Furthering Civil Rights for LGBT Americans

By Senator Jeff Merkley. Senator Merkley is the junior Senator for Oregon.

I know everyone is tuned in to the big political issues right now: the debate over health care, the battle to rein in the Wall Street banks, and the fight to invest in American energy independence.

These issues are ones that I’m working on each and every day, but I wanted to take a moment and give the Blue Oregon community an update on two pieces of important civil rights legislation that are going to make a huge difference in the lives of a lot of Americans.

Last month, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. By strengthening the Federal Government's ability to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, the bill marks a considerable step forward in protecting Americans from being attacked because of who they are as individuals.

I think it’s important to recognize Senator Gordon Smith’s national leadership on this effort when he was in office. Senator Smith worked diligently with the late Senator Ted Kennedy to rally Senate support for the hate crimes bill. It’s an issue that I agreed with him on during the campaign last year and a cause that I’ve been proud to support here in Washington.

As a nation, we’ve had hate crime laws in place for more than forty years—since shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This update to include attacks based on gender, gender-identity, disability, and sexual orientation is long overdue. I recently attended the White House signing ceremony for the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and at the event, President Obama said, “The bell of freedom will ring a little louder,” now that this bill is law.

The other civil rights bill that I’ve been focused on is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, more commonly known as ENDA. A few months ago, Senator Kennedy’s staff asked me to champion ENDA and the effort to protect qualified, hardworking Americans from being fired, denied job opportunities, or otherwise discriminated against just because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. I was humbled to be given the opportunity to build upon Senator Kennedy’s longstanding effort, started back in 1994 when he introduced the first version of ENDA in the Senate.

This version of ENDA, which I introduced with Senators Kennedy, Susan Collins (R-ME), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME), is the first to include employment protections for transgender Americans, in addition to those discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. We already have 42 co-sponsors.

As all of you will recall, Oregon passed its own version of ENDA, the Oregon Equality law, in 2007 and I was honored to help champion that legislation as Oregon House Speaker. ENDA will build upon state laws, like the one in Oregon, that have successfully protected gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans from discrimination while preserving the ability of corporate America to do business. Plenty of American companies are ahead of the curve on this. In fact, 85 percent of Fortune 500 companies have implemented non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, and more than a third have policies that include gender identity.

Today, we held the first Senate hearing on banning workplace discrimination since 2002. Before the hearing, I met with a number of individuals today who have experienced first-hand the pain and frustration that occur when someone is denied a job, not based on their qualifications, but because of who they are.

What their stories made clear is that this is an issue of fundamental fairness.

At this point in history, it’s easy to overlook or downplay acts of discrimination in America, but sadly, prejudice is still very much alive in our country. I think my colleagues generally agree that discrimination of any sort isn’t to be tolerated in America. The challenge will be educating others to the fact that this type of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is indeed a problem and that preventing and responding to it is not only the right moral course, but is also in the best interest of our communities and our businesses.

With so many issues on the national agenda, I know it’s easy to get overwhelmed with myriad bill titles, committee hearings, and cloture votes. But, ENDA is worth paying close attention to and worth rallying behind as we move forward on this bill in Congress. Ensuring that all Americans are free from discrimination in the workplace is a crucial step towards equal justice for all Americans.

Comments

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    Thanks for all your work on these issues...

    • But with the Catholic Church successfully overturning marriage equality in Maine this week, and preparing for similar efforts to fight any repeal of Measure 36 in Oregon, where is the federal action to ditch the Defense of Marriage Act?

    • And where is the leadership from our Democratic President, who seems untroubled by the vote in Maine (he couldn't be bothered to comment before the election), and the continued dismissal of soldiers because they happen to be lesbian or gay..?

    (A President whose own parents, by the way, would have been denied the right to marry in many states because of similar, unfounded, religious prejudice before the Supreme Court declared it a "basic civil right" in 1967).

    • And why are civil rights for my family continually subject to popular vote? And why are religious organizations like the Catholic Church, and Gordon Smith's Mormons, still granted federal tax exempt status when they routinely collect parishioner contributions to run political campaigns to erase my family's rights?
  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    Also...

    While my husband and I just celebrated twenty years, and were married in Canada, Oregon will not accept our marriage license (recognized across Canada, Europe, much of New England, New York and DC!) - even as sufficient evidence of a substandard "Oregon domestic partnership," for tax purposes, etc...

