President Obama Defends Justice by Rejecting DOMA

February 23, 2011

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

(San Francisco, CA, February 23, 2011)—Today brings momentous news from President Barack Obama and the federal Department of Justice about the discriminatory and offensive so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” or DOMA. This morning, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that, at the urging of the President, as well as based upon Mr. Holder’s own assessment, the Department of Justice will no longer defend Section 3 of DOMA—the section that prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal marriages between same-sex couples.

The Attorney General also announced that the President and the Department of Justice agree that laws that discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation are presumptively invalid and should be subject to heightened judicial scrutiny, just like laws that discriminate based on sex, religion, national origin, and race.

In further welcome news, Congressman Jerome Nadler and Senator Dianne Feinstein announced plans to introduce legislation that would repeal DOMA entirely. It is long past time for Congress itself to undo the damage it did to our community by enacting DOMA in 1996.

These developments provide true cause for celebration. DOMA will remain in effect until it is either repealed by Congress or invalidated by the courts.  But today’s events represent hugely significant steps toward the end of this unprecedented and mean-spirited law that has caused so much pain for our community over the past 15 years.

Attorney General Holder’s announcement was a courageous act by the Obama administration that will change forever the way that the nation views our community’s struggle for equality. Showing strong leadership, President Obama himself made the determination that as a matter of constitutional law, it is not reasonable for the government to defend the constitutionality of DOMA, or any law that discriminates based on sexual orientation. President Obama looked at the history of discrimination against LGBT people, and rightly concluded that laws that target people based on their sexual orientation are highly likely to be based on nothing more than prejudice, and should therefore receive extra scrutiny by the courts.

What does this mean, in practical terms? Attorney General Holder’s actions are fully consistent with the practice of past Attorneys General—including California’s Attorney General, in the ongoing Prop 8 litigation—who have decided that some laws are so blatantly discriminatory that they cannot and should not be defended in court. At the same time, the Executive Branch is responsible for enforcing the law. This means that, although the Obama Administration refuses to defend DOMA’s constitutionality, the federal government will continue to withhold federal benefits to married same-sex couples until DOMA is repealed by Congress or invalidated by the courts.

In the meantime, however, the Department of Justice has a powerful voice as the government’s official representative. The Obama administration has forcefully acknowledged that discriminatory laws like DOMA are unconstitutional, and from now on, in cases challenging those laws, the Obama administration will weigh in on the side of fairness and equality. Several legal challenges to DOMA are already underway in courts in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, California, and elsewhere, and as those cases make their way through the courts, the judges deciding them will hear persuasive argument from the Department of Justice that DOMA should be struck down. This is bound to have an impact, and to hasten the day when it is clear in every court across the nation that laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation cannot stand.

It is true that, as many people point out, marriage equality is not the only issue that matters for our community. Our work will not be over when DOMA is repealed. But we can’t underestimate the significance of having the President and the Department of Justice recognize that discrimination based on sexual orientation is presumptively invalid. That is history-changing, and will have ramifications in every area of our lives.  Especially in a culture in which the constitution and the law play a major role in shaping public opinion, it is extremely powerful for the federal government to recognize publicly that LGBT people have suffered a history of discrimination and that sexual orientation is not relevant to a person’s ability to participate in society or contribute to society.

Challenging a discriminatory law like DOMA is about much more than the specific rights at stake. Laws that discriminate against a particular group and mark that group as unequal have far-reaching negative consequences.  Laws that discriminate against LGBT people with respect to marriage are particularly damaging because they directly reinforce the harmful stereotype that LGBT people do not form genuine relationships or true family bonds—that our identities are only about selfish individual interests and thus are the antithesis of “family values.”  Those are the same stereotypes that make it hard for many families to accept their LGBT children. Those stereotypes are devastating, and having a federal law that perpetuates them has caused enormous harm.

Eliminating DOMA will alleviate much harm, but we must see that goal as part of a bigger picture.  Eliminating DOMA will not end the ways that many other laws and government policies unfairly target LGBT people of color and low-income LGBT people. For example, in our work, we have seen that an LGBT parent of color is more likely to face an unjustified investigation by child protective services because low-income people of color are disproportionately involved in state programs that scrutinize their lives more closely.  A black transgender student facing harassment because of his race and gender is more likely to receive harsher punishment as the instigator of a fight because of racial stereotypes and assumptions. Eliminating the terrible stigma imposed by DOMA changes societal perception of who LGBT people and our families are in a way that benefits all LGBT people, but is not the only solution. We must strengthen our commitment to fighting laws that target people of color and low-income people so that we can transform our society into one where all people can live freely.

