YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
This week President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The day commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Here’s some of what President Biden had to say.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down for me as one of the greatest honors I will have had as president.
MS. ALCINDOR: But the country continues to grapple with systemic racial injustice. Many are disappointed that Congress hasn’t been able to pass bills like policing reform or voting protections.
Joining me tonight are four reporters covering all things Washington: Kaitlan Collins, chief White House correspondent for CNN; Pete Williams, NBC News justice correspondent; and joining me in studio Anne Gearan, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Garrett Haake, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News. Welcome to all of you. Thanks for being here.
Anne, I want to start with you. What’s the historical and really the significance of having Juneteenth become a holiday? It’s also possibly personal to you, but tell me a little bit about – (laughter) – about why you think having Juneteenth be marked in this way is important.
ANNE GEARAN: I mean, I think for President Biden what he said there, it is really telling. I mean, he – this is – this is a thing that he gets to do that is not about legislation, it’s not about, you know, righting wrongs that he feels Trump has committed, like all the things that essentially have defined his agenda to this point 150 days in. This is something utterly different, and it – clearly it was something that he – that he found moving. Juneteenth, which is also my birthday – (laughs) – which you were alluding to – is already a holiday for many employers and localities in the United States, but it says something about the American commitment to redressing wrong to make it a federal holiday, and clearly the president felt the same.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Kaitlan, I want to come to you. Talk to me a little bit about whether there was any backlash in Washington or across the country at all in marking Juneteenth when we think about kind of the racial conversations that we’re still having, the reckoning that we’re still having in this country.
KAITLAN COLLINS: Well, and I think also what’s notable is how quickly all of this came about because it was something that had been discussed – as Anne noted, it was already a holiday in several states but it wasn’t a federal holiday, and it didn’t, you know, really get into motion until Senator Ron Johnson dropped his opposition to it, and that’s how you saw it clear the Senate this week with a unanimous vote, but there were 14 lawmakers in the House who voted against it. All of them were Republican, and despite their opposition of course it became a law anyway. You saw President Biden sign it. And I think it’s one of those things where, obviously, the last time or anytime there have been these – the establishment of federal holidays, sometimes it is controversial and sometimes it does spark a big debate in Washington, but I think really in the last year you have seen a change in the discussion and the conversation that’s happening, and you saw so many lawmakers saying this is an obvious choice, this is something that should have been done a long time ago. And I think also it’s notable how quickly it went into effect because as – today you saw here at the White House and across Washington a lot of federal government employees did not go into work today because, given that it falls on a Saturday this year, they started observing it today, and I think that’s notable in and of itself.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Garrett, I want to come to you. Kaitlan talked about how fast this all came together. What does it mean that this came together so fast but that you are not seeing voting laws and voting rights or police reform coming together, and what’s the status of those things that are – that seem to be stalled in Congress right now?
GARRETT HAAKE: Well, Juneteenth I think was an idea whose time has come. I mean, there was also a key Republican cosponsor of this, John Cornyn, the senator from Texas. This has been a state holiday in Texas for a long time. And so – Kaitlan alluded to this – Ron Johnson was kind of the one Republican senator who had stood in the way on this, a handful of House Republicans. There was pretty widespread agreement to move this idea forward. Police reform’s a much more complicated issue, and the negotiations on that, really the hallmark of them have been how little information we have learned. The negotiators have kept everything incredibly close to the vest, and that’s actually a pretty good sign. Once you start getting leaked details, once you start getting leaked pieces of a plan, that usually tells you somebody’s unhappy with how this process is going. But the other hallmark has been that all the negotiators have really praised that they think everyone is working in good faith and they have now twice run through deadlines that they could have easily used to get off this train altogether and say the other side’s not serious, this won’t be a big enough bill, or it’s going to go too far, and they haven’t done that. And so I think there is still a reasonably good chance that that does get done this Congress, but it’s going to have to happen soon.
MS. ALCINDOR: In another historic moment, last weekend Vice President Kamala Harris became the first sitting vice president to mark in a pride parade. This comes as states attempt to push back on LGBTQ rights with hundreds of bills. At the same time the passage of the Equality Act, which aims to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, has stalled in Congress. Garrett, there’s a theme here when I come to you. (Laughter.) What is the status of the Equality Act and how much is Congress prioritizing this?
