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Zero Democrats lend name to GOP compromise on LGBTQ rights

All 21 original co-sponsors are Republicans

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Fairness for All Americans Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) speaks at a press conference following the introduction of the ‘Fairness for All Americans’ Act. (Washington Blade file photo by Vanessa Pham)

Despite signals the Fairness for All Act counterproposal from Republicans on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom would have bipartisan support upon its reintroduction on Friday, the final list of original co-sponsors has no Democrats.

Although the list of 21 co-sponsors is more than double the nine who support the first iteration of the Fairness for All in the previous Congress, they’re entirely made up of Republicans. The absence of any Democrats dashes hopes from supporters the legislation could be a starting point for negotiations across the aisle on the Equality Act in the Senate.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), the chief sponsor of the bill, nonetheless hailed the Fairness for All Act upon reintroduction as a way to bring the gap on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom.

“It is hard to really love our neighbors when we are fighting with them over whose rights are more important,” Stewart said. “This country can accommodate both civil liberties for LGBT individuals & religious freedom. We have wasted enough time, energy, and money fighting over who deserves which legal protections. It is time to define the federal protections for our LGBT and religious friends and neighbors.” 

The Fairness for All Act, like the Equality Act, would amend all aspects of federal civil rights law to expand the prohibition on discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public accommodations, federally funded programs, education, credit and jury service. A copy of the bill reviewed.by Blade revealed the Fairness for All Act doesn’t have substantive changes from its previous iteration in terms of LGBTQ issues, but other than clarity for protections based on race, color and national origin.

Stewart, in a statement to the Washington Blade, said he won’t give up on finding Democratic for the legislation.

“I am grateful to my colleagues who joined me today,” Stewart said. “We are still working with our Democratic colleagues and have high hopes that this bill will ultimately be bipartisan.”

Stewart had signaled as of Wednesday via a spokesperson the Fairness for All Act “will have bipartisan support by the end of the week” and would hold off on plans to introduce the legislation until after the U.S. House voted on the Equality Act, the flagship comprehensive bill to expand anti-discrimination principles for LGBTQ people under federal civil rights law.

The House approved the Equality Act on a largely party-line vote Thursday with just a blemish of bipartisan support. Three Republicans voted for the Equality Act, compared to the eight who voted for the legislation in 2019.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the sponsor of the Equality Act in the House, told the Washington Blade on Thursday amid uncertainty of the legislation in the Senate the Fairness for All Act would “very clearly be worse than nothing.”

“For the first time in our history, it would actually put in federal statute provisions that permit discrimination against the LGBTQ community,” Cicilline said, “It would be a tremendous step backward, which is why it’s not supported by any major LGBT organization, all of the major LGBT organizations support the Equality Act. The Stewart bill is a tremendous step backward in our fight for full equality.”

Asked if he has any issues with fellow Democrats co-sponsor the Fairness for All Act, Cicilline held firm.

“I would hope that people are committed to equality for the LGBTQ community would not support this bill because it would put in statute and authorize expressly discrimination against the LGBTQ community,” Cicilline said.

Among the co-sponsors are Republicans who voted for the Equality Act, including Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.). Other co-sponsors are Republicans who voted for the Equality Act in 2019, but not 2021, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). One Republican who voted twice for the Equality Act, Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), isn’t a co-sponsors of the Fairness for All Act.

Although both the Equality Act and the Fairness for All Act would expand the prohibition on anti-LGBTQ discrimination under federal law, they have key differences. For example, the Equality Act would specify the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act couldn’t be raised as a defense in court against allegations of illegal anti-LGBTQ discrimination, but the Fairness for All Act would not.

Additionally, the Fairness for All Act would provide an exemption under Title II of the Civil Rights Act to allow stores, shopping centers or online retailers to refuse service to LGBTQ people if they have 15 or fewer employees, but the Equality Act provides no such exemption. The Equality Act would clarify transgender people should have access to locker rooms and bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, while the Fairness for All Act implies that but doesn’t spell it out. The Equality Act is silent on whether its ban on sex discrimination would prohibit medical providers from refusing to perform an abortion, the Fairness for All Act specifies it would not.

(The Washington Blade is preparing a detailed chart on the differences between the Equality Act and the Fairness for All Act, as well as the situation with current law after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County, which found anti-LGBTQ discrimination is an illegal form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, therefore not only illegal in employment, but under all laws that ban sex discrimination.)

