After Marriage Equality A look at workplace protections for same-sex couples

Social Justice and Equity, News | by James Gore

In October 2014, a ruling by the U.S. District Court allowed same-sex couples in North Carolina the right to have their marriages officially recognized by the state. This watershed civil rights victory for marriage equality came on the heels of last year's U.S. Supreme Court case which allowed federal recognition of marriage for gay and lesbian couples. 

While many religious communities sanctioned same-sex marriages as an expression of commitment between two people, key state privileges were not provided to such couples prior to the marriage ruling. Since marriage equality is now recognized by the state, gay and lesbian couples are free to adopt children, file taxes jointly, receive government benefits for spouses such as Social Security, Medicare, and disability, make medical decisions for an incapacitated spouse, and inherit a spouse's estate without triggering inheritance taxes.

Despite these advances, one reality remains for many same-sex couples. In North Carolina, there are no laws protecting workers from discrimination based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, if an employee asks his employer to add his new husband to his company life insurance policy as a spouse, he could be fired without recourse.

Research collected by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law shows that: 

  • Approximately 98 percent of North Carolina’s workforce is not covered by a local government policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • Public opinion in North Carolina supports the passage of legal protections for LGBT people. In response to a 2013 survey conducted across the state, 73 percent of respondents said that employers should not be allowed to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, there is some positive news for North Carolina. At least 17 local governments prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity against their own government employees. Nearly all (11 of 12) of Fortune 500 companies based in North Carolina have implemented their own internal policies prohibiting sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination. However, according to the William’s Institute, none of the private sector’s workforce is protected by law from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

At the federal level, U.S. Congress chose not enact the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) which would have provided basic protections against workplace discrimination. The law was closely modeled on existing civil rights laws, which prevented employment discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and disability status and would have created exceptions for small businesses and religiously affiliated organizations. 

While 18 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted such protections, North Carolina has yet to do so and, as a result, has failed to provide this basic protection to all its workers. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation believes that all people should have the right to work without fear of reprisals based upon their race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, and sexual orientation. The Foundation is currently funding several nonprofit organizations including the Equality NC Foundation and Campaign for Southern Equality to create more public awareness and support for public policies that address both workplace and individual rights.

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