One lawsuit and a ballot blowout later, a city ordinance meant to prevent employment discrimination against LGBT residents of Houston, TX has been defeated. The vote, and the events leading up to it, represent a handful of similar LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances that fail to withstand conservative political pressure, but a growing number of local LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances are surviving in cities and townships across the nation.
In fact, according to the Human Rights Campaign, over 225 cities have implemented local ordinances to protect LGBT residents from employment discrimination, and that number is increasing. This is especially true in Republican states where state law places restrictions on the amount of protection available at the state level and in states with no anti-discrimination laws in place. Cities are taking matters into their own hands to ensure that LGBT workers are protected from discrimination on the job.
Non Discrimination City Ordinances are Significant in the absence of Federal Law Prohibiting LGBT Discrimination
To be clear, the significance of the increasing number of city ordinances supporting LGBT rights must be placed in context. The nation does not currently have a federal law in place to address employment discrimination for LGBT workers specifically. That’s what would have been accomplished with the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA made a bid for becoming the law of the land in 2014, when it passed in the Senate only to be stalled in the House, where most say it’s not likely to pass any time soon.
Of course, there have been other attempts at the federal level. Currently, the Human Rights Campaign is rallying support for a law that would be similar to ENDA if passed. The Equality Act would grant LGBT workers protection from discrimination and would also mean protection from housing discrimination. The Obama Administration recently announced support for the measure, supporting the Act to “send a strong message” from the White House.
City Ordinances relate to State Laws concerning LGBT discrimination
At the state level, LGBT non discrimination laws are faring well. So far a total of 23 states protect workers from job discrimination based on sexual orientation and 20 of those states protect workers from discrimination based on gender identity as well.
In California, the employment discrimination laws are perhaps the most comprehensive in the country. California LGBT workers are protected from discrimination and harassment based on both sexual orientation and gender identity as well as perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
Several states are considering measures that would prevent LGBT nondiscrimination laws. In North Carolina, SB 279 is a highly discussed bill that would do just that. The bill is currently awaiting a vote in the General Assembly and, if enacted, would allow the state to prevent locals from passing ordinances to protect LGBT workers and residents.
In other states, religious exemption bills allow non-profits and churches to opt out of adhering to laws that burden religious beliefs. Twenty-one states have such laws on the books currently, including Texas and North Carolina. In fact, in North Carolina, state officials can also decline LGBT marriages if they are so inclined do so.
Other states have laws in the works that would prevent cities from enacting laws barring discrimination already on the books. These states include Oklahoma, Michigan, Nebraska and Kansas. Tennessee has already passed such law.
City ordinances may not cover private employers
Of the cities that pass local ordinances to address LGBT employment discrimination, many of them are written only to protect city and or county workers – not workers who work for private employers. In addition, some LGBT workers may not be covered under local ordinances. For example, Oklahoma City ordinances protects gay city employees from discrimination at work, but not transgender employees.
Local ordinances sometimes turn on issues involving transgender individuals
At least part of the debacle over the Houston ordinance revolved around issues concerning protections for the rights of transgender citizens. When the ordinance passed in 2014, it contained provisions that would have allowed transgender workers to utilize gender appropriate restrooms. Many voters called the ordinance “the bathroom bill” and voted against it precisely for its provisions concerning transgender restroom issues.
The City of Dallas recently went so far as to clarify its dealing concerning an amendment to a local anti-discrimination ordinance noting that it was not “a bathroom bill”. The amendment changed the word ‘sexual orientation’ to add ‘sexual identity and expression’. the Dallas City Council expressed its intent to distinguish the terms so that transgender city workers have a clear view of their rights under the ordinance.
If a worker is not one of the 18 states that cover transgender workers in its anti-discrimination laws and is not a resident of a city with a local ordinance in place that specifically allows protection based on gender identity, the worker may not have the right to use gender appropriate restrooms at work or the right to assert a claim of employment discrimination based on transgender status.
LGBT Anti-Discrimination Ordinances Already Enacted Could be Repealed if Put to Vote
Houston’s LGBT anti-discrimination bid had already passed in 2014, but a lawsuit placed the ordinance back in the hands of voters. This is a frequent pattern for similar ordinances in cities that allow an ordinance to be repealed under certain circumstances.
Once a city council passes or updates an ordinance, it could go back up for vote giving residents the chance to rethink the city administration’s actions and exposing the ordinance or amendment to the risk of repeal. Once the ordinance is repealed, residents themselves would have to look to city ordinance procedures to determine how to reinstate the ordinance or language in question.
Clear Trend Toward Well-Defined Discrimination Protection at the Local Level
Even as things heat up among cities and counties shooting for a workplace devoid of LGBT discrimination, those who oppose such measures are also eyeing ways to ensure their rights are protected, too. The patchwork of laws and city ordinances could make keeping track of the LGBT anti-discrimination protection available quite challenging. Still, the trend toward local ordinances to ensure anti-discrimination protection for LGBT workers is, at the moment, very clear.