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Can Obama stop enforcing DOMA?

Experts divided as legal challenges loom

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President Obama (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The announcement from President Obama last week that he believes Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and that he will no longer defend the law in court is raising questions about whether he can further help the LGBT community by discontinuing enforcement of the law.

Dan Pinello, who’s gay and a government professor at the City University of New York, said he believes Obama has the authority to stop enforcing Section 3 of DOMA, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, now that he has deemed the statute unconstitutional.

“If an order came down from the White House to start treating married same-sex couples like married opposite-sex couples, I think that would be honored in terms of bureaucrats sitting up and doing what he says,” Pinello said. “A president can seek not to enforce a statute if he believes, legally and otherwise, it’s unconstitutional.”

In the past, presidents have declined to enforce laws that they believe are unconstitutional, but such situations are rare. President Woodrow Wilson ignored a statute that conditioned removal of postmasters on Senate approval. In 1926, the Supreme Court struck down the the law as unconstitutional without making any suggestion that Wilson overstepped his boundaries by not enforcing the statute.

In 1994, then-U.S. Assistant Attorney General Walter Dellinger wrote a memorandum to then-White House Counsel Abner Mikva asserting the president “may appropriately decline to enforce a statute that he views as unconstitutional.”

“As a general matter, if the President believes that the [Supreme] Court would sustain a particular provision as constitutional, the President should execute the statute, notwithstanding his own beliefs about the constitutional issue,” Dellinger writes. “If, however, the President, exercising his independent judgment, determines both that a provision would violate the Constitution and that it is probable that the Court would agree with him, the President has the authority to decline to execute the statute.”

But the memorandum examines whether a president can decline to enforce a statute in terms of whether the president has authority not to uphold a law recently approved by Congress. Dellinger states that if Congress is making progress toward passing a law that the president believes is unconstitutional, the White House should “promptly identify unconstitutional provisions and communicate its concerns to Congress.”

Such a situation would be different from what happened with DOMA, when the president determined the statute was unconstitutional nearly 15 years after a Republican Congress passed the bill and then-President Clinton signed it into law.

Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, said there is “significant dispute” over whether a president can unilaterally decline to enforce a statute.

“When a president simply refuses to enforce the law, it’s not always clear that there is anyone who would have the legal ability to sue to require him to do so,” Davidson said. “This ability to exercise unilateral authority is troubling to many scholars.”

Still, Davidson noted that precedent exists for presidents to decline to enforce particular laws. For 25 years following its enactment in 1968, he said, every president refused to enforce a law seeking to make the Miranda case inapplicable to federal prosecutions until the courts struck down the law. Similarly, Davidson said numerous presidents refused to abide by laws allowing for legislative vetoes of presidential action, such as the 1973 War Powers Resolution.

For its part, the Obama administration seems intent on maintaining enforcement of DOMA even though the president has deemed it unconstitutional. In the case of Golinski v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management — concerning U.S. Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski’s order to give court employee Karen Golinski benefits for her same-sex spouse — the Obama administration reiterates that it plans to continue enforcement of DOMA.

Kozinski ordered the U.S. government to answer questions about its continued refusal to offer Golinski federal benefits in light of its decision that DOMA is unconstitutional. On Monday, the Justice Department responded to Kozinski by saying that Obama is obligated to continue to enforce the law until either Congress repeals the statute or the courts strike it down.

“The President has determined that Executive agencies will continue to enforce Section 3 of DOMA, a course of action that accords appropriate deference to the Congress that enacted DOMA and allows the judiciary to be the final arbiter of DOMA’s constitutionality, as stated by the Attorney General,” the Justice Department states. “Moreover, as discussed, the Executive Branch has fulfilled its statutory obligation to notify Congress of the decision not to defend the statute and is committed to urging the courts to provide Congress with a full and fair opportunity to participate in the litigation of DOMA cases.”

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Obama plans to continue to enforce DOMA even though he’s decided no longer to enforce the statute in court.

“Consistent with past practice when a president determines and announces publicly that a law is unconstitutional, the president has directed the Department of Justice to cease defending the law in court,” Inouye said. “Until there is a final determination by the courts of the law’s validity or it is repealed by Congress, however, it remains the law of the land and the president will continue to enforce it as such.”

