Gay What ?
Rest of site back up shortly!

Will new voices call on Obama to sign ENDA exec order?

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC, Democratic National Committee, Lesbian Leadership Council, gay news, Washington Blade

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is among those who haven’t articulated support for an ENDA executive order. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A new letter is being circulated among members of Congress urging President Obama to sign an executive order barring discrimination against LGBT workers, raising questions about whether pro-gay lawmakers who have previously made no explicit calls for the directive will take the opportunity to do so.

Key members of the Democratic leadership have yet to call for the executive order as have Republicans who’ve already articulated support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would bar workplace discrimination against LGBT people.

The letter that’s being circulated among lawmakers calls on Obama to sign the order in the wake of his declaration that 2014 will be a “Year of Action” through administrative means if Congress doesn’t act on his legislative agenda.

“As we continue to work towards final passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) with strong bipartisan support, we urge you to take action now to protect millions of workers across the country from the threat of discrimination simply because of who they are or who they love,” the letter states.

A source familiar with the letter said the opportunity to sign it would close at the end of Monday.

Although this is the first letter intended to include signatures from members of both the House and Senate, it’s not the first time lawmakers signed letters calling for the executive order. Last year, 110 House Democrats signed a letter seeking the directive and 37 senators signed a letter to that effect.

But neither of those letters included names of lawmakers in Democratic leadership or Republicans — even though many had previously articulated support for the executive order or ENDA in some capacity. The newly circulated letter presents an opportunity for those lawmakers to augment the call with powerful voices and create a bipartisan effort to push Obama to take administrative action to protect LGBT workers from discrimination.

The top members of the House Democratic Caucus — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-Calif.) — each refrained from signing the House version of the letter in 2013. None of the offices for those lawmakers responded to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on whether they’d sign the letter this time around.

[UPDATE: Mariel Saez, a Hoyer spokesperson, told the Washington Blade on Monday following the initial publication of this article that the Democratic Whip "is signing onto the letter."]

Even though she didn’t sign the letter, Pelosi has been on the record in support of the executive order since 2011, when the Blade asked her during her weekly news conference if she’d support that action. She also said Obama “of course” should sign the directive in January when speaking with The Huffington Post.

Clyburn was quoted as saying by The Huffington Post he feels “very strongly” that Obama should sign the executive order just months ago, reportedly adding “I don’t know where I would be today if the executive order had not been used to get rid of slavery.” The Blade is unaware of any public comments from Hoyer on the LGBT executive order.

At the time the 2013 letter was made public, Pelosi’s office cited a policy that she refrains from signing group letters because of her position in Democratic leadership. However, she had earlier signed her name to letters seeking action from the administration to help bi-national same-sex couples in addition to signing amicus briefs calling on federal courts to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.

[UPDATE #2: Following publication of this article, Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, said his boss won't sign the letter currently being circulated, noting she rarely signs group letters, and said she'll instead take her own course of action.

"Leader Pelosi has publicly expressed support for this executive order and will be sending her own private letter to the President on this matter," Hammill said.]

Also conspicuously absent from the 2013 letter is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also serves as chair of the Democratic National Committee and is known for her support of LGBT rights. In the past week, she’s announced the DNC would form a lesbian leadership council and hired a gay operative as the DNC’s national political director.

Neither Wasserman Schultz’s congressional office in D.C. nor the DNC responded to the Blade’s request for comment on whether she’d sign the letter this time around.

In January, Wasserman Schultz told The Huffington Post she broadly supports the idea of Obama using his executive authority, but refused to say whether that principle applies to an executive order for LGBT workers.

Wasserman Schultz’s name was also absent from letters seeking support of bi-national same-sex couples. At the time one letter was signed in 2011, Wasserman Schultz told reporters during an Immigration Equality fundraiser she supported the action, but didn’t feel comfortable making demands on the administration because of her position in the DNC.

“Given that I’m the chair of the DNC, it’s a little odd for me to be asking the administration to do specific things,” Wasserman Schultz said at the time. “So I personally support it, but because I’m also the political voice of the president, asking the president to do things publicly can get a little awkward.”

On the Senate side, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also didn’t sign his chamber’s version of the letter in 2013. His office didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether he’ll add his name this time around.

Reid has offered a nuanced position on the executive order. In February, he told The Huffington Post, “If the president decides to do it, I’d be in favor of it.”

But on either the letter signed by the House or the Senate in 2013, not a single Republican signed their name. If a single one did so this time around, it would represent the first time that a Republican lawmaker had called on Obama to sign an executive order.

None of the offices of 10 Republican senators who voted for ENDA on the Senate floor responded to a request for comment on the letter. Those are Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

Despite being an original co-sponsor of ENDA, Kirk has previously spoken against an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.

“If we load executive order upon executive order, all of which would be wiped out the day after the president of the other party takes power, you really haven’t advanced the ball much,” Kirk said in 2011. “That’s why the legislation is absolutely necessary.”

In the House, six Republicans co-sponsor ENDA: Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) and Jon Runyan (R-N.J.).

According to the Huffington Post, Ros-Lehtinen has said she doesn’t support the executive order. Of those six Republicans, only Dent’s office responded to the Blade’s request to comment on the letter, and the response was negative.

“Congressman Dent believes that the regular legislative process is the best way to proceed in making this critical legislation outlawing workplace discrimination the law of the land,” said Dent spokesperson Shawn Millan.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said he doesn’t know whether Republicans will sign the letter, but hopes to see some GOP names calling for the executive order.

“I’m not going to engage in speculation, but with declared GOP support for ENDA among House members of both the House and Senate, I would hope to see some Republican representation on any letter holding the president accountable to a promise he made to Americans six years ago,” Angelo said.

Neither the LGBT Equality Caucus, which is handling circulation of the letter in the House, nor the office of ENDA’s chief sponsor in the Senate Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), which is handling it in the Senate, responded to the Blade’s request for comment over the weekend about expected signers of the letter.


Iran a ‘paradox’ for LGBTs

Arsham Parsi, Iran, gay news, Washington Blade

Arsham Parsi (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Arsham Parsi had just been accepted into an Iranian university to study to become a veterinarian when three of his friends who were either gay or transgender committed suicide.

He had previously worked with a doctor in his hometown of Shiraz in southern Iran who had been conducting research for a study on rates of HIV among gay and bisexual men, but he “decided to do something” after his friends took their own lives.

Parsi launched an online support group in 2001 that later became known as the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization. He formed another website for LGBT Iranians two years later, posting information under two pseudonyms.

“I just thought I have to do something,” Parsi told the Washington Blade during a June 12 interview at the Northwest D.C. offices of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank that focuses on national security and foreign policy, as he discussed his life as a gay man and Iran and his advocacy efforts. “At that time I didn’t know what I had to do.”

Parsi said local authorities in early 2005 began to follow him after they arrested two of his friends. He told the Blade that he decided to flee the country after learning about this surveillance.

Parsi took an overnight train from Shiraz and arrived in Tehran, the Iranian capital, the next afternoon. He said he had just missed the train to Turkey, so he took an overnight bus to Tabriz near the Turkish border.

“It was the most stressful trip that I had because I didn’t know what would happen,” he told Blade.

Parsi boarded a Turkey-bound train in Tabriz at 7 a.m. on March 5, 2005, knowing that he “couldn’t come back anymore.” He crossed the Turkish border less than six hours later.

“I just felt that I’m stepping into exile and I can’t go back,” said Parsi, noting he was crying when the train left Iran and entered Turkey. “It’s such a difficult feeling that you have to go and you have no rights to come back. If you go back, they may kill you.”

Parsi, 33, received refugee status from the U.N. Refugee Agency and received asylum from the Canadian government. He has lived in Toronto since April 2006.

He told the Blade the university that his two sisters attended expelled them because of his advocacy. Parsi said anti-gay graffiti appeared on the door of his parents’ home after he spoke with CNN, the BBC and other international media outlets — and local authorities soon opened a file on them titled “the promotion of homosexuality and corruption.”

His parents subsequently fled to Turkey before resettling in Toronto.

“It was very difficult for my parents to leave all their belongings in their 50s,” said Parsi. “They built their home, their situation. They left all their belongings just because of my work and my activism, and they never, ever blamed me for that.”

His organization, the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees, has received nearly received 900 cases of LGBT people from his homeland who sought refuge in Canada, the U.S., Australia and Europe. Parsi told the Blade that 65 percent of them have been closed successfully.

“I have a really difficult job,” he said, noting his organization’s name reflects Canada’s role as a refuge for slaves who escaped the U.S. on the Underground Railroad during the 19th Century. “It’s not my job. It’s kind of my life and my passion.”

Parsi spoke with the Blade after he participated in a panel on Iran’s human rights record that took place at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.); Florida Congressman Ted Deutch and Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chair of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and daughter of the late-former California Congressman Tom Lantos are among those who also took part.

Iran is a ‘paradox’

Iran is among the handful of countries in which homosexuality remains punishable by death.

Parsi told the Blade the Iranian government has executed more than 4,000 people under the auspices of their reported homosexuality between 1979 and 2000.

Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni were hanged in a square in Mashhad in northeastern Iran in 2005 after a court convicted them of raping a 13-year-old boy, although Parsi and other LGBT rights advocates claimed the authorities executed them because of their homosexuality.

Reports that emerged in March indicate that two gay men were executed in Rasht for “perversion.”

Parsi said the Iranian government does not highlight the sexual orientation of the people he said it continues to persecute because of the international outcry that followed Asgari and Maroni’s executions.

“I believe it’s going on right now, but we don’t know because the Islamic Republic of Iran is very smart right now,” said Parsi, referring to the executions of gay men. “Whenever I see a young man was executed, I said maybe he was an LGBT. I don’t know.”

Parsi noted to the Blade that gay men who can prove their homosexuality are exempt from serving in the military.

“It’s a paradox,” he said. “In one way they don’t want to have gay people in the military or in the camps — oh maybe they do something bad. They have sex and mess around. And in another way homosexuality is punishable by death and they have to prove that the doctors say this person is homosexual.”

Parsi also noted to the Blade and during the briefing that the Iranian government encourages transgender people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery — offering them financial assistance and other incentives to do so. He said nearly half of those who underwent the procedure were not trans, but gay.

Iran’s nuclear program is not ‘only issue’

Then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a 2007 speech at Columbia University that homosexuality does not exist in his country.

The United States and other countries greeted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election last year with cautious optimism, but Parsi told the Blade that he feels the new government in Tehran has changed very little.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the Iranian Queer Organization last December urged Iran in a letter to Rouhani to repeal the death penalty and other punishments used against LGBT Iranians. Parsi said the current Iranian president does not have “any authority” to stop this persecution because it comes directly from those within the Ministry of Justice whom Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly appoints.

“I don’t support the Iranian government,” said Parsi. “We didn’t have a choice between a good person or a bad person or a good candidate or a bad candidate. It was just bad and worse.”

Talks between the U.S. and Iran over the country’s reported nuclear program are scheduled to resume this week in Vienna. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday signaled that Washington is open to potential military cooperation with Tehran to slow the advance of a group of Sunni extremists who have taken control of wide swaths of northern Iraq in recent days.

Parsi and others who took part in the Capitol Hill panel said the response to Iran’s nuclear program has come at the expense of efforts to highlight the country’s human rights record.

“Iran’s only issue is not its nuclear program,” Parsi told the Blade. “We have to focus on human rights.”

Parsi further noted the U.S. has one of the highest rates of executions in the world — only Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China execute more prisoner than this country as a 2011 Amnesty International report notes. He said that Washington “cannot blame” Tehran for executions because of its own policies towards capital punishment.

Advocacy is ‘investment for the future’

Parsi acknowledged to the Blade that remains unlikely he will be able to return to Iran.

He noted his organization continues to struggle to gain additional financial support and more volunteers. Parsi said he nevertheless remains optimistic that life for LGBT Iranians will someday improve.

“All of my work is an investment for the future and the brighter tomorrow,” he said.


Murkowski backs same-sex marriage

Lisa Murkowski, Republican Party, United States Senate, Alaska, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has becomes the 3rd sitting U.S. Senate Republican to endorse marriage equality. (Photo public domain)

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday became the third U.S. Senate Republican to endorse same-sex marriage.

The Human Rights Campaign said Murkowski, who voted for the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal bill in 2010, made the endorsement during an interview with KTUU, an Anchorage television station. The NBC affiliate said it will post the interview on its website later today and air it on their evening newscast.

Murkowski confirmed her position in an op-ed posted to her Senate website.

“Countless Alaskans and Americans want to give themselves to one another and create a home together,” she wrote, noting former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter said she feels her father would have supported nuptials for gays and lesbians. “I support marriage equality and support the government getting out of the way to let that happen.”

Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director Gregory T. Angelo applauded Murkowski in a statement to the Washington Blade.

“Senator Murkowski could have waited for the pending Supreme Court rulings on the landmark cases being decided this month, but instead chose to stand up for what’s right without wasting another day,” he said. “I know this wasn’t an easy decision for the Senator, but that’s why it’s called courage. And the Senator’s statements show the power everyday gay Americans have when they live their lives with honesty and pride.”

HRC President Chad Griffin described Murkowski’s endorsement as a “courageous and principled announcement.”

“We hope other fair-minded conservatives like Senator Murkowski stand up and join her,” he said. “Alaska may be nicknamed ‘the Last Frontier,’ but we’ve got to make sure that LGBT Alaskans don’t have to wait to find justice.”

“Senator Murkowski joins the majority of U.S. senators taking a stand for equal treatment under the law on one of the most important bonds in our society: marriage,” Mark Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, added. “As the third GOP senator to announce support for marriage this year, she shows that the conservative tenets of freedom and family are perfectly in line with the freedom to marry.”

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk in April publicly endorsed same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) backed the issue during an March interview with CNN’s Dana Bash.

Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former Illinois Republican Party Chair Pat Brady and former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr., are among those who also support nuptials for gays and lesbians.


3 things to watch during the ENDA markup

United States Senate, Democratic Party, Republican Party, Massachusetts, Iowa, Wisconsin, Alaska, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Harkin, Tammy Baldwin, Lisa Murkowski, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are members of the Senate committee that will vote Wednesday on ENDA. (Photos public domain).

LGBT advocates will be watching a Senate committee Wednesday when it votes on long-sought legislation to protect LGBT workers from discrimination.

The Senate Health, Labor, Education & Pensions Committee will hold its markup Wednesday at 10 a.m. on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. A successful vote would mark the first time a version of ENDA with transgender protections advanced in Congress.

Here are three things to watch for during the markup before the final vote:

1. What will Republicans do?

Given that all 12 Democrats on the committee — in addition to one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — are co-sponsors of ENDA, the legislation will almost assuredly be reported to the Senate floor regardless of Republican action if the final vote is on the bill as it was introduced.

Progressive advocates like lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will almost certainly take the opportunity to weigh in on their first opportunity to vote on a bill entirely dedicated to LGBT issues since the start of the 113th Congress.

But support for ENDA from one Republican member of the committee during the markup — Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — is seen as crucial for ENDA’s prospects for finding 60 votes to end an expected filibuster on the Senate floor. It’ll be difficult for her to change her vote in the full Senate once her position becomes known based on her vote in committee.

Murkowski’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on ENDA, but she’s known for being supportive of LGBT rights. Just before the Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, Murkowski became the third sitting U.S. Senate Republican to come out in favor of marriage equality. She’s also voted for hate crimes protection legislation and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

One LGBT advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Murkowski staffers have said she voted in favor of the Anchorage LGBT non-discrimination ordinance that came before voters in the city last year and was voted down.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said his organization is lobbying senators on both sides of the aisle as the Senate markup approaches.

“The first Senate mark-up of an inclusive ENDA is a tremendous step toward floor passage and HRC has been lobbying senators on the bill, Republicans and Democrats alike,” Cole-Schwartz said. “Our efforts include both meetings with staff and senators in Washington as well as generating grassroots support in targeted states around the country.”

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said his organization has been lobbying Republicans on ENDA.

“I’ve also asked Freedom to Work’s Republican Legislative Director, Christian Berle, to lobby any and every Republican member of Congress who will take our meeting to hear why ENDA is good for business and consistent with American values about hard work and success,” Almeida said.

Almeida declined to comment on which Republicans his organization has met with, but said there are more GOP members of Congress who’ll vote for a trans-inclusive ENDA than are commonly known.

But Almeida also gave credit to the American Unity Fund, a newly formed Republican LGBT group funded by Republican philanthropist Paul Singer, saying he’s “really impressed by their work on ENDA, and I’m told there’s much more to come.” That group didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The actions of GOP members during the markup are important because Republicans who oppose the legislation may take the opportunity to offer “poison pill” amendments that, if adopted, would make ENDA less palatable for final passage or limit its scope.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the committee, may be the one to carry water for the Republican opposition to ENDA during the committee markup and during the vote on the Senate floor. In the previous Congress, Alexander earned a score of 15 out of 100 on HRC’s congressional scorecard.

Prior to the July 4 recess, Alexander was tight-lipped while speaking with the Washington Blade on Capitol Hill.

“I’m reviewing that now; I’m reviewing that now,” Alexander said.

Asked whether he’s leaning one way or the other on the legislation, Alexander said, “No. I’m still reviewing it. I’m working on immigration and that doesn’t come up until — that’s about a month away.”

2. Will ENDA be updated following Supreme Court decisions on job bias?

As amendments are offered up to ENDA during the markup, technical changes will likely be made to the legislation in the aftermath of recent Supreme Court rulings related to employment discrimination.

One such ruling was in 2009 in the case of Gross v. FBL Financial Services, which raised the standard of proof for making a claim of age discrimination in the workplace based on the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The ruling was issued in such a way that, if the current version of ENDA were to become law, would also make allegations of LGBT workplace discrimination more difficult to pursue. The LGBT group Freedom to Work has called for a change in the wording of ENDA to ensure meritorious cases of LGBT workplace discrimination would succeed.

In a statement, Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he supports the idea of updating ENDA in accordance with other legislation he previously introduced known as the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act to address issues the Gross ruling created.

“Last Congress, I introduced  a bill with Sen. Grassley to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Gross v. FBL Financial, and I intend to do so again soon,” Harkin said. “I believe the same standard of proof already applicable for plaintiffs alleging discrimination based on race, sex, national origin and religion should also apply to age and disability, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Another issue is whether ENDA will be updated in the wake of more recent Supreme Court rulings last month in the case of Vance v. Ball State University and the case of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar.

In the Vance case, the court ruled that a person must be able to hire and fire someone to be considered a supervisor in discrimination lawsuits. In the Nassar case, the court limited how juries can decide retaliation lawsuits and said victims must prove employers only took action against them only for the intention to retaliate.

Writing the dissent in these rulings, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the decisions dilute the strength of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, adding the “ball is once again in Congress’ court to correct the error.”

Harkin’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether the senator would support updating ENDA to ensure meritorious cases of LGBT workplace discrimination would succeed in the wake of those decisions.

Almeida predicted the committee would make technical changes to ENDA “to fix some loopholes and mistakes in ENDA’s current text” in a way that would update it in the wake of these Supreme Court decisions.

“In fact, I imagine some Republican senators will want to see technical corrections to certain drafting mistakes that accidentally make ENDA slightly more liberal than it should be,” Almeida said. “I think these technical corrections will be non-controversial and will help us create a better, smarter ENDA that can pass the Senate with 60 or more votes this year.”

Matt McNally, a spokesperson for ENDA’s chief sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), said in a statement to the Blade the senator is prepared to make changes that Harkin deems fit.

“Sen. Merkley supports the current bill and will be working with his colleagues on the HELP committee, under the leadership of chairman Harkin, on any potential changes to the bill during markup,” McNally said.

3. Will lawmakers narrow ENDA’s religious exemption?

Another issue to watch — although the chances of any movement are unlikely — is whether efforts to limit ENDA’s religious exemption will gain  traction. LGBT groups are divided on whether the provision should stay as it is, or be restricted to enable greater protection against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination.

Currently, ENDA has a religious exemption that provides leeway for religious organizations, like churches or religious schools, to discriminate against LGBT employees. That same leeway isn’t found under Title VII, which prohibits religious organizations from discriminating on the basis of race, gender or national origin.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said lawmakers should at least consider rethinking the idea of narrowing the religious exemption during the upcoming markup.

“What we have seen over the past several months is an increasing array of voices weighing in on the need to appropriately narrow ENDA’s sweeping religious exemption — from prominent editorials in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times to the chairman emeritus of the NAACP, Julian Bond,” Thompson said. “As more pro-equality members of Congress understand the potential harms of the current exemption, I think there will be even more support for narrowing it. That foundation is being laid now.”

Immediately after the introduction of ENDA in April, the ACLU — along with Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center — made public a letter saying they have “grave concerns” about ENDA’s religious exemption.

Informed sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told the Washington Blade the ACLU proposed a change in language related to the religious exemption prior to the bill’s reintroduction at the beginning of the year, but Merkley rejected the proposal out of concern that Republicans would bolt from the bill.

In a statement to the Blade, Harkin indicated a lack of interest in restricting ENDA’s religious exemption by emphasizing he opposes discrimination against LGBT employees by secular employers.

“I believe that — as with all other anti-discrimination protections — a capable employee working for a secular, non-religious organization, should not be fired, or not hired, because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity,” Harkin said.

Voting in favor of narrowing the religious exemption would also be difficult for lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who’s a member of the HELP committee, because as a U.S. House member in 2007 she voted in favor of the current religious exemption when it was offered up as an amendment on the floor.

Despite these calls to limit the religious exemption in ENDA, many prominent LGBT groups working on ENDA say they support the religious exemption as it stands. Among them is Freedom to Work’s Almeida, who noted many religious groups support ENDA because of the exemption.

“Some churches and religious organizations will choose discrimination and some churches will choose inclusion of all of God’s children,” Almeida said. “ENDA does not force the choice of the federal government upon any church, and therefore ensures that ENDA will not be struck down someday by the U.S. Supreme Court for violating religious freedom.”

In a report dated June 11, 2012, the Center for American Progress also endorsed the religious exemption, saying it’s “politically” necessary for ENDA to advance and secure employment protections for LGBT Americans.

“At its core ENDA is about ensuring that all Americans can go to work in an environment free of discrimination,” the report states. “By including such a broad exemption for religious organizations, ENDA is also about protecting religious freedoms.”

One of the authors of the report is Jeff Krehely, who has since departed the Center for American Progress to join as vice president and chief foundation officer for the Human Rights Campaign.

Paul Guequierre, an HRC spokesperson, affirmed Krehely’s views on the religious exemption reflect the view of HRC and said the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force share that position. NCTE affirmed it supported the exemption.

Mark Daley, a Task Force spokesperson, said his group supports the bill but wants to see the religious exemption narrowed as ENDA progresses.

“The Task Force strongly supports S. 815 and will be working hard for its passage this year,” Daley said. “We also favor narrowing the religious exemption as ENDA moves towards becoming law. We will be working to get the votes needed to pass S. 815 in the 113th Congress.”

If the Senate does take action to limit the religious exemption, it might happen on the Senate floor. During an event hosted by the moderate group Third Way last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who isn’t a member of the HELP committee, expressed support for the idea of removing ENDA’s religious exemption.

During the Q&A session, audience member Ellen Sturtz — the lesbian activist affiliated with GetEQUAL who gained notoriety by confronting first lady Michelle Obama — asked Gillibrand whether she’s willing to amend ENDA to remove the religious exemption.

The New York senator responded simply, “Oh, yes. Yes, I am.” Asked by the Blade to elaborate, Bethany Lesser, a Gillibrand spokesperson, said, “Sen. Merkley is leading the ENDA bill and Sen. Gillibrand will offer any help she can provide to help him pass it.”


Durbin calls on Ill. lawmakers to approve marriage equality

Dick Durbin, Richard Durbin, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade, Illinois

Sen. Dick Durbin is calling on Ill. lawmakers to pass marriage equality (D-Ill.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate is calling on legislators in his state to pass legislation that would make Illinois the 10th state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage.

In a letter dated Jan. 3 to state lawmakers, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) talks about his own evolution on the issue of marriage rights for gay couples, saying he’s concluded that “ending this discrimination” against them is “consistent with the evolution of civil rights in our democracy.”

“Every generation is given a chance to put an end to some form of discrimination in America,” Durbin writes. “As you consider this historic vote, I hope you will reflect on those you will meet after it is cast. An affirmative vote will give you a chance to look into the eyes of those who have faced discrimination throughout their lives and tell them that you voted to affirm their rights under the law.”

Durbin has previously expressed support for marriage equality and among the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted to report out to the Senate legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act last year. As a U.S. House member in 1996, Durbin voted in favor of DOMA.

Supporters of same-sex marriage in Illinois were pushing to pass same-sex marriage legislation by the time the General Assembly adjourns on Jan. 8. According to the Windy City Times, the legislation won’t come to a vote this week and “repeated foibles” bring into question whether the bill will pass before the next session begins.

Durbin’s letter follows a statement issued by a White House spokesperson last week indicating President Obama also supports the Illinois marriage equality legislation and would vote in favor of it if he were a legislator in the state, which he was from 1997 to 2004.

The office of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the junior senator from Illinois, didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on the marriage equality legislation. Kirk had only Thursday returned to the Senate after recovering from a stroke.

Had Kirk come out in support of the legislation, he would be the first Republican member of the U.S. Senate to endorse marriage equality. Illinois State GOP Chair Pat Brady has called on Republicans in the state to support the bill, but said he was doing so in a personal capacity.


Carper endorses same-sex marriage

Tom Carper, Delaware, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade, gay news

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) (Photo public domain)

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper on Tuesday became the latest Senate Democrat to publicly endorse marriage rights for same-sex couples.

“As our society has changed and evolved, so too has the public’s opinion on gay marriage – and so has mine,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I pray every day for God to grant me the wisdom to do what is right. Through my prayers and conversations with my family and countless friends and Delawareans, I’ve been reminded of the power of one of my core values: the Golden Rule. It calls on us to treat others as we want to be treated. That means, to me, that all Americans ultimately should be free to marry the people they love and intend to share their lives with, regardless of their sexual orientation, and that’s why today, after a great deal of soul searching, I’m endorsing marriage equality.”

Carper’s statement comes a day after Delaware Congressman John Carney and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey announced their support of nuptials for gays and lesbians. It also coincides with the expected introduction of a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in the First State.

“We thank Senator Carper for standing with the majority of Delawareans who support marriage equality,” Equality Delaware said in a statement. “We’re honored to have such strong support from our statewide elected officials in Delaware.”

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.,) Mary Landrieu (D-La.,) Mark Pryor (D-Ark.,) Bill Nelson (D-Fla.,) Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.,) Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) are the only Senate Democrats who have yet to publicly back nuptials for gays and lesbians.

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk on Tuesday also announced his support of marriage rights for same-sex couples.


Kirk becomes 50th U.S. senator to back gay marriage

Mark Kirk, gay news, gay politics dc, enda

Sen. Mark Kirk became the 50th sitting member of the U.S. Senate to back nuptials for same-sex couples on Tuesday. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk on Tuesday became the 50th sitting U.S. senator — and the second Republican in the chamber after Ohio Sen. Rob Portman — to back same-sex marriage.

The announcement came on the heels of one from U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who became the 48th Democrat in the Senate to back gay nuptials. Lawmakers in Delaware and Illinois are mulling legislation that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples this year, and both announcements could reignite momentum for marriage equality in those states.

“When I climbed the Capitol steps in January,” Kirk wrote on his blog, “I promised myself that I would return to the Senate with an open mind and greater respect for others.”

“Same-sex couples should have the right to civil marriage,” the statement continues. “Our time on this Earth is limited, I know that better than most. Life comes down to who you love and who loves you back — government has no place in the middle.”

Kirk was absent from the Senate for nearly one year after suffering a stroke in January 2012, which he alluded to in Tuesday’s marriage pronouncement.

Kirk has been a long-time supporter of some LGBT legislation, backing employment protection legislation since he arrived in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2001.

He initially opposed U.S. House efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his 2010 Senate run. However, after the election, Kirk — who replaced pro-gay appointee Roland Burris — became a yes vote in that chamber, helping push the repeal to passage.

“With the Republican logjam on marriage equality now officially broken, we encourage Senator Kirk’s fellow Republicans in the Senate and his colleagues in the House to join him, Senator Portman, Congressman Hanna, and Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen on the right side of history,” Log Cabin Republicans executive director, Gregory T. Angelo, said in a statement.

“With Senator Kirk’s support, the U.S. Senate is now ready to move to the right side of history in support of same-sex couples’ freedom to marry,” wrote Freedom to Marry President Evan Wolfson in response to the announcement. “Just as we have seen a majority of Americans embrace the freedom to marry, so the Senate is now on the verge of a majority for marriage.”