Lesbian Couple and School District Reach Agreement: Couple Will Be Allowed to Walk Together in High School Procession

January 31, 2011

(Champlin, MN, January 29, 2011) —This is a joint press statement from Sarah Lindstrom, Desiree Shelton, their counsel, and the Anoka-Hennepin School District, Champlin Park High School, Principal Michael George, Superintendent Dennis Carlson, and their counsel.

All parties are pleased to announce that we have worked together, collaboratively, to arrive at an arrangement for introductions of elected royalty that is respectful and inclusive of all students. Each member of Royalty Court will select a meaningful person in their life to escort him or her in the coronation procession following introductions at this year’s Pep Fest. This will enable Sarah Lindstrom and Desiree Shelton to walk together in the processional.

The school district and its administrators and staff view this arrangement as an opportunity for ongoing conversation about school events and activities and for consideration of other ideas that will make our school communities inclusive and will enable us to realize the district-wide objective of honoring all students. District administrators and staff will include all students, including LGBT students, in that conversation. Sarah and Des are pleased with this positive outcome and gratified by the school district’s commitment to honoring all students.

The lawsuit will be dismissed amicably without admissions of fault or wrongdoing and without further proceedings or expense to either side. The parties wish to acknowledge and appreciate the role played by Minnesota Federal District Court Judge Susan R. Nelson in facilitating the conversation leading to this resolution.

Media Contacts:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org

NCLR Communications Associate Kari Kussmann | Office: 415.392.6257 x305 | KKussmann@NCLRights.org

SPLC Communications Director Marion Steinfels | Office: 334.956.8417 | Marion.Steinfels@SPLCenter.org

Rights Groups File Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Anoka-Hennepin School District and Champlin Park High School

January 28, 2011

(Champlin, MN, January 28, 2011)— The Southern Poverty Law Center, National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Faegre & Benson, LLP have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District and Champlin Park High School (CPHS) on behalf of two lesbian students, Desiree (“Dez”) Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom.

The lawsuit, which addresses the school’s effort to prevent the students from participating as a same-sex couple at a school assembly, was filed after the school and school district failed to comply with a request earlier in the day from the organizations that they rescind their discriminatory actions. An emergency motion for a temporary restraining order was also filed to ensure the event goes on as it has in the past.

“We are disappointed that the school and school district will not simply grant these two students the same rights as every other student, as they are due under both state and federal law,” said Sam Wolfe, lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is an absolute shame that the school and school district have tarnished what should be a joyous celebration through these discriminatory actions.”

The two students were both selected by their classmates as “royalty” for the Snow Days winter event at CPHS. In an effort to prevent them from participating as a same-sex couple, the school told Desiree and Sarah that it would cancel a part of the festivities set for Monday afternoon.

“Preventing lesbian student couples from participating in school dances and assemblies on an equal basis with other couples violates their First Amendment right to express their affection for each other, and also violates the Minnesota Human Rights Act,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.  “Dez and Sarah were chosen by their peers as ‘royalty’ for the Snow Days Pep Fest and Coronation, and Champlin Park High School’s refusal to accept them as a couple shows that the school administration’s attitudes lag far behind those of the students they serve.”

Traditionally, at the school-wide Snow Days Pep Fest and Coronation, CPHS holds a processional in which the members of the court enter the assembly walking in pairs. Historically, CPHS has allowed students elected as royalty to choose their processional partner if they have a preference. When two students who are boyfriend and girlfriend are both selected, it has been common practice to allow them to walk in the processional together. This year, after the students were selected, the school cancelled this part of the festivities to prevent Dez and Sarah from participating as a same-sex couple.

The school’s actions are a clear violation of these students’ rights under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, the Minnesota Constitution, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

The Minnesota Human Rights Act explicitly prohibits schools from discriminating against students based on their sex or sexual orientation. Such discrimination is also prohibited by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution and the equal protection provision of the Minnesota Constitution. The school’s actions also violate the First Amendment, which protects the rights of students to bring same-sex dates to school-sponsored events.

The groups also requested that the district make clear to the school’s principal and to all district staff that it is unlawful and a violation of the First Amendment for schools to censor student expression of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

“The decision to cancel the processional, rather than let same-sex couples participate, puts the lie to the district’s claim that it’s neutral on issues of sexual orientation,” said Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s obvious that the school and school district are playing favorites.”

