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US Justice Dept will act on anti-Gay bias, official says

by Mike Andrew- SGN Staff Writer

Assistant US Attorney General Tom Perez said on Wednesday, October 14, that the US Justice Department would act against anti-Gay discrimination.

Perez heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the agency charged with investigating and prosecuting discrimination and hate crimes cases.

In his first speech to division employees, Perez said the division must be transformed "so that we are capable of tackling the civil rights challenges of the 21st century," including issues not historically addressed by the department.

"We must fight for fairness and basic equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters who so frequently are being left in the shadows," he said.

Perez pledged the division would "ensure that there's a level playing field in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are judged by the content of their character."

Congressional action is still required to give Perez legal jurisdiction to act against anti-Gay bias, however.

Perez spoke six days after the US House of Representatives passed historic legislation adding protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes laws. Final passage by the US Senate of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act is expected.

Perez's boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, has repeatedly urged Congress to pass the new hate crimes law, saying the expansion of federal prosecutions for such attacks is long overdue. President Obama has pledged to sign the bill into law.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) - when passed - would also allow Perez to investigate and prosecute workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

ENDA is considered likely to pass the US House, but its future in the Senate remains in doubt. A version of ENDA which excluded Transgender workers passed the House in 2007 by a comfortable margin, but it was never introduced in the Senate because then-President Bush had vowed to veto it should it pass.

Under the Clinton administration, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division had an internal group that examined Gay rights issues, but the effort ended during the Bush administration.

HRC Legislative Director Allison Herwitt called Perez's speech "fantastic."

"What's so different between this administration and the last is that we have people who want to have these protections in place and to enforce these protections, and you have the top of the Civil Rights Division willing to openly talk about these protections," she said.

Perez was confirmed in his position by the US Senate on October 6. He had previously worked in the Civil Rights Division from 1988 to 1999.

Beginning as a prosecutor in the Division's Criminal Section, Perez rose to become Deputy Assistant Attorney General. He served on detail from the department as special counsel to US Senator Ted Kennedy from 1995 to 1998.

Perez was Director of the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights from 1999 to 2001. From 2001 to 2007 he was a professor at the University of Maryland Law School.

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