Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hopes for gay-rights gains shift to courts

Source: Boston Globe
Writer: Donovan Slack

WASHINGTON — Gay-rights activists, acknowledging they will lose momentum for their agenda in Congress when Republicans assume control of the House this week, are pinning their hopes for further gains in 2011 on a series of incremental measures and a host of federal court cases.

Last month’s historic repeal of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military signaled an expanding political acceptance of fuller integration of gays into American life. Yet activists and observers caution against expecting anything as dramatic from the next Congress.

For instance, a legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, is virtually out of the question in the near future because of the GOP’s rise to power in the House, advocates said.

“It’s frustrating. The repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was a tremendous victory, but there’s a great deal more to be done,’’ said Brian Moulton, chief legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Smaller steps may be possible without congressional approval, however. Rights groups plan to push President Obama’s administration to make regulatory changes, such as reversing a 27-year-old ban on gay men donating blood and requiring that federal contractors not discriminate against gays and lesbians.

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of GOP members who support gay rights, said party leaders have already told him that the economy will take center stage as the new Congress is sworn in Wednesday, forcing major social issues into the background.

Cooper, whose group filed the lawsuit that helped lead to the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, said he is focusing on smaller-bore provisions that might appeal to the economic sensibilities of Republicans, such as legislation that would affect taxes on health benefits for same-sex partners and spouses.

“If we can stick to what unites us, we’re going to be OK,’’ he said.

The retrenching comes after two years of relatively steady progress. In addition to the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, Congress passed a hate-crime bill in 2009 that included protections for gays and lesbians. Obama issued a memorandum extending limited benefits to federal employees with same-sex spouses, such as sick leave to care for them. And in 2010, the US Census recorded same-sex married couples for the first time.

Advocates had hoped to continue racking up milestones with at least two pieces of legislation on Capitol Hill: one granting gays and lesbians protection from discrimination in the workplace and another overturning the Defense of Marriage Act.

Americans for Truth, an Illinois-based advocacy group for heterosexual marriage, is hailing the new Republican majority control in the House as a huge victory that it hopes will put the brakes on further progress toward what it calls “taxpayer-funded homosexuality.’’

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