We still have a long way to go until the shameful, discriminatory legacy of DOMA is gone from the books, and even farther to go till we live in a world in which full justice for all LGBT people has been achieved. But thanks to President Obama’s courage, we are closer to that day.

Read NCLR’s FAQs on the decision

Media Contact:

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


NCLR Applauds President’s Decision to Stop Defending Discriminatory Federal Defense of Marriage Act

February 23, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, February 23, 2011)— President Barack Obama has decided that the government should no longer defend Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which discriminates against legally married same-sex couples by providing that the federal government will not recognize their marriages for any purpose, according to a statement released today by the Attorney General of the United States.

The Attorney General explained the President has concluded that laws targeting people based on sexual orientation, like laws targeting people based on race or national origin, should receive more rigorous constitutional scrutiny. Based on the President’s conclusion, the Attorney General will no longer defend Section 3 of DOMA in court.

Section 3 of DOMA prevents the federal government from recognizing marriages of same-sex couples for any purpose, even if those marriages are valid under the law of the state where the couple lives. Among other things, DOMA prevents married same-sex couples from receiving any of the federal benefits given to other married people. DOMA also sends a message that LGBT people and their families are inferior.

There are several ongoing cases challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The Attorney General announced today that although the Department of Justice will continue to represent the government in those cases, Department of Justice attorneys will no longer argue that DOMA is constitutional, because DOMA does not withstand heightened constitutional scrutiny.

Read the Attorney General’s statement.

Read the Attorney General’s letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner, explaining the decision in more detail.

Statement by NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter:

“Today’s announcement is courageous and history-changing. It is also fully consistent with the practice of past Attorneys General, who have decided that some laws are so blatantly discriminatory that they cannot and should not be defended in court. The President and the Attorney General were absolutely correct to conclude that there can be no ‘reasonable defense’ of a law intended only to disadvantage and harm some families, while helping none. The President and the Attorney General were also right to conclude that because LGBT people have suffered a long history of discrimination in this country, laws that target people based on their sexual orientation are highly likely to be based on prejudice and should be presumptively considered unconstitutional.

“The President’s leadership on this issue has forever changed the landscape for LGBT people in this country. For the first time, the President and the Department of Justice have recognized that laws that harm same-sex couples cannot be justified. This is the beginning of the end, not just for the mean-spirited and indefensible Defense of Marriage Act, but for the entire panoply of laws that discriminate against same-sex couples.”

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The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the human and civil rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education. http://www.nclrights.org


Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors Took Risks and Improved LGBTs’ Lives

February 19, 2011

Originally Published on February 10, 2011 in the Bay Area Reporter

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

When I moved to San Francisco to begin working for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in 1994, most of the political advocacy in California was devoted to stopping bad bills in the legislature, getting more money and resources targeted to HIV/AIDS care and prevention, and making sure that our elected officials saw and heard from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.  All of these were very important achievements, but we lacked the structure to make real and long-lasting gains.

California’s same-sex couples did not have access to virtually any of about 400 state rights and benefits enjoyed by straight couples. Employment protections were limited for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and unheard of for our transgender brothers and sisters, who could easily be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and refused public accommodations. And with more than 60 percent of Californians opposing marriage equality, the prospects for justice for our community seemed bleak.

But in 2002, we gained a fierce and effective advocate. Geoff Kors, the executive director of Equality California, built political bridges where there had been gaping holes, worked relentlessly at the state capitol to try to reach across partisan aisles, won support for dozens of pieces of legislation that have touched the lives of every LGBT Californian, and transformed the state into the nation’s leading trailblazer for LGBT equality.

Geoff, who leaves Equality California next month after nine years, is one of the most accomplished political strategists and legislative advocates in our nation’s LGBT equality movement. He and his talented team diligently worked for our rights and protections, earning Equality California respect and the reputation as one of the most effective political advocacy organizations in the country.

Geoff and I first met in the mid-1990s, when he was a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. At that time he had a shock of curly brown hair. When I saw Geoff again a few short years later here in San Francisco with a head of grey hair, I worried that he had been working far too hard. That was surely true, even if not the reason for his prematurely grey hair. After he took the helm of Equality California, I watched on countless occasions his commitment to reach policy and law makers in Sacramento with the stories and struggles of real LGBT people, holding those elected and appointed officials accountable when they ignored or minimized our lives and our experience.

Many times, I have awakened to find e-mails or texts from Geoff at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and 4 a.m., suggesting new strategies or tactics to win greater protections for some of the most vulnerable in our community, including LGBT elders, immigrants, youth, and those with HIV/AIDS. On a number of occasions, I remember telling Geoff, “That would never happen,” in response to some idea or initiative he suggested.

In 2004 he told me that now-Senator Mark Leno wanted to introduce a marriage bill. This was at precisely the time when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and the City and County of San Francisco were issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Such a move seemed awfully risky and provocative. Mark and Geoff went ahead, with my reluctant concurrence. A few short months later in 2005, California made history as the first state to pass legislation in favor of the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, despite the governor’s eventual veto of the bill. The passage of this legislation helped NCLR win our lawsuit at the California Supreme Court challenging the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and paved the way for other states, like Vermont and New Hampshire, to follow suit.

Time and again, Geoff and Equality California helped fair minded individuals get elected, and his relationship with those elected officials elevated their voices and helped them become champions for our equality and visibility. We have been blessed in California with dozens of elected officials who care about LGBT issues and listen to the myriad needs of our community.  In case after case, Equality California is our voice, and our elected officials listen.

The greatest test of leadership is seen when the going gets rough. Proposition 8 was the California LGBT equality movement’s toughest battle, with leaders from almost every LGBT and ally organization in the state working to defeat it.  But no one did more to raise money for the campaign than Geoff.  After Election Day, Geoff and Equality California took the brunt of the blame for the loss, despite the fact that neither he nor his team had a significant role in the campaign’s field or media strategy. We all have regrets about how Prop 8 played out. One of my regrets is that Geoff was not in greater control of our messaging and field work. Any critique—and there were legitimate criticisms of the campaign operation—was unfortunately directed mainly at Geoff and Equality California. Despite this undeserved blame, Geoff demonstrated an admirable equanimity and simply went back to work.

It’s because of Geoff’s tenacity and commitment that there are more LGBT rights and protections in California than in any other state, with Equality California setting a national record with a total of 71 sponsored pieces of legislation successfully passing the state legislature since he took over. He’s responsible for getting state legislators to pass the most comprehensive domestic partnership legislation for the first time in the nation without a court order, helping secure the broadest protections for transgender people in the nation, and pushing leaders to pass marriage equality bills twice that would have allowed same-sex couples to marry.

All LGBT Californians and our allies will miss Geoff’s determination and strategic brilliance. I will miss the comfort of knowing that Geoff is at our side, providing a path to move forward no matter how difficult or complicated an issue may be. I will miss the comfort of knowing that one of the most skilled political minds in the country is tirelessly working to find the outer edge of how to best protect our community. And I will miss having a colleague who is there around the clock to help me always bring my “A” game to this work.

Because Geoff and I are friends, as well as colleagues, I will still enjoy his wicked and quick wit, his penchant for practical jokes, his boundless playfulness (sometimes it is difficult to tell him apart from my kids on this score), and his wise and practical advice. My baby brother, Bruce, died in 2005 and it would not overstate the matter to say that my family’s relationship with Geoff and his fabulous, fun, and generous partner, James, has made it ever so slightly easier to bear that loss.

Geoff’s accomplishments and impact speak for themselves. His legacy will be lasting. We’ve come so far in such a short amount of time through his visionary leadership, which offers a blueprint for anyone seeking to secure protections and justice for every person in our community.


My Movie Night with President Barack Obama: Thurgood Marshall’s Legacy and LGBT Equality

February 17, 2011

Maya Rupert

2.17.11

By Maya Rupert

Federal Policy Attorney

Sitting in the White House last night for a truly “once in a lifetime moment”—a movie screening of “Thurgood” with President Barack Obama—
I was moved by how far justice and equality has really come in our nation, and how much further we have to go to finish the promise of “equality and justice for all.”

Just a few feet from me, President Obama sat in one of the plush, red seats in the White House’s movie theater to watch the biopic about Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney and key architect in the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education, the first Black Supreme Court justice, and a transformative civil rights leader, who brilliantly used the law to achieve justice.

It wasn’t long ago that the color of my skin would have been enough to prevent me from getting a special invitation to the White House, not to mention a one-on-one discussion with the leader of the free world about our need for his support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality.

After telling President Obama that I’m the federal policy attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, I thanked him for the leadership he and his administration have shown in advancing the rights of LGBT people. Notwithstanding the advances, I impressed upon President Obama that there is much more to be done to even come close to fully protecting LGBT people under the law.

We both noted wryly that the march toward equality is often tortured, but he was confident that we would get there—a parallel to the story of hope and justice told in “Thurgood.”

