WASHINGTON — In a resolution passed on June 24 by the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers called on Russia to immediately release detained WNBA star Brittney Griner.
Griner was first arrested in Russia in the days leading up to its invasion in Ukraine. Authorities have charged her with drug trafficking after claiming that she attempted to pass through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport while in possession of cannabis oil.
The House’s resolution, introduced in May by U.S. Reps. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and Colin Allred (D-Texas), made multiple demands of Russia, including that the country “immediately release Brittney Griner,” provide her with consular access and humane treatment and that the U.S. “raise the case of Brittney Griner and to press for her release” in all its dealings with the Russian government.
“This legislation insists on our embassy personnel having access to Ms. Griner and restates our commitment to freeing her now,” Lee said in a statement after introducing the resolution. “We continue to pray for her family and we will continue to work together as three members of Congress, along with others, to spread the message that she is held wrongfully and must be freed now.”
The resolution also expressed support for both Griner’s family and for “all prisoners unjustly imprisoned in the Russian Federation.”
Allred, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took to Twitter following the passage of the resolution.
“I’m proud the House has spoken in passing our resolution and calling for Brittney Griner’s swift release,” Allred wrote. “Every day an American is held abroad is a lifetime, and I will keep working with @POTUS to do all we can to bring home every American detained abroad.”
Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, welcomed the House’s passage of the resolution this past weekend.
“[Rep.] Stanton and many others are continuing to work with the White House, State Department and Brittney’s family to secure her safe return home,” the team wrote on Twitter.
The resolution comes after reporting revealed missteps on the part of the U.S. government in handling communication related to Griner’s detention.
According to past reporting, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow failed to connect Griner with outside phone calls permitted by the Russian government when Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, attempted to call her. Cherelle Griner reportedly called 11 times on June 18 on the couple’s fourth anniversary but was unable to reach her wife due to what the State Department claimed to be a “logistical error.”
While the resolution is being heralded by its supporters, it contains no provisions intended to enforce the House’s demands for the release and humane treatment of Griner and others held by Russia. With less than one percent of criminal defendants in Russia being acquitted, it is unclear whether the resolution will do anything to persuade the country’s courts to permit Griner’s release.
Griner appeared in Russian court on Monday for a preliminary hearing prior to her trial that has now been scheduled to begin on July 1. It was also confirmed by Griner’s attorney on Monday that her detention had been extended for six months pending her trial.
If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
“We must keep Brittney’s case on the forefront and make clear to the White House that her release should be one of the highest priorities for our government,” Cherelle Griner said in May.
Hakeem Jeffries makes history as new leader of House Democrats
Reps. Katherine Clark & Rep. Pete Aguilar become the new House Democratic Whip & House Democratic Caucus Chair
WASHINGTON – With his election on Wednesday to take over as House Democratic minority leader next year, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Ny.) became the first ever Black lawmaker from either party who will serve in that role in either of the two chambers of Congress.
House Democrats also chose, for the second and third-highest ranking positions, Reps. Katherine Clark (Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (Caif.). All ran unopposed and rather than by formal ballots were elected by voice vote for unanimous consent.
The moves signaled broad consensus among House Democrats in their decision to send the new slate of lawmakers, young and diverse with some progressive bona fides, to serve in the party’s senior leadership positions.
The three lawmakers are all members of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus and longtime allies of the community. Jeffries, as chair of the House Democratic Caucus, introduced the Respect for Marriage Act in the House this summer.
The Caucus declined to comment on the House Democratic leadership elections.
When Aguilar succeeds Jeffries in that role next year, it will be the highest-ranking position in House leadership ever held by a Latino member. Clark, meanwhile, will become the second woman to serve as Democratic House Whip after Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the current House Speaker.
Pelosi announced on Nov. 18 her plans to step down from House Democratic leadership after the next Congress is seated. She made history in 2001 as the first woman elected to the second highest-ranking position in the chamber, and then again in 2007 when she took the top slot, becoming the first woman Speaker of the House.
Following her announcement, Pelosi was celebrated for her many legislative accomplishments at the top of her party’s caucus, where she served for two decades under four presidents. A Washington Post column called Pelosi the “best speaker in US. history.”
Considering that Pelosi also presided over some of the biggest legislative milestones in the modern LGBTQ rights movement, such as the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Jeffries has a high bar to clear when he’s handed the torch in January.
Jeffries is distinguished for his vocal support of the LGBTQ community
In addition to his leadership on the Respect for Marriage Act, Jeffries has been a major advocate in Congress for other pro-LGBTQ pieces of legislation like the Equality Act and, in 2014, the Hate Crime Reporting Act.
Jeffries has been a vocal champion of measures to make the U.S. Capitol more welcoming for transgender and gender nonconforming people – such as by calling for single-occupancy gender-neutral restrooms on the Hill and rules that would adopt gender-neutral language in the House.
He has also spoken out forcefully against anti-LGBTQ hate from some members of the House Republican caucus, such as the dangerous rhetoric from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), who has repeatedly tried to link queer people to child sexual abuse.
Rep. Raul Ruiz calls for ending IRS rule for same-sex couples
The letter comes after the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage
WASHINGTON – In a letter sent to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Thursday, Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D. (CA-36) led over 50 members of Congress in calling for the IRS to reverse current regulations that prevent some same-sex couples from receiving survivor benefits.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act allows qualified retirement plans to establish a one-year marriage duration requirement for survivor’s benefits, and in 2014 the IRS issued guidance clarifying that these rules apply equally to same-sex couples — meaning if a same-sex couple was not married for the required length of time prior to one spouse’s death, the surviving spouse would not qualify for pension survivor benefits.
However, in many cases, couples were not legally allowed to be married for long enough to meet that requirement, since unconstitutional laws barring same-sex couples from marriage remained in effect until 2015. For same-sex survivors for whom marriage equality came too late, the one-year marriage duration requirement poses a total bar to access their loved one’s benefits.
“It is imperative that the IRS clarify that a qualified retirement plan will be disqualified if it fails to provide these same-sex survivors barred from marrying with an equal path to survivor’s benefits despite their having been unable to meet the one-year marriage duration requirement before the employee’s death,” Dr. Ruiz and the members wrote. While plans would retain discretion regarding whether to have a marriage duration requirement at all, where they do so, such requirements should not be allowed to further penalize those same-sex survivors who already felt the sting of discrimination while their loved ones were still alive.”
The letter comes after the U.S. Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government to recognize a marriage between two individuals if the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed. The legislation also safeguards against the denial of any benefit, right, or status of an otherwise eligible person or entity – including tax-exempt status, tax treatment, grants, contracts, agreements, guarantees, educational funding, loans, scholarships, licenses, certifications, accreditations, claims, or defenses – provided that the benefit, right, or status does not arise from a marriage.
Dr. Ruiz’s letter was inspired by a Palm Springs constituent who has faced roadblocks from receiving his survivor benefits for years due to the IRS policy.
Senate passes Respect for Marriage Act with 61 votes
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, and LGBTQ groups celebrated Tuesday’s victory
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate voted 61-36 on Tuesday to officially pass the Respect for Marriage Act, a historic piece of legislation that is expected to soon become law after members in the U.S. House of Representatives sign off on a bipartisan amendment added by their Senate colleagues.
Designed as a vehicle to mitigate the fallout if the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority guts the constitutional protections for marriage equality, the bill was narrowly construed – in part to help guarantee that it withstands potential challenges from conservative legal actors.
Nevertheless, the Respect for Marriage Act is a landmark bill that has been backed by virtually every LGBTQ advocacy organization in the country. The legislation repeals the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act while enshrining into law substantive protections for same-sex couples.
Regardless of whether or how the high court might decide to revisit the marriage question, the Respect for Marriage Act will protect the federally ordained rights and benefits that have long been enjoyed by married gay and lesbian couples. And should the court pave the way for conservative states like Texas to renew their bans on same-sex marriage, the law will require them to officially recognize and honor those that are performed in jurisdictions where they remain legal.
