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Court declares Prop 8 unconstitutional

Scope of ruling limited to California; appeal planned

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In a two-to-one decision, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional in a federal case challenging California’s marriage ban.

The opinion, authored by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, affirms Judge Vaughn Walker’s 2010 ruling that the law passed by California voters at the ballot violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it “serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.”

The court also rejected the argument that Judge Walker should have recused himself from the case because of his sexual orientation and relationship status.

Legal experts began to weigh in on the meaning of the decision immediately.

“I think the biggest story is how narrow [the majority decision] really is,” Douglas NeJaime, associate professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, told the Blade Tuesday. “Which in some ways I think that might disappoint some folks who were hoping it would expand to more states, but I think in terms of setting it up for a Supreme Court review — either the Supreme Court not taking it, or approving it — for supporters of same-sex marriage, this is actually the most strategically sound way for the case to proceed.”

Legal experts agree that the decision represents a big win for same-sex couples in California, even though it was a narrow decision limited to California. The Ninth Circuit encompasses multiple Western states and some Prop 8 opponents had hoped the court’s decision would impact a wider swath of the country.

“The decision is a very narrow decision striking down Proposition 8 on grounds that are very unique to California,” NeJaime told the Blade. “What this doesn’t do is directly affect the laws of the majority of states that don’t allow same-sex couples to marry. It doesn’t announce that same-sex couples have a right to marry under the federal Constitution, and it doesn’t engage the question of whether sexual orientation-based classifications should be subjected to some heightened form of scrutiny under the federal Constitution. So it’s a very narrow ruling that only directly impacts the law in California.”

If left to stand, however, what the decision would do, NeJaime says, is allow same-sex couples to marry in California.

“What you would likely have happen is a bunch of other people would file cases in other states, and you would have more litigation, and the states that have a system most directly related to the court’s ruling here, would be states that have domestic partnership or civil union statues that allow same-sex couples to have all of the same rights and benefits of different-sex couples,” NeJaime said. “So Washington, Nevada, Oregon, Hawaii, Delaware, Illinois, Rhode Island, New Jersey, those states’ laws would probably be the first to be challenged.”

Though the court sided with the plaintiffs, the ruling is stayed until the decision goes into effect, in what is called a “mandate.” This means that same-sex couples will not be able to marry in California until the Ninth Circuit lifts the stay, the Supreme Court decides to uphold the ruling or pass on the case, or the state voters decide to overturn the law at the ballot.

Proponents of Prop 8 now have 15 days to ask for what is called an ‘en banc’ decision by a larger random panel of 11 of the court’s 24 judges — a crap shoot for proponents of the law who could not guarantee the judges assigned to the panel are sympathetic. Proponents also have 90 days to appeal directly to the Supreme Court, if they so choose to skip the ‘en banc’ rehearing.

Though at the onset of the case, gay rights advocates were excited about the prospect of the case advancing to the Supreme Court where they hoped it could be used to strike down same-sex marriage bans across the nation, some legal experts say it’s not so simple.

“Everyone thought this case was going to Supreme Court, but given how narrow this ruling is, the Supreme Court might very likely just not take the case,” NeJaime told the Blade. “The Supreme Court does not have to take the case. And they might decide ‘this only affects California. We’ll let it stand. And we’ll take a case down the road.’”

“If they take the case, then the decision by the Ninth Circuit has really set it up so that the Supreme Court can affirm the decision, meaning strike down Proposition 8, by not having to reach very far.”

NeJaime said that the Reinhardt opinion, much like the Walker opinion, borrows heavily from the case law history of swing vote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, whom NeJaime says the opinion “aims” for. Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the Romer v. Evans case that struck down an anti-gay constitutional amendment in Colorado’s Constitution nearly 20 years ago, but that doesn’t mean the justice will help the plaintiffs change the law across the land.

“So basically because its a narrow ruling, and because the court applied the lowest form of scrutiny for equal protection purposes, the Supreme Court could affirm the decision without having to expand much on its current case law, and without having to comment on the laws of the other states. It could issue a ruling that would allow same-sex marriage in California but doesn’t affect anything else directly. That’s the preferred course of the court, is to issue narrow, incremental, case-by-case rulings, rather than broad sweeping rulings, that invalidate the majority of states’ laws in one decision.”

In 2008, more than 18,000 same-sex couples were married in California during a brief period following the decision by the California Supreme Court that barring same-sex couples from marriage violated the California Constitution. The weddings were halted by the November 2008 voter-enacted law, but the court ruled that the 18,000 marriages performed should remain valid.

For now, same-sex couples in California who did not get married during the narrow 2008 window are in legal limbo, waiting for the stay on the original Judge Walker decision to be lifted once and for all, but that could take some time.

“The mandate would issue seven days after the time for filing a petition for rehearing expires, or seven days after the denial of a petition for a rehearing,” NeJaime told the Blade. “They have 14 days to file the petition, so technically, it could issue as soon as 21 days. But more likely it will be later than that, and if they take it for a rehearing, it would be even later than that, so the soonest would be within three weeks.

“But in the meantime, there’s probably going to be additional motions to stay, so that doesn’t mean that once the mandate is issued, same-sex couples can marry,” NeJaime added.

