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Congressional hearing spotlights use of religious liberty against LGBTQ people

Trump administration’s anti-LGBTQ policy highlighted in testimony

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Ernesto Olivares and Evan Minton testified about the discrimination they endured as LGBTQ people. (Blade photo by Michael Key).

When religious liberty — a right afforded fundamental protection in the United States — is used to assault LGBTQ rights was the focus of a congressional hearing Thursday drawing attention to faith-based adoption agencies denying child placement into LGBTQ homes.

Chairing the three-hour hearing before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee was Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who in her opening statement assailed the Trump administration’s use of religious liberty as a weapon to attack LGBTQ rights.

“Let me make something crystal clear: I am a strong supporter of religious liberty,” Maloney said. “But it should not be distorted and twisted into a weapon to enable discrimination. Scrubbing the White House website of references to gay people has nothing to do with religious freedom. It has everything to do with the Trump administration’s assault on the LGBTQ community.”

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Among the Trump administration’s actions highlighted during the hearing were regulatory moves allowing taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to refuse child placement in LGBTQ homes and a “conscience rule” allowing medical practitioners to decline to offer procedures they find objectionable, including gender reassignment surgery. (Courts have since enjoined the administration from enforcing the “conscience rule.”)

Although the title of the hearing was the Trump administration using religious liberty to assault LGBTQ rights, the scope was more expansive and covered anti-LGBTQ discrimination across the board.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said in his opening statement the “big question” is whether businesses engaged in commerce or federally funded institutions, such as hospitals and adoption agencies, can refuse services to LGBTQ people — and the answer should be easy.

“I am sure there will be a handful of close calls in harmonizing individual religious freedom and equal rights under law, but the vast majority of cases are, in fact, easy,” Raskin said. “Yet, alas, the Trump administration has been working zealously to turn the government into an instrument of hostility towards LGBTQ rights across the executive branch.”

At times, the hearing seemed more like two distinct conversations taking place, with Democrats asking their witnesses about LGBTQ rights, Republicans asking theirs about religious liberty and no attempt to reach a focus for common ground.

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) was at the forefront of calls from Republicans to call for protections of religious liberty, even if those protections were at the expense of allowing anti-LGBTQ discrimination, based on language in the First Amendment.

“So we see that Congress cannot mandate a national religion. We get that,” Hice said. “But we also understand from this that neither can Congress prevent Americans from practicing their faith in the public square, and fundamentally, the First Amendment protects Americans from an ideological coercion from government. And this is the rub for me.”

Disputing the notion the Trump administration was assaulting LGBTQ rights, Hice insisted the United States is still “a world leader in guaranteeing the civil rights of all, including the LGBTQ community,” noting the appointment of Richard Grenell, acting Director of National Intelligence and now the highest-ranking openly gay presidential appointee in U.S. history.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), one of seven openly gay members of the U.S. House and a witness before the committee, disputed Grenell’s appointment as evidence of Trump’s support for LGBTQ rights, saying that alone doesn’t cut it.

“The appointment of one person who’s LGBTQ,” Takano said, “does not compensate for the fact that last fall, the Trump administration made legal arguments before the Supreme Court that would limit non-discrimination protections under Title VII, which exists to prevent people from being fired for their sexual orientation. The want to give employers the power to fire you based on who you are or who you love. I say religious liberty does not extend to firing people based on who are they are.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

One of the Republican members of the committee asked to have entered into the record a letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressing displeasure over Congress holding a hearing that has framed religious liberty as an assault.

Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign and one of the witnesses at the hearing, told the Blade afterward the Republican preoccupation with religious liberty and disregard for LGBTQ rights was off-base.

“I think, unfortunately, a number of the Republican Congress members today really misrepresented what religious liberty is,” Warbelow said. “Religious liberty, it means an ability for people to hold their sincerely held religious belief, to practice their faith, but it doesn’t mean that you get to engage in discrimination.”

