Oct. 28 2010 12:00 AM

Forum at Cooley gives a rundown of legal protections for the LGBT community

Thursday, Oct. 28 — One year after President Barack Obama signed a bill extending hate crime protection based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, two legal experts explain LGBT rights, why Michigan is one of the least progressive states to offer these protections and why this year’s Supreme Court race matters.

Assistant U.S. District Attorney Judith Levy, who is in the eastern Michigan district, specializes in civil rights cases with an interest in legal LGBT issues and said LGBT protection is in an “interesting” phase.

She said the one-year anniversary of Obama signing the Shepard/Byrd Law is momentous for LGBT rights, but comes amidst recent waves of sexual-orientation related suicides throughout the country and ongoing uneasiness toward the community from religious groups.

Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. were both victims of violent anti-gay hate crimes in 1998 that sparked a nationwide debate on LGBT legal protections.

“It’s a very interesting time in history,” she said. “The test of our country is determined by how we treat vulnerable people.”

Under U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, this is the first time in history that gender identity language was added to the U.S. Code, the massive document listing every federal law in the nation, she said.

But the first challenge to Shepard/Byrd’s constitutionality is being brought by a group of bible-belters here in Michigan. Gary Glenn, head of the American Family Association of Michigan chapter, and three Michigan pastors, claim the Act restricts religious free speech by threatening to criminalize public opposition to an LGBT agenda. A federal judge dismissed the case, but it now sits before a three-judge panel on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Levy is skeptical Glenn has a case. “I absolutely believe we’ll win,” she said.

Levy, 52, is a lesbian who came out in 1977 while attending college in Ohio. She and about five other people formed the campus’ first gay union. She recently celebrated her 26th anniversary with her partner, with whom she survived an anti-lesbian assault in the late 1980s at their apartment.

Jay Kaplan, an attorney for the Michigan ACLU chapter, followed to call on the importance of electing Democratic Supreme Court candidates in Tuesday’s General Election.

“You can’t underestimate the importance of this election.” Kaplan said, referring to the conservative majority of the Court before Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s appointment of Justice Alton Thomas Davis.

The progressive momentum could be squashed Nov. 2 if two conservative-leaning candidates are elected, Kaplan said.

For this court has anything but a progressive record when it comes to LGBT issues, he added, citing the “broadest prohibition in the country” when it comes to allowing civil unions, same sex adoption and recognizing cities’ human rights ordinances.

“That’s quite a disability,” he said.