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District of Columbia

Trial for man charged with assaulting gay men in D.C. park postponed for third time

Indictment says attacker squirted victims with pepper spray

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Meridian Hill Park (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The trial for a 50-year-old man who was arrested July 14, 2022, on charges that he allegedly assaulted five men he believed to be gay at D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park between 2018 and 2021 was postponed for the third time last month and has now been rescheduled for Aug. 19 of this year.   

The arrest of Michael Thomas Pruden came two weeks after a federal grand jury handed down an indictment on June 29, 2022, charging him with five counts of assault on federal park land, one count of impersonating a federal officer and a hate crime designation alleging that he assaulted four of the men because of their perceived sexual orientation. 

Prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. filed a motion in court on Jan. 10 of this year opposing a request by Pruden’s defense attorney to postpone the most recent prior trial date set for Feb. 26. 

“Following indictment in June 2022, the defendant has delayed the trial in this case several times, including by firing two prior attorneys,” the prosecutors’ motion states. “While the government has not previously objected to any continuance, no further delay is warranted,” the motion says. “This is a straightforward case that should proceed to trial as currently scheduled.”

The indictment against Pruden by a U.S. District Court for D.C. grand jury provides some of the details surrounding the case.

“After nightfall, Meridian Hill Park was informally known in the Washington, D.C., community to be a meeting location for men seeking to engage in consensual sexual encounters with other men,” the indictment says. “This practice is colloquially known as ‘cruising,’” the indictment continues. 

“Michael Thomas Pruden frequented Meridian Hill Park after nightfall and on multiple occasions, including those described below, assaulted men in Meridian Hill Park by approaching them with a flashlight, giving them police-style commands and spraying them with a chemical irritant,” the indictment states. 

Virginia court records show that the D.C. indictment against Pruden was handed down 11 months after a U.S. District Court jury in Alexandria, Va., found him not guilty of a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon for allegedly pepper spraying and hitting in the head with a large tree branch a man in Daingerfield Island Park in Alexandria, which is also known as a gay cruising site. 

Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer, who is representing Pruden in the D.C. case, said in his own motion calling for postponing Pruden’s Feb. 26 trial date that he has at least two other unrelated trials coming up soon and what he called voluminous documents recently provided to him by prosecutors made the latest postponement necessary. 

“Firstly, while Mr. Pruden prefers to go to trial as soon as possible, counsel cannot be ready by February 26, 2024,” his motion states. “Given that the case against Mr. Pruden is actually five cases spanning a three-year period, the discovery is extremely voluminous, in excess of 7,000 pages,” he states in his motion. “Due to this as well as counsel’s other pending matters in the coming weeks, counsel is unable to effectively prepare motions and prep for trial under the current timeline.”

By the 7,000 pages of “discovery” documents, Kramer was referring to the requirement that prosecutors turn over to the defense attorney in advance of a trial details of the evidence prosecutors plan to present at a trial. U.S. District Court Judge Jia M. Cobb approved Pruden’s request for the postponement in a Feb. 5 ruling. 

Court records also show that Pruden was released on personal recognizance following his arrest into the custody of his mother, who lives in Norfolk, Va., where he has been staying since his release. Among other things, conditions for his release prohibit him from having any contact with the individuals he is charged with assaulting and require that he always remain inside his mother’s residence from sunset to sunrise. 

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District of Columbia

D.C. ceremony welcomes affirming church as ‘full standing’ UCC congregation

Bishop Abrams officially installed as pastor of UCC Empowerment Liberation Cathedral

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Bishop Allyson Abrams (far right) was installed as pastor of UCC Empowerment Liberation Cathedral.

The Mt. Rainier, Md.-based Empowerment Liberation Cathedral, which Washington Blade readers have selected for five years as the D.C. area’s Best LGBTQ Church, was honored as an official United Church of Christ congregation in a ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Plymouth United Church of Christ on North Capitol Street in D.C.

The ceremony, organized by the Potomac Association of the United Church of Christ, which admitted Empowerment Liberation Cathedral as a UCC congregation last fall, also officially installed lesbian Bishop Allyson Abrams as pastor of the now UCC-affiliated Empowerment Liberation Cathedral.

Abrams founded Empowerment Liberation Cathedral in 2014 at its original location in Silver Spring, Md., as a nondenominational Protestant church that she declared would be a welcoming and affirming congregation “where all of God’s children are welcomed,” including LGBTQ people of faith. Washington Blade readers have also named Abrams the D.C. area’s Best Clergy for seven years.

