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Could Aiken pull off a congressional surprise?

Clay Aiken's potential candidacy for Congress is stirring debate (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Clay Aiken‘s potential candidacy for Congress is stirring debate (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

The possibility of a Clay Aiken candidacy for Congress has generated significant buzz as political observers say the gay singer and “American Idol” runner-up has plenty to offer, although big questions remain about whether he could pull off a win.

Last week, the Washington Blade first reported that Clay Aiken was “actively considering” a run for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district. In a follow-up report, the Washington Post confirmed that Aiken was weighing a bid for the seat, which is currently held by Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.).

Democratic sources familiar with his plans told the Blade that Aiken has spoken with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, met with political operatives in Washington and Raleigh and paid a visit to the D.C.-based Hart Research Associates to examine polling.

It’s unclear when — if at all — Aiken will make an announcement on whether he’ll pursue a bid for Congress. Via Twitter, Raleigh news affiliate WRAL-TV reported that Aiken told a station producer prior to the Blade report that he wasn’t running for Congress, but the singer hasn’t said anything about a run directly since the Blade broke the story last week.

Ian Palmquist, former chief of Equality North Carolina, said he thinks the general election in a district largely comprised of the Raleigh suburbs, will be tough for any Democrat, but not impossible for Aiken.

“Clay Aiken has some real strengths: He’s from the district, he’s a former teacher, he’s well-liked, and saying he has name recognition is an understatement,” Palmquist said. ”To be a strong candidate he would have to show voters a more policy-oriented side than they know him for now and earn the support of key primary constituencies, including African Americans.”

Palmquist added Aiken’s fame alone from his music and Broadway career after his 2003 stint on “American Idol” won’t be enough to propel him to victory.

“His fan base doesn’t necessarily align with his progressive politics, so he would have to expand his base of support significantly to succeed,” Palmquist said.

Although a Republican currently sits in U.S. House seat for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district, the area was formerly represented by a Democrat in Congress prior to redistricting and the Tea Party boomlet in 2010.

Still, the district is favorable to Republicans. Ellmers won re-election in the district by taking 55.9 percent of the vote in the 2012 election — a year that was favorable to Democrats. Moreover, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in the same year beat Obama in the district by 15.6 points.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said Aiken doesn’t have a prayer in the general election against Ellmers.

“His chances of winning the general election? Probably approaching zero,” Rothenberg said. ”And that’s being generous. Both McCain and Romney carried the district easily. It isn’t competitive, especially in a midterm election with President Obama’s job approval sitting where it is nationally.”

Aiken, who came out as gay in 2008 in People magazine, also would have competition for the Democratic nomination to run for the seat. Former North Carolina Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco officially announced his candidacy on Monday. Also in the ring is Houston Barnes, an attorney.

The filing deadline to participate in the primary is Feb. 28. The primary itself in North Carolina is set for May 6.

The DCCC hasn’t responded to the Blade’s request for comment on a potential run by Aiken for weeks — before and after the initial report. DCCC spokesperson David Bergstein wouldn’t confirm his interest in running to other media outlets, including Politico, but said Ellmers deserves a challenger.

“Congresswoman Ellmers is responsible for the most unpopular and reckless Congress in history that’s put the middle class at greater risk but it’s up to potential candidates to talk about whether they’re interested in running for Congress, not us,” Bergstein reportedly said.

The Ellmers campaign declined to comment on the possibility of going up against Aiken during the general election.

Although the “American Idol” runner-up is best known for his music and Broadway career, he’s also drawn on his fame to promote causes as an activist. He co-founded the the National Inclusion Project, formerly the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which seeks to help children with disabilities. Tapped as a national ambassador for the United States Fund for UNICEF in 2004, Aiken has travelled to Afghanistan, Indonesia, Uganda, Mexico, Kenya and Somalia as part of aid missions.

He’s also taken part in LGBT activism. In 2012, just before North Carolina voted to approve a ban on same-sex marriage known as Amendment One, Aiken appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to speak out against the measure.

In 2010, the singer appeared at a briefing on Capitol Hill on behalf of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, to urge passage of anti-bullying legislation with LGBT protections known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

Daryl Presgraves, a GLSEN spokesperson, said GLSEN started working with Aiken four years ago, and in addition to wanting to use his platform to protect LGBT youth, he showed a specific interest in policy.

“After he gave a powerful and moving speech at a congressional briefing we held in 2010 in support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act, it wouldn’t have surprised any of us at GLSEN if you told us that he would consider running for office one day,” Presgraves said. “He has a clear passion for helping others and recognizes the power to do so through policy.”


D.C. woman gets 6 ½ years for shooting gay man at IHOP

IHOP, gay news, Washington Blade

An altercation led to a shooting at the IHOP restaurant in Columbia Heights on March 11, 2012. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A D.C. Superior Court judge on Thursday sentenced a 29-year-old woman to six-and-a-half years in prison for the March 2012 non-fatal shooting of a gay man inside an International House of Pancakes restaurant in the city’s Columbia Heights neighborhood.

The sentencing by Judge Michael Ryan came three months after a jury found Lashawn Yvonne Carson, a D.C. resident, guilty of aggravated assault while armed and six additional firearms-related charges.

During the four-day trial prosecutors played for the jury a video obtained from the restaurant’s security cameras that they said showed Carson, then 28, pull out a handgun and shoot Dante Thomas in the chest.

Thomas has since recovered from a gunshot wound to his liver that the lead prosecutor said could have been fatal if he had not received immediate medical treatment at a nearby hospital.

Police and prosecutors said an altercation leading to the shooting began when two groups of friends were eating at separate tables near one another at the IHOP restaurant about 5:30 a.m. on March 11, 2012.

According to a police affidavit and testimony by witnesses, one of Carson’s friends while sitting at her table used the word “faggot” to describe one or more of the men sitting at Thomas’s table. A short time later a physical altercation erupted between the two groups when Thomas attempted to walk to the cash register to pay his bill.

“Carson and a male friend inadvertently stood directly in his way,” a statement by the U.S. Attorney’s office says. “The victim attempted to squeeze by and accidently bumped into Carson. Words were exchanged and the defendant’s male friend used a homophobic slur,” the statement says.

Government witnesses at the trial said a fight then broke out between the opposing groups of friends and an off-duty D.C. police detective who was seated nearby stepped in to break it up.

“At that point, according to the government’s evidence, Carson walked over, adjusted her hair, pulled out a firearm and shot the victim once in the chest,” the U.S. Attorney’s statement says.

A police charging document says Carson and her male friend fled the restaurant.

Prior to her arrest about two weeks later, hundreds of LGBT activists and their supporters assembled outside the IHOP restaurant to begin a march through the streets from Columbia Heights to Dupont Circle to protest the IHOP shooting and other incidents of violence targeting LGBT people in the city.

Although police initially listed the shooting incident as an anti-gay hate crime, the U.S. Attorney’s office dropped that designation. Sources familiar with the case said the U.S. Attorney’s office believed there was insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction for a hate- or bias-related shooting.

During closing arguments, Carson’s lawyer argued that Carson testified at the trial that she is bisexual and expressed disapproval at the table where she and her friends were sitting when one of the friends used the anti-gay slur to describe the men sitting at the victim’s table.

Silent March for Victims of GLBT Violence, Columbia Heights, hate crimes, gay news, Washington Blade

Hundreds joined a hastily assembled March, 2012 demonstration organized after several instances of anti-gay violence in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Carson denied she shot Thomas and testified she was drunk when police questioned her about the incident. She said detectives questioning her talked her into falsely admitting she shot Thomas. A video of her admission was played for the jury in which she told detectives she shot Thomas because he hit her and she became angry.

According to court records, Ryan sentenced Carson to additional time for several of the other charges on which she was convicted, including possession of a firearm during a crime of violence and carrying a pistol without a license. But he ordered that most of the additional time be served concurrently, resulting in a sentence to a total of 6-and-a-half years in prison.

The judge ordered that she be placed on three years of supervised release upon completion of her prison term.


Nevada AG re-evaluating defense of marriage ban

Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, gay news, Washington Blade

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is reconsidering defense of her state’s marriage equality ban. (Photo public domain)

The attorney general of Nevada has announced she’s re-evaluating her defense of the state’s marriage ban in court, saying her previous arguments are “likely no longer tenable.”

