Firing gays: A ‘freedom we enjoy’?

Is it OK for a company to fire someone solely because he is gay?

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte thinks so. It’s one of “the freedoms we enjoy” as Americans, he says. Private employers should have the freedom to discriminate against employees based on their sexual orientation, Pittenger says, and government shouldn’t take that ability away.

After a town hall meeting in Ballantyne this month, a reporter from the liberal political blog ThinkProgress, Alice Ollstein, asked Pittenger if he supported laws to protect gays in the workplace. Pittenger compared the right to fire gay workers to smoking bans.

“Do you ban smoking or do people have the right to private property? I think people have the right to private property,” Pittenger told Ollstein. “In public spaces, absolutely, we can have smoking bans. But we don’t want to micromanage people’s lives and businesses. If you have a business, do you want the government to come in and tell you you need to hire somebody? Why should government be there to impose on the freedoms we enjoy?”

In a statement to the Observer editorial board Tuesday, Pittenger stood by his comments. He emphasized that he does not discriminate in his hiring and firing, but said the question should be left to the free market. He pointed out that 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies already have voluntary policies banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“Should we now make that market less free?” Pittenger, a Republican, asked. “… Government intervention is not the best solution for matters of the heart.”

Racial discrimination, we would argue, is also a matter of the heart, yet government intervention was essential to securing basic civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities. In the free market, many companies don’t discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender or other measures, but America has still seen fit to pass laws prohibiting it. Pittenger did not directly answer our question about whether a company also should be free to fire someone for being black.

To be sure, Pittenger’s is not an uncommon view – at least in the House. The U.S. Senate last November passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act 64-32, with 10 Republicans joining Democrats in support. The legislation, which would prohibit most hiring, firing or promoting based on sexual orientation, sits in the House, where Speaker John Boehner refuses to allow debate on it.

Most of North Carolina’s companies get it; discriminating based on sexual orientation threatens a business’ ability to attract and retain the best talent. Yet North Carolina is one of 29 states that allow gay workers to be fired for that reason alone. The legislature, backed by business and a majority of the public, should change that next session. Equal opportunity, after all, is really not a partisan issue.