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Troubling signs for LGBT people from Supreme Court in cakeshop arguments

Justice Kennedy: “Tolerance is essential in a free society. Tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual.”

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Supporters of Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips gather in front of the United States Supreme Court on Dec. 5. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court concluded arguments Tuesday in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case with no clear indication of how it would rule as swing-vote Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed skepticism of the Colorado non-discrimination law, but also sent conflicting messages.

As the American Civil Liberties Union’s national legal director David Cole argued before the bench, Kennedy remarked the attorney’s claim the baker, Jack Phillips, denied a wedding cake to the same-sex couple based on their identity, rather than objections to same-sex marriage, was “just too facile.”

Kennedy also maintained “tolerance is essential” in society and accused the Colorado Civil Rights Commission of being “neither tolerant, nor respectful of Phillips’ religious beliefs,” noting a line in the commission’s ruling calling the baker “despicable.” Kennedy also mentioned “other good bakery shops that were available.”

But Kennedy also questioned whether the denial of a wedding cake compromised the dignity of the couple — a principle of significant importance to the justice — and questioned why selling ready-made cake to the couple wouldn’t be speech as opposed to a custom cake. Kennedy also envisioned after a ruling in favor of the baker religious groups sending messages to bakeries to “not make cakes for gay weddings.”

In the aftermath of the hearing, reporters in the Supreme Court press room speculated the court could remand the case to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission with instructions to be more tolerant of Phillips’ religious beliefs. Another possibility was a ruling specifically crafted to apply to Colorado’s non-discrimination law without nationwide implications.

The petitioner in the case, Phillips, argues that making a wedding cake is inherently an artistic act of expression protected under the First Amendment, therefore he should be able to deny wedding cakes out of religious objections to same-sex couples like Charlie Craig and David Mullins, who sought to buy a cake for their wedding in 2012.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission determined Phillips’ denial of service to the couple amounted to unlawful anti-gay discrimination under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. Although state courts have affirmed that ruling, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case earlier this year.

U.S. Associate Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, the Obama-appointed justices, made the strongest case for the Colorado non-discrimination law and at times were seemingly trying to coax Kennedy, who has a long history of ruling in favor of gay rights, to side with the same-sex couple.

When Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president of U.S. advocacy for the law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, approached the issue of dignity by saying “in this case, dignity cuts both ways” and the Colorado law is demeaning to Phillips, Sotomayor shot back that wasn’t the case.

“It’s not denigrating someone by saying, as I mentioned earlier, to say: If you choose to participate in our community in a public way, your choice, you can choose to sell cakes or not,” Sotomayor said. “You can choose to sell cupcakes or not, whatever it is you choose to sell, you have to sell it to everyone who knocks on your door, if you open your door to everyone.”

Asserting society has “competing beliefs,” Sotomayor recognized LGBT people “have been humiliated, disrespected, treated unequally” and enumerated the history of discrimination against them, such as LGBT people being denied medical treatment. That history, Sotomoyor said, justifies a non-discrimination law in public accommodations.

“We’ve always said in our public accommodations law we can’t change your private beliefs, we can’t compel you to like these people, we can’t compel you to bring them into your home, but if you want to be a part of our community, of our civic community, there’s certain behavior, conduct you can’t engage in,” Sotomayor said. “And that includes not selling products that you sell to everyone else to people simply because of their either race, religion, national origin, gender, and in this case sexual orientation.”

Kagan peppered Waggoner with questions on why wedding cake would be considered inherent, but not other wedding services such as a jeweler or a hairstylist. Waggoner said neither of those cases would be the same as a wedding cake because they’re not speech.

“I’m quite serious, actually, about this, because, you know, a makeup artist, I think, might feel exactly as your client does, that they’re doing something that’s of great aesthetic importance to the wedding and that there’s a lot of skill and artistic vision that goes into making a somebody look beautiful,” Kagan said.

In one telling moment when Kagan enumerated other professions and brought up chef, Waggoner denied a chef at a wedding was engaged in expressive speech, prompting her to exclaim “woah” in disbelief.

“The test that this court has used in the past to determine whether speech is engaged in is to ask if it is communicating something, and if whatever is being communicated, the medium used is similar to other mediums that this court has protected,” Waggoner replied.

U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who was sympathetic to the baker’s claims, had his own hypothetical question that he posed both to Cole and Colorado Solicitor General Frederick Yarger: Could a Christian legal group be forced under Colorado law to represent a client in support of same-sex marriage? Both Cole and Yarger said the answer would be “yes.”

“It’s clearly covered by Colorado’s law,” Roberts said. “It’s not primarily religious. It’s primarily legal. It’s provided to all faiths. And there’s nothing in the law that I can see that says it’s limited to for-profit organizations.”

Sotomayor sought to cast doubt on whether Phillips was seeking to deny same-sex couples only wedding cakes because they’re inherently an act of expression, referencing an incident when he refused to sell cupcakes to a lesbian couple. Waggoner said that alleged incident was never included in the initial complaint, the formal charges against Phillips or the resolution against him.

Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop speaks to reporters in front of the United States Supreme Court on Dec. 5. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Representing the Trump administration during arguments was U.S. Solicitor General Neil Francisco, who solicited and obtained time to argue on behalf of Masterpiece Cakeshop. It was the first time since his confirmation he argued before the Supreme Court during oral arguments.

Francisco made the case the First Amendment allows an individual to deny a wedding cake to a same-sex couple, but not for an interracial or black couple because that act would be based on identity, not the act of same-sex marriage.

“I think pretty much everything but race would fall in the same category, but as this court made clear in the Bob Jones case, the IRS could withdraw tax-exempt status from a school that discriminated on the basis of interracial marriage, but I’m not at all sure that it would reach the same result if it were dealing with a Catholic school that limited married student housing to opposite-sex couples only,” Francisco said.

When Kagan asked whether denying a wedding cake to a couple was an affront to the LGBT community, Francisco conceded dignity issues were at stake, but sometimes there’s “dignity interest on the other side.”

Both Francisco and Waggoner made heavy use of the Supreme Court precedent in the case of Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, a 1995 decision which held the state can’t compel individuals in a public demonstration to include groups who impart a message the organizers don’t want in their demonstration.

Francisco called the decision against Masterpiece Cakeshop the “flipside of Hurley” because in this case Colorado was essentially forcing Phillips to take part in the metaphorical parade of supporting same-sex marriage.

U.S. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch tried to steer the court toward instituting an abstract rule that could guide businesses on whether they could deny service to customers under the First Amendment, bringing up Jackson Pollock as the kind of artist who would be able to deny service because his art is inherently expressive.

The Trump-appointed justice also questioned why the punishment for Phillips, being forced to undergo training with his employees, shouldn’t be considered compelled speech.

“Why isn’t that compelled speech and possibly in violation of his free-exercise rights?” Gorsuch said. “Because presumably he has to tell his staff, including his family members, that his Christian beliefs are discriminatory.”

In addition, Gorsuch echoed Kennedy’s concerns about the Colorado Civil Rights Commission being disrespectful of Phillips, pointing to a second commissioner who suggested if he doesn’t like the law, he could change his religious beliefs.

There was little time for attorneys to make their cases before the Supreme Court without interruption as justices continually peppered them with inquiries and challenges, but on occasion were able to make the points they had prepared.

Cole, representing the American Civil Liberties Union and the same-sex couple, emphasized the far-reaching implications of a ruling in favor of being allowed to deny wedding cakes to LGBT people.

“We don’t doubt the sincerity of Mr. Phillips’s convictions, but to accept his argument leads to unacceptable consequences,” Cole said. “A bakery could refuse to sell a birthday cake to a black family if it objected to celebrating black lives. A corporate photography studio could refuse to take pictures of female CEOs if it believed that a woman’s place is in the home. And a florist could put a sign up on her storefront saying we don’t do gay funerals, if she objected to memorializing gay people.”

Waggoner said forcing Phillips to make wedding cakes contrary to his beliefs would be the “gravest offense to the First Amendment.”

“A wedding cake expresses an inherent message that is that the union is a marriage and is to be celebrated, and that message violates Mr. Phillips’ religious convictions,” Waggoner said.

More to come…

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Vigil held after Wilton Manors Pride parade accident

Fort Lauderdale mayor expressed ‘regret’ over initial terrorism claim

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A vigil in the wake of the accident at the Stonewall Pride Parade took place at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — More than 100 people on Sunday attended a prayer vigil in the wake of an accident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

The vigil took place at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.

Clergy joined activists and local officials at a vigil at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

A 77-year-old man who was driving a pickup truck struck two men near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday. One of the victims died a short time later at a Fort Lauderdale hospital.

