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Georgia

Using one civil rights law to negate another

You have to give them credit for evil creativity, I guess.

A majority-black county in rural Georgia announced a plan last week to close seven of its nine polling places ahead of the November election, claiming the polls cannot continue to operate because they are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The move sparked instant opposition from voting rights advocates, who have threatened legal action if Randolph County follows though with the plan. Activists are also scrambling to collect enough signatures to stop the effort before Friday, when the election board will make a final determination.

The racial implications of the closures have generated significant attention. The county is over 61 percent black, and one of the polling locations that would be shuttered serves a precinct where more than 95 percent of voters are African American. Had the U.S. Supreme Court not gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the closures would most likely have been blocked by the Department of Justice.

But the method in which the county is justifying the closures has generated less attention. Republican lawmakers and election administrators in Randolph County are not the first to use the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), intended to protect the nation’s disabled communities, as a pretext to disenfranchise minority voters.

The good news is that the subsequent public outcry eventually caused county officials to cancel this plan. I make note of this for two reasons. One is that under the Obama administration, Harris County was sued for having voting locations that violated the ADA, with election observers being dispatched in 2016 to monitor the situation. The last update on the lawsuit I had was from 2017, and earlier this year the Trump administration announced there would be no observers this year. I have no idea where any of this stands now.

And two is that in a world where people with evil intentions are not running the place, there is a much better, fairer, and more equitable solution to this kind of problem, and that’s to take all reasonable steps to make these voting locations accessible to all. The federal government could allocate funds to facilitate this, or it could fund the whole damn thing if it wanted to. Frankly, given the various atrocities committed by Republicans nationwide in the name of making it harder for some people to vote, something like this should be part of a comprehensive program by Democrats when they regain control over government (please, please), along with an updated Voting Rights Act, an updated National Voter Registration Act, redistricting reform, a serious review and upgrade of the nation’s voting machines and elections security, and so on and so forth. We’re supposed to be a democracy, let’s act like it and make it easier for everyone who is eligible to participate in it.

Lawsuit filed against North Carolina anti-equality law

That was fast.

It took only one day for North Carolina’s legislature to pass the country’s most sweeping anti-LGBT bill (HB2), and only four days after that for Lambda Legal and the ACLU of North Carolina to file a lawsuit challenging it.

The suit takes direct aim at the law’s ban on transgender people using bathrooms that match their gender identity by highlighting the experiences of two transgender men, Joaquín Carcaño and Payton Grey McGarry. A third plaintiff, lesbian Angela Gilmore, further challenges the other anti-LGBT provisions in the law. All three are part of the state university system in some capacity.

Carcaño works for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute for Global Health and Infection Disease, while McGarry is a full-time student at UNC-Greensboro. Both have undergone hormone therapy and regularly use the men’s restrooms, which they would now be prohibited from doing under HB2. Because they both spend time in buildings with only sex-segregated restrooms, this creates a real obstacle.

“Using the women’s restroom is not a viable option for Mr. Carcaño, just as it would not be a viable option for non-transgender men to be forced to use the women’s restroom,” the suit explains. “Forcing Mr. Carcaño to use the women’s restroom would also cause substantial harm to his mental health and well-being. It would also force him to disclose to others the fact that he is transgender, which itself could lead to violence and harassment.”

Additionally, “The idea of being forced into the women’s restroom causes Mr. Carcaño to experience significant anxiety as he knows that it would be distressing for him and uncomfortable for others. He fears for his safety because of the passage of HB2.” McGarry expresses similar concerns.

As a result, both Carcaño and McGarry would be significantly burdened. Carcaño would have to leave campus to find a local business with a men’s room or find a gender-neutral bathroom in another building, stigmatizing him and interfering with his ability to perform his job duties. Likewise, McGarry would have to find single-use restrooms outside the buildings where he has class, which would “disrupt his ability to attend class and would interfere with his educational opportunities.”

Because North Carolina law does allow transgender people to change their birth certificate if they’ve undergone sex reassignment surgery, there is room under HB2 for transgender people to legally access bathrooms, but that exception does not work for either plaintiff. Such surgeries “may not be medically necessary, advisable, or affordable for any given person,” the suit notes, adding that for McGarry, “surgery is not medically necessary for him.”

