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Westboro says funeral protests are protected & more

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Westboro says funeral protests are protected

BALTIMORE — The fundamentalist church that picketed the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq with anti-gay signs argued last week that its actions were protected by the First Amendment.

According to the Associated Press, an attorney for the Westboro Baptist Church submitted a 75-page brief July 7 to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments in a lawsuit against the church this fall. Albert Snyder of York, Pa., says that the church’s free-speech rights did not trump his right to peacefully assemble for his son’s funeral.

The Topeka, Kan.-based church believes that U.S. military deaths are God’s punishment for tolerance of homosexuality. Founder Fred Phelps and six of his relatives picketed the 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Westminster, Md., carrying signs that read “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “You’re Going to Hell,” among other statements.

Attorney Margie Jean Phelps, the church founder’s daughter, will argue the case before the Supreme Court. She argued in her brief that Westboro did not disrupt the funeral in part because its protest was 1,000 feet away from the church, on a public street. Snyder did not see the protesters and could not read their signs during the funeral, but was aware of their presence.

“He was able to go to and leave the funeral without any slightest disruption or interference,” Phelps wrote. “WBC was out of sight and sound; maintained a very reasonable distance; acted peacefully and engaged in no disruption or intrusion. … This is the wrong case to decide whether there is a privacy interest in a funeral.”

Phelps also argued that the church was engaging in public speech on a matter of public concern; that the funeral was a public event; and that the church did not assert provable facts but instead expressed “hyperbolic, figurative, loose, hysterical opinion.”

In 2007, a jury found against Westboro and awarded Snyder nearly $11 million as compensation for emotional distress and invasion of privacy. That award was later reduced and then overturned by a court of appeals.

The Associated Press reported that the Supreme Court agreed in March to take the case, and the justices will hear arguments during the court’s next term, which begins in October. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia submitted a brief in support of Snyder. The states argued they have a compelling interest in protecting the sanctity of funerals.

Mormon church restates opposition to gay marriage

SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon church leaders have restated the faith’s unequivocal position against same-sex marriage in a letter to members in Argentina, where the government is debating whether to legalize gay unions.

“The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is absolutely clear: Marriage is between one man and woman and is ordained of God,” said the July 6 letter from church President Thomas Monson, according to the Associated Press.

A copy of the letter and its English translation began circulating over the weekend on websites for former Mormons.

Church spokeswoman Kim Farah on Monday confirmed the letter was sent to local leaders in Argentina, where the faith has more than 371,000 members, according to a 2010 church almanac. The country’s population is more than 41 million.

Argentina’s Senate is debating whether to approve either gay marriage or a civil union law. The country’s other legislative body — the House of Deputies — approved same-sex marriage legislation in May. President Cristina Fernandez has promised not to veto the measure if it reaches her desk.

150 residents moved out of hot Md. nursing home

BALTIMORE — Maryland health officials said last week they were moving all 150 residents, including some living with HIV/AIDS, out of a Baltimore nursing home after operators didn’t report a broken air conditioner for three days.

Nancy Grimm, director of the state Office of Health Care Quality, says officials believe the air conditioner stopped working sometime July 3. But the state wasn’t aware until a resident called 911 early July 6, the Associated Press reported.

When health officials arrived at the Ravenwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, it was 91 degrees inside.

Grimm said no residents suffered health complications related to the heat. Most of the residents are under 65 and suffer from a variety of conditions, including paralysis and HIV/AIDS.

Grimm said the state is investigating the nursing home’s failure to report the problem.

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Office of National AIDS Policy Director Phillips: Congress must increase funding

‘Without congressional funding we can’t get there’

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The White House in 2011 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Harold Phillips, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), said Monday that Congress must increase funding to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including for programs designed around the lives and needs of Americans who are living with the disease.

“We have the support of the Biden-Harris administration, and we have the support at HHS, but without congressional funding we can’t get there,” said Phillips, who delivered his remarks during the AIDS United annual AIDSWatch conference in Washington, D.C.

Phillips echoed remarks by other speakers in calling for Congress to increase appropriations funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, but he also emphasized the importance of “making space for people living with HIV in other aspects of the budget.”

Consistent with the Biden-Harris administration’s focus on employing a whole-of-government approach, Phillips said stakeholders must understand that while “HIV is, yes, a public health threat,” the disease is also “the result of systemic and structural racism,” an intersectional problem requiring more than narrowly focused biomedical or public health responses.

Therefore, he said, these conversations about matters like HIV’s impact on Black lives, or considerations for aging folks who are living with the disease, must be held at places like the White House Gender Policy Council, the National Economic Council, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

“When we talk about ending HIV as a public health threat,” Phillips said, “we also want to end HIV such that it’s not the defining characteristic for people living with HIV and that they can have access to housing, access to employment, good mental health and substance abuse treatment.”

Former ONAP Director Sandra Thurman with ONAP Director Harold Phillips (Screen shot/YouTube)

Under Phillips’s leadership, data on these considerations for those living with HIV/AIDS will be measured for the first time with ONAP’s rollout of new quality of life indicators in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Federal Implementation Plan.

“There’s an indicator in there that’s self-reported quality of life,” Phillips said, which asks respondents to consider, “how do I feel?” This is important, he added, because people living with HIV may have positive lab results but still feel poorly.

Phillips advised those AIDSWatch participants who are slated to meet with members of Congress and their staffs after hosting a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday morning to “build a common bond” with lawmakers by emphasizing the human impact of the appropriations funding for which they are advocating.

An AIDS United spokesperson told the Washington Blade by email Monday that 187 congressional meetings have been scheduled for Tuesday.

Phillips also noted that while “conversations need to happen in Washington, there’s also conversations that need to happen on the state and local level,” where “we’re finding a level of hate and stigma and discrimination that’s on course to try to either stop our progress or take us backwards.”

Speaking before Phillips, Equality Federation Public Health Policy Strategist Mike Webb stressed the importance of policies under consideration by state and local lawmakers. “Our access to PrEP shouldn’t be based on a patchwork of laws by the states,” they said, and HIV-related legislative proposals in many cases would “add criminalizing aspects.”

Laws already on the books that “criminalize the transmission of, or perceived exposure to, HIV and other infectious diseases,” the Movement Advancement Project writes, “create a strong disincentive for being tested for HIV, and result in adverse public health outcomes.”

Phillips and the Biden administration have made modernizing or repealing those laws a top priority.

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Biden budget earmarks funds for HIV along with new programs for PrEP, hepatitis C

Budget seen as preview of Biden’s reelection campaign

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The White House in 2011 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The $6.8 trillion budget unveiled by President Joe Biden on Thursday includes increased investment in existing programs to fight HIV/AIDS, along with new initiatives to expand access to HIV prevention medications and eliminate hepatitis C.

U.S. House Republicans are expected to kill the proposal, which is nevertheless seen as a possible blueprint for the major themes to come in Biden’s expected reelection campaign.

Major focus areas of the plan include deficit reduction, increased taxes for the wealthy, and increased spending on the military and other endeavors to compete with China.

The HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute praised the budget in a press release Thursday, writing that it will “significantly increase the federal resources necessary to end both HIV and hepatitis C.”

The group’s president, Carl Schmid, said Biden “recognizes the historic role the federal government must play, and the investments needed to end infectious diseases.”

First, the plan would bolster funding for the Trump-era Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States initiative by $313 million, bringing the total to $850 million. Second, it would debut a “ten-year $9.7 billion nationwide PrEP delivery program” and a “historic initiative to eliminate hepatitis C.”

PrEP, or preexposure prophylaxis, is a medication regimen that reduces the risk of contracting HIV. According to the HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute, only 30 percent of patients who could benefit from the drug are taking it.

The new hepatitis C program “seeks to provide outreach, testing, and curative medications to the estimated 2.4 million people living with hepatitis C, many of whom are unaware of their infection.”

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Gov. Newsom: Calif. will not do business with Walgreens after decision to not distribute abortion pill

20 Republican state attorneys general threatened to sue Walgreens for offering mifepristone

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Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) announced on Monday that California will not do business with Walgreens following the company’s announcement of its decision on Friday to not distribute the abortion pill mifepristone in 20 states.

The move comes amid pressure from conservative lawmakers and threats of legal action against Walgreens and CVS from 20 Republican state attorneys general, who claimed in a Feb. 1 press release that selling mifepristone is “unsafe and illegal.”

Mifepristone is still legal in several of the states where Walgreens has decided to stop providing it in response to the specter of lawsuits from state attorneys general: Alaska, Iowa, Kansas and Montana.

Newsom’s office told NPR that California will review “all relationships between Walgreens and the state,” but declined to provide more specifics.

“California won’t be doing business with @walgreens – or any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women’s lives at risk,” Newsom wrote in the tweet. “We’re done.”

“Elected officials targeting pharmacies and their ability to provide women with access to safe, effective, and FDA-approved medication is dangerous and just unacceptable,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing on March 3.

“The administration will continue to stand by the FDA’s expert judgment in approving and regulating medications. And in the face of barriers to access and concerns about safety of patients, healthcare providers, and pharmacists, we will continue to support access to this critical medication within the limits of the law,” Jean-Pierre said.

Meanwhile, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas is expected to soon rule on a case challenging the safety of mifepristone that advocates for reproductive justice fear could lead to a nationwide injunction prohibiting the sale and distribution of the abortion drug.

Medical experts have slammed the Texas plaintiffs’ lawsuit, arguing that mifepristone’s safety and efficacy have been well demonstrated for years. Kacsmaryk, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, is nevertheless expected to rule in their favor.

“The plaintiffs who have no legitimate standing have hand-picked him to hear this case that has no merit because they know what they’re getting with Judge Kacsmaryk,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said last month.

Jean-Pierre addressed the case during a press briefing on March 1: “The decision would be unprecedented, as you know, and devastating to women’s health.  And we may find ourselves in uncharted territory,” she said.

“And so, we’re closely — closely working with the Justice Department and DHS — HHS on this, on how to be prepared for any range of outcome or potential outcomes,” Jean-Pierre added.

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