Firm disowns lobbyist selling anti-gay bill

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A K Street lobbying giant joined a brewing battle over gay and lesbian rights Tuesday when it disowned a former employee who is hawking legislation to bar gays from the National Football League (NFL).

In an unusual public rebuke, Holland & Knight denounced the efforts of Washington lobbyist Jack Burkman, a former associate who says he’s lining up congressional support for his NFL player ban.

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“Holland & Knight is proud of its support of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community and we condemn Jack Burkman’s current efforts,” senior communications manager Linda G. Butler said in a statement.

The pushback to the Burkman plan comes amid a growing media storm over an Arizona proposal that would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT customers based on the owners’ religious beliefs. 

That bill was passed by the Republican-led state Legislature last week and seemed destined for the law books. But the ensuing outcry was severe, with a long list of business groups joining human rights organizations and a number of congressional lawmakers, including GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, in voicing their opposition.

In response to the protests, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) is expected to veto the bill as early as Wednesday.

The clash over the Arizona proposal highlights how the rapidly changing political landscape of LGBT rights is creating headaches for Republican lawmakers across the country. On the one hand, they face pressure to cater to a conservative base that’s largely opposed to gay marriage and similar expansions of LGBT rights; on the other, they face pressure from local business interests that fear labels of intolerance accompanying such opposition will harm their bottom line.

To a lesser degree, the Burkman episode follows a similar arc. Burkman, a former GOP staffer, has gambled that his hard line against gay players in the NFL will attract sympathetic clients to his namesake lobbying firm, Burkman Associates. But the terse rebuke from his former employer — a legal juggernaut with decades of lobbying experience — suggests that businesses, particularly those seeking favor from the federal government, might see only a downside to such an association.

Democrats, seeing political opportunity in the firestorm, have taken note of those dynamics.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) hammered the Arizona bill on Tuesday as naked discrimination.

“It’s an ill-timed bill [and] I think it’s totally unrelated to religious liberty, as its sponsors claim,” Hoyer said during a press briefing in the Capitol. “This is discriminatory, contrary to the values of the United States of America, and hopefully Gov. Brewer [vetoes it].”

Burkman, for his part, says he can rally at least 36 House members and six senators behind the measure, though he’s declined to name names. He said he came up with his proposal after college football star Michael Sam publicly revealed he was gay in an interview with ESPN earlier this month. If drafted, Sam would be the first openly gay player in the NFL.

“If someone has come out as a homosexual, what this legislation would do, it would one, ban them from the National Football League, and two, it would allow them to create separate facilities,” Burkman said in a Monday evening interview with WJLA. “I just think it’s common decency. Why do we have separate restrooms for men and women? Why, in school, do boys and girls shower in different areas?”

Sam wasted little time characterizing Burkman’s effort as futile.

“Jack Burkman is going to need a Delorian [sic], not some bogus bill, if he wants to prevent gay athletes from being in the locker room,” Sam tweeted Tuesday.