Cakes Aside, Gay Rights Groups See Employment Discrimination as Next Big Battle

Every one of the “Dykes on Bikes” who roared through Detroit as part of the city’s Gay Pride weekend celebration June 6-7 could have been fired from their jobs the following Monday because they are lesbians.

Most gay people in America don’t live in states where their employer is forbidden from firing them on the basis of sexual orientation, if they even get hired in the first place.

For gay rights groups, this is another stand for civil rights. For social conservatives, it may be a last-chance Battle of the Bulge-style stand for religious liberty over sexual liberty.

No matter what side you are on in this debate, workplace discrimination against the LGBT community is going to be the next battleground for gay rights advocates.

A legal organization that advocates for religious freedom, known as Alliance Defending Freedom, is warning Christian schools, churches and faith-based nonprofit groups to be prepared. Alliance Defending Freedom’s advice and warning may also help private-sector business owners.

A gay-rights think tank, Movement Advancement Project, released a study in May that argued even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, 61 percent of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender couples who get married would still live in states where they faced “significant legal discrimination.”

The study showed 52 percent of LGBT people could be fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Michigan, where the Dykes on Bikes rode to celebrate Gay Pride Day, is one of the 28 states the Movement Advancement Project highlights as being the worst in the nation in terms of gay rights.

Gay rights leaders say whether you know it or not, the first salvos in this battle have already been fired.

“There are advocacy groups on the ground doing work state-by-state, and there are also groups on the state and national level working on federal protections,” Movement Advancement Project LGBT Movement and Policy Analyst Heron Greenesmith told PJM.

“Both avenues are productive. Obviously the state-by-state effort is working in the current climate where we don’t have federal protection, so that is important in the meantime,” Greenesmith added. “And obviously federal protection will be super helpful for states in which a hostile climate is not making a state approach as viable.”

This is more than just left-wing, liberal talk. The Washington Post reported that groups at the forefront of the battle to end workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are the same organizations that spearheaded the same-sex marriage movement, and they are backed by $25 million from wealthy donors.

“The ability to live openly and to earn a living is so central to every American and certainly every LGBT American,” Matt McTighe, director of Freedom for All Americans, told the Washington Post. “It’s high time we addressed this from a legislative standpoint.”

However, social conservatives argue that state and federal officials have no right to tell business owners whom they should or should not hire. Besides, they say a 2012 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling that extended the definition of sex discrimination to include gender identification proves new laws are not needed.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has published a 44-page guide for churches, Christian schools and ministries intended to help them protect themselves from LGBT legal action.

Small-business owners might also want to read the free, curbside legal advice.

“A new concept – that ‘sexual liberty’ trumps religious freedom – has begun to impact churches, ministries, and individual Christians across this nation,” the Alliance Defending Freedom warns in the introduction of the guide, which is titled "Protecting Your Ministry from Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity Lawsuits."

The pamphlet also warns that the idea that sexual liberty is more important than religious freedom has spawned a wave of new “sexual orientation, gender identity ordinances (SOGI)” which “elevate special interests over our cherished fundamental freedoms.”

“They (SOGIs) are not designed for the innocent purpose of ensuring all people receive basic services. Rather, their practical effect is to legally compel Christians to accept, endorse, and even promote messages, ideas, and events that violate their faith.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom maintains that the battle over workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is going to place more of a burden on Christians who run schools, churches and ministries.

Along with step-by-step practical advice for churches, schools, and ministries, the Alliance Defending Freedom includes case studies of businesses that ran afoul of same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws.

But this fight is about more than bakers, florists and photographers refusing to serve gay customers or work at same-sex weddings. This fight, as far as gay rights groups are concerned, will determine how private-sector and faith-based organizations hire and fire, and is as important as the nation’s laws regarding racial prejudice.

It would be a mistake to believe this is not going to be a multi-front battle, involving more than the federal government.

The pamphlet points out that more state and local governments are enacting laws and regulations that “prohibit discrimination in employment based on unbiblical behavior related to sexual orientation and gender identity.”

But the pamphlet’s authors, who are attorneys, also believe most state laws and municipal ordinances will provide some level of exemptions for religious organizations, but these exemptions vary widely.

“Regardless, the First Amendment, which trumps state and local law to the contrary, should provide great protection for employment decisions made by religious entities.”

They hope.