Although many consider Empowerment Liberation Cathedral a “gay” church, one of its spokespersons, Kendrick Keys, told the Washington Blade ELC considers itself a welcoming church and congregation open to everyone, even though he said a majority but not all of its members are LGBTQ.  

A biography of Abrams prepared by the LGBTQ Religion Archives Network says her founding of Empowerment Liberation Cathedral came one year after she resigned as pastor of the Zion Progress Baptist Church in Detroit in 2013 and two years after she was consecrated as a bishop at Pneuma Christian Fellowship, a religious order in Orange County, Calif.

The biography says Abrams created a stir in 2013 shortly before her resignation as pastor of Zion Progressive Baptist Church, when she announced to the congregation that she had just married another female bishop, Diana Williams, who at the time was Bishop Emeritus of the Imani Temple African American Catholic Congregation.

A short time after that, Abrams and Williams moved to the D.C.-Maryland area where Abrams mapped out plans to open the Empowerment Liberation Cathedral known as ELC.

 “Bishop Abrams came to the Washington, D.C. area with a new blitz about her marriage to another female bishop,” a statement released by ELC says. “She was outcast by many organizations and religious groups for declaring you could be gay and Christian,” the statement says.

“When Abrams decided to open a church in the Washington Metropolitan Area many media outlets discussed her keeping her faith and opening a church for those who have been marginalized and disenfranchised from the church and from their legacies in churches across America,” the statement continues.

“Bishop Abrams has remained on the forefront of ministry and has united with a denomination that believes in justice and equality for all – the United Church of Christ,” says the statement.

It was referring to the United Church of Christ’s status as an LGBTQ-affirming church that welcomes LGBTQ people into its services and congregations.

A separate ELC statement says among those attending and participating in the Feb. 25 ceremony at Plymouth Church were pastors, bishops, ministers, parishioners, community leaders, organizations affiliated with ELC and the United Church of Christ’s Potomac Association.

Among them was Japer Bowles, director of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, who delivered a statement from Bowser.

“As Mayor of Washington, D.C., I congratulate Empowerment Liberation Cathedral as you join the United Church of Christ (UCC) family and install Bishop Alyson Abrams as pastor,” the statement says. “As you gather to celebrate this momentous occasion, may both pastor and congregation be inspired to even higher heights of achievement and service to our communities,” the mayor’s statement says.

The Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes D.C.’s annual LGBTQ Pride parade and festival, issued its own statement congratulating Empowerment Liberation Cathedral. The statement mentions that in 2016, Capital Pride honored Bishop Abrams as a Capital Pride Hero “in acknowledgement of her work in the faith community for the acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ+ Christians.”

ELC spokesperson Keys said the church holds its weekly Sunday services at the Mt. Rainier Arts Center at 3311 Rhode Island Ave., Mt. Rainier, Md.

He said a nonprofit community services organization created by ELC called Empowerment Justice Center, is located at 1015 15th Street, N.W., Room 653 in D.C. The church office is also at that location, Keys said. 

Further information about church services and events can be obtained by contacting ELC at 202-798-4371 or at empowermentliberationcathedral.org.

But Keys said the church’s location in Maryland had not been updated on the website, which lists its former location in Lanham, Md., rather than its current location in Mt. Rainier.

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Virginia

Va. lieutenant governor misgenders Danica Roem

Manassas Democrat is first trans person elected to state Senate

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Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears speaks at CPAC in 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears on Monday misgendered state Sen. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) on the Virginia Senate floor.

WVTF Richmond Bureau Chief Brad Kutner in an X post said Earle-Sears, who is a Republican, referred to Roem, who is a transgender woman, as “sir” during a debate on House Bill 964, which would allow attorneys to serve as the executive director of the Virginia Board of Medicine. 

Kutner said the Senate went “recess twice after reportedly ‘Sears refused to apologize.'”

“I’m not here to upset anyone, I’m here to do the job the people of Virginia have called me to do,” Earle-Sears later said, according to Kutner.

Roem in 2018 became the first trans person seated in a state legislature in the country when she assumed her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Voters in the 30th Senate District last November elected her to the Senate. Roem is the first trans person seated in the chamber.

The Washington Blade on Monday reached out to Roem, but she declined comment.

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