With New Year, Lambda Builds Momentum for Gay Civil Rights

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Year 2000 opens with unprecedented role before the United States Supreme Court
December 28, 1999

(NEW YORK, December 28, 1999) —With the new year, momentum toward fairness and equality for lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV has never been greater, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said, pointing to major developments that include its unprecedented role before the United States Supreme Court.

“At the same time that Lambda is playing its biggest role ever before the High Court, our efforts have helped bring civil marriage for gay couples within reach and also fueled widespread outrage at the military’s shameful mistreatment of lesbian and gay service members,” said Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart. “From marriage to the military, momentum for equality is building,” he said.

Cathcart noted Lambda’s crucial work in increasing public acceptance for the freedom to marry for lesbian and gay couples, helping to win a Vermont court ruling that calls for equal treatment for same-sex couples, and challenging the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that discriminates against lesbian and gay military personnel.

Amidst advances for lesbian and gay equality, the civil rights group is mounting its most ambitious effort yet before the nation’s highest court, participating in five cases of concern to lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

“The year 2000 opens with Lambda in its biggest, most far-reaching role ever before the Supreme Court,”said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn.

She outlined the organization’s involvement in the High Court’s docket, including two cases in which Lambda represents the litigants, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, and Doe v. Mutual of Omaha. In three other cases, she said Lambda is a friend of the court, offering its perspective on cases that indirectly present issues of importance to lesbians, gay men, and those with HIV.

The five U.S. Supreme Court cases are:

  • Dale v. Boy Scouts of America: The Boy Scouts of America has appealed a landmark New Jersey Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-gay discrimination in scouting as a violation of the state civil rights law. The BSA’s free speech and association defenses wilted when the New Jersey court, relying on High Court precedents, concluded that expressing anti-gay views is not one of scouting’s core purposes. Lambda urges the Court to deny review. The Justices are expected to consider the case on January 7.

  • Doe and Smith v. Mutual of Omaha: Mutual of Omaha limits benefits for HIV-related care to just a fraction of what it pays for most other illnesses. The lifetime caps, which have no basis in actuarial principles, already have forced Lambda’s clients to make risky decisions regarding their medical care in order to remain under the caps. Lambda argues that the Court should reverse the Seventh Circuit and hold that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with HIV from cruel and discriminatory coverage restrictions. The Justices also are expected to examine the case on January 7.

  • Troxel v. Granville: In this case arising from a grandparent’s visitation petition, Lambda agrees with the Washington Supreme Court that a state statute allowing “any person” to petition for visitation of a child at “any time” is too broad and should be overturned. Lambda’s amicus brief urges the justices to strike a balance between parental autonomy, particularly the need of gay parents to be free from the intrusion of those who disapprove of same-sex couples, and the equally important need for courts to consider the best interests of children in non-traditional family arrangements. Argument is scheduled for January 12.

  • University of Wisconsin v. Southworth: In this case argued in October, Christian conservatives at the University of Wisconsin continued their so-far successful argument against campus funding for a gay center and other student groups with which they disagree. Lambda’s friend-of-the-court brief urges the Court to hold that universities do not violate the First Amendment when they use student activities fees to fund services and groups that ensure students access to a broad range of ideas.

  • Davis v. Hopper: On behalf of 10 physicians, and medical and civil rights groups, Lambda’s amicus brief supports the ACLU Prisoner’s Rights Project in trying to overturn a destructive Eleventh Circuit decision allowing Alabama to segregate HIV-positive inmates. Lambda argues that the Court should hear this case because sound public health principles should guide application of the ADA’s protections.

“Never before has a lesbian and gay civil rights organization presented to the Court in such a wide array of cases,” Dohrn said.

Cathcart added, “In just a little over 30 years, we have gone from being an outcast minority to winning a Vermont Supreme Court decision that recognizes ‘our common humanity,’” quoting the December 20 ruling that moved lesbian and gay couples significantly closer to winning the freedom to marry.

While the court stopped short of allowing same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses, it ordered state lawmakers to devise a way to give lesbian and gay couples all the same rights, benefits, and obligations already given to married non-gay couples in the state. Failing to do so, the justices ruled, violates the state constitutional guarantee of equal protection.

Lambda was amicus in that case, brought by the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and two private Vermont lawyers. The next session of the Vermont legislature begins January 4.

Even before the Vermont ruling, a major national poll found two-thirds of Americans expect that gay couples are likely to win the freedom to marry. Meanwhile, public outrage over the murder of a gay soldier has sparked renewed scrutiny and criticism of the military’s anti-gay policy.

“Our drive for equality is drawing intense national attention,”said Dohrn, but noted, “Unfortunately, sometimes it is tragedy that brings this attention— witness the case of Army private Barry Winchell who was beaten to death by a fellow soldier because he was gay.” Winchell reportedly feared that he would be discharged if he filed complaints regarding the harassment that led up to the murder.

Lambda is a longtime opponent of don’t ask, don’t tell, which continues to bar service by open lesbians and gay men.

The nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS, Lambda is headquartered in New York, and has regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.

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Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)
Beatrice Dohrn 212-809-8585 x 211


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