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Obama talks DOMA, gay rights in Africa

POTUS says married gay couples should have fed’l benefits wherever they move

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Barack Obama, Election 2012, gay news, Washington Blade
Barack Obama, Election 2012, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama on Thursday talked about DOMA and gay rights in Africa. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

During his high-profile trip Africa, President Obama said on Thursday he believes the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA should be implemented broadly to provide gay couples the federal benefits of marriage wherever they live in the country, although his administration is still examining the legal implications of the ruling.

Obama made the remarks during a joint news conference with Senegal President Macky Sall that took place in the presidential palace in Dakar. The reporter asked Obama to respond to the DOMA ruling and the state of gay rights in Senegal, where same-sex relations is still criminalized.

With respect to DOMA, Obama said the ruling was “not simply a victory for the LGBT community, it’s a victory for American democracy” and noted he had a phone call with New York widow and lawsuit plaintiff Edith Windsor after the decision was announced.

“I believe at the root of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans is the basic precept that we are all equal under the law,” Obama said. “We believe in basic fairness. And what I think yesterday’s ruling signifies is one more step towards ensuring that those basic principles apply to everybody.”

Amid calls from LGBT advocates for the Obama administration to interpret the decision as broadly as possible to ensure all federal benefits are available to married same-sex couples, Obama said his personal belief is that the maximum amount of benefits should flow.

“It’s my personal belief — but I’m speaking now as a President as opposed to as a lawyer — that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you’re still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple,” Obama said. “But I’m speaking as a President, not a lawyer.”

Obama said prior to the decision, he had already instructed White House counsel to work with lawyers across every federal agency “to start getting a sense” for the implications of administratively applying a rule that says federal benefits apply to all married couples — gay or straight. Anticipating the result, Obama gave assurances the implementation of whatever benefits are available would happen as quickly as possible.

“So we’re going to be evaluating all these issues and making sure that we work through them in a systematic and prompt way, because now that the Supreme Court has spoken it’s important that people who deserve these benefits know that they’re getting them quickly,” Obama said.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama’s words are a good start as HRC looks to the administration for a broad implementation of federal benefits for same-sex couples.

“It’s certainly very positive news,” Sainz said. “This president has been an ardent defender of LGBT people and this is indication of that. We’re looking forward to guidance from the Administration as to how all legally married gay couples will get the same federal benefits.”

In response to the question about the criminalization of homosexuality in Senegal, Obama said the issue didn’t come up in bilateral conversations as he spoke more broadly about his opposition to discrimination in any form.

“But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” Obama said. “I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort. That’s my personal view. And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.”

Perhaps acknowledging the culture of Senegal, where 96 percent of the population practice Islam, Obama maintained he respects the customs and traditions in different countries.

“The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa,” Obama said. “So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions.  And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, et cetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.”

In his response to the question, Sall struck a different tone, saying his country won’t decriminalize homosexuality as he maintained his country is very tolerant and doesn’t believe in discrimination.

“We don’t tell anybody that he will not be recruited because he is gay or he will not access a job because his sexual orientation is different,” Sall said. “But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality. I’ve already said it in the past, in our Cabinet meeting it is Senegal’s option, at least for the time being, while we have respect for the rights of homosexuals — but for the time being, we are still not ready to change the law.”

Andre Banks, executive director for the LGBT global equality group All Out, praised Obama for speaking out in favor of equality and amid growing concerns of anti-gay activity in Africa.

“Nigeria and Uganda are threatening to bring in even harsher anti-gay laws that will ruin more lives, and Cameroon is aggressively hunting down and prosecuting people because of who they are and who they love,” Banks said. “Other African nations like Senegal who claim they aren’t ready to end laws that make it a crime to gay need to hear Obama’s words and know the tide of love and equality is rising. Customs and cultures may differ, but there is never a legitimate reason for denying a person equality under the law because of who they are and who they love.”

Frank Mugisha, a gay Uganda activist who has worked against the “Kill the Gays” bill in the country, told the Washington Blade he welcomes Obama’s remarks and thinks they’re significant.

“Some are saying, ‘We don’t need pressure from outside,'” Mugisha said. “For me I think it is important that Obama mentions gay rights on his trip to Africa, if he had not I would be disappointed, Africa has been in the spot light in the recent years on abuse and violation of gay people and any world leader would want to mention that. I do not know why people are OK when world leaders talk about all the other issues in Africa and when they talk about homosexuality then it becomes a problem. Homosexuality like any other rights is a universal human right and any one can speak out against these violations any where any time.”

A partial transcript of the Q&A between the reporter and Obama and Sall follow:

REPORTER:  Thank you, Mr. President.  You called the DOMA ruling a victory for couples everywhere who are seeking equal treatment under the law.  But this leaves unanswered questions for couples in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage.  And now it’s largely up to you.  Will you direct the government to make sure that federal benefits are extended, like Social Security, to all couples, no matter where they live?  And will you comment generally on the historic nature of yesterday’s rulings?  Also, did you press President Sall to make sure that homosexuality is decriminalized in Senegal?

And, President Sall, may I ask you, sir — thank you, first of all, for your hospitality.  You just said you embrace democracy and freedom.  As this country’s new President, sir, will you work to decriminalize homosexuality in this country?

….

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, first of all, I think the Supreme Court ruling yesterday was not simply a victory for the LGBT community, it’s a victory for American democracy.  I believe at the root of who we are as a people, who we are as Americans is the basic precept that we are all equal under the law.  We believe in basic fairness.  And what I think yesterday’s ruling signifies is one more step towards ensuring that those basic principles apply to everybody.

When I spoke to Ms. Windsor — 83 years old — and I thought about the 40 years of her relationship and her partner, who is now passed, for her to live to see this day where that relationship was the vehicle whereby more people received their rights and are recognized as a testament to the love and commitment that they have made to each other, that was special.  And that’s just a microcosm of what it meant for families and their children all across America.  So it was a proud day I think for America.

Now, as you point out, there are a whole lot of implications that flow from it, because the Supreme Court did not make a blanket ruling that applies nationally, but rather lifted up the ability of states to recognize the dignity and respect of same-sex marriage, and that the federal government couldn’t negate the decision by those states.  We now have to comb through every federal statute.  And although we hadn’t pre-judged what the ruling had been, I had asked my White House Counsel to help work with lawyers across every agency in the federal government to start getting a sense of what statutes would be implicated and what it will mean for us to administratively apply the rule that federal benefits apply to all married couples.

What’s true though is that you still have a whole bunch of states that do not recognize it.  The Supreme Court continues to leave it up to the states to make these decisions.  And we are going to have to go back and do a legal analysis of what that means.  It’s my personal belief — but I’m speaking now as a President as opposed to as a lawyer — that if you’ve been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you’re still married, and that under federal law you should be able to obtain the benefits of any lawfully married couple.  But I’m speaking as a President, not a lawyer.

So we’re going to be evaluating all these issues and making sure that we work through them in a systematic and prompt way, because now that the Supreme Court has spoken it’s important that people who deserve these benefits know that they’re getting them quickly.  And I know that, for example, Chuck Hagel already mentioned some work that the Department of Defense is doing on that front.  And I think we’re going to be seeing that in all the various agencies.

Now, this topic did not come up in the conversation that I had with President Sall in a bilateral meeting.  But let me just make a general statement.  The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa.  So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions.  And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, et cetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.

But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally.  I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort.  That’s my personal view.  And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.

So my basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you, how the state treats you — the benefits, the rights and the responsibilities under the law — people should be treated equally.  And that’s a principle that I think applies universally, and the good news is it’s an easy principle to remember.

Every world religion has this basic notion that is embodied in the Golden Rule — treat people the way you want to be treated.  And I think that applies here as well.

PRESIDENT SALL:  (As interpreted.)  Now, on the issue of homosexuality, Mr. President, you did make a long development on this issue.  But you said something very important — general principles which all nations could share, and that is the respect for the human being and non-discrimination.  But these issues are all societal issues basically, and we cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations, all countries — you said it, we all have different cultures.  We have different religions.  We have different traditions.  And even in countries where this has been decriminalized and homosexual marriage is allowed, people don’t share the same views.

Senegal, as far as it is concerned, is a very tolerant country which does not discriminate in terms of inalienable rights of the human being.  We don’t tell anybody that he will not be recruited because he is gay or he will not access a job because his sexual orientation is different.  But we are still not ready to decriminalize homosexuality.  I’ve already said it in the past, in our Cabinet meeting it is Senegal’s option, at least for the time being, while we have respect for the rights of homosexuals — but for the time being, we are still not ready to change the law.

But of course this does not mean that we are all homophobic.  But the society has to absolve these issues.  It has to take time to digest them, bringing pressure to bear upon them, on such issues.  It is just like the capital punishment.  In our country, we have abolished it for many years.  In other countries, it is still the order of the day, because the situation in the country requires it.  And we do respect the choice of each country.  But please be assured that Senegal is a country of freedom and homosexuals are not being prosecuted, persecuted.  But we must also show respect for the values and choices of the other Senegalese people.

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Lindsey Graham: Same-sex marriage should be left to the states

Republican senator says issue a distraction from inflation

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Sen. Lindsey Graham said he still thinks the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to the states. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, said Sunday he still thinks the issue of gay nuptials should be left to the states.

Graham made the remarks during an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash in a rare televised bipartisan debate with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) as the Senate was in the middle of voting on amendments for the Inflation Reduction Act.

When discussing the 6-3 conservative majority of the Supreme Court, Graham said consistent with the recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade justices could overturn other precedents, such as the 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in favor of same-sex marriage.

