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Russ Feingold for U.S. Senate

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Reform Jewish rabbis select lesbian president

As a rabbinic student in 1980s New York, Denise Eger lived away from other seminarians. She quietly started a group for fellow gay and lesbian students, but held the meetings in another borough. By the time of her ordination, she wasn’t formally out, but her sexuality was known, and no one would hire her. Later, she took the only job offered, with a synagogue formed expressly as a religious refuge for gays.

Since then, the Reform Jewish movement — Eger’s spiritual home since childhood — has traveled a long road toward recognizing and embracing same-sex relationships. That journey has led this week to Philadelphia, where Eger was installed March 16 as the first openly gay president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism.

“It really shows an arc of LGBT civil rights,” Eger said in a phone interview ahead of the convention where she will take office. “I smile a lot — with a smile of incredulousness.”

Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Los Angeles, isn’t the first openly gay or lesbian clergyperson to lead an American rabbinic group. In 2007, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association chose Rabbi Toba Spitzer, a lesbian, as its national president. But Reform Jews, with 2,000 rabbis and 862 American congregations, comprise the largest movement in American Judaism and have a broader role in the Jewish world.

Reform Judaism was the earliest of the major Jewish movements to take formal steps toward recognizing same-sex relationships. In 1977, the Reform movement called for civil rights protections for gays. By 1996, Reform rabbis backed same-sex civil marriage. But as these positions developed, gays and lesbians had to grapple with the uncertainties of pursuing ordination at a time when they could easily be kicked out of seminary over their sexuality, or graduate without a congregation willing to hire them.

Eger, 55, began working in synagogues at age 12, in the mailroom of the Memphis, Tennessee, congregation her family attended. Around the same time, she realized she was a lesbian. By college, Eger knew she wanted to become a rabbi or cantor, even though she believed at the time that it meant she would have to sacrifice her hopes of having a spouse and children.

“It was impossible to reconcile being a rabbi and being a gay person or a lesbian person,” she said.

During seminary, she had a girlfriend, and said some people treated them as a couple. Some Reform synagogues had started outreach programs to gays and lesbians and one congregation, in San Francisco, had an openly gay rabbi. Still, around that time, Minnesota Rabbi Stacy Offner announced she was a lesbian, and was forced out of leadership at her Reform congregation. After Eger was ordained in 1988, she had only the one job offer.

She started the position with Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles amid the AIDS crisis. She said “standing over the graves of 28-year-olds and schlepping to the hospital five or six times a day” intensified her activism for gay rights. In 1990, she came out in a Los Angeles Times story, telling the newspaper gay and lesbian Jews need positive role models.

“I took a great risk but I didn’t feel I could be authentic anymore – watching young men all around me die and not tell,” she said.

Over the next two decades, gay acceptance became the norm in most American Jewish groups. In 2006, the Conservative Jewish movement, which holds a middle ground between the liberal Reform and the strict Orthodox, lifted its ban on gay ordination. In 2012, Conservative Jewish scholars introduced a prayer service for same-sex weddings. Orthodox Jews have held to the teaching that same-sex relationships are forbidden; at the same time, more Orthodox gays and lesbians are coming out and seeking recognition.

Eger went on to hold several leadership positions within the Reform movement and in the Southern California Jewish community, and helped write the Reform Jewish prayer service for same-sex marriages.

And, it turns out, she didn’t have to give up having a family. The mother of a 21-year-old son, she is now engaged to be married.

“It’s about human rights and human dignity,” Eger said. “If you can be a rabbi, if you can be a person of faith, if you can serve a community as their pastor, and you can have the opportunity to begin to reconcile all of those issues, it speaks volumes.”

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Test vote on ENDA passes in the Senate

The U.S. Senate voted 61-30 tonight (Nov. 4) to consider the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The vote had strong bipartisan support, including the entire Democratic caucus and Republican Sens. Mark Kirk, Susan Collins, Orrin Hatch, Dean Heller, Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey and Rob Portman.

The procedural move sets up a vote on the bill later this week, when the Senate is likely to pass ENDA for first time in the legislation’s history. The measure would ban bias based on gender identity and sexual orientation in the workplace. Federal law already prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability.

Said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin, “Today we saw American democracy in action with the U.S. Senate finally following the will of a diverse and bipartisan collection of Americans calling for workplace fairness. With a super majority of senators, more than 100 major American companies and more than two-thirds of Americans all standing proudly in support of ENDA, there is tremendous momentum behind this common-sense bill. ENDA’s time has come, and we’re not going to stop fighting until it is passed once and for all.”

Griffin had praise for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Tom Harkin and lead sponsors Jeff Merkley, Tammy Baldwin, Kirk and Collins.

Baldwin, D-Wis., in a floor speech before the vote, said, “Every American deserves the freedom to work free of discrimination. And passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act strengthens this freedom by recognizing the right to be judged based on your skills, talents, loyalty, character, integrity and work ethic.”

Heller, of Nevada, became the crucial 60th vote on Nov. 4.

In the House, where there are more than 190 co-sponsors of ENDA, Republican Speaker John Boehner has said he doesn’t support the bill.

But a majority of Republican voters, according to numerous polls, do support ENDA, as noted by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., in a statement after the Senate vote.

Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, said, “When someone in the United States goes to work afraid they could be fired merely because of who they are, we are not living up to our ideals of equality before the law. Today, the Senate sent a clear message that in this country you should be judged on the work you do, not on who you love.”

He continued, “The Employee Non-Discrimination Act is bipartisan, commonsense legislation that ensures all Americans have the opportunity to thrive and succeed in the workplace, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. I urge the House to follow the lead of the Senate, a majority of Fortune 500 companies and the American people and ensure our workplaces are free from discrimination of any kind.”

Other reactions to the Senate vote:

From the White House: “The president welcomes the Senate’s bipartisan first step towards final passage of S. 815, the Employment Non‑Discrimination Act of 2013. He has long supported an inclusive ENDA, which would establish lasting and comprehensive federal protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. He thanks the lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who have stood up for America’s core values of fairness and equality, and looks forward to the Senate’s consideration of ENDA. He also encourages lawmakers to ensure that the legislation remains true to its goals as it is considered.”

From Chris Sgro of Equality North Carolina: “While the federal ENDA faces an uphill battle in the U.S. House, we’re heartened that in this effort, so many people all across our great state worked so hard to protect LGBT workers all across the country. And we’re emboldened by your actions to re-double our own efforts to not only help pass workplace protection policies in cities and counties all across this great state —as we’ve been doing for a decade — but to finally achieve statewide protections for hardworking LGBT North Carolinians.”

From Rea Carey of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: “We’re now one step closer to achieving employment protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This vote clears a critical hurdle in the advancement of this historic piece of legislation — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. We call upon all senators to stand with the majority of Americans who support the basic principle that everyone should have access to the American Dream, free from discrimination because of who they are or who they love. We urge the senators to vote for ENDA when it reaches the floor for a final vote.”

Editor’s note: This story is developing.

Illinois activists press for marriage equality vote this week

Illinois LGBT civil rights advocates say that waiting is no longer an option and the marriage equality bill must be taken up in the House of Representatives this week.

The legislation has passed the Illinois Senate and has the support of Gov. Patrick Quinn. If it passed, Illinois would become the 13th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

Quinn wanted to sign the legislation in February, hoping that lawmakers would have acted on the measure in January.

So did activists with a coalition building support for the measure, called the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act because it would allow for same-sex marriages in the state but also provide protections for religious institutions that did not want to recognize or celebrate such marriages.

Now the House is in the final two weeks of its session – though Illinois lawmakers often go overtime in Springfield.

In a statement on May 20, Bernard Cherkasov of Equality Illinois, the state’s largest LGBT civil rights group, said, “Unless there is an extension agreed to by the House, the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act needs to be called this week so all loving, committed couples in Illinois can get married this summer.”

He continued, “It’s time for the House to stand up and finish its work. Illinois should have marriage equality, and we share your frustration that it is not already the law of the Land of Lincoln.”

Cherkasov said House Speaker Michael Madigan is working to build the 60-vote majority needed to pass the bill.

Meanwhile, activists with the coalition Illinois Unites are encouraging citizens who support the legislation to share messages with their representatives via the website illinoisunites.org/ItsTime. 

“In just a matter of days, we have seen three more states – Minnesota, Delaware and Rhode Island – vote for equality and fairness for all their citizens,” stated openly gay state Rep. Greg Harris, a Democrat from Chicago who is sponsoring the bill in the House. “We have seen that embracing equality strengthens families, strengthens community and strengthens our nation.”

He added, “We have seen the promise of equal treatment under the law play out with none of the supposed ill effects that our opponents fear. The direction of our country is clear, and the judgment of history will be even clearer. Now is the time for Illinois to act.”

Minnesota activists organize for gay marriage push

More than 500 people gathered in Minneapolis over the weekend to discuss strategy for legalizing gay marriage in Minnesota – and how to get enough votes to do it.

Michelle Dibblee, a leader at the Equality and Justice Summit, discussed with one group there how a grass-roots campaign to pass such legislation would work, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

“We’re not close enough to win unless we move some legislators to make what for them might be a challenging decision,” Dibblee said. “To do that they need to hear from constituents and for those legislators to hear from constituents, we need to continue to organize. What we’ll be doing over the course of the next six months is helping you all to connect more deeply in your communities, particularly in those places where we think there are legislators who need constituent pressure to be moved.”

Another participant, Ruth Larson, said it makes political sense to act now.

“We have a Democratic House, Senate and governor,” she said. “Strike while the iron’s hot.”

But Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, the group that organized the summit, sounded a more cautious note.

“We haven’t really talked about timing,” Meyer said. “The only thing that we’ve really talked about is: How do we build enough support to really make marriage equality a reality and to make it inevitable?”

State Rep. Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, said lawmakers cannot start real work on the next budget until the February revenue forecast, so they might as well take up same-sex marriage legislation in January.

“Some people say, ‘Well, that means we get off track of the budget.’ And we shouldn’t have other issues dominate,” Hausman said. “But if we don’t deal with this immediately, I would argue it’s going to dominate anyway because it hangs out there.”

Minnesota voters last month rejected a constitutional amendment that would have limited marriage to one man and one woman, but gay marriage was already prohibited under a state statute.

Many Democratic lawmakers come from districts where a majority of voters supported the amendment, and incoming House Majority Leader Erin Murphy would not say if the 2013 Legislature will take up the issue of same-sex marriage.

“I don’t think we should get ahead of Minnesotans,” Murphy said. “They didn’t really ask for this discussion to be raised two years ago when it was put on the ballot, but here we are.”

Andy Parrish, political director of Minnesota for Marriage, which led the effort to write a same-sex marriage ban into the constitution, dared Democrats to act so Republicans can respond. If Democrats choose not to have that fight, he said, they’ll disappoint many of their supporters while Republicans will continue defending the traditional definition of marriage.

“All we can do is sit and wait,” Parrish said. “You’ve got control. Now do it. Show your backbone if you have one.”

Gay immigrant faces extradition to Mexico

A federal appeals court in Denver has refused to block extradition of a gay immigrant who sought protection in the U.S. claiming Mexican authorities persecute gay people.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said in its decision this week that there is evidence that Mexico supports gay rights, citing developments including Mexico City’s legalization of gay marriage.

Efren Neri-Garcia has said he was mistreated in Mexico because he is gay and was attacked by authorities while imprisoned in Guadalajara in the 1990s. A witness told Colorado authorities gay men in Guadalajara are still being attacked and need protection.

The court of appeals disagreed.

“The Department of Homeland Security established, by a preponderance of the evidence, a fundamental change in circumstances in Mexico such that Neri-Garcia’s life or freedom would not now be threatened as a result of his sexual orientation,” the court ruled.

The ruling means Neri-Garcia still faces deportation.

Roberta Sklar, spokeswoman for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in New York, said Thursday there is no proof discrimination has abated in Mexico.

“Marriage equality in one city doesn’t mean there is equality for everyone throughout the country and hate violence and discrimination still happen,” she said.

The case was referred to an immigration judge last year after an asylum officer determined Neri-Garcia had a reasonable fear of persecution or torture in Mexico.

The immigration judge said Neri-Garcia proved he had been persecuted in the past in Mexico because of his sexual orientation, but he ruled that those conditions no longer exist.

GOP platform to call for anti-gay constitutional amendment, DOMA defense

LGBT civil rights advocates say the Republican Party is drafting a platform that again will call for a federal constitutional amendment against gay marriage and a strong defense of DOMA.

A draft Democratic platform calls for marriage equality, the repeal of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and passage of LGBT civil rights legislation.

The GOP platform draft is being finalized for recommendation at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., next week.

LGBT advocates within the GOP have said they hope that, if the party platform doesn’t endorse gay rights, then it should avoid the issue in the document.

But early indications are that the Republican delegates will be voting on a platform that, as was the case four years ago, and four years before that, attacks same-sex marriage.

Responding, Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign, said, “The GOP’s proposed platform is blatantly out-of-step with not only the majority of our nation, but even with the rank and file of the Republican Party itself.

“The party is poised to send a devastating message to LGBT youth – that they and the families they aspire to one day build are not worthy of the same protections as everyone else.”

Polls show that a majority in the United States supports marriage equality. A recent CNN poll showed support nationally at 54 percent. And among Republicans under the age of 35, support is approaching 50 percent.

HRC, which endorsed Barack Obama for re-election early in the campaign, said the GOP’s draft platform “appears to bear more resemblance to the National Organization for Marriage’s ‘marriage vow’ than it does to the values held by mainstream Americans.”

NOM’s vow, circulated among the candidates for the GOP nomination earlier this year and signed by Mitt Romney, calls for a federal marriage amendment and the defense of DOMA, as well as the creation of a commission to investigate the activities of marriage equality supporters.

Jerame Davis of the National Stonewall Democrats said, “The Republican establishment is not mincing words – they wanted everyone to know they’re still the party for homophobes and hate mongers.”

Davis said the draft language on marriage was provided to the GOP by Tony Perkins of the ultra-right Family Research Council.

The proposed language on marriage and the judiciary, according to an exclusive at Buzzfeed, reads, “A serious threat to our country’s constitutional order, perhaps even more dangerous that presidential malfeasance, is an activist judiciary, in which some judges usurp the powers reserved to the other branches of government. A blatant example has been the court-ordered redefinition of marriage in several States. This is more than a matter of warring legal concepts and ideals. It is an assault on the foundations of our society, challenging the institution which, for thousand of years in virtually every civilization, has been entrusted with the rearing of children and the transmission of cultural values.”

The proposed language on the “defense of marriage” reads, “That is why congressional Republicans took the lead in enacting the Defense of Marriage Act, affirming the rights of States and the federal government not to recognize same-sex relationships licensed in other jurisdictions. An activist judiciary usurps the power reserved to other branches of government and endangers the foundation of our country. We oppose the Administration’s open defiance of this constitutional principle – in its handling of immigration cases, in federal personnel benefits, in allowing a same-sex marriage at a military base, and in refusing to defend DOMA in the courts – makes a mockery of the President’s inaugural oath. We commend the United States House of Representatives and those State Attorneys General who have defended these laws when they have been attacked in the courts. We reaffirm our support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. We applaud the citizens of the majority of States which have enshrined in their constitutions the traditional concept of marriage, and we support the campaigns underway in several other states to do so.”

Davis said, “By allowing Tony Perkins, the leader of a designated anti-gay hate group, to draft this heinous language, the GOP has sent a clear message to gay Republicans that their hope of a pro-equality Republican Party is nothing more than a pipe dream.”

Survey finds increasing support on LGBT issues

An analysis of public opinion data shows increasing support among U.S. citizens on a range of LGBT civil rights issues.

The numbers “don’t lie,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, which issued the report in late January.

“Americans want equal rights for LGBT citizens, and lawmakers should heed their call,” Solmonese said.

The analysis found:

  • In 1996, when the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act passed, 25 percent of Americans supported marriage equality. Today, polls show 52 percent of Americans think same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marriage equality.
  • In 2004, there was not a U.S. state where a majority of citizens supported marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Today, polls show that majorities in 17 states support marriage equality.
  • In 1993, 44 percent of the public supported gays serving openly in the Armed Forces. Today, polls show that 77 percent of the public supports gays serving openly in the military.
  • In 1992, 42 percent of Americans said they knew someone gay or lesbian. Today, the percentage is at 77 percent.