Media Contacts:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org

NCLR Communications Associate Kari Kussmann | Office: 415.392.6257 x305 | KKussmann@NCLRights.org

SPLC Communications Director Marion Steinfels | Office: 334.956.8417 | Marion.Steinfels@SPLCenter.org

Former NCLR Executive Director to be Appointed to U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

January 26, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, January 26, 2011)—Today, President Barack Obama announced his intention to appoint Roberta Achtenberg, former Executive Director of  National Center for Lesbian Rights from 1983-1990, to a key post in his Administration as a Commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. She will be the first out lesbian to hold such a position.

Achtenberg is a corporate advisor in economic and workforce development policy, with more than 30 years of senior-level leadership experience in business, government, and law. During President Bill Clinton’s Administration, she served as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and later as Senior Advisor to the Secretary of HUD. She is currently a member and past Chair of the California State University Board of Trustees, and serves as Vice Chair of the Board of the Bank of San Francisco. She previously was a member of the Board of Supervisors for the City and County of San Francisco.

Before becoming a public official, she spent 15 years as a civil rights attorney, nonprofit director, and legal educator.

Statement by NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell:

“The appointment of Roberta Achtenberg to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is history making. Roberta will be the first openly lesbian or gay person appointed to the Commission.  More importantly, her appointment assures that a woman of remarkable intelligence, broad commitment to justice and equality, and a life-long legacy of public service will be there to give voice and representation to those who are denied opportunity, fairness, and equality under the law.”

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org

In Memoriam: Diane Alexis Whipple

January 26, 2011

By Kate Kendell, Esq.
National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the horrific death of Diane Alexis Whipple. For those of you who may not know or remember what happened to Diane, it was an unimaginable nightmare.

On the late afternoon of January 26, 2001, Diane was mauled to death by two enormous dogs in the hallway of her San Francisco apartment building as she was bringing home groceries to make dinner that evening for herself and her partner of seven years, Sharon Smith. The brutality and terror of the attack were horrifying, and reports of Diane’s terrible death gripped the entire country.

For the nation, this nightmare story was made worse by the stunning and dismissive attitude of the dog owners Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, who knew their animals were extremely dangerous and uncontrollable, but took no steps to protect their neighbors or any other member of the public. Robert and Marjorie variously blamed Diane for the attack, minimized the dogs’ viciousness, and generally showed an appalling absence of empathy or regret for the horror they had wreaked. Both were later convicted on criminal charges—Robert of manslaughter and Marjorie of second-degree murder. Robert served two years, and Marjorie is still in prison after losing multiple appeals.

While many of us might have understandably curled up in a ball and retreated from life after such a traumatizing loss, Sharon became a very unlikely, and in some sense, unwilling, activist. Sharon made the decision to attempt in every way she could to vindicate Diane’s death. Early on, the National Center for Lesbian Rights joined attorney Michael Cardoza and represented Sharon in a wrongful death action against the dog owners. Up until Sharon’s case, it was virtually unheard of for a same-sex partner to be permitted to sue for wrongful death. In every prior case, the surviving partner was deemed a “legal stranger,” regardless of the length or depth of the relationship. So in the midst of full tragedy, not only were same-sex partners grieving the senseless death of their soul mate at the hands of a drunk driver, for example, but they were denied the right to hold those responsible for the death of their partner accountable.

I will never forget the first moment I met Sharon. She walked into Michael’s law office only days after Diane’s death. She had such a deep pain and sadness in her eyes. But she also possessed a sort of dignity, calm, and determination that made an indelible impression on everyone she met. We won the right to sue for wrongful death for Sharon. We made history with her. But that measure of vindication, while enormously important, could never bridge Sharon’s terrible loss.

Sharon did dozens of interviews and received cards and letters from thousands of people from all over the country and around the world. Her grace under unbearable circumstances was inspiring and put a human face on the LGBT community. The stark injustice of the law’s disregard for her relationship with Diane provided a powerful narrative for how little the law protects and acknowledges our relationships.

In 2001, there were hardly any protections for our relationships under state law. We have come so far in 10 years, and I know that Sharon’s visibility and courage was a catalyst for that progress. Sharon testified before the California State Assembly Judiciary in 2001. Her testimony about Diane’s death and the impact it had on her had a tremendous impact on the committee and led to the right to sue for wrongful death being included in California’s domestic partner protections. Four short years later, in 2005, the California legislature enacted a comprehensive domestic partnership statute. The tragedy and horror of Diane’s death could not be undone, but Sharon’s voice and activism had ignited greater awareness and commitment to long-lasting gains for LGBT Americans.

