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National legal network formed to combat sex discrimination

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By DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - A prominent women's rights advocacy group has recruited more than 70 attorneys from 15 states to form a national legal network intended to assist women and girls who are victims of sex discrimination.

Fatima Goss Graves, president of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, announced the formation of the Legal Network for Gender Equity on Wednesday, depicting it as the first of its kind. She said the initiative was prompted by growing concerns that protections against sex discrimination were being weakened under the Trump administration.

"We've seen a surge of gender-based hostility and harassment across the nation," said Goss Graves, who decried "escalating federal rollbacks to critical protections in education, the workplace, and health care."

Among the administration's actions cited by the law center:

- Allowing more categories of employers, including publicly traded companies, to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women by claiming religious or moral objections.

- Revoking Obama-era guidance on investigating campus sexual assault, replacing it with new instructions that allow universities to require higher standards of evidence when handling complaints.

- Halting efforts by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect data from large companies about what they pay their employees by job category, gender, race and ethnicity.

Several high-profile gender discrimination lawsuits have been filed in recent months. Targets include Google and the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. Both disputed the allegations.

There have also been numerous high-profile sexual harassment scandals this year, including those that led to the recent firing of movie producer Harvey Weinstein and the ouster of Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes at Fox News.

Creation of the new legal network was welcomed by Lenora Lapidus, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project.

"Bringing in more attorneys to really focus on these cases is a good idea," she said. "We become like a tide that can push change more rapidly."

The Women's Rights Project, often assisted by lawyers from the ACLU's state affiliates, has been litigating more than a dozen pregnancy discrimination cases recently and has gone to court seeking to learn why the EEOC's data collection effort was blocked.

"That data could help close the gender wage gap," Lapidus said. "We have no idea what made them decide this was not a worthy effort."

Even before its official launch, the new legal network already had assigned its first case - a pregnancy discrimination case being handled by the Spiggle Law Firm of Arlington, Virginia. The client is a law enforcement officer who says a county sheriff's office in Virginia refused her requests for work accommodations during her pregnancies and required her to take unpaid leave even though she had paid leave time in reserve.

Goss Graves said her goal is to have attorneys affiliating with the network in all 50 states.

The National Women's Law Center will serve as the network's hub, providing women and girls with legal resources and names of attorneys who are willing to take on cases. It also will serve as a clearinghouse for information on legal developments.

Among the attorneys enlisting with the network is Debra Katz of the Katz, Marshall & Banks law firm in Washington, which specializes in cases of sexual harassment and sex discrimination.

"We need one another," Katz said. "This network will provide people who participate with critical camaraderie and support to be zealous in their advocacy."

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