, in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the ACLU noted that the principal at Pendleton Heights has stated that the PHGSA cannot publicize its existence on school bulletin boards or on the school’s radio station, while other curricular and non-curricular clubs at the school are able to do so. 

“This group aims to create an environment that provides support to students, during a time that otherwise might be increasingly difficult for LGBTQ students,” said Kit Malone, advocacy strategist at ACLU of Indiana. “The differential treatment aimed at Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance by administrators is unwarranted and these students must be treated in the same manner that all other student groups are treated.” 

Pendleton Heights Principal Connie Rickert has the authority to decide what student groups are allowed to meet at the school and which ones are deemed to be “official.” Last Spring she deflected on the apparent anti-LGBTQ+ messaging the order to remove the flags sent telling one media outlet; ““Teachers are legally obligated to maintain viewpoint neutrality during their official duties to ensure all students can focus on learning and we can maintain educational activities and school operations,” she said. “Our counselors are trained to respond to any student who desires support.”

While she has allowed the GSA club to meet, her banning announcements and notifications for the GSA runs contrary to her statements last Spring that that her school prides itself on creating a welcoming environment for all. 

“Students at Pendleton Heights High School may participate in non-curricular clubs recognized by the school,” said Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director. “By creating additional hurdles for Pendleton Heights Gay-Straight Alliance such as censoring the group’s promotions and prohibiting fundraising, the school is infringing on these students’ rights.” 

The South Madison Community Schools District has declined comment.

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Texas

Alarming numbers of Texas Trans kids in crisis over litany of anti-Trans bills

“Under the guise of protecting children- Texas legislators are directly harming thousands of transgender & nonbinary youth”

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LGBTQ youth protest anti-Trans bills at the Texas Capitol building (Photo Credit: Equality Texas)

NEW YORK – The Trevor Project received nearly 4,000 crisis contacts from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas in 2021, with many directly stating that they are feeling stressed and considering suicide due to anti-trans laws being debated in their state.

This new data comes during a year when Texas lawmakers have proposed nearly 70 anti-LGBTQ bills, including more than 40 bills that specifically target transgender and nonbinary youth — far more than any other state.

The Texas State Senate passed its anti-trans sports ban SB3 this week, and the companion bill HB10 is now moving forward in the Texas House. 

Republican Texas Governor Abbott has prioritized SB 3 and called for a third consecutive special session of the legislature to consider this bill, which would ban transgender student-athletes from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

“The Trevor Project’s crisis counselors have been hearing from transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas who are scared and worried about anti-trans laws being debated in their state — and some have even expressed suicidal thoughts. This is a crisis. We urge Texas lawmakers to consider the weight of their words and actions — and to reject HB10/SB3,” said Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project.

  • Between January 1 and August 30, 2021, The Trevor Project received more than 10,800 crisis contacts (calls, texts, and chats) from LGBTQ young people in Texas looking for support. More than 3,900 of those crisis contacts (36%) came from transgender or nonbinary youth.
  • Crisis contacts from LGBTQ young people in Texas seeking support have grown over 150% when compared to the same time period in 2020.
  • While this volume of crisis contacts can not be attributed to any one factor (or bill), a qualitative analysis of the crisis contacts found that:
  • Transgender and nonbinary youth in Texas have directly stated that they are feeling stressed, using self-harm, and considering suicide due to anti-LGBTQ laws being debated in their state.
  • Some transgender and nonbinary youth have expressed fear over losing access to sports that provide important acceptance in their lives.

“As a transgender young person in Texas, this new data from the Trevor Project is not surprising, but it’s nonetheless harrowing and alarming to see this representation of the detrimental impact Texas Lege is having on our community — especially our kids. Lawmakers and proponents of bills like SB3 and HB10 should be alarmed by these statistics, too,” Landon Richie a Trans youth activist and GenderCool Youth Leader from Houston told the Los Angeles Blade.

“Under the guise of protecting children and promoting fairness, Texas legislators are directly harming thousands of transgender and nonbinary youth, denying them the dignity, respect, and childhoods that they deserve. It’s never an exaggeration to say that the passage — and merely debate — of these bills will cost lives,”  Richie added.

National mental health organizations like The Trevor Project and state LGBTQ equality groups including Equality Texas and Transgender Education Network of Texas (TENT) are raising concerns about the impact of such legislation on the mental health and wellbeing of transgender and nonbinary youth.

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half (52%) of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year and 1 in 5 attempted suicide. Further, Trevor released a new research brief earlier this month on LGBTQ youth participation in sports, which found that a majority of LGBTQ young people (nearly 66%) do not actively participate in sports — with many citing fear of bullying and discrimination as a key factor for not participating.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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Utah

2nd largest school district in Utah bans Pride & BLM flags as ‘too political’

“We have to have a politically neutral classroom, and we’re going to educate the students in the best possible way that we can”

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Davis School District Offices in Farmington Utah (Photo Credit: Davis School District)

FARMINGTON, Ut. – Administrators this week in the Davis School District, which is Utah’s 2nd largest school district with 72,987 students, banned LGBTQ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags, saying they are ‘politically charged.’

According to the Salt Lake City Tribune, Davis Schools spokesperson Chris Williams told the paper; “No flags fly in our schools except for the flag of the United States of America.” Williams later walked that statement back adding a clarification that some of the Districts schools have flags from sports team or international countries which are considered “unrelated to politics.”

“What we’re doing is we’re following state law,” said Williams. “State law says that we have to have a classroom that’s politically neutral.”

Amanda Darrow, Director of Youth, Family, and Education at the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, told multiple media outlets the school district is “politicizing the rainbow flag” which doesn’t belong on a political list.

“That flag for us is so much more,” said Darrow. “It is just telling us we’re included in the schools, we are being seen in the schools, and we belong in these schools.”

KUTV CBS2 News in Salt Lake City checked with the Utah State Board of Education. In an email, spokesman Mark Peterson said, “There is nothing in code that specifically defines a rainbow flag as a political statement so it would be up to district or charter school policies to make that determination.”

The local Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also weighed in saying in a statement;

Whether or not a school district has the legal ability to ban inclusive and supportive symbols from classrooms, it is bad policy for them to do so,” the advocacy organization said in a statement. “Utah schools have an obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identify, feel welcome inside a classroom. We urge school administrators and teachers to adopt policies that make all students feel safe and included.”

Williams insisted the policy is not meant to exclude anyone and that all students are loved and welcomed – they just want to keep politics out of school he told the Tribune and KUTV.

“We have to have a politically neutral classroom, and we’re going to educate the students in the best possible way that we can,” said Williams.

A Utah based veteran freelance journalist, writer, editor, and food photographer weighed in on Twitter highlighting the negative impact of the Davis Schools decision on its LGBTQ youth.

Davis County School District bans LGTBQ and BLM flags as ‘too political’

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