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat who filed a 55-page legal brief on Tuesday defending her state’s ban on same-sex marriage, said in a statement late Friday she’s reconsidering her position following a significant ruling in favor of gay rights.

“A potentially significant case was decided by the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday of this week, the same day that a brief was filed on behalf of the State in Nevada’s same-sex marriage case,” Masto said. “The Ninth Circuit’s new decision, entitled SmithKline Beechum Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories, appears to impact the equal protection and due process arguments made on behalf of the State. After careful review of the SmithKline decision these arguments are likely no longer tenable in the Ninth Circuit.”

Masto took criticism not only for defending her state’s ban on same-sex marriage when other Democrats, most recently Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, have declined to defend similar laws, but also for invoking incest and bigamy in her argument against marriage equality before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

But the brief was filed on the same day the Ninth Circuit handed down a landmark decision in case of SmithKline Beechum Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories. The three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit ruled a court cannot exclude jurors from a case based on their sexual orientation, applying heightened scrutiny, a greater assumption a law is unconstitutional, to the decision.

As legal experts have pointed out, the application of heightened scrutiny in that case holds legal precedent in the Ninth Circuit on laws related to sexual orientation and makes it more likely courts within the jurisdiction will rule marriage bans are unconstitutional.

Although Masto argued in her brief Nevada’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage shouldn’t be subjected to heightened scrutiny, her statement on Friday reveals she reconsidering that view.

“This office will conduct further review over the weekend in order to evaluate the State’s argument in light of SmithKline,” Masto said. “We will be discussing this with the governor’s office next week.”

Derek Washington, lead organizer for the LGBT group GetEQUAL Nevada, said he’s “still gobsmacked” by the invocation of bigamy and incest in Masto’s earlier brief and urged her to make a decision in favor of marriage equality.

“I have said from the beginning let’s stop pussyfooting around while states all around us are getting marriage equality (and our money),” Washington said. “Let’s go to the courts every which way. I want to go World War 3 on this. We are the wedding capital of the entire world. Economically Nevada needs marriage equality right now, not in a few years.”


Bill to grant Va. lawmakers ability to defend state laws advances

Mark Herring, gay news, Washington Blade

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring last month announced he will not defend the state’s constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. (Photo courtesy of Herring for Attorney General)

The Virginia House of Representatives on Monday approved a bill that would allow any state lawmaker to defend a law if the governor and attorney general decline to do so.

The 65-32 vote in the Republican-controlled chamber took place three days after lawmakers approved House Bill 706 in a voice vote. The Washington Post reported that state Del. Tom Rust (R-Fairfax County) is among those who opposed the measure.

“A member of the General Assembly has standing to represent the interests of the commonwealth in a proceeding in which the constitutionality, legality or application of a law established under legislative authority is at issue and the governor and attorney general choose not to defend the law,” reads HB 706.

A House committee on Jan. 24 approved HB 706; one day after Attorney General Mark Herring announced he would not defend Virginia’s constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

“Everybody knows that this wouldn’t even be an issue if Herring didn’t do what he did yesterday,” state Del. Mark Keam (D-Fairfax County) told the Washington Blade during a Jan. 24 interview.

State Dels. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County) and Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah County), who introduced HB 706, are among the 30 lawmakers who urged Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a Jan. 24 letter to appoint a special counsel to defend the marriage amendment. The governor last week denied the request.

Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on Tuesday will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit that two couples – Timothy Bostic and Tony London of Norfolk and Carol Schall and Mark Townley of Chesterfield – filed last year against the marriage amendment. A federal judge in Harrisonburg on Jan. 31 certified a second lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Virginia filed on behalf of two lesbian couples from the Shenandoah Valley who are seeking marriage rights in the commonwealth as a class action.

The Democrat-controlled Virginia Senate is expected to kill HB 706.


Perez says ENDA executive order under consideration

Labor Thomas Perez said the administration continues to "contemplate" the issue of an ENDA executive order (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Labor Thomas Perez said the administration continues to “contemplate” the issue of an ENDA executive order. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said Wednesday the issue of an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors is something ”we continue to contemplate and work on” as he declined to comment on whether his department could implement the order.