Despite the continued wait, LGBT rights organizations were quick to hail the victory.

“Today’s decision heartens and gives hope to the 15,698 loving couples in California who are raising more than 30,000 children,” said Family Equality Council Executive Director Jennifer Chrisler. “They, like all Americans, understand that while love makes a family, there is no denying that marriage strengthens it. These parents have raised their children to love their country, support their friends and treat their neighbors with respect. Now they only ask for the fundamental American freedom to demonstrate their love and commitment to their family through marriage.”

California-based Courage Campaign also weighed in minutes after the announcement of the ruling upholding Judge Walker’s decision.

“The 9th Circuit did what it must: it ruled that Judge Walker is competent, not somehow diminished for being gay and it ruled that the Constitution of the United States indeed provides equal protection and due process to all Americans, not just some Americans,” said Rick Jacobs, chair and founder of the Courage Campaign.

Even the LGBT military group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network weighed in with a statement by outgoing executive director and Army veteran Aubrey Sarvis.

“SLDN welcomes today’s important ruling by the Ninth Circuit affirming the lower court decision that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional; indeed, fairness and equality have carried the day,” said Sarvis. “This victory strengthens our case on behalf of married gay and lesbian service members and veterans as we seek to gain equal recognition, support, and benefits for them and their families. This is an historic win for supporters of full equality in the military and in our country.”

“We’re thrilled that today the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed that under our Constitution, all loving couples must be allowed to marry, regardless of the gender of either partner,” said Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis. “The state should not be in the business of policing who can marry based on gender. I’m optimistic that full equality for all our families is on the horizon.”

 

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. thomas mc

    February 7, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    Anyone with a brain could have seen that. And then you have the Conservatives.

  2. Tim

    February 7, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    This was good news on several fronts. First of all, it was great as case precidence that can be used in other cases with a strong statement about the damn Prop 8 doing nothing but diminishing the gay & lesbian citizens standing as citizens. Second, the narrow ruling should product the gains we have made in other states as the Supreme Court’s ruling won’t reverse the laws in other states where same-sex marriage already exists. I know a lot of people were hoping for a decision that would effect several states, but the conservative Supreme Court might well rule the other way. As it stands, California should be able to regain same-sex marriage, and that is a big win in its own right.

  3. I'm Just Sayin'

    February 8, 2012 at 8:42 am

    While Log Cabin Republicans “rightly” cheered the ruling in a press release touting the role of conservative republican and former Solicitor General under George W. Bush, Ted Olsen, they noticeably failed to mention that in the 2 -1 vote, the judge who ruled AGAINST repeal was a Republican presidential appointee. The justices voting FOR repeal were appointed by Democrats (Carter and Clinton.)

    We can blather on about how the 2012 election is about the deficit, the economy or jobs, but let’s not lose sight of the the real prize — which party will control the selection of the next two (and likely) three appointments to the US Supreme Court and a bevy of other federal judgeships. Talk all you want about legislative advancements, or ludicrous suggestions from that people in the privacy of the voting booth will do the “right thing”, the fact remains that all major advances in equality have emanated from the judiciary.

    This indisputable truth is what GOP power-brokers fear most: economies recover; judicial appointments are for life. Ask yourself: do you really want a conservative republican president backed by a republican controlled Senate to unbridled power to shape the judicial branch? That is the unspoken dark side of the world that LCR promotes.

  4. blue-heron

    February 8, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I am not clear that the Ruling ONLY said that “since the Right already existed…”, although it did say this in part in referring to California Law.

    To be precise, the Law did exist, and was taken away, which is one aspect, but the RIGHT [to Equal Protection] exists via the US Constitution, even though Referrendum prevents its uniform application, un-Constitutionally so.

    The US Constitution was THE basis for the case, and it cannot be ignored.

  5. I'm Just Sayin'

    February 8, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks Mitt Romney for confirming what I was just sayin’…

    From a CBS new report on Romney’s reaction to the Prop 8 ruling:

    “Today, unelected judges cast aside the will of the people of California who voted to protect traditional marriage,” Romney said in a statement. “This decision does not end this fight, and I expect it to go to the Supreme Court. That prospect underscores the vital importance of this election and the movement to preserve our values.”

    Romney emphasized his belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman” and vowed that “as president, I will protect traditional marriage and appoint judges who interpret the Constitution as it is written and not according to their own politics and prejudices.”

  6. Skeeter Sanders

    February 12, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    If Proposition 8 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, then how can the Supreme Court possibly limit a decision affirming the Ninth Circuit Court’s striking it down only to California?

    I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the “narrow scope” argument. Decisions by the nation’s highest court on constitutional issues are automatically binding throughout the nation. The U.S. Constitution is the SUPREME LAW of the ENTIRE COUNTRY. It says so in Article VI, Section 1 — the Supremacy Clause.

    Therefore, a ruling by the high court striking down Prop. 8 on Fourteenth Amendment equal-protection grounds MUST, under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, apply to ALL 30-plus other state laws that bar gay and lesbian couples from marrying. For the Supreme Court to do otherwise would make a mockery of its landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, that struck down laws in 16 states that barred interracial couples from marrying.

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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