Republicans Signal Goal of Trumping Gay Rights Protections
[NEW YORK, NY] - With just over a month to go before Republicans take over both houses of Congress, the Bush administration and some Republican members of Congress are signaling that they will advance legislation which could override existing state and local laws that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
"It?s exactly what we?ve been afraid of," said Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). "The Bush administration now thinks it has carte blanche to run roughshod over the GLBT community and others."
In a November 25 Washington Post article, Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, promised a turn to the right.
"There are a lot of conservative groups who would like to see things they care about considered," Santorum told the Post. He is also the chair of the Republican Conference and a senior member of the GOP?s Senate leadership.
Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican and soon to be the Senate majority leader, expressed similar views to the Post.
Santorum also said that he wanted a provision in a welfare reform bill that would allow religious groups that get federal funds for community service work to discriminate against people who do not share their beliefs when making employment decisions. The Post article specifically mentioned "gays" as a group that could be subject to such discrimination and Santorum said he backs such a proposal.
"I will make that stand," Santorum told the Post.
In 2001, Santorum backed off a similar provision in the Community Solutions Act. Whether he can push it through the Republican controlled Senate now remains a question.
"I think this is a test of the Republican Conference in the Senate," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director at the Human Rights Campaign, the leading gay lobbying group. "Do they want to be the Republican Party that furthers discrimination or do they want to be a Republican Party that ends it?"
Republicans have 51 Senate seats and Democrats hold 47. There is one independent in the Senate and a Louisiana seat will be decided in a December 7 run-off.
It is likely that some version of the welfare reform bill will pass, according to Stachelberg.
"We?re working with the people on the Hill and the White House," she said. "We are working with our allies on both sides of the aisle to figure out who is supporting what version."
The Post story is a second instance of right wing muscle flexing since the elections. Conservatives in the House derailed a bankruptcy reform bill because it prevented anti-abortion protesters from declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying court judgments arising from their protests.
Right wing groups have been crowing about their contribution to the Republican victories on November 5 and the Post article may also be an effort to forestall any complaining that Republicans are not responding.
Gay Republicans are urging their party to move carefully.
"There will be some people in the Republican Party who believe that winning as many elections as we did means that we can return to the divisive issues that separate people," said Patrick Guerriero, the incoming executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. "That would be a terrible mistake." Guerriero said that after the Republican House and Senate sweeps in 1994 there was an effort to advance conservative causes.
"There was a great deal of arrogance that was shown in 1994 following the success," he said. "I would caution any of our leaders to step back and recognize that they won these elections because of issues that unite people like strong national security and education. Playing to the most conservative elements in a party is not good politics nor is it good public policy."
Riki Wilchins, executive director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, said that most Americans do not support discrimination.
"I think there is a general consensus among most Americans that people should be treated equally regardless of things like their sexual orientation, sex, or gender identity or expression," she said. "It would be a mistake for Republicans to assume that the razor-thin margins for both Houses are a mandate to turn back the clock on Americans? basic commitment to fairness."
A dozen states and nearly 200 cities ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. More than 50 cities, states, or counties have enacted laws that ban discrimination based on gender identity or expression. Those laws could be rendered moot by a provision favoring religious groups.
"It?s going to be up to us and other fair minded people to make sure that the Republican leadership knows that we are not going to tolerate this," said NGLTF?s Jean. "We are going to have to urge our Democratic leaders not to accede to these kinds of policies... [The Republicans] are blatantly saying that they are going to promote discriminatory policies."