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Herring declares victory in Virginia attorney general race

Democrat ahead of Mark Obenshain by 163 votes; recount likely

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Mark Herring, gay news, Washington Blade

Mark Herring, gay news, Washington Blade

Mark Herring (Photo courtesy of Herring for Attorney General)

State Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun County) on Tuesday declared victory in the Virginia attorney general race after a count of provisional ballots in Fairfax County showed him ahead of state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) by 163 votes.

“Voters in Virginia have spoken, their voices have been heard and I am honored to have won their votes and their trust to become Virginia’s next attorney general,” Herring said in a statement. “Over the course of the past week, a thorough and extensive process has ensured that every vote has been tallied and accounted for. The margin was close, but it is clear that Virginians have chosen me to serve as the next attorney general.”

The attorney general race is the closest statewide contest in Virginia history.

Obenshain was ahead of Herring by only 17 votes early on Monday. NBC 4 reported that Herring was ahead of Obenshain by 117 votes at the end of the day after the Richmond Electoral Board found it had not counted totals from one voting machine.

Former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe on Nov. 5 defeated Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the race to succeed Gov. Bob McDonnell by a 48-45 percent margin. State Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk) defeated Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson by a 55-45 percent margin in the lieutenant gubernatorial campaign.

LGBT rights advocates during the campaign criticized Obenshain for sponsoring a bill that McDonnell signed into law earlier this year that bans public universities from denying recognition and funding to student organizations that discriminate in their membership based on sexual orientation and other unprotected categories under federal law. The Republican lawmaker also opposed a measure a Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee tabled in February that would have banned discrimination against LGBT state employees.

Northam noted to the Blade during a pre-election interview that Obenshain left the Senate floor when he and his colleagues in January voted to approve gay Richmond Circuit Court Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland’s judgeship.

“By the final vote count and canvass, it is clear that Attorney General-elect Mark Herring’s principled leadership and dedication to restoring integrity to the attorney general’s office prevailed over Tea Party Republican Obenshain’s long record of sponsoring and voting for divisive legislation,” Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Charniele Herring said in a statement on Tuesday. “I am proud of Attorney General-elect Herring. Virginians should take comfort that he will work to protect the interest of all people of the commonwealth.”

The State Board of Elections has until Nov. 25 to officially certify the results.

Obenshain did not specifically mention a recount in a statement he issued late on Tuesday, even though one is likely.

“We owe it to the people of Virginia to make sure we get it right and that every legitimate vote is counted and subject to uniform rules,” Obenshain said. “We have seen significant swings in the vote count over the last several days as errors are corrected as part of the regular canvass process. The State Board of Elections will now conduct its own review and we will await their results.”

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District of Columbia

Judge orders D.C. high school to recognize anti-LGBTQ student group

Ruling overturns claim that Christian group’s policy violates Human Rights Act

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A U.S. District Court judge on July 11 issued a preliminary injunction ordering D.C.’s Jackson-Reed High School, the city’s largest public high school, to officially recognize a student group called the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which requires its leaders to support the group’s religious belief that homosexuality is immoral.

The 31-page ruling by Judge Dabney L. Friedrich came in response to a May 7, 2024, lawsuit filed by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ national office against D.C. Public Schools officials and the D.C. government. The lawsuit charges that Jackson-Reed High School violated the Christian student group’s religious rights under the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act by refusing its most recent application for recognition.

The lawsuit says the group applied for and received recognition in 2022, making it eligible for full school benefits, funding, and the right to hold meetings at school facilities. But according to the lawsuit, the school system reversed its decision of recognition in the fall of 2022 after a school athletic coach expressed opposition to the recognition on grounds that Fellowship of Christian Athletes discriminates against the LGBTQ community by its requirement that its leaders oppose homosexuality.

In its court filings in response to the lawsuit, the Office of the D.C. Attorney General says Jackson Reed, in consultation with D.C. Public Schools officials determined that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ requirement that its student leaders must adhere to its position on homosexuality violates the D.C. Human Rights Act and the D.C. school system’s longstanding policy of prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Plaintiffs’ religious rights are not violated by D.C. Public School’s Anti-Discrimination Policy because it is a generally applicable, religiously neutral policy that applies to every student and student organization at DCPS schools,” the AG’s court filing says. “As such, Plaintiffs’ religious freedoms, as guaranteed under the First Amendment, are not infringed,” it says.