    (Repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) apparently still won't help us get recognition for "marriage" in Oregon, because Catholics, Mormons and Christian churches ran a vigorous, parishioner-financed campaign to amend the state constitution in order to selectively deny us that basic civil right.)

    But could a DOMA repeal permit, or even require, the state to recognize our marriage as at least equivalent to an "Oregon domestic partnership?"

    ** And what other federal legislative steps might restore marriage equality in Oregon?

  • (Show?)

    Last month, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

    Thank you, Jeff, for continuing to push for this bill that Gordon Smith and Ted Kennedy previously co-sponsored. It was a shame that Gordon wasn't able to convince his fellow Republicans to enact this while Senator Kennedy was still alive.

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    It was a shame that Gordon wasn't able to convince his fellow Republicans to enact this

    I'm shocked - shocked - that Gordon couldn't convince them. Really, just shocked.

  • Dan w. (unverified)
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    It's good to see a White Hetero Lib out there fighting for the LGBT. That always gets the votes.

    Not too sure how many "attacks" occur on LGBT, but again today we are reminded how attacks loom for "Americans". Why do we have to break civil rights down into groups like LGBT? Don't we all share the same basic civil rights?

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    Don't we all share the same basic civil rights?

    No.

    Oregon voters, encouraged by a political campaign funded by the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, the Mormon Church, the Albina Ministerial Alliance, and other Christian churches, amended our state constitution to deny, selectively, a basic civil right to gay and lesbian families.

    The Catholic Church just ran another successful campaign to selectively deny civil rights for gays and lesbians in Maine.

  • RyanLeo (unverified)
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    Oregon Bill,

    Gays will not get marriage via exposing Christian congregations such as Catholics and demonizing them.

    There are more Christians than agnostics and atheists. Plus, they vote in higher numbers in OFF year elections and the usual Presidential elections when the fickle and utterly unpredictable youth vote for candidates that "excite" them.

    My advice, follow Vermont's lead in pushing for Civil Unions and have the state legislature legalize gay marriage a few years down the road.

    All 31 states where gay marriage has been put to the ballot, it has failed.

  • Buckman Res (unverified)
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    Oregon voters, encouraged by a political campaign funded by the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, the Mormon Church, the Albina Ministerial Alliance, and other Christian churches...

    This comes very close to sounding like religious bigotry.

    I’m sure voters in Oregon (and Maine) who rejected gay marriage spanned the spectrum on religious beliefs and would have voted as they did regardless of any church’s position.

    Let’s face it, the case just hasn’t been made for redefining one of the oldest societal institutions. People aren’t buying the “civil rights” argument and attacks on Christian churches won’t help advance the cause.

  • Pliny (unverified)
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    This comes very close to sounding like religious bigotry.

    Maybe if you have a guilty conscience. Bill restricted himself to naming organizations - not people. While that may seem overly confrontational, I think it helps the cause to call these people out and show the members of these churches what their tithes are paying for.

    For crying out loud, in the Maine campaign, at least one Catholic Diocese in bankruptcy due to Priest abuse payouts (Diocese of Wilmington, DE) kicked in cash.

    Priorities, huh?

    I’m sure voters in Oregon (and Maine) who rejected gay marriage spanned the spectrum on religious beliefs and would have voted as they did regardless of any church’s position.

    Here in Oregon and in Maine the same lies got told. "They'll teach gay sex in the schools if they win! Oh noes!!!"

    We could have done a better job of countering those lies here in Oregon, but that doesn't change the fact that upstanding "moral" Christians were okay with telling them.

    Let’s face it, the case just hasn’t been made for redefining one of the oldest societal institutions.

    Umm... No-fault divorce? Laws against arranged marriages? A pronounced lack of dowries in modern society? Henry VIII? The Old Testament's penchant for polygamy? Marriage, like other societal institutions, is always in flux.

    People aren’t buying the “civil rights” argument and attacks on Christian churches won’t help advance the cause.

    Attacks? Naming your political enemies is not an attack. Calling out a church and letting the members know it's actions are causing harm is not an attack.

    It's an opportunity for dialogue.

  • RyanLeo (unverified)
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    Holstens,

    Who of us are you calling dumb? I for sure read the post and clicked on the links. If you do not like my argument or anyone else's than offer a counter to it.

    If you are calling us dumb because you do not agree with our position, then that is a common logical fallacy called ad hominem where you criticize the other person because you cannot counter with an argument of equal weight.

    You calling people out as dumb for not agreeing with your point of view is just absurd.

  • steve (unverified)
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    Some comments are "to dumb" to even make clear which side they are attacking, and it is hard not to laugh at someone who invokes intelligence while exhibiting sub-junior high English proficiency.

  • (Show?)

    Let's get back on topic here, please.

    I’m sure voters in Oregon (and Maine) who rejected gay marriage spanned the spectrum on religious beliefs and would have voted as they did regardless of any church’s position.

    So your contention is that if the Mormon and Catholic Church didn't dump huge sums of money into the anti-civil rights campaigns, they'd still fail? Really?

    Let’s face it, the case just hasn’t been made for redefining one of the oldest societal institutions. People aren’t buying the “civil rights” argument and attacks on Christian churches won’t help advance the cause.

    People weren't ready to end slavery, desegregate schools and give African Americans the right to vote, either. But we fought for it and did it anyway.

    It's the right thing to do.

  • Jason (unverified)
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    "So your contention is that if the Mormon and Catholic Church didn't dump huge sums of money into the anti-civil rights campaigns, they'd still fail? Really?"

    Carla, what about the liberal groups who also dumped a bunch of money against those campaigns. Sure, the church groups raised more, but isn't that their right? Nobody was forced to vote 'yes' to ban gay marriage in Oregon - individuals chose for themselves. It always bothers me when people like to blame a group(s) for the passage or failure of a measure, rather than giving the voters some credit.

    "People weren't ready to end slavery, desegregate schools and give African Americans the right to vote, either. But we fought for it and did it anyway."

    First of all, I'd like you to provide a comparison of the rights blacks didn't have back in the day, versus the rights gays don't have today. I'm friends with - and know a lot of gay people - who are living very normal lives. You couldn't say the same for a black family back in 1965.

    I don't deny whatsoever that homosexuals are discriminated against. In fact, I fully support ordinances that ban people from discriminating against homosexuals in housing, employment, and public places; however, to compare the slavery of blacks to the gay community is insidious at best. The severity of the discrimination against blacks was so far beyond anything the gay community has ever experienced. (And I'm not suggesting gays haven't endured their fair share of unjust discrimination - they have.)

    The issue of civil rights, its definition, and who it applies to, will always be the pinnacle of this debate. While I think we can agree on the basic premise of civil rights (treating each other with respect and dignity), how you apply it to certain groups will differ based on the foundation of your system of beliefs - religious or otherwise. And those beliefs will drive how a person defines what a "right" is and who gets it.

    Obviously, Carla, you and most of the progressives here believe there is a clear civil rights issue connected to the gay community. At this point, however, a majority of American's don't agree. But my guess is that will change in the future.

  • (Show?)

    Carla, what about the liberal groups who also dumped a bunch of money against those campaigns. Sure, the church groups raised more, but isn't that their right? Nobody was forced to vote 'yes' to ban gay marriage in Oregon - individuals chose for themselves. It always bothers me when people like to blame a group(s) for the passage or failure of a measure, rather than giving the voters some credit.

    Jason: what about them? The previous premise was that people would have voted against marriage equality regardless of church position. I think that premise is false based on the amount of money the churches dumped into the election to broadcast their propaganda.

    I say that original premise is false--hence my comment.

    First of all, I'd like you to provide a comparison of the rights blacks didn't have back in the day, versus the rights gays don't have today. I'm friends with - and know a lot of gay people - who are living very normal lives. You couldn't say the same for a black family back in 1965.

    No, I won't do that because that doesn't serve this discussion nor does it serve the point that anyone is trying to make here. This isn't about who had it worse. It's about whether or not all people have civil rights.

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    Gays will not get marriage via exposing Christian congregations such as Catholics and demonizing them.

    "Demonizing?"

    I'm pointing out the simple fact that the Catholic Archdiocese, the Mormon Church, the Albina Ministerial Alliance and other Christian churches raised the money and ran the political campaign to selectively deny my family a basic American civil right.

    And, by the way, the Catholics, Mormons and Christians did this in part by literally "demonizing" gays and lesbians - a lot of hard-working, community-minded, tax-paying, human, American citizens, with jobs and families and kids and lives and responsibilities - from the pulpit.

    This actually happened here - and continues to happen across the USA. It may be uncomfortable for you if you're Catholic, or Mormon - and it should be.

    Did you read about the ads run by the Catholic Archdiocese in Maine? Do you realize that the spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Maine, was on leave from the Church so he could actually run that campaign?

    Do you realize that the Catholic Church suggested in commercials, paid for by parishioner contributions, that gays and lesbians, if allowed to marry, would pose a danger to children?(??!) (The Catholic Church!)

    I'm pissed, and I admit it freely - a bunch of mean-spirited, prejudiced, religious bigots are running about my country seeking to amend state constitutions and pass ballot referenda eliminating my family's basic civil rights. And demonizing the hell out of me and my family in order to get their way. (why isn't that a "hate" crime?)

    And I want my rights. As an American, I'm owed them. *** So what can we do at the federal level to get them back in Oregon? And California? And Maine...?

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    You want more evidence of demonization by the Catholic Church?

    Check out what the Catholic Archbishop of Guam (part of the US) said recently in opposition to efforts to expand marriage equality there. Talk about a hate crime.

    Daily Dish, by Andrew Sullivan 23 Oct 2009 11:30 am Letter From Guam

    A reader writes: I wanted to call your attention to a letter sent out this week by the office of the Archbishop here on Guam. Recently, the Guam legislature, led by an openly gay senator, B.J. Cruz (himself a self-admitted victim of Catholic clergy abuse), introduced proposed legislation, Bill 185, that would recognize same-sex domestic partnerships. In response, the Archdiocese put out this letter...

    http://www.pacificnewscenter.com/images/pdf/bill185stakes.pdf

    Though it leaves me speechless and mortified, it's fascinating to see the main lines of argument distilled down into their inglorious essence. It's all here: the denial of sex for pleasure, the "condemnation" of a child raised by same-sex parents, the "promiscuity" angle, and of course the "end of Western Civilization."

    **** But I found the penultimate paragraph truly arresting:

    "Islamic fundamentalists clearly understand the damage that homosexual behavior inflicts on a culture. This is why they repress such behavior by death...It may be brutal at times, but any culture that is able to produce wave after wave of suicide bombers...is a culture that at least knows how to value self sacrifice."

    Reading the words from the Guam Archdiocese, one sees the sick confluence of it all. Two very different faiths, but a common desire to claw their way back--no matter what it takes or who it destroys--into the Dark Ages.

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/10/letter-from-guam.html#more

    http://carnalnation.com/content/36439/10/archbishop-suicide-bombers-are-better-married-gays

    • So I repeat: Senator Merkley - how can the federal government help restore our basic American civil rights? How can we, a significant minority, be protected from Catholic, Mormon, and Christian efforts to demonize hard-working, productive, contributing American citizens, and undermine our equality under the law?
  • JWW (unverified)
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    Lotta fuzzy thinking going on.

    We have "inalienable" rights (inherent in our human nature); we have legislated rights that come and go and morph regularly; and then we have "civil" rights. Anyone know the difference anymore? There's a lot of phony re-definition going on, too.

  • Lord Beaverbrook (unverified)
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    Thank you for speaking up for all of us on the "do not respond blacklist", Oregon Bill! We've only raised those points every single time this subject was raised. At least you've garnered some semblance of a considered response.

    Doubt that the other perennial query will get mentioned, that the injustice stems from giving marriage special status under law. It should be a purely social affair and a fact to which the government is blind. There's no difference between the government asking if you're married or if you've made your first communion.

    I don't support the bill. Crime is crime, and by making it a federal case you only allow bigoted local law enforcement to continue in their ways. THAT's the fed's role. If local law enforcement don't vigorously investigate an assault, the FBI should be all over their case for it, not doing their job for them so that they can avoid facing their hypocrisy.

  • Trev (unverified)
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    And by the way, we do all have the same rights. I don't have a right to "marry" anyone I want, just like anyone doesn't have that right. Calling this a denial of "basic civil rights" is another redefinition.

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    Calling this a denial of "basic civil rights" is another redefinition.

