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Will Romney seal the deal in S.C.?

GOP frontrunner enjoys 14-point lead heading into primary

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GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney appears to be headed for another win in the upcoming South Carolina primary as observers say a victory there would virtually seal the deal for him as the Republican presidential nominee.

Polls show Romney — who in national polls has a double-digit lead over other Republican contenders — also having a significant lead over his rivals in South Carolina, where state voters on Saturday will head to the polls in an open primary.

On Tuesday, Rasmussen Reports published a poll showing the former Massachusetts governor with a whopping 14-point lead over his challengers. He was favored by 35 percent of responders, despite speculation that his faith as a Mormon and his history as governor of a “blue” state would mean he wouldn’t fare well in the conservative state.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was polling in second place with support from 21 percent of responders, while Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum were tied for third with 16 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry had support from only 5 percent.

Hastings Wyman, who’s gay and editor of the Southern Political Report, predicted that Romney would win Saturday, and the South Carolina victory after previous wins in Iowa and New Hampshire would cement the candidate as the GOP nominee.

“From what I can see, it looks like Romney is going to win,” Wyman said. “And I think, assuming he does, the nomination is pretty much his. You never know what’s going to happen, but that’s what it looks like to me.”

Romney’s strong support in the polls was boosted by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., dropping out of the race and endorsing Romney for president. Huntsman was polling in the single digits prior to his withdrawal, but his supporters likely went to Romney because of the endorsement and because both are seen as more moderate candidates in the Republican field.

GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia, who endorsed Romney, also said he expects Romney to win and the race for the Republican nomination will virtually be a done deal after South Carolina.

“South Carolina voters have a history of voting for the eventual nominee,” LaSalvia said. “Mitt Romney will win in South Carolina on Saturday. There may be one or two of the other candidates who go on after losing on Saturday, but this primary election season will be effectively over.”

While campaigning in the Palmetto State, Romney has endorsed anti-gay positions. During a stump speech in South Carolina on Saturday, Romney said President Obama’s decision to discontinue the government’s defense of the Defense of Marriage Act in court would lead to the advancement of same-sex marriage throughout the country.

“This is a president also who is attempting to pave the way for same-sex marriage in our nation by refusing through his attorney general to defend the Defense of Marriage Act,” Romney said. “I will defend that act and I will also defend marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.”

Romney has said he supports “full rights” for gay people, although he says he’s always opposed same-sex marriage. He has signed a pledge from the National Organization for Marriage committing himself to back a Federal Marriage Amendment, defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court and establish a presidential commission on “religious liberty.”

Even in a conservative state like South Carolina, Wyman said he doesn’t think opposition to gay rights will motivate voters to go to the polls because they’re more concerned about the economy.

“I don’t think it’s the leading issue,” Wyman said. “If one of the candidates were out-and-out pro-gay, then I think it would hurt him or her, but I don’t think it’s a big issue there.”

Fresh from his endorsement by evangelical leaders who threw their support behind him after a Texas meeting on Saturday, Santorum has also emphasized anti-gay views during his campaign, but has somewhat toned down his rhetoric.

“We need to encourage what is best for mothers and fathers and children, which is for them to be together and to give every child their birth right, which is to know and be loved by their mom and dad,” Santorum said. “If we don’t hold that up as something that society is for and encouraging and promoting, then we will get less of it and then we will be, in a sense, denying children what is best for them.”

Santorum was set to appear Thursday with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins at a Values Voters rally at East Cooper Baptist Church in Mt Pleasant, S.C.

Christine Johnson, executive director of South Carolina Equality, said LGBT people there have been watching the Republican presidential race as “day by day, the anti-gay rhetoric becomes increasingly part of the conversation.”

“It seems it’s not enough to campaign on foreign policy and the economy — the issues that affect us all — but necessary to include devisive language that not only contradicts their consensus building promises, but demonstrates an unapologetic view that the LGBT community should remain an undefined underclass of society,” Johnson said.

According to South Carolina Equality, more than 120,000 LGBT people are estimated to live in the state as well as more than 7,300 same-sex couples.

“This pandering to South Carolina, ultra-conservative voters, continues to disenfranchise the many LGBT Republicans that live in the Palmetto State and is creating both anger and resentment among the community at large,” Johnson said.

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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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