Rep. Elijah Cummings, the chair of the House Oversight Committee and a prominent figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry, has passed away at the age of 68. The Maryland congressman died from complications related to longstanding health challenges, his spokesperson said in a statement to the New York Times.
Cummings served 12 full terms representing Maryland's 7th Congressional District and first took office after winning a special election in 1996. He was widely cheered for his remarks at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where he declared that the party "does not just believe, but understands, that Black Lives Matter" and also recognizes that "our community and our law enforcement work best when they work together."
Cummings was a fierce critic of legislation that would allow employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation. During a 2016 hearing, the lawmaker swiftly debunked the logic behind the proposed First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a bill which would prevent the government from taking action against businesses or individuals who discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. The legislation is similar to Mississippi's HB 1523, the harshest "religious freedom" law in the United States.
As ThinkProgress reported at the time, Cummings asked the panel of witnesses "some basic questions about your views on discrimination" and inquired about whether or not they thought it was OK to discriminate based on race, gender, or disability. No one raised their hands and then he asked the same question about people in same-sex marriages.
By that time, not even a single FADA supporter raised their hand.
The bill was called for a hearing in Congress exactly one month after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were gunned down during the gay bar's Latin Night. At the time, it was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Cummings said the timing couldn't have been more inappropriate.
"Even if you truly believe that being gay is morally wrong, or that people should be allowed to discriminate against gay people, why in the world would you choose today of all days to hold a hearing on this discriminatory legislation?" he said.
But Cummings has been an ally to the LGBTQ+ community for years, expressing his support for same-sex unions during the lead-up to Maryland's historic 2012 referendum on marriage equality. After becoming the first U.S. state to limit the definition of marriage to "one man and one woman" in 1973, it also became the first to pass the freedom to marry in a statewide vote -- 52.4 percent to 47.6 percent. The law took effect in January 2013.
"I'm the son of two Pentecostal ministers," he said. "In my home, women putting on make-up was considered a sin. That's the kind of house I grew up in. And so you can imagine some issues are very, very difficult."
But while Cummings admitted that he wasn't always supportive of same-sex marriage, he told the LGBTQ+ newspaper that his feelings on the subject evolved following a 2012 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. Although Biden describes himself as personally pro-life, he said supports women's reproductive rights because he does not want to "subject other people to his feelings."
"I said to myself, how would I feel if somebody told me that I could not marry my wife for a lifetime?" he said. "My position is we have one life to live. This is no dress rehearsal. And this is their life."
And after the Supreme Court issued its 2015 landmark ruling that made same-sex marriage the law of the land, Cummings celebrated the landmark LGBTQ+ rights victory.
"It so clearly and rightly upholds the principles of freedom and equality under the law that our nation embodies," he said in a statement. "I congratulate Mr. Obergefell and all of those who have fought so hard for this decision these many years. Today, our nation celebrates with you. Your courage and determination to defend your civil rights should be an example to us all as we work to protect and defend people's rights across this great nation."
As the nation mourns a beloved figure who dedicated his life to advancing civil rights, Cummings should also be remembered for serving as a profile in courage for LGBTQ+ Americans.