By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Five years after a gay advocacy group was told that it could no longer use the e-mail, bulletin boards and meeting rooms at the Justice Department, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey has reversed that decision and issued a revised equal-employment-opportunity policy barring discrimination against any group.
Mukasey informed leaders of DOJ Pride last week that the department would give it the same rights as all other DOJ employee organizations, said the group's president, Chris Hook. In a statement, Mukasey said the department will "foster an environment in which diversity is valued, understood and sought" and maintain "an environment that's free of discrimination."
DOJ Pride and its 110 members had been barred from holding an annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Month celebration since 2003, when then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft told the group that the Bush administration observed an unwritten policy of not sponsoring events without a presidential proclamation, Hook said. The group also was told it could not post notices of general meetings and events on department bulletin boards, he said.
The policy continued under Ashcroft's successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, Hook said.
"I do not know of any other employee-recognized groups that were denied access under these same conditions," Hook said. As a result of "what some would term a hostile environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, the membership rolls have suffered."
"As you can imagine," he added, "it is difficult to let employees know of the group's existence when they are not informed of it in official department literature, or only through word of mouth." Hook said the group had more than 200 members when the ban was handed down in 2003.
Under the Clinton administration, DOJ Pride had grown accustomed to more freedom, holding its annual pride celebration in the Justice Department's Great Hall. Under the Bush administration, the group was told it would have to pay more than $2,000 to lease the space, including payments for security, Hook said. Pride celebrations were instead held in small conference rooms reserved by employees and group members.
Recently, when the group organized "DOJ Pride on Ice," a skating event, it was barred from placing a notice on the bulletin board in the department's headquarters building, Hook said. Other events such as meetings, forums and brown-bag discussions also could not be posted, he said.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr declined to respond to the specific allegations made by Hook. He said that Mukasey now will permit DOJ Pride to use bulletin boards, easels and the department's e-mail system.
As far back as 2001, when conservative groups began to lobby against gay pride events at the Justice Department, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) asked Ashcroft in a Judiciary Committee hearing if he would give DOJ Pride the same access to Justice Department facilities as other employee groups.
Ashcroft replied that it was not his intention "to discriminate against any group that appropriately constituted in the Department of Justice." Responding to written questions from Feingold, Ashcroft said he would not change any policies or treat DOJ Pride differently.
After Mukasey took over the department late last year, the group wrote to him to complain about its treatment. Hook said Mukasey met with group leaders, signed the new policy that allowed bulletin board postings, and agreed to host the pride celebration in one of the department's main halls.
"He has gone out of his way to ensure that the department has a new air of inclusiveness and an open and welcoming environment for all employees," Hook said.