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LGBTQ advocates applaud judges’ rejections of Trump health care rule



Two federal judges in two days struck down a proposed Trump administration rule that would have allowed health care workers to refuse care due to their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.” The rule — which critics said would have allowed providers to deny abortion care and care to LGBTQ patients — was set to take effect on Nov. 22.

On Wednesday, Judge Paul A. Engelmayer of the Southern District of New York said the rule was unconstitutionally coercive because it would let the Department of Health and Human Services withhold billions of dollars of funding from hospitals, clinics, universities and other health care providers that did not comply.

Then on Thursday, Judge Stanley A. Bastian of the Eastern District of Washington vacated the rule from the bench. According to Equality Case Files, a nonprofit that tracks LGBTQ-related litigation, when a Justice Department attorney argued that the rule would not permit discrimination but allow “refusal of some treatments,” Bastian pushed back, saying it was “discrimination by another name.”

When asked for a comment on this week’s decisions, an HHS spokesperson said existing laws already prevented health care workers from “being bullied” due to their beliefs.

These “conscience protection laws” apply to doctors and nurses who do not want to participate in abortion or assisted suicide because of their religious beliefs, the spokesperson said in an email.

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The newly struck down 440-page rule, published by HHS in May, would have expanded the ability of doctors, nurses and other health care workers to refuse services on moral or religious grounds. The Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care sought to revise existing HHS regulations to ensure “vigorous enforcement of federal conscience and anti-discrimination laws” and strengthen health care workers rights so they are “free from coercion or discrimination” on account of their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who led 23 cities and states in the New York suit, said the rule would have encouraged health care providers to “openly discriminate” against some patients.

“Health care is a basic right that should never be subject to political games,” James said in a statement.

If it had gone into effect, the updated rule could have, for example, protected religious pharmacists who refused to fill hormone replacement or abortion medication prescriptions from discrimination complaints.

In the New York case, Engelmayer stated that part of his reasoning for striking down the rule was due to HHS overstating how many complaints it received about the 2011 Obama health care rule. HHS alleged in court that 358 complaints were lodged over the 2011 rule, when in actuality, just 21, “or a mere 6 percent of the 336 unique complaints” were in fact connected to the conscience rule.

“This conceded fact is fatal to HHS’s stated justification for the Rule,” Engelmayer wrote.

Before Engelmayer’s decision, a number of LGBTQ advocacy groups — like the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Callen Lorde Community Health Center, and the National LGBTQ Task Force — submitted amicus briefs in that case arguing against the rule.

These organizations, along with other LGBTQ and civil rights groups, applauded the judges’ decisions this week.

Jamie Gliksberg, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, said the decisions have “likely saved countless lives.”

“Two judges in two days have recognized the Denial of Care Rule for what it is, an egregious and unconstitutional attack on women, LGBT people and other vulnerable populations,” Gliksberg said in a statement. “The Denial of Care Rule targets some of our most marginalized and vulnerable communities and deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history.”

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, said, “Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs, but religious beliefs do not include a license to discriminate, to deny essential care, or to cause harm to others.”

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Julie Moreau contributed.

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Trump admin intends to announce withdrawal of more than 4,000 troops from Afghanistan



WASHINGTON — The Trump administration intends to announce the drawdown of more than 4,000 troops from Afghanistan as early next week, according to three current and former U.S. officials. The withdrawal will leave between 8,000 and 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the officials said.

The announcement comes just days after Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad rejoined diplomatic talks with the Taliban, which had broken down in September. On Thursday Amb. Khalilzad said the U.S. was “taking a brief pause” in talks after a Wednesday attack near Bagram Airfield killed two Afghan civilians and wounded 70 more.

The U.S. has between 12,000 and 13,000 troops in Afghanistan now. The officials would not say when the drawdown would begin, but did characterize it as a phased withdrawal that would occur over a few months. Two U.S. officials said the drawdown would be a combination of troops re-deploying early and others not being replaced when they rotate out.

U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army (ANA) base in Logar province, Afghanistan on Aug. 7, 2018.Omar Sobhani / Reuters file

In a statement, a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said, “U.S. Forces-Afghanistan has not received orders to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan. We remain fully committed to the Resolute Support mission and our Afghan partners, and focused on our key objective: ensuring Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the United States, our allies or our interests.”

