by Eric Rader
Now that the primary election is over in Michigan, attention shifts to November’s general election.
Much of this year has been consumed with speculation about how many seats the Democrats might lose in the upcoming midterm elections, and whether the party could lose control of one or both houses of Congress. However, right now the Democrats enjoy large majorities in Congress, and Barack Obama remains president for at least two more years (and hopefully more).
Since the political reality for progressive causes may be much different in January, it is imperative that Congress and the president work hard on several pieces of unfinished business before November. Though we should not concede the elections before they occur, it is also important that all of us in the LGBT community work hard to put pressure on our legislators now to do the right thing on the issues that affect us most directly.
Item number one on the “to-do” list for Congress is repeal of the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. President Obama announced this as a priority earlier this year, and top military leaders said that they supported the president’s decision to end discrimination based on sexual orientation in the military. However, the Department of Defense is moving very slowly in the process of ending the policy, by surveying current soldiers on the most effective way to integrate gay and lesbian soldiers into the military.
Already, the House of Representatives has voted to repeal DADT, as has a Senate committee. As a compromise, the congressional repeal would not go into effect until after the Department of Defense completes its review of the policy; full repeal of DADT would likely occur in early 2011. It is important for the Senate to vote on repeal of DADT, and for President Obama to sign it into law.
The second issue that Congress needs to act on is repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. This law prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages or civil unions, and instructs the states that they do not have to recognize gay marriages performed in other states.
Five states – Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, Connecticut and Vermont – and the District of Columbia now authorize same-sex couples to marry. DOMA effectively violates the equal rights of couples in those places, and makes it more difficult for other states to consider granting equal marriage rights.
Already, a federal court in Massachusetts has banned enforcement of the law in that state. The Obama administration would be legally bound to defend the law in court if the court decision is appealed, as it likely will be. However, this would not be necessary if Congress would do its job and repeal the law altogether. President Obama has promised to sign legislation repealing DOMA; Congress needs to send a repeal bill to him quickly.
A third item that Congress should place high on its remaining 2010 agenda is passage of the LGBT-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
This legislation has lingered on Capitol Hill for too long, going back to the Clinton administration in the late 1990s. In 1998, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal government.
Currently, many private companies and some public institutions have employment policies that prohibit discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but many more employers do not. The proposed ENDA legislation would extend such protections more widely in the United States, though smaller employers (those with 15 employees or fewer) would not be bound by this law.
Critics contend that ENDA would infringe on the First Amendment rights of religious organizations that are opposed to LGBT equality. However, the law includes religious exemptions. There is simply no legitimate reason for Congress to delay any further in passing this important legislation; it’s simply about equality.
Congress does not have many working days left in this election year. The overwhelming focus of most legislators this fall will be re-election to office. It is important that we put pressure on our federal legislators to act on their unfinished business now, before the elections. These issues concern basic fairness and decency, values that are too often neglected in Washington. The legislators we elected in 2008 have a duty to govern now, during their current term. Time is running short, and Congress needs to seize this unique opportunity to act while it can.
HRC “Countdown” campaign on ENDA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network information on DADT repeal: