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Couples make history testifying against DOMA

Senate hears from spouses, activists about burdens of marriage ban; hearing first-ever in Congress on repeal of anti-gay law

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‘The time has come for the federal government to recognize that these married couples deserve the same legal protections afforded to opposite-sex married couples,’ said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Senate hearing Wednesday on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act featured poignant testimony from couples in same-sex marriages, who described how the anti-gay law has harmed them.

The hearing, which took place before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was the first ever before Congress on repeal of DOMA, the 1996 law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage. The hearing was intended to highlight the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation pending before Congress that would repeal DOMA.

Ron Wallen, an Indio. Calif., resident, who married his partner of 55 years in 2008, said he’s unable to make payments on his home following the death of his spouse, Tom Carrollo, four months ago. Had he been in an opposite-sex marriage, he would have been able to receive Social Security benefits to help pay for the cost of living.

“I am selling the last house I shared with my husband in a panic sale because I can’t afford the mortgage and expenses,” Wallen said. “I am spending my days and nights sorting through our possessions, packing boxes to move — even while I am still answering the condolence cards that come in the mail.”

Susan Murray, who lives in Ferrisburgh, Vt., with her spouse, Karen Murray, said she also faces financial inequities as a result of DOMA. Murray was the co-counsel in the lawsuit Baker v. Vermont, which established civil unions in Vermont in 2000.

One issue Murray cited was the additional tax that she and her spouse have to pay on employer-based insurance coverage provided to them through her spouse’s employer, Fletcher Allen Health Care.

“Because of DOMA, I am not considered Karen’s spouse, so the value of that health insurance coverage for me ($6,200 a year) is considered taxable income to Karen,” Murray said. “She therefore has to pay income tax, as well as FICA and Medicare tax, on that ‘phantom’ income — unlike her other married colleagues.”

Andrew Sorbo, a Cheshire, Conn., resident and retired history teacher, also testified about financial troubles he faced after his spouse, Colin Atterbury, died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. Among other things, Sorbo said he was denied the right to be included in his deceased spouse’s medical insurance plan through the federal government.

Andrew Sorbo (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“When I retired as a teacher in 2005, I had no alternative except to pay for my insurance coverage in full through my former school district, at a much higher cost than if I could have been covered under Colin’s plan as a spouse,” Sorbo said. “Last year, my insurance payments consumed almost a third of my $24,000 teacher pension.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the committee, spoke out in his opening statement for passage of the Respect for Marriage Act and said it would allow same-sex couples married under state law to receive federal benefits.

“Nothing in this bill would obligate any person, religious organization, state, or locality to perform a marriage between two persons of the same sex,” Leahy said. “What would change, and what must change, is the federal government’s treatment of state-sanctioned marriage. The time has come for the federal government to recognize that these married couples deserve the same legal protections afforded to opposite-sex married couples.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), sponsor of the DOMA repeal legislation, maintained that the anti-gay law should be off the books because marriage, as well as other issues related to family such as adoption and divorce, have been under the jurisdiction of state law.

“Family law has traditionally been the preserve of state law,” Feinstein said. “The single exception is DOMA. Chief Justice [William] Rehnquist once wrote that family law ‘has been left to the states from time immemorial, and not without good reason.’ He was right.”

Passed by Congress in 1996, DOMA was signed into law by President Clinton. Both Clinton and the bill’s sponsor at the time, former Republican Rep. Bob Barr, have come out for repeal of the law.

DOMA has two components: one that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage and another that allows states not to recognize such marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

As a result of the component of DOMA known as Section 3, married same-sex couples cannot participate in federal programs. For instance, they can’t file joint federal income taxes, receive spousal benefits under Social Security or obtain exemptions of the estate tax law upon the death of one of the spouses.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who represents a state where same-sex marriage will be available next week, emphasized the fiscal reasons for repealing DOMA and predicted that lifting the anti-gay law from the books “would, on balance, likely increase federal revenue.”

According to Schumer, in 2004 the Congressional Budget Office found that DOMA repeal at the time would have increased revenues by less than $400 million a year from 2005 through 2010, and by $500 million to $700 million annually from 2011 through 2014.

“I think that there are three fundamental principles at stake here,” Schumer continued. “Repealing DOMA makes good fiscal sense, it respects states’ rights to make their own determinations about marriage, and it treats all married people the same. It’s fair, it makes sense, and it’s time.”

The sole committee member to speak out against DOMA repeal during the hearing was Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking Republican on the committee.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key

Grassley, who represents a state where same-sex marriage is legal, said he opposes the Respect for Marriage Act because he believes marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman.

“The bill before us today is entitled the Respect for Marriage Act,” Grassley said. “George Orwell would have marveled at the time. A bill to restore marriage would restore marriage as it has been known — one man, one woman. That is the view of marriage that I support. This bill would undermine, not restore marriage by repealing it.”

Grassley and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) were the only Republican senators who made an appearance at the DOMA hearing. Grassley was the only GOP committee member who asked questions of the witnesses.

Witnesses who married someone of the same-sex testified about how DOMA negatively affected their relationship or their ability to receive benefits after the death of their spouse.

The hearing took place on the heels of an announcement from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday that President Obama supports the Respect for Marriage Act.

“I can tell you that the president has long called for legislative repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which continues to have a real impact on the lives of real people families, friends and neighbors,” Carney said. “He is proud to support the Respect for Marriage Act introduced by Sen. Feinstein and Congressman Nadler, which would take DOMA off the books once and for all. This legislation would uphold the principle that the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian the same rights and legal protections as straight couples.”

President Obama has previously said he supports legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, but has yet to come out in support of the Respect for Marriage Act, which is the specific measure pending before Congress that would repeal the law.

During the hearing, Grassley erroneously said that Obama until Tuesday “was a supporter of DOMA.” During the 2008 campaign, Obama made full repeal of DOMA one of his campaign promises.

 

Experts testify before Senate

 

House members also testified on both sides of the Respect for Marriage Act. Two Democratic members — Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the sponsor of the bill, and John Lewis (D-Ga.) — favored DOMA repeal, while Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a lawmaker known for his anti-gay views, opposed it.

Nadler maintained that not just same-sex couples — but children being raised by LGBT parents — are among those who are affected by the discrimination of DOMA.

“No legitimate federal interest in the welfare of children is ever advanced by withholding protection for some children based on the desire to express mild disapproval of their parents,” Nadler said. “It defies common sense to claim that it’s necessary to harm or exclude the children of married same-sex couples in order to somehow protect the children of opposite-sex couples.”

Similarly, Lewis expressed disbelief that Congress has yet to act on something as fundamental as allowing Americans the right to marry the person they choose.

“I find it hard to believe that in the year 2011, there’s still the need to hold hearings and debate on whether or not to allow people to marry the one they love,” Lewis said.

Lewis said DOMA imposes similar discrimination that blacks endured in the South under segregation and recalled the discrimination he faced as a child growing up in Southern Alabama.

“As a child, I tasted the bitter fruits and racism and discrimination, and I did not like it,” Lewis said. “And in 1996, when Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, the taste of that old bitter fruit filled my mouth once again.”

King, countering those arguments, based his testimony against repeal of DOMA on the basis that marriage is intended for procreation and thus should be reserved for one man and one woman because the union can produce children.

“The other side argues that you can’t choose who you love and that the union between two men and two women is equal to that of one man and one woman,” King said. “These are the same arguments that are used to promote marriage between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons or even polygamous relationships.”

Expert witnesses on both sides of DOMA testified before lawmakers. LGBT advocates maintained DOMA should be repealed to lift the burden of discrimination against same-sex couples, while supporters of DOMA said the anti-gay law is necessary to keep marriage as between one man and one woman.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, was among the LGBT advocates who testified during the hearing. He addressed the financial burdens DOMA imposes on same-sex couples.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“DOMA means that the many protections the federal government provides for the health and financial security of American families remain out of reach for same-sex couples and their children,” Solmonese said. “Same-sex spouses of federal employees and active members of the military are denied access to health insurance coverage and a host of other benefits. Even when private sector companies voluntarily provide spousal health benefits, they are taxed, making it financially burdensome if not impossible for gay and lesbian couples to make use of these fair-minded policies.”

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said DOMA “carves out a gay exception” in the way the U.S. government traditionally and currently treats married couples.

“DOMA divides those married at the state level into first-class marriages for those the federal government prefers and second-class marriages for those the federal government doesn’t like,” Wolfson said. “But in America, we don’t have second-class citizens, and we shouldn’t have second-class marriages either.”

Arguing in favor of DOMA, anti-gay advocates maintained the importance of keeping marriage between one man and one woman.

Austin Nimrocks, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said the purpose of family and relationships is to procreate and raise children.

“Accordingly, from the lexicographers who have defined marriage, to the eminent scholars in every relevant academic discipline who have explained marriage, to the legislatures and courts that have given legal recognition and effect to marriage, they all demonstrate that an animating purpose of marriage in every society is to increase the likelihood that procreative relationships benefit society,” Nimrocks said. “Marriage between a man and a woman is a long standing, world-wide idea that is a building block of society.”

Edward Whelan, president of the Ethics & Public Policy Center, warned that DOMA repeal could require the federal government to recognize not only same-sex marriages — but also polygamous relationships.

“If the male-female nature of traditional marriage can be dismissed as an artifact and its inherent link to procreation denied, then surely the distinction between a marriage of two persons and a marriage of three or more is all the more arbitrary and irrational,” Whelan said. “It’s doubtful that any further sliding down the slippery slope would be necessary to get to polyamory: unlike the novelty of same-sex marriage, the polygamous version of polyamory has been widely practiced throughout history — and is therefore arguably up the slope from same-sex marriage.”

Whelan previously testified in April against same-sex marriage before the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution hearing on “Defending Marriage.”

The assertion that DOMA would institute same-sex marriage is places where it didn’t exist before didn’t go without criticism from LGBT advocates after the hearing.

Rick Jacobs, chair and co-founder of the Courage Campaign, rebuked the assertion during that DOMA repeal would expand the places where gay couples can marry and maintained the Defense of Marriage Act would simply remove the federal government from the marriage issue.

“They don’t seem to understand what DOMA is,” Jacobs said. “They just keep missing the point that all DOMA is give the states the ability to decide what marriage is.”

Mary Bonauto, civil rights projects director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, also chided anti-gay advocates’ emphasis on marriage as between one man, one woman during the hearing as she said DOMA only affects those who are already married.

“I think it’s important to talk about marriage, but I wish there had been that much more delineation between what marriage is about one hand and what DOMA does, which is simply discriminate against people who are already married,” Bonauto said. “But there’s still, particularly in the opposition witnesses, this complete conflation between DOMA and marriage.”

Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family, bore the brunt of the tough questioning from the committee undermining his credibility for his position that children reared by opposite-sex parents are better off than those raised by same-sex parents.

Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“It is a strong and dramatically consistent finding in the social science, psychological and medical literature that children do best when living with their own married mother and father,” Minnery said.

In his testimony, Minnery cites a December 2010 study from the Department of Health & Human Services which he said found “children living with their own married biological or adoptive mothers and fathers were generally healthier and happier, had better access to health care, less likely to suffer mild or severe emotional problems, did better in school, were protected from physical, emotional and sexual abuse and almost never life in poverty, compared with children in any other family form.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) challenged Minnery’s assertion, saying the HHS report “actually doesn’t say what you said it says.”

“It says that nuclear families — not opposite-sex married families — are associated with those positive outcomes,” Franken said. “Isn’t it true, Mr. Minnery, that married same-sex couple that has or had adopted kids would fall under the definition of the nuclear family in the study that you cite?”

Minnery replied that he would believe the study means nuclear families are families with opposite-sex parents, but Franken denied this speculation, saying, “It doesn’t,” eliciting laugher from those attending the hearing.

“The study defines nuclear family as one or more children living with two parents who are married to one another and each biological or adoptive parents of all the children in the family,” Franken said. “And I, frankly, don’t really know how we can trust the rest of your testimony if you are reading studies these ways.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said following the hearing the testimony of those affected by DOMA compared to apparently misleading testimony of the anti-gay law’s proponents shows why “we’re winning on this issue.”

“The families who spoke — they talked from their human experience,” Carey said. “The other side talked from technical matters, from research that actually didn’t reveal the true, full research. We’re actually — children are doing quite well in our families, thank you very much.”

 

Time for a markup?

 

Now that the Respect for Marriage Act has had a hearing in the Senate, one option to move the legislation would be to hold a markup to bring the legislation to the floor. All 10 Democrats on the committee have signaled support for the legislation, so the bill already has sufficient support to move forward.

A Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the committee has yet to set a date to report out the legislation to the Senate floor.

“This hearing began to build the record for repealing DOMA, and this is the beginning of the process,” the aide said. “Sen. Leahy will continue to work with Sen. Feinstein and other supporters, and hopes there will be support from both sides of the aisle for this repeal, but I have no announcements to make today concerning any kind of timeline.”

Jacobs said he wants to see more co-sponsors for the Respect for Marriage Act — and maintained he wants “all Democrats on board” — but said the time may be right for a markup on the bill.

“I think that we should move to that pretty quickly,” Jacobs said. “I’d like to see it. I know some people don’t, but I think we need to keep the momentum going.”

Following the hearing, Solmonese expressed caution about moving to a markup and deferred the decision to the Senate Judiciary Committee leadership.

“If we are genuinely committed to a clare path to victory, to ensuring that DOMA is repealed, then I would defer to the chairman in terms of the degree to which he thinks the time is appropriate for a markup — and how that relates to a full Senate vote and the prospects in the House,” Solmonese said. “As was the case with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ as was the case with any legislative victory that we have seen through to the end, we never want to evaluate it on the merits of one action.”

Bonauto, who’s leading several lawsuits against DOMA in the federal courts, said she isn’t sure if a committee vote on DOMA repeal — or a floor vote in the Senate without action in the House — would have any effect on how the courts would evaluate the constitutionality of the anti-gay law. She cautioned that a symbolic victory in the Senate may not have the desired impact on the courts.

“It’s hard to predict,” Bonauto said. “In the 1970’s, when the Congress had approved of the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it up for ratification to the states, the Supreme Court stayed its hand and didn’t declare that gender was a suspect classification because it thought the issue was moving through the political process. I think we’ve all learned through of the failure of ratification of the ERA that because something has been approved by the Congress of even is a constitutional amendment is set forth for ratification, it doesn’t predict future results.”

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. blue-heron

    July 21, 2011 at 11:01 am

    One way forward which has not been considered, while not optimal, but moving the process in a positive direction, might be one that would amend only Part of DOMA, addressing Only the issue of Allowing Federal Recognition of those Marriages performed in States whose State Legislatures have passed Laws approving SS Marriage, and leaving the issue of Inter-State Recognition of SS Marriages alone for the time being / to be addressed at a later time.

    This method would remove One concern of the Opposition of One State which has not approved SS Marraige being potentially required to acknowledge another State’s Legally Licensed SS Marriages.

    Again, not Optimal, but potentially palatable and more readily passable, Constitutionally unargueable, in and of itself.

  2. Pamela

    July 21, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I am a heterosexual Republican wife/mother/income earner. I believe that if 2 people love and are committed to eachother – and chose to enter into a civil union together – then they have the right to their own happiness. The spousal benefits that would be afforded to same sex couples would enrich the lives of citizens who are hard working contributing members of our society. If you work, pay taxes and obey the law – the government should have no right to step in to your personal life and dictate which privileges you are entitled to. If the government wants to discuss entitlements – it should focus on the social services system whereby the recipients are not necessarily contributing back to the economic pool.

  3. BB

    July 22, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Boehner should be voted out of office.

  4. John Leamer

    July 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    “Grassley, who represents a state where same-sex marriage is legal, said he opposes the Respect for Marriage Act because he believes marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman.”
    Apparently Sen. Grassley believes his personal opinion overrides the legislature of his state and its gay and gay supportive constituents. He also ERRONEOUSLY quotes the president of the United States….I question Mr. Grassley’s ability to govern if he gets such facts incorrect and votes against his own state’s constituents because of his personal opinions…

  5. Emily

    August 5, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    This is why I think a lot of politicians should be voted out of office; they clearly don’t care about what the people they REPRESENT want. Just their own opinions and their own paychecks. Over half the country supports same-sex marriage. And the changes that have been proposed don’t force anyone to do anything; if same-sex marriages aren’t legal in a state, they don’t have to be recognized. But as for the six states that allow it (and I live in one of them and do plan on getting married to my partner) they should have federal benefits. There shouldn’t even be any debate on it. If people work hard for their benefits, they should receive them, straight or gay. Sexuality shouldn’t matter.

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National

Does a potential overturn of Roe imperil LGBTQ rights?

Some fear that Obergefell marriage decision could fall

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Protests outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1. (Photo by Cathy Renna)

The oral arguments before the justices of the United States Supreme Court had barely ended in the case brought by the state of Mississippi defending its law banning abortion after 15 weeks, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, when alarms were set off in legal circles as some argued that Obergefell v. Hodges — the same-sex marriage decision — would be in danger should the high court rule to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Florida State University law professor Mary Ziegler, appearing on NPR’s ‘Heard on All Things Considered,’ told host Mary Louise Kelly that there was a basis for concern over whether the court would actually overrule its precedents in other cases based on the questions and statements raised during the hearing by the conservative members of the court.

Asked by Kelly if she saw a legal door opening Ziegler affirmed that she did. Kelly then asked her, “Them taking up cases to do with that. What about same-sex marriage?”

Ziegler answered, “Yeah, same-sex marriage is definitely a candidate. Justices Alito and Thomas have in passing mentioned in dicta that they think it might be worth revisiting Obergefell v. Hodges – the same-sex marriage decision.

“And I think it’s fair to say that in the sort of panoply of culture war issues, that rights for same-sex couples and sexual orientation are still among the most contested, even though certainly same-sex marriage is more subtle than it was and than abortion was.

“I think that certainly the sort of balance between LGBTIQ rights and religious liberty writ large is a very much alive issue, and I think some states may try to test the boundaries with Obergefell, particularly knowing that they have a few justices potentially willing to go there with them.”

As almost if to underscore the point raised by Ziegler during the hearing, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor pointed out that the high court has taken and “discerned” certain rights in cases from the Constitution.

Along with abortion, the court has “recognized them in terms of the religion parents will teach their children. We’ve recognized it in their ability to educate at home if they choose,” Sotomayor said. “We have recognized that sense of privacy in people’s choices about whether to use contraception or not. We’ve recognized it in their right to choose who they’re going to marry.”

In following up the cases cited by Justice Sotomayor, Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, who was defending the state’s abortion law, whether a decision in his favor would affect the legal precedents in those cases cited by Justice Sotomayor.

In his answer to Justice Barrett, the state’s Solicitor General said cases involving contraception, same-sex marriage and sodomy wouldn’t be called into question because they involve “clear rules that have engendered strong reliance interests and that have not produced negative consequences or all the many other negative stare decisis considerations we pointed out.”

However, Lambda Legal Chief Strategy Officer and Legal Director, Sharon McGowan had a different take and interpreted remarks by Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to mean that the decisions in Lawrence v. Texas, which decriminalized private sexual intimacy between same-sex couples, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down remaining bans on the freedom of same-sex couples to marry, would actually justify overturning Roe v. Wade.

In a publicly released media statement McGowan noted: “During today’s argument, Justice Kavanaugh suggested that two key Supreme Court decisions protecting LGBTQ civil rights—Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges—support overruling Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

‘To that we say, NOT IN OUR NAME. LGBTQ people need abortions. Just as important, those landmark LGBTQ decisions EXPANDED individual liberty, not the opposite. They reflected the growing societal understanding of our common humanity and equality under law.

“Just as the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education rejected the lie of ‘separate but equal,’ the Supreme Court’s decisions in Lawrence and Obergefell appropriately overruled precedent where it was clear that, as was true with regard to race, our ancestors failed properly to acknowledge that gender and sexual orientation must not be barriers to our ability to live, love, and thrive free of governmental oppression. … 

“These landmark LGBTQ cases, which Lambda Legal litigated and won, and on which we rely today to protect our community’s civil rights, were built directly on the foundation of Casey and Roe. Our interests in equal dignity, autonomy, and liberty are shared, intertwined, and fundamental.” 

On Sunday, the Blade spoke with Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a national LGBTQ+ legal organization that represented three same-sex couples from Tennessee, whose case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court along with Obergefell and two other cases.

