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GLAA submits testimony on Office of Human Rights
GAY AND LESBIAN ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE OF WASHINGTON
P. O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013
February 23, 2004
The Honorable Jim Graham
Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs,
Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Property Management
Council of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
I am submitting this letter on behalf of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) as our official statement for the record of your Oversight & Performance hearing for the Office of Human Rights (OHR), conducted on February 20.
We continue to be impressed with the dedication and leadership exercised by OHRís Director, Kenneth Saunders. Some of OHRís more notable achievements over the last year, aided in no little degree by the budgetary support provided by the Council, include the following:
- We are encouraged by the steady erosion in the backlog of cases. Defined by Mr. Saunders as the number of complaints that are more than 9 months old, this backlog stood at 341 cases when Mr. Saunders was named OHR Director in June 2003 and declined to 299 cases at the end of the fiscal year on September 30. That backlog has decreased by another 16 cases from the start of FY 04 to the present date. The share of these ďaged,Ē backlog cases within the total caseload has dropped from 71% in June 2003 to 64% today.
- OHRís closure rate has more than doubled from 30.6 cases/month before Mr. Saundersí arrival to 64.9 cases/month today.
- Monetary awards negotiated for complainants now average $143,000 per month, which projects to a total of more than $1.5 million in settlement dollars for the present fiscal year.
On a more personal level, we are pleased that Mr. Saunders has repeatedly demonstrated his accessibility. We have met with him several times since his tenure began, and those meetings have been productive and rewarding. He has volunteered to go into the Lionís Den by attending GLAA meetings and answering our questions, which, as you know from your own experience, can be quite pointed. We will be inviting him to attend another one of our meetings next month so we can discuss OHRís proposed budget for FY 05 in some detail before your subcommitteeís official hearings on April 5.
One operational issue which was raised at the time of Mr. Saundersí confirmation hearings last October that needs to be explored more fully is the gap between the time someone files a discrimination complaint and the time the complainant meets in person with one of OHRís intake/investigation specialists. As of last October, that gap was typically around 3 months. We think that was too long and might serve to discourage someone from filing a legitimate complaint in the first place. That gap should be measured in weeks (at the most), not months.
In my oral statement on the 20th, I urged you to check the status of compliance with the Mayorís Order on uniform language in non-discrimination policies published by District government agencies. You did indeed ask Mr. Saunders about that, and he said the compliance rate currently stands at more than 50%. You quite properly asked him to provide a list of those agencies that are still not in compliance. OHR has a compliance officer on staff whose duties include monitoring compliance with the Mayorís Order, but we are sorry to learn that the incumbent is leaving OHR. We hope a replacement is hired very quickly. Ultimately, it may be worth your while to convene another hearing on compliance, since your two hearings on this topic in 2002 were extremely efficacious in teaching our government the critical importance of following this Mayorís Order.
We want to take this opportunity to second the call by Deborah Wood Dorsey, chair of the Commission on Human Rights, for a separate line item in the annual budget for the Commission. As it is, only the salaries for the Commissionís two hearing examiners are explicitly covered in the budget, requiring the Commission to depend on OHR to root out funds from its own budget to support the Commissionís functions. This is simply bad budgetary practice, especially in light of the Commissionís independent, quasi-judicial status.
Speaking of the Commission, I want to once again to thank them for sponsoring a very instructive symposium in honor of International Human Rights Day last December. I was one of the invited speakers on the panel, which represented a wide range of constituencies interested in the vital enforcement of the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977. Between our prepared speeches and the ensuing Q&A session, we covered an enormous amount of ground in terms of both historical and current concerns. (The text of my own remarks may be found on GLAAís website, at: www.glaa.org.)
One of the points I emphasized in my presentation at the symposium was that historically, the greatest obstacle to the enforcement of the Human Rights Act as it affects the Districtís gay and lesbian residents has too often been agencies of the District government itself. While many past problems have been resolved or at least are in remission, one agency that has stubbornly remained problematic is the Fire/EMS Department. Relations between the Department and the D.C. gay and lesbian community have been poisonous since the Departmentís outrageous behavior in virtually every phase of the infamous Tyra Hunter incident. We thought things had taken a decided turn for the better when the Department instituted a diversity training program named in Tyraís honor and hired Kenda Kirby as a contractor to advise the Department in implementing the training.
