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“A Battle for Our Identity”: Energizing the Fight Over the Hyde Amendment

A very important debate has been raging in the Senate over the past couple of weeks — one that could be critical to the fight to over-turn the Hyde Amendment* thus ensuring that all women get access to abortion despite their income or source of insurance.

As you may know, the Senate Anti-Trafficking bill was stalled because the bill contained an abortion restriction that would have kept the women helped by the bill from being able to get abortions. This provision would have extended the Hyde Amendment onto a fund made up solely of fines from offenders — the first time the restriction would have been applied to a fund made-up solely of non-tax-payer dollars.

Several women’s health champions in the Senate, including Senators Harry Reid, Patty Murray, Patrick Leahy and Diane Feinstein, took to the Senate floor to decry this restriction. “A bill intended to help women should help women,” Senator Murray stated. Read more »

Senate Rejects Religious Exemptions, As Should the Courts

On Thursday, the Senate voted to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA) — a law that would protect employees across the country against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — in a vote of 64-32. 

First, a moment of celebration!! 

Second, earlier in the day another important vote happened: by 55-43, the Senate rejected a measure to broaden a religious exemption to ENDA. The amendment, offered by Senator Toomey, would have expanded ENDA's current exemption, which — by the way — already provides LGBT people with less protection from workplace discrimination than other protected groups. 

With their votes, the Senate made it clear that bosses can't use their religious — or any other — objections to discriminate against LGBT people. This vote upheld the principle underlying our antidiscrimination laws: in exchange for entering the marketplace, bosses cannot pick and choose which laws they will comply with or use their views to deny their employees the benefits of laws enacted to protect them. 

That principle is being challenged not only in the ENDA context, but also by over forty for-profit businesses challenging the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraceptive coverage rule. Read more »

A Message to the U.S. Senate: Make History with ENDA Today

In 1957, an employee of the United States Army Map Service named Frank Kameny was fired and barred from federal government service because he was gay. At the time, the federal government was incentivized to shed LGBT people from its ranks under a 1953 Executive Order declaring homosexuality a “sexual perversion.” Kameny decided to fight the decision in court, arguing instead that homosexuality was “affirmatively moral.” Too poor to hire a lawyer, he wrote his own briefs and authored appeal after appeal—all the way up to the Supreme Court, which did not grant certiorari. Kameny’s experience, which led him to become one of the most vociferous voices of the gay rights movement, is shared by millions of LGBT Americans, whether we are fired because of our gender transition, discriminated against because of a picture of a boyfriend or girlfriend on our cell phone, or simply forced to hide who we are over the course of our entire lives.

Over half a century after Frank Kameny was fired, there is still no federal law that explicitly protects LGBT Americans from discrimination in the workplace. Although some states have passed their own laws protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the majority have not. Only 21 states protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and only 16 states have protections based on gender identity.

Enter ENDA, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would expressly protect employees in all 50 states against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. ENDA, which had a 61-30 vote to proceed in the Senate on Monday night, enough to break through a potential filibuster, has 193 sponsors in the House. The bill is currently poised for a final vote on the floor. Read more »

Senator Gillibrand’s American Opportunity Agenda Would Help Women – and the Economy – Prosper

Though the government shutdown is over and the threat of default has passed (for now), Congress remains wildly unpopular; many doubt that our elected representatives are as concerned with making the country work for ordinary Americans as they are with scoring political points. It doesn’t help that the latest jobs numbers show an economic recovery that is still painfully slow and leaving large numbers of people behind.

But all is not lost. Some Members of Congress are calling attention to the legislative steps that are needed to spur a strong, shared recovery – and recognizing the critical role of women in driving the economy forward. For example, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is championing a new economic agenda for women and families (titled “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds”), which includes measures to improve pay, combat employment discrimination, help workers balance their jobs and family responsibilities, and expand access to high-quality, affordable child care. And on the Senate side, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently unveiled her “American Opportunity Agenda,” which aims to help families achieve economic security through five key policy solutions:

  1. Providing paid family and medical leave through a new fund to which both employees and employers would contribute, modeled after successful state programs in New Jersey and California.
  2. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, raising the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the minimum wage, and indexing both wages to keep pace with inflation, as proposed by the Fair Minimum Wage Act.

Seven Reasons Why the Senate’s Labor-HHS-Education Funding Bill Has Us Cheering

The Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies just approved a funding plan for those agencies in Fiscal Year 2014. The full Committee will consider the bill tomorrow.

During the Subcommittee’s consideration of the bill, Senators voiced their appreciation of the bipartisan effort and conversations leading up to the bill. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chair of the Subcommittee, expressed her commitment to get the bill on the Senate floor saying “If we move this bill, America and the people who live in it will be in a better place.”  Senator Mikulski explained that the appropriations bill laid the groundwork for expanding opportunity in America through empowering students, investing in education and getting people to work in the 21st century.

We agree. The bill not only rejects the painful cuts from sequestration—it provides additional funding in several key areas, especially early childhood education. Here are seven reasons we were dancing in our offices when we saw the details of the Senate Subcommittee’s FY 2014 Labor, Health and Human Services Education and Related Agencies appropriations bill:

  1. Early Childhood Education: A $1.43 billion increase for Head Start, including Early Head Start - Child Care Partnerships, plus a $171 million increase for existing Head Start and Early Head Start programs; a $176 million increase for the Child Care and Development Block Grants, including $110 million for new quality improvement grants and $66 million for child care assistance as well as $750 million for Preschool Development Grants.
  2. Implementing the Affordable Care Act (ACA): $5.2 billion to the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services to implement the Affordable Care Act, an increase from $3.9 billion in FY 2013.  The ACA will help nearly 30 million Americans, including nearly 15 million women, to access high-quality, affordable health insurance.
  3. Mental Health: $40 million for Project AWARE State grants, which will focus on making schools safer and connecting young people with mental health services, and $40 million in new funding to address shortages in the behavioral health workforce.

Students Should Come First; Save Bipartisan Bickering for Another Day

Because Congress did not act by July 1, subsidized student loan interest rates doubled from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. And student debt in the United States already totals $1.1 trillion, more than credit card debt. 

Today, the Senate will vote on the Keep Student Loans Affordable Act, which would bring the interest rate back down to 3.4 percent for one more year while Congress can consider a long-term solution. The alternative proposal would be more permanent, but would tie the student loan interest rate to the market, with no cap. That may reduce the deficit, but on the backs of needy students! Read more »

National Women’s Law Center Urges Senate to Remember Women in Immigration Bill Debate

This week and next week, the Senate is debating S. 744, the comprehensive immigration reform bill. The current version of the bill includes provisions that are important for immigrant women, including protections survivors of domestic violence and for workers who report abuse, discrimination, or wage law violations on the job. As the bill is debated, we urge Senators to protect these provisions, ensure that women have full access to the path to citizenship, and to guard against amendments that harm women and families.

In a letter to the Senate, sent out this morning, we urge Senators to be guided by the following principles as they consider comprehensive immigration reform:

  • Ensure that immigrant women have fair access to the path to citizenship and to green cards.
  • Protect against employer exploitation of immigrants.
  • Ensure work authorization for spouses.
  • Make affordable health care available to lawfully present immigrants.

A Bad Day for Sexual Assault Victims in Congress

Yesterday, two different Congressional committees voted against protections for sexual assault victims:

  • The House Judiciary Committee, while considering a 20 week abortion ban, voted AGAINST including an exception for victims of rape and incest. During the Committee meeting, Representative Trent Franks joined the long list of abortion opponents who have claimed that the chance of “rape resulting in pregnancy is very low.”
  • The Senate Armed Services Committee, in considering a set of new protections for victims of sexual assault, voted AGAINST a provision to give the responsibility for addressing these crimes to independent prosecutors and away from the chain of command. As you may recall, there have been several very public stories in the last few months of commanders failing to pursue claims of sexual assault and overturning sexual assault convictions. And, even reports that the officers charged with enforcing these laws accused of sexual assault themselves.

It is important to note that these two votes took place in very different contexts – the House vote took place during consideration of a bill designed to limit women’s rights while the Senate vote took place during consideration of a bill that will otherwise strengthen the military’s prevention of and response to sexual assault. Read more »

NWLC Supports New School Reform Bill and Urges Senate Committee to Strengthen It

Last week, Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, introduced the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013, a bill to reauthorize (fancy word for “update and fix”) the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind.

The “mark-up” of the bill—when the HELP Committee votes on amendments and hopefully sends the bill to the full Senate—starts tomorrow.

The National Women’s Law Center supports this bill, and urges the Senate HELP Committee to further strengthen it during tomorrow’s mark-up. Read more »

Students Need the Safe Schools Improvement Act

Since it came out a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the website Microaggressions. The website attempts to create a dialogue around the way small interactions about race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or other characteristics can have enormous impact on an individual’s lived experience. According to the website, “microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative…slights.” The website is filled with stories of comments and experiences that make submitters feel “erased,” “ignored” or like they don’t matter.

While many of these incidents may seem minor in isolation, put together – and depending on the surrounding circumstances – they can rise to the level of bullying or harassment. This is a particular problem in schools. I certainly remember how, in middle school and high school, a small comment about my hair being frizzy or me not wearing makeup could throw off my entire day. When such comments or other conduct is severe or pervasive, it can create a hostile environment, in which the victim cannot focus on or succeed in his or her schoolwork. In educational settings, harassment is more than a hurtful inconvenience – it’s a barrier to an effective and fair learning environment. Read more »