To many Americans, Friday’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide signifies much-needed societal advancement and provides long-awaited legitimacy for relationships, families, and modern American life. Justice Kennedy’s opinion eloquently addressed the quest for equal dignity under the law for same-sex couples. At Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP, we applaud the Supreme Court’s decision and congratulate our friends, coworkers, and families who previously did not enjoy the freedom to marry.
With newfound freedom, we remain concerned that certain fundamental protections are still missing. Equal dignity under the law has not yet provided equal protection under the law. More action is needed.
Even though gay marriage is now legal in all states, not all people embrace these relationships and families. In fact, our gay colleagues have never experienced a society that allows them to openly acknowledge relationships in the workplace without fear of backlash, harassment, or termination. What does it mean to be a gay worker or to be perceived as being gay by coworkers? It can still mean hiding one’s identity and keeping personal relationships secret. It can mean worrying about termination or harassment for being who you are. It can mean denying oneself and one’s life partner the legitimacy and respect each party—and the relationship—deserves, all for a paycheck.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act aims to protect the LGBT community from workplace discrimination. This legislation has been pending in Congress for over twenty years. With only one exception, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has been proposed every term since 1994.
The current bill, S.815 – Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013, sponsored by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, passed the Senate in November 2013. This bill “Prohibits covered entities (employers, employment agencies, labor organizations, or joint labor-management committees) from engaging in employment discrimination on the basis of an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.” However, this proposed law has languished in the House of Representatives, with the last action being referred to a subcommittee in January 2014.
Congress needs to act now to provide equal protection under the law, as most states do not provide any protection to LGBT employees. The fact is, in 2015, in more than half of the United States, there are few legal avenues LGBT employees can take to protect their jobs.
In Georgia, LGBT employees must rely on local ordinances, where they exist, to protect their workplace rights, and few municipalities have implemented such protections. Progressive cities like Decatur and Pine Lake have laws that, to some extent, protect government employees. The city of Atlanta’s regulations provide some protection based on gender identity. However, throughout most of Georgia, gay and transgender employees have no legal protection. In fact, no state-governed protection exists in any southern state.
The American Civil Liberties Union website features a map of the 23 U.S. states that have protected the rights of their populations against sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in the workplace. We applaud these states and hope that in the near future, everyone in this country can go to work without fear. The time has come to pass national legislation to protect our colleagues, our friends, and our family members so they can enjoy the equal dignity they deserve.
What can we do as constituents? We can make our voices heard. Find out who your politicians are (House of Representatives and Senate) and let them know your thoughts. And if you are employed by a company like Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, or Whole Foods, who so proudly unveiled their rainbow logos this past weekend, speak with senior leadership. Encourage your employer to act. Corporate America and its workforce must work together to lobby Congress for equal protection of our LGBT colleagues. Now is the time, and America is listening.