GOP senator blocks reappointment of EEOC's only LGBTQ commissioner

Sen. Mike Lee of Utah blocked the renomination of out lesbian Chai Feldblum. He had previously accused her of having "radical views on marriage."
Image: Senator Mike Lee and EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chai Feldblum, a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.Getty Images
By Tim Fitzsimons

Members of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces civil rights laws in the workplace, are routinely reconfirmed in a bipartisan manner. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, however, is bucking the norm by putting a hold on the reappointment of Chai Feldblum, the first openly LGBTQ person to sit on the commission, because of her “radical views on marriage.”

Lee on Wednesday followed through with a threat he had previously made and objected to Feldblum being reappointed to the EEOC by unanimous consent, which is customary for bipartisan commissions. The move means she and the two GOP candidates for the commission will now require a lengthier and more complex confirmation process that will likely prevent the EEOC from convening in the new year as scheduled.

"It’s not likely [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell will extend the session for this. Barring a miracle, unfortunately it looks like the EEOC will lack a quorum in the new year," a congressional staffer on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told NBC News.

If this is the case, the EEOC will not be able to meet and fulfill its duty to enforce the Civil Rights Act’s ban on employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and genetic information.

Lee and a number of other social conservatives have been speaking out against Feldblum since she was renominated last December.

“One nominee to the commission’s five-member board wants to use the federal agency’s power to undermine our nation’s founding principles,” Lee wrote on his website earlier this year in a post titled “A Threat to Marriage from the EEOC.”

“Don’t think for a second that you, your family, and your neighbors will be left alone if Feldblum gets her way," he added.

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Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., took to Twitter on Tuesday to call for a vote on the full slate of EEOC nominees. “We can’t allow one Republican senator to prevent the EEOC from holding employers accountable and protecting Americans from harassment and discrimination while on the job,” Murray wrote.

Prior to Lee's objection on Wednesday, Murray had issued a warning of her own on the Senate floor, saying she would object to unanimous consent for GOP nominees until Feldblum and Mark Pearce, a Democratic member of the National Labor Relations Board, are reconfirmed to their posts.

Nominations to the EEOC and other bipartisan executive branch commissions are routinely passed by unanimous consent, with the balance of power given to the party that holds the White House. But when President Donald Trump renominated Feldblum in December 2017, along with two Republicans, Lee announced he would not vote to renominate them.

Earlier this year, Lee said his objection of Feldblum was based on her “desire to use the might of government to stamp out traditional marriage supporters.” He did not mentioned that Feldblum is the commission’s first and only openly gay member.

Feldblum, who has served in various roles at the American Civil Liberties Union and as a law professor at Georgetown, has spoken out in the past on behalf of Americans whose family relationships fall outside the traditional married, heterosexual, child-rearing arrangement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly two thirds of men and women ages 15-44 are unmarried, cohabiting while unmarried, or divorced and living alone.

In two posts on Medium, Feldblum took aim at those who sought to “mischaracterize” her beliefs on religion and LGBTQ rights, including same-sex marriage.

"Beginning in 2009, various groups have mischaracterized my views in an effort to paint me as a radical opponent of religious liberty. Indeed, some have quoted me as saying 'Gays win; Christians lose.' I have never said such a thing, nor would I,” Feldblum wrote this year. "If one believes there is only a 'win-lose' battle, then everyone must be painted as a radical advocate of one side or another. But that is not a constructive way forward.”

In a second post published Tuesday, Feldblum said she does not believe LGBTQ rights and religious liberty are a “zero sum” game.

"I believe there are some situations in which the rights of religious liberty for organizations who believe homosexuality is sinful will conflict with and should prevail over the rights of LGBT people who might experience discrimination at the hands of such religious organizations,” she wrote. "The reason I believe that is because I care deeply about preserving religious pluralism in our country — even if it that means protecting religious organizations whose views I disagree with. That is the point of pluralism."

In an interview with NBC News, Sarah Kate Ellis, the CEO and president of national LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, blasted Lee for holding up Feldblum’s confirmation.

“Lee himself was against marriage equality, for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ — at every turn and sector on an LGBTQ issue to help alleviate discrimination and facilitate acceptance, he has stood in opposition,” Ellis said.

She also decried what might happen if Feldblum is not reconfirmed.

“So many voices of people who have faced serious discrimination and injustices will go unheard, and I think that will be a tragedy for this country,” Ellis said.

Sunu Chandy, legal director at the National Women’s Law Center, agreed.

“Not having a full commission to lead this work will hamper important civil rights efforts that are currently underway, especially in this #metoo era," Chandy said.

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