Justice Department bans gay employee gathering
The Justice Department is prohibiting a group of employees from holding an annual gay pride celebration at department headquarters.
The group had held similar events at the department since 1997, and leaders from gay rights groups said this was the first instance they'd heard of a federal agency interceding to stop an assembly of homosexual federal employees.
The group, DOJ Pride, was told earlier this week that they would not be allowed to hold their annual event on Justice property, said Allison Nichol, a deputy chief in the department's civil rights division, who is also DOJ Pride's vice president.
Nichol said the group was told their request was denied because of a policy that employee groups may not hold special celebrations or commemorations unless the president has issued a proclamation formally recognizing the event. President Bush hasn't issued a proclamation concerning gay pride month, with which DOJ Pride's annual awards ceremony is timed to coincide.
Nichol said DOJ Pride was also told that the department's policy was unwritten, and hence had not been disseminated internally. "That would be an odd policy indeed for a group of lawyers to have," said Nichol, who is an attorney.
Justice employees have held special gatherings at headquarters before to celebrate minority groups. On May 7, Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh spoke at an assembly in the Great Hall of the main Justice building to commemorate Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. The gathering was billed as a "salute to liberty," and was sponsored by the Office of Justice Programs.
Justice Department spokespeople didn't immediately respond to requests for comment, and as of Friday afternoon, the department had issued no formal statement on the matter. It was also unclear who had ordered the ban on the gay pride gathering. Lawmakers and gay rights activists noted that Attorney General John Ashcroft, prior to his confirmation, had said that as the head of the Justice Department he would afford gay and lesbian employees the same rights as their colleagues.
At Ashcroft's Senate confirmation hearing in January 2001, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., asked him if we would "permit DOJ Pride, a voluntary organization of gay, lesbian and bisexual DOJ employees, to continue to use Justice Department facilities on the same basis as other voluntary employee groups or other minority Justice Department employees?"
Ashcroft responded, "It would be my intention not to discriminate against any group that appropriately constituted in the Department of Justice." He also said, "As attorney general, I will not make sexual orientation a matter to be considered in hiring or firing."
Mark Mead, the spokesman for the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights political advocacy group, said that when Ashcroft met with the group prior to his confirmation he also gave his assurances that homosexual government employees wouldn't be treated differently than other agency employees.
Mead speculated that a low-level official had made the decision to ban the DOJ Pride event at headquarters, but he added, "Whoever made it is wrong. They need to reverse it."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, issued a statement calling on Ashcroft to reverse the decision to bar the group from holding the ceremony at Justice, saying it was "particularly disturbing" that Justice, the agency charged with protecting civil rights, would prohibit such a gathering.
The DOJ Pride event is scheduled for June 18, and Nichol said there were no plans to suspend it. She said the group was considering alternate locations, but that she hoped the department would reverse its decision and allow the event to be held at headquarters.
DOJ Pride honors two people each year for their work on civil rights, one a Justice employee and another from outside the department. This year, the group intends to recognize an attorney with Lambda Legal Defense, an organization that has worked on a case pending before the Supreme Court to overturn a Texas law criminalizing homosexual sex. The other honoree is an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia who prosecuted an individual charged with assaulting a transgender male, the group said in a statement.
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