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Religious exemption inspires heated debate at ENDA panel

Wolfson challenges current language in LGBT anti-discrimation bill

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Tico Almeida, Evan Wolfson, Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Work, marriage equality, same-sex marriage, gay marriage, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, ENDA, gay news, Washington Blade
Freedom to Marry's Evan Wolfson (left) and Freedom to Work's Tico Almeida had heated exchange on ENDA's religious exemption (Blade file photos by Michael Key).

Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson (left) and Freedom to Work’s Tico Almeida had heated exchange on ENDA’s religious exemption (Blade file photos by Michael Key).

NEW YORK — The appropriate scope of the religious exemption in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act continues to stir debate as a prominent marriage equality advocate on Thursday made a surprise endorsement of narrowing the broad provision in the bill.

Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, said he shares the “grave concerns” expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union over the religious exemption — which he said would “carve coverage by certain kinds of entities for LGBT people” — during a panel as part of Freedom to Work’s premier “Situation Room” in New York City.

“I do have grave concerns about the specific language in the specific bill,” Wolfson said. “That’s one of the points of difference I have with Freedom to Work on this current bill.”

Currently, ENDA has a religious exemption that provides leeway for religious organizations, like churches or religious schools, to discriminate against LGBT employees. That same leeway isn’t found under Title VII, which prohibits religious organizations from discriminating on the basis of race, gender or national origin.

Wolfson and Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work and proponent of the religious exemption, were the lone speakers on the second panel of the day. Wolfson’s main purpose on the panel was to talk about the lessons the campaign to pass ENDA can learn from the marriage equality fight.

Almeida initially responded by saying the religious exemption has value in allaying concerns from Republican lawmakers who are undecided on ENDA.

“I would say that in a bunch of Republican meetings we spend a majority of the time talking about the religious exemption and exactly how it will apply, what the case law is,” Almeida said.

Almeida co-wrote the current version of the religious exemption when working as a staffer for Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). It was passed as an amendment on the U.S. House floor in 2007 to a gay-only version of ENDA by a vote of 402-25.

But Almeida qualified his support for the religious exemption by saying he believes religious organizations shouldn’t be able to receive federal funds if they discriminate against LGBT people. But, Almeida continued, the mechanism to prohibit this discrimination isn’t ENDA; rather, it should be a workplace non-discrimination executive order signed by President Obama.

“I think there’s complete uniformity that we are all pushing for a federal policy that if you take and profit from federal dollars, you must follow American values, you must pledge not to discriminate against LGBT folks — and if you get caught, there should be consequences,” Almeida said.

But Wolfson quickly retorted as the panel developed into a heated debate between him and Almeida that seemed to become almost hostile as the session closed.

“We have a body of laws across the country that include sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited discriminatory classifications alongside race, sex and others — and they have all followed generally a certain kind of exemption — as had Title VII and the Civil Rights Act, and so on,” Wolfson said. “The problem with this current draft of ENDA is that exemption goes far beyond what that body of experience has taught us is the right balance.”

Wolfson added the argument in favor of ENDA to undecided lawmakers should be to look at existing law throughout the states as opposed to enshrining “new and unnecessary and dangerous exemptions from non-discrimination law.”

“By the way, calling them religious exemptions implies that there’s some religious problem to be solved,” Wolfson said. “There is no religious problem to be solved: what these are are licenses to discriminate.”

Almeida, a Catholic, responded by saying he thinks attitudes should change within the church by action from members of that particular faith.

“I don’t believe civil rights statute in the form of Title VII and ENDA should be used to force the Catholic Church to make a change to its policies,” Almeida said. “I think we will push them, and it may take decades, and it may take more than my lifetime, but we will push them in other ways.”

Almeida added he doesn’t understand the argument the religious exemption in ENDA is a new approach because he said he “literally copied and pasted it from Title VII.”

Besides, Almeida also said groups that oppose ENDA’s religious exemption missed an opportunity to propose an amendment when the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee voted on the bill in July. Also, he challenged them to make public the language they would prefer instead.

