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New York Times: Justice Department blocks employee gay pride event

New York Times

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has barred a group of employees from holding their annual gay pride event at the department's headquarters, the first time such an event has been blocked by any federal agency, gay rights leaders said on Thursday.

Justice Department officials told the group, called DOJ Pride, that they could not hold their annual event this month at the department's Great Hall because the White House had not formally recognized Gay Pride Month with a presidential proclamation, said Marina Colby, a Justice Department policy analyst who is president of the group, which represents several hundred gay and lesbian department employees.

"This sends a real chilling message to Justice Department employees who are gay and lesbian," said David Smith, a spokesman for Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay advocacy group.

"This says, 'You're not welcome,'" Smith said. "It says that employees can celebrate Asian-American heritage month, and Hispanic heritage month and so on, but you cannot."

Barbara Comstock, spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declined to comment.

The gay pride event has been an annual tradition at the Justice Department since about 1997, organizers said, and many other federal agencies have held similar events since the mid-1990s, when President Clinton first declared a Gay Pride Month.

Last year, in fact, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson -- the second-ranking official at the department -- spoke at the Justice Department event before about 150 people. Colby said the presence of such a high-ranking official "was a really big deal for us, a real sign of support."

But Thompson's appearance drew protests from some conservative groups. Some accused Attorney General John Ashcroft, a social conservative who has spoken out in the past about homosexuality, of abandoning them by allowing last year's event to proceed.

Public Advocate, a nonprofit group that describes itself as "pro-family," has continued lobbying the Justice Department and other federal agencies in recent months to abandon the gay pride events because it believes the events are an inappropriate use of federal resources, said Jesse Binnall, a spokesman for the group.

Told of the decision to cancel this year's Justice Department event, Binnall said on Thursday: "We're absolutely thrilled that the Justice Department has made such a bold decision to stand up for American families instead of giving in to special interest groups."

Gay Republicans have become a more vocal force in party politics of late, but President Bush, unlike Clinton, has refused to issue a proclamation declaring a Gay Pride Month. When the issue surfaced last year, a White House spokesman said that the president did not believe "in politicizing people's sexual orientation."

Bush has issued more than 250 proclamations, acknowledging events like Greek Independence Day, Leif Erikson Day, Save Your Vision Week and National Hospice Month.

This is the first time any federal agency has forced the cancellation of a gay pride event at its facility, Smith said.

Ethnic and racial groups have held annual events at the Justice Department. But Colby, the head of DOJ Pride, said the gay pride event was the only one she knew of at the Justice Department that was not covered by a presidential proclamation, and she believes the Justice Department is using the proclamation issue as a convenient way to cancel the event. She said she feared that other events that the group holds at the department, like panel discussions, could be in jeopardy as well and the existence of the association could be threatened.

"This was a total surprise to us," she said of the department's decision to block the event. "Every other association at the department has its recognized month and event, except us."