In the next few days, the U.S. House is likely to pass legislation that would prohibit employment discrimination against gays and lesbians. But pressures from Republicans and groups opposed to homosexuality have resulted in the Democrats proposing a watered-down bill that would leave out transgender people. Those groups purporting to speak for Christians are purposefully distorting the issue through assertions that religious liberties will be violated if transgender people are given protections to work in jobs that they are qualified for.
Minnesota’s experience with workplace nondiscrimination laws, the most progressive in the nation, has shown that conservative religious sensibilities and employment discrimination can coexist.
Last week, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., bowed to pressure from Republicans and conservative Democrats and stripped transgender protections from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Republicans were set to introduce an amendment stripping the bill of the protections for transgender people, and a poll of Democrats showed that, with those protections, the bill would likely lose. “It became very clear that while we would retain a significant majority of Democrats, we would lose enough so that a bill that included transgender protection would lose if not amended and that an anti-transgender amendment would pass,” Frank wrote in a message to bloggers late last week.
Also last week, WDIO, Duluth’s ABC affiliate, ran a story about Marla Evans, a transgender woman from Duluth who recently was let go from her paid position as guitar player for her church band and asked to stop volunteering her time as a Sunday school teacher at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea in Duluth. Marla was profiled several months earlier in a feature piece by WDIO detailing the struggles of her transition from being a man named Mark to a transgender woman named Marla.
She says that when that television piece aired, she got her fired from the church.
Marla had been attending the church as Mark. Many church members were not aware that Mark was transgender — until the story aired. “To make a long story short, I was told that I would not be asked back as a schoolteacher,” Marla told WDIO. “I was told I was no longer needed as a musician because of the interview.”
“What I was told was the perception in our society of this type of behavior is unacceptable in the church. That was almost verbatim,” said Marla. “I was like whoa! But I didn’t want to let on that that hurt as much as it did.”
Minnesota’s Human Rights Act says that people cannot be fired based on sexual orientation or gender identity, except in the case of churches and other religious institutions. Marla has no recourse in being reinstated in her paid position at the church, and no lawyer or court in the state would likely touch the case. “The case law is pretty weird but the gist of it is religious institutions get pretty much full discretion,” said Phil Duran, Legal and Policy Analyst for Outfront Minnesota. “Not a blank check, but close.”
Marla’s situation spotlights an area of the law where rights clash. LGBT people want the security that they will not be fired for being who they are, and religious institutions don’t want to violate their theology by being forced to hire people whose identities they disagree with. In the 14 years that Minnesota has banned employment discrimination against LGBT people, we have heard very few instances where religious rights have been pitted against LGBT rights. And when they do, the rights of the religious win.
But you wouldn’t know it by reading the spin from the Religious Right. “Help Us Stop The U.S. Congress From Passing Drag Queen Protection Legislation!” reads one e-mail from the Traditional Values coalition, a particularly nasty group of social conservatives opposed to any legal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans. Matt Barber, policy director for Concerned Women of America, wrote to the Christian Post, “This bill pits the government directly against religion which is unconstitutional on its face. It would force employers to check their First Amendment guaranteed civil rights at the workplace door by not allowing them to consider sexual morality – in any way – while hiring or firing.”
R. Britton Brown Jr., of the Christian Business Association wrote, “It is time for the church of Jesus Christ to rise up and speak the truth in love. Individual rights of homosexuals do not supersede the individual rights of Christians, and especially not those who own a business and provide jobs to our nation.”
Like Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, under the Employment Nondiscrimination Act churches are exempt, as are employers that meet the definition of a “religious corporation, association, educational institution or society that has as its primary purpose religious ritual or worship or the teaching or spreading of religious doctrine or belief.” Employers with fewer than 15 employees are also exempt as is the U.S. military.
Businesses already face some restrictions in hiring, and they don’t have unrestrained religious liberties. For instance, a car dealership with Protestant Christian management can’t deny a job to a qualified atheist, Catholic or Buddhist even if their belief system or “lifestyle” is deemed sinful by management. It’s good for business and the economy when employers hire the most qualified candidates, even those candidates who may be viewed by some as “sinful.”
What the Religious Right doesn’t say is that they are afforded protection under ENDA. They will retain the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and thanks to their less-than-truthful rhetoric, everyone will retain the right to discriminate against transgender people.