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U.S. Federal Courts

Supreme Court sides with ex-football coach who led prayers at school

“Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion is yet another dangerous example of this Court overturning decades of precedent”

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The Justices of the United States Supreme Court (Photo Credit: U.S. Supreme Court)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday in a 6-3 ruling sided with the former Bremerton, Washington assistant high school football coach removed for refusing to halt his practice of praying at mid-field after games on school property.

The ruling is a victory for Joseph Kennedy, who in court documents described himself as a practicing Christian whose religious beliefs require him to “give thanks through prayer, at the end of each game.”

When he began his job as an assistant coach at Bremerton High School, a public school in Washington state, he initially prayed alone after games, but over time some of his players – and eventually a majority of the team – joined him. One parent complained that his son, a player on the team, felt like he had to join in the prayer, even though he was an atheist, or face a loss of playing time.”

Bremerton School District officials had attempted to accommodate Kennedy after warning him to stop the prayers as District officials clarified that they did not want to violate the Constitution’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another.

The district offered Kennedy the ability to pray after the crowd had left the stadium or in a private space both options that he refused. Kennedy had retained counsel and the legal team indicated that they would pursue father legal action.

The case eventually ended up at the high court which agreed to hear it at the beginning of this last term in January.

Joseph Kennedy being interviewed by NBC News affiliate KING-TV 5, Seattle, Washington

Reaction from groups advocating for greater safeguards in separation of ‘church and state’ decried the majority decision written by Trump nominated Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Equality California noted that the Court’s ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District effectively was overturning decades of established legal precedent.

“Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion is yet another dangerous example of this Court overturning decades of precedent to impose the personal religious beliefs of some on the rest of the country — whether that be a public school football coach’s religious beliefs on his team, a legislator’s views on people in their state seeking abortion care or the views of a religious private school on taxpayers now forced to fund them.

“Parents have always been free to send their children to schools that align with their religious beliefs, and coaches who want to lead their players in prayer have always been free to work at private schools where that is encouraged. But students — of any religion or none at all — attending public schools funded by taxpayers should not be coerced into school-sponsored prayer,” Equality California’s Executive Director, Tony Hoang, said in an emailed statement.

“Every public school student deserves to feel safe, supported and welcome at school. Today’s decision undermines that fundamental idea at a particularly dangerous time for our LGBTQ+ students.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Conservative group sues Iowa school district over trans-inclusive policy

The policy covers years 7-12, allowing students to freely communicate with faculty members and school staff about their gender identity

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Linn-Mar High School students attend assembly Spring of 2022 (Photo Credit: Linn-Mar Community School District/Facebook)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Ia. – The Parents Defending Education (PDE), a conservative right-wing nationwide nonprofit membership association, sued an Iowa school district in federal court last week over the district’s gender support plan approved last Spring by the school board.

The Linn-Mar Community School District (LMCSD) policy (504.13-R) covers year 7 through year 12, allowing students to freely communicate with faculty members and school staff about their gender identity. The policy protects those conversations from their parents if they wish.

The policy also states students and staff should identify a student by their chosen name and pronouns, and allow students to participate in activities as their assigned gender.

PDE’s suit alleges  LMCSD’s “parental exclusion policy”  violates violates parent’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. “Nearly a century of Supreme Court precedent makes two things clear: parents have a constitutional liberty interest in the care, custody, and control of their children, and students do not abandon their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. The Linn-Mar Community School District is flouting both of these constitutional guarantees through its recent adoption of Policy 504.13-R”

The suit also claims, “The Policy authorizes children to make fundamentally important decisions concerning their gender identity without any parental involvement and to then hide these decisions from their parents. […] These actions can happen without any knowledge or input from the child’s parents. Instead, these decisions will be made solely by the child and “school administrators and/or school counselors.” And it is not just secrecy through silence. The District will withhold this information even if it is specifically requested by parents.”

“Linn-Mar’s gender policy demonstrates a deep contempt for the constitutional rights of its students and families,” said Parents Defending Education President Nicole Neily in a statement. “It has been clearly established by the federal court system over the past 100 years that parents have a right to direct the upbringing of their children, and we are proud to fight on behalf of our members to put a stop to these unconstitutional policies.”

LGBTQ + advocates maintain the LMCSD policy is necessary means ensuring that LGBTQ students can seek help about questions they might have, and also protect them from bullying and harassment.

The lawsuit alleges though that the policy is too broad when it comes to bullying and harassment, and that it violates 1st Amendment protections for those persons who choose to not identify a student by their chosen gender or name.

Since the LMCSD Board passed the policy the community of around 6,000 people has been divided. One parent writing in a Facebook post on the LMCSD page: [Tina Gaby]

“I think every parent at Linn Mar that is uncomfortable with this decision can start with Asking for a separate partition for their child to be able to change in the locker room. Biological males and females have just as much right as transgender kids to feel comfortable”

Another parent, Joseph Stutler, answered: “Tina Gaby Or they could just learn to be decent humans and mind their own business in the facilities.”

The Linn-Mar Community School District did not respond to media requests for comment.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Long Island man sentenced for sending death threats to LGBTQ+ groups

U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert sentenced him after six victims addressed the Court & described the fear his threats instilled in them 

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U.S. Justice Department seal on podium (Photo Credit: U.S. Justice Department)

LONG ISLAND, Ny. – In federal court in Central Islip, New York, on Wednesday Robert Fehring, 74, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for mailing more than 60 letters to LGBTQ+ affiliated individuals, organizations and businesses, many of which contained threats to kill, shoot, and bomb the recipients.

United States District Judge Joanna Seybert sentenced Fehring after six victims addressed the Court and described the fear that Fehring’s threats instilled in them. 

From at least 2013 to 2021, Fehring sent letters threatening violence to individuals associated with the LGBTQ+ community.  In those letters, Fehring threatened to use firearms and explosives against the recipients.

One such letter threatened that there would “be radio-cont[r]olled devices placed at numerous strategic places” at the 2021 New York City Pride March with “firepower” that would “make the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting look like a cakewalk,” referencing the 2016 attack in which 49 persons were killed and dozens wounded at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Fehring also sent a threatening letter to the owners of the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan and an African American-owned barbershop affiliated with the LGTBQ+ community in Brooklyn.  The letter to the Stonewall Inn stated, “we will blow up/burn your establishments down.  We will shoot those who frequent your dens of [expletives].”  The letter to the barbershop purported to be from “People Who Hate Gays … and In Particular [n-word] Gays and stated, “your shop is the perfect place for a bombing … or beating the scum that frequents your den of [expletive] into a bloody pool of steaming flesh.” 

Fehring mailed dozens of additional threatening letters to individuals, businesses, and elected officials associated with the LGBTQ+ community.

On November 18, 2021, the FBI’s Civil Rights Squad and the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force executed a search warrant at Fehring’s home in Bayport and recovered copies of letters containing threats, supplies used to mail threatening letters, 20 LGBTQ+ related Pride flags that appeared identical to flags stolen from flagpoles in Sayville in July 2021, and reconnaissance-style photographs from a June 2021 Pride event in East Meadow. 

Law enforcement officers also recovered electronic devices owned by Fehring that contained internet searches for Fehring’s victims and related LGBTQ+ affiliated individual, events, and businesses. 

Law enforcement officers also recovered from Fehring’s residence two loaded shotguns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two stun guns, and a stamped envelope addressed to an LGBTQ+ affiliated attorney containing the remains of a dead bird.

During a press conference, Breon Peace, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and Michael J. Driscoll, Assistant Director-in-Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation, New York Field Office (FBI),and Rodney K. Harrison, Commissioner, Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD) announced the sentence.

“There is no room for hate in the Eastern District of New York. Today’s sentence makes clear that threats to kill and commit acts of violence against the LGBTQ+ community will be met with significant punishment,” stated United States Attorney Peace.  “We will use the full power of our office to bring to justice those who threaten to kill or hurt people because of who they are, and to ensure everyone in our district is able to live authentically, safely and in peace.”