As an associate dean at North Carolina Central University, Gilmore and her wife also face consequences. The suit notes that because they have the same first name, they often have to disclose their lesbian relationship. They often travel to Charlotte and will now no longer be protected by the city’s sexual orientation nondiscrimination protections, which HB2 preempts. In regards to the claims that HB2 makes bathrooms safer, the suit also notes, “As a non-transgender woman who always uses the facilities designated for women in both public and private spaces, the passage of H.B. 2 does not make Ms. Gilmore feel safer in these facilities.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, transgender men were the subject that no one discussed during the anti-HERO campaign in Houston last year. It’s good that they’re the focal point of this litigation, and as you can see from my embedded image, taking to social media to get their word out. There’s already been some backlash from the business community, enough to help spook the governor of Georgia into vetoing that state’s anti-equality bill, so with a bit of luck this may not only be the death of this awful law, it may also serve as a disincentive for other states to copy the idea. I hope. Daily Kos has more.

North Carolina takes a big step backwards on equality

Shameful.

RedEquality

Wednesday was a whirlwind day in North Carolina’s government. The legislature convened a special session, a complicated multi-part bill was introduced, it passed through the House and Senate — both Republican controlled — and Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed it into law. Just like that, North Carolina became the state with the most hostile laws against LGBT people in the country.

Targeting Charlotte for passing its recent LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance, the sweeping legislation preempts municipal nondiscrimination ordinances, essentially making it illegal for cities and counties to extend protections to the LGBT community. Only two other states, Arkansas and Tennessee, have such a law, but North Carolina’s bill goes much further. It also bans transgender people from using restrooms that match their gender unless they’ve managed to change their birth certificate, and prevents civil suits from being filed in state court even when discrimination is documented by the already-poorly-funded Human Rights Commission. On top of all the anti-LGBT measures, the legislation went further and prohibited cities from mandating any employment compensation (minimum wage, benefits, etc.) beyond what is offered at the state level.

Gleefully signing the bill that he openly called for, McCrory claimed that “the basic expectation of privacy in the most personal of settings, a restroom or locker room, for each gender was violated by government overreach and intrusion by the mayor and city council of Charlotte.” Calling the ordinance a “radical breach of trust and security under the false argument of equal access,” he said that he believes it “defies common sense and basic community norms by allowing, for example, a man to use a woman’s bathroom, shower or locker room.”

In a video statement, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R) added that “the loophole this ordinance created would have given pedophiles, sex offenders, and perverts free reign to watch women, boys, and girls undress and use the bathroom.”

What is perhaps most troubling about the passage of this law in North Carolina is that it could pave the way for other states to also target the transgender community for discrimination. South Dakota’s may have been vetoed, but Tennessee’s supposedly dead bill has already been revivedthis week as several other states continue to introduce theirs.

Kansas lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban transgender people from bathrooms and allow people to sue schools and government agencies if they saw transgender people in their facilities. Republicans in Minnesota’s legislature have similarly introduced a bill targeting public restrooms — albeit without the lawsuit provision. And when the Michigan Department of Education announced this week that it was considering some protections for transgender students, it prompted a GOP backlash that could result in legislation to either overturn or block them.

What happened in North Carolina could prove to be the deadly recipe that helps these other discriminatory bills actually make it across the finish line.

[…]

The very opposite is happening in Georgia. Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has until May 3 to consider an anti-LGBT bill that has been widely scorned. Just this week, Disney and Marvel promised to pull out of the state if he signs it, following pressure from other companies like Apple and the NFL that have made similar threats, including not bringing the Super Bowl to the state. This was after plenty of public debate during the many weeks the legislature spent considering and amending the bill.

The test for North Carolina will be to see what political and legal consequences there will be for the lawmakers who rushed this legislation through. Democratic National Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) scorned the Republican party for being “stuck in the Stone Age on LGBT equality.” Denouncing North Carolina’s lawmakers for “steamrolling over local officials just because they had the courage to stand up for transgender rights,” she promised that “our friends in the LGBT community deserve better and so do all the people of North Carolina.”