Sharon will always be a personal hero of mine. She is an amazing person and now a terrific parent to three beautiful kids. Her grit and presence, her grace and dignity under unimaginable circumstances moved hearts and opened minds. This anniversary marks the loss of a remarkable, loving, and vibrant woman and everything she could have been and done. In talking with Sharon, she said to me that her “body knows” this anniversary and the sadness is always still there. But this anniversary also marks the emergence of a strong and determined new activist who turned grief into a catalyst to make the world better for the rest of us. I don’t really pray, but today I say a prayer of thanks for Sharon, and hope for her comfort and peace on this difficult day. And for Diane Alexis Whipple, I say a prayer that somehow she knows her death made a difference.

NCLR Applauds Proposed HUD Rule to Ensure Equal Access to Housing for LGBT Community

January 20, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, January 20, 2011)—Today, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced proposed changes to a number of its core housing programs, which would provide increased protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The proposed changes will: prohibit all lenders offering Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages from considering sexual orientation or gender identity in determining a borrower’s eligibility; prohibit owners and operators of HUD-assisted or HUD-insured housing from inquiring about the sexual orientation or gender identity  of an applicant or occupant of a residence; and clarify  the definition of “family” to ensure that otherwise eligible participants in any HUD programs will not be excluded based on marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) has had several opportunities to partner with HUD as it works to ensure access to fair and affordable housing for the LGBT community. NCLR will participate in a panel with HUD representatives at the Creating Change conference in February in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where these changes, along with other developments in fair housing for the LGBT community, will be discussed. The proposed regulation is now open for public comment for sixty days, after which HUD officials will review submitted comments and then publish a final rule.

Statement by NCLR Federal Policy Attorney Maya Rupert:

“NCLR applauds the Obama administration, and specifically, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Assistant Secretary John Trasviña for their commitment to ensuring that HUD’s programs are open to all families, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. It is a fundamental American value that people should never be denied fair and affordable housing simply because of who they are. The idea is self-evident, but it is not self-executing, and we are grateful to HUD for its leadership on working to ensure that the LGBT community is able to realize that freedom.”

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org

NCLR Applauds U.S. Supreme Court Decision to Let Marriage Equality Stand in D.C.

January 18, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, January 18, 2011)—Today, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a decision by the District of Columbia’s highest court that an initiative taking away the right to marry from same-sex couples cannot go on the ballot. Today’s ruling puts an end to the legal battle to secure marriage equality in our nation’s capital.

In December 2009, the D.C. Council passed the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Act of 2009, which eliminated the ban on marriage by same-sex couples. The bill was subsequently signed by then Mayor Adrian Fenty, and became law on March 3, 2010. In an attempt to nullify the law, anti-LGBT activists proposed ballot initiatives on the right of same-sex couples to marry. Such initiatives, however, were not certified because, as the D.C. Court of Appeals held in October 2010, placing the marriage rights of same-sex couples on the ballot would impermissibly allow discrimination against LGBT people that is prohibited by the D.C. Human Rights Act.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an appeal on this case means that the decision of the Court of Appeals is final and that the D.C. marriage law is secure.

NCLR filed an amicus brief in the case as a member of the Campaign for All D.C. Families, a diverse coalition working to ensure the freedom to marry in the District of Columbia.

Statement by NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell:

“We are heartened that the Supreme Court has chosen not to review the decision of the D.C. Court of Appeals, which correctly held that a majority cannot put up the rights of a minority for a vote. Fundamental rights can never be left up to a show of hands. The cornerstone of a constitutional democracy is the protection of minority rights, even, and especially, where the majority would not vote to protect them. We applaud the Supreme Court for refusing to condone placing the rights of the LGBT community up for a vote.”

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org




New Federal Hospital Visitation Rule in Effect Today, Providing LGBT Patients with Significant Protections

January 18, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, January 18, 2011)—Today, a new federal hospital visitation rule goes into effect that provides significant protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people at all hospitals that receive federal funding. The rule was prompted by a memo that President Barack Obama issued on April 15, 2010, directing the Department of Health and Human Services to adopt new regulations that would require hospitals to grant equal visitation rights to all families, not just those based on marriage or biological ties. In the memo, President Obama specifically mentioned same-sex couples as an example of families that have been unfairly kept apart when one partner is hospitalized.

The rule prohibits any hospital that receives federal money from restricting or denying visitation based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It guarantees that all visitors will have equal visitation privileges, regardless of whether the visitors are legally or biologically related to the patient. This new rule means that hospital staff may not rely on a so-called “conscience clause” or their personal anti-gay beliefs to deny visitation rights to some patients and their visitors.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) submitted comments individually and with allied organizations on an earlier version of this rule, suggesting several changes that were ultimately implemented in the final rule.