Among the witnesses were LGBTQ people who had suffered discrimination and came to the congressional hearing to tell their stories.

Evan Minton, a transgender resident of Livermore, Calif., told the story of going to the Mercy San Juan Medical Center in the Dignity Health chain for a hysterectomy, then being told the surgery was cancelled because it was related to gender transition.

“I was fortunate in that I was able to undergo a hysterectomy at a different hospital,” Minton said. “But the experience was scarring. I had no idea prior to my hysterectomy that my local community hospital was a Catholic hospital, or that they would argue that religious doctrine permits them to prevent doctors from providing patients with medically necessary care just because those patents are transgender.”

The experience was so degrading, Minton said, he refused to return afterward when he had a medical emergency and needed to remove his catheter and needed assistance when his pharmacist accidentally gave him a drug overdose.

“I needed to go to the emergency room,” Minton said. “In my drug stupor and even in my inability to talk, I was able to make out the sound, ‘No. Not that.’ And they took me to an emergency room farther away.”

Ernesto Olivares, a gay man who lives in San Antonio, Texas, recounted the bullying and harassment he encountered as a youth growing up in the foster care system.

“I remember one day, we were getting ready to go on a family vacation and I went to grab my bag, the big bright blue one they give us to put all our things in when it’s time to move placements,” Olivares said. “Someone had scratched out my name and written ‘faggot’ in its place. I cried and kept it to myself until we got back from vacation.”

Olivares said he told his therapist about the incident, and even though he asked her not to tell his foster parents, she told anyway. Even though he showed them the tag as proof, they denied anyone in the house would do that and nothing was ever done about that incident.

A key focus of the hearing was the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, federal legislation introduced by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that would prohibit adoption agencies from discriminating LGBTQ families in child placement or discrimination against LGBTQ children, such as forcing them to undergo widely discredited conversion therapy.

Championing the legislation was Rev. Stan Sloan, an Episcopal priest and CEO of the pro-LGBT Family Equality Council, who said the bill was needed to ensure children in adoption agencies and foster care have access to families.

“There are currently over 440,000 children in our child welfare system,” Sloan said. “Over a quarter of those children are able to be adopted at this moment, and yet over 20,000 of those kids will graduate out of the system this year alone without ever finding parents.”

Sloan said LGBTQ people in America are seven times more likely to become foster parents or adopt a child, and yet 11 states, most recently Tennessee, now have laws on books permitting adoption agencies to refuse placement to LGBTQ families.

The Every Child Deserves a Family Act, Sloan said, would “overturn those bad laws nationwide, and if you care about kids in need you will support that act.”

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), another openly gay member of Congress, testified before the committee as a witness in favor of same-sex adoption by telling the story of raising children with his husband.

“When you allow people to discriminate against those couples, you deprive children of good moms, dads, families who are going to love them, and you dress it up as religious liberty, you simply sanction discrimination and deprive those children of a home they deserve,” Maloney said.

At the opposite end of that legislation is the Child Welfare Inclusion Act, legislation Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) promoted as a witness during the hearing that would prohibit adverse action against child welfare agencies for declining to provide services based on religious beliefs, such as declining placement into LGBTQ families.

“The faith community has deeply held religious beliefs,” Kelly said. “The LGBTQ community has deeply held beliefs. We do not discriminate against those beliefs, and we say if that’s what you choose, that is fine. All we ask is that we don’t discriminate against somebody…because they don’t hold those same beliefs.”

Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of committee, spoke out against the use religious belief to justify bias against anti-LGBTQ people, saying that offends her as a woman of faith.

“It is very difficult to sit here and listen to arguments in the long history in this country of using scripture and weaponizing it and using scripture to justify bigotry,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “White supremacists have done it, those who justified slavery did it, those who fought against integration and we’re seeing it today.”

The title of the hearing was the Trump’s administration using religious liberty to assault LGBTQ rights, but no representative of the White House was present before the hearing. A committee spokesperson didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment on whether the Trump administration was invited to send a witness. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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New Public Justice President ‘sickened’ by anti-Trans attacks

“This is a critical moment for our country & Public Justice has a pivotal role to play in addressing it.”

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Dan Bryson courtesy of Public Justice

By Karen Ocamb | OAKLAND, Ca. – Native North Carolina attorney Dan Bryson loves people and emphatically hates discrimination. He still experiences a PTSD gut-punch whenever he recalls the national trauma visited on his beloved state in 2016 by rightwing conservatives ruthlessly seeking crass political power at the expense of the LGBTQ community through House Bill 2 (HB2), The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, otherwise known as the anti-transgender “bathroom bill.”

“What absolutely just repels me to my very core throughout my whole life is discrimination of any type. Whatever it is, it sickens me and I don’t understand it. I really don’t understand why every single human being on this planet can’t treat every other single human being with the respect and professionalism and love that they deserve,” Bryson says. “[HB2 was] the worst thing ever. It makes my hair go on fire to this day.”

It is this visceral commitment to LGBTQ equality that Bryson, a founding partner at the global law firm of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman, is expected to bring to his new post as President of Public Justice, the national nonprofit legal advocacy organization based in Washington DC and Oakland, California. His personal response to HB2 also illustrates his desire to find creative ways to engage others in discussions aimed at the public interest. Not only did Bryson financially contribute to those who opposed HB2, he commissioned artists to paint a mural on the wall of his office building opposite a popular restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

“There is a big heart right in the middle, like a Valentine heart,” he says. “And on the sides are a number of arms reaching to try to get to the heart. Some are white, some are Black, some are green — they’re all different colors. The clothing on the arms may be female, may be male clothing. You just don’t know. But the point is that everyone is just to trying to find love — and why couldn’t we be a little bit more accepting as a society?”

Courtesy of Dan Bryson

While HB2 impacted him personally, Bryson’s deep commitment to civil rights actually reflects the work Public Justice has done throughout its almost 40-year history. To paraphrase a protest poster during the George Floyd demonstrations, Public Justice has been supportive of civil rights even “when it’s not trending.” Adele Kimmel, Director of Public Justice’s Students’ Civil Rights Project, for instance, is a widely recognized litigator on gender and sexual violence and the legal intricacies of Title IX. She has educated youth, families, school officials and other lawyers on how to use Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to stop bullying of LGBT students. 

Along with Public Justice Kazan Budd Attorney Alexandra Brodsky, she represents out gay retired Army Major Steve Snyder-Hill in his sexual abuse lawsuit against Ohio State University and, in a case challenging former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s revised Title IX rules, represents Berkeley High School students, including nonbinary students, who are seeking to reverse DeVos’s changes, which significantly rolled back many protections for students.

Public Justice also teamed up with the National Women’s Law Center, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality and 46 other organizations and individuals in a 2017 campaign to reach the Departments of Education in each state telling them to properly follow federal law – and protect transgender students – or risk litigation. 

“Schools that discriminate against transgender students, such as by denying them access to bathrooms and other single-sex facilities that correspond with their gender identity or failing to protect transgender students from harassment, are violating Title IX and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause,” the letter read in part. “Schools are obligated to protect transgender students in compliance with the law, regardless of whether they face legal recourse from the federal government. And when schools fail to comply with the law, they will continue to be subjected to lawsuits filed by and on behalf of aggrieved students.” 

Public Justice also strongly supports the Equality Act , has spoken out against the Republican wave of anti-trans bills, and works with civil rights coalition members such as The Leadership Conference, the Human Rights Campaign, as well as local groups such as the San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates. 

