Al Franken asks public for help passing Student Non-Discrimination Act

Sen. Al Franken

Sen. Al Franken

Sen. Al Franken, D – Minnesota, is asking the public for help passing S. 555, The Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the provisions of S. 555 students who experienced discrimination because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or because of their association with LGBT people could bring a civil suit against the school officials or districts responsible for the discrimination. The bill currently has 34 co-sponsors (none from Texas) and its House companion (H.R. 998 by Rep. Jared Polis, D – Colorado) has 150 (with 7 Texan co-sponsors including Houston’s own Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green) . Both bills have been referred to committee but neither has received a hearing, a crucial step towards becoming law.

In the video requesting the public call their Senators (after the break) Franken points out that federal law already provides protection for school children harassed because of race, color, sex, religion, disability, and national origin, but that no protection exists for sexual orientation or gender identity.

The inclusion of “association” in S. 555 is particularly well thought out. According to the Williams Institute nearly 1 in 5 same-sex couples in the United States is raising children, in Harris County 18% of same-sex couples are.  As these children enter school it’s important that they be able to receive an education without harassment or bullying due to who their parents are.

Franken is asking people to call the Senate switchboard at 202-224-3121 and encourage their Senator’s to support the bill.

—  admin

Senate committee holds 1st-ever hearing on repealing DOMA

LISA KEEN | Keen News Service

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a legendary civil rights activist, led off today’s historic hearing to discuss repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, likening it to laws decades ago that requires separate water fountains and restrooms for “whites” and “coloreds.”

“I find it unbelievable in the year 2011,” said Lewis, “that there is still a need to hold hearings and debates about whether a human being should be able to marry the person they love.”

But there was a hearing, and there was debate.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, came well prepared to do battle, bringing in a full complement of his allowed witnesses, minus one whom he said was afraid to testify against repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) for fear of being harassed.

Photo by Jamie McGonnigal/EqualityPhotography.com

But none of the committee’s other Republican members — who include John Cornyn of Texas — showed up to ask questions, and Democratic senators who support the Respect of Marriage Act (SB 598), the bill to repeal DOMA, were also well prepared.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., called DOMA an “immoral and discriminatory” law and he challenged Grassley’s chief witness, an official with the mammoth Focus on the Family group. (Watch video from ThinkProgress above.) The witness, Thomas Minnery, claimed a federal study found that children raised by a male-female married couple are happier and healthier than children raised by other families.

“I checked the study out,” said Franken, referring to a 2010 study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It doesn’t say what you said it does,” said Franken. The hearing room erupted in laughter. “It says ‘nuclear family,’ not opposite-sex married families, are associated with those outcomes.”

Minnery said he understood “nuclear family” to mean heterosexual.

“It doesn’t,” said Franken, bluntly. “It says, ‘Two parents who are married to one another and are the adopted or biological’ parents of their children. I don’t know how we can trust the rest of your testimony if you are reading studies these ways.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., opened the hearing by saying he called it to “assess the impact” of the law on American families. He said the 1996 law “goes well beyond the harm to a family’s dignity,” harming it economically, health-wise, and in other ways.

Several of Leahy’s seven witnesses provided personal, often dramatic, stories to illustrate those harms. Ron Wallen, a 77-year-old man from Indio, Calif., said his life was thrown into “financial chaos” after his life partner for 58 years succumbed after a long illness. Because he was not eligible to receive his same-sex spouse’s Social Security benefits and pension, said Wallen, his household income dropped from $3,050 per month to $900 per month.

Susan Murray, an attorney who help usher in Vermont’s landmark civil union law and who represents numerous same-sex couples, said many people simply did not understand what a civil union was. And she said she has found that many corporations believe DOMA prevents them from providing equal benefits to their employees.

“Companies think the law allows them to discriminate,” said Murray.

Andrew Sorbo, a history teacher in Catholic schools in Connecticut, talked about “always having to use the pronoun ‘I’” in his classroom.

“I could not say, ‘We are going on vacation,’ because the next question would be, ‘Who is the other person?’” said Sorbo.

“DOMA,” he said, “is an insult to our dignity and our sense of equality.” He said he was “appalled and baffled” by the fact that those in Congress who oppose same-sex marriage “can’t understand how they are the philosophical descendants of those who defended slavery, who defended the laws against mixed race couples, and who defended the laws that allowed the separate but equal statutes that Rep. Lewis spoke of.”

The mainstream media gave some attention this week to a statement by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, during a routine briefing on Tuesday, that President Obama supports the Respect for Marriage Act.

Carney, in response to a question, said Obama “has long called for a legislative repeal” of DOMA.

“He is proud to support the Respect for Marriage Act … which would take DOMA off the books once and for all,” said Carney.

Numerous LGBT groups issued statements, applauding the statement from Carney that the president supports the Respect of Marriage Act. They consider Obama’s support for the repeal measure specifically to be a significant step forward in his position.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, a spokesman for Obama said he’s supported the repeal of DOMA since 2004. But after he became president, his Department of Justice initially mounted a vigorous defense of the law in courts, arguing, among other things, “DOMA does not discriminate against homosexuals in the provision of federal benefits.”

After considerable outrage from the LGBT community, the DOJ softened its arguments in court briefs. And then, in a dramatic announcement in February of this year, Attorney General Eric Holder said that he and President Obama believe DOMA is unconstitutional and that laws disfavoring LGBT people should have to pass the strictest form of judicial scrutiny.

Rep. Lewis seemed to have been referring to President Obama when, in his remarks, he chastised those who are “comfortable sitting on the sidelines” and called on “elected officials … to lead, to be the headlights, not taillights.”

Ranking minority member Grassley was the only Republican senator to comment and ask questions during the hearing, saying — at times with the vigor of a preacher – that DOMA is “not an expression of dislike for gay and lesbian people.” He and other opponents of the bill pointed out that many of the Democrats on the committee — including Chairman Leahy and Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York — voted in favor of DOMA in 1996. The fact that they voted for DOMA, said Ed Whelan of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “refutes the empty revisionist claim that DOMA embodies an irrational bigotry against same-sex couples.”

Whelan said it is “a profound confusion to believe that the values of federalism somehow require the federal government to defer to or incorporate the marriage laws of the various states in determining what marriage means in the provision of federal benefits.”

Whelan also said that repealing DOMA would “have the federal government validate” same-sex marriage and “require taxpayers to subsidize the provisions of benefits. And, he said, repealing DOMA would “pave the way” for polygamists and other polyamorous unions to be recognized under federal law.

Bill sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chaired the committee for a portion of the hearing, said DOMA denies rights and benefits to legally married same-sex couples. And she vowed that, “However long it takes” to repeal DOMA, “we will achieve it.”

The hearing was covered live by C-SPAN and will be rebroadcast from time to time.

© 2011 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright

Polis, Franken tell bullies to ‘pick on someone your own size’ as they introduce SNDA

Rep. Jared Polis, left, and Sen. Al Franken today introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act that would protect LGBT students from discrimination and harassment.

As President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a group of students, parents, teachers and other concerned citizens — including Fort Worth’s own Joel Burns — at the White House today, Openly gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced identical bills, called the Student Non-Discrimination Act, in the House and the Senate that would protect students from discrimination and harassment based on “actual or percieved sexual orientation or gender identity.”

In an e-mail announcing the proposed legislation, Polis cited recent efforts by school officials in Flour Bluff High School, near Corpus Christi, to prevent a gay-straight alliance from meeting on school grounds.

“It’s bad enough when a school turns a blind eye to bullying. But when a school district in Texas moved to ban all extracurricular clubs in order to avoid having to approve a Gay-Straight Alliance, it really crossed the line,” Polis said in the e-mail. “The school itself became the bully.”

He added, “Our message is clear: Pick on somebody your own size.”

Polis acknowledged that “the odds of this bill passing this session are uncertain” because some Republicans, “regardless of their personal beliefs, are reluctant to vote for LGBT-friendly legislation.

“But, even though the odds are against me, I can’t stay silent in the face of bullying — especially when the people who are supposed to protect students from bullying have become the bullies themselves,” Polis said, encouraging individuals to become “citizen sponsors” by adding their name as a supporter here.

The ACLU has quickly come out in support of the legislation, with ACLU legislative representative Ian Thompson saying that the legislation could have “a profound impact in improving the lives of LGBT students in our schools.”

Thompson pointed to the numerous LGBT teens who committed suicde after being bullied relentlessly in the late summer and fall of 2010 as evidence of the need for the legislation. Seth Walsh, 13, was one of those teens, and his mother, Wendy Walsh, is an ACLU client. She, too, weigh in today on the need for the SNDA.

“I can’t bring my son back. But schools can make a difference today by taking bullying seriously when students and parents tell them about it. It’s time for change. We have to create better schools for everyone,” said Wendy Walsh, who was also among those attending the White House Conference on Bullying.

In a written statement released after the SNDA was introduced, ACLU officials pointed out that while federal laws currently protect students on the basis of their race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin, no federal statute explicitly protects students on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The SNDA, like Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the various disability civil rights statutes, is not simply legislation that would remedy discrimination after it occurs, but instead would also have the important impact of preventing discrimination from occurring,” the ACLU statement said.

To read the ACLU’s statement in support of the Student Non-Discrimination Act, go here. To see video of Wendy Walsh telling her son’s story, go here.

—  admin

Franken introduces anti-bullying measure

Sen. Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken

Al Franken, the comedian turned U.S. senator, this week introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act. The measure would add LGBT students — and those perceived to be LGBT — to existing federal laws protecting students from bullying.

Openly gay Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., introduced a similar bill in the House in January.

The topic of anti-gay bullying and harassment in public schools has made headlines in recent months due to some highly publicized cases of young people committing suicide after being bullied and harassed. And the popularity of social networking sites, like MySpace and FaceBook, has helped make what was once primarily a problem during the seven-hour school day into a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week problem.

In introducing the bill, Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said: “Our nation’s civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin. My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly.”

Franken’s bill has 22 co-sponsors.

Even though Polis’ bill was introduced more than four months ago, there has been little action on it since then, notes the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In fact, the newspaper points out, Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, suggested that the bill isn’t needed because anti-LGBT bullying isn’t a problem in public schools (despite numerous studies showing just the opposite).

Kline said: “We should do what we can to prevent any student from being bullied. But I have serious concerns about any bill that turns our educators into ‘thought police’ and opens the door to endless lawsuits and litigation against our schools.”

—  admin