Asked point blank if he was saying it should be overturned, Graham said “no, I’m saying that I don’t think it’s going to be overturned.” Graham, however, had an infection his voice, suggesting same-sex marriage could be undone.

“Nor should it be?” asked Bash.

“Well, that would be up to the court,” he responded, then added: “I think states should decide the issue of marriage, and states should be decide the issue of abortion.”

When Bash brought up another case, Loving v. Virginia, the 1965 case that overturned states bans on interracial marriage, and asked if that should be revisited as well, Graham replied, “no.”

Graham quickly moved on to tamp down any expectation the would address the issue of same-sex marriage, saying fears the court would revisit the issue are unfounded and meant as a distraction from issues such as inflation.

“But if you’re going to ask me to have the federal government take over defining marriage, I’m going to say no,” Graham added.

Graham’s remarks are consistent with what he told the Washington Blade in 2015 when asked about same-sex marriage as the issue was being adjudicated by the Supreme Court. However, they contrast to his support for a Federal Marriage Amendment that was pending before Congress during the Bush administration and would have made a ban on same-sex marriage nationwide part of the U.S. Constitution. Graham was not asked about his views on now defunct idea of an amendment during the CNN interview.

h/t The Independent

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Biden on freeing Brittney Griner: ‘I’m hopeful. We’re working very hard.’

U.S. puts deal on table as Griner sentenced to nine years

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President Biden said he was hopeful about freeing Brittney Griner on Friday.

President Biden made brief comments on Friday expressing optimism about securing the release of Brittney Griner the day a Russian judge sentenced the lesbian basketball player to nine years in a penal colony.

“I’m hopeful. We’re working very hard,” Biden said in response to a shouted question from a reporter following a bill signing at the White House.

Griner has been detained in Russia since February on charges of entering the country with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil and was later arrested on drug charges. The Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap with Russia for the release of Griner in exchange for a Russian arms dealer in U.S. custody.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday the optimism Biden expressed was based on general feelings as opposed to a new development in negotiations.

“He’s the president, he has to feel hopeful,” Jean-Pierre said. “This is something that is important to him. I don’t think — if he had said something else — it would have not, you want to be sure you zero in, he’s focused on the task that is at hand. His team is working on this, his national security team, you’ve heard from Secretary Blinken, you’ve heard from us. This is something — again, has been top of mind, bringing U.S. nationals home who are being wrongfully detained, who are being held hostage has been a priority of his. There’s no other place but to be hopeful and to do the work that we need to do to get this done.”

Asked if there was any specific development, Jean-Pierre replied, “No. I wouldn’t read into it. I think as president, he’s doing what presidents do, giving hope.”

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House Dems seek IRS review of anti-LGBTQ organization’s tax status

Family Research Council designated ‘association of churches’

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Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) is among those leading a call for an investigation into the Family Research Council.

A group of House Democrats, in the wake of a report finding the Family Research Council has been granted a special tax status as an “association of churches,” is calling on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the prominent anti-LGBTQ organization’s designation under the tax code.

The 38 House Democrats — led by Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) — articulate the call in an Aug. 1 letter to the IRS, arguing the Family Research Council is “primarily an advocacy organization and not a church.”

“We understand the importance of religious institutions to their congregants and believe that religious freedom is a cherished American value and constitutional right,” the letter says. “We also believe that our tax code must be applied fairly and judiciously. Tax-exempt organizations should not be exploiting tax laws applicable to churches to avoid public accountability and the IRS’s examination of their activities.”

The impetus for the letter was a July report in ProPublica revealing the Family Research Council — which pushes for legislation against gender reassignment surgery for youth, filed friend-of-the-court briefs in favor of overturning of Roe v. Wade, and pushed for exemptions for individuals refusing to provide services for LGBTQ people over religious objections — is considered an “association of churches” with Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBTQ group, as its religious leader.

According to ProPublica, the Family Research Council is among a number of social conservative groups in recent years that have sought and been granted tax status as churches, which shields them from financial scrutiny. As a result, Family Research Council won’t be required to issue an IRS 990 detailing its finances and salaries of key staff members, nor can the IRS initiate an audit of the organization without approval from a high-ranking Treasury Department official, ProPublica reports.

The letter from House Democrats seeks from the IRS: 1) An expeditious review of the status of the Family Research Council; 2) Investigation on whether other political advocacy organizations have obtained church status, but do not satisfy the IRS requirements for churches; 3) Improvement of the review process for organizations seeking church status to ensure that organizations that aren’t churches can’t abuse the tax code; and 4) a determination on whether existing guidance is sufficient to prevent abuse and whether more congressional actions are necessary.

The Washington Blade has placed a call with the Family Research Council and the Internal Revenue Service seeking comment on the letter and calls to review the organization’s tax status.

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