Unfortunately, the training program proved to be not much more than a PR exercise, and the Department paid little heed to Ms. Kirbyís efforts. The Department has even gone so far as to dismantle the training program entirely, blaming budgetary shortfalls. Ms. Kirby, whose contract was allowed to expire, says she was so badly mistreated and harassed during her work with the Department that she has filed a complaint with OHR against them. We hope against hope that this matter can be mediated and settled quickly, without the kind of stonewalling that District government agencies in general, and the Fire/EMS Department in particular, have made themselves notorious for. One outcome of any settlement, we hope, will be a resumption of the Tyra Hunter diversity training program. If the Council can mandate resumption of this program through the FY 05 budget process, so much the better, since there is no guarantee that our hopes for a speedy settlement of Ms. Kirbyís complaints will in fact be met.
There is unfortunately one more example we can point to of the refusal by certain elected officials to abide by the spirit of Districtís own Human Rights Act. I refer to the support by Mayor Williams, Councilmember Chavous, and School Board President Cafritz for the federal school voucher program. Under this program, taxpayer dollars will underwrite overt discrimination against gay men and lesbians by Roman Catholic and other homophobic religiously-affiliated schools that will receive most of those federal dollars.
The federal voucher program that has been imposed upon the unwilling people of the District of Columbia does include a provision that bars any school accepting such funds from discriminating on the basis of some (but not all) of the federally protected categories. Specifically, race, color, national origin, religion, and sex are mentioned as protected categories.
However, this non-discrimination provision does nothing to protect members of those classes that are protected under the DC Human Rights Law but not under federal law -- including lesbians and gay men. (Single people, divorced people, and members of political parties out of favor with the recipient school are also among those subject to arbitrary discrimination under the voucher program.) To their lasting disgrace, Williams, Chavous, and Cafritz did nothing to prevent this deliberate omission. (The exact language of the voucher programís nondiscrimination clause appears as an Appendix to this letter.)
So, among other results, the voucher program will subsidize homophobia in the following situations.
- Religiously-affiliated schools are free to refuse admission to children of same-sex couples.
- Religiously-affiliated schools are free to expel openly gay or lesbian students.
- Religiously-affiliated schools are free to refuse employment and fire openly gay or lesbian teachers and other staff members.
In short, the federal voucher program makes the government equal partners in hate.
Thank you for your continued, untiring efforts for stronger enforcement of the Districtís traditional commitment to protecting the human rights of minorities of every sort.
Appendix: Nondiscrimination clause of voucher program
Cc: Kenneth Saunders, Office of Human Rights
Deborah Wood Dorsey, Commission on Human Rights
The Honorable Anthony A. Williams
All School Board members
The voucher programís nondiscrimination clause reads as follows.
SEC. 308. NONDISCRIMINATION.
(a) IN GENERAL.-An eligible entity or a school participating in any program under this title shall not discriminate against program participants or applicants on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex.
(b) APPLICABILITY AND SINGLE SEX SCHOOLS, CLASSES, OR ACTIVITIES.-
(1) IN GENERAL.-Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the prohibition of sex discrimination in subsection (a) shall not apply to a participating school that is operated by, supervised by, controlled by, or connected to a religious organization to the extent that the application of subsection (a) is inconsistent with the religious tenets or beliefs of the school.
(2) SINGLE SEX SCHOOLS, CLASSES, OR ACTIVITIES.-Notwithstanding subsection (a) or any other provision of law, a parent may choose and a school may offer a single sex school, class, or activity.
(3) APPLICABILITY.-For purposes of this title, the provisions of section 909 of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C. 1688) shall apply to this title as if section 909 of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C. 1688) were part of this title.
(c) CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES.-Nothing in this title may be construed to alter or modify the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
(d) RELIGIOUSLY AFFILIATED SCHOOLS.-
(1) IN GENERAL.-Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a school participating in any program under this title that is operated by, supervised by, controlled by, or connected to, a religious organization may exercise its right in matters of employment consistent with title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. 2000e-1 et seq.), including the exemptions in such title.
(2) MAINTENANCE OF PURPOSE.-Notwithstanding any other provision of law, funds made available under this title to eligible students that are received by a participating school, as a result of their parents choice, shall not, consistent with the first amendment of the United States Constitution, necessitate any change in the participating schools teaching mission, require any participating school to remove religious art, icons, scriptures, or other symbols, or preclude any participating school from retaining religious terms in its name, selecting its board members on a religious basis, or including religious references in its mission statements and other chartering or governing documents.