National Legal Panel at Equality Forum: Opening Wide for a Fire Hose of Information
Did Lambda Legal’s Executive Director, Kevin Cathcart, really “start the LGBT movement for legal rights,” as National Law Panel moderator Brad Sears playfully suggested at the opening of last night’s Equality Forum event?
If he didn’t, he certainly has a deep understanding of what most people think of as the legal “movement” – the litigation that’s been waged for the past several decades in an effort to give LGBT people liberty and equality. Cathcart and Sears, who is Executive Director of the Williams Institute, the LGBT think tank at UCLA School of Law, were half of a predictably stellarly credentialed and excellent panel that’s always a well-attended highlight of Equality Forum. (I’d guess there were easily 100 people present for the discussion).
Sears, who certainly could have added much of substance himself, rarely used his prerogative to do so and instead devoted himself to effective moderating. On the one occasion that he stepped out of role, it was to commend the Obama Administration for “taking a chip out of DOMA” by making a real effort at counting LGBT households in the current census.
Cathcart, of course, focused mostly on the impact litigation that Lambda currently has underway. Among the highlights is a recently filed case in New Jersey, asking the state’s supreme court to declare that the civil union compromise they had permitted several years ago doesn’t confer true equality, and that full marriage rights are therefore needed. There’s also a case in the court of appeals asking whether the DC marriage equality law can be placed on the ballot, and another in Hawaii asking the court to recognize civil unions for LGBT couples (since a constitutional amendment in that state prohibits full marriage equality).
During a second round of questions focusing on emerging issues, Cathcart found himself in a good mood after yesterday’s oral argument before the US. Supreme Court in Doe v. Reed, in which the losing side in the recent Washington State ballot initiative to remove full domestic partnership rights for gay couples sought to keep private the signatures on the ballot petitions.
“Butch up!”, Cathcart said in summarizing “Justice” Scalia’s reaction to the side that sought privacy. Politics is rough and tumble, and if you’re signing ballot petitions, you should expect some criticism. No big deal.
In this woe-is-us context, Cathcart spent some time dissecting the anti-equality force’s latest strategy, which is to argue that they are the ones being discriminated against and harassed, and seeking to turn us into the aggressors. He aptly summarized this tactic as an effort to “turn around the facts of real life.”
James Esseks, who is Director of the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS Project, summarized his work on challenging foster and adoption bans in Florida and Arkansas, and noted that it’s important to win these cases on constitutional grounds so that other legislatures don’t get the idea that these kinds of pernicious laws can work.
He then spent some time on the very hot case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, in which the University of California is pitted against CLS in a case that balances the equality interest of the LGBT (and non-believing) students excluded against CLS’s effort to keep them from full voting membership. (California stands with the excluded student by refusing to fully sponsor any group, including CLS, that discriminates.) Esseks’s worry – and mine – is that a decision favoring CLS could in principle, lead to the end of all anti-discrimination laws. Things look ominous in that case, although Esseks thought that the Court might find that the liberty and equality issues hadn’t been “well teed-up” and might punt the case back downfield (OK, not a very effective or comprehensible sports metaphor).
Esseks also mentioned the ACLU’s role in defending the vile Westboro Baptist Church in a case where the father of a soldier whose funeral was protested by these sociopaths had won a judgment for emotional distress. Soon, I’m going to write a post that might be titled: “How I Learned to Hate the First Amendment.” For now, I’ll just refer you to this excellent criticism of the way that freedom of speech has become a sort of secular religion. I don’t like it and I don’t buy it.
Toni Broaddus, who is the Executive Director of Equality Federation, which is described as a national network of more than 60 statea-based LGBT organizations, naturally focused on the level where much of the real action in marriage equality and non-discrimination has been taking place.
One of her sobering points is that it’s getting harder to pass LGBT legislation, like anti-discrimination laws, in part because the “easier” states have already been accounted for. She also noted that it’s been very tough to get gender identity protection passed as a “stand alone” – it works better when it’s folded into broader legislation for the entire LGBT community. That lesson, she noted, was passed along to ENDA advocates, who belatedly saw the light and came to insist on protection for trans-people in this law, which, you may happen to know, still has not been enacted.
She also noted that LGBT legislation is increasingly building in broad religious exemptions, and that now such exemptions are global – notably in an Ohio law that says, quite directly, that “religious organizations may discriminate.” It perhaps goes without saying that such an exemption would be laughed at in the context of legislation protecting any other historically despised minority, but never mind.
There were also discussions of litigation challenging DOMA, the likelihood of ENDA passing this year (maybe), and a law that would repeal DOMA entirely (don’t hold your breath, but it does have more than 100 sponsors in the House).
I could go on (yes, there was still more), but that’s about enough for a blog post, don’t you think? I do want to close by saying that even though I teach law for a living, blog obsessively and now do a weekly column on legal issues of importance to our community, I always learn a great deal from this panel. There’s so much going on, and so many good people doing so much, that it’s hard to keep up. But that’s a good thing, right?