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Lesbian veteran seeks spousal benefits in lawsuit

Plaintiff served 12 years in Iraq, Afghanistan

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Tracey (left) & Maggie Cooper-Harris (Blade photo by Michael Key)

An organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court aimed at winning benefits for a disabled Army veteran and her same-sex spouse.

The lawsuit, known as Cooper Harris v. United States, was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against the U.S. government and is pending before the U.S. District Court of Central District of California. Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale, & Dorr is assisting with the case on a pro-bono basis.

Tracey Cooper-Harris, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit, criticized the current law, which prevents her and her spouse Maggie from receiving spousal benefits that flow to veterans in opposite-sex marriages.

“We’re only asking for the same benefits as other married couples,” Tracey said. “We simply want the same peace of mind that these benefits bring to the families of other disabled veterans. And that is why we filed a federal lawsuit challenging this policy. No family should have to go through what we’ve had to experience, and our nation shouldn’t allow the Defense of Marriage Act to deny the last wishes of our veterans, but it is happening.”

Tracey served for 12 years in support of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and received more than two dozen medals and commendations before being honorably discharged in 2003. In 2008, she married Maggie in California before Proposition 8 took away marriage rights for gay couples in that state.

After being diagnosed in 2010 with multiple sclerosis, which the Department of Veterans Affairs has determined is connected to her military service, Tracey began receiving disability benefits as a veteran. However, she’s unable to receive spousal benefits that she would otherwise be entitled to if she were in an opposite-sex marriage.

Among the veterans benefits that are denied to the couple are disability benefits the Department of Veterans Affairs extends to veterans in opposite-sex marriages meant to ensure the financial stability of spouses. The couple also won’t be permitted to be buried together in a national veterans cemetery.

The lawsuit seeks to strike down Title 38, which denies partner benefits to veterans if they’re married to someone of the same-sex, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. SPLC contends the laws are unconstitutional on the basis that they violate the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Joseph Levin, SPLC’s co-founder, said during the news conference that the lawsuit has parallels to another lawsuit his organization fought and won in the 1970s on behalf of Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero.

As a result of the lawsuit, known as Frontiero v. Richardson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that female veterans should have the same access to benefits as their male counterparts. Levin said the discrimination faced at that time is similar to that faced by the plaintiffs now.

“These men and women made the same and endured the same sacrifices as other members of the military, yet this policy devalues their service, commitment and sacrifice,” Levin said.

Frontiero, who was also present at the news conference, said the lawsuit on behalf of Cooper-Harris is “a logical extension of the case” filed 40 years ago.

“Tracey is fighting the same battle I fought, which is not to have our work deemed second rate or second best,” Frontiero said. “We serve like everybody else, and we deserve what everybody else is getting.”

Levin said after SPLC won the Frontiero case in 1970s, Congress changed the statutes related to military benefits to define spouse as a person of the opposite-sex to ensure female veterans would have access to spousal benefits.

“I never dreamed that statutes we helped change would be used to discriminate against the LGBT community,” Levin said.

Christine Sun, SPLC’s deputy legal director, emphasized the unfairness that Tracey and Maggie face under current law.

“Refusing to grant these benefits to Tracey and Maggie solely because of their sexual orientation is unpatriotic and un-American,” Sun said. “The unfortunate fact is that our nation is not serving our gay and lesbian service members as well as they served us.”

In a response to a question from the Washington Blade, Sun said she couldn’t predict when the district court would make a decision in the case; the soonest the case would come to the U.S. Supreme Court is three or four years.

Neither the Justice Department nor the Department of Veterans Affairs responded on short notice to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the litigation. In February, the White House announced the Obama administration would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

The litigation is similar to a case that the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed at the start of the year known as McLaughlin v. United States, which also seeks to overturn DOMA on the basis that it bars federal benefits from flowing to LGBT military families.

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, said in a statement his organization welcomes to the SPLC lawsuit and looks forward to coordinating efforts going forward.

“We have worked with the plaintiff, Tracey Cooper-Harris, in the past, and we believe that her case is compelling,” Sarvis said. “This filing today advances the cause of equality for gay and lesbian service members and veterans.”

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National

Same-sex couples vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change

Williams Institute report based on Census, federal agencies

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Beach erosion in Fire Island Pines, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Savannah Farrell / Actum)

A new report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law finds that same-sex couples are at greater risk of experiencing the adverse effects of climate change compared to different-sex couples.

LGBTQ people in same-sex couple households disproportionately live in coastal areas and cities and areas with poorer infrastructure and less access to resources, making them more vulnerable to climate hazards.

Using U.S. Census data and climate risk assessment data from NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, researchers conducted a geographic analysis to assess the climate risk impacting same-sex couples. NASA’s risk assessment focuses on changes to meteorological patterns, infrastructure and built environment, and the presence of at-risk populations. FEMA’s assessment focuses on changes in the occurrence of severe weather events, accounting for at-risk populations, the availability of services, and access to resources.

Results show counties with a higher proportion of same-sex couples are, on average, at increased risk from environmental, infrastructure, and social vulnerabilities due to climate change.

“Given the disparate impact of climate change on LGBTQ populations, climate change policies, including disaster preparedness, response, and recovery plans, must address the specific needs and vulnerabilities facing LGBTQ people,” said study co-author Ari Shaw, senior fellow and director of international programs at the Williams Institute. “Policies should focus on mitigating discriminatory housing and urban development practices, making shelters safe spaces for LGBT people, and ensuring that relief aid reaches displaced LGBTQ individuals and families.”

“Factors underlying the geographic vulnerability are crucial to understanding why same-sex couples are threatened by climate change and whether the findings in our study apply to the broader LGBTQ population,” said study co-author Lindsay Mahowald, research data analyst at the Williams Institute. “More research is needed to examine how disparities in housing, employment, and health care among LGBT people compound the geographic vulnerabilities to climate change.”

Read the report

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Federal Government

Lambda Legal praises Biden-Harris administration’s finalized Title IX regulations

New rules to take effect Aug. 1

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (Screen capture: AP/YouTube)

The Biden-Harris administration’s revised Title IX policy “protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse,” Lambda Legal said in a statement praising the U.S. Department of Education’s issuance of the final rule on Friday.

Slated to take effect on Aug. 1, the new regulations constitute an expansion of the 1972 Title IX civil rights law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the department’s revised policy clarifies that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitutes sex-based discrimination as defined under the law.

“These regulations make it crystal clear that everyone can access schools that are safe, welcoming and that respect their rights,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

The administration’s new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were widely seen as imbalanced in favor of the accused.

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during Thursday’s call that the department sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

“We applaud the Biden administration’s action to rescind the legally unsound, cruel, and dangerous sexual harassment and assault rule of the previous administration,” Lambda Legal Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project Director Sasha Buchert said in the group’s statement on Friday.

“Today’s rule instead appropriately underscores that Title IX’s civil rights protections clearly cover LGBTQ+ students, as well as survivors and pregnant and parenting students across race and gender identity,” she said. “Schools must be places where students can learn and thrive free of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.”

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Michigan

Mich. Democrats spar over LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law

Lawmakers disagree on just what kind of statute to pass

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Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride month in 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (House Bill 4474), a first offense would be punishable with a $2,000 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is six years in prison and a fine of $7,500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. State Rep. Noah Arbit, the bill’s sponsor, was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (House Bill 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (House Bill 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (Senate Bill 600) in March that includes much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from the Washington Blade to both Arbit and Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The attorney general’s office sent a statement to the Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBTQ-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70 percent from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and was due for a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

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