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ENDA’s religious exemption still concerning as vote nears

Brown says religious exemption should be same for LGBT workers as other categories

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Sherrod Brown, Democratic Party, Ohio, gay news, Washington Blade, United States Senate
Sherrod Brown, Democratic Party, Ohio, gay news, Washington Blade, United States Senate

Sen. Sherrod Brown believes the religious exemption in employment discrimination law should be the same for LGBT workers as with other categories (D-Ohio) (Photo public domain).

Shortly after filing cloture on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) held a 30-minute conference call with Nevada LGBT leaders late Thursday in anticipation of the bill coming to the Senate floor this week.

Among those on the call was Derek Washington, lead organizer for the LGBT group GetEQUAL Nevada, who said he raised with Reid concerns about ENDA’s religious exemption.

That language would provide leeway for religious institutions, like churches or religious schools, to discriminate against LGBT workers in non-ministerial positions even if ENDA were to become law. It’s broader than similar exemptions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for categories of race, gender, religion and national origin.

“I mentioned to him that it was something that just was not palatable,” Washington said. “I asked him what he felt about it, and he felt that the main thing to do was get the vote taken care of, and then deal with it later. As often times happens, you don’t get something perfect the first time around, you go back and fix it later, so that was basically his take on it.”

That account was corroborated by Faiz Shakir, a Reid spokesperson, who said the Democratic leader understands the concerns, but wants to get the bill passed first, then go back and address the exemptions.

“Sen. Reid’s first priority is to pass the strongest possible legislation which can garner 60 votes,” Shakir said. “He believes the current legislation meets that test.”

Washington was unfazed by Reid’s response that the religious exemption won’t see change before passage, insisting the Nevada Democrat is one of the greatest champions for the LGBT community, noting, among other things, he was the first elected official to endorse the National Equality March in 2009.

“I think it would a shame to write a story about any of this without mentioning that that man is a hero to us, and I don’t think people get that,” Washington said.

That symbolizes the situation with narrowing the broad religious exemption in ENDA before the Senate approves the bill. Despite concerns that it’s too expansive, the idea of limiting it at this time — such as the amendment process — isn’t getting a lot of traction either from LGBT advocates or lawmakers.

Instead, those with concerns over ENDA’s religious exemption have more modest aspirations: Get LGBT friendly lawmakers in the Senate to speak out against the language on the Senate floor.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, is among those saying he’s not seeking an amendment to religious exemption on the Senate floor, but wants the provision addressed in some way.

“By doing that, it’s certainly our hope more and more pro-equality members of Congress and their staff will come to understand the potential harm of the current exemption, and I think we’ll see growing support for narrowing it moving forward,” Thompson said.

Thompson added he’s “definitely hopeful” that senators will speak out against the exemption of the floor, but declined to name any prospects for who would articulate concerns.

Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said her organization “didn’t anticipate” being able to change the religious exemption, but is looking for senators to speak out against the language.

“What we were hoping for for — which hasn’t happened yet because the senators haven’t gone to the floor yet — is for some of the more progressive senators to speak out from the floor against the religious exemption,” Cronk said. “So, we’ll wait and see what happens on the floor to see if we get those statements.”

GetEQUAL has petitioned four senators with a reputation for being champions of progressive values — Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) — to speak out against the religious exemption. As of Sunday, the petition has just under 6,000 signatures.

It remains to be seen whether any senator will speak out in favor of limiting the religious exemption when ENDA comes to the Senate floor this week. Of these four senators, the only office who responded to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the extent of the religious exemption was that of Brown.

Meghan Dubyak, a Brown spokesperson, said the senator’s focus is passing is ENDA, although he shares the belief the religious exemption for LGBT discrimination should be the same it is for other categories.

“Sen. Brown’s top priority is overcoming a likely filibuster and ensuring passage of ENDA,” Dubyak said. “He believes the religious exemption in ENDA should be consistent with the federal law that currently protects people against discrimination.”

In July, Gillibrand said during a Third Way event that said she’d go even further and amend ENDA to remove the religious exemption. However, her staffers have apparently backtracked from that statement as they’re now mum on the issue.

For its part, the White House is staying out the argument over the religious exemption. Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, reiterated in an email weeks ago President Obama supports ENDA, but is leaving the details to Congress.

“We look forward to lawmakers moving forward on this bill that upholds America’s core values of fairness and equality,” Inouye said. “While we defer to Congress on the specifics of the legislation, we believe lawmakers will be able to find a balance that protects LGBT workers and religious liberty.”

Since the introduction of ENDA this year, the ACLU has called for narrowing the religious exemption along with groups like GetEQUAL, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal and the Transgender Law Center, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

On the other hand, groups working on like Freedom to Work, the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for American Progress have endorsed the current exemption in ENDA.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, co-wrote the religious exemption currently found in ENDA while working as a House staffer in 2007. Neither he nor HRC responded to multiple requests to comment for this article.

Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs for the Center for American Progress, said the religious exemption is necessary to enable bipartisan support to move the bill forward.

“The current religious language reflects a bipartisan compromise that represents a pragmatic balance between ensuring that LGBT workers have the protections they need and organizations,” Stachelberg said. “While the religious exemption is broader than other civil rights statutes it will ensure that LGBT workers have the protections they need.”

If anything, the movement in the Senate on ENDA’s religious exemption this week may be more toward expanding it even further.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), seen as a potential supporter of ENDA, has said he’s behind the basic premise of the legislation, but has concerns about restrictions on religious liberties and wants to strengthen the bill to ensure they’re protected.

Prior to the committee vote on ENDA in July, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had prepared an amendment that would replace the bill’s religious exemption with more comprehensive language for religious employers. It was never brought up before the committee. Paul’s office didn’t respond to a request to comment on whether the senator would introduce the amendment on the Senate floor.

Concerns over the existing religious exemption were ramped up last month when Tippi McCullough, formerly a teacher for 15 years at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, Ark., was forced to resign after the school learned she had married her same-sex partner in New Mexico. Because the school is a religious institution, it would not be subject to liability under ENDA.

Thompson said the consequences of passing ENDA with its current exemption in place are hard to predict, but said it would be “a dramatic, and from our view, and very troubling expansion of an exemption like this in our federal civil rights law.”

“I think that it wouldn’t be too into the future before we saw instances of employment discrimination occurring against workers who should be protected from employment discrimination and may find out that because the scope of the existing religious exemption that they may not be,” Thompson said.

LGBT advocates who oppose the religious exemption chose their words carefully about whether they want to see ENDA passed this year with the current language — as opposed to letting it die in Congress so that it could be passed with a narrow exemption at a later time.

Thompson said the ACLU has been a “longtime champion of ENDA” because of the protections in the bill “are critically important and long overdue.”

“We’ve endorsed it, so that’s a position that we’ve taken,” Thompson said. “We have consistently, also though, raised concerns about the scope of the religious exemption and said that that is should be appropriately narrowed ultimately before it ends up on the president’s desk, and that’s our view, but at the same time because of the protections that it would afford to LGBT people are so important and so needed, we also support the bill.”

Cronk said GetEQUAL neither supports nor opposes the bill and believes “any time that that pro-LGBT legislation comes up in Congress, we want that legislation to move forward.”

“Our organizers didn’t feel good about organizing in support of the bill because there wasn’t that change to the religious exemption and because the grassroots network we work with feel the impact of that everyday,” Cronk said. “They work in hospitals in the closet, or they teach at schools where they’re in the closet, and they have a really clear sense about who would be left behind by this legislation, and didn’t feel that was in line with our vision.”

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District of Columbia

Activists, policy makers mark Celebrate Bisexual Day in D.C.

BiPlus Organizing US hosted event at HRC

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Adrian Shanker, senior advisor for LGBTQI+ health equity in the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, speaks at a Bisexual Awareness Day event at the Human Rights Campaign on Sept. 23, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Cal Benn)

BiPlus Organizing US on Saturday hosted a Celebrate Bisexual Day event at the Human Rights Campaign.

Fiona Dawson, co-founder of BiPlus Organizing US, and Mélanie Snail, committee member of the organization, emceed the event. HRC Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Rebecca Hershey welcomed attendees. 

Heyshey discussed her journey as a bisexual, mixed race, Jewish woman. Hershey paraphrased Adrienne Maree Brown, stating “change is coming, we are creating change.” 

PFLAG Learning and Inclusion Manager Mackenzie Harte gave a presentation on the history of bisexual identities, defined terms surrounding gender and sexuality and went over statistics of discrimination and health disparities that bisexual individuals face.

Harte’s presentation noted 48 percent of bisexual individuals reported an annual income of less than $30,000, compared to 30 percent of gay men, 39 percent of lesbians and 28 percent of all adults in the U.S. 

Harte went on to say 28 percent of bisexual students report having attempted suicide; and bisexual people have a higher risk of mood disorders, substance abuse and mental illness than their lesbian, gay, or straight cohorts. Bisexual people of all genders face higher rates of sexual assault than those same peers. One reason for these statistics is isolation: 39 percent of bisexual men and 33 percent of bisexual women report not being out to any health care provider, and only 44 percent of bisexual youth report having an adult they could turn to if they were sad. 

Harte also spoke about the Bisexual Manifesto, which the Bay Area Bisexual Network wrote in 1990. 

“The bisexual manifesto very intentionally was not binary,” Harte said.

They said the text works against the stigma and stereotypes that claim bisexuality is confined to “male, female.” 

Tania Israel, a bisexual advocate and psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared some of her bisexual haikus, which she calls, “bikus.”

Dawson moderated the next panel.

Panelists included Nicole Holmes, a bisexual advocate and public health professional, National Center for Transgender Equality Communications Director Leroy Thomas and NCTE Policy Counsel Kris Tassone. 

