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By Joanna Plucinska

WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is resisting efforts by ultra-conservatives in the ruling coalition to step up a government crackdown on LGBT and women's rights, wary of further hurting ties with the European Union, government sources say.

The Law and Justice (PiS) government angered Brussels by using language during the campaign for a presidential election in July which critics said fomented homophobia.

That worsened already deep tensions with the European Commission over government policies which the EU executive says subvert democracy, including attempts to curb the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

With no election due for three years, the coalition wants to use the period to expand its ageing voter base. But, at a time of economic difficulties exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, it is divided over how to do so, senior officials say.

How the debate is resolved will help determine whether the nationalist coalition can avoid more open confrontation with the European Commission, which would risk Poland facing potential penalties.

PiS' head Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the final arbiter of government policy, says Western values, and specifically "LGBT ideology", should be avoided in Poland to preserve its traditional, Christian culture.

One wing of the coalition wants those beliefs to be defended through more specific actions. More moderate forces want to avoid antagonising Brussels.

Officials close to Morawiecki say Poland should be more pragmatic about relations with its EU partners as it faces pressure and possible loss of funds over its adherence to the rule of law.

"We don't need another front," one coalition official said.

"CENTRAL EUROPEAN PATH"

At the heart of internal coalition tensions is Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the architect of government reforms of the judiciary which the EU says politicise courts, the government sources said.

Ziobro, who heads a small ultra-conservative party allied with PiS, has said gay marriage should be banned outright and that Poland should leave the Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women, the government sources said.

At Ziobro's request, a Polish town that declared itself free of "LGBT ideology", prompting the EU to reject a town-twinning application, received compensation for the loss of EU funds it would have received if the project had gone ahead.

Since an election to the European Parliament in May last year, about 100 Polish municipalities have signed similar declarations. This has fuelled concern in Brussels although they appear not to have been followed by legislation to discriminate against LGBT residents.

For Ziobro, governing based on identity politics is the only way to maintain a steady support base.

An official in Ziobro's United Poland grouping rejected the more liberal path taken by governing parties in Europe such as Germany's Christian Democrat Union which "has nothing to do with conservatism anymore and is unacceptable".

"We want to go on our central European path that protects, not only defensively, but offensively builds the strength of the family, strengthens our national traditions," said the official on condition of anonymity.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out the risks of such a stance on Wednesday in a speech to the European Parliament.

"LGBTQI-free zones are humanity-free zones. And they have no place in our (European) Union," she said, using the abbreviation for LGBT, questioning or intersex people.

Morawiecki has blocked Ziobro's call to leave the Istanbul Convention, and some officials are reluctant to back other moves that might antagonise Brussels such as limiting foreign ownership in the media sector, the government sources said.

Divisions in the coalition could come more out into the open in the coming weeks, when the government is expected to release details of its new strategy and legislative programme including reducing the number of ministries.

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Timothy Heritage)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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Florida advocates rally to raise money, pay legal obligations, register felons to vote

MTV, Comedy Central and VH1 jointly donated $250,000 to pay fines, fees and restitution for about 1,250 Florida felons otherwise eligible to vote in November’s election.

The donation from the networks’ parent corporation, ViacomCBS, was made to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which has raised more than $4 million, enough to pay off fines and register 4,000 felons to vote before the state’s Oct. 5 registration deadline.

The donation comes after the U.S. 11th Circuit Court upheld Sept. 11 Florida’s challenge to a federal ruling declaring unconstitutional a 2019 law that requires the state’s 1.4 million eligible felons to pay all legal obligations to vote.

The 6-4 decision ensured 80,000-plus Florida felons who registered to vote by June and the 774,000 projected to do so by Oct. 5 will be prohibited from casting ballots in November unless all fines are resolved.

The ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nearly 65 percent of Florida voters in November 2018 approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for felons, excluding those convicted of murder and sexual assault, after “completing sentences.”

During the 2019 legislative session, the Legislature adopted Senate Bill 7066 as “enabling legislation,” which interpreted “completing sentences” to mean paying all legal obligations, including court fees, fines and restitution.

SB 7066 was challenged by an array of groups, launching a year-long federal legal battle that culminated in May during an eight-day trial in U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle’s Tallahassee courtroom.

In his May 24 decision in Jones v. DeSantis, Hinkle called SB 7066 a “pay-to-vote system” that imposes “a tax by any other name” and required the state to ascertain how much a felon owes within 21 days of a status request or voting rights were automatically restored.

In a 200-page opinion, however, Circuit Court of Appeal Chief Justice William Pryor refuted three Hinkle findings, ruling SB 7066 does not impose a poll tax or violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, nor does it violate 24th Amendment voting rights.

In the wake of the ruling, the FRCC has raised $4 million to cover fees and restitution – NBA star Lebron James has donated $100,000; NBA legend Michael Jordan $500,000 – issuing up to $1,500 each to 3,000 people, with at least 4,000 expected to benefit.

Among other efforts is a Miami law firm’s pro bono offer to assist felons in attempting to register through a system adopted in Miami-Dade County to help people with felony convictions get their rights restored, even if they still owe money connected to their felony cases, and the League of Women Voters’ campaign to identify and register the 68,000 felons who do not owe fines or restitution.

League of Women Voters of Florida President Patricia Bingham said the group has contacted about 20,000 felons.

In announcing its $250,000 donation to the FRCC, ViacomCBS President of Social Impact Strategy Erika Soto Lamb told WLRN-FM Miami the award “is a continuation of our legacy in both increasing voter access for young people, and also our continuing commitment to racial justice. We estimate at least 1,250 people will be able to vote this year because of the contribution we’re making.”

“The fees and fines returning citizens are being forced to pay to cast a ballot are a modern-day poll tax being used to keep marginalized people from voting – and it disproportionately affects Black voters,” ViacomCBS Senior Vice President of Social Impact Brianna Cayo Cotter said in a statement.

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