Under questioning by the Washington Blade, Perez said during a surprise appearance at the regular White House news briefing that he’s aware of the long-sought directive to protect workers on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I can’t get into what ifs,” Perez said. “I’m certainly aware of the executive order that was proposed that you’re talking about, and the president takes a back seat to no one in his commitment for equal access to opportunity for people regardless of race, religious, sexual orientation or gender identity. And it’s an issue that we continue to contemplate and work on.”

Sources close to the administration have already told the Washington Blade the Labor Department, as well as the Justice Department, have already green-lighted the executive order for the White House.

Also during the briefing, Perez was asked by the Blade whether the Labor Department would apply Executive Order 11246 — the existing directive that prohibits gender discrimination among federal contractors — to transgender workers in the wake of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s decision two years ago in Macy v. Holder.

“That issue is under review in the aftermath of the Macy decision,” Perez said. “I’ve asked my staff to expedite that review so that we can bring that issue to a conclusion at the Department of Labor.”

Asked when the process of review would come to an end, Perez said, “I’m hoping it will to come to an end as soon as possible.”

As Buzzfeed notes, his comments indicate the Labor Department isn’t currently implementing the existing executive order to protect transgender workers in the same way that Title VII is enforced — even though that law governs the enforcement of the executive order.

Ever since the decision two years ago in Macy v. Holder, which interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to protect transgender workers from discrimination, the Labor Department previously hasn’t responded to requests for comment on whether it will implement Executive Order 11246 to protect transgender workers.

Buzzfeed published a series of reports saying the Labor Department has refused to comment on whether it would extend the protections via executive order. Most recently, a Buzzfeed reporter was blocked from accessing a news conference with Perez on Monday reportedly because officials didn’t believe he would ask questions relevant to the veterans event.

With regard to a new executive order for both sexual orientation and gender identity, Perez’s remarks that the administration continues to “contemplate” the issue is consistent with White House counselor John Podesta’s remarks that the directive is “under consideration” as well as other hints the order is coming.

But when Reuters’ Jeff Mason followed up during the same briefing on Perez’ “contemplate” comments, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney attempted to tamp them down and reiterated support for legislation known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. However, Carney spoke generally about discussions taking place.

“I think what I can say is what I’ve said in the past is that I don’t have updates for you on obviously the discussion in Washington and beyond about that kind of executive action,” Carney said. “What our position is and has been is that we strongly support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. We note the progress made in the Senate, there’s been movement in the Senate, against some of the conventional wisdom, we’ve seen movement on this.”

Carney concluded, “I just don’t have any update on the discussion around other hypothetical EOs, and I think that’s what Secretary Perez has indicated.”

Asked by Reuters for clarification about whether the media should read any shift from the administration in Perez’s remarks, Carney spoke broadly about “opportunities” under examination.

“I think broadly speaking, the administration looks at all opportunities to advance an agenda that expands opportunity that levels the playing field that sustains the equal opportunity for all that is part of the president’s vision,” Carney said. “That’s a broad matter. On specific, would the president do this executive action or that executive action? That list could be endless, and I don’t have any update for you that kind of proposition.”

Workplace protections issues weren’t the only LGBT matter that came up during the briefing. CBS News’ Major Garrett asked for an update from the White House on Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, who recently came out as gay, seeking placement on a team in the NFL.

Carney said since the last White House briefing he talked to President Obama about the development, but didn’t convey whether Obama called Sam as he did with NBA player Jason Collins.

“I don’t have any details on the president’s conversations or phone calls,” Carney said. “I can tell you that I have spoken about this with him and he, like the first lady, like so many others, admires Michael Sam’s courage and believes that the action he’s taken is an important step and looks forward to seeing him playing in the NFL.”

A transcript of the exchanges on workplace issues follow:

Washington Blade: Speaking of executive orders, there’s been a lot of discussion recently about a potential executive order that would bar federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. If the President were to sign such an executive order, could the Labor Department implement it?

Secretary Tom Perez: Well, I can’t get into what-ifs. I’m certainly aware of the executive order that was proposed that you’re talking about. And the President takes a backseat to no one in his commitment for equal access to opportunity for people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. And it’s an issue that we continue to contemplate and work on.

Blade: On a related note, there’s also been talk about implementing existing order — Executive Order 11246, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, and apply that to transgender workers to prohibit discrimination against them in the wake of Macy v. Holder. Will the Labor Department take that step?

Perez: That issue is under review in the aftermath of the Macy decision. And I’ve asked my staff to expedite that review so that we can bring that issue to conclusion at the Department of Labor.

Washington Blade: When will the review come to an end?

Perez: I’m hoping it will come to an end as soon as possible.

Reuters: Jay, two questions. One, I’d like to follow up on something that Secretary Perez said in response to Chris’s question. Is the administration contemplating executive action on LGBT workplace non-discrimination? That was the word that he used.

Jay Carney: Well, I think what I can say to that is what I’ve said in the past, is that I don’t have any updates for you on obviously the discussion in Washington and beyond about that kind of executive action. What our position is and has been is that we strongly support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. We note the progress made in the Senate, the fact that there’s been movement in the Senate on this, and I think against some of the conventional wisdom we’ve seen movement on this.

On the broader range of issues around LGBT rights, we’ve seen dramatic progress, and we’re going to keep pressing Congress to catch up with the country on these issues. Turning the Employment Non-Discrimination Act into law would be a huge step forward by Congress, and the President looks forward to that happening. But I just don’t have any update on the discussion around other hypothetical EOs, and I think that’s what Secretary Perez was indicating.

Reuters: It wasn’t a hypothetical, so I just wanted to clarify, should we read into that any sort of a shift in the position of maybe going away from just a congressional push back to the possibility of an executive order?

Jay Carney: I think broadly speaking, the administration looks at all opportunities to advance an agenda that expands opportunity, that levels the playing field, that sustains equal opportunity for all that is part of the President’s vision. That’s as a broad matter. On specific — would the President do this executive action or that executive action, I mean, that list could be endless, and I don’t have any update for you on that kind of proposition.

What I can tell you is that it is our policy position that the House ought to and the Congress ought to send the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to the President’s desk so he can sign it into law.


Va. legislator, U.S. House candidate comes out

Mark Sickles, Fairfax, Virginia, gay news, Washington Blade

Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) is the second out gay member of the Virginia General Assembly. (Photo by Cliff; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A member of the Virginia House of Delegates who is one of 11 Democrats running for the U.S. House seat being vacated by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) disclosed he is gay on Friday in a guest column in the Washington Post.

In making the disclosure, Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) became the second out gay member of the Virginia General Assembly.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who became Virginia’s first out state legislator in 2003, is also running for the 8th District congressional seat, which includes parts of Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax.

Sickles’ coming out in the Post came three days after gay rights attorney and radio talk show host Mark Levine announced his candidacy for the 8th District congressional seat, opening the way for an unprecedented development – three prominent openly gay candidates running against each other in a Virginia election.

Sickles, Ebbin and Levine along with the other eight Democrats are running in the hotly contested race in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. Most political observers say the winner in the June 10 Democratic primary will be the odds-on favorite to win the general election in November.

In his column in the Post, Sickles, 57, said he long ago came out to family members, friends and political allies. He said he was prompted to come out publicly at this time by two developments. One, he said, was a decision this month by a federal judge declaring Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

The other, according to Sickles, was remarks by at least two of his colleagues on the floor of the House of Delegates earlier this month describing LGBT people in a derogatory and inaccurate way. Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William County), Sickles noted, referred to the “LGBT lifestyle” as a series of “life shortening and health compromising behaviors.”

Another delegate, whom he didn’t identify, claimed there was “overwhelming science demonstrating that children have better outcomes when they are [raised] by a mother and father,” suggesting that LGBT people were not fit to raise children, Sickles said.

“Hearing such caustic remarks yet again on the House floor, coupled with the overturning of our same-sex marriage ban, has motivated me to state publicly here what many close friends  and family have known for decades: I am a proud, gay man,” he wrote in his column.

“I have always lived openly with my neighbors, friends and family, lived a full life and never regretted the way I was born,” he said. “But the current moment in Virginia has convinced me that it could be helpful to share this aspect of my life with all of my constituents.”

Levine, a resident of Alexandria since 2001, served as legislative counsel to former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) from 2001 to 2003 and has provided legal counsel to LGBT rights related causes since the late 1990s, including marriage equality litigation. He said he has been a talk show host or commentator on radio and television, including CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, as an advocate for progressive causes for the past decade.

His campaign’s Facebook page describes him as an “aggressive progressive.”

Ebbin and Sickles have a long record of advocating for progressive legislation, including LGBT rights legislation, during their tenure as state legislators.

It couldn’t immediately be determined how LGBT rights organizations that endorse political candidates will respond to the possibility of having to choose between three gay candidates.


Ky. guv to defend marriage ban without attorney general

Steve Beshear, Kentucky, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Gov. Steve Beshear (D-Ky.) will defend the state’s marriage ban in court without the attorney general (Photo public domain).

The governor of Kentucky announced on Tuesday that he intends to appeal a ruling against the state’s ban on same-sex marriage to a higher court on the same day the state’s attorney general declared he would no longer defend the law.

Gov. Steve Beshear announced he’ll hire other counsel to represent the state in the case, known as Bourke vs. Beshear, in addition to appealing the district court decision against the marriage ban the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“General Conway has advised me that he will no longer represent the Commonwealth in Bourke vs. Beshear,” Beshear said. “The State will hire other counsel to represent it in this case, and will appeal Judge Heyburn’s decision to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and ask the court to enter a stay pending appeal.”

As Beshear notes, U.S. District Judge John Heyburn ordered the state to recognize out-of-state same-sex nuptials following his ruling last month against the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Heyburn, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, also took on the question of whether the state can prohibit same-sex couples from marrying within its borders.

“Both of these issues, as well as similar issues being litigated in other parts of the country, will be and should be ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in order to bring finality and certainty to this matter,” Beshear said. “The people of this country need to know what the rules will be going forward. Kentucky should be a part of this process.”

Heyburn ordered the state to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages, but later issued a 21-day stay in his order, allowing Kentucky to wait to recognize until March 20.

In addition to defending the law, Beshear said he’ll seek a continued stay on that order until the U.S. Supreme Court resolves the issue.

“In every other appeal currently in process, a stay has been entered maintaining the status quo until a final decision is reached on appeal,” Beshear said. “The reason is obvious. Without a stay in place, the opportunity for legal chaos is real. Other Kentucky courts may reach different and conflicting decisions.”

Beshear announces he’ll continue defending the state’s ban on same-sex marriage after Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway announced earlier on Tuesday he’ll no longer defend the law in court.

“I have evaluated Judge Heyburn’s legal analysis, and today am informing my client and the people of Kentucky that I am not appealing the decision and will not be seeking any further stays,” Conway said.

After reviewing the judge’s order, Conway said Heyburn “got it right” with his decision against the marriage ban.

“From a constitutional perspective, Judge Heyburn got it right, and in light of other recent federal decisions, these laws will not likely survive upon appeal,” Conway said. “We cannot waste the resources of the Office of the Attorney General pursuing a case we are unlikely to win.”

Conway acknowledges that many in Kentucky will disagree with his decision, but he came to the conclusion defense of the law “would be defending discrimination.”

“The United States Constitution is designed to protect everyone’s rights, both the majority and the minority groups,” Conway said. “Judge Heyburn’s decision does not tell a minister or a congregation what they must do, but in government ‘equal justice under law’ is a different matter.”

Conway’s decision follows the announcement from U.S. Attorney Eric Holder that state officials are free to decline to defend bans on same-sex marriage against legal challenges. Other states where attorneys general who have declined their state marriage bans are Oregon, Nevada, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Much earlier, California Attorney General Kamala Harris declined to defend the ban on California’s Proposition 8 and Holder himself declined to the Defense of Marriage Act against legal challenges.

But the situation in Kentucky is unique in terms of party affiliation because Beshear, a Democrat, is defending the ban, while Conway, also a Democrat, is declining to defend the law. In Nevada, both Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, determined their state’s ban on same-sex marriage was indefensible before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, heaped praised on Conway for his decision to no longer defend Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage in court.

“Today’s decision by Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway echoes that of state attorneys general across America who refuse to defend discrimination,” Solomon said. “Conway stands on the right side of history along with the Republican-appointed Kentucky federal judge who held that there is no legitimate justification for denying equal protection to same-sex couples.”