The panel talked about how shame and stigma drive the statistics that negatively impact the bisexual community. Another word that came up as a driving force was “intersectionality.” 

Holmes said that when it comes to intersectionality, it’s important to not just “list identities,” but to look deep into “the purpose behind why we are talking about intersectional identities” in the first place.

Adrian Shanker, senior advisor on LGBTQ+ Health Equity for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spoke about health equity for the bisexual community. 

“Striving for health equity remains a core priority. It also remains an unmet dream,” said Shanker. “Queer people have always had to be our own health advocates.” While health equity may not be here yet, Shanker says there is much in the works for the LGBTQ community, bisexuals specifically. 

Shanker cited a National Cancer Institute funding opportunity that invites research proposals to cancer care for sexual and gender minorities, stating bisexual specific proposals are welcome. The impending potential government shutdown may postpone it. 

The Biden-Harris administration is also working to ban so-called conversion therapy at the federal level. Additionally, 988, the national suicide prevention hotline, began a program to offer specialized support for LGBTQ youth and young adults last year. 

Shanker said bisexual people should prioritize preventative screenings for skin cancer, oral cancer, lung cancer, regular cervical and anal pap tests, mammograms, prostate exams and colonoscopies. 

“If you have a body part, get it screened,” said Shanker. 

Megan Townsend, senior director of entertainment research and analysis for the GLAAD Media Institute, did a presentation on bisexual representation in the media and opportunities for advancement. 

 “I want to see bi+/pan colors displayed on the White House,” said Dawson. “I want every national LGBTQIA+ organization to be talking about us, to put our concerns front and center.”

The data presented can be found here.

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Delaware

Flight attendants union endorses Sarah McBride

Del. lawmaker would be first transgender member of Congress

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Delaware state Sen. Sarah McBride speaks at the LGBTQ+ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch in D.C. on April 10, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Delaware congressional candidate Sarah McBride has earned the support of the Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s most prominent flight attendant union.

It’s the second big labor endorsement for McBride after the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27’s endorsement. The Association of Flight Attendants praised her for spearheading efforts to bring paid family and medical leave to Delaware, which will take effect in 2026. 

“Sarah’s record in the Delaware Senate shows that she understands how to work collaboratively, build power and make big things happen,” the union’s president, Sara Nelson, wrote in a press release shared exclusively with the Washington Blade. “That’s the kind of leader we need in Congress, and we’re proud to endorse her candidacy.”

McBride also announced her support for creating a list of abusive passengers and banning them from flying. Each airline has a list of passengers banned from flying, but airlines don’t share the lists with each other, though Delta Air Lines has asked them, because of “legal and operational challenges,” as a representative for the airline industry trade group Airlines of America told a House committee in September 2021.

“Right now, someone can be violent towards a flight attendant or another passenger and walk directly off of that flight and onto one with a different airline to endanger more people,” an Association of Flight Attendants spokesperson wrote in a statement. 

The Protection from Abusive Passengers Act would put the Transportation Security Administration in charge of building the database of passengers fined or convicted of abuse and has bipartisan support but has sat idly in committee since March. It failed to pass last year, and civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have charged that the list would disproportionately target people of color and strip and a better step to reducing hostility would be making flights more comfortable. Reports of defiant and unruly passengers have more than doubled between 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2022.

“I thank the Association of Flight Attendants for endorsing our campaign,” McBride wrote in the press release. “It’s important that we recognize and celebrate the symbiotic relationship between strong, unionized workforces and the continued growth of employers here in our state.”

The union representing 50,000 flight attendants across 19 airlines is putting pressure on airlines to grant union demands in contract negotiations. At American Airlines, unionized flight attendants voted to authorize a strike — putting pressure on the airline to accede to its demands. Flight attendants at Alaska Airlines say they are ready to strike but have not voted to authorize one yet. United Airlines flight attendants picketed at 19 airports around the country in August, ratcheting up the pressure. 

The union’s endorsement adds to a growing list of McBride endorsements, including 21 Delaware legislators, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Human Rights Campaign, EMILY’s List, and Delaware Stonewall PAC. McBride, who would be the first openly transgender politician in Congress, has powerful connections in Washington — including with the White House — and is favored to win Delaware’s lone House seat. 

A poll commissioned by HRC shows her leading the pack of three candidates vying for the seat — 44 percent of “likely Democratic voters” told pollster company Change Research, which works with liberal organizations. The poll of 531 likely Delaware Democratic primary voters, though, was conducted only online — meaning those with less familiarity or access to the internet may not have been counted — and Change Research’s methodology for screening likely voters is unclear. The company also did not provide a breakdown of respondents by age, gender, and race, but says it uses an algorithm to make the results representative.  

Nelson said McBride’s time in Delaware’s state Senate shows her prowess in building power and working collaboratively.  

“That’s the kind of leader we need in Congress, and we’re proud to endorse her candidacy,” she wrote.

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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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