Minter is urging caution in how people interpret the court arguments and remarks made by the justices.

“We should be cautious about taking the bait from anti-LGBTQ groups who falsely argue that if the Supreme Court reverses or undermines Roe v. Wade, they are likely to reverse or undermine Obergefell or Lawrence. In fact, that is highly unlikely, as the argument in Dobbs itself showed,” he said.

“The only reason Justice Kavanaugh mentioned Obergefell and Lawrence, along with Brown v. Board of Education, was to cite them as examples of cases in which the Supreme Court clearly did the right thing. All of those decisions rely at least as strongly on equal protection as on fundamental rights, and even this extremely conservative Supreme Court has not questioned the foundational role of equal protection in our nation’s constitutional law,” Minter stressed.

During an interview with Bloomberg magazine, David Cortman, of the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist hate group, said “two things in particular distinguish abortion from those other privacy rights: the right to life and the states’ interest in protecting a child.”

Cortman, whose group urged the justices to allow states to ban same-sex marriages, said those other rights may be just as wrong as the right to an abortion. “But the fundamental interest in life that’s at issue in abortion means those other rights are probably not in any real danger of being overturned.”

But Cortman is of the opinion that there is little impetus among the court’s conservatives to take up challenges to those cases.

However, the fact that the six to three makeup of the high court with a conservative majority has progressives clamoring for the public to pay closer attention and be more proactively engaged.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, in an emailed statement to the Blade underscored those concerns:

“Reports and analysis coming out of Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization are extremely disturbing and represent a threat to our individual constitutional rights to privacy and autonomy. There is no ‘middle ground’ on what the Constitution guarantees and what was decided decades ago with the Roe v Wade decision. 

“This is about liberty, equality, and the rule of law, not the political or partisan views of those sitting on the bench. The unprecedented decision to remove a constitutional right recognized by the Supreme Court 50 years ago would set back civil rights by decades. ….

“Abortion access is essential, and a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. Bans on abortion are deeply racist and profoundly sexist – the harshest impacts fall on Black and Brown women and pregnant people and on our families and communities.

“If you think this decision will not affect you, think again: a wrong decision by the Supreme Court means you, too, will lose your bodily autonomy, your ability to own your own personal and community power. This is not just about abortion; it is about controlling bodies based on someone else determining your worthiness. This is a racial justice issue. This is a women’s issue. It is an LGBTQ issue. It is a civil rights issue. These are our fundamental rights that are at stake.”

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Minnesota

Minnesota middle school principal ousted for displaying Pride flag

Critics ramped up attacks on the career educator- some compared her to the Devil after publicly associating with LGBTQ+ people and students

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Screenshot via Marshall Public Schools, YouTube Channel

MARSHALL, Mn. — A former middle school principal in Minnesota who lost her job after displaying a Pride flag alleges in a federal lawsuit that the school system retaliated against her for supporting LGBTQ+ students.

Mary Kay Thomas filed the complaint against Marshall Public Schools in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota Tuesday after anti-LGBTQ+ middle school staff, parents, students and local clergy began efforts to remove the Pride flag that she put up in her middle school’s cafeteria in 2020 as a part of an inclusiveness effort.

According to the lawsuit, Thomas has been a teacher and principal for more than three decades with a long track record of success. She held the principal position at Marshall Middle School for 15 years, receiving contract renewals, pay raises and praise for her performance.

“But when Thomas decided to display an LGBTQ Pride Flag in the school cafeteria in early 2020, everything changed,” reads the complaint. 

Thomas refused to take down the Pride flag as critics ramped up attacks on the career educator. The lawsuit alleges that some even compared her to the Devil after publicly associating with LGBTQ+ people and students. 

“Sadly, the Marshall School District has sided with these critics,” her lawyers wrote. 

What followed was an “escalating series of adverse actions” taken by the Marshall School District, said the lawsuit. She claims that the school targeted her by threatening her employment, conducting a “bad-faith” investigation, putting her on indefinite involuntary leave, suspending her without pay and putting a notice of deficiency in her personnel file. 

The complaint says that the deficiencies were “false, distorted, and/or related to Thomas’s association with members of the LGBTQ community.”