MR. HAAKE: Pretty well stuck. I think – you know, it has already passed the House. Chuck Schumer would love to pass it in Pride Month if that were possible, and the fact that there has not been movement on it or a vote scheduled or even broadly discussed suggests to me that it’s probably not going to happen. Republican senators have made issues about transgender women in – or transgender men and women in sports kind of a cultural issue. It’s hot on the right, it’s hot on Fox News. I see – I think it’s very unlikely you’d see the necessary Republican crossover to vote on something that broadens rights for transgender Americans while Republicans are making that a political issue that they think is helpful to them.
MS. ALCINDOR: Pete, I want to come to you. The Supreme Court ruled that Philadelphia couldn’t cut ties with a Catholic Social Services group because they didn’t help LGBTQ people. What does this ruling mean for protections, for religious groups who may discriminate against LGBTQ people?
MR. WILLIAMS: Not much. To explain this ruling, you have to go back 30 years when two employees of the state of Oregon were arrested for ingesting peyote. And they happened to be working for the state counter-drug team, and that didn’t go over very well, so they got fired. They filed for unemployment benefits and the state said no, so they appealed to the Supreme Court. And Antonin Scalia wrote the Court’s decision. He said: If a law is neutral and applies to everybody there’s no religious exemption to it. And that’s what the two state employees had said. They said, well, you know, this law shouldn’t apply against us. This was a religious ceremony in which we ingested peyote.
So now we fast-forward to the city of Philadelphia. It found out that Catholic Social Services would not place foster children in the homes of same-sex parents. And the city said, hey, that violates our nondiscrimination ordinance, we’re going to cut the contract with you, so Catholic Social Services sued and won unanimously before the Supreme Court. But what the Court said is, the law – the way it was administered in Philadelphia, it wasn’t generally applicable to everybody because the law contained exemptions. And the city could have made exemptions and allowed certain groups to discriminate here and there. So based on that, the Supreme Court said Catholic Social Services wins.
But it exposed a real rift within the Court because the three most conservative justices – Thomas, Gorsuch, and Alito – said, you know, the Court should have overruled that old precedent, that case from Oregon, and the failure to do so was a real lack of intestinal fortitude, they said. But again, another sign of this division in the Court, and the Court’s desire to move very incrementally – why get into that big question if you don’t have to?
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Pete, if I could ask you a follow up, I wonder if you could explain what that means on the ground in Philadelphia, what that means for children that are going to go into the foster care system. What’s the impact of that?
MR. WILLIAMS: So I think one of the problems with this case is it really didn’t have a lot of real-world implications. Remember, unlike the last time the Supreme Court struggled with this issue of religious freedom versus gay rights was in the Colorado baker case, where the baker flat out said, no, I’m not going to bake these cakes, and people were turned away. Here, there’s no evidence that any same-sex parents ever were involved with Catholic Social Services, and Catholic Social Services said, hey, if – you know, if somebody wants to adopt we’ll refer them to other agencies which will be happy to handle that. So the real practical implications aren’t very much. Catholic Social Services will continue to do business with the city to provide these services, and the real question is, well, will the city now change its contract, do away with exemptions, and will we have this case all over again?
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Anne, last question to you. The White House and President Biden have said that they’re really going to support LGBTQ rights. They’re really going to have the backs of transgender people, especially transgender women of color, who we’ve seen get murdered in disproportionate numbers. I wonder what the priority – where the state – where this is on the priority list of the White House and what they’re planning to do about this issue.
MS. GEARAN: Well, I mean, there hasn’t been some particular test yet that the White House has had to meet. So we don’t really know the answer as to how committed they are. I mean, another Supreme Court challenge on another topic may be that test, you know, to what degree does the administration put muscle behind it. I mean, they’re saying the things that LGBTQ rights groups wants to hear, in the main. There are a number of openly gay members of the administration who are celebrated as such. I think that – I think at this point it’s more symbolic than substantive, but they haven’t yet had to really do anything specific.
MS. ALCINDOR: So we’ll have to watch that space.
We’ll leave it there for tonight. Many thanks to Kaitlan, Pete, Anne, and Garrett, for your insights, and thank you all for joining us. Make sure to sign up for our Washington Week newsletter on our website. It will give you a behind the scenes look at all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.