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Congressional Democrats eye limiting scope of religious freedom protections in 1993 law

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced bill

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U.S. Capitol Building (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Congressional Democrats on Wednesday reintroduced the federal Do Not Harm Act, a proposal that would circumscribe discriminatory uses of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, including those which target LGBTQ Americans.

Lambda Legal issued a press release celebrating the move by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), explaining the amended language would prohibit discrimination — such as the denial of goods and services — that otherwise might be deemed lawful under the RFRA.

After it was introduced in the last Congress, the previous iteration of the Do Not Harm Act was cosponsored by 206 House Democrats but failed to advance beyond the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee.

“Since long before the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement even started, our communities, women, and other marginalized groups have been targeted by religion-based condemnation and restriction of equal opportunities,” Lambda Legal Chief Legal Officer Jennifer Pizer said in a statement.

“In recent years, too many of those who oppose the equality and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people have misused religion in their demands for exemptions from rules that should protect everyone at work, at school, in medical offices, and in social services,” Pizer said.

The organization noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision in 303 Creative v. Elenis may lead to an expansion of businesses’ ability to lawfully “shun LGBTQ+ people in the commercial marketplace.”

Following oral arguments in that case last Dec. 5, SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe wrote the conservative justices appeared poised to rule in favor of the plaintiff, a wedding website designer who sought to deny services to same-sex couples in violation of Colorado’s nondiscrimination statute.

Last year, in anticipation of the High Court’s potential to weaken or overturn the constitutional right to same-sex marriage, Congress codified some of the major protections for same-sex couples through passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.

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Congress

House to vote on resolution to expel Santos

Embattled N.Y. congressman indicted last week

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U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) (Screen shot via YouTube)

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to hold a vote within the next couple of days over whether to expel U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) from the chamber, a largely symbolic move that will put Republicans on the record as the embattled congressman faces criminal charges.

U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) introduced the resolution in January, reportedly with support from House Democratic leadership, but it would need a two-thirds majority to pass.

The Republican caucus could vote to table the motion, but only five defections would force a final ballot over Santos’ expulsion.

Calls for the congressman’s resignation began shortly after he took office, as reports began to surface that he had fabricated major claims about his life and biography and multiple law enforcement agencies started probing allegations of financial malfeasance.

Pressures intensified last week when the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York arraigned Santos on 13 criminal counts of fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements.

Some Republican members have publicly urged Santos to step down, but GOP leadership so far has declined to take a hard stance pending the conclusion of investigations and law enforcement actions.

Santos represents New York’s 3rd Congressional District, serving in the seat that former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi vacated. His electoral victory in 2022 provided a crucial vote for Republicans, who only narrowly won control of the House.

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Tuberville, 21 GOP senators call for White House to withdraw rule change for trans athletes

Senators specifically addressed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

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U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) (Screen capture/YouTube)

U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) on Monday led a group of 21 other Republican senators in calling for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to withdraw the administration’s proposed rule change that would prohibit blanket bans of transgender student athletes.

“Our comment sent to Secretary Cardona echoes what most Americans already know to be true: Forcing schools to allow biological males to compete against young women is unfair, unsafe and wrong,” Tuberville said in a statement.

If adopted as written, the draft policy unveiled by the U.S. Department of Education last month would affirm “that policies violate Title IX when they categorically ban transgender students” from participating on teams that align with their gender identity.

At the same time, the guidelines allow for exceptions that would bar trans student athletes in certain circumstances and provided various conditions are met.

Separately, Tuberville drew ire over his comments during an interview last week in which he said the Pentagon was wrong to root out white nationalists serving in the U.S. military.

“They call them that,” Tuberville replied, referring to the Biden administration’s criticism of white nationalists. “I call them Americans.”

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George Santos indicted on 13 counts

Embattled N.Y. congressman arraigned in federal court on Wednesday

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U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) (Screenshot/YouTube NBC News)

U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was indicted Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York on 13 criminal counts of fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements.

The congressman is expected to be arraigned later today. For several months, investigators from multiple law enforcement agencies have been looking into allegations that he violated campaign finance laws and committed other financial crimes.

Beginning shortly after Santos took office, news reports revealed that he had lied about vast swaths of his life and career, fabricated stories — claiming, for example, to have survived an assassination attempt — and engaged in various schemes.

Wednesday’s indictment alleges that Santos and an unnamed “political consultant” illegally redirected donations that were supposed to support his Congressional race to instead cover personal expenses like “luxury designer clothing and credit card payments.”

The charging documents also accuse Santos of falsely claiming to be unemployed to pocket $20,304 in unemployment insurance benefits from the state of New York and $24,744 from the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act while he was actually working for a Florida investment firm, earning an annual $120,000 salary.

Additionally, prosecutors say Santos lied on federal disclosure documents that are mandatory for every member of Congress.

Calls for Santos’ expulsion from Congress were renewed with the news of Wednesday’s indictment.

“That’s something for the House conference to decide on,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during Wednesday’s briefing. “They want to show the American people what their conference looks like; that’s up to them.”

House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said, “there is one person who can make this change: Speaker McCarthy.”

“It’s just an unfortunate thing that that we’re all colleagues together, and this level of fraud that’s been perpetrated on the people of New York,” Aguilar added.

For his part, McCarthy told CNN Santos “will go through his time in trial, and let’s find out how the outcome is,” while U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority leader, made similar comments during a press conference, telling reporters: “In America, there’s a presumption of innocence, but they’re serious charges. He’s going to have to go through the legal process.” 

UPDATED:

Facing reporters in a press conference after the afternoon hearing on the steps of the courthouse at 100 Federal Plaza in Central Islip on Long Island, Santos said: “It’s a witch hunt because it makes no sense that in four months, four months — five months, I’m indicted.” The embattled congressman then tried to deflect by comparing his legal difficulties to the Hunter Biden investigation which prompted onlookers to boo him.

Media Matters senior researcher Jason S. Campbell captured a portion of the video and tweeted it:

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