Thomas also claims that the District attempted to get her to quit by removing her as principal and assigning her to a “demeaning ‘special projects’ position.”

At one point, Marshall Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams, who is named as a defendant in the case, told Thomas he could “make this all go away” if she stepped down, according to the complaint. 

The school removed the Pride flag in August 2021 after settling a lawsuit brought by residents who opposed it. 

The Blade reached out to Williams for comment but did not receive a response. However, according to the Marshall Independent, Williams did release a statement on the matter. 

“Marshall Public Schools is committed to the education of every child and has strong policies and practices in place against discrimination, against both students and staff members. The school district is committed to creating a respectful, inclusive, and safe learning and working environment for students, staff and our families,” Williams said. “While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct. The school will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”

In addition, Thomas alleges that she resisted unwanted sexual advancements from school board member Bill Swope. She claims she told Williams about the sexual harassment.

As of Thursday, the school has not filed a response, and no hearing has been scheduled yet. 

Thomas is seeking a jury trial, damages and reinstatement as principal of Marshall Middle School.

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National

Matthew Shepard honored at National Cathedral

Daylong services held to mark his 45th birthday

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Matthew Shepard, gay news, Washington Blade
Matthew Shepard Thanksgiving and Celebration at the National Cathedral in 2018. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The parents of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in a 1998 hate crime that drew international attention to anti-LGBTQ violence, were among those attending a day of religious services commemorating Shepard’s 45th birthday on Wednesday at the Washington National Cathedral.

The services, which the Cathedral organized in partnership with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, included tributes to Shepard at the Cathedral’s St. Joseph’s Chapel, where his remains were interred in a ceremony in 2018.  

“Matthew Shepard’s death is an enduring tragedy affecting all people and should serve as an ongoing call to the nation to reject anti-LGBTQ bigotry and instead embrace each of our neighbors for who they are,” the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, Dean of Washington National Cathedral, said at the time of Shepard’s interment.

“In the years since Matthew’s death, the Shepard family has shown extraordinary courage and grace in keeping his spirit and memory alive, and the Cathedral is honored and humbled to serve as his final resting place,” Hollerith said.

The first of the Cathedral’s Dec. 1 services for Shepard began at 7 a.m. with prayers, scripture readings, and music led by the Cathedral’s Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan. The service was live streamed on YouTube.

An online, all-day service was also held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. that Cathedral officials said was intended to “connect people around the world to honor Shepard and the LGBTQ community and pray for a more just world.”

The Shepard services concluded with a 5:30 p.m. in-person remembrance of Shepard in the Cathedral’s Nave, its main worship space. Among those attending were Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, who have said they created the Matthew Shepard Foundation to continue their son’s support for equality for all.

A statement released by the Cathedral says a bronze plaque honoring Matthew Shepard was installed in St. Joseph’s Chapel to mark his final resting place at the time Shepard was interred there in 2018. 
Following the Cathedral’s Dec. 1 services for Shepard, the Adams Morgan gay bar Pitchers hosted a reception for Dennis and Judy Shepard, according to Pitchers’ owner David Perruzza.

One of the two men charged with Shepard’s murder, Russell Henderson, pleaded guilty to the charge after prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty for him. The second of the two men charged, Aaron McKinney, was convicted of the murder following a lengthy jury trial.

Prosecutors said McKinney repeatedly and fatally struck Shepard in the head with the barrel of a handgun after he and Henderson tied Shepard to a wooden fence in a remote field outside Laramie, Wy., on Oct. 6, 1998. Police and prosecutors presented evidence at McKinney’s trial that McKinney and Henderson met Shepard at a bar in Laramie on that day and lured him into their car, where they drove him to the field where authorities said McKinney fatally assaulted him.

Shepard died six days later at a hospital in Ft. Collins, Colo., where he was taken after being found unconscious while still tied to the fence.

In a dramatic courtroom scene following the jury’s guilty verdict for McKinney, Dennis Shepard urged the judge to spare McKinney’s life by not handing down a death sentence. He said that out of compassion and in honor of his son’s life, McKinney should be allowed to live. The judge sentenced McKinney to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, the same sentence given to Henderson.

(VIDEO COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL VIA YOUTUBE)
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