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President Donald Trump has pushed for a withdrawal from Afghanistan for some time, including during his recent visit to Afghanistan on Thanksgiving, his first as commander in chief.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told an audience at the Reagan National Defense Forum last weekend that the reduction of U.S. troops will happen even if the Taliban does not negotiate an agreement, and that the commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, has said he can sustain a reduction in forces.

“The commander feels confident we can go down to a lower level without jeopardizing our ability to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism,” Esper said, adding that he hopes to reallocate forces from CENTCOM to the Asia Pacific region, which he called his “priority theater.”

The announcement of withdrawal is “part of trying to reset the talks with the Taliban,” the former defense official said. Khalilzad can then propose to the Taliban that the two sides restart negotiations where they left off, with the U.S. withdrawing troops and the Taliban promising a ceasefire.

“This takes us to the minimum that you have to keep in the country to remain credible negotiating with the Taliban,” the former official said.

In October Esper said the U.S. could decrease to 8,600 troops without affecting the counterterror operations.

The commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, participated in meetings Thursday to discuss the footprint for U.S. troops in the Middle East, according to three U.S. officials. The discussion also included talk of increasing the U.S. military footprint in other parts of the Middle East to counter the threat from Iran.

Trump has promised since campaigning for the White House in 2016 to end wars like the one in Afghanistan and reduce the number of U.S. troops deployed overseas. His advisers have over the past three years convinced him not to pull the plug on the Afghanistan mission, but the president showed a willingness to take such a step in October when he abruptly pulled U.S. troops out of Syria.

Trump had made clear to his advisers earlier this year that he wanted to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the November 2020 election.

“It’s all about talking points in 2020,” the former official said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hans Nichols contributed.

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Labour scrambles for new members in a 'final battle' to escape Corbyn’s brutal hard left



LABOUR MPs have began calling for an influx of new members to help elect the next leader of the party, after Jeremy Corbyn’s humiliating defeat in this week’s general election.

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Seven candidates. One Issue. Here’s what Democratic presidential candidates had to say about education



PITTSBURGH — Seven Democratic candidates for president on Saturday offered plans to make their mark on American schools.

Though the vast majority of education decisions in the U.S. are made at the state and local levels, candidates who participated in a public forum sponsored by 11 education groups vowed to increase federal spending in schools — some by enormous amounts — and proposed other ways to make schools more equitable and to support teachers, students and parents.

The six-hour forum at a downtown convention center, moderated by Ali Velshi, host of “MSNBC Live,” and Rehema Ellis, an NBC News education correspondent, streamed live on NBC News Now, and NBC News Learn.

Each candidate spoke for 25 minutes, fielding questions about K-12, early childhood and higher education from the moderators and members of the audience, made up of more than 1,000 students, parents and community members.

The event — one of the first times public education has been the main focus of the 2020 presidential race — featured Sen. Michael Bennet, Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. An eighth candidate, Sen. Cory Booker, had planned to participate but canceled Friday when he came down with the flu.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., one of seven scheduled Democratic candidates participating in a public education forum, makes opening remarks, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Pittsburgh.Keith Srakocic / AP

Watch it here. These were some of the highlights:

People arriving for the forum Saturday morning were greeted by more than 100 charter school parents, educators and advocates who protested under umbrellas in the rain.

Supporters of the publicly funded but privately managed schools say they have concerns that some candidates, notably Warren and Sanders, have called for cutting federal funding for new charter schools and restricting their growth. Warren and Sanders say charters draw money from traditional school districts and aren’t subject to the same rules.

Some of the candidates “have not included charter schools for the most part in a positive way in their platform,” said protester Sonya Toler, who works for the 13-school Propel charter network in Pittsburgh.

Those candidates might be courting the votes of large teachers unions like the American Federation of Teachers, which was one of the sponsors of the forum, Toler said, but “they can’t forget the vote of the people who work and send their children to our schools. They vote as well. Charter schools need to be a part of their platform.”

The protesters say they were excluded from the forum and not allowed to participate or question candidates. Forum organizers say charter school backers would have been included if they had asked. Tolder said she did ask but was rebuffed.

