The relationship between the LGBT community and President Obama has arguably never been stronger in the wake of the administration’s decision to participate in the lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 8 — but advocates want him to continue that momentum on other LGBT issues.
On one hand, LGBT rights supporters are pleased with the Justice Department’s friend-of-the-court brief because it marked the first time the administration argued that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. On the other hand, some advocates continue to clamor for advances in other areas — in particular by signing an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination for federal contractors.
Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, was among those who said the brief signaled that Obama continues to lead on issues facing the LGBT community.
“In ways big and small, he continues to distinguish himself as a leader on issues important to our community.” Sainz said. “So, the truth is, I think the president has by filing this brief cemented his legacy as a ‘fierce advocate’ for LGBT people.”
Following calls from LGBT advocates, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli filed the Justice Department’s brief last week before the Supreme Court. It applies the administration’s reasoning for why the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional — namely that laws related to sexual orientation should be subject to heightened scrutiny – to California’s Prop 8.
While the brief focuses on the constitutionality of Prop 8, which is the question before the Supreme Court, the filing also has language suggesting that same-sex marriage bans in other states are unconstitutional. The brief observes that eight states including California have bans on same-sex marriage while offering domestic partnerships to same-sex couples with the same benefits of marriage.
During a news conference at the White House on Friday, Obama himself said the reasoning presented against Prop 8 in the brief may apply to other cases.
“Now, the court may decide that if it doesn’t apply in this case, it probably can’t apply in any case,” Obama said. “There’s no good reason for it. If I were on the court, that would probably be the view that I’d put forward. But I’m not a judge, I’m the president. So the basic principle, though, is let’s treat everybody fairly and let’s treat everybody equally.”
Richard Socarides, a gay New York advocate who was pushing for Obama to speak out against the constitutionality of Prop 8, said the brief reiterates Obama’s views that laws against gay people should be subject to heightened scrutiny, but extends the president’s views further.
“It’s having the president of the United States say for the first time in a legal brief to the Supreme Court that gays and lesbians have historically been discriminated against, and that they’re entitled to heightened constitutional scrutiny, and that in this particular case, they’ve been discriminated against,” Socarides said. “I do think it was a big victory for the community, so I think it was an important milestone and definitely a step forward.”
In addition to filing the brief, the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to grant the solicitor general speaking time during the oral arguments in the Prop 8 case – a move that wasn’t publicly called for by LGBT advocates. The Supreme Court has yet to respond to the request.
And the moves in the Prop 8 case are coupled with the Obama administration’s active involvement in the litigation against the Defense of Marriage Act. In recent weeks, the administration has taken action elsewhere.
The Pentagon has started the process for implementing certain partner benefits for gay troops. That action comes in the wake of the inaugural address in which Obama issued a national call to advance the rights of “our gay brothers and sisters.”
John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, said Obama deserves credit for filing the Prop 8 brief, but also criticized the White House for refusing to talk to about it before submitting it to the Supreme Court and filing it on the last possible day.
“Obviously, there was a hiccup in actually getting this brief,” Aravosis said. “It sort of appeared at the last minute. … Had they decided earlier to file a brief, they could have just gotten credit for it, but instead it became a controversy. They got credit at the end, but it still felt like it was begrudging support.”
In the wake of the filing, advocates say they continue to want more from Obama on LGBT issues and at the top of the list is signing an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.
HRC’s Sainz was among those saying the directive is next on the plate for LGBT advocates in terms of administrative action.
“The non-discrimination executive order definitely remains our top priority, so that is where we turn our attention to next,” Sainz said.
Socarides said he wants Obama to sign the executive order, but also wants Obama to push ahead with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act amid promises from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to advance the legislation this year.
“It’s past time for the president to sign the executive order extending non-discrimination provisions to federal contractors,” Socarides said. “I’m hoping that he will do that soon, and at the same time, continue to fight and actually fight more aggressively for ENDA, for federal legislation, and I think that we can flip the House Democratic in the next mid-term election, we could have a pretty good chance of getting ENDA in two years.”
Other requests include the appointment of an openly LGBT Cabinet member and holding in abeyance the marriage-based green cards for married bi-national couples until the Supreme Court makes a final determination on DOMA.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama remains concerned about LGBT issues and will continue to work on them.
“President Obama is proud of the strong record he’s established on LGBT rights, and he looks forward to building on that progress in the months and years to come,” Inouye said.
Aravosis said predicting whether the administration will follow the brief with other actions that benefit the LGBT community is difficult — but that doesn’t mean advocates should stop pushing for them to happen.
“People who aren’t necessarily working on your issues don’t understand that one fix does not address every problem, and they get sort of annoyed sometimes when we keep asking for more,” Aravosis said. “We keep asking for more because we don’t have our equal rights yet. Once we get full and equal rights, then you can complain that we’re asking for too much, but we have less than everybody else right now.”