2 Dead, Several Injured After Severe Weather in Florida

(AP) Severe weather sparked a pair of tornadoes that ripped through central Florida before dawn Sunday, officials said. A couple was killed and their son and four grandchildren were injured when one of the twisters destroyed their mobile home.

"I'm amazed to see anybody got out of this alive," said Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube during a news conference.

Steube said that the victims of the tornado in Duette were asleep in their mobile home when the tornado struck. Steven Wilson, 58, was killed immediately, while his wife, Kate, died from a heart attack after being taken to a hospital. Their son, also named Steven Wilson, crawled out of the wreckage and helped his four children out of the home. The children are between the ages of 6 and 10.

The younger Wilson and the children are being treated at a hospital. Their injuries aren't thought to be life threatening.

The National Weather Service in Ruskin, Florida, said a tornado touched down in Duette in Manatee County at 3:45 a.m.

Minutes later, another twister struck near the beach community of Siesta Key in Sarasota County.

On Sunday morning, about 17,000 residents in the area were without power, the Sarasota County Emergency Management office said on its Facebook page.

Sarasota County officials reported damage to multiple homes near Siesta Key. At least one home was destroyed and a woman had to be pulled from the wreckage by first responders. Other damage reports include roofs being blown off homes.

The Sarasota Police Department early Sunday reported downed trees, minor flooding and mangled parking structures in the city.

The Sarasota Police Department early Sunday reported downed trees and power lines and minor flooding. Officials in Tampa closed the Skyway Bridge, a major thoroughfare, Sunday morning for the second time since midnight after wind speeds reached up to 50 mph with wind gusts up to 60 mph.

Ind. Business Leader: Pence's LGBT Stance Doesn't Help

(AP) A prominent Indiana business leader is voicing concern that Gov. Mike Pence's newly revealed stance prioritizing religious freedoms over LGBT rights will not help "close the book" on a tumultuous period that thrust the state to the center of a culture war and threatened to harm its image.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said business leaders hoped the first-term Republican would use his State of the State address to announce support for measures before the GOP-controlled Legislature that would provide statewide protections for anyone fired from a job, denied service, or evicted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Instead, Pence prioritized religious freedom over rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and showed little retreat from his stance during an uproar last March over a religious objections law, which critics charged would sanction discrimination against gay people on religious grounds. Lawmakers approved a "fix" seven days later, but supporters of LGBT rights have pushed them to go further.

"We don't take lightly the idea of giving people more reason to sue businesses, but we think it's the 21st Century and the time has come to provide these protections," Brinegar said Friday. "We need to close the book on the ... issue, which some would say was a debacle."

The religious objections law drew unwanted and mostly negative attention to Indiana, prompting businesses interests, including the NCAA, to raise the possibility of relocating events and conventions elsewhere.

In the days before last week's State of the State speech, Pence heightened expectations on all sides by indicating he would end months of silence on the issue of LGBT protections. The issue sharply divides the Republican Party, driving a wedge between social conservatives and the business establishment.

Ohio Lawmakers Resist Including LGBT in Hate Crime Laws

(AP) Authorities in Ohio have resisted including lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people to those covered by state hate crime laws.

Ohio is among 14 states that lack a hate-crime law that covers both sexual orientation and gender identity. Federal law gives individuals legal protection for bias-motivated acts that are based on those factors. But state law takes precedence if the crime doesn't pose a threat to interstate or foreign commerce.

Lisa Wurm, of the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Columbus Dispatch (http://bit.ly/1RgD3VR) legislation to include nondiscrimination protections has been introduced in the state legislature every year for the past 10 years.

But some lawmakers have been reluctant to approve such legislation over concerns that they were creating special classes. Others have said that hate crimes are not always easy to prove.

"I think some of the problem people have is with the fact that some of these other classifications (such as identifying as gay) are not so demonstrable," said state Sen. John Eklund, a Chardon Republican.

A hate crime carries a misdemeanor charge in Ohio, which can lead to a sentence of between 30 and 180 days in jail. A hate-crime charge can't be added if the initial defense is more than misdemeanor, meaning that additional penalties can't be sought.

State Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Lakewood Democrat, introduced a bill in October to alter the state's nondiscrimination law to include protection in housing, employment and public accommodations for LGBT individuals.

Trump Tweets Cruz's Hypocrisy on Taking Gay Donor Dollars

(EDGE)The feud between GOP presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Ted Cruz escalated Saturday when the billionaire reality star turned politician brought up his opponent's hypocrisy on the issue same-sex marriage and his history of taking money from a pair of gay Manhattan hoteliers.

"Everybody understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal and pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage. And focus on money and the media," said Cruz during Thursday's debate. The comment set off a backlash of criticism against the Texas senator. 