The key, I think, is for the companies and organizations that have been threatening action in Georgia now need to actually take those threatened actions in North Carolina, and they need to do it quickly and with as much fanfare as possible. There have to be consequences – not just at the ballot box, but right now – or else we will see this same sort of bill get pushed through in a lot of other states. And yes, that includes Texas. Our next legislative session is not for another ten months, by which time one hopes it has been made clear that this sort of legislation is Not Acceptable, but we could get a special session on school finance much sooner than that, and there’s no telling what could happen. Our legislative process is not designed to work in this kind of lightning-strike manner, but remember that the 2011 redistricting bills were passed during a special session with minimal public input. I can also easily envision some kind of amendment to a school finance bill that forbids ISDs from enacting anti-discrimination policies or accommodating transgender students. So don’t think this can’t happen here, or that it can’t happen before next year. It can, and it will if we’re not ready for it. TPM, Daily Kos, The Slacktivist, and Slate have more.

SCOTUS upholds same-sex adoption rights

Awesome.

RedEquality

The U.S. Supreme Court in a victory for gay rights ruled Monday that states must honor adoptions by same-sex parents who move across state lines.

Citing the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause, the justices in a unanimous opinion rebuked the Alabama Supreme Court for denying a lesbian’s right to visit the three children she had adopted and raised with her former partner in Georgia.

Last year, a divided Supreme Court said same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry in every state. But to the surprise of gay-rights advocates, the Alabama Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Roy Moore said in September that the woman’s adoption decree from Georgia was “void” and would not be honored.

Without bothering to hear arguments, the justices reversed the Alabama Supreme Court in an opinion that spoke for the full court.

The Alabama ruling “comports neither with Georgia law nor with common sense,” the justices said. “States may not disregard the judgment of a sister state because it disagrees with the reasoning or deems it to be wrong.”

Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the decision resolves one of the key outstanding issues in the wake of last year’s marriage ruling. “Everyone was waiting and watching for this case,” she said. “This should be the end of it now that the Supreme Court has weighed in.”

While the court’s conservatives dissented last year and said states should decide the marriage laws, they agreed Monday that the Constitution requires states to recognize legal judgments from other states.

That’s the nickel summary. What’s important about this ruling, in addition to what it actually was, is that it was unanimous and it came without any oral arguments. SCOTUS didn’t need to hear what the state of Alabama and any of its supporters had to say for themselves to know that their actions were wrong. That’s about as strong a message as they could send, one that may be loud enough for the Texas Legislature to hear. Don’t get me wrong, so-called “religious freedom” bills are definitely going to be at the top of the priority list. But with this clear message from SCOTUS, the bad guys may be forced to rein it in just a little. ThinkProgress and SCOTUSBlog have more.

Here comes I-14

Don’t hold your breath waiting for it, however. This will take awhile.

Texas is getting a new interstate, as part of a long-term federal transportation bill.

Interstate 14 will be cobbled together mostly from U.S. 190 and other existing roads to create a new freeway from western Texas to the Louisiana border. The Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition, based in Austin, announced the designation Tuesday.

The interstate will take years to build as highway segments must be brought up to freeway standards such as no at-grade intersections and various safety upgrades to allow for higher speeds.

According to the coalition, I-14 will connect Killeen, Belton, Bryan-College Station, Huntsville, Livingston, Woodville and Jasper before terminating at Texas 63 at the Sabine River.

Houston-area drivers would most likely encounter the new interstate where it crosses Interstate 45 in Huntsville, among the most used routes to and from Houston.

[…]

The designation is the first of many steps to convert federal and state highways into I-14. Efforts to turn portions of U.S. 59 into Interstate 69, for example, have taken decades, with many more sections to go.

In many spots, it will take rebuilding and potentially re-routing the highway. Bushell said officials are still working through some of those specifics, including where U.S. 190 currently shares roadway with I-45 northeast of Huntsville.

“Where possible we would want to stay on existing highway footprints but that may not be possible in some places,” Bushell said.

I-14 will go all the way to the Georgia/South Carolina border. Lord only knows how many years it will be before we see even a single I-14 road sign, but someday this new interstate may divert a bit of truck traffic from I-10. Of course, by then I-10 will likely have been widened to the point of being right next to I-14 anyway. Link via Streetsblog, and Paradise in Hell has more.

The national fight against equality

Once again, Texas leads the way in an undesirable category.

RedEquality

In Georgia, where lawmakers are considering a bill that critics fear could allow businesses to discriminate against gay customers, the former head of the country’s largest Protestant denomination recently urged lawmakers to reign in “erotic liberty.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in April and could decide by June whether gay couples can marry, and national opinion polls show U.S. voters increasingly unopposed to gay rights. Yet lawmakers in a handful of states are backing longshot legislation targeting gay rights, doubling down on the culture wars. Most, if not all, of the efforts are led by Republicans.

The bills are more political theatre than serious policy. Few seem to have widespread support among lawmakers, and senior Republicans are not adopting these efforts as their own. In Georgia, well-funded business groups oppose them.

Still, the legislation remains popular with vocal and organized voting blocks in states or parts of the states where they’ve been proposed. But any political points they score could come at a price.

If the bills’ backers manage to force a sharp debate in coming weeks, and the Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage a few months later, supporters of the bills would be exposed to criticism that they’ve been fighting for a fringe issue.

“On no issue during my 40-year career have opinions moved as rapidly as they have on the issue of the morality of gay relationships and ultimately gay marriage,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and the National Rifle Association. “When you have conservative organizations like the U.S. military and the Boy Scouts openly accepting gay members, the debate is close to being over.”

Not in Georgia. In a devotional delivered to newly convened lawmakers, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention urged them to defend the freedom to act on religious beliefs, though he stopped short of endorsing legislation that supporters say would do precisely that.

“We are a living in a society that is on a collision course with a choice between erotic liberty and religious liberty,” the Rev. Bryant Wright told lawmakers. “… Your role in government is about restraining sin.”

Georgia politicians rejected tougher legislation last year, avoiding a showdown that occurred over a similar bill in Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a measure the Republican-controlled Statehouse had adopted.

This year, the toughest measure comes in Texas, where Republican state Rep. Cecil Bell has proposed stripping state and local officials of their salaries if they issue or honor same-sex marriage licenses. In 2005, Texas voters approved an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage, but a federal judge struck it down last year. The judge stayed his ruling until an appeals court could consider the issue.

Republican lawmakers in South Carolina, Virginia and Utah have proposed giving government officials or wedding celebrants the right to opt out of gay nuptials if participating violates their religious beliefs.

See here for more on Rep. Bell’s insane bill. This story doesn’t even take into account the various bills and joint resolutions to nullify municipal equal rights ordinances, since it’s focused on the upcoming SCOTUS ruling on same sex marriage. Note the expression “erotic liberty”, which as The Slacktivist notes is the zealot attempt to rebrand equality as nothing more than a sex act. Specifically, anal sex, which these guys seem to spend an awful lot of time thinking about. It’s ridiculous and offensive, but that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed. If these guys gain traction in their fight to reduce a large class of people to their sex lives so that they can more effectively legislate against them, don’t think they’ll stop there. History has shown that they won’t.

The states that are making life harder for their National Guard members

It’s not just Texas.

RedEquality

While a majority of states ban same-sex marriages, most are not fighting the new policy. But Pentagon officials say that in addition to Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia have balked. Each has cited a conflict with state laws that do not recognize same-sex marriages. (A West Virginia official said, however, that the state intended to follow the directive.) While the president has the power to call National Guard units into federal service — and nearly all Guard funding comes from the federal government — the states say the units are state agencies that must abide by state laws.

Requiring same-sex Guard spouses to go to federally owned bases “protects the integrity of our state Constitution and sends a message to the federal government that they cannot simply ignore our laws or the will of the people,” Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma said last week.

But the six states are violating federal law, Mr. Hagel told an audience recently. “It causes division among the ranks, and it furthers prejudice,” he said. Mr. Hagel has demanded full compliance, but Pentagon officials have not said what steps they would take with states that do not fall in line.

Though the government does not keep official figures on same-sex marriages in the military, the American Military Partner Association, which advocates for gay service members, estimates that the number could be 1,000 or more of the nearly half-million National Guard members nationwide, said Chris Rowzee, a spokeswoman for the group.

The military grants a range of significant benefits to the spouses of active-duty guardsmen, including the right to enroll in the military’s health insurance program and to obtain a higher monthly housing allowance. Spouse IDs allow unescorted access to bases with their lower-priced commissaries.

Officials in the six states say they are not preventing same-sex spouses from getting benefits, because those couples can register and receive IDs through federal bases. But those officials conceded that many couples would have to travel hours round trip to the nearest federal installation. Advocates for gay service members, though, fear that some benefits offered on bases, like support services for relatives of deployed service members, could still be blocked.

Moreover, gay spouses say that in an age that saw the scrapping of the military’s ban on openly gay service members, it is discriminatory — and humiliating — to have to jump through extra hoops to receive benefits.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m still waiting for the threatened lawsuit to be filed. Note that even among the states that banned same-sex marriage, Texas and these others are a minority. There’s no public policy purpose being served here, just disrespect for people who have done nothing to deserve it. One way or another, these states need to be made to do the right thing and do right by their National Guard members.

Two more ways to divert money from public schools

Number One: Taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools.

When the Georgia legislature passed a private school scholarship program in 2008, lawmakers promoted it as a way to give poor children the same education choices as the wealthy.

The program would be supported by donations to nonprofit scholarship groups, and Georgians who contributed would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits, up to $2,500 a couple. The intent was that money otherwise due to the Georgia treasury — about $50 million a year — would be used instead to help needy students escape struggling public schools.

That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.

“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”

A handout circulated at the meeting instructed families to donate, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, many of whom were already attending the school.

“If a student has friends, relatives or even corporations that pay Georgia income tax, all of those people can make a donation to that child’s school,” added an official with a scholarship group working with the school.

The exchange at Gwinnett Christian Academy, a recording of which was obtained by The New York Times, is just one example of how scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.

Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.

While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.

If this sounds a lot like vouchers to you, you’re right. It’s vouchers in a different package, done in a clever way to work around those pesky church-state obstacles. I haven’t seen this particular variant rear its head in Texas yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

That leads to Item Number Two: Virtual schools, which are operating here in Texas.

report released Tuesday by the liberal groupProgress Texas is adding another layer to the controversy over virtual schools, claiming that despite their popularity, the programs have failed Texas students and are run by businesses seeking profit.

“It’s a $24 billion industry with zero accountability,” Progress Texas executive director Matt Glazer said in a statement. “Virtual schools provide unregulated financial windfalls to a few insiders by shortchanging our children’s education.”

The Progress Texas findings come in response to a March report by  the conservative Austin think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which supported virtual schools. The TPPF report claimed that virtual schools save money and can reduce drop-out rates because students who must drop out to work can take classes online whenever they have time. It said that virtual schools can also help students with special needs like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and physical disabilities.

In 2004, the American Legislative Exchange Council, made up of businesses and nearly 2,000 legislators, created a bill that supported online learning in classrooms and virtual schools. The measure initiated a wave of virtual schools across the country. In 2007, Texas approved Senate Bill 1788, similar to the ALEC model, which created a state-operated virtual school network and supported integrating online learning in Texas classrooms. Tax dollars help fund virtual schools, but businesses run them.

One of the only full-time virtual schools in the state, Texas Virtual Academy, was ranked academically unacceptable by the Texas Education Agency in 2009 and 2011, yet enrollment in the academy increased 3,203 percent in those years – from 254 students to 8,136, according to the Progress Texas report.

The report is here, and Progress Texas’ press release is here. ALEC was also a factor in the scholarship scam. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are. Read ’em both and keep your eyes open during the next legislative session. There’s a lot more to what’s going on with schools than just the nasty budget cuts from last year.