Brian Brown, president of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, on the other hand commended Beshear for continuing to defend the state’s marriage ban.

“He is doing what every elected official, on every level of government across the country should do, defend the laws of the land,” Brown said. “It is absurd that Kentucky’s Attorney General Jack Conway is not doing what he swore to do upon taking office – defending the laws and constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the judgment of the Kentucky’s citizens who voted overwhelmingly on this issue. We hope that voters hold him to account for abandoning his sworn duty.”


U.S. aid program to Uganda ends after anti-gay law signed

Dickson Mujuni, RPL AIDS Foundation, Uganda, gay news, Washington Blade

Dickson Mujuni of the RPL AIDS Foundation in Uganda working with youth
peer educators in the East African country. (Photo courtesy of Dickson

The Washington Blade has confirmed the U.S. has not renewed a program with the Ugandan Ministry of Health that helps fund the country’s HIV/AIDS response after an anti-gay bill became law.

The agreement that fully or partially funded the salaries of 87 employees of the Ugandan Ministry of Health who support the country’s response to the epidemic expired on Feb. 28.
Reuters late on Thursday reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spent $3.9 million on the program last year, but a U.S. official did not say how much aid the Obama administration has withheld. A spokesperson for the Ugandan Ministry of Health told the news agency it would “no longer be able to access money from a fund” to purchase anti-retroviral drugs and HIV testing kits.

A source familiar with the aid program told the Blade on background the funds sent to the Ugandan Ministry of Health were not used to purchase or distribute anti-retroviral drugs. The source added the expiration of the contract will not “directly impact” the “ability to deliver lifesaving medications in Uganda” through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Uganda receives nearly $300 million each year through PEPFAR to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the East African country. The Ugandan government in 2013 received more than $485 million in aid from the U.S.

“We did not renew these contracts because we wanted to have a dialogue with the government of Uganda about whether it should assume greater responsibility for core government functions associated with HIV/AIDS response, including these salaries,” said the source familiar with the Ugandan Ministry of Health aid program.

The program expired four days after President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill that would impose a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts.

The Obama administration subsequently announced it is reviewing its relationship with the Ugandan government over the issue. The World Bank, the Netherlands and other European countries have postponed loans or cut aid to the East African country after Museveni signed the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law.

Dickson Mujuni of the RPF AIDS Foundation told the Blade late last month during a telephone interview from Kampala, the Ugandan capital, his organization has had to abandon plans to build a hospital because of the anti-gay law. Mujuni said gay and lesbian Ugandans have also gone “underground.”

“The community is very scared, very worried,” Mujuni told the Blade.

A coalition of Ugandan human rights organizations that includes HIV/AIDS and LGBT advocates on March 11 filed a challenge to the law with the country’s Constitutional Court.

The State Department said Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the law’s “negative impact” on fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other public health initiatives during a telephone call with Museveni on Feb. 27.

“It complicates our relationship with Uganda,” Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, told the Blade in a follow-up interview. “We have deep concerns about the law posing a threat to the safety and security of the LGBT community, but also the safety and protection of all Ugandan citizens.”


Maryland House committee approves transgender rights bill

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Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Maryland House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee on Tuesday approved a bill that would ban discrimination against transgender Marylanders.

House Bill 1265 – the Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014 – passed by a 13-9 vote margin.

State Dels. Peter Hammen (D-Baltimore City), Shane Pendergrass (D-Howard County), Eric Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery County), James Hubbard (D-Prince George’s County), Ariana Kelly (D-Montgomery County), Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore County), Nathaniel Oaks (D-Baltimore City), Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s Counties), Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery County), Shawn Tarrant (D-Baltimore City) and Veronica Turner (D-Prince George’s County) voted for the measure. State Dels. Robert Costa (R-Anne Arundel County), John Donoghue (D-Washington County), Donald Elliott (R-Carroll and Frederick Counties), William Frank (R-Baltimore County), A. Wade Kach (R-Baltimore County), Nicholaus Kipke (R-Anne Arundel County), Susan Krebs (R-Carroll County), Patrick McDonough (R-Baltimore and Harford Counties) and Justin Ready (R-Carroll County) opposed HB 1265.

