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Former ‘ex-gay’ leader to march in Pride parade

Alan Chambers says he ‘repented,’ has new mission of inclusiveness



Alan Chambers, gay news, Washington Blade
Alan Chambers, gay news, Washington Blade

Alan and Leslie Chambers have abandoned ‘ex-gay’ causes and now advocate for marriage equality.

Alan Chambers says he and many of his compatriots who operated the nation’s preeminent “ex-gay” organization for 12 years before they shut it down in 2013 have undergone a fundamental, personal change in their Christian beliefs and views on homosexuality.

Chambers, 44, an ordained minister who served as president of Exodus International from 2001 to 2013, is scheduled to deliver two sermons at the Washington National Cathedral on Sunday morning.

But instead of advocating for Exodus International’s past call for “reparative therapy” to help people change their sexual orientation from gay to straight, Chambers says he plans to tell the story of how he and others involved with Exodus have changed and now believe God loves and fully embraces LGBT people for who they are.

“And by change I mean we changed our opinion,” he told the Washington Blade in an interview. “We’ve changed our beliefs. We’ve changed our understanding in many respects,” he said.

“We’ve become affirming of people and supportive and affirming of marriage equality and feel like there are a lot of amazing relationships out there,” Chambers said. “And we believe that’s something that is a right that people have and should have and that God can bless those relationships as much as he can bless heterosexual relationships.”

In a development that would have been unthinkable during his earlier years at Exodus, Chambers is scheduled to march in the Capital Pride Parade on Saturday as part of a contingent organized by the National Cathedral.

Chambers acknowledges his current views represent a major break from his past statements and actions.

During most of his years as president of Exodus International he fulfilled the role of poster boy for the organization’s mission to persuade people who were troubled over “same-sex attractions” to change their sexual orientation from gay to straight by embracing God and Christian beliefs.

Often accompanied by his wife, Leslie Chambers, Alan Chambers pointed to what he said was his own success in leaving a gay or bisexual lifestyle through reparative or “conversion” therapy that Exodus International and other ex-gay ministries promoted but that was debunked and condemned by the world’s major medical associations.

In 2013 Chambers shocked many of the conservative Christian leaders and organizations he worked with for over a decade by announcing Exodus International was disbanding permanently. To the dismay of those remaining supportive of “ex-gay” ministries, he publicly apologized to the LGBT community for the “pain and hurt” that Exodus had caused.

Chambers said the decision to close Exodus International followed his realization that reparative therapy did not work and often brought about feelings of shame and despondency when people were unable to change their sexual desires.

He said he also came to the realization that LGBT people were fully embraced by God’s love and that the church in many ways had failed to minister to their true needs.

While acknowledging and accepting Chambers’ remorse of his past role in the “ex-gay” movement and his current support for LGBT rights, some in the LGBT community have criticized him for not publicly confirming that’s he’s gay or bisexual.

Noting that he’s happily married and deeply in love with his wife, with whom he works closely on projects involving his public speaking tours and writings, Chambers said he’s not interested in being confined to a label.

“I realized a number of years ago before we closed Exodus that straight wasn’t a label that I wanted to place on myself,” he said. “But gay wasn’t either. It doesn’t mean gay isn’t a part of my identity or that I mind people using that as a label to describe me because in some regards, it absolutely does.”

Added Chambers: “But someone who is married happily for nearly 20 years to a woman, not because I had to be or because I needed to be but because I wanted to be. I choose really to stay away from labels that pigeonhole me into one identity that makes one group feel better or another group feel worse.”

The full text of the Blade’s interview with Chambers follows:

Washington Blade: What was it that prompted you to shut down Exodus International?

Alan Chambers: Well there were a number of factors, the first of which is it was always my goal to close down Exodus. And the reason for that was really what evolved over the course of time that I was the president of Exodus. I became president in 2001. And in the interview process they asked me what success would look like for me as the president of Exodus. I said success looks like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing its job.

And the job that I was talking about drastically changed in my mind to not helping people change but helping people be celibate, not pointing to a good or an evil but simply including people – all people – LGBTQ plus people into the life, body, and ministry of the church.

And that’s really the passion that we have today is seeking inclusion, full inclusion where people can use their gifts and not be second-class citizens in the church but be treated as I would treat anyone and that is as a full-fledged member of His family.

And I know something that changed for us and that’s one of the major factors in closing Exodus was it was founded on a premise that was faulty in our opinion. And we couldn’t modify our mission. We couldn’t rebrand our mission. In order to do the maximum amount of healing necessary we had to shut the organization down.