“I would love for those organizations to publicly communicate to the LGBT community and to Congress what is their proposal,” Almeida said. “They made a big fuss …,  and they didn’t seek an amendment at markup. They didn’t ask any of our progressive champions, and there are very progressive champions on that committee, or if they asked, then they got rejected.”

Wolfson countered by saying Almeida’s proposal to change the Catholic Church from within is “completely irrelevant” to the conversation of putting a “license to discriminate” in a statute.

“Nobody is saying that the Catholic Church should be sued or told what to do as a matter of law when it comes to doctrine or the church, or ministers,” Wolfson said. “That’s misleading language that might confuse people in a way that you didn’t intend.”

Additionally, Wolfson said Almeida was mischaracterizing the religious exemption in ENDA by saying it’s lifted from Title VII. Almeida conceded that point on the panel.

“To say that something has some degree of religion in it, but now that it’s in the marketplace, it can now fire not just the priest, but the janitor, that’s an exemption that doesn’t exist in Title VII or any other parts of law,” Wolfson said.

Concluding his argument, Wolfson said the religious exemption issue must be resolved because it’s giving fuel to the anti-LGBT forces seeking to thwart ENDA passage.

“The religious exemption language thing is mostly a distraction, it’s a non-and-wrong solution to a non-problem, but becomes important if it get put into law,” Wolfson said.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the ACLU, told the Blade after the panel he commends Wolfson for endorsing a narrower religious exemption for ENDA, calling the news “a great development.”

“As a leader of the freedom to marry movement, he knows as well as anyone the importance of rejecting overly broad religious exemptions,” Thompson said.

Further, Thompson responded to Almeida’s claims that narrower language on religious institutions hasn’t been proposed by pointing to existing law.

“The alternative to ENDA’s unprecedented religious exemption has been and remains crystal clear,” Thompson said. “Just as our civil rights laws have never permitted blank checks to discriminate based on race, sex, national origin, age, and disability, they must not now do so based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Discussion of the religious exemption also came up during the first panel of the day, which consisted of six speakers from a bipartisan group of LGBT organizations. Paul Schindler, editor-in-chief of Gay City News, asked the panel if they were comfortable with the language.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the National Log Cabin Republicans, started off the discussion by saying he was “comfortable” with the current wording because it’s hard enough selling the bill as it is.

“Without naming names, there are meetings that I have had with Republicans — both in the House and the Senate — where there’s some Republicans who don’t feel those religious protections go far enough,” Angelo said. “We’re pushing back against that. I think the protections as they exist now are strong, they’re solid.”

Melissa Sklarz, a transgender Democratic activist from Stonewall Democrats of New York City, seemed to support the exemption on a temporary basis as a way to win support for the bill, saying it won’t hold up in court and is just “a barrier to try to win allies” on the Republican side.

“It’s a good idea,” Sklarz said. “We watched them fight LGBT equality in ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and we’ve watched it in marriage. As they keep throwing things at ideas that prevent equality, they will not stand up. If this is going to win allies among the moderate and right-wing so we can get it to the floor, then great.”

Asked by Schindler whether under the current religious exemption he could be fired at a Catholic hospital or a Mormon book store, Almeida replied, “It depends.”

“It depends on the facts,” Almeida said. “Law has very few bright line tests, and neither the Title VII religious exemption, nor the ENDA religious exemption, list types of organizations. So, courts have created factors that are considered.”

Almeida said courts have established that for-profit businesses are eligible for the religious exemption under existing law. But he acknowledged that organizations like the Catholic Church and Catholic Charities will be able to continue to discriminate against LGBT people in hiring and firing decisions.

“By tying the ENDA religious exemption explicitly to the Title VII religious exemption, that gives us the most clarity, and as a byproduct, and for me it’s just a byproduct, it’s going to be the one to help us win,” Almeida said.

