Gay rights activists seek to ride marriage momentum

Gay rights activists seek to ride marriage momentum
© Getty Images

Gay rights activists are trying to harness their momentum on same-sex marriage to push for anti-discrimination laws. 

Advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBTs) people say they have a lot to celebrate, with the Supreme Court expected to issue a major ruling on gay marriage in June, President Obama calling for an end to gay conversion therapy, former Olympian and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” dad Bruce Jenner announcing he’s transgender, and support for gay marriage hitting a record high.

But advocates say the headway they have made on winning acceptance for LBGT people is not yet reflected in the nation’s laws — and that's something they intend to change.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Same-sex couples can marry now in 37 states, hopefully in 50 states in the next couple of months, and public support has grown overwhelmingly on freedom to marry, but at the same time you can still be fired because of who you are in the majority of the states in the country,” said Marc Solomon, national campaign director at Freedom to Marry.

“There’s been progress, but the progress is not in sync with where the country is.”

Activists say it is still legal in 28 states for LGBT people to be fired from a job or denied housing, credit or pubic accommodations, and are seeking action from Congress to change that.

Later this month, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) will introduce legislation that would add gender identity and sexual orientation to federal statutes, which now only prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

“There was great success in the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ we’ve seen tremendous progress on the issue of marriage equality, and then for many years the Employment and Discrimination Act was introduced, which dealt with discrimination in the areas of employment,” said Cicilline, who is openly gay.

“Many of us felt like why are we approaching this issue of equality issue by issue and why shouldn’t we instead think of this in a more comprehensive way and actually draft legislation that prohibits discrimination against the LGBT community period, in any context.”

Cicilline is planning to introduce his bill in the House before the end of May, and said Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleySenate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill MORE (D-Ore.) is planning to introduce a companion bill in the Senate. Merkley’s spokeswoman Martina McLennan did not respond to requests for comment.

Though it’s too soon to name any co-sponsors, Cicilline said he hopes to gain Republican support for the legislation.

“I’m in discussions with some of my colleagues on the Republican side,” he said. “I think it’s important that it is and I’m hopeful that it will be bipartisan.”

Last month, House Democrats introduced a resolution to bolster protections for LGBTs after Arkansas and Indiana passed religious freedom laws that critics charged would sanction businesses to discrimination against gay and lesbian couples. 

“Many people, including the sponsors, felt like on the heels of what happened in Indiana and Arkansas that Congress couldn’t just remain silent,” Cicilline said. “A lot of people felt like we should say something because it was so awful what was happening and this was the vehicle to do that.”

Legal experts said Cicilline’s legislation might be moot if the Supreme Court uses discrimination as a reason to rule in favor of gay marriage.

Jim Ryan, head of the civil rights division for the New York-based law firm Cullen and Dykman, pointed to comments that he said came out of the blue from Chief Justice John Roberts during oral arguments last month.

“I'm not sure it's necessary to get into sexual orientation to resolve the case,” Roberts told John Bursch, the attorney representing the states seeking to uphold gay marriage bans.

"I mean, if Sue loves Joe and Tom loves Joe, Sue can marry him and Tom can't. And the difference is based upon their different sex. Why isn't that a straightforward question of sexual discrimination?"

From that statement, Ryan is betting on a 6-3 ruling with Roberts in the majority.

“I think that’s going to be the out,” he said. “Rather than take away states’ rights on gay marriage you can look at it from a pure sexual discrimination situation and say bans on gay marriage would violate federal law against sexual discrimination.”

Opponents of gay marriage say they are the ones being discriminated against.

Janet Porter, a filmmaker and president of Faith2Action, said anti-discrimination laws violate the First Amendment and force Christian business owners to participate in and hire people who support things they morally oppose.

“You can practice whatever you want in America, you can believe whatever you want in America, but we don’t want you to be able to force Christians into an act of slavery,” she said. “This is not about freedom, it’s about closing down and criminalizing anyone who dare disagree with what [LGBTs] want.”

Such opposition is why gay rights advocates aren’t expecting a federal ban on discrimination to pass overnight.

“I think it’s going to take a little while given the makeup of Congress,” said Matt McTighe, campaign director for Freedom For All Americans, a new D.C.-based gay rights advocacy group, which launched last week to solely focus on the issue of discrimination.   

Having an organization focused on one issue, he said, is how the LGBT community was able to advance gay marriage so quickly.

“This being the next big fight, we wanted to harness that momentum and make sure we continue to build on that,” he said.