Despite earning broad bipartisan support from lawmakers in the U.S. House, which passed its version of the bill this summer with an overwhelming majority – including votes from 47 Republican members – the Respect for Marriage Act faced an uncertain future in the Senate.
Conservative members in the chamber’s Republican caucus argued the bill would jeopardize religious freedoms, concerns that a group of five bipartisan senators sought to allay with an amendment that, among other provisions, clarifies the right of religious nonprofit organizations to refuse “any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”
Writing the amendment were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who was considered the driving force behind the bill’s passage through the Senate.
Thank you to the millions of same-sex and interracial couples who truly made this moment possible. By living as your true selves, you changed the hearts and minds of people around you. #RespectforMarriageAct https://t.co/o0EeY1vOq7— Sen. Tammy Baldwin (@SenatorBaldwin) November 29, 2022
Several Republican senators proposed additional amendments that – per a narrow procedural vote before and another shortly after the Thanksgiving break – were not put up for debate, thereby allowing the Respect for Marriage Act to clear the Senate with Tuesday’s vote.
Barely surpassing the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority with one extra “yea,” the Senate’s passage of the bill came despite the best efforts of conservative opponents who had run coordinated campaigns to erode support among GOP members.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris each issued statements shortly after Tuesday’s vote.
The President celebrated the “bipartisan achievement” by Congress, writing: “For millions of Americans, this legislation will safeguard the rights and protections to which LGBTQI+ and interracial couples and their children are entitled. It will also ensure that, for generations to follow, LGBTQI+ youth will grow up knowing that they, too, can lead full, happy lives and build families of their own.”
Harris wrote: “The Respect for Marriage Act ultimately stands for a simple principle: all Americans are equal and their government should treat them that way. Today, we are one step closer to achieving that ideal with pride.”
The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also praised the victory. “Today, a bipartisan group of 61 Senators made clear that this country will not roll back the clock on marriage equality,” said Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Chair of the Equality Caucus. “The Respect for Marriage Act is a crucial safeguard for LGBTQ+ people whose lives have been forever changed by Obergefell v. Hodges and Americans who are in interracial marriages thanks to Loving v. Virginia. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court declared marriage equality as the law of the land. Today, the Senate ensured those marriages will continue to be protected.”
LGBTQ groups celebrate the win
“Diverse faith traditions across the nation came together to demand respect for LGBTQ+ Americans – we staked our ground and refused to let this opportunity slip away, ” said Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, president and CEO of Interfaith Alliance, in a statement Tuesday.
“The LGBTQ+ community has faced ongoing deadly violence, legislative assaults and constant threats – including the deadly shooting in Colorado Springs barely one week ago,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement from the organization.
“Today, with the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate — a historic moment that marks the first federal legislative win for LGBTQ+ equality in over ten years, since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — the 568,000 same-sex married couples in this country can breathe a sigh of relief that their marriages will be protected from future attacks,” said Robinson, who yesterday began her tenure as the first Black queer woman to lead America’s largest LGBTQ organization.
GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis responded on Twitter and in a statement, writing: “As so many LGBTQ people face uncertainty and harm on the state level and extremists on the Supreme Court vow to reconsider the landmark Obergefell decision, this victory will provide comfort and security to millions of people and their families.”
“Today’s bipartisan vote in the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act is a proud moment for our country and an affirmation that, notwithstanding our differences, we share a profound commitment to the principle of equality and justice for all,” reads a statement from National Center for Lesbian Rights executive director Imani Rupert-Gordon.
LGBTQ Victory Institute President and CEO Annise Parker said, “This landmark piece of legislation protects the marriages of millions of LGBTQ Americans who have not slept well for months, wondering if our marriages would be dissolved by an activist court. While the Respect for Marriage Act is undoubtedly one of the most important pro-LGBTQ laws ever passed, it does not require states to grant marriages to LGBTQ couples. Until then, our fight is not over.”
I just called my daughter and her wife—who are expecting a baby next spring—to let them know that this Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act!— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) November 29, 2022
What a great day! pic.twitter.com/K3ZKM7r5Zo
U.S. Senate vote sets up passage of same-sex marriage act
Coordinated campaign by anti-LGBTQ groups fails to weaken support among GOP Senators as the bill sees clear path to near-certain passage
WASHINGTON – Passage of the Respect for Marriage Act became all but certain with the U.S. Senate’s procedural 61-35 vote on Monday night to forego additional debate in the chamber over the landmark legislation.
From here, the bill will return to the U.S. House of Representatives, which will consider — and is expected to approve — an amendment that was added by a bipartisan group of Senators led by Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). Then, it will reach President Joe Biden’s desk.
The president has repeatedly urged lawmakers to pass the bill so he can sign it into law. His administration, along with Congressional Democratic leadership, has made the Respect for Marriage Act a top legislative priority in the weeks before the new Congress is seated in January.
Today’s move by the Senate came on the heels of a coordinated campaign by conservative and anti-LGBTQ advocacy groups that wield considerable influence on Capitol Hill and marshaled their efforts to peel off support from Republican senators in the days leading up to Monday’s vote.
Republican Sens. Todd Young (Ind.) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), who were among the 12 Senate Republicans who supported advancing the legislation in a procedural vote taken before Thanksgiving, cast the final two votes on Monday allowing the measure to clear the 60-vote majority threshold to pass. Axios reports the two lawmakers faced particular pressure from conservative activists who sought to erode their support for the legislation.
The Respect for Marriage Act will repeal the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, adding legal protections for same-sex couples, many of whom would otherwise face devastating consequences if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses or substantially weakens the constitutional right to marriage equality.
Notwithstanding criticism from some progressives who feel the bill is too conservative in scope, the Respect for Marriage Act — along with the bipartisan amendment that was introduced in the Senate to enshrine protections for religious liberty — is supported by major LGBTQ organizations including the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality, GLSEN and PFLAG National, among others.
The bill’s aim, narrowly tailored, was to gird against the possibility that the high court would revisit its precedential decisions in United States v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).
Justice Clarence Thomas signaled his intention to do so with his concurring opinion earlier this year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — a case that revoked Americans’ constitutional right to abortion, overturning the Court’s historic rulings in Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).
Over the summer, the House passed the Respect for Marriage Act with an overwhelming majority, including votes from 47 Republican members. Dozens of religious denominations and groups that represent a broad spectrum of beliefs have endorsed the legislation, including the Mormon church, which took pains to reaffirm its position that same-sex relationships are sinful. Scholars representing a similarly diverse range of opinions on germane legal questions have also publicly backed the bill.
Still, the opposition remained steadfast.
“Religious Americans will be subject to potentially ruinous litigation, while the tax-exempt status of certain charitable organizations, educational institutions, and non-profits will be threatened,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in a statement opposing the legislation as written and proposing an additional amendment to the bill.
Organizations like the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, echoed Lee’s concerns about the Respect for Marriage Act vis-à-vis protections for religious liberty. Others, like the Liberty Counsel, designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group, peddled outrageous arguments including the lie that the Respect for Marriage Act would normalize or facilitate child sexual exploitation and abuse.
Even in the aftermath of the deadly shooting on Nov. 19 at a Colorado Springs, Colo., LGBTQ nightclub, these attacks from conservative groups continued apace and even increased as the Senate’s vote on Monday drew nearer.
Senate to revisit Respect for Marriage Act after Thanksgiving
President Joe Biden has urged Congress to expeditiously send the Respect for Marriage Act to his desk where it will become law
Just before midnight on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that consideration of the Respect for Marriage Act and an associated amendment will resume on Nov. 28, when the chamber reconvenes following the Thanksgiving break.
The historic legislation would preserve the more than 1,100 rights and benefits enjoyed by married same-sex couples regardless of whether the constitutional right to marriage equality survives the U.S. Supreme Court’s supermajority.
Support for the Respect for Marriage Act is bipartisan, with a dozen Republican Senators joining the entire Democratic caucus in a cloture vote yesterday to advance the bill to a full floor vote. Likewise, this summer, the House passed its version of the Respect for Marriage Act with unanimous support from Democratic members and 47 of their Republican colleagues.