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Republican Pa. governor nominee opposes LGBTQ rights

Former President Trump backed state Sen. Doug Mastriano

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Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano (Screenshot/NBC News)

Republican leadership in the Keystone State are expressing quiet alarm over the emergence of radical-right state senator who secured his place as the party’s nominee in the race against Democratic nominee for governor, Josh Shapiro, who is himself currently serving as the commonwealth’s attorney general.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who represents Cumberland, Adams, Franklin and York Counties in the South Central Pennsylvania area bordering Maryland, was not seen as a truly viable candidate in the primary race to be the party standard-bearer until he was endorsed by former President Trump.

Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race has serious implications for the outcome of the 2024 presidential election cycle as well. The commonwealth is a strategic swing state and the occupant of the governor’s chair in Harrisburg will lend considerable influence to a final vote count.

Mastriano is a polarizing figure within the state’s Republican Party.

The retired U.S. Army colonel has campaigned at political events that included QAnon adherents, he espoused a political agenda that embraced Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, rejected measures taken to protect Pennsylvanians including masks in the coronavirus pandemic, holding an anti-vaccine “Medical Freedom Rally” rally on the state Capitol steps days after declaring his candidacy for the GOP governor’s primary race, and also mixing in messaging of Christian nationalism.

He also supports expanding gun rights in Pennsylvania and in the state Senate sponsored a bill to ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected.

NBC News noted that Mastriano pledged in his election night address that on the first day of his administration he would crack down on “critical race theory,” a catchall term Republicans have used to target school equity programs and new ways of teaching about race, transgender rights and any remaining COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

“CRT is over,” Mastriano declared. “Only biological females can play on biological females’ teams,” he added, and “you can only use the bathroom that your biology and anatomy says.”

His anti-LGBTQ views have long been part of his personal portfolio. The Washington Post reported that 21 years ago while attending the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College in 2001, then-Maj. Mastriano wrote his master’s thesis on a hypothetical “left-wing ‘Hitlerian putsch'” that was caused by “the depredations of the country’s morally debauched civilian leaders.” Among those “depredations,” in his words, was the “insertion of homosexuality into the military.”

As the Post reported, his paper shows “disgust for anyone who doesn’t hold his view that homosexuality is a form of ‘aberrant sexual conduct.'”

The paper is posted on an official Defense Department website and lists Mastriano as the author at a time when he said he received a master’s degree from the school.

This is not the only instance of Mastriano professing anti-LGBTQ beliefs. 

In 2018, he stated his belief that LGBTQ couples should not be allowed to adopt a child. During an interview with 103.7 FM, when asked “should LGBTQ couples, i.e. two moms or two dads, be allowed to adopt?” Mastriano answered, “No.” [This takes place at the 16:00 mark.]

NBC News interviewed David La Torre, a Republican and former adviser to fellow gubernatorial candidate Jake Corman.

“As far as what a Pennsylvania government would look like with Mastriano in charge, quite frankly, it’s just not something I’m ready to think about at this point,” La Torre said, adding that while there are many unknowns, the dynamic between Mastriano and the state General Assembly, currently controlled by Republicans, would be one to watch. 

“All I know is this — he will govern as governor like he campaigned,” he said. “He would govern with a sledgehammer and expect Republicans to fall in line. And it would be one of the more fascinating tugs of war we’ve seen in Harrisburg.”

Dave Ball, chairman of the Washington County GOP, told NBC News that Mastriano’s victory was “a shame” for the party, the product of “a phenomenon that I truly don’t understand.” But any misgivings won’t stop Ball from working toward the ultimate goal: taking back the governor’s mansion, saying it’s a must-win race. (The two-term incumbent, Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is term-limited.)

As if telegraphing the battles to come should he take the governor’s chair, Politico reported: “Our biggest problem,” said Mastriano on Steve Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic” podcast on Tuesday, “is going to be these feckless RINO-type Republicans here that will not allow us to have a fighter as governor. But we’re going to beat them and they’re going to lose power, and they’re going to be put to shame.”

Mastriano lists agenda as governor during Pa. GOP nominee victory speech:

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National

History making win- Out Lesbian could be Oregon’s next governor

“This will be a three-way race for the highest office in our state, and this will be an election unlike anything any of us have ever seen”

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Courtesy of Tina Kotek

The Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday win by Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, who had announced her run for the governor’s seat to replace incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown, who is term limited last September 1st, 2021, positions her to become the first Out Lesbian governor in the nation should she win the general election in November.

