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U.S. Senate vote on gay rights should follow lead of business

From Tico Almeida, founder and president of Freedom to Work:

When it comes to civil rights for gay Americans, it is businesses, not politicians, that are leading the way – especially in North Carolina.

Many of North Carolina’s largest and best employers have adopted workplace policies so that nobody gets fired or harassed at work just because of who they are or whom they love. The state’s top companies also offer health care coverage to the same-sex spouses of their employees, just as they do for the spouses of their straight employees. These policies far outpace many states’ and are an example Congress should look at as it debates the Employment Non-Discrimination Act this week.

These policies make a real difference for real people. A lesbian accountant at Charlotte’s Wells Fargo or Bank of America can bring her girlfriend to the company picnic without fear of retaliation from her boss. A gay cashier at the Best Buy in Concord need not fear that he will be denied promotions he deserves if the store managers learn he is engaged to a man. A transgender epidemiologist at GlaxoSmithKline’s lab in Research Triangle Park knows that she will be judged by her advanced degree in science rather than antiquated views on gender identity.

These companies’ common sense workplace protections are about more than just civil rights for our gay friends and family. Competitive businesses have realized that they must attract and retain the best workforce possible, and that means offering jobs to the most qualified applicants, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Meanwhile, politicians in both Washington and Raleigh have been dragging their feet for decades on proposed civil rights legislation that has broad political support from Democratic and Republican voters. A recent Public Policy Polling survey found that 71 percent of N.C. voters do not believe that employers should be able to discriminate based on sexual orientation. But sadly, neither federal law nor North Carolina’s human rights statute bans a prejudiced employer from firing a superstar employee upon learning that he or she is gay.

It’s past time for our politicians to follow the good example set by companies ranging from American Eagle Outfitters to BP gasoline to Coca-Cola, all of which have endorsed the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the bipartisan legislation to give transgender and gay employees the freedom to work without discrimination or harassment on the job.

(North Carolina’s Sen. Kay Hagan is a co-sponsor of the bill up for a committee vote along with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension panel’s 11 other Democrats.) The state’s other senator, Republican Richard Burr, also on the panel, will have the opportunity to stand on the right side of history by voting for this business-friendly, “no-brainer” legislation. He is a rock-solid conservative, but remember that he bravely voted to end our military’s discriminatory “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that did not allow openly gay troops to serve this country.

Nobody knows quite why Sen. Burr voted for gay rights for the first time in his long political career. And he’s not talking much on this topic. Maybe on his flights to Washington, D.C., Sen. Burr has been chatting with the management and employees of US Airways and American Airlines. Both of these companies have joined a strong business coalition pushing Congress to catch up on gay rights. It’s long past time.

For the Record offers commentaries from various sources. The views are not necessarily those of the editorial board.
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