The pickup truck narrowly missed U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade, and Florida Congressman Ted Deutch.

The driver of the pickup truck and the two men he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday described the incident as a “fatal traffic crash” and not a terrorism incident as Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially claimed.

“As we were about to begin the parade, this pickup truck, this jacked up white pickup truck, dashed across, breaking through the line, hitting people, all of us that were there could not believe our eyes,” said Trantalis as he spoke at the vigil.

Trantalis noted the pickup truck nearly hit Wasserman Schultz. He also referenced the arrest of a 20-year-old supporter of former President Trump earlier in the week after he allegedly vandalized a Pride flag mural that had been painted in an intersection in Delray Beach, which is roughly 30 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.

“I immediately knew that something terrible was happening,” said Trantalis, referring to the Stonewall Pride Parade accident. “My visceral reaction was that we were being attacked. Why not? Why not feel that way?”

“I guess I should watch to make sure there are no reporters standing by when I have those feelings, but that was my first reaction and I regret the fact that I said it was a terrorist attack because we found out that it was not, but I don’t regret my feelings,” he added. “But I don’t regret that I felt terrorized by someone who plowed through the crowd inches away from the congresswoman and the congressman, myself and others.”

Trantalis also told vigil attendees that “I guess we forgive” the pickup truck driver.

“But I regret that his consequences resulted in the death of an individual who was innocent and who was there to have a good time, like the rest of us, and I regret there is a man who is in serious condition … fighting for his life and there,” added Trantalis.

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Veterans Affairs to provide gender-confirmation surgery reversing 2013 ban

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and expand access to care for transgender veterans

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The new Orlando VA Medical Center at Lake Nona (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs )

ORLANDO – U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced his Department is moving to provide gender-confirmation surgery through its health care coverage reversing a 2013 ban on those surgical procedures.

Speaking at a Pride Month event at the Orlando VA Healthcare System Saturday, McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

The process to roll-back the restrictions may take upwards of two years. The federal rulemaking process, expected to begin this summer, will include a period for public comment, spokesman Terrence Hayes told The Washington Post on Saturday.

“This time will allow VA to develop capacity to meet the surgical needs that transgender veterans have called for and deserved for a long time,” McDonough said in his remarks. “and I am proud to begin the process of delivering it,” he added.

On February 8, 2013, the VA issued a directive that stated that the VA Healthcare System does not provide sex reassignment surgery. This directive sought to clarify a previous VA directive issued June 9, 2011, “Providing Healthcare for Transgender and Intersex Veterans,” which established the provision of hormone therapy, gender-related mental health counseling, and other transition-related services through the VA, as well as a mandate that the VA health system provides care “without discrimination and in a manner … consistent with the Veteran’s self-identified gender.”

“This directive, however, does not include coverage of surgical procedures although the VA does provide transgender veterans with pre- and postoperative care.”

The outcome was that the directive(s) effectively prevented transgender veterans from a surgery considered medically necessary by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

38 CFR § 17.38 Medical benefits package, is the specific federal code that makes provisions for veterans healthcare, which Section (b) clearly defines as; “Care referred to in the “medical benefits package” will be provided to individuals only if it is determined by appropriate health care professionals that the care is needed to promote, preserve, or restore the health of the individual and is in accord with generally accepted standards of medical practice.”

However, 38 CFR § 17.38 does limit care for transgender veteran’s stating: “(c) In addition to the care specifically excluded from the “medical benefits package” under paragraphs (a) and (b) of this section, the “medical benefits package” does not include the following: […] ‘(4) Gender alterations.'”

McDonough noted that changes “will require changing VA’s regulations and establishing policy that will ensure the equitable treatment and safety” of all transgender veterans.

“There are several steps to take, which will take time. But we are moving ahead, methodically, because we want this important change in policy to be implemented in a manner that has been thoroughly considered to ensure that the services made available to veterans meet VA’s rigorous standards for quality health care.”

In a study related to the 2011 and 2013 directives, the VA noted that research showed that the transgender population in general experiences severe physical and mental health disparities, compared to the cisgender population, including high rates of HIV, suicidality, depression, anxiety, and mental health-related hospitalization.

Studies have found that these disparities are even more glaring among transgender veterans. In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

U. S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-CA, who is openly gay, issued a statement applauding McDonough’s actions.

“Veterans in need of gender confirmation surgery should not have to seek healthcare outside of the VA health system or navigate complicated processes to get the care they need,” Takano said. “VA must be inclusive of all veterans who have served, regardless of their identity.”

The Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Jon Tester, D-MT also approved of the expansion of health care offerings for trans veterans.

“Every service member and veteran deserves equal access to quality care from VA, and this includes our LGBTQ+ veterans,” Tester said in a statement. “We must reaffirm our commitment to making VA a more welcoming place for everyone who fought to protect our freedoms.”

Gina Duncan, director of transgender equality for the statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization Equality Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel that her agency was “thrilled to have allies at the highest level of government” and noted the contrast with recent moves by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis to limit transgender youth participation in school sports.

“In a moment of fierce state and local backlash against the transgender community, this move by the Biden Administration is a reminder that elections matter,” Duncan said. “Support for transgender veterans and the lifesaving healthcare they need to live authentically is a critical component to fulfilling our nation’s promise of caring for those who’ve served.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: GSA U.S. Government)
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Police describe Wilton Manors Pride incident as ‘fatal traffic crash’

Pickup truck driver identified as 77-year-old man

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A screenshot from a video taken at the scene by Joey Spears. (Image courtesy of @pinto_spears, via Twitter.) Screenshot used with permission from South Florida Gay News.

WILTON MANORS, Fla. — The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday released additional information about an incident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

A press release notes a 77-year-old man who was “a participant who had ailments preventing him from walking the duration of the parade and was selected to drive as the lead vehicle” was behind the wheel of a 2011 white Dodge Ram pickup truck that struck the two people near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday.

“As the vehicle began to move forward in anticipation for the start of the parade, the vehicle accelerated unexpectedly, striking two pedestrians,” reads the press release. “After striking the pedestrians, the driver continued across all lanes of traffic, ultimately crashing into the fence of a business on the west side of the street.”

“The driver remained on scene and has been cooperative with investigators for the duration of the investigation,” further notes the press release. “A DUI investigation of the driver was conducted on scene and showed no signs of impairment.”

The press release confirms the driver and the two people he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus.

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue transported both victims to Broward Health Medical Center “with serious injuries.” The press release notes one of the victims died shortly after he arrived at the hospital.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which is leading the investigation, has not publicly identified the victims and the driver, but the press release describes the incident as a “fatal traffic crash.” The press release notes the second victim remains hospitalized at Broward Health Medical Center, but “is expected to survive.”

“While no arrests have been made, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department continues to investigate this incident and will not be releasing the names of the involved parties due to the status of the investigation,” says the press release. “The Fort Lauderdale Police Department asks anyone who may have witnessed this incident, who has not already spoken to investigators, to contact Traffic Homicide Investigator Paul Williams at (954) 828-5755.”

The pickup truck narrowly avoided U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade. Florida Congressman Ted Deutch was also nearby.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic accident that occurred when the Stonewall Pride Parade was just getting started,” said Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus President Justin Knight in a statement he issued after the incident. “Our fellow chorus members were those injured and the driver was also part of the chorus family.”

“To my knowledge, this was not an attack on the LGBTQ community,” added Knight. “We anticipate more details to follow and ask for the community’s love and support.”

Fort Lauderdale mayor initially described incident as anti-LGBTQ ‘terrorist attack’

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially described the incident as “a terrorist attack against the LGBT community,” without any official confirmation. Detective Ali Adamson of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Saturday confirmed to reporters that investigators are “working with” the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but stressed the “investigation is active and we are considering and evaluating all possibilities.”

“Last evening, at the start of what was to be a celebration of pride for the LGBT community and commemoration of our hard-won victories for equality, our community faced the worst of tragedies. The grief of our LGBT community — and greater Fort Lauderdale as a whole — is palpable,” said Trantalis on Sunday in a statement he posted to his Facebook page.

“I was an eyewitness to the horrifying events. It terrorized me and all around me. I reported what I saw to law enforcement and had strong concerns about what transpired — concerns for the safety of my community. I feared it could be intentional based on what I saw from mere feet away,” he added.

Trantalis added “law enforcement took what appeared obvious to me and others nearby and investigated further — as is their job.”

“As the facts continue to be pieced together, a picture is emerging of an accident in which a truck careened out of control,” he said. “As a result, one man died, two others were injured and the lives of two members of Congress were at risk. My heart breaks for all impacted by this tragedy.”

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