Many legal experts who are LGBT advocates are wary of the prospects of the president declining to enforce a statute — even one as harmful to married same-sex couples as DOMA — simply on the basis that Obama deems the law unconstitutional.

Nan Hunter, a lesbian law professor at Georgetown University, said no one believes more strongly than she that DOMA is unconstitutional, but cautioned against having the president stopping to enforce DOMA because “you have to look beyond your nose when you’re thinking about the ramifications of these sorts of decisions.”

“We do not want to live in a country in which the president can declare statutes to be unconstitutional because he doesn’t like them,” Hunter said. “That’s really not a place where any of us should want to live.”

To support the idea of a president ceasing to enforce a statute because the administration believes it’s unconstitutional, Hunter said she wants to see a guiding set of principles that would allow Obama to stop enforcing the statute while being consistent with the rule of law.

“I think everyone agrees that the criteria would have to be extremely limited so that such a situation would be extremely rare,” Hunter said. “Maybe someone could persuade that this fits into that very limited criteria, but I just haven’t heard any.”

Richard Socarides, president of the media watchdog group Equality Matters, said given the history of DOMA, the Obama administration would be “hard pressed” to decide unilaterally to stop enforcing DOMA.

“I just think it would be disruptive to the normal order of things,” Socarides said. “I’m sure that their lawyers made pretty convincing arguments that the more orderly way to do this was to await a definitive ruling from the court, which should be fairly quickly forthcoming based upon the government’s new position.”

Amid this debate, another LGBT advocate is drawing on the recent change in how the Obama administration is handling DOMA to press the administration to exercise prosecutorial discretion in cases involving bi-national same-sex couples.

Lavi Soloway, an attorney with Masliah & Soloway PC in New York, is representing three married, same-sex bi-national couples in New York, New Jersey and California who are facing deportation proceedings.

Alex Benshimol and Doug Gentry are scheduled for a July 13 hearing in San Francisco; Monica Alcota and Cristina Ojeda are scheduled for a March 22 hearing in New York; and Henry Velandia and Josh Vandiver scheduled for a May 6 hearing in Newark, N.J. Each of the American spouses in these cases has filed green card petitions on behalf of their foreign national partners, although DOMA prevents American nationals from sponsoring their partners.

“We intend to argue as a result of the shifting position of the executive branch with respect to DOMA that it’s appropriate for the immigration judges and also for the attorneys that represent the Department of Homeland Security to exercise what’s called prosecutorial discretion, which simply means exercising more discretion in how to proceed with these cases,” Soloway said.

In the three pending cases, Soloway is asking for judges to consider changes that were made to how the Obama administration is handling DOMA in court and to put off deportation proceedings until another time when different relief of legal options may be available. According to Soloway, if anyone in these cases is deported, they won’t be able to return to the United States for another 10 years, even if DOMA is repealed or overturned sometime before then.

“I’m calling on the Department of Homeland Security … to develop reasonable innovative policy to deal with the particular moment that we’re in,” Soloway said. “We’re just in a very short-term moment where things are in a state of flux. I’m not asking them to stop enforcing any law; this is part of enforcing the law.”

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Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

Equality Florida quickly condemned the measure

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The Florida State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

The Republican majority Florida House Education and Employment Committee on Thursday passed House Bill 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion bill, Senate Bill 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23 percent lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Los Angeles Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the press secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85 percent of transgender and non-binary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66 percent) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56 percent of transgender and non-binary youth said it made them feel angry, 47 percent felt nervous and/or scared, 45 percent felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, the Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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NCAA adopts new policy amid fervor over transgender athletes

Sport-by-sport approach requires certain levels of testosterone

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NCAA, gay news, Washington Blade
The NCAA has adopted new policy amid a fervor over transgender athletes.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has announced it has adopted new procedures on competition of transgender athletes, creating a “sport-by-sport” approach that also requires documentation of testosterone levels across the board amid a fervor of recently transitioned swimmers breaking records in women’s athletics.

The NCAA said in a statement its board of governors voted on Wednesday in support of the “sport-by-sport” approach, which the organization says “preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete.”

Although the policy defers to the national governing bodies for individual sports, it also requires transgender athletes to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections. The new policy, which consistent with rules for the U.S. Olympics, is effective 2022, although implementation is set to begin with the 2023-24 academic year, the organization says.

John DeGioia, chair of the NCAA board and Georgetown president, said in a statement the organization is “steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports.”

