News/Campaigns/Civil Rights

News/Campaigns/Civil Rights

Senators introduce bill to ban gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination

A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday introduced legislation to prohibit job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The bill would add perceived and actual sexual orientation and gender identity to federally-protected categories protected against discrimination, such as race, religion, gender, national origin, age, and disability.


Rep. Johnson: Protect homeless under hate crimes law

Should crimes against homeless people be considered "hate crimes?"

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) think so. The Congresswoman introduced legislation yesterday to make homelessness an official hate crimes category, joining a list that includes race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

"In the past 10 years, there have been 880 reported cases of violence against people who are homeless, including 244 that have resulted in death," said Johnson.

"It is clear that homeless people are targeted simply because they are homeless, and it is time for the federal government to start tracking the number of violent attacks more closely," she added.

Johnson's legislation--the "Hate Crimes Against the Homeless Statistics Act"--would require the FBI to collect data on crimes against the homeless.

The House voted earlier this year to add sexual orientation, gender identity and mental or physical disability to the list of hate crime categories.

Johnson's legislation has 13 co-sponsors, including one Republican: Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinin (R-Fla.)

Obama calls Gates, hopes to meet with prof and Crowley

President Obama called Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Friday, shortly after stepping into this afternoon's White House briefing to say he'd called the Cambridge police officer who'd arrested Gates and sparked a national conversation on race.

Obama called Gates this afternoon at 3:15 after having spoken to Cambridge Sargeant James Crowley earlier today.

"They had a positive discussion during which the President told Gates about his call with Sgt. Crowley and statement to the media," a White House statement on the matter said.

Obama had called Gates's arrest in his own home an answer of police "acting stupidly" in a case with racial overtones.

The president told Crowley he hadn't meant to malign his work, but defended his public involvement in the incident earlier today.

"There are some who say as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all because I'm president and it's a local issue," the president said. "The fact that it's become such a big issue is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society."

The White House said that Obama had invited Gates to join him and Crowley at the White House "in the near future."

Obama calls Cambridge officer about Gates arrest

President Obama called a member of the Cambridge police department Friday to explain his statements earlier this week criticizing the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.

Obama reached out to Cambridge Police Sargeant James Crowley to explain his remarks earlier this week accusing the officer of "acting stupidly" in the arrest of Gates, which sparked a debate about race and policing in the United States.

"Because of our history, because of the difficulties in the past. African-Americans are sensitive to these issues," the president explained during a surprise appearance in Friday afternoon's White House briefing.

Obama spoke on the officer's "fine track record" when it comes to racial sensitivity, and joked that he'd invited Crowley to the White House to have a beer.

Obama defended his decision to speak on the arrest of Gates, first in Wednesday evening's prime time press conference, as an opportunity for a learning opportunity on racial issues nationally.

"My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what's called a teachable moment," Obama said.

"There are some who say as president I shouldn't have stepped into this at all because I'm president and it's a local issue," the president added. "The fact that it's become such a big issue is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society."

Report: CIA withheld plot to kill Qaeda members

A highly classified program aimed at capturing or killing high-value al Qaeda operatives is the program CIA chief Leon Panetta disclosed to members of the House Intelligence Committee last week, leading to calls for investigating the agency.

Though the exact details of the program are unknown, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the CIA was acting to carry out an order signed in 2001 by President George W. Bush. Panetta reportedly told Congress he had ended the program.

Nonetheless, disclosure of the program eight years after Bush signed the order has angered many Democrats, some of whom have called for an investigation into the CIA's record of truthfulness with members of Congress.

Panetta testified about the program in June, and told Congressional panels he had only learned of it himself a few days beforehand. Panetta said the CIA had been ordered to withhold information from Congress by then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

"We should have been briefed before the commencement of this kind of sensitive program," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. "[W]e were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again."

But it is Panetta who is taking heat from Congressional Democrats now. Late last month, seven Democrats on the House committee wrote a letter to Panetta urging him to publicly correct a statement he made earlier this year in which he said it is not the CIA's policy to mislead Congress.

Sources told the Journal that money had been spent on the program, apparently for training purposes, but that no action in the field had occurred.

--Reid Wilson

Mass. sues feds over Defense Of Marriage Act

The state of Massachusetts has sued the federal government over the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), claiming the legislation interferes with the state's right to define marriage the way it prefers.

Massachusetts is one of six states that allows same-sex marriage. DOMA, however, defines marriage on a federal level as between one man and one woman, meaning that gay married couples in Massachusetts aren't eligible for the federal benefits that straight Bay Staters receive.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley cited that alleged discrimination in the lawsuit:
Before the law was passed, Coakley said, the federal government recognized that defining marital status was the "exclusive prerogative of the states." Now, because of the U.S. law's definition of marriage, same-sex couples are denied access to benefits given to heterosexual married couples, including federal income tax credits, employment benefits, retirement benefits, health insurance coverage and Social Security payments, the lawsuit says.

Obama considering exec. order on indefinite detention

The White House is considering an executive order asserting the President's authority to indefinitely detain terrorism suspects, the Washington Post reported this morning.

Were the order to be signed by the President, it would effectively validate the policies of George W. Bush, who claimed expansive executive authority over detainees.

The move is also sure to enrage civil libertarians, who are already upset at the President for adopting or defending a handful of Bush's more controversial national security policies, such as denying habeas corpus to enemy combatants held overseas.

The White House is considering the executive order because Obama's advisers are reportedly pessimistic that Congress will agree on a new detention policy for the inmates currently held at Guantanamo Bay. The order would assert the President's authority to take a more unilateral approach to the problem.

Though civil liberties groups are sure to despise the prospect of indefinite detention, the Post reports that an executive order is least likely to anger them:
"Civil liberties groups have encouraged the administration, that if a prolonged detention system were to be sought, to do it through executive order," the official said. Such an order could be rescinded and would not block later efforts to write legislation, but civil liberties groups generally oppose long-term detention, arguing that detainees should be prosecuted or released.

Polis: I can understand why gay donors would stop Obama donations

President Obama's actions yesterday to extend benefits to federal employees is a small, non-tangible step -- though one in the right direction -- Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said Thursday.

Polis, who is one of three openly gay or lesbian members of Congress, said he still supports the Obama administration, but said he could understand why some in the gay or lesbian community would refuse to donate to Obama.

"It's a small, small step in the right direction," Polis told CBS, before adding: "It's not a tangible step."

Polis explained that the couples targeted by yesterday's memorandum on benefits still won't receive healthcare or retirement benefits.

"I think the president can and should do more," he said. "I, frankly, understand why some people feel insulted by the memorandum defending Defense of Marriage Act, and if they choose not to give -- either temporarily or permanently -- that's their decision."

The Colorado freshman lawmaker encouraged the president to "follow through" on campaign promises, as well. He also said he hoped the current detente between the LGBT community and the Obama administration may serve as a "wake-up call" at the White House.

Gay Americans can be 'extremely proud' of Obama: OPM director Berry

The gay and lesbian community can be "extremely proud" of the memorandum to be signed by President Obama mandating some federal benefits be extended to same-sex couples, the administration's highest-ranking gay official argued Wednesday.

In a conference call, Office of Personnel and Mangement (OPM) director John Berry defended the administration from withering attacks by some in the LGBT community, who say Obama has not moved aggressively or swiftly enough to expand gay and lesbian rights.

"I think the gay community can be extremely proud that this president stands with us 100 percent on the core issues we care about right now," Berry said, denying that today's announcement was timed to quiet a fever pitch from some activists angered by the administration.

"I believe this is a very strong and important action on both counts and I think history is going to reflect that," Berry explained, referencing the fact that the memorandum will both make those benefits mandatory and extend to transgendered individuals, as well.

"I think what the president is doing here -- this is a first step, not a final step," the OPM director explained. "This is an effort to get our house in order."

He said that there was no timeline for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, saying that the administration would move legislation on those when it felt it had the votes in Congress to overturn those policies.

Benefits change raises questions about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

President Obama's decision to extend benefits to gay partners of federal employees is intended to soothe the anger of his erstwhile gay supporters. But the move only emphasizes the one policy those activists are most eager to change: Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT).

The "presidential memorandum" Obama will sign tonight applies to "civil service employees" and "foreign service employees." It's unclear whether military members would fall under one of those classifications, but that's really a moot point. Even if active duty personnel were included in the memorandum, they would be prevented from requesting those benefits by DADT. How can you request benefits for your gay partner when you can't admit you're gay?

Opponents of DADT can now argue that the policy puts gay service members at a material disadvantage compared to the rest of the federal workforce. In effect, the extension of benefits to gay partners only highlights the "exceptional" status of gay members of the military.

Will this concession by Obama soothe gay activists, or just anger them further? In other words, by avoiding the fight over DADT, has the White House intensified it?

Already, pro-gay rights activists are highlighting the irony. A statement from the Human Rights Campaign on the issue ends with this admonishment: "We commend President Obama and his administration for taking this beginning step to level the playing field but we look forward to working with him to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, overturn 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and guarantee the entire American workforce is free from discrimination."

Meanwhile, John Aravosis at AMERICAblog takes a look at the White House fact sheet on the new policy and concludes: "Also, no mention of the military--are they getting benefits? Active duty members too? And if so, how are they going to get around DADT?"

Expect a lot more people to be asking that question in the days ahead.