Charter schools comprise just 7 percent of public schools across the nation, but they still earned a lot attention at the forum.

Warren interrupted a moderator who suggested she wanted to “cut off funding” to charters.

“I’m not sure I’d call it cutting off,” she said, noting that she doesn’t want to stop funding to existing schools. “What I believe is that public school money needs to stay in public schools.”

Charter schools are public schools typically required to admit students through a lottery, including students with disabilities. Their students have the same standardized testing requirements as other public schools, but in some parts of the country, the schools are run by for-profit management companies. Even those run by nonprofits are not always subject to open-records laws and other regulations that apply to government agencies

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Warren has been confronted on the campaign trail by charter school parents who say charter schools give a choicev to low-income parents who don’t have the option to move their children to a private school, as Warren did with her son when he was in fifth grade. Warren said she is sensitive to those parents.

“They’re looking for the best educational opportunities for their children,” she said. “But I believe it is our responsibility as a nation to make certain that every public school is an excellent public school:”

Other candidates said they support charter schools but want them held to higher standards across the country.

Bennet said he oversaw charter schools when he was schools superintendent in Denver, where they are held to the same standards as district schools..

“I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot more perfect than almost any other area,” he said.

He singled out Detroit, where he said schools have been negatively affected by policies supported by U.S. Education Secretary Besty DeVos, a philanthropist who helped expand charter schools in her home state of Michigan before joining the Trump administration.

After the forum, Bennet retweeted a picture of himself meeting with pro-charter activists.

Buttigeig, who has been less critical of charter schools than some of his opponents, has joined them in calling for tighter rules. He fielded questions after the forum about a fundraiser being hosted for him by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, a prominent charter school donor.

“There are 700,000 donors to my campaign. Some of them may disagree with me on some of those issues,” Buttigieg said. “But my stance will not change, including my support for teachers and my support for labor.”

Much of the media attention on education has focused on how candidates want to lower the cost of a college education and reduce or eliminate college debt. Those issues came up on Saturday, as did a host of spending proposals to give children the kind of education that would help them succeed in college

Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg said they wanted to triple the funding to Title I, the federal government’s main program for schools that serve children from low-income families. Warren said she wants to quadruple the funding.

Candidates said the extra money could be used to address a host of educational challenges, including raising teacher pay and hiring support staff, such as school psychologists.

Warren dismissed a question about how to make the formula the government currently uses to distribute TItle I dollars more equitable, saying she wants to put so much money into the program that how it’s distributed won’t be an issue.

“The question is not how do we take what we currently spend at the federal level and move it around,” she said, adding the government needs to “invest what it takes to create a quality opportunity for every one of our children.”

Several candidates also called for funding early childhood education, with some calling for preschool to be free for all 3- and 4-year-olds and others calling for it to be free to children from needy families.

“If you had $10 to spend and that’s all you had to spend on education, I’d spend seven of them on preschool,” Biden said.

But Title 1 is not the only federal programs the candidates suggested boosting.

Klobuchar said she would help schools but also work to improve affordable housing, arguing that fewer homeless children would put less of a burden on schools

When asked whether the federal government should expand the free lunch program to all children so no one is “lunch shamed” for being unable to pay for a meal, Sanders responded, “You know what? And breakfast and dinner, as well.”

Candidates want schools to become less segregated

Several candidates offered solutions to how to make schools less segregated in response to recent studies showing that six decades after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, American schools are increasingly racially segregated.

Sanders, who said his elementary school class in Brooklyn had just one black student, said additional funding is one solution to inequality in schools. He also vowed as president to beef up the education department’s office of civil rights to investigate violations.

Biden, who was taken to task by Sen. Kamala Harris (who dropped out of the race last week) during a debate last summer for his opposition to school busing in the 1970s, seemed flustered when asked about segregation at the forum but asserted he is “extremely proud” of his civil rights record.

“It’s as good or better than anybody in politics,” he said.

Candidates tried to connect personally

Most of the candidates played up their personal connections to education, highlighting spouses and parents who worked in schools. Biden spoke of his experience with teachers who helped him as a child with a stutter.

“I had teachers who first and foremost worked on my confidence, told me I was smart, told me I could do what I needed to do, sat with me and gave me the confidence to stand up and try to speak,” he said.

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