Federal rights panel discusses protections for gay workers

In 16 states, including North Carolina, same-sex couples can legally marry and later that day get fired from their job for doing so.

While the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on whether to allow nationwide rights for same-sex marriage, civil rights leaders say attention now needs to be placed on protecting gays and lesbians at work.

On Monday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a series of panel briefings to consider whether federal tools, including legislation, can be adopted to improve working conditions for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.

“Right now, we have a patchwork of laws that affect a patchwork of Americans,” Martin Castro, chairman of the commission, said between panels. “It is extremely important that there be uniformity and a federal response to this.”

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia allow marriage for same-sex couples. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have passed laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

More than 430 of the Fortune 500 companies have implemented nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, and 282 have policies that include gender identity, according to a 2013 survey by the Human Rights Campaign.

Advocates say it’s not enough, because many states do not have laws on the books. More than half of gay and lesbian individuals are still not comfortable being open about their sexual or gender identity at work, according to a 2014 national poll by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. Nearly 47 percent of transgender people have reported some form of harassment on the job, the poll found.

Very few people appear to report these charges to federal authorities. In the first three quarters of fiscal 2014, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 663 charges alleging sex discrimination related to sexual orientation and 140 charges alleging sex discrimination on the basis of gender identity and/or transgender status.

They’re among the roughly 90,000 discrimination charges filed each year with the commission.

Gay rights groups are pressing Congress to pass laws like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal to fire, refuse to hire or refuse to promote an employee because of the person’s real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Opponents of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act say changes are already happening and the country doesn’t need another federal law. Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative research organization based in Falls Church, Va., testified at the commission Monday that the federal government must stop “micromanaging a private employer’s personnel practices” and let it hire who it wants.

“I’m afraid that we’re moving away from the general presumption that we ought to have,” Clegg said. “That people should be able to use their private property the way they want to use their private property.”