The AG’s court filing says D.C. Public Schools made it clear that it would grant full recognition to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at Jackson-Reed High School if it disassociates itself from the national group’s “discriminatory” policy on homosexuality. Students associated with the Jackson-Reed FCA group and the attorneys representing them declined that offer.

In addition to the District of Columbia, the lawsuit names as defendants Lewis D. Ferebee, Chancellor and CEO of D.C. Public Schools; and Cinthia L. Ruiz, the D.C. Public Schools’ Chief Integrity Officer.

It says the Jackson-Reed student group that signed onto the lawsuit is part of a national Fellowship of Christian Athletes organization that operates more than 7,000 student chapters called “huddles” that meet at middle school, high school, and college campuses across the country.

In what initially appears to be supportive of the D.C. Attorney General’s position, Judge Friedrich cites the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ statement of faith, which holds that marriage is limited to “a lifelong covenant relationship between a man and a woman.” In her ruling the judge further quotes  the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ position prohibiting “sexual relations outside of marriage (whether involving individuals of the same sex or opposite sex)” and “any sexually immoral act … including homosexuality.”

But in her ruling granting the Christian group’s request for a preliminary injunction while the lawsuit itself continues in litigation, Friedrich states that D.C. ‘s defense falls short. As stated in the lawsuit, the judge points out, among other things, D.C. Public Schools has recognized other secular student groups that have restrictions on who can be leaders or members.

The lawsuit argues that at Jackson-Reed High School several student groups are allowed to restrict who their leaders can be, such as the Disabled Student Alliance and the Asian Student Union as well as the Wise Club, which the lawsuit says offers “special space for young women.”

“These limits seem reasonable; they create focused, helpful spaces for involved students,” the lawsuit says. “But by reserving to itself the discretion to allow these clubs to choose their leaders based on beliefs or characteristics, D.C. Public Schools impermissibly singles out Fellowship of Christian Athletes for discriminatory treatment by stripping FCA of its recognized status for doing the same thing,” it says.

“Antidiscrimination laws ‘have done much to secure the civil rights of all Americans,’” Friedrich states in the conclusion section of her ruling. “But anti-discrimination laws, like all other laws, must be applied evenhandedly and not in violation of the Constitution,” she states. “Unfortunately, it appears that this command was not followed at Jackson-Reed High School.”

The judge notes again that Fellowship of Christian Athletes requires its student leaders, “but not its members,” to “affirm their commitment to the group’s beliefs.” She states that among those beliefs is the prohibition on sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

 “For this, FCA lost its official status at Jackson-Reed,” Friedrich wrote in her ruling. “As a condition for reinstatement, the District forced FCA to choose between official school recognition and its religious principles. Such treatment is at odds with that received by secular groups at Jackson-Reed that limit membership on the basis of other protected characteristics and/or ideological alignment,” the judge concludes.

In support of her ruling, Friedrich cited a decision by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco last September that overturned a similar school ban on a religious student group by San Jose, Calif., public schools. The ruling by the 9th Circuit, which has the reputation of being a liberal appeals court, declared the school system could not withhold recognition of some student affinity groups and not others based on their views or beliefs.

Based on “at least” the possibility that D.C.’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes will prevail in its lawsuit under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, Friedrich said she granted FCA’s request for a preliminary injunction ordering the D.C. Public Schools to grant recognition of FCA at Jackson-Reed High School. The judge said she declined to approve the group’s request that the injunction be expanded to include  all D.C. public schools.

Under court rules, a preliminary injunction remains in effect until the time a lawsuit is resolved in court. The lawsuit filed by Fellowship for Christian Athletes requests a trial by jury. Court records show that no trial date had been scheduled as of July 12.

The D.C. Office of the Attorney General did not immediately respond to news media inquiries for comment on the judge’s ruling and whether it plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C.

Jackson-Reed High School, which had the name Woodrow Wilson High School from the time of its opening in 1935 until its name was changed in 2022, is located in the city’s Tenleytown neighborhood in Northwest Washington.

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District of Columbia

D.C. Public Schools’ LGBTQ+ program helps ensure students feel safe

More than half of queer students experience bullying, harassment

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According a study from Theirworld of LBGTQ+ Gen-Z youth, students feel unsafe in schools. D.C. Public Schools is trying to combat the problem in the District. 

“Research shows that the way schools and families respond to LGBTQ+ youth can affect their physical health, mental health outcomes, academic outcomes, and their decision-making later in life,” said DCPS’ LGBTQ+ Programming Specialist, Adalphie Johnson. 

DCPS’ LGBTQ+ Program started in 2011 after a 2009 survey from GLSEN revealed that 9 out of 10 queer students reported in-school harassment. 

In response, they have created extensive programming to ensure students feel safe at D.C. Public Schools. In 2015 they created a trans and non-binary policy that included guidance on LGBTQ+ terms, locker room accommodations, gender-neutral dress codes, and more. 

In addition, they host an annual conference for queer and trans DCPS students. 

“The “Leading With Pride” conference increases networking, and builds the leadership capacity of our students and faculty advisers to implement school-level LGBTQ programming,” Johnson said. 

In 2023, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures according to HRC. This year, Theirworld’s survey found that more than half of LGBTQ students experienced bullying and harassment at school.

Johnson said that students feeling safe in school requires creating an environment where all students can thrive. 

“We encourage students to report incidents without fear of retaliation and ensure that reports are taken seriously and investigated promptly,” she said. 

Johnson also pointed out that as a result of discrimination, students are more likely to miss school, which can lead to low grades, along with impairing cognitive responses. So, she said, it is best for schools to respond with action swiftly. 

However, Johnson and the LGBTQ+ programming team acknowledge that not all students come from supportive backgrounds. 

As a part of their trans and gender-nonconforming policy, staff are expected to work closely with students to determine how involved parents are with the transitioning student, before contacting parents. 

Johnson gave parents eight steps to ensure the safety of their child, if they are in the LGBTQ community.  

8 Steps For Parents

1. Educate Yourself. Learn about LGBTQ+ identities, issues, and terminology. Understanding the basics can help you provide better support and avoid misunderstandings.

2. Listen and Communicate. Create an open and non-judgmental space for your child to express themselves. Listen to their experiences and feelings without interrupting or offering unsolicited advice.

3. Advocate for Them. Stand up for your child in situations where they may face discrimination or misunderstanding. Become actively involved in the PTA and other parent groups within the school.

4. Seek Support. Lead or organize programming with/for other parents of LGBTQ+ children can provide  valuable insights and emotional support.

5. Respect Their Privacy. Allow your child to determine their own level of outness at school. Don’t share their identity without their permission.

6. Create a Safe Environment. Inform the school of any homophobic or transphobic remarks or behavior from others.

7. Inform school about their needs. Recognize that each LGBTQ+ person’s experience is unique. Ask your child what they need from you and how you can best support them. Communicate those needs to the school. This would be a great opportunity to develop and share a Safety Plan for the student while at school. 

8. Promote Inclusivity. Encourage, support and inform inclusive policies and practices in your child’s school community. 

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District of Columbia

SMYAL for Summer returns July 25

‘Their hard work, resilience, and identities are valued and celebrated’

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A scene from last year's SMYAL for Summer. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

SMYAL for Summer is back at Franklin Hall on July 25, where the youth services organization will honor the next generation of change makers in the LGBTQ community. 

“In a tumultuous year for policy against LGBTQ+ youth, celebrating the achievements of our scholarship winners sends a powerful message that their hard work, resilience, and identities are valued and celebrated,” said Caro Vordndran, SMYAL’s Development Coordinator. 

At the event, SMYAL, the D.C. queer and trans youth advocacy organization, will honor recipients of its Youth Leadership Award and the Sophie’s Live Out Loud Scholarship. Plus, the event will feature a drag performance from Mia Vanderbilt. 

One of the scholarship recipients, Lion Burney, said that in addition to the scholarship they were most excited for the community they will continue to seek in SMYAL’s safe space. 

“The SMYAL community means a lot to me. From found family to open expression to endless support — I am beyond grateful to be a part of this experience,” Burney said.

This is SMYAL’s 12th annual SMYAL for Summer event and the 40th year of creating community for D.C.’s youth. Given SMYAL’s history, alumni like Nathan Handberg often come back to keep traditions alive. 

Handberg was an awardee in 2019 and served on the selection committee this year. They said they felt great about their continued involvement with SMYAL.

“Being a previous winner really gave me insight that helped with the process of choosing the winners this year and I like that I have the ability to help shape future leaders in our community,” they said. 

Tickets for the event range from $10 for students and $20 for general admission, up to $500 for Platinum Supporters. Tickets for the event will contribute to funding for SMYAL’s year-round youth advocacy programming. The event will run from 6-8 p.m.

“They have housing programs for queer youth… they’ve done queer sex education classes filling in critical gaps that are left by our education curriculum,” Handberg said. “Honestly they do so much more, I could write multiple pages on my experiences with SMYAL and all they do.”

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