And I felt like that message to the church that people who had been entrenched in this movement have changed. And by change I mean we changed our opinion. We’ve changed our beliefs. We changed our understanding in many respects. And then to the LGBT community our message in closing was we pray that this is a huge healing opportunity for those who have been hurt, for those who have had different experiences frankly than I had at Exodus.

Blade: When you say the Exodus movement was based on a faulty premise, by that did you mean it’s not possible to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay to straight?

Chambers: Right – and that’s the whole premise – that Exodus was an organization that believed and promoted change.

Blade: Didn’t you say in some of your recent writings that you repented? Was all of this part of a repenting in some way?

Chambers: Yeah. And repenting, you know, means change your mind. And we changed our minds. I changed my mind on all of these things, especially how we approached them from a Christian perspective and a human rights perspective. And so we repented. I repented. I changed my mind.

Blade: By changing your mind, do you now agree with the many LGBT Christian activists such as leaders of the LGBT supportive Metropolitan Community Church that God loves LGBT people and same-sex love and committed same-sex relationships are not a sin? Is that something you now feel has validity?

Chambers: Absolutely. We’ve become affirming of people and supportive and affirming of marriage equality and feel like there are a lot of amazing relationships out there and that’s something we need to support and encourage. And it gives people the opportunity to be faithful where they haven’t been able to experience that before. And we believe that’s something that is a right that people have and should have and that God can bless those relationships as much as he can bless heterosexual relationships.

Blade: You mention in some of your writings that during your tenure at Exodus you walked the halls of Congress. By that did you mean you lobbied or advocated in opposition to LGBT civil rights legislation among other things?

Chambers: For a period of time we did lobby against marriage equality and certain anti-discrimination policies and things like that. In 2008 we publicly came out and said we were wrong for doing that and we now no longer were going to do that. And so during the last few years of Exodus – the last five or six years of Exodus we, again, to use the word repent, repented our political involvement in that regard.

And since then, since closing Exodus, I felt there were things where I needed to be very vocal about my support in the affirmation of the things that I used to oppose.

Blade: But when you stopped opposing LGBT rights legislation in 2008 were you still promoting the idea that gay people could change their sexual orientation?

Chambers: Yeah, gradually, though, we got away from the change verbiage and denounced reparative therapy and those types of things before we closed, which caused a huge fissure and separation within Exodus where other groups began to break off and form their own organizations because of our changing positions.

Blade: Clearly many conservative or fundamentalist Christians and religious right organizations like the Family Research Council still condemn homosexuality and claim gays can and should change their sexual orientation. Have any of these people confronted you or challenged you on your current beliefs?

Chambers: Oh, absolutely, yes. We were challenged tremendously in all of that. And some even made accusations against me – that I was having an affair and there was no way I could say the things I was saying for any other reason than I was cheating on my wife and I was living a double life and those types of things. I had a prominent Evangelical person call my pastors and tell them that he had a word from God that I was cheating on my family and that was the only way I could have a change of heart and change of position on all of these things.

So they have done everything from challenge me publicly and in the press to invading my private space in life by calling people and spreading lies about me. And that’s been hurtful. But it is what it is and it only galvanizes our desire to do right by the LGBTQ plus community and stand our ground and continue to work and fight on behalf of them.

Blade: You’ve undoubtedly heard those who quote Biblical passages such as Leviticus, which they interpret to say homosexuality is a sin condemned by God. Do you have any thoughts on how that can be reconciled with your own beliefs?

Chambers: I know there are a number of people on both sides who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to take scripture and prove a point with it. And what I’ve come to understand about scripture is I believe that the Bible is true. What I know of myself is I don’t have the ability to interpret it perfectly and no one else does either. So there are numerous scriptures, not just related to homosexuality but related to so many things that I look at and I think there is more to it than what’s there in the black and white.

What I do know is my understanding of scripture is that it’s full of good news and it’s full of good advice. And the good news is – the most important part in that good news is that Jesus came for all of us, that he is someone who wants a relationship with everyone. And there is no one excluded from that.

So I know there are a lot of people that explain theology and gay theology so much better than I do. What I found as a Christian and a pastor and as a person that this impacts directly – I don’t have to be concerned about what those passages actually mean because I think when it comes down to it, it is irrelevant. The arguing over that is irrelevant. He didn’t die so we can point our finger at people and say you’re better than or you’re less than or you’re good or you’re evil.

Blade: In a commentary published last October in the Advocate, writer Eliel Cruz said he believes you are sincere about the changes in your beliefs about the “ex-gay” movement. But he criticized you for not being willing so far to identify as gay or bisexual. What are your thoughts on that?

Chambers: Well Eliel is my friend and we’ve had these conversations. And he’s not the only one that feels that way. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time focused on a label. I was a part of a movement that labeled itself as ex-gay, which was frankly a label that I always hated. And that was a part of what we were involved in and entrenched in for so long. And I realized a number of years ago before we closed Exodus that straight wasn’t a label that I wanted to place on myself. But gay wasn’t either. It doesn’t mean that gay isn’t a part of my identity or that I mind people using that as a label to describe me because in some regards it absolutely does. But as someone who is married happily for nearly 20 years to a woman, not because I had to be or because I needed to be but because I wanted to be. I choose really to stay away from labels that pigeonhole me into one identity that makes one group feel better or another feel worse.

I just feel like I’m more than those things and for me, if I’m going to identity myself or label myself it’s going to be as the thing that I am. I’m a husband. I’m a father…a Christian. All of those things are far more descriptive and accurate. If I were going to pull an orientation label there is certainly truth to the gay orientation. But also as a married man for almost 20 years, my orientation is my wife. And but if I was gay or straight predominantly my orientation should be to the person I’m married to. And so when I think about it in those terms I feel like that is something that is fair to me and fair to my family to label myself in those ways.

But I certainly understand when somebody uses the gay label to describe me. And I wouldn’t argue with them. There is truth there. But as a person I prefer to live beyond sexual labels or the social labels, even though I appreciate them and understand when people use them for themselves and even for me.

Blade: Former President Jimmy Carter created a stir in 1976 when he was a presidential candidate and said in an interview that he had sinned many times because he had attractions to other women as a married man, even though he overcome those temptations and was faithful to his wife. Could that be a situation that you’re in since some have labeled you bisexual?

Chambers: Well I am married and I believe attraction in and of itself is not a sin. So for me to say I find another human being attractive I don’t think is to say that I am committing a sin. I think attraction in and of itself is value neutral. What I do with those attractions, whether it’s a gay attraction or a straight attraction or whatever – whether it’s to a person or an attraction to money that we need to something that I shouldn’t do – those are areas where I don’t yield.

When it comes to being married I feel like my priority is to my wife. And so I do have attractions. I do have temptations – all of those types of things. But I would no matter what. So my desire as a husband is to be faithful. So I exercise a great deal of restraint as any husband would or any wife would who’s committed to their partner. And so it’s not a gay or a straight issue or one is more sinful than another…My desire is to be faithful to my wife.

Blade: Do you have a position on laws that have been proposed and passed in a number of states to prohibit so-called conversion therapy for minors under the age of 18?

Chambers:  Yeah absolutely I do. I wrote an article for Religion News Service in April 2015, the day President Obama stated his opposition to conversion therapy and made a call for a ban on that for minors. And I agreed with him. And I just did an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center. They released a report on their opposition to conversion therapy and I worked with them and will continue to work with them and others to see that conversion therapy for minors is banned. I’m opposed to that. I think it is dangerous. I think it promotes shame and it shouldn’t be something that minors are forced to be a part of.

Blade: Would you have any advice for an adult who may be considering undergoing conversion therapy to change their sexual orientation?

Chambers: Yeah – my advice to people who are seeking out reparative therapy, which is the traditional name for it, is that you cannot change your sexual orientation. If someone is interested in a celibacy option whether they are gay or straight and they are married and there is a faith or moral conviction about sex outside of marriage that’s very different than seeking out reparative therapy, which I believe produces shame. Orientation cannot be changed. I spent over 20 years in the movement that promoted it, and it doesn’t work. It’s not possible.

But if someone has a moral or a faith conviction about sex outside of marriage then they should be allowed to seek help with someone who will help them achieve that goal. But that’s not reparative therapy. Reparative therapy is something that produce shame and tells you, you are less than and you can change your orientation, which is not possible.

Blade: Can you tell a little about what your message will be when you speak at the National Cathedral on Sunday?

Chambers: Well I’ll be preaching from a text and beyond that I’ll share some of my personal journey and also talk a lot about the example I believe that comes from God and the life of Jesus related to inclusion, related to grace and love and those being our highest priorities – and the hope that people who have been marginalized or hurt by the church or heard a different message from the church will realize their great worth that Christians very often fall short of speaking for God when they talk about sex and sexuality. And we need to do better.

Blade: With marriage equality now the law of the land, LGBT rights advocates say one of the most important remaining tasks for the LGBT rights movement is persuading Congress to pass a federal LGBT civil rights law. Is that something that you can support?

Chambers: Yeah. I try to stay out of politics in general, but I am supportive of legislation that protects individuals and people – groups of people who have been marginalized. And the LGBT community is certainly one of those for sure.

Blade: Can you tell a little about what you are doing now? You’re based in Orlando, Fla. Are you working for another organization?

Chambers: No, we haven’t been working for another organization. My wife is a teacher. And I speak and we both write. And we go where people ask us to go. Most often times that’s for free. And we have just tried very hard not to jump into full-time organization work or a cause but really taken the time to listen to people and spend time with people that wasn’t based around an organization we were trying to promote or raise money for.

And so we’re in the process of trying to move back toward a ministry of some sort. We’ve talked about starting some sort of a church or ministry where we can continue to speak and write just on a different level than we did before. But that’s what we’ve been doing. I freelance and have done some consulting and things like that in the interim. But we’re ready to jump back in full-time and pursue what we believe is our call.

Blade: What religious denomination did you grow up in?

Chambers: I was a Southern Baptist. We’re non-denominational at this point. You can go to Alan I think there’s a bio there that you could see. We’ve not written a ton in the last couple of years, but there are some things there that we have.


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Honoring the legacy of New Orleans’ 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire

Why the arson attack that killed 32 gay men still resonates 50 years later



Fifty years ago this week, 32 gay men were killed in an arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. (Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

On June 23 of last year, I held the microphone as a gay man in the New Orleans City Council Chamber and related a lost piece of queer history to the seven council members. I told this story to disabuse all New Orleanians of the notion that silence and accommodation, in the face of institutional and official failures, are a path to healing.  

The story I related to them began on a typical Sunday night at a second-story bar on the fringe of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, where working-class men would gather around a white baby grand piano and belt out the lyrics to a song that was the anthem of their hidden community, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man. 

“United we stand,” the men would sing together, “divided we fall” — the words epitomizing the ethos of their beloved UpStairs Lounge bar, an egalitarian free space that served as a forerunner to today’s queer safe havens. 

Around that piano in the 1970s Deep South, gays and lesbians, white and Black queens, Christians and non-Christians, and even early gender minorities could cast aside the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the times to find acceptance and companionship for a moment. 

For regulars, the UpStairs Lounge was a miracle, a small pocket of acceptance in a broader world where their very identities were illegal. 

On the Sunday night of June 24, 1973, their voices were silenced in a murderous act of arson that claimed 32 lives and still stands as the deadliest fire in New Orleans history — and the worst mass killing of gays in 20th century America. 

As 13 fire companies struggled to douse the inferno, police refused to question the chief suspect, even though gay witnesses identified and brought the soot-covered man to officers idly standing by. This suspect, an internally conflicted gay-for-pay sex worker named Rodger Dale Nunez, had been ejected from the UpStairs Lounge screaming the word “burn” minutes before, but New Orleans police rebuffed the testimony of fire survivors on the street and allowed Nunez to disappear.

As the fire raged, police denigrated the deceased to reporters on the street: “Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” 

For days afterward, the carnage met with official silence. With no local gay political leaders willing to step forward, national Gay Liberation-era figures like Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church flew in to “help our bereaved brothers and sisters” — and shatter officialdom’s code of silence. 

Perry broke local taboos by holding a press conference as an openly gay man. “It’s high time that you people, in New Orleans, Louisiana, got the message and joined the rest of the Union,” Perry said. 

Two days later, on June 26, 1973, as families hesitated to step forward to identify their kin in the morgue, UpStairs Lounge owner Phil Esteve stood in his badly charred bar, the air still foul with death. He rebuffed attempts by Perry to turn the fire into a call for visibility and progress for homosexuals. 

“This fire had very little to do with the gay movement or with anything gay,” Esteve told a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I do not want my bar or this tragedy to be used to further any of their causes.” 

Conspicuously, no photos of Esteve appeared in coverage of the UpStairs Lounge fire or its aftermath — and the bar owner also remained silent as he witnessed police looting the ashes of his business. 

“Phil said the cash register, juke box, cigarette machine and some wallets had money removed,” recounted Esteve’s friend Bob McAnear, a former U.S. Customs officer. “Phil wouldn’t report it because, if he did, police would never allow him to operate a bar in New Orleans again.” 

The next day, gay bar owners, incensed at declining gay bar traffic amid an atmosphere of anxiety, confronted Perry at a clandestine meeting. “How dare you hold your damn news conferences!” one business owner shouted. 

