Gay rights backers get some good news

Court actions over the past week have given gay rights advocates a few glimmers of hope, though no one is staging victory rallies yet. The long slog toward full rights for gays and lesbians in the military, at the altar and in the pulpit each saw small steps taken. But President Obama, who vowed to promote equality for all, remains caught in such Through the Looking Glass dilemmas as the Justice Department’s mandate to defend the indefensible Defense of Marriage Act, which Obama would like to see repealed. Same thing with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Alice would certainly find a trapdoor for falling down the rabbit hole on almost any stage where gay rights battles are being fought today.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Bob Egelko summed up the latest on one stage:

The federal judge overseeing a challenge to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, scheduled for trial in Southern California next week, has ruled in favor of a gay rights group on a crucial issue – how much evidence the government needs to justify the ban on openly homosexual members of the armed forces.

Obama administration lawyers have argued that courts must let “don’t ask, don’t tell” stand if they find that Congress could have reasonably concluded that excluding gays and lesbians would make the military more effective – the standard most favorable to supporters of the 1993 law.

But U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips of Riverside, in her final pretrial ruling, said Wednesday that higher court rulings in recent years have raised the bar for the government to justify laws that single out gays and lesbians for harsher treatment. Because “don’t ask, don’t tell” intrudes on “personal and private lives” and “implicates fundamental rights,” Phillips wrote, the Justice Department must show that the ban serves an important public purpose that the military could not achieve some other way.

That principle comes from the 2003 Supreme Court ruling overturning state laws against private homosexual conduct, and from a 2008 ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco allowing a lesbian officer to challenge her discharge from the Air Force, Phillips said.

Her ruling opens the door for plaintiffs in the case to put gay and lesbian former service members on the witness stand to testify about how being thrown out of the military because of “don’t ask, don’t tell” damaged them. The federal law requires that gays and lesbians who acknowledge their sexual orientation be discharged from the military. Superior officers are barred from asking service members about their orientation.

The plaintiffs, the Log Cabin Republicans gay organization, plan to present researchers who contend the policy harms the military by promoting concealment and divisiveness while excluding qualified personnel. (It is, of course, the Republicans who are threatening a Senate filibuster of a military appropriations bill that includes a repeal measure…)

The Obama administration tried to bar the testimony, arguing that it was irrelevant, and urged Phillips to postpone the trial while Congress considers the president’s proposal to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” President Obama has called the law discriminatory but says he must defend it as long as it is on the books.

On the marriage front, which currently has seen some states legalizing same-sex unions, some banning them and in California a suit to overturn the voter-approved ban, more state/federal convolutions are underway. Associated Press legal affairs writer Denise Lavoie Friday summarized what’s been going on in Massachusetts:

A key part of a law denying married gay couples federal benefits has been thrown out the window in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage. The ball now lies in the White House’s court, which must carefully calculate the next move by an administration that has faced accusations it has not vigorously defended the law of the land.

President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that he would like to see the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, repealed. But the Justice Department has defended the constitutionality of the law, which it is required to do.

The administration was silent Friday on whether it would appeal rulings by U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro. Spokespeople for the White House and the Justice Department said officials are still reviewing the rulings.

DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman, prevents the federal government from recognizing gay marriages and allows states to deny recognition of same-sex unions performed elsewhere. Since the law passed in 1996, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, and a handful have allowed the practice.

And over at the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, meeting in Minneapolis

…delegates again approved ordaining openly gay or lesbian clergy. The measure now goes to the presbyteries, or local jurisdictions, where previous General Assembly resolutions to ordain gays and lesbians have been rejected. The General Assembly also debated but did not pass a resolution that would have changed the definition of marriage from a union between a man and a woman to a union of two people.

This Presbyterian writer can tell you that getting individual presbyteries — that’s the regional groups — to approve what the General Assembly delegates just approved is no simple matter. There are plenty of Christians, not to mention less than tolerant folks of every creed and color, down the rabbit hole.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ foes win legal victory.

Ex-Justice O'Connor on AZ immigration law: perhaps "a little too far"

Answering questions after a speech at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius College Preparatory School, from which her husband graduated in 1947, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said her home state should not be boycotted over its punitive new immigration law.

Still, she said, Arizona “may have gone a little too far in its authority, in encouraging local law enforcement officers to take action” against anyone they reasonably suspect of being an illegal immigrant.

Opponents say the provision invites racial profiling.

“It doesn’t read that way, but it might work that way,” O’Connor said.

Well, yes.

This space doesn’t see the logic in one state boycotting another — as some in California, including State Democratic Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, are suggesting. But Arizona’s law is wrong. And O’Connor is right in saying that “It’s the job of our federal, national government to secure our borders, not a job of state government.”

Now, if the federal government would just get to work…

Who says you're poor?

The U.S. government thinks you’re doing okay if, in a family of four, you’re pulling in something over $22,000 a year. It might be a little tough to get by on that these days. But the way poverty is measured, and plans made around the measurements, are obtuse and arcane at best.

Exactly who qualifies for state and federal assistance varies. More important than today’s index though, unless you are someone missing out on help, is tomorrow: plans for adequate housing, food stamp and other assistance programs are all based on some very old data. When the current federal index was set, for example, some 3% of the family budget went for food; today’s actual food costs are more like 10%.

A group of California seniors converged on the state capitol a few days ago with an eye toward bringing that state’s poverty line and real-time poverty closer together. The group is enthusiastically supportive of a far more accurate index developed by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.  They were careful to be “advocating and educating” only in meetings with legislators — the Senior Leaders Program is funded by the nonprofit California Wellness Foundation and lobbying is a no-no. But they would like to see AB 324, a bill crafted by Assembly Member Jim Beall, finally pass. Beall has watched it pass the Legislature twice, only to meet a Schwarzenegger veto; he told the seniors he thinks this time around the governor’s objections have been addressed.

This particular senior fails to see any reason to stick with inaccurate data when accurate data is available. The main argument against adopting a better measurement has centered around the cost issue — If we update the index, we might find more poor people. Hello? A town builds housing for 10 people and 100 people knock on the door?

Whether or not there are any incipient seniors in your family (we seem to make up a substantial percentage of the poor, by any measurement) you might want to see what’s going on in your state. Maybe, some day, the U.S. Government will even go for poverty line fact over fiction.

Democrats have a survey too — they just don't call it a Census

In the interest of fair-and-balanced commentary in this space, we want to report receipt of an Official Document from the Democrats. This one, unlike that decidedly suspect missile from the Republicans last week, does not advertise itself as an Official Census Document and does not raise the fear level to code red. It advertises itself as a 2010 Priority Issues Survey, which, in fact, it is.

The envelope, though, does bear the admonition: Do Not Tamper. We wonder who’s been tampering with Democratic issues, other than the hapless invaders of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s office. We’re not even sure how one can Tamper with an Official Document.

Nevertheless. Because the Democratic Party Headquarters bothered to send a fairly straightforward questionnaire, with a minimum of weighted sentences, below are listed a few considered responses to this “opportunity to help shape Democratic priorities and build a brighter future for America.” You are invited to send your own answers to www.dccc.org, even if you lack an Official Survey Registration number, and we’ll see who’s paying attention. One citizen’s response:

Yes, I believe waterboarding is torture and the U.S. has a moral responsibility to not engage in or condone any form of torture.

Yes, every American should be guaranteed access to affordable, quality health care.

No, I don’t support privatization of Social Security, but Yes, the Medicare prescription benefit plan should be reformed so the government can negotiate lower drug prices with big pharmaceutical companies. (Good luck with that, government.)

Yes, the federal government would do well to provide more assistance to Americans who want to continue their education beyond high school. Cutting student loan interest rates, increasing college tuition tax deductions, increasing Pell grants – all sound good to me.

Weighted question next: How concerned are you about the environmental damage resulting from last-minute Bush Administration maneuvers to weaken laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. Well, since I happen to agree, pretty darned concerned.

Slightly different phraseology question: How serious a threat is global warming? Thanks for not asking, as the Republicans did, if I believe it’s real. I’ll go with Very Serious.

That’s about it for the Democrats. They do also provide a postage-paid envelope, and they also invite your contribution.

If the Independents have an Official Survey going, it will be duly reported in this space.