Civil Rights Stakes Will Be Highest Ever for Lesbians and Gay Men in 1998

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Lambda focus includes marriage, military, employment, and AIDS
December 31, 1997

(NEW YORK, December 31, 1997) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Wednesday that the new year will see a record number of lesbian, gay, and AIDS-related concerns in the country's highest courts.

Lambda, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 1998, has regional offices in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and a headquarters in New York.

"The United States Supreme Court and other high-level courts are expected to address employment, the military, disability protections, family, and other fundamental constitutional issues for lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV in 1998," said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn.

"Never have the stakes been so high for the civil rights of our community. We expect an unprecedented number of decisions from top-level state as well as federal courts, and they are likely to affect the way lesbians and gay men are treated across the country for many years to come," Dohrn said.

In 1998, among more than 50 cases on its docket, Lambda anticipates a ruling from Hawaii's highest court that may make civil marriage available to lesbian and gay couples for the first time in this country. State by state, Lambda also is fighting child custody and adoption rulings that discriminate against lesbian and gay families. In one such case, North Carolina's highest court is expected to rule on whether Fred Smith, who is gay, can have his two sons returned to his care, since his ex-wife won custody because of his sexual orientation.

In the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, Lambda is coordinating amicus briefs challenging a Maine dentist's refusal to treat a woman with asymptomatic HIV. The case, Bragdon v. Abbott, brought by the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, could determine whether the Americans with Disabilities Act covers hundreds of thousands of people who are infected with HIV but show no sign of illness.

Also on Lambda's Supreme Court docket is a case on behalf of an Atlanta lawyer, who was fired from the Georgia State Attorney General's office because she is a lesbian and had a private, religious wedding ceremony. Lambda and the ACLU are co-counsel for the lawyer, Robin Shahar.

Lambda awaits a Supreme Court ruling in another employment-related case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., for which it authored an amicus brief joined by the leading women's organizations as well as gay and other civil rights groups. In this same-sex sexual harassment case, heard by the Court December 3, Lambda urges that the federal law against sexual harassment at work be applied without regard to the sex or sexual orientation of the harasser or victim.

Another challenge to the widespread problem of anti-gay employment discrimination is one of the first cases to test California's protections for lesbian and gay workers. Argument against California Casualty Management's firing of salesman Dan Kovatch is expected before a state court of appeals in the spring.

In the only active federal appeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Lambda, with the ACLU, has just filed its brief in Able v. USA. A district-level court rejected the policy as unconstitutional in July; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is expected to hear the government's appeal early in 1998.

In a renegade decision last fall, a three-judge federal panel disregarded the Supreme Court's ruling against Colorado's Amendment 2 and upheld Cincinnati's nearly identical Issue 3, which would prohibit legislators from approving discrimination protections for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. Determined to put an end to the country's last remaining anti-gay ballot initiative, Lambda and co-counsel have appealed for a hearing by the entire Sixth Circuit Court.

Lambda, the oldest and largest lesbian and gay legal organization, itself was born of a court battle. It incorporated in 1973 -- after defeating a New York state court judgment that there was "no demonstrated need" for a non-profit group defending lesbian and gay civil rights.

"Over the past 25 years, Lambda's lawyers have worked in courtrooms in every state in the country as well as on U.S. Supreme Court arguments to protect lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV," said Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart. "There is no area of lesbian and gay life unaffected by Lambda's work -- from fighting discrimination against gay couples and families to working to stop anti-gay initiatives and overturn anti-gay military policies," he said.


Contact: Peg Byron, 212-809-8585, ext. 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)


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