On Friday, Cruz doubled down on his anti-Big Apple comments by offering a left-handed apology to New Yorkers "who have been let down by the liberal politicians in that state."

In a series of tweets Saturday, Trump pointed out Cruz's hypocrisy on the same-sex marriage issue by bringing up a fundraising event that the historically anti-gay Tea Party favorite attended in New York City last spring hosted by gay Manhattan hoteliers Mati Weiderpass and Ian Reisner. 

The event with Cruz opened a Pandora's Box for Reisner, who had recently acquired over 80% of the commercial property in the upscale gay resort mecca Fire Island Pines. A high-profile boycott on Reisner's new acquisition over the Cruz party dogged the gay entrepreneur during his entire inaugural season on the island.

Neb. Bill Could Allow Faith-Based Agencies to Turn Away Gay Couples

(AP) A Nebraska senator is seeking legal protections for faith-based welfare agencies that refuse to provide services to same-sex couples.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward introduced a bill Thursday that would prevent the state from slashing an agency's funding or limiting its contracts if the agency cites a religious objection.

Last year, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services abandoned a policy barring gays and lesbians from becoming foster parents. Kolterman says in some states faith-based groups have been forced to close after refusing to provide welfare services to gay parents.

Kolterman says preserving public and private agencies is essential to finding homes for more than 5,600 kids under state care.

Kansas Anti-Discrimination Bill Seeks to Cover LGBTs

(AP) Kansas legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's anti-discrimination statute is drawing opposition, with critics worried the measure could lead to more lawsuits.

The measure, which was the subject of a legislative hearing Thursday, would make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay or transgender, and ensure equal access to public accommodation, the Wichita Eagle reported.

Supporters of the bill consider it necessary because the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Kansas routinely faces discrimination. Opponents say the measure would make Kansas residents who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds vulnerable to lawsuits and that transgender women would be allowed to enter women's bathrooms.

Current law shields Kansas residents from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, family status, national origin or ancestry.

The new legislation specifically states that public accommodation shall not refer to religious organizations, the measure's sponsor, Democratic Rep. John Carmichael of Wichita, said after Thursday's hearing.

Sandra Meade, a Navy veteran and transgender woman who heads the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, warned during the hearing that opponents would use fear of predators in bathrooms to kill the bill and asked them to "reject that demagoguery on its face."

"Coming out is risky," Meade said. "And it's risky in a conservative environment because of the amount of demagoguery that's going on."

Meade added that requiring transgender women to use men's bathrooms puts them at risk.

Bob Dold Becomes First GOP Rep to Co-Sponsor the Equality Act

(EDGE) Nearly six month after its introduction, Log Cabin Republicans have yet to officially support the Equality Act. But one Republican congressman from Illinois is breaking ranks with his party and supporting the anti-discrimination legislation.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is applauding Illinois Rep. Bob Dold, who today became the first Republican member of Congress to co-sponsor the Equality Act - landmark federal legislation that would guarantee, permanent protections for LGBT Americans from discrimination in many of the most important aspects of their lives.

"Bob Dold is showing tremendous leadership today by becoming the first Republican to sign on as a co-sponsor of the Equality Act and we're thrilled that he's standing up for our fundamental values of fairness and equality,"said HRC President Chad Griffin. "Far too many LGBT people - nearly two thirds - have faced unfair and unjust discrimination in their lives, much of it in the workplace. In co-sponsoring the Equality Act, Congressman Dold showed how important it is that LGBT people be able to have a fair chance to earn a living, provide for their families, and live free from fear of discrimination."

Last July, the Equality Act was introduced in both the House and Senate with a record number of original co-sponsors. Since then, several major companies, including Apple, the Dow Chemical Company, Hyatt, Levi Strauss & Co., Orbitz, and Target, have all endorsed the Equality Act.  In addition, the bipartisan legal team David Boies and Ted Olson -- who was a Solicitor General of the United States under former President George W. Bush -- also announced their support.

As of this writing, nearly six months after the Equality Act was introduced, conservative group Log Cabin Republicans has yet to officially support the legislation.

AIDS United's Southern Reach Initiative Awards $1.4M in Funding

(EDGE) Twenty-one organizations, across nine states in the Deep-South heavily impacted by HIV/AIDS, received critical, innovative, advocacy project funding to advance the rights, health and dignity of people affected by HIV. Through the support of the Ford Foundation, AIDS United granted $1.4 million to 21 organizations across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

The South is home to just 37 percent of the total U.S. population, yet experiences almost half (49 percent) of all new HIV diagnoses. Further, according to a state-by-state analysis released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), death rates among people living with HIV in the South are three times higher than those in other parts of the country. These statistics are fueled by inequality related to poverty, stigma, racism and homophobia, and further compounded by the near universal refusal to expand Medicaid throughout the region.

