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A trio of LGBTQ organizations has sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, after it announced that it would stop enforcing anti-discrimination protections against federal grant recipients that deny services to or discriminate against LGBTQ people.
The lawsuit, filed by Democracy Forward and Lambda Legal on behalf of Family Equality, True Colors United, and the LGBTQ elder advocacy organization SAGE, alleges that the Trump administration is endangering vulnerable populations, including LGBTQ people, by potentially allowing them to be denied critical services due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The groups noted in a press release that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread globally, LGBTQ individuals are left vulnerable by the Trump administration’s decision to weaken nondiscrimination protections within HHS-funded programs, and its decision not to require organizations or agencies receiving federal taxpayer money to abide by similar nondiscrimination protections.
As an example, the groups raise the prospect of a student who becomes homeless after COVID-19 shuts down colleges and universities, endangering their housing.
If that person sought shelter through HHS’s Runaway and Homeless Program, they could be turned away, particularly if they are seeking to be housed in a single-sex facility based on their gender identity.
Other examples of potential discrimination include federally-funded foster care agencies who refuse to place children with prospective host families due to the adults’ sexual orientation or gender identity, child welfare agencies or service providers who subject youth to verbal or physical abuse or conversion therapy, federally-funded daycare providers who refuse to accept LGBTQ individuals, or LGBTQ seniors adults who could be denied essential services, such as home-delivered meals, due to their LGBTQ identity.
The groups argue that COVID-19-related closures of senior centers, youth centers, or other places where people could seek services simply exacerbate the problem and heighten the risk of discrimination.
“In November 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services acted illegally by choosing, unilaterally and without justification, to ignore existing law that prevented HHS grantees from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” the Rev. Stan J. Sloan, the CEO of Family Equality, said in a statement.
“This action runs counter to HHS’ mission — to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans — and instead places the well-being of millions of vulnerable LGBTQ Americans at risk,” Sloan continued. “Family Equality takes no pleasure in suing HHS — rather, we wish the federal government were responsive to the needs of vulnerable LGBTQ Americans — but under the circumstances we have no choice but to ask the courts to intervene to ensure LGBTQ people are afforded the protections we deserve.”
Anne Harkavy, the executive director of Democracy Forward, says the administration’s refusal to enforce protections for LGBTQ individuals also sends a message to other federal grantees that they “can freely discriminate without repercussion.”
The lawsuit alleges that HHS violated the law when it unilaterally decided to stop enforcing the nondiscrimination provisions without providing notice to the public, or a chance for citizens to weigh in on the proposed changes.
It asks that the courts to reverse the Trump administration’s decision and compel HHS to comply by agreeing not to discriminate against LGBTQ and other individuals.
“We are suing the Trump Administration because of its cruel effort to make it easier for HHS grant recipients to discriminate against LGBTQ youth, families, and older people, in ways that put their lives at risk,” Puneet Cheema, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal, said in a statement.
“At any moment, but especially at a time of a global pandemic, it is callous to expose already vulnerable populations to discrimination, and allow them to be denied basic, critical services,” Cheema added. “The federal government should be making sure everyone who receives HHS grant funding does not deny LGBTQ people access to critical, life-saving services like health care, housing and child welfare services, instead of inviting discrimination, as they do here.”
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