President Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, acknowledged his writings on LGBTQ issues during confirmation hearings that began Tuesday by claiming they are being misunderstood as homophobic, even as he called for accommodation of religion when enforcing civil rights law.
The conservative nominee also stated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 itself wasn’t written to cover anti-LGBTQ discrimination and argued that Congress would have to amend the law – even while stating that he believes such discrimination is wrong.
In the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker was the one who pressed Barr on LGBTQ issues. He cited an article Barr wrote in 1995 for a journal called The Catholic Lawyer, in which he contended that advances in LGBTQ rights are marginalizing people of faith.
“It is no accident that the homosexual movement, at one or two percent of the population, gets treated with such solicitude while the Catholic population, which is over a quarter of the country, is given the back of the hand,” Barr wrote in the article, which was reprinted in 2017.
Barr further wrote that “the effort to apply District of Columbia law to compel Georgetown University to treat homosexual activist groups like any other student group” is an example of law that “dissolves any form of moral consensus in society.”
Booker asked Barr, who has been nominated by Donald Trump to succeed Jeff Sessions as attorney general, if he thought being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is immoral.
Barr responded by saying, “In a pluralistic society like ours, there has to be a live-and-let-live attitude – mutual tolerance, which has to be a two-way street,” He said he was “perfectly fine” with “gay marriage,” but wanted “accommodation for religion.”
The nominee stated that he felt Booker was oversimplifying his arguments and that he would have “favored unions that were single sex” at the time, a statement that squares rather oddly with his other expressed views.
Booker said what he was getting at, though, was whether Barr believes laws designed to protect LGBTQ people contribute to moral breakdown. Barr said he does not believe that. “I also believe there has to be accommodation for religious communities,” the nominee reiterated.
Under Sessions, the Justice Department advocated for so much accommodation as to back what most LGBTQ activists see as a license to discriminate. Booker said he knows Barr recognizes that being fired simply for being gay is wrong, but he pressed Barr on whether the right not to be fired for that should be part of civil rights law. He asked Barr if the Justice Department should take that stand, and the nominee said, “If Congress passes a law.”
Under President Obama’s administration, the Justice Department interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans sex discrimination, to also ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and several federal courts have agreed; the Supreme Court has been asked to hear some of these cases. Under Trump, however, the department has taken the opposite stance. Barr said he thinks the 1964 law was meant to cover only the traditional definition of sex, male or female.
Barr did say he thinks people should be protected from violence based on sexual orientation or other characteristics, but when Booker brought up the Obama administration’s efforts to protect LGBTQ youth from discrimination and harassment in schools, he was unsure what Booker was talking about. Under Trump and Sessions, the Justice Department joined the Department of Education in rescinding Obama-era guidelines on allowing trans students the right to the names, pronouns, and facilities of their choice.
After the exchange with Booker, another Democrat, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, pressed Barr about the Title VII issue again. She asked if he would still argue that it does not cover anti-LGBTQ discrimination, and he said that the matter is involved in pending litigation that will be up to the Supreme Court to decide.
He also said he would enforce the law as written and not try to amend it through interpretation. She pointed out that the Justice Department has filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing against the broader intepretation.
The hearings, which will resume Wednesday, touched on many other issues. Barr said that if the president ordered him to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion by Trump’s campaign, he would not do it without good cause. He did, however, say he understood Trump’s use of the term “witch hunt” for the investigation, as that term is used by people who feel they have been falsely accused of wrongdoing.
On reproductive rights, Barr, who has written that he thought Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, was wrongly decided, said he had no plans to ask for the matter to be reviewed. He said he would enforce the Voting Rights Act and failed to give a direct answer on birthright citizenship.
Barr previously was attorney general from 1991 to 1993, under President George H.W. Bush. It has emerged that in that capacity, he refused to grant HIV-positive migrants from Haiti entry to the U.S. and forced them to remain in “uninhabitable” conditions in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. has military facilities.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut questioned Barr about the matter, and Barr said the government was in a "Catch-22" situation, as immigrants and foreign visitors with HIV could not be admitted to the U.S. under the law at that time, except by special waiver on a case-by-case basis. Barr said President Clinton's administraion continued the policy, which Blumenthal responded didn't make it right. "It was right under the law," Barr replied. He said an investigation for that conditions at Guantanmo were not inhumane, but he said he would probably not favor keeping migrants there now because of associations with the facility. There was much criticism of how terrorism suspects detained there were treated during the George W. Bush administration.