State Del. Peter Murphy (D-Charles County) did not vote.

Lawmakers approved the measure that state Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) introduced nearly three weeks after holding a hearing on it.

“All Marylanders deserve to be treated and protected equally under the law,” said Lieutenant Gov. Anthony Brown as he testified in support of the measure on March 5.

The Maryland Senate earlier this month approved a similar bill that state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County) introduced.

Attorney General Doug Gansler and state Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County) – who are challenging Brown in this June’s Democratic gubernatorial primary – Gov. Martin O’Malley and House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel County) are among those who support HB 1265. State Del. Kathy Afzali (R-Frederick County) said in a recent letter to her constituents the measure would “normalize abnormal behavior.”

A final vote on HB 1265 is expected to take place in the House later this week.


Eyes on 10th Circuit for Utah, Okla. marriage arguments

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(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The progression of a marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court will reach a significant milestone this month when, for the first time since landmark rulings last year, a federal appeals court will consider arguments on the issue of gay nuptials.

The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is set to hear oral arguments on April 10 in Denver in the case of Kitchen v. Herbert, the lawsuit that brought marriage equality briefly to the state of Utah, and will hear arguments April 17 in Bishop v. Smith, in which a lower court ruled Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

Doug NeJaime, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said he expects arguments from attorneys on behalf of same-sex couples during these arguments to focus on the impact of the states’ marriage bans on children.

“I expect we will see significant attention on the child centered rationales put forward by the state with responses regarding the detrimental impact on children raised by same-sex couples. Children are figuring prominently in these cases,” NeJaime said. “I also expect discussion about how Windsor affects the analysis of state bans on marriage.”

The harm to children raised by same-sex parents as a result of the Defense of Marriage Act was a significant factor in U.S. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision last year against the ban. Numerous district courts have cited that language in their decisions striking down marriage bans.

The Tenth Circuit is one of five circuits where marriage equality cases are pending, but it’s hearing oral arguments sooner than the others following a decision to hear the litigation on an expedited basis.

Camilla Taylor, marriage director for Lambda Legal, said she’s optimistic both the Utah and Oklahoma cases are likely to succeed on the merits following the arguments.

“The briefing is extremely strong,” Taylor said. “There’s been a huge array of amicus briefs to go in. This will be the first oral argument in a federal circuit court, and so, of course it will be closely watched.”

Although the arguments mark the first time a federal appeals court has heard arguments on the marriage issue since the decisions against DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 last year, it’s not the first time ever a federal appeals court has heard arguments on whether a state can ban same-sex marriage. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case against Prop 8 in 2011 before striking down the amendment the following year.

The three-panel judge who’ll hear the marriage equality arguments in both cases consists of Judge Paul Kelly Jr., an appointee of President George H.W. Bush; Judge Carlos Lucero, a Clinton appointee; and Judge Jerome Holmes, an appointee of President George W. Bush.

Notably, Holmes was one of two judges that denied Utah’s request for a stay on same-sex marriages in Utah after a district court ruled the state’s marriage ban unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to institute a stay.

Observers will likely be examining judges’ questions to make a prediction on the outcome of the ruling, though Lambda’s Taylor cautioned against placing too much emphasis on the line of questioning during the arguments.

“I think it’s always difficult to tell from oral arguments which way a court is likely to rule,” Taylor said. “I’m hoping folks won’t draw too many conclusions from which questions are asked because judges during oral arguments ask questions because they’re seeking the best formulated answer that they themselves wish to give in an opinion, so a question isn’t necessarily an indication of which way a court is likely to rule.”

Arguments in other appeals courts are somewhere down the line. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is hearing the Virginia case, have set arguments for May 13. The appeals courts for the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Circuits have not set a date as of Wednesday for arguments to hear the marriage equality issues.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 55 marriage equality court cases are working their way through the courts across the country. These cases have been filed in 28 states — as well as Puerto Rico — and account for nearly 250 plaintiffs taking on state marriage bans.

As all of these cases make their way back to the Supreme Court, observers expect justices to take up one — if not all — of them during the year-long term beginning in fall 2014. That would likely mean a nationwide decision on marriage equality by the middle of 2015.