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Hearing in the works for federal ‘religious freedom’ bill

Critics say measure would enable anti-LGBT discrimination

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Jason Chaffetz, gay news, Washington Blade
Jason Chaffetz, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is planning a hearing on “religious freedom” legislation for the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Congress has mostly stayed out of the “religious freedom” fight as states pass legislation allowing anti-LGBT discrimination for religious reasons, but that may soon change.

A U.S. House committee is planning a hearing on the First Amendment Defense Act, a “religious freedom” bill with the purported purpose of preventing federal government action against individuals and businesses that oppose same-sex marriage for religious reasons. Critics say it essentially carves out a legal exemption for anti-LGBT discrimination.

The legislation was introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) in the U.S. House and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the U.S. Senate.

M.J. Henshaw, a spokesperson for the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, said the panel is “working towards a hearing” on the legislation, although no date has been scheduled.

A follow-up email on whether the hearing was likely before the end of this month wasn’t returned. It remains to be seen if a committee vote or consideration on the House floor will follow the hearing.

Chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee is packed with conservative Republicans, including Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), who recently attached to a major defense spending bill an amendment that would undermine President Obama’s executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.

The anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage has been pushing for a hearing on the First Amendment Defense Act in a campaign it calls “Fax for FADA.” The effort encourages supporters to sign a petition in support of the legislation, which triggers a fax sent to House Republican leadership and the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee. According to the National Organization for Marriage’s website, the petition as of Wednesday had 3,870 signatures.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, wrote in a blog post the “Fax for FADA” effort “is making a big impact.”

“Word is that the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) will be scheduled for a hearing very soon,” Brown writes. “Our faxes to the House Republican leadership and members of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee are having an impact!”

Upon its introduction last year in an attempt to counter the expected ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, the First Amendment Defense Act is seen as an attempt to make a carve out into that decision without entirely overturning it.

Among other things, LGBT advocates have said the legislation as introduced would 1) permit a federal employee to refuse to process tax returns, visa applications or Social Security checks for same-sex couples; 2) allow recipients of federal grants and contracts, including those for social services programs like homeless shelters and substance abuse treatment programs, to turn away LGBT people; and 3) permit anyone who believes they have been somehow required by the federal government to approve of married same-sex couples to file a lawsuit and potentially receive damages from taxpayer funds.

Roddy Flynn, executive director of the LGBT Equality Caucus, said the legislation is akin to controversial state anti-LGBT laws recently enacted in North Carolina and Mississippi, calling the planned hearing the latest “in a string of attacks on LGBT people.”

“First North Carolina and Mississippi, then the NDAA amendment, now a hearing on FADA, some lawmakers are determined to permit discrimination at all costs,” Flynn said. “These measures are not about religious liberty or the First Amendment, they are attempts to roll back hard fought protections that provide stability and security to LGBT people. With the incredible backlash against North Carolina’s law, it is shocking some lawmakers are doubling down on this much more radical bill. FADA goes far beyond North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law, giving a license to discriminate for anyone who doesn’t like LGBT people.”

On the Senate side, Lee has presented a new version of the First Amendment Defense Act that limits that carve-out for opponents of same-sex marriage, although the update hasn’t officially been filed.

The new version, which is displayed on Lee’s website, spells out protections from government action won’t apply to publicly traded for-profit entities; federal employees acting within the scope of their employment; federal for-profit contractors acting within the scope of their contracts; and hospitals and nursing homes with respect to visitation, decision-making on health care and certain treatments.

Conn Carroll, a Lee spokesperson, said Tuesday the version of the First Amendment Defense Act on Lee’s website is the “up to date” version of the legislation.

“This finalized version of the First Amendment Defense Act, which we’ve been working with religious liberty experts on for months, makes crystal clear that we are only seeking to prevent federal government discrimination against people and institutions that define marriage as a union between one man and one woman,” Carroll said.

On the House side, Labrador’s office didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the article or to confirm if the updated Senate version is the new House version as well.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the legislation remains discriminatory against LGBT people regardless of the change.

“It is disappointing that some Republicans in the House have failed to learn the lessons that Governors Pence, McCrory and Bryant now know all too well,” Thompson said. “Embarking down this discriminatory road is going to meet with the swift backlash that it deserves.”

Thompson said one example of discrimination the bill would still allow is permitting certain federal contractors or grantees, including those that provide social services like homeless shelters or drug treatment programs, to turn away LGBT people, same-sex couples or anyone who has a sexual relationship outside of a marriage, such as a single mother.

“Whether in its original or 2.0 versions, FADA is about permitting taxpayer-funded discrimination,” Thompson said. “This legislation is beneath who we are as a nation. I hope that Speaker Ryan and Chairman Chaffetz will reconsider the wisdom of putting such a bright spotlight onto such an ugly, mean-spirited bill.”

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Virginia

Va. Senate subcommittee tables anti-transgender student athlete bill

Virginia Beach Republican introduced SB 766

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Virginia Senate subcommittee on Thursday tabled a bill that would have banned transgender students from joining school sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Senate Bill 766, which state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) introduced on earlier this month, would have required “each elementary or secondary school or a private school that competes in sponsored athletic events against such public schools to designate athletic teams, whether a school athletic team or an intramural team sponsored by such school, based on biological sex as follows: (i) ‘males,’ ‘men,’ or ‘boys’; (ii) ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; or (iii) ‘coed’ or ‘mixed.’”

“SB 766 (trans sports ban) was passed by indefinitely (it died!) after a long line of speakers testified against it, affirming trans students’ rights to participate in sports just like their cisgender peers,” tweeted the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia after the vote. “Trans students belong in sports. Period.”

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin during his campaign said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Democrats still control the Senate by a 21-19 margin.

A bill that would have eliminated the requirement that school districts implement the Virginia Department of Education’s trans and non-binary student guidelines died in a Senate subcommittee on Thursday. The Senate General Laws and Technology on Thursday also tabled a religious freedom measure that would have undermined Virginia’s LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination law.

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Virginia

Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber

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The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

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Russia

State Department reiterates concerns over Chechnya human rights record

Anti-LGBTQ crackdown continues to spark outrage

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(Public domain photo)

The State Department on Thursday reiterated its concerns over Chechnya’s human rights record that includes an ongoing anti-LGBTQ crackdown.

“We reject Chechnya Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s baseless attempts to malign human rights defenders and independent journalists and we urge him to end authorities’ targeting of those who dissent, LGBTQI+ persons, members of religious and ethnic minority groups, and others, including through reprisals against their family members,” said spokesperson Ned Price in a statement. “We call on Russian federal authorities to refrain from enabling repressive acts, including acts of transnational repression, originating in Chechnya and to bring those responsible for continuing egregious human rights violations in Chechnya to justice consistent with the law of the Russian Federation and Russia’s international human rights obligations.”

Price in his statement also said the U.S. “is troubled by continuing reports of abductions and arbitrary detentions carried out by authorities in Russia’s Republic of Chechnya, including dozens of reported abductions and arbitrary detentions in recent weeks targeting the relatives of Chechen human rights defenders and dissidents.”

“In addition to cases within Chechnya, there have been numerous instances of individuals being detained in other parts of the Russian Federation and forcibly transferred to Chechnya, such as Zarema Musayeva, the mother of human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbayev. Musayeva was taken from Nizhny Novgorod last week,” said Price. “We call for the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained. We are also concerned by reports that Chechen authorities are using such pressure tactics against the relatives in Chechnya of dissidents living outside the Russian Federation. Such acts, which harm entire families, is an especially pernicious form of repression.”

The anti-LGBTQ crackdown in Chechnya continues to spark worldwide outrage.

Chechen authorities in April 2020 arrested two brothers, Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isaev, after they made a series of posts on Osal Nakh 95, a Telegram channel that Kadyrov’s opponents use. Magamadov and Isaev were reportedly forced to make “apology videos” after they were tortured.

The Russian LGBT Network helped the brothers flee Chechnya, but Russian police last February arrested them in Nizhny Novgorod. Chechen authorities brought them back to Chechnya.

Magamadov and Isaev last month reportedly began a hunger strike after a judge denied their request to have another court hear their case. The Crisis Group “North Caucasus SOS” that represents the brothers said the Supreme Court of Chechnya on Wednesday denied their request for a different venue.  

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