Kotek’s win comes during an uptick in the elections nationwide as more candidates running for office identify as LGBTQ”. More than 600 LGBTQ candidates are on ballots this year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

According to the Victory Fund, at least 101 people ran or are running for the U.S. Senate or U.S. House – with 96 still actively running as of February 21, 2022. That marks a 16.1 percent increase in LGBTQ Congressional candidates compared to the 2020 election cycle, when 87 people ran.

Speaking to her supporters after it became clear she had won over Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, who was polling second among Oregonian progressives, “This will be a three-way race for the highest office in our state, and this will be an election unlike anything any of us have ever seen,” Kotek said.

Republican state legislator Christine Drazan along with an independent candidate, Betsy Johnson are slated to be on the November ballot.

Last Fall when she announced her candidacy, she said, “I am running for Governor because I know that, together, we can reckon with the legacies of injustice and inequality to build a great future for Oregon.” She also noted, “Oregonians are living through a devastating pandemic, the intensifying impacts of climate change, and the economic disruptions that leave too many behind. We must get past the politics of division and focus on making real, meaningful progress for families across our state.” 

“A victory for Tina would shatter a lavender ceiling and be a milestone moment in LGBTQ political history, yet she is running not to make history, but because there are few people as prepared and qualified to serve as Oregon’s governor,” said Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund. “Under Tina’s leadership, Oregon has led in passing legislation to improve roads and education, raise the minimum wage and ensure all residents are treated fairly and equally. As governor, Tina will make Oregon a role model for the nation.”

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News

Karine Jean-Pierre on her firsts: ‘I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman’

High praise for first out WH press secretary

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Karine Jean-Pierre is no stranger to progressive politics.

She takes on the role of White House press secretary as part of a long career working on building political coalitions and as a spokesperson for advocates before coming to the Biden administration, which has won her close allies and admirers who continue to cheer her on. Jean-Pierre’s new position as top spokesperson for President Biden — and the first Black, first openly gay person to become White House press secretary — is the latest endeavor she pursues in that broader mission.

Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn.org, knew Jean-Pierre from when she worked at the progressive organization and she quickly became a rising star “because she’s so incredibly skilled at communicating in a way that real people understand.”

“She was incredibly relatable to people that were watching her at home on TV,” Epting said. “And she could speak to you know, she she did that role during the Trump era for MoveOn and she really spoke to the hearts and minds of what people were feeling and thinking during that time.”

It was during Jean-Pierre’s time with MoveOn when she was serving as a moderator for a panel with Kamala Harris and famously rose to block an animal-rights activist who was physically threatening the candidate.

When protests emerged during the Trump era over policies such as his travel ban on Muslim countries, efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the two impeachment votes seeking to remove Trump from office, Epting said Jean-Pierre was key in MoveOn.org being at the front lines of those efforts.

“Karine was on TV and she was representing the movement in ways that sparked or electrified the energy that was actually being felt out there,” Epting said.

Jean-Pierre, 45, has a distinctive story of rising to become White House press secretary as an immigrant from a Haitian family whose parents brought her to the United States, where she was raised in Queens, N.Y., from the age of five. Jean-Pierre cared for her younger siblings growing up as her mother worked as a home health aide and her father worked as a taxi driver.

Despite these humble beginnings, Jean-Pierre nonetheless reached astonishing heights. After receiving her master’s degree from the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University, Jean-Pierre went on to work for President Obama, serving as regional political director for the White House Office of Political Affairs during the Obama administration’s first term, before returning to the White House after Biden was elected president.

Michael Strautmanis, now executive vice president for public engagement at the Obama Foundation, worked with Jean-Pierre in the 2008 presidential campaign and at the White House under Obama and said the first thing that came across to him was how she “always had it covered.”

“She never came and asked me for advice on something where she didn’t already have one or two or three possible solutions to the challenge that she always had,” Strautmanis said. “She was always very, very well prepared, so she just sort of stood out to me.”

