Tuesday, December 11, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court Asks Massachusetts Attorney To Argue That Justices Cannot Rule On Defense Of Marriage Act, New Jersey Senate President Says He Will Not Permit Ballot Vote On Same Sex Marriage, Reversing Earlier Stance Atlanta Mayor Reed Announces Support Of Same Sex Marriage, Eastern Michigan University Settles Suit With Former Graduate Student Dismissed From Program For Refusing To Council Gay Clients, Virginia LGBT Community Concerned That Disappearance Of 19-Year-Old Transgender November 20 Not Priority For Police, Two Sports Radio Host That Spewed Horrific Anti-Transgender Comments Suspended

The Supreme Court on Tuesday invited a Massachusetts lawyer to come argue that the justices cannot rule on one of the gay marriage questions it had planned to decide next year. The court asked lawyer Vicki C. Jackson of Cambridge to join the gay marriage arguments this spring, but she won’t be arguing whether it’s legal for governments to treat gay Americans differently in issues of marriage. Instead, at the court’s invitation, Jackson will be arguing that it’s improper for the Supreme Court to even consider making a ruling on a federal law that treats gay married couples differently from heterosexual married couples. The high court will be hearing two gay marriage arguments: first, whether California’s constitutional amendment that forbids same-sex is constitutional. The second question is the one Jackson will argue that justices should stay out of: the constitutionality of a federal law that denies to gay couple who can marry legally the right to obtain federal benefits that are available to heterosexual married couples. Gay marriage is legal, or will be soon, in nine states, including Maine, Maryland, Washington state, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont, and the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia. But a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, defines marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of deciding who can receive a range of federal health and pension benefits, as well as favorable tax treatment. So far, four federal district courts and two appeals courts struck down the provision. Last year, the Obama administration abandoned its defense of the law, but continues to enforce it. House Republicans are now defending DOMA in the courts. Jackson was asked by the court to argue “that the Executive Branch’s agreement with the court below that DOMA is unconstitutional deprives this court of jurisdiction to decide this case.” She will also argue that House Republicans cannot substitute themselves for the Justice Department and therefore they lack “standing in this case.”

Only a day after a Democratic Assemblyman introduced a bill that would ask New Jersey voters to decide whether gay people should have the right to marry, Senate President Stephen Sweeney today issued a statement saying he would never support it. "I have firmly stated before and will say again now that I do not believe you put civil rights on the ballot, period," Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said in a statement today. "It is the job of elected officials to ensure that everyone is provided equal protection and equal rights under the law. We should not hide from that responsibility. We should embrace it." Sweeney was responding to the new bill sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), the state's first openly gay legislator. Gusciora said he shared Sweeney's opinion until he saw voters in Maine, Maryland and Massachusetts support gay marriage through a ballot initiative last month. Sweeney's position has the power to render Gusciora's bill dead in the Senate. The senate president and the assembly speaker decide which legislation gets posted for a vote. Sweeney said Democrats have their own strategy: override the Gov. Chris Christie's veto on a marriage equality bill before the legislature session ends in January 2014. "We gave the governor an opportunity to ensure true marriage equality in this state, just as other states and nations have done. He punted by shamelessly issuing a conditional veto," Sweeney said. "I fully plan on overriding that veto before this legislative session is done." Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said there was "no activity scheduled on the bill" but "Assemblyman Gusciora’s input will of course be taken into consideration as the legislative process unfolds relative to the issue of marriage equality ... his thoughts and ideas are always welcome." Gusciora's bill (A3611) won an ally in the Republican camp. Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R- Somerset), who sponsored a measure in February seeking voter approval to amend the state constitution to legalize same sex marriage, urged Gusciora to sign on to his legislation. "I appreciate his passion and deep personal investment in this issue, but a constitutional amendment rather than legislative referendum is the cleanest way to resolve the matter once and for all," Bateman said in a statement today. "It avoids delay of implementation from endless litigation, not to mention the possibility of repeal, if the voters of New Jersey give their consent to amending the constitution."

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced his support of same sex marriage Tuesday, reversing a position from his first mayoral campaign. Reed said he went through considerable personal reflection on the issue and changed his mind after discussions with Atlanta’s lesbian and gay communities, as well as his own father and chief of staff. “This seems to me to be a natural place to be,” Reed said. “Candidly, I didn’t feel any pressure. … If I wanted to play politics, I would have done it when I was in third place in the mayoral election [in 2009] and in front of the gay and lesbian community saying I was not supportive of marriage equality. … As a result of that, I suffered great political harm.” He said his longtime friendship with attorney Lee Schreter, who married her partner in New York last year, also played a role. The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it would take up cases involving the federal Defense of Marriage Act and a California law that bans same-sex marriage. Reed affirmed his support Tuesday by signing a City Council resolution backing gay marriage. The resolution was drawn up by Councilman Alex Wan, who is openly gay, and passed by council members a week ago. “Atlanta, being as big a city as it is, a city in a very conservative state … I wanted our position to be in the conversation” as the Supreme Court takes up the issue, Wan said Tuesday. Though same sex marriage is banned in Georgia, the City of Atlanta extends benefits to domestic partners. Reed is running for re-election next year. He is eyed as a potential statewide candidate for the Democrats, but Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint said this announcement makes it harder for Reed to win a statewide race right now. “I think it’s for the long term,” Swint said. “One thing I would take from it is he’s not interested in running for statewide office in Georgia anytime soon, but he’s looking to the future.” A statewide poll by Channel 2 Action News in May showed 59.4-percent of respondents against changing Georgia law to allow same-sex marriage, with 27-percent in favor. In 2004, 76-percent of Georgians backed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. But Atlanta has one of the highest populations of gays and lesbians per capita in the nation. Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy group, said Tuesday’s announcement was an important “symbolic gesture.” “The only thing that gives us any hope there will be local change is when public figures come out and support our right to marry the person we love,” he said. In May, President Barack Obama announced that he had “evolved” on the issue and had become supportive of same sex marriage. At the time, Reed said he was “still wrestling with my own personal beliefs.” In November, Washington State, Maine and Maryland became the first three states to approve same sex marriage at the ballot box. In all, nine states and the District of Columbia allow it. Reed’s announcement makes him one of the most high-profile political figures in the state to publicly back gay marriage. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, has also expressed support for same sex marriage, as far back as 2003.

Eastern Michigan University announced Tuesday afternoon it has settled a lawsuit filed by a former student who was dismissed from the master’s degree counseling program after she refused to counsel a gay client because of her religious beliefs. “EMU has made the decision that is in the best interest of its students and the taxpayers of the state of Michigan to resolve the litigation rather than continue to spend money on a costly trial,” said Walter Kraft, EMU’s vice president for communications, in a written statement. “The matter has been resolved in the amount of $75,000. The university’s insurance company, M.U.S.I.C. (Michigan Universities Self-Insurance Corporation), will pay the cost of the settlement.” The lawsuit was filed in April 2009 by the Alliance Defense Fund on behalf of Julea Ward, a student in the university’s Graduate School Counseling Program, where she was training to become a K-12 school counselor. Ward said the university dismissed her from the program because of her religious beliefs after she declined to counsel a gay client, instead referring the client to another counselor. The university said she was dismissed for not following the American Counseling Association's code of ethics. The Alliance Defense Fund asked the court to order the university to change its counseling curriculum to allow counseling students to refer clients elsewhere on issues related to same sex relationships, abortion and premarital sex. The university’s policy prohibits discrimination and requires counseling students to use the code of ethics of the American Counseling Association. “The resolution of the lawsuit leaves the university’s policies, programs, and curricular requirements intact,” Kraft said. “The faculty retains its right to establish, in its learned judgment, the curriculum and program requirements for the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University.” The case, which pitted religious freedom versus discrimination against gay people, has drawn national attention.

In Virginia, members of Charlottesville Pride Community Networks say they are concerned that police are not handling the case of missing transgender teen Dashad Sage Smith properly. "There's definitely a perception on the part of the L.G.B.T. community here in Charlottesville that this issue is not as important; that its being swept up under the rug," said the group's president, Amy Marshall. She says her lifestyle may be causing her case not to be taken seriously by police. She also feels that stereotypes about her lifestyle may be causing a lack of interest. "I hate to say it but I think if this person was a blond white girl from UVA we wouldn't be just dismissing this case as just a possible person who would be out not just talking to their family," said Marshall. The group plans to speak to city councillors about the matter. They hope that sexual orientation, race, and socioeconomic status will not determine how a case is handled. Police say they are doing all that they can do in the case. "The police department is doing all that they possibly can for the family of Mr. Smith and devoted the resources to this missing person and they are working every day," said police spokesperson Ronnie Roberts. However, critics wonder why police are not releasing specifics about the investigation; and they question if more work can be done by law enforcement. "You just can't tell everything that's going on in an investigation. It would be inappropriate; but the bottom line is that we're working for the family and making every effort to find and locate Mr. Smith," said Roberts. Smith last communicated with her family on November 20; the night she was supposedly to meet 21-year-old Erick McFadden. If you have any information on where Smith might be, police urge you to call Crime Stoppers at 434-977-4000.

An update on a previous post: two hosts for ESPN 980 sports talk radio station in Washington, D.C., were suspended Tuesday for horrifically insensitive on-air remarks about a transgender basketball player. Afternoon drive-time hosts Andy Pollin and Steve Czaban had made brief apologies Monday for remarks made last week in discussing a USA Today Sports Media story about Gabrielle Ludwig, 50, a transgender playing basketball on a women's junior college team in California. In a statement Tuesday, the station said the announcers "crossed the line" and "such intolerance and insensitivity will never be tolerated by this station," adding they will be "temporarily removed" from on-air. Chuck Sapienza, vice president for programming for the station, Monday said that Pollin and Czaban had made remarks "that were extremely insensitive and their actions were dealt with internally in a swift manner. But due to the language of their contracts we are not allowed to comment publicly on any disciplinary actions." Calls to the station were not immediately returned Tuesday. The remarks included Czaban saying, "Whatever you've got to do to scratch that inner itch and quell those inner demons, that's fine. But don't go playing sports then. (And don't say) I've got the rights of everyone else." Tuesday, ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz, in a statement, noted the radio station controls its comments but the "anti-transgender" remarks constituted "offensive commentary completely against ESPN's company culture and values." Outsports.com, which says its "mission is to build the broadest, deepest, most informative and most entertaining gay sports community," had called for the suspension on the grounds that "these are disgusting remarks ... meant to demean another human being who has broken no laws and no rules."

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