The AIDS United Southern REACH Initiative (Regional Expansion of Access and Capacity to Address HIV/AIDS) shapes policies and builds capacity among local organizations to directly challenge HIV in the South and the disparities and social injustices that further fuel the epidemic. 

Building on local leadership and community-based organizations, the initiative supports targeted policy and advocacy efforts driven by and for people affected by HIV in the South through strategic grants, technical assistance and by creating a network of advocates. Managed by AIDS United, this work in the South has been supported by the Ford Foundation for 10 years.

For more information, visit http://southernreach.aidsunited.org.

Caitlyn Jenner Focuses on Advocacy in New Season of TV Show

(AP) After coming out as a woman in the first season of "I Am Cait," Jenner is focused on increasing her knowledge about transgender issues and advocating on behalf of the community in the E! reality show's second season debuting March 6.

Jenner and her posse of five other transgender women embark on a road trip that begins in Los Angeles and winds its way to the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Tulsa, Oklahoma, New York, Chicago, Iowa, Kansas City, St. Louis and New Orleans on the series.

"We opened up this conversation, but in opening it up there are so many issues in this community that we need to talk about and deal with," Jenner told a gathering of TV critics on Thursday. "I want to change people's thinking on this issue. It's not an issue that has borders. It is all over the world. I would love to take this show global."

Jenner comes out of her shell, leaving the comfort of her Malibu home to interact with the transgender community while exploring dating and romance. Her changing relationships with her children and the Kardashian clan, including ex-wife Kris Jenner, are shown in Season 2.

The 66-year-old former Olympic decathlon champion resists the media's label of voice for transgender people.

"I am only a spokesman for me and my story," she said. "I have so much to learn in this community. I have so much to learn about womanhood. The platform is not for me. It's for this community."

NY Court: Business That Refused Lesbian Wedding Violated Law

(AP) The owners of an upstate wedding venue who refused to host a lesbian wedding and were fined $13,000 for violating the state's anti-discrimination law had their appeal rejected by a state court on Thursday.

Robert and Cynthia Gifford cited their conservative Christian beliefs in refusing to host the 2013 wedding of Melisa and Jennie McCarthy at Liberty Ridge Farm, north of Albany. They appealed a ruling from the state's Division of Human Rights, asserting their rights to free speech and religious exercise.

The Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, in a 5-0 ruling, said the Giffords are free to express their religious beliefs but rejected their argument that their rights were being violated.

"The Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so," Judge Karen Peters' decision said.

The Giffords were represented by an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian organization that says "a thriving culture upholds the value of life, marriage, and religious freedom."

The attorney, Caleb Dalton, said on the organization's website that the court "should have rejected this unwarranted and unconstitutional government intrusion." He said an appeal would be considered.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented the McCarthys, said the ruling affirms that all state residents deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. The McCarthys married at another upstate farm.

Bill to Ban Coming Out Rejected By Russia's Duma

(EDGE) A controversial bill that would have made it a punishable offense for men to come out as gay, bisexual or transgender has been rejected by the Russian Duma, Monday. The draft bill called for fines and arrests for offenders.

According to Radio Free Europe, the bill, which was rejected on Monday, January 18, was initiated by lawmakers from Russia's Communist Party. It called for a fine of up to $5,000 rubles (approximately $65 USD) for for publicly expressing personal "nontraditional sexual orientation."

The bill would have punished offenders with up to 15 days in prison for coming out at educational or cultural facilities for youth. 

"We have our own idea of honor and conscience, and we must respect tradition. The scum that comes to us from the West is unnatural to Russia. These unconventional sexual desires do nothing but disgust normal, smart, healthy people," said Communist MP Ivan Nikitchuk, who introduced the failed bill according to the Russian News Service. "It is sick that disgusting people feel they should be treated the same."

In a report earlier this month, Gay Star News noted that the bill is only targeting gay men. Lawmakers said women are more "reasonable" and can "manage their emotions."

Romanian Orthodox Church: Marriage Only Between Man, Woman

(AP) The Romanian Orthodox Church says it supports an initiative to change Romania's constitution to specify that marriage is between a man and a woman

The statement comes amid concerns from some that the conservative East European nation will align with other EU nations and permit gay marriage. Romania currently does not recognize marriages between people of the same sex.

The church, to which more than 85 percent of Romanians belong, said Friday it supports a recent proposal made by the Family Coalition to amend one article in the constitution referring to marriage.

The MozaiQ Association, which supports gay minority rights, has accused the church of meddling in secular matters.

The constitution, last revised in 2003, says marriage is between "partners" without specifying gender. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 2001.