Jean-PIerre brings all this background to the role of White House press secretary in addition to achieving many firsts in the appointment as a Black woman, an LGBTQ person and an immigrant. Her partner is Suzanne Malveaux, a CNN reporter and former White House correspondent.

In her maiden briefing on Monday as White House press secretary, Jean-Pierre said the opportunity granted to her in her new role was not just an achievement, but the culmination of work from many who came before her.

“I am obviously acutely aware that my presence at this podium represents a few firsts,” Jean-Pierre said,. “I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman, the first of all three of those to hold this position. I would not be here today if it were not for generations of barriers — barrier-breaking people before me. I stand on their shoulders. If it were not for generations of barrier-breaking people before me, I would not be here.”

Asked by April Ryan of The Grio, a Black news outlet, about the many firsts she achieved by taking on the role as White House press secretary, Jean-Pierre recognized the signal that sends and brought up an article from a newspaper that went to her elementary school in Hampstead, N.Y.

“And these kids wrote me a letter,” Jean-Pierre said. “And in the letter, they talked about how they can dream bigger because of me standing behind this podium. And that matters. You know, as I started out at the beginning: Representation matters. And not just for girls, but also for boys.”

A White House spokesperson said Jean-Pierre was unable to make the Washington Blade’s deadline in response to an interview request for this article. Among the questions the Blade planned to ask was whether or not she feels a special obligation to represent and speak for the communities in her role as White House press secretary.

It wasn’t a straight line for Jean-Pierre to get to the position as White House press secretary. Although she worked for Harris in the Biden campaign, she came to the White House as deputy White House press secretary under Jen Psakl, who was responsible for Biden. (At the start of the Biden administration, Politico reported that Jean-Pierre’s relationship with the vice president became strained and Jean-Pierre was effectively estranged in the final five months of the campaign.)

But Jean-Pierre quickly won high praise in her role as a Biden spokesperson. In May 2021, when she gave her first on-camera briefing as a substitute for Psaki, Jean-Pierre was considered effectively to have knocked the ball out of the park and reportedly won a round of applause from her colleagues upon retuning to the press office.

Ester Fuchs, who was an instructor for Jean-Pierre when she was at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs and later her colleague when she returned as a lecturer, said key to understanding Jean-Pierre’s success in communications is her balance of optimism and realism.

“She showed really a deep understanding of American politics, and particularly divisions in American politics,” Fuchs said. “But she was very much committed to the idea that the American Dream was still real for people like her, but with a kind of realpolitik understanding of what were the roadblocks, and always very committed to equity and fairness and making sure that people who were new immigrants or from high -needs population had a chance to be heard.”

The high praise Jean-Pierre receives from her former colleagues and friends undermines the argument in conservative media she was selected for the role of White House press secretary only because she checks off numerous boxes in the base of the Democratic Party’s coalition. Tucker Carlson of Fox News, for example, aired a segment last week deriding the appointment as the latest example of identity politics. Carlson mocked supporters for saying being LGBTQ is “the only thing you need to know” about Jean-Pierre, essentially ignoring the commitment and achievement she has made in getting there.

But there’s also a boon of having a good personality. Jean-Pierre’s smile as a means of being effective in disarming and comforting people was one of her features that came up two times independently among the people close to her the Blade consulted for this article.

Strautmanis said he’ll be watching to see whether or not Jean-Pierre’s humor comes out in her new role in White House press secretary as well as her capability to make people around her implicitly trust her, but ultimately predicted she would “kick ass.”

“She just engenders a tremendous confidence,” Strautmanis said. “And so, I think that’s the other thing that people are going to see, which is that as she speaks, you’re just gonna have a sense that, ‘You know, I trust what this person is saying,’ and I think that’s a really hard thing to do in that in the work that she’s done before in that job. But I think that’s why she transitioned from being a political staffer into communications, because she has that ability in communications to be up front, be direct, be honest, and yet still kind of push forward a particular agenda. I think that’s a rare combination.”

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