Under Bryson, fighting systemic oppression is only going to get deeper. “This is a critical moment for our country and Public Justice has a pivotal role to play in addressing it. As [recent Public Justice “Champion of Justice” honoree] Ben Crump’s own work shows, attorneys can be an essential part of addressing and ending injustice in America. That’s what this organization is all about and every aspect of our work aims to move us forward to a better, more equitable society and justice system,” Bryson told the audience during the organization’s recent gala. “As a North Carolinian, I’ve seen the impact of ugly, hateful laws up close. We fought hard in my home state to battle the so-called transgender ‘bathroom law’ and we’re fighting equally hard at Public Justice to take on the despicable effort to deny transgender athletes an opportunity to participate in school athletics.…. As President, I look forward to working with the staff to continue that expansion and maximize the impact of our work to tear down systemic injustice and work for a legal system – and a country – that is fairer, more inclusive and more equitable for all.”

Karen Ocamb, is the Director of Media Relations for the Oakland, California based Public Justice.

Public Justice is a national nonprofit legal advocacy organization. They protect consumers, employees, civil rights & the environment.

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West Virginia’s capital bans conversion therapy for LGBTQ kids

Conversion therapy is widely opposed by prominent professional medical associations including the American Medical Association

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The City of Charleston, West Virginia waterfront (Photo Credit: The City of Charleston)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The City Council of West Virginia’s capital city became the first municipality in the state to enact an ordinance banning the widely discredited practise of conversion therapy. In a 14-to-9 vote, the council passed the ordinance Monday to protect LGBTQ youth from the practise.

Conversion therapy is widely opposed by prominent professional medical associations including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The proposed ordinance carries a fine of up to $1,000 for violations.

“All of Charleston’s children deserve love and respect for who they are, and no one should be in the business of trying to shame or humiliate teenagers out of being LGBTQ,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia. “Our city’s medical and faith communities came out strongly in support of this bill to ban the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy, and I congratulate members of city council for bravely approving it.”

“The Trevor Project is thrilled to see historic action being taken in West Virginia to protect LGBTQ youth from the dangers of conversion therapy. This discredited practice is not therapy at all — it’s been debunked by every major medical organization and shown to increase suicide risk,” said Troy Stevenson, Senior Advocacy Campaign Manager for The Trevor Project. “We are hopeful that this victory will help catalyze the passage of state-wide protections in the Mountain State, ensuring that no young person in West Virginia is subjected to this fraud at the hands of mental health providers.”

 A total of 20 states, as well as the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and 94 municipalities (mostly located in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota), have banned the practice of conversion therapy on minor clients. Minnesota and Michigan’s Governors earlier this year signed executive orders that prohibit state funds being expended on the practise.

Research Findings:

  • According to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 13% of LGBTQ youth reported being subjected to conversion therapy, with 83% reporting it occurred when they were under age 18. LGBTQ youth who were subjected to conversion therapy reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who were not.
  • According to a peer-reviewed study by The Trevor Project published in the American Journal of Public Health, LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple suicide attempts in the past year.
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HRC sues Tennessee over bathroom bill as school year starts

“The state’s political leaders are making Tennessee a dangerous place for our daughter, & other children like her.”

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Estes Kefauver Federal Building & Courthouse, Nashville Tennessee (Photo Credit: U.S. Courts)

NASHVILLE – The Human Rights Campaign, (HRC) has filed suit in the U. S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee challenging the Tennessee law that denies transgender students, faculty, and staff access to the bathroom, locker rooms and other sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity. 

The suit filed Tuesday by the Washington D.C. based LGBTQ advocacy group joined by the law firms of Linklaters and Branstetter, Stranch, & Jennings PLLC,  is on behalf of two Trans students currently enrolled in Tennessee schools and alleges that the law violates Title IX, the 1972 federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education.

HRC in a press release noted that its federal suit was brought on behalf of 14-year-old Alex* and his parents, Amy A. and Jeff S., as well as 6-year-old Ariel* and her parents, Julie and Ross B.

“Alex is excited to start high school this fall where he will be an honor student. His family relocated to Tennessee in 2018 to build their ‘forever home’ in an incredibly supportive and tight-knit neighborhood and Alex takes pride in being involved in his community and has created strong friendships among his peers at school.”

We didn’t know we had a trans child when we relocated to Tennessee—if Alex had come out to us before the move, we wouldn’t have come here. It makes me so angry that our elected officials have chosen to target trans kids. If lawmakers were to take the time to get to know my son, they would see that he is an amazing, smart, caring, creative person who has so much to offer. Alex just wants to be a regular kid. He should be able to look forward to starting high school without the added layer of anxiety about something as basic as using the bathroom

Amy and Jeff

He came out as transgender before the 7th grade, however, in 7th grade he was not allowed to use the boys’ restroom. Instead, Alex was forced to either use the school nurse’s private bathroom or the restroom that corresponded to his gender assigned at birth—not due to statewide legislation, but instead due to the school policy. Both options were alienating and isolating for Alex who instead stopped drinking liquids at school to avoid having to use the facilities.

Due to COVID-19 pandemic-related issues, Alex transferred to a private school for 8th grade that affirmed his gender identity, including permitting access to the boys’ restroom—Alex enjoyed a great year, without incident. He is also looking forward to starting high school at the public school near his home, but due to Tennessee’s anti-Trans bathroom law, He will again be forced into using restrooms that are stigmatizing or forgo using the bathroom altogether.

To protect Alex, Amy and Jeff are considering moving from their beloved community and leaving their ‘forever home’ behind out of fear for Alex’s safety at school and emotional wellbeing, the statement concludes.

In the case of the second plaintiff, HRC noted: Similar to Alex, Ariel’s family built their ‘forever home’ from the ground up in a neighborhood they fell in love with and that fills Julie, Ross, and Ariel with happiness and friendship.

Ariel began expressing her gender identity at 2 years old and when she was nearing 4 years old, Julie read the children’s book “I Am Jazz,” to Ariel that tells the story of a transgender girl. When the main character explains that she “has a boy body with a girl brain.” Ariel immediately lit up with excitement and eagerly told her mother, “that’s me, momma, I have a boy body with a girl brain.”

Since Ariel began her social transition at 4 years old, her classmates, their parents, teachers and school administrators have only known Ariel as her authentic self. When she was enrolled in kindergarten, her school was receptive and understanding of her gender identity and has largely protected Ariel from stigmatizing experiences.

In anticipation of Ariel starting 1st grade at a different school this fall, Julie reached out to the principal to discuss accommodations for her daughter.

Since Tennessee’s bathroom law is enacted, Ariel will have to use the boy’s restroom or the private nurse’s bathroom despite only ever using the girl’s restroom. Due to her young age, Ariel does not understand the law’s ramifications or why she is being told to use the boy’s bathroom.

The state’s political leaders are making Tennessee a dangerous place for our daughter, and other children like her. We are extremely worried about her future here, and the bills that are being passed have put us in panic mode. They are attacking children that cannot defend themselves for what appears to be political gain over a non-existent problem. We wish our leaders would take the time to speak with transgender youth and adults—instead, their fear of the unknown is unnecessarily leading their actions and causing irreparable harm to these children

Julie and Ross

Julie and Ross are also considering moving out of Tennessee due to these anti-transgender laws out of fear for their growing daughter, the statement concluded.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; Title IX expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. In June the U.S. Education Department announced it would expand its interpretation of federal sex protections to include transgender and gay students. The new policy directive means that discrimination based on a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity will be treated as a violation of Title IX.

The lawsuit also alleges that the law violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to deny certiorari in Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board left in place a federal circuit court decision recognizing the rights of transgender students under the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX.

In July a federal judge blocked a new law in Tennessee that required businesses and other entities that allow transgender people to use the public restroom that matches their gender to post a government-prescribed warning sign.

“This law is bad for businesses in Tennessee, and most importantly, harmful to transgender people,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “We are glad the court saw that this law is likely unconstitutional and hope that the state gives up the wasteful effort to defend discrimination and a violation of the First Amendment.”

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