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Gay rights advocates set to take on bias in jobs, housing

The White House was illuminated with rainbow colors after the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.
The White House was illuminated with rainbow colors after the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.(Michael Reynolds/EPA)

NEW YORK — Exhilarated by the Supreme Court’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, gay rights leaders have turned their sights to what they see as the next big battle: obtaining federal, state, and local legal protections in employment, housing, commerce, and other arenas.

The goal is to pass laws like those barring discrimination based on race, religion, sex, and national origin.

The proposals pit advocates against many of the same religious conservatives who opposed legalizing same-sex marriage and who now see the protection of what they call religious liberty as their most urgent task.

These opponents argue that antidiscrimination laws will inevitably be used to force religious people and institutions to violate their beliefs, whether by providing services for same-sex weddings or by employing gay men and lesbians in church-related jobs.

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Nationally, antidiscrimination laws for gay people are a patchwork with major geographic inequities, said Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute at the School of Law of the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Those who don’t live on the two coasts or in the Northeast have been left behind in terms of legal protection,” he said.

At least 22 states bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, and most of them also offer protections to transgender people.

Tennessee is one of the majority of states that do not bar such discrimination. There, in East Nashville, Tiffany Cannon and Lauren Horbal thought they had found the perfect house to share with a friend, and the landlord seemed ready to rent when they applied in April.

Then he called them to ask what their relationship with each other was, Horbal, 26, recalled. She said that when the landlord learned that she and Cannon, 25, were partners, he said, “I’m not comfortable with that.” He refused to process their application, even after they offered to raise their rent by $150, to $700 a month, Horbal said.

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In many states, some local governments have antidiscrimination laws, but they are often weak or poorly enforced, said Ruth Colker, an expert on discrimination law at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

“Typically, the penalty for violating a city ordinance is more akin to a traffic violation,” she said. “State-level penalties can be much more significant.”

As they push for more state and local safeguards, rights advocates are also starting a long-term campaign for a broad federal shield that would give sexual orientation and gender identity protected status under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The goal is to achieve overlapping local, state, and federal laws, an approach that has proved effective in curbing other kinds of discrimination, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group.

Although a majority of states lack such protections, federal orders and court decisions, especially in employment, are gradually offering more safeguards.

With executive orders last year, President Obama barred discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal agencies and federal contractors, including companies employing about one in five American workers, Sears said.

At the same time, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing federal law in the workplace, has determined that discrimination against gay men, lesbians, and transgender people amounts to illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and it is bringing or endorsing lawsuits under that provision.

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That application of existing law is still being tested in court and is more established for transgender workers than for gay and lesbian workers.

In the past two years, the agency has successfully pursued 223 cases involving gay or transgender people who faced workplace harassment or other discrimination, gaining settlements or court orders, said Chai R. Feldblum, one of the agency’s five commissioners.

Civil rights groups worked for years for an employment antidiscrimination act, an effort that was blocked by House Republicans and collapsed this year over discord about religious exemptions. Buoyed by the rapid advance of same-sex marriage, these groups are now determined to seek a far wider law.

“I think there’s a very strong consensus now among advocacy groups that we need a broader bill that puts discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity on the same footing as race, religion, and gender,” said Shannon P. Minter, legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights.“No court decision could accomplish all of that.”