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What they really mean by ‘religious freedom’

Values Voters say it’s code for anti-LGBT discrimination



Values Voter Summit, gay news, Washington Blade

The 2018 Values Voter Summit was held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest Washington, D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The call to protect religious freedom — often code among social conservatives for the ability to discriminate against LGBT people — continued to be a rallying cry at the annual anti-LGBT Values Voter Summit, where attendees declared support for President Trump and his policies ahead of the upcoming congressional mid-term elections.

Speakers over the weekend at the annual confab in D.C. for social conservatives from Vice President Mike Pence on down repeatedly incorporated the term in their speeches, stoking paranoid fears that “religious freedom” is in peril and promising the Trump administration will act to preserve it.

But what do social conservatives envision when they hear from political leaders about religious freedom being in danger? After all, the concept of religious freedom being imperiled could also apply to Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, but social conservatives have championed that policy.

Attendees at the Values Voter Summit who spoke to the Washington Blade about religious freedom largely signaled it was in fact a term used to express concern about the growth of LGBT rights and the desire for exemptions from laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBT people.

Kenny Nelson, a 20-year-old attendee from New York, said religious freedom constitutes the ability to exercise conscience “in the free markets,” including the denial of services to LGBT people.

“You have the right to say I don’t want to bake a wedding cake because I don’t support gay marriage,” Nelson said. “That’s really all religious freedom is to me, being free to express religion without persecution.”

Nelson said discussion is warranted over the ability to deny employment to LGBT people “like if you come out as something, will you get fired,” but in his circles a prohibition on anti-LGBT discrimination is the province of the states, not the federal government.

“I think that conservatives don’t like tackling that because it should be left up to the states, or something of that nature,” Nelson said. “We need to let people be free.”

But Nelson pivoted to the idea that religious people are facing discrimination in the workplace instead of LGBT people when elaborating on the issue.

“We need to let people be fired for whatever, but if you’re religious and you get fired, I think maybe religious freedom to me is being able to express your religious views without being totally persecuted for it by lawyers,” Nelson said.

Although federal civil rights laws don’t explicitly prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in the workforce, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion.

Asked to identify any incident of individuals fired for their religious beliefs, Nelson identified David and Jason Benham, real estate entrepreneurs who were among the speakers at the Values Voter Summit.

In 2014, the Benham brothers were to set to launch a home improvement show called “Flip it Forward,” but HGTV scrapped the idea after comments emerged from the brothers over their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

David Benham wrote a 2012 article for the Christian Post in favor of Amendment One, a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage in North Carolina. Benham called opposition to the amendment “a clear glimpse into why morals are declining so rapidly in our culture today” and said redefining marriage “because of one small group of people” would erode the concept of family.

“They got essentially fired for their religious beliefs, ultimately,” Nelson said. “So, yeah. I guess it can happen. I guess it’s sort of an outlier, so to speak. I’m really more focused on being able to say, ‘Hey, these are my religious beliefs, if I don’t want to provide you service, I don’t have to.'”

Two examples of individuals attendees referenced for acting in the name of religious freedom were Jack Phillips, the Colorado owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop who refused to sell a custom-made wedding cake to a same-sex couple and whose case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Barronlle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington State who refused to sell floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding.

Cindy Vick, a 59-year-old homemaker from Arlington, Wash., said religious freedom is under threat and cited as examples both Phillips and Stutzman, whom she called “true heroes.”

“They did not deny service to anyone because of any discrimination,” Vick said. “They could not because of their conscience and their religious beliefs partake of a same-sex marriage, so therein lies the difference. It was according to their faith.”

Vick drew a distinction between refusal of services for an individual based on religion or race and refusing it based on sexual orientation, insisting one is discrimination but the other is not.

“Discrimination would be when the customer walked into their store and if you’re black or yellow or red or green, and I refuse you service because of your color, or you are a certain race, or you subscribe to a certain belief system, [so] I refuse to sell you my cake or my flowers,” Vick said. “But that wasn’t the case, they didn’t refuse on those terms.”

Vick also expressed opposition to the underlying idea of same-sex marriage despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 in favor of marriage rights for gay couples, saying “in the Bible it’s defined as a man and a woman.”

“You’re wanting to rewrite the definition of marriage, so call it something else, but it’s not marriage,” Vick added. “It’s a bogus term for the true meaning of marriage, and that’s what because of their conscience, due to their religious beliefs, they could not participate in.”

Phillips was among the speakers at Values Voter Summit. Introduced on stage as “Jack the Giant Slayer,” Phillips and was praised as an individual who stuck to his religious principles in the face of the intolerable forces of the LGBT left.

Recounting the story of gay couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins coming into Masterpiece Cakeshop to buy a wedding cake, Phillips said, “I knew this was a wedding cake that I could not create because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” That line got huge applause from attendees at the Values Voter Summit.

After he refused Craig and Mullins service, Phillips said the couple flipped him off and swore at him as they exited Masterpiece Cakeshop. The baker also said he had to endure hate emails and death threats and his daughter was threatened, but he stuck to his principles.

Phillips became emotional when he recalled years later reading from the Supreme Court orders list it had agreed to take up his case, acknowledging justices take up relatively few cases.

The decision the Supreme Court handed down in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case wasn’t exactly what Phillips wanted. Alliance Defending Freedom asserted the court should find Phillips has a First Amendment right to refuse service to same-sex couples. Justices instead delivered a narrow ruling for Phillips based on the facts of the case, finding an anti-religion sentiment within the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Other attendees at the Values Voter Summit had a broader interpretation of the concept of religious freedom that wasn’t limited to refusal of service for LGBT people.

One 23-year-old attendee from central Kansas, who spoke on condition of anonymity, looked at the reports on religious persecution of Christians overseas when asked about the term religious freedom.

“You look at other countries like North Korea and Iran and other countries, less so, even like maybe Turkey where you can’t be a pastor without getting jailed,” the attendee said. “Religious freedom is the ability to witness, to talk to others about your faith, to live your faith out.”

But when asked if religious freedom could also be an excuse for anti-LGBT discrimination, the attendee said individuals should be able to refuse service to LGBT people if it contradicts their faith.

“It’s freedom to worship God,” the attendee said. “Now, you can’t violate your belief. If you believe something is wrong, then you can’t do something the opposite, like Jack Phillips.”

Omar Navarr, another attendee and the Republican candidate running against Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in the congressional mid-term elections, had a different take on the concept of religious freedom and said it has a freedom of expression component.

“If you go to California, for example, if I go anywhere, try to express myself and my beliefs and my religious beliefs, I’ll be attacked and vilified for it,” Navarr said.

Navarr cited as an example of religious freedom under threat “being allowed to pray at a school because obviously that’s one of the things that the other side has cracked down on.”

“Tolerance is everything, and we have to make sure that we can have tolerance for religious freedom,” Navarr said. “I wasn’t so religious growing up or anything. I was actually a converted Christian, but at the same time, I believe that Christians should have the right to believe whatever they want to believe in as long they’re not pushing it so much into policy and stuff like that.”

Despite the presence of Phillips on stage at the Values Voter Summit, Navarr denied religious freedom formed a basis on which individuals could engage in anti-LGBT discrimination, saying, “I don’t see it in that.”

“There are different views that are out there,” Navarr said. “Like in anything, you’re going to have one side where they’re going to be discriminating against gays, and then, the other side that isn’t. Most Christians are not going to be doing that, for the most part.”

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade


A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami



Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)


MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

















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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness



Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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