May 21, 2015

In the first half of 2015, we have seen many victories and challenges across the nation as advocates fight for protections for LGBT people in their state. 

In Michigan, opponents of the state’s recently introduced preemption bill have dubbed it a Death Star. That’s because if signed into law, House Bill 4052, which was voted out of committee earlier this week, would zap local ordinances off the map across the state.  This type of legislation is not new: a similar bill passed in Arkansas earlier this year, while another was defeated in West Virginia. Not to be outdone, Texas killed four preemption bills of its own this session. 

For Arkansas, the new law means that local protections for LGBT individuals are preempted, effectively invalidating those already passed and preventing new ones from being enacted. So, what could this latest preemption bill mean for local LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances in Michigan? Fortunately, thanks to an amendment made just prior to the vote, the legislation now includes language exempting such ordinances from the bill. This is very good news, given that Michigan has an impressive 42 municipalities that currently protect their LGBT residents from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Thanks to these local protections, referred to as NDOs (nondiscrimination ordinances) and sometimes HROