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Mixed views on ‘conscience’ language in defense bill

Some call provision ‘dangerous,’ claim it will lead to discrimination

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Allyson Robinson, gay news, Washington Blade, OutServe, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network
Allyson Robinson, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, OutServe, gay news, Washington Blade

Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

LGBT rights supporters are expressing disappointment with “conscience” language included in the final version of major Pentagon budget legislation, and although views on its potential impact are mixed, most say the language won’t have a substantive change on current military policy.

A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers made public on Tuesday their agreement for the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill, a $633 billion proposal that sets policy for the Pentagon, continues pay for troops and provides funding for military programs.

But these lawmakers also agreed to include a watered-down provision along the lines of an anti-gay measure included in the House bill by outgoing Rep. W. Todd Akin (R-Mo.). That provision was understood to mean service members would be allowed to harass their gay colleagues and that military chaplains could refuse to minister to them simply by saying to do so goes against their religious beliefs.

The language in the conference report, listed under Section 533, is divided into two parts: the first says service members can’t be punished for their beliefs so long as they don’t violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the second says chaplains can’t be punished for refusing to perform a ritual contrary to their religious beliefs.

The section isn’t as overtly anti-gay as the House language — there’s no mention of “human sexuality” or sexual orientation — and says service members can still be punished if they act or speak out on their beliefs.

Lawmakers were expected to take up the legislation by the end of this week. House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said during the conference that he was hopeful for a vote Thursday.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, was among those offering the strongest objections to the “conscience” language, saying passage could lead to “claims to discriminate, not only against lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members, but also against women, religious minorities, and in the provision of health care.”

“It could reopen longstanding prohibitions against harassment, could lead to claims of a right to proselytize other service members as well as civilians in occupied areas, and could lead to claims of an opt-out from providing health care or participating in anti-harassment training,” Thompson said.

One conservative group is also claiming victory. Tony Perkins, president of the anti-gay Family Research Council, expressed satisfaction over inclusion of the “conscience” language in a statement.

“We are happy to see that Congress has included language in the Department of Defense reauthorization bill that will protect the conscience rights of chaplains and service members,” Perkins said. “This language provides for the protection of the First Amendment rights of all our men and women in the Armed Forces.”

But the “conscience” provision is one small part of the defense authorization bill aimed at continuing funds for the Pentagon and paychecks for U.S. troops. Moreover, the provision was included in exchange for dropping another provision in the House bill that would have prohibited same-sex marriages on military bases.

Progressives have reason to celebrate because the final report includes a provision in the Senate bill offered by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to expand health coverage to cover female service members seeking abortions in cases of rape and incest. Previously, the Pentagon would only provide an abortion in the event the mother’s life was in danger.

Furthermore, other LGBT advocates didn’t express the same sense that “conscience” language would have significant impact.

These advocates are echoing the sentiment of Rep. Adam Smith, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who told the Washington Blade during a news conference on Tuesday that while he personally doesn’t support the language, it won’t have a substantive impact on the military because it’s consistent with current policy.

“I think that’s current law,” Smith said. “You can’t punish someone based solely on their beliefs. It has to be actions. That’s current law. I didn’t think that this language needed to be in it. If you ask me, what the one thing I would take out of this bill, if I could, that would be the one thing I would take out of this bill. Now, it’s significantly neutered, if you will, to the point where I don’t think it’s going to be a problem, and I’m going to support the bill, but that is a provision that I did not support.”

Among the groups saying the provisions would have no effect are the Human Rights Campaign, OutServe-SLDN and the Center for American Progress.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, called the provision “unnecessary” in the wake of repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but also “meaningless.”

“While it’s bad, it’s also meaningless in a lot of ways,” Cole-Schwartz said. “We were successful in making sure an extension of DOMA wasn’t included and it’s not clear that this language, while unfortunate, will have meaningful consequence for service members.”

Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, called the inclusion of the language “disheartening” — especially because it comes on the second anniversary of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal — but says it won’t create any new policy for the Pentagon.

“Indeed, no service member or chaplain is ever punished for his or her religious beliefs unless he or she acts on those beliefs in a way inconsistent with military law or good order and discipline,” Robinson said.

But Robinson also said the appearance of the language in the defense bill should serve as a cautionary tale.

Adam Smith, Washington State, Congress, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“The fact that provisions such as these could make their way into this bill is an indication that the gains we have made are fragile and that we must remain ever vigilant even as we look toward the work ahead of us needed to achieve full equality in our military,” Robinson said.

Crosby Burns, research associate on LGBT issues for the Center for American Progress, also shared the sentiment that nothing new would happen if the “conscience” provision became law.

“Based on the conference reports language, I believe that it essentially reiterates existing freedoms and protections that service members and chaplains already have,” Burns said. “Obviously, it sets a dangerous precedent because it’s based off language in the House bill that was intentionally crafted to allow people to discriminate against openly gay service members, so obviously that’s cause for concern, but based off the existing language, we believe it doesn’t actually change anything in terms of the substantive policy.”

The White House is staying mum on the conference report provision. A spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment after it was made public.

In May, the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy saying the Obama administration “strongly objects” to the conscience language as it appeared in the House bill along with the provisions barring same-sex marriage from taking place on military bases.

Denying the passage of the provision would have no impact, ACLU’s Thompson drew on the White House objections to the House language while condemning the provision found in the conference report.

“Earlier this year, the White House conveyed its strong objections to the original House-passed language based on how the provision would affect ‘all personnel-related actions based on certain religious and moral beliefs, which, in its overbroad terms, is potentially harmful to good order and discipline,'” Thompson said. “Those serious concerns have — despite initial reports to the contrary — not been resolved by this conference report language. Rather, they are magnified.”

But the White House Statement of Administration Policy doesn’t go as far as a veto threat over the conscience provision if the final version of the bill includes this provision.

Asked whether a veto is necessary, Thompson said the ACLU has already called on Obama to veto the defense authorization bill over an unrelated provision related to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, but hasn’t yet determined whether to include the “conscience” provision as another reason to veto the bill.

“The ACLU, as part of a broad coalition of human rights organizations, is already recommending a veto of the legislation based on its Guantanamo detainee transfer prohibitions,” Thompson said. “We are exploring whether to add this provision as another reason we would recommend a White House veto.”

The complete language of Section 533 of the bill follows:

SEC. 533. PROTECTION OF RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE OF MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES AND CHAPLAINS OF SUCH MEMBERS.
(a) PROTECTION OF RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE. —
(1) ACCOMMODATION. — The Armed Forces shall accommodate the beliefs of a member of the armed forces reflecting the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the member and, in so far as practicable, may not use such beliefs as the basis of any adverse personnel action, discrimination, or denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment.
(2) DISCIPLINARY OR ADMINISTRATIVE ACTION. — Nothing in paragraph (1) precludes disciplinary or administrative action for conduct that is proscribed by chapter 47 of title 10, United States Code (the Uniform Code of Military Justice), including actions and speech that threaten good order and discipline.
(b) PROTECTION OF CHAPLAIN DECISIONS RELATING TO CONSCIENCE, MORAL PRINCIPLES, OR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. — No member of the Armed Forces may— (1) require a chaplain to perform any rite, ritual, or ceremony that is contrary to the conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs of the chaplain; or (2) discriminate or take any adverse personnel action against a chaplain, including denial of promotion, schooling, training, or assignment, on the basis of the refusal by the chaplain to comply with a requirement prohibited by paragraph (1).
(c) REGULATIONS.—The Secretary of Defense shall issue regulations implementing the protections afforded by this section.

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Florida

Miami hotel liquor license may be revoked over a drag show

State’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco targets business

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Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami. (Photo by dennizn/Bigstock)

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is in the process of revoking the Hyatt Regency Miami’s alcohol license after the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation determined that the hotel’s affiliated James L. Knight Center had hosted “A Drag Queen Christmas” performed Dec. 27 with minors present in the audience.

The Knight Center is a major South Florida venue and has previously hosted the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. The venue’s main room can seat 4,600 people.

This is the third time the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, which operates under the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has targeted a business that hosted a drag show.

A popular restaurant and pub in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood is also under threat of losing its liquor license. The R House identifies itself on its Facebook page as “the proud home of South Florida’s most popular weekend drag brunches.”

The July 2022 complaint filed by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation asks for a final order that the R House restaurant is a declared a public nuisance and has its liquor license revoked. 

According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the complaint was issued after a video of a recent performance at the bar’s drag brunch went viral. A topless drag queen wearing lingerie stuffed with money can be seen in the video attempting to dance with a young girl, who the DPBR estimates is “between three and five years old.” Twitter account “Libs of Tik Tok” originally found the footage on Tik Tok, posted by a user who wrote, “Children belong at drag shows!!!! Children deserve to see fun and expression & freedom.”

In late December “A Drag Queen Christmas” was hosted by the Orlando non-profit Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation on Dec. 28, filing a complaint alleging that children under age 18 were allowed to attend.

The complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic alleged the foundation violated Florida law in allowing for a person to “commit lewd or lascivious exhibition” in the presence of an individual who is less than 16 years old.

In this latest targeting of the show, which is a holiday-themed drag show that tours in 36 different cities and features stars from the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Insider webzine journalist Kimberly Leonard reported that the DeSantis administration officials accused the Knight Center of several violations, including a prohibition of “lascivious exhibition” before people younger than 16, mirroring the December complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic.

The department’s complaint said performers engaged in “acts of simulated sexual activity, and lewd, vulgar, and indecent displays” that included:

  • Performers forcibly penetrating or rubbing exposed prosthetic female breasts against faces of audience members
  • Intentionally exposing performers’ prosthetic female breasts and genitalia to the audience
  • Intentionally exposing performers’ buttocks to the audience
  • Simulating masturbation through performers’ digitally penetrating prosthetic female genital
  • Graphic depictions of childbirth and/or abortion

Hyatt Regency Miami is allowed to keep selling alcohol until the department makes a final decision. The business has 21 days to request a hearing, Beth Pannell, spokeswoman for the department, told Insider.

Regulators had warned the facility to change how it marketed the show before it went live, according to a copy of the letter included in the complaint. The letter accused the marketers of putting on a performance that constitutes “public nuisances, lewd activity, and disorderly conduct” when minors are present.

News of this latest action was first reported by far-right conservative internet based outlet Florida’s Voice.

As more and more Republican states target drag shows, in just the past few weeks, Tennessee became the first to ban adult performances, including drag, from public spaces such as parks and schools. 

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U.S. Military/Pentagon

New VA mission statement recognizes commitment to all veterans

‘To fulfill [Lincoln’s] promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military & for their families, caregivers, & survivors’

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VA Secretary Denis McDonough. (Screenshot/YouTube)

In a speech delivered Thursday at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (WIMSA), located at the main entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in suburban Virginia, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the Department of Veterans Affairs has issued an updated version of its 1959 mission statement.

The new mission statement is: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”

As the VA secretary commenced his remarks, he honored several notable women in the audience including Brenda S. “Sue” Fulton, the assistant secretary of veterans affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs.

Fulton, is a 1980 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which was the Academy’s first class to admit women. She is an out lesbian and served as a founding board member of Knights Out, the organization of LGBTQ West Point graduates, and later worked with OutServe, the association of actively-serving LGBTQ military members and SPARTA, an LGBTQ military group advocating for transgender military service.

“Whenever any veteran, family member, caregiver, or survivor walks by a VA facility, we want them to see themselves in the mission statement on the outside of the building,” said Secretary McDonough. “We are here to serve all veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors — and now, our mission statement reflects exactly that.”

In crafting the new mission statement, VA surveyed roughly 30,000 Veterans. Among veterans surveyed, the new version of VA’s mission statement was chosen over the current version by every age group; by men and by women; by LGBTQ+ veterans; and by white, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and American Indian/Alaska Native Veterans.

In addition to two rounds of surveys, VA conducted dozens of small-group engagements with veterans to understand what was most important to them in a VA mission statement, then incorporated that feedback into quantitative research. The new mission statement reflects that VA serves all of the heroes who have served our country, regardless of their race, gender, background, sexual orientation, religion, zip code or identity.

The previous mission statement was: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.” The previous mission statement is posted in roughly 50 percent of VA’s facilities. Over the coming months, VA’s new mission statement will replace the previous version.

VA announces new mission statement, recognizing sacred commitment to serve all who served:

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Michigan

Mich. governor signs statewide LGBTQ rights law

‘Bigotry is bad for business’

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 16, 2023, signed an LGBTQ rights bill into law. (Photo courtesy of Whitmer's office)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act on Thursday, which expands basic protections for the LGBTQ community.

The measure, Senate Bill 4, was sponsored by openly gay state Sen. Jeremy Moss who less than a year previously had been shot down by the Republican majority as he attempted to have a non-binding resolution to recognize “Pride Month” adopted by the Senate.

In her signing remarks, Whitmer noted: “In the words of Detroit native Lizzo, it’s about damn time! Bigotry is bad for business. Come to Michigan, you will be respected and protected under the law.”

“As Equality Michigan celebrates this historic step forward, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Generations of activists have inspired us to fight for justice and equality for all LGBTQ+ Michiganders, and our community has been working to update our state’s civil rights law to explicitly include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in every single legislative session since Elliott-Larsen was first adopted,” Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said in a statement. “We applaud Gov. Whitmer for signing this bill into law, and are humbled by this pro-equality legislature that made amending ELCRA a top priority. Senator Jeremy Moss and Rep. Jason Hoskins introduced this legislation and championed it all the way through to the finish line.” 

“The victory we have today in Michigan is a great one, but it’s also one we don’t take lightly at this moment. Let it not be lost on us that this privilege, however hard-earned, is a unique one that exists amid a nationwide political assault on LGBTQ+ people, especially trans and non-binary youth, and their families,” added Knott. “There are over 400 anti-trans bills moving across state legislatures in the US, twice the amount introduced last year.”

“This bill being signed into law is a beacon of hope and sends a powerful message of acceptance to LGBTQ people across the nation. At the Trevor Project, we work every day to protect the lives of LGBTQ youth, and days like today prove that in generations to come, both their legal and lived equality will no longer be fodder for political debate,” said Troy Stevenson, director of state advocacy campaigns for the Trevor Project. “Our research shows that having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among LGBTQ young people by 40 percent. We applaud the elected leaders, advocates and Gov. Whitmer for making this a reality, and affirming the dignity and rights of LGBTQ Michiganders by codifying these protections into law.”

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