“Robert Fehring made heinous threats against members of the LGBTQ+ community in locations throughout New York, including Suffolk County, for nearly eight years,” Suffolk County Police Commissioner Harrison said. “Thanks to the tireless efforts of our department’s Hate Crimes Unit detectives and the diligent work of our law enforcement partners, Fehring is being held accountable for his crimes. This sentence reiterates that hate and intolerance have no place in Suffolk County.” 

 

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Human Rights Campaign: Lawsuit filed against Tennessee ‘bathroom bill’

“It is unfortunate that Tennessee lawmakers are using their authority to attack some of our nation’s most vulnerable—our children”

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Estes Kefauver Federal Building and Courthouse Annex Nashville, TN (Photo Credit: GSA/U.S. Courts)

NASHVILLE – A lawsuit filed Thursday by the Human Rights Campaign asserts that a Tennessee law preventing transgender students from accessing school facilities consistent with their gender identity violates their constitutional rights.

The Human Rights Campaign was joined by the law firm of Linklaters, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Williamson County Board of Education and the Tennessee Department of Education in the District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of a transgender girl, age 8, as school starts this week.

The lawsuit states that the law, signed by Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee (R) in May 2021, singles out transgender students for “disfavored treatment” and violates rights guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution and Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs.

The U.S. Department of Education said in guidance issued last year that the policy protects students from discrimination based on their gender identity.

“It is unfortunate that Tennessee lawmakers are using their authority to attack some of our nation’s most vulnerable—our children. These power-seeking politicians will not stop pandering to their base, even if it means controlling which restrooms an eight year old uses at school,” said Cynthia Cheng-Wun Weaver, Human Rights Campaign Litigation Director. “We should all be inspired by D.H.’s strength and determination to fight for the right to be who she is. She, and all transgender and nonbinary children in Tennessee, deserve to be affirmed and encouraged to be who they are, in all aspects of their lives.”

According to a release from HRC:

The case is brought on behalf of D.H., an 8-year-old transgender girl entering the third grade, and her mother, A.H., and father, E.H. With the support of her family, D.H. began her social transition at age 6, meaning that D.H. began living in accordance with her gender identity as a girl in all aspects of her life.

During that time, D.H. was often misgendered by teachers and bullied and harassed by students when she attempted to share her gender identity with them. A.H. and E.H. approached the elementary school administration, expressing the desire for D.H. to be treated by her peers and teachers as a girl.

The school initially agreed to use she/her pronouns to address D.H and instructed her to tell each of her 19 classmates individually of her transgender identity. After two failed attempts at this approach, including classmates becoming argumentative and hostile, D.H. stopped trying and began hiding her face.

“Years ago, I chose to move to Tennessee because it was known as ‘the volunteer state,’ whose citizens cared for their neighbors without hesitation—not a state that legalizes discrimination against helpless children,” said A.H., Mother of D.H. and Plaintiff. “Now, I am embarrassed to say that I live in a state that refuses to see anything beyond my child’s gender. She is a bright, friendly, funny, creative, enthusiastic, little girl and is always the first kid to cheer you on if you are struggling. By filing this lawsuit, I am showing my volunteer spirit—because I’m fighting to not only affirm my child’s existence, but also the thousands of transgender and nonbinary children who live in Tennessee.”

While D.H. was experiencing that trauma at school, her parents made multiple attempts to speak with school administrators about her transition and how the school could support D.H. By that time, however, the administration could not provide D.H. with the support she needed to complete her social transition as the School Facilities Law had come into full effect, preventing D.H. from using the restrooms corresponding with her gender identity.

Instead, D.H. was forced to use one of four single-occupancy restroom facilities at the school—each of which presented its own issues. These issues included D.H. having to clean restrooms covered in human waste before using them and outing herself as transgender to other students or janitorial staff. Limiting D.H. to the use of these “alternative” restrooms reinforces the differential treatment and trauma associated with living under the School Facilities Law.

The plaintiffs allege that the Tennessee law violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; Title IX expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs.

The Department of Justice also issued a memorandum last year affirming that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in federally-funded education institutions, including public schools.

The lawsuit also alleges that the law violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Last year, 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.

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