|U.S. Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said if the Employment Non-Discrimination Act becomes law, then ‘it is only a matter of time before’ all other pro-LGBT bills follow suit. (Photo courtesy of opm.gov)||
The highest-ranking openly gay appointee in the Obama administration is encouraging LGBT Americans to make passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act their No. 1 priority and said its success would place within reach other civil rights goals.
John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, called for greater focus on ENDA on Saturday following his keynote address at Out for Work's national convention at the Westin City Center Hotel in D.C.
Berry advocated for the importance of ENDA — and identified repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act as other priorities — in response to an audience member's question about possible legislative issues on the horizon and criticism that President Obama isn't moving quickly enough on LGBT issues.
"The most important thing we can do right now is we got to … secure the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — and it's got to include full transgender protections," Berry said. "I believe that if we all concentrate our efforts where it needs to be concentrated, which is on the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, we can get the job done."
Other pro-LGBT legislation can be more easily achieved, Berry said, if Congress were to pass ENDA.
"If we can get ENDA enacted and signed into law, it is only a matter of time before all the rest happens," he said. "It is the keystone that holds up the whole bunch, and so we need to focus our energies and attention there."
Berry was confident that there are enough votes in the House to pass a fully inclusive ENDA, but said a question remains over whether there are 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster.
"We're very close to the 218 [votes in the House]," Berry said. "We're within spitting distance, and I think we will get it. We are not as close on the 60 in the Senate, but we will be, and this will happen, so I think it's going to take that focal energy point."
The OPM director commended Obama for being "clearly on the record" in support of ENDA. Berry said Stuart Ishimaru, acting chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, testified Sept. 23 "very strongly and passionately" on behalf of the administration in favor of ENDA before the House Education & Labor Committee.
Berry also addressed criticism that Obama hasn't given sufficient attention to LGBT issues by saying he sympathizes with the frustration of those who want to see action — and noting he's backing the upcoming National Equality March on Washington — even though he may not agree with these tactics of achieving progress.
"I support the march on Washington, I support people standing up and getting angry for their civil rights, I support every effort and every piece of energy that's out there," he said. "I may disagree with their strategy. I may disagree with what they're doing at the time. Still, ain't going trash the folks. I'm going to believe they're working from a good place, and I hope we can build a place where we can do that and discuss it."
Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Berry said, should be a second priority for the LGBT community because all dedicated people should be allowed to serve in the armed forces.
"I think it's silly that everyone with good will who wants to serve their country in the armed forces can't, and that's got to change," he said.
Berry said Defense Secretary Robert Gates has "an open mind" on repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but that the secretary also has to work to "balance some things," such as military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, the OPM director noted that administration support alone is insufficient to overturn the law.
"This administration strongly supports the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' but in the end, having the president say that without 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate don't get you far," Berry said.
Also high among Berry's priorities is overturning DOMA. The OPM director criticized Congress for passing the law in 1996 and said it was enacted for bad reasons.
"It was motivated only by hate, it was motivated by discrimination, it is a base law and it should be repealed," Berry said.
Berry noted that Obama has called DOMA discriminately and urged for its legislative repeal, but the OPM director added the best way toward overturning the law would be through the courts and not Congress.
"I will tell you personally I believe that I think the courts will strike this down before Congress will have to repeal it legislatively," he said. "And thank goodness because, in this case, the backbone is not there in Congress."
Support for repealing DOMA through litigation echoes the position of gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on the issue. Frank has not signed on as a co-sponsor to the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would repeal DOMA, because he said Congress should tackle other LGBT priorities and a pending lawsuit against the statute better addresses the issue.
Berry said other goals the LGBT community should work toward include hate crimes legislation and a bill granting benefits to federal workers with same-sex partners. He noted that he testified before Congress in support of the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act and said he's "working hard to line up" the votes to pass the bill.
But Berry put these bills in another category and called them "short-term wins" compared to passing ENDA and repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and DOMA.
"They're still important and I think they're important steps in the process, but I listed the big three … and I think we need to approach them in that order," he said.