Statement by NCLR Federal Policy Attorney Maya Rupert:

“We applaud the President for taking this important step to ensure that hospital staff respect and protect all families. No one should have to live in fear that they will be kept from the bedside of their loved ones if a tragedy were to occur. This new rule will help ensure that LGBT people are not denied this basic right.”

Read NCLR’s FAQ on the rule.

Media Contact:

NCLR Communications Director Erik Olvera | Office: 415.392.6257 x324 | EOlvera@NCLRights.org

NCLR Legal Analysis of the Ninth Circuit Prop 8 Ruling

January 4, 2011

By Shannon Minter, Esq.
National Center for Lesbian Rights Legal Director

Today brings a new development in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the federal constitutional challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which amended the California Constitution to strip same-sex couples of the freedom to marry.  Perry is currently on appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court that covers California. In a ruling issued this morning, the Ninth Circuit denied Imperial County’s attempt to intervene in the case. The Ninth Circuit also asked the California Supreme Court to clarify whether, under California law, the group that placed Prop 8 on the ballot has a legal right to appeal District Court Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

To understand what today’s ruling means, it is helpful to look back on the history of the Perry case. In May 2009, two same-sex couples filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Judge Walker permitted Prop 8’s official supporters to intervene in the case as defendants, and also permitted the City and County of San Francisco to intervene as a plaintiff to represent its unique governmental interest in marriage equality. On the eve of trial, Imperial County also filed a motion asking to intervene in the case as a defendant.

After a three-week trial in January 2010, Judge Walker ruled in August 2010 that Prop 8 violates the United States Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws. Judge Walker also ruled that Imperial County did not have the right to intervene as a defendant.

California’s Governor and Attorney General decided not to appeal that ruling because they agreed that Prop 8 was unconstitutional. The supporters of Prop 8 and Imperial County both filed appeals with the Ninth Circuit.

At oral argument on December 6, 2010, the Ninth Circuit panel asked all sides questions about whether the official supporters of Prop 8 have the legal right to appeal Judge Walker’s decision. The parties also addressed whether Imperial County should have been allowed to intervene in the case as a defendant.

Today, the Ninth Circuit panel upheld Judge Walker’s decision not to allow Imperial County or its Deputy Clerk to intervene in the case. In order to intervene, Imperial County would have needed to show that it had a significant interest at stake. The Ninth Circuit explained in today’s opinion that Imperial County did not have any interests that would be sufficiently affected by the outcome of this lawsuit.

In addition, the Ninth Circuit made clear in today’s ruling that if the supporters of Prop 8 do not have the legal right to appeal Judge Walker’s decision that Prop 8 is unconstitutional, the appeal is over. In order to answer that question, the Ninth Circuit has asked the California Supreme Court to clarify whether California law gives Prop 8’s supporters the right to pursue an appeal when the state’s official representatives, after carefully evaluating the interests of the entire state, have made a considered decision not to appeal.

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit must decide whether the Prop 8 supporters have a right to appeal under federal law – that is, whether they have “standing” to appeal.  The California Supreme Court may hold that California law does not give initiative sponsors the right to override the litigation decisions of the state’s official representatives.  If so, then the Ninth Circuit likely will hold that the Prop 8 supporters do not have standing.  That would mean that the Ninth Circuit would dismiss the appeal, Judge Walker’s ruling would stand, and same-sex couples would once again be able to marry in California.  

Alternatively, if the California Supreme Court were to hold that California law gives initiative sponsors the extraordinary power to bring an appeal over the objections of the Attorney General and the Governor, the Ninth Circuit would still have to decide whether Prop 8’s supporters meet all of the other criteria to have standing under federal law.  If it ultimately holds that the Prop 8 supporters have standing, then the Ninth Circuit could reach the merits of Judge Walker’s ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.      

The next step after today’s ruling is for the California Supreme Court to decide whether it will accept the Ninth Circuit’s request. If it does so, it will then get briefs from both sides, and might hear oral argument as well before ruling. There is no set timeline for the California Supreme Court to rule.  In previous cases, it has taken the California Supreme Court up to two years to answer a question sent to it by the Ninth Circuit. Given the importance of this case and the real harm that inequality causes to LGBT people every day, however, we are hopeful that the Court will act quickly to restore fairness and equality for same-sex couples in California.


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