We know this story well. It is the story of all historically minority communities who struggle for equality and justice. When “equal protection of the law” seemed like a punch line rather than a promise. Recounting how he transformed that punch line into a phrase with resonance and meaning was what made “Thurgood,” and the man himself, so inspiring.

Marshall believed in the law. He was a lawyer who wanted to use the law to achieve justice. Faith in and fidelity to the law survived in those for whom the law failed to live up to its noblest guarantees of equality. The ability to maintain such faith is a poignant reminder of the strength, complexity, and capacity of the human spirit. We need that spirit because the road to justice has never been an easy one and the toll the journey takes can be painful and dispiriting.

Many of our most significant victories for equality in the LGBT community have come from the courts. This is not unique to our community. Virtually every early victory in any civil rights movement begins with the courts, often because the people aren’t ready or willing to expand their notions of fairness and equality. It is a romantic notion that civil rights can be won at the hands of the people. History shows otherwise. While sometimes people’s minds change and that leads to a change in the law, it often works the other way around.

Earlier this year, President Obama said that his views on marriage for same-sex couples were “evolving.” His comments came in the midst of legal battles all over the country over marriage equality. Sometimes it is the law that changes first and leads people to reexamine their attitudes and beliefs. “Thurgood” reminds us that, at its most transformative, that is the role of the law. It challenges us to live up to the highest ideals of America, to become our own best selves.

In an evening of a number of moving moments, perhaps the most poignant came at the end of the film when, somehow, during the course of a one-man show with no camera breaks or movie magic, Lawrence Fishbourne as Marshall actually made himself age. All of a sudden, the arduous slowness with which racial justice inched toward the mainstream was laid bare. And then the movie ended, and there was President Obama.

Racism has not ended because we elected President Obama, nor will the next big victory for the LGBT movement mark the end of homophobia or transphobia. But it will certainly inch us toward equality, and that is the lesson of every civil rights struggle. When there is as much work to do as there is it is impossible not to become disenchanted, angry, and frustrated with the pace. But big victories are always surrounded by the smaller moments, and it was nice to be reminded that as legal and legislative battles are fought across the country, our history is shared with many other movements. Up against very tall odds Thurgood Marshall never lost hope. The least we can do is follow his lead.

 

2.17.11

By Maya Rupert

Federal Policy Attorney


NCLR Overview of Today’s CA Supreme Court Decision in the Proposition 8 Case

February 16, 2011

By Chris Stoll, Esq.
NCLR Senior Staff Attorney

Today in the federal court challenge to California’s Proposition 8, the California Supreme Court agreed to accept a question sent to it last month by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and provided a timeline for the briefing and argument on that question. The question posed to the California Supreme Court by the Ninth Circuit panel is whether California law gives ballot initiative sponsors the extraordinary power to override the decisions of elected state officials about how to litigate court challenges to state laws. In the context of this case, Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, the question is whether the proponents of Prop 8 can force an appeal of the federal district court decision holding that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. In today’s order, the California Supreme Court did not answer that question, but agreed to answer it after an expedited briefing and argument schedule, with oral arguments to come as soon as September of 2011.

As we see it, the California Supreme Court should have no trouble deciding that the supporters of Proposition 8 do not have the right to force an appeal of Judge Walker’s ruling. The California Constitution vests the power to decide how to handle lawsuits involving the constitutionality of ballot initiatives squarely in the hands of the Attorney General and the Governor. That includes the authority to decide whether or not to appeal a court ruling invalidating the initiative.

This is not a new issue. In fact, in several well-known cases, California’s elected  officials have refused to defend voter-enacted initiatives on appeal. In 1967, the California Attorney General refused to defend a voter-approved ballot initiative that would have amended the California Constitution to allow real estate owners to discriminate on the basis of race when renting their property.  The California Attorney General not only declined to defend that shameful amendment in court, he actually asked the United States Supreme Court to strike it down.

Similarly, in 1999, the Governor refused to appeal a ruling by the U.S. District Court striking down Proposition 187, which would have required the State to withhold health care, public education, and other critical state services to undocumented immigrants.

In these cases, California officials were doing what the voters elected them to do — deciding whether these laws could and should continue to be defended on appeal after courts decided that they were unconstitutional.

Media Contact:

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


NCLR Responds to California Supreme Court Decision to Accept Certified Question in Proposition 8 Case

February 16, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, February 16, 2011)—Today, the California Supreme Court agreed to accept the question sent to it last month from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the federal court challenge to California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that stripped the freedom to marry from same-sex couples in the state.

On January 4, 2011, the Ninth Circuit panel asked California’s highest court to clarify whether California law gives ballot initiative sponsors the extraordinary power to override the decisions of elected state officials about how to litigate cases involving challenged state laws. The underlying question is whether the proponents of Prop 8 can force an appeal of the federal district court decision holding that Prop 8 is unconstitutional.

The California Supreme Court agreed today to answer that question. All briefs will be submitted by May 2011, and oral arguments could be as soon as September 2011.

Statement by NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell:

“The people of California elect a governor and an attorney general to decide when and how to defend a constitutional initiative. We are confident that the California Supreme Court will conclude that initiative sponsors do not have the right to override our elected leaders and independently defend an initiative or decide whether or not to appeal a decision holding an initiative unconstitutional. The California Supreme Court should act quickly to confirm that California’s elected officials, not private groups or interested individuals, represent the state’s interests in court.”

Media Contact:

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


National Center for Lesbian Rights Selected as the Beneficiary of the Linashore Golf Classic

February 15, 2011

(San Francisco, CA, February 15, 2011)—The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) is proud to announce that it has been selected as the sole beneficiary of this year’s Linashore Golf Classic, the renowned women’s charity golf tournament held during the Dinah Shore weekend.

Now in its 23rd year, Linashore—set for April 1-2, 2011—is one of the most popular events held during Dinah Shore, which each year lures hundreds of thousands of lesbians and bisexual women to Palm Springs, CA for a series of parties and social events.

This year’s Linashore is shaping up to be the best yet, with a number of events surrounding the golf classic—including a special dinner and dance—benefiting NCLR, a national legal nonprofit devoted to advancing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality through litigation, public policy, and public education.

Since its start in 1977, NCLR—which helps more than 5,000 people each year—has embraced every aspect of the diverse LGBT community through its work, recognizing that the community comes from many different backgrounds and faces a wide range of issues. NCLR has always been on the cutting edge of legal and social issues, and was the first legal organization to create permanent projects for same-sex binational couples, LGBT asylum seekers, LGBT elders, transgender people, LGBT farmworkers, LGBT youth, low-income LGBT people seeking services from legal aid organizations, and LGBT athletes and coaches.

“We’re honored that Linashore selected NCLR and our life- and law-changing work as this year’s beneficiary,” said NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell, who will be the guest of honor at the golf classic and will also deliver special speeches at a luncheon and dinner. “This is a great opportunity for folks to take part in an incredible series of fun events, while helping our work that impacts the lives of their friends, their families, their loved ones, and all members of our LGBT community.”

Caroline “Lina” Haines, founder and organizer of the Linashore Golf Classic, “chose NCLR as the beneficiary because it has been an unwavering advocate for women and LGBT people for 34 years, often the first to stand up for justice, and work alongside our community in a relentless pursuit of equality. It’s a privilege to be able to recognize such a worthy cause that has a national impact, helping anyone, anywhere.”

Other special guests at the Linashore Dinner Dance include the legendary Rosie Jones, who, before retiring, was the only openly lesbian golfer in the LPGA. After retiring, Jones worked for the Golf Channel and forged a new path for women in sports broadcasting as one of very few women in the industry.

Linashore events include:

Friday, April 1

Happy Hour—Welcome Reception
4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Trio Restaurant
707 N. Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA

Prize drawings and hosted bar with complimentary appetizers. Generously underwritten by NCLR’s Seattle supporters Joey, Nancy, and Leslie.

To RSVP, contact Eleanor Palacios at EPalacios@NCLRights.org (please include “Dinah Reception” in the subject line) or at 415.365.1309.

Dine Out for NCLR
4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Trio Restaurant
707 N. Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Springs, CA

Early Bird Special from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Ten percent of dinner proceeds benefit NCLR.

Saturday, April 2

Linashore Golf Classic
8:00 a.m.
Indian Canyons Golf Resort
1100 E. Murray Drive
Palm Springs, CA

Linashore Dinner | Dance
6:30 p.m.
Agua Caliente Resort
32-250 Bob Hope Drive
Rancho Mirage, CA

In addition, NCLR is one of many non-profits participating in the second-annual Integrated Wealth Management Tickets Fore Charity Program at the 40th Kraft Nabisco Championship, held from March 28 through April 3, 2011. In its inaugural year, the Tickets Fore Charity Program raised $150,000 for various non-profit causes and has the goal of increasing that amount to $450,000 in 2011. Through this program, supporters can designate NCLR to receive the proceeds of their advanced ticket purchase.

For a complete list of events that NCLR will be participating in as well as ticket and sponsorship information, please visit: www.NCLRights.org/DinahShore.


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