    The US Supreme Court defined marriage as a "basic civil right" (akin to voting, or assembly) when they struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967.

    At the time of this ruling, more than 20 states barred interracial couples from getting married, by law and amendment, and based on similarly mean-spirited, and equally baseless, religious prejudice.

    And since Oregonians have amended our constitution, after a political campaign funded by Catholic, Mormon, and other Christian parishioners, to selectively deny this basic civil right to gay and lesbian couples, it will probably take another US Supreme Court decision to restore equal protection.

    ** But Senator Merkley, I'm very serious about this question:
    Are there any other options available now at the federal level to right this wrong?

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Oregon Bill, I voted for your side. I was not in favor of changing the state constitution. However, your continual diatribe against organized religion in general, and catholics in particular is bound to create more animosity than support.

    Cool it dude, you're pissing in your own wheatues with the vitriol and hatred.

  • Lord Beaverbrook (unverified)
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    Posted by: Lord Beaverbrook | Nov 6, 2009 11:53:22 AM

    Thank you for speaking up for all of us on the "do not respond blacklist",

    Posted by: Kurt Chapman | Nov 6, 2009 6:13:02 PM

    Cool it dude, you're pissing in your own wheatues with the vitriol and hatred.

    Read, you'll find yourself on the "do not respond blacklist" as well. Domestication first. BO: killing off progressive voters one at a time!

    ** But Senator Merkley, I'm very serious about this question: Are there any other options available now at the federal level to right this wrong?

    He was one of the first at BO to adopt the "just don't respond to things that aren't our talking points" policy. You'll hear nothing.

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    your continual diatribe against organized religion in general, and catholics in particular is bound to create more animosity than support.

    Kurt -

    The Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Maine literally RAN THE CAMPAIGN to erase marriage rights for my family. My family, and many others, have fewer basic rights and protections than, say, Senator Merkley's, because of political efforts by the Catholic Church.

    The Catholic Church contributed to similar political efforts in Oregon, California - and they'll raise money, once again, from parishioners at St. Andrews, Holy Family, etc. to fight any repeal of Measure 36.

    The animosity emanating from the Catholic Church (and the Mormons, etc.), using parishioner dollars - is palpable, real, un-American and appalling. And as the target of these attacks, the very least I can do is point this out.

    (I may not share equal marriage rights in Oregon, California, and now Maine thanks to vigorous, prejudiced efforts by Catholics - but I do retain the right to free speech..!)

    ** And Catholics (and Mormons, and many Christians) need to recognize their role in depriving thriving, contributing families of basic American civil rights. It's disgraceful. If you still donate money to these churches, it should make you extremely uncomfortable. Because it needs to stop.

    He was one of the first at BO to adopt the "just don't respond to things that aren't our talking points" policy. You'll hear nothing.

    That's a shame. Because it's clearly relevant. "Furthering Civil Rights for LGBT Americans" is the title of this Blue Oregon discussion. And we have fewer civil rights because of continued efforts to amend state constitutions (and pass legislation) in order to undermine guarantees of equal protection under the law.

    So Senator Merkely, is this true? I'm not the HRC here, able to throw huge wads of cash in your direction and treat you to a fancy DC dinner. I'm just one of your Oregon constituents whose family has fewer rights and protections than you enjoy, because of religious prejudice.

    *** So what can the federal government do to restore equal protection for all?

  • duplicate photo finder (unverified)
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    The issue like debate over health care, the battle to rein in the Wall Street banks,etc need required more attention on cases involved with serious attitude of public in either ethic. It is worthy to all who are rein in such situation you will be success to the motive.

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    He was one of the first at BO to adopt the "just don't respond to things that aren't our talking points" policy. You'll hear nothing.

    Alright Lord Beaverbrook - you were absolutely right!

    But it never hurts to ask. Perhaps someone noticed, and will help things change...

  • Luanne (unverified)
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    Archbishop Carlson funds homophobia in Maine and beyond... See http://catholicssuck.wordpress.com/2009/11/12/archdiocese-donated-to-defeat-maine-gay-marriage/ to see this jerk in action.

  • Luanne (unverified)
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    <h2>CatholicsSuck.com shows the hate the church has for gays. I don't understand homosexuality, but the Catholic church should not be damning gays with their track record of late. Clean up your own house Catholic Church!</h2>
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