President Joe Biden has urged Congress to expeditiously send the Respect for Marriage Act to his desk where it will become law.
Out Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was widely credited with building momentum for the legislation and forging consensus among members of the upper chamber. On Thursday, she spoke in personal terms about the bill in an address to her colleagues from the Senate floor.
Writing a concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas “said the rationale used to overturn Roe v. Wade should be used to overturn cases establishing rights to contraception, same-sex sexual relations, and same-sex marriage,” Baldwin said.
With the Respect for Marriage Act, she said, “Congress is acting with the full throated endorsement of the American people” because the Supreme Court “should not be in the position to undermine the stability of families with the stroke of a pen.”
Also addressing their colleagues today with messages of support for the bill were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who have all been vocal champions of the Respect for Marriage Act. These lawmakers worked to ensure concerns among some in the Republican caucus were assuaged with an amendment that preserves “religious liberties” and upholds “conscience protections.”
Biden & LGBTQ orgs celebrate 12 GOP votes for Marriage Act
RFMA will require states to recognize same-sex marriages performed where they are legal preserving more than 1,100 federal rights & benefits
WASHINGTON — The Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) is expected to be called for a full Senate vote as early as Thursday after clearing an initial cloture vote Wednesday with 50 Democratic and 12 Republican votes.
The bill is among the highest priority items for Congress to address before the new members are seated in January, and it marks a significant nexus of bipartisan agreement in a sharply divided legislature.
President Joe Biden, members of Congress, LGBTQ, civil rights, and legal advocacy organizations celebrated Wednesday’s vote to advance the legislation, which aims to maximize protections for same-sex couples while abiding the legal framework necessary to withstand potential legal challenges.
The RFMA will require states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in places where they are legal, preserving the more than 1,100 federal rights and benefits that are conferred by marriage.
Pledging to “promptly sign it into law,” Biden lauded the lawmakers who voted on Wednesday to support the bill. “The Respect for Marriage Act will ensure that LGBTQI+ couples and interracial couples are respected and protected equally under federal law,” the president said in a statement, “and provide more certainty to these families since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs.”
The high court’s ruling earlier this year in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is credited as the impetus behind the RFMA, particularly since Justice Clarence Thomas published a concurring opinion in that case vowing to revisit precedents governing marriage equality, among other matters.
California Sen. Alex Padilla (D), a cosponsor of the legislation, said: “Over the last two months, Senate Democrats, led by Senator Baldwin, have made bipartisan strides towards an agreement on this legislation, and I thank our colleagues who joined us in voting to protect this fundamental right.”
Kelley Robinson, incoming president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a press release, “Today’s strong bipartisan vote of 62-37 for cloture is an incredible victory that cannot be taken lightly—this vote was the bill’s biggest procedural roadblock, and now we steer our focus forward to the Senate’s final vote on this historic legislation.”
GLAAD President and CEO Kate Ellis said in a press release, “As extremist politicians push anti-LGBTQ playbooks on the state level and right-wing U.S. Supreme Court justices overturn other legal precedent, the bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act is an opportunity for our leaders to come together to send a message of equal treatment for everyone.”
“Equality California applauds the vote today to protect federal marriage equality across the country — one that cannot be easily overturned, regardless of political control,” the group’s Executive Director Tony Hoang said in a press release.
“Today 62 U.S. Senators voted for cloture on the Respect for Marriage Act, H.R. 8404, a filibuster-proof majority of the U.S. Senate agreeing to move the RMA forward to the Senate floor. The importance of this vote cannot be overstated – it is in some part proactive defensive legislation of the conservative majority of the Supreme Court’s clear threats against marriage for same-sex couples. We support the RMA—a bipartisan compromise – because it would protect millions of same-sex and interracial couples by ensuring their marriages be respected by federal and state governments. It would remove the discriminatory federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) off the books and replace disrespect with respect. The RMA and our families enjoy strong interfaith support, and it is worth noting that this bill would not change existing constitutional religious freedoms,” said Kierra Johnson, Executive Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund.
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