Politics & Government

Worries mount for gay-rights backers as Trump team sends mixed signals

People gather in Washington's Lafayette Park to see the White House illuminated with rainbow colors to mark the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to legalize same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015.
People gather in Washington's Lafayette Park to see the White House illuminated with rainbow colors to mark the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to legalize same-sex marriage on June 26, 2015. AP

Donald Trump made history this week, becoming the first sitting Republican president to issue a public affirmation of LGBTQ individuals and vowing to protect them from discrimination if they’re working for federal contractors.

And only days after his election in November, he called gay marriage “settled” law as a result of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that gave same-sex couples the constitutional right to wed, adding: “I’m fine with that.”

While some say Trump has established a clear pro-gay record, critics fear that the president has sent conflicting signals and his administration might end up leading a full-scale assault on gay rights.

Among the mounting worries: Vice President Mike Pence, along with many of Trump’s conservative Cabinet picks and his new Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, have long opposed gay rights.

And as a presidential candidate, Trump said he would sign a bill pushed by Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador that would give new federal protections to those who oppose same-sex marriage for moral reasons.

Meanwhile, a leaked copy of a proposed four-page executive order that Trump may impose is circulating among advocacy groups and members of Congress, stoking more worries.

When asked about a possible executive order on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said “there is nothing new on that front” but added “there are a lot of ideas that are being floated out.”

“But until the president makes up his mind and gives feedback and decides that that’s final, there’s nothing to announce,” Spicer said.

On Tuesday, the White House had released its statement proclaiming Trump a champion of gay rights and said the president would keep in place a 2014 order by former President Barack Obama that protects all employees from discrimination while working for federal contractors.

While Labrador’s First Amendment Defense Act fizzled last year, the bill ignited a furor, with opponents saying it would open the door to legalized discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Labrador, who won a fourth term in November, said he would introduce the legislation again this year, confident that its prospects of getting signed into law have improved with Trump in the White House.

“I think chances are better – absolutely,” he said in an interview.

Labrador, who helped create the conservative House Freedom Caucus in 2015, said no decision had yet been made on when to formally introduce the bill, adding it will include “no major differences” from the measure he introduced in the last Congress.

“We’re working with leadership here and with the Trump administration just to see exactly when the rollout would be the best,” he said.

Labrador’s bill would prevent federal agencies from denying tax exemptions, grants, contracts or licenses to people or businesses based on their beliefs regarding marriage.

Many gay-rights backers are braced for the possibility that Trump may act on his own by issuing an executive order that would be much broader than Labrador’s bill, guaranteeing religious freedom for “all activities of life.”

At a hearing last July, Labrador told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that “no American should be threatened or intimidated because of their belief in traditional marriage.”

While Labrador and other supporters argue that his bill would have a narrow scope, opponents say it could give private companies “special rights” to discriminate against gays and lesbians if they had federal contracts with the government.

“That’s the hangup,” Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest GOP organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender conservatives, said in an interview. “It’s rather ironic that individuals and organizations on the fringe right that have for so long harangued LGBT advocates for demanding special rights suddenly seem to be demanding special rights of their own.”

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry, another member of the House Freedom Caucus, defended the legislation, saying that “discrimination always is in the eye of the beholder.”

“To force someone to participate in something that they have a religious aversion to is counter to the foundation of this country,” Perry said in an interview. “And it’s counter to the Constitution. . . . We are feeling more optimistic. . . . We’re hopeful to get some action and to get a vote. And the president’s telegraphed willingness to sign it helps its chances for the future.”

North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who co-sponsored Labrador’s bill in the last session of Congress, said the legislation “is certainly something that a number of members would like to push.” But he said backers had yet to agree on specific language for this year’s bill and that it had not yet emerged on “the top 10 priority list.”

“I don’t know that there’s a consensus in Congress yet,” Meadows said in an interview.

The issue first emerged in January, when the Senate Judiciary Committee began considering Trump’s nomination of Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken, a member of the panel, said Sessions had backed “the deceptively named First Amendment Defense Act,” a bill that he said would allow people and some institutions “to ignore laws that require them to recognize marriage equality if doing so is contrary to their beliefs.”

Sessions responded by saying that he did not see freedom “as a zero-sum game.”

“I supported this legislation because I believe that we can and should protect the rights of all citizens – including LGBT individuals and those with traditional views of marriage,” Sessions told Franken.

After Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee on Tuesday night, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, announced that his organization would oppose Gorsuch because of his “long and troubling career opposing civil rights, including for LGBTQ people.” He likened Gorsuch to many of Trump’s Cabinet nominees, “who have spent their careers undermining civil rights.”

“Never in the history of our movement have we had more at stake as a community or as a country,” Griffin said in a statement.

And James Esseks, American Civil Liberties Union LGBT project director, said Trump “has surrounded himself with a vice president and Cabinet members who have repeatedly sought to sanction discrimination against LGBT people in the name of religion.”

In its announcement on Tuesday, the White House said Trump “continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election.”

“The president is proud to have been the first ever GOP nominee to mention the LGBTQ community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression,” the White House said.

Angelo called the announcement “historic.”

And he said he was not even particularly worried about Pence, a longtime opponent of gay rights, calling the shots in the Trump administration.

“You have Mike Pence working for a pro-gay boss,” Angelo said. “ Leadership comes from the top, and when Mike Pence accepted the nomination for the vice presidency, he knew that Donald Trump was an outspoken supporter of the LGBT community.”

But he said Log Cabin Republicans clearly would not be happy, either, if Trump chose to sign the First Amendment Defense Act into law.

“We’re keeping a very watchful eye on it,” Angelo said.

Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob

Will religious liberty trump gay rights in Trump’s White House?

President Donald Trump said Thursday that his administration would do “everything in its power to power to defend and protect religious liberty in our land.”

“America will flourish as long as our liberty and in particular religious liberty is allowed to flourish,” Trump said in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.

Gay rights groups fear that Trump may soon go too far, in their view, in promoting religious liberty, particularly if he signs an executive order that would grant federal protections to individuals and organizations who oppose same-sex marriage.

Here are some of the highlights from a four-page draft executive order that’s circulating among members of Congress and advocacy groups:

▪  Religious freedom would not be confined to religious organizations: “It would be guaranteed to persons of all faiths and extends to all activities of life.”

▪  Employees and organizations would not “forfeit their religious freedom” while providing social services, education, health care, earning a living, seeking jobs, employing others, receiving government contracts “or otherwise participating in the marketplace, the public square or interfacing with federal, state or local governments.”

▪  No organization would lose tax benefits or tax-exempt status if an employee “believes, speaks or acts (or declines to act) in accordance with their belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.”

The draft plan is generating plenty of reaction from opponents.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called the plan “sweeping and dangerous.”

“If Donald Trump goes through with even a fraction of this order, he'll reveal himself as a true enemy to LGBTQ people,” he said.

New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler called the draft “breathtaking in its scope, encouraging discrimination in social services, health care and across the federal government, creating a second class of citizenship for LGBT Americans.”

“Mr. Trump is a bully, using religion to further the cause of anti-gay hate that has become a mainstay of the Republican Party,” Nadler said.

– Rob Hotakainen