Ignoring calls for gay self-censorship, Perry held a 250-person memorial for the fire victims the following Sunday, July 1, culminating in mourners defiantly marching out the front door of a French Quarter church into waiting news cameras. “Reverend Troy Perry awoke several sleeping giants, me being one of them,” recalled Charlene Schneider, a lesbian activist who walked out of that front door with Perry.

(Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Esteve doubted the UpStairs Lounge story’s capacity to rouse gay political fervor. As the coroner buried four of his former patrons anonymously on the edge of town, Esteve quietly collected at least $25,000 in fire insurance proceeds. Less than a year later, he used the money to open another gay bar called the Post Office, where patrons of the UpStairs Lounge — some with visible burn scars — gathered but were discouraged from singing “United We Stand.” 

New Orleans cops neglected to question the chief arson suspect and closed the investigation without answers in late August 1973. Gay elites in the city’s power structure began gaslighting the mourners who marched with Perry into the news cameras, casting suspicion on their memories and re-characterizing their moment of liberation as a stunt. 

When a local gay journalist asked in April 1977, “Where are the gay activists in New Orleans?,” Esteve responded that there were none, because none were needed. “We don’t feel we’re discriminated against,” Esteve said. “New Orleans gays are different from gays anywhere else… Perhaps there is some correlation between the amount of gay activism in other cities and the degree of police harassment.” 

(Photo by H.J. Patterson/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

An attitude of nihilism and disavowal descended upon the memory of the UpStairs Lounge victims, goaded by Esteve and fellow gay entrepreneurs who earned their keep via gay patrons drowning their sorrows each night instead of protesting the injustices that kept them drinking. 

Into the 1980s, the story of the UpStairs Lounge all but vanished from conversation — with the exception of a few sanctuaries for gay political debate such as the local lesbian bar Charlene’s, run by the activist Charlene Schneider. 

By 1988, the 15th anniversary of the fire, the UpStairs Lounge narrative comprised little more than a call for better fire codes and indoor sprinklers. UpStairs Lounge survivor Stewart Butler summed it up: “A tragedy that, as far as I know, no good came of.” 

Finally, in 1991, at Stewart Butler and Charlene Schneider’s nudging, the UpStairs Lounge story became aligned with the crusade of liberated gays and lesbians seeking equal rights in Louisiana. The halls of power responded with intermittent progress. The New Orleans City Council, horrified by the story but not yet ready to take its look in the mirror, enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodations that Dec. 12 — more than 18 years after the fire. 

“I believe the fire was the catalyst for the anger to bring us all to the table,” Schneider told The Times-Picayune, a tacit rebuke to Esteve’s strategy of silent accommodation. Even Esteve seemed to change his stance with time, granting a full interview with the first UpStairs Lounge scholar Johnny Townsend sometime around 1989. 

Most of the figures in this historic tale are now deceased. What’s left is an enduring story that refused to go gently. The story now echoes around the world — a musical about the UpStairs Lounge fire recently played in Tokyo, translating the gay underworld of the 1973 French Quarter for Japanese audiences.

When I finished my presentation to the City Council last June, I looked up to see the seven council members in tears. Unanimously, they approved a resolution acknowledging the historic failures of city leaders in the wake of the UpStairs Lounge fire. 

Council members personally apologized to UpStairs Lounge families and survivors seated in the chamber in a symbolic act that, though it could not bring back those who died, still mattered greatly to those whose pain had been denied, leaving them to grieve alone. At long last, official silence and indifference gave way to heartfelt words of healing. 

The way Americans remember the past is an active, ongoing process. Our collective memory is malleable, but it matters because it speaks volumes about our maturity as a people, how we acknowledge the past’s influence in our lives, and how it shapes the examples we set for our youth. Do we grapple with difficult truths, or do we duck accountability by defaulting to nostalgia and bluster? Or worse, do we simply ignore the past until it fades into a black hole of ignorance and indifference? 

I believe that a factual retelling of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy — and how, 50 years onward, it became known internationally — resonates beyond our current divides. It reminds queer and non-queer Americans that ignoring the past holds back the present, and that silence is no cure for what ails a participatory nation. 

Silence isolates. Silence gaslights and shrouds. It preserves the power structures that scapegoat the disempowered. 

Solidarity, on the other hand, unites. Solidarity illuminates a path forward together. Above all, solidarity transforms the downtrodden into a resounding chorus of citizens — in the spirit of voices who once gathered ‘round a white baby grand piano and sang, joyfully and loudly, “United We Stand.” 

(Photo by Philip Ames/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Robert W. Fieseler is a New Orleans-based journalist and the author of “Tinderbox: the Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.”

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New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings



The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund



Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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