As Indiana, North Carolina and the nation roil over religious freedom laws, a lesser-known but further-reaching aspect of N.C. law goes largely overlooked:
With or without a religious freedom law, businesses and government in North Carolina currently are free to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Sexual orientation is not a protected class under state law the way race, gender, ethnicity, age and other categories are. So while you generally cannot fire someone for being 55 or being in a wheelchair, you can fire them for being gay.
Two bills filed last week in the N.C. legislature would allow people to cite their sincerely held religious beliefs in their treatment of other people. But governments and businesses can fire and refuse to hire without even citing religious beliefs. (Last year, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte said firing gays because they are gay is “a freedom we enjoy” as Americans.)
On Monday, the N.C. Senate heard a simple bill that would change some of that. Senate Bill 612, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe County and Erica Smith-Ingram of Northampton County, would include sexual orientation and gender identity among the classifications covered by the state’s equal employment opportunity law.
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The bill was promptly sent to the Senate Rules Committee, where it will gather dust.
It’s not even a particularly controversial notion. A 2013 poll by Public Policy Polling found that 73 percent of North Carolinians (including 59 percent of Republicans) think employers should not be able to discriminate against LGBT workers.
The business community agrees. Asked about the religious freedom bills, Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan told the Observer editorial board that “We are caught off guard that anybody would consider this a priority at a time that North Carolina is struggling to reach consensus about our economic-development future.” Tom Murray, president of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, told us, “We would not support any legislation that makes an individual feel unwelcome.”
In Indiana, the backlash to its religious freedom bill has been so pronounced that Gov. Mike Pence says the state will fix it to make clear that discrimination is not allowed. The Indianapolis Star ran a front-page editorial Tuesday saying the best way to do so is to pass a law prohibiting discrimination of LGBT residents in employment, housing, education and public accommodations.
North Carolina is too proud and great a state to officially sanction discrimination against any of its citizens. We could start by not letting state government fire people solely because of whom they love.