“It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy,” DeGioia said.

More specifically, starting with the 2022-23 academic year, transgender athletes will need to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections, the organizational. These athletes, according to the NCAA, are also required to document testosterone levels four weeks before championship selections.

In terms of jurisdiction, the national governing bodies for individual sports are charged determines policies, which would be under ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA, the organizational says. If there is no policy for a sport, that sport’s international federation policy or previously established International Olympics Committee policy criteria would be followed.

The NCAA adopts the policy amid controversy over University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas smashing records in women’s swimming. Thomas, which once competed as a man, smashed two national records and in the 1,650-yard freestyle placed 38 seconds ahead of closest competition. The new NCAA policy appears effectively to sideline Thomas, who has recently transitioned and unable to show consistent levels of testosterone.

Prior to the NCAA announcement, a coalition of 16 LGBTQ groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Athlete Ally, this week sent to a letter to the collegiate organization, urging the organizations strengthen non-discrimination protections as opposed to weakening them. The new policy, however, appears to head in other direction, which the LGBTQ groups rejected in the letter.

“While decentralizing the NCAA and giving power to conferences and schools has its benefits, we are concerned that leaving the enforcement of non-discrimination protections to schools will create a patchwork of protections rather than a comprehensive policy that would protect all athletes, no matter where they play,” the letter says. “This would be similar to the patchwork of non-discrimination policies in states, where marginalized groups in some states or cities are protected while others are left behind by localities that opt not to enact inclusive policies.”

JoDee Winterhof, vice president of policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement after the NCAA announcement the new policy was effectively passing the buck.

“If the NCAA is committed to ensuring an environment of competition that is safe, healthy, and free from discrimination, they cannot dodge the question of how to ensure transgender athletes can participate safely,” Winterhof said. “That is precisely why we and a number of organizations across a wide spectrum of advocates are urging them to readopt and strengthen non-discrimination language in their constitution to ensure the Association is committed to enforcing the level playing field and inclusive policies they say their values require. Any policy language is only as effective as it is enforceable, and with states passing anti-transgender sports bans, any inclusive policy is under immediate threat. We are still reviewing the NCAA’s new policy on transgender inclusion and how it will impact each and every transgender athlete.”

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Transgender rights group’s Los Angeles office receives bomb threat

[email protected] Coalition evacuated

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(Public domain photo)

A bomb threat was phoned in Wednesday afternoon to the Wilshire Boulevard Koreatown offices of the [email protected] Coalition, Bamby Salcedo, the president and CEO of the non-profit organization told the Los Angeles Blade.

According to Salcedo, an unidentified male caller told the staff person who answered at approximately 3 p.m., while delivering the threat said; “You’re all going to die.” The staff immediately evacuated everyone from their offices and then contacted the Los Angeles Police Department for assistance.

Officers, specialists and detectives from the Rampart Division of the LAPD responded and swept the building. A spokesperson for the LAPD confirmed that the incident is under active investigation but would make no further comment.

On a Facebook post immediately after the incident the non-profit wrote; “To ensure the safety of our clients and staff members, we ask that you please NOT come to our office.”

In a follow-up post, Salcedo notified the organization and its clientele that the LAPD had given the all-clear and that their offices would resume normal operations Thursday at 9:00 a.m. PT.

“Thank you for your messages and concern for our staff and community,” Salcedo said.

“No amount of threats can stop us from our commitment to the TGI community,” she added.

The [email protected] Coalition was founded in 2009 by a group of transgender and gender non-conforming and intersex (TGI) immigrant women in Los Angeles as a grassroots response to address the specific needs of TGI Latino immigrants who live in the U.S.

Since then, the agency has become a nationally recognized organization with representation in 10 different states across the U.S. and provides direct services to TGI individuals in Los Angeles.

In 2015, the [email protected] Coalition identified the urgent need to provide direct services to empower TGI people in response to structural, institutional, and interpersonal violence, and the Center for Violence Prevention and Transgender Wellness was born.

Since then, the organization has secured funding from the state and local government sources as well as several private foundations and organizations to provide direct services to all TGI individuals in Los Angeles County.

The [email protected] Coalition’s primary focus is to change the landscape of access to services for TGI people and provide access to comprehensive resource and services that will improve the quality of life of TGI people.

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