clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The new frontier in the fight over LGBT rights

The same-sex marriage battle is inching closer and closer to a victorious conclusion for LGBT advocates: it's now legal for same-sex couples to marry in 37 states and Washington, DC. But as marriage equality continues its spread from coast to coast, LGBT groups are beginning to prepare for what's next.

If the recent actions of Republican lawmakers at the state level are any indication, the next fight will be a battle for the types of rights protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This year, Republicans in Kansas and Arkansas have moved to eliminate anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. And this looks to be the beginning of a similar movement across the country: at least seven other states are considering legislation that would, at some level, allow discrimination against LGBT individuals.

Some state Republicans don't want to extend civil rights protections to LGBT Americans

Governor Sam Brownback

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback took back protections for LGBT state employees. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

State Republicans appear to be pushing back against recent gains in LGBT rights.

Last week, Arkansas legislators passed a bill that would prevent local governments from passing their own nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people in the workplace, public accommodations, and housing. The bill is now before Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who said he will let it pass without his signature, despite concerns "about the loss of local control."

Just a few days before the Arkansas legislature approved its bill, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) eliminated anti-discrimination protections for LGBT state employees. These protections were enforced through executive order by the previous governor, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, in 2007, and they survived through Brownback's first term. But, on February 10, Brownback argued the protections should have been enacted through the legislature, and rescinded them.

Other states are considering bills that would open more LGBT people to legal discrimination in the workplace, public accommodations, housing, and other settings. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, legislators in Indiana, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Georgia, Tennessee, and New Hampshire have proposed bills that would allow different levels of discrimination, typically on religious grounds, against LGBT people.

Most states already allow discrimination against LGBT people

(American Civil Liberties Union)

In most states, it's currently legal to fire LGBT people, kick them out of a store or business that serves the public, or evict them from housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Federal and state laws prohibit this type of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin. But federal law and most states exclude sexual orientation and gender identity in their protections. (LGBT advocates argue the Civil Rights Act of 1964 already protects LGBT workers, but it's unclear whether this interpretation of the federal law would stand in all US courts.)

Some local governments have tried to get around these exclusions by passing their own laws protecting LGBT people within municipal or county boundaries. It's these laws and statutes that some state legislators, like the ones in Arkansas, are trying to ban or curtail.

Discrimination remains a huge problem for many LGBT people. A 2011 study from the Williams Institute found that about 9 percent of openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were fired or denied employment based on their sexual orientation between 2003 and 2007. And 38 percent were harassed on the job because of their sexuality.

A 2013 study from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found same-sex couples experience less favorable treatment than heterosexual couples in the online rental housing market. But the study also found that legal nondiscrimination protections didn't appear to change how same-sex couples were treated.

The refusal of some bakeries and wedding-associated businesses to service gay couples, based on religious opposition, has also placed a spotlight on discrimination in places that serve the general public.

LGBT advocates say these kind of cases will become the next frontier for civil rights battles as marriage equality moves forward. "We really have to address these issues of discrimination against LGBT people in a holistic manner," Ian Thompson, the ACLU's legislative representative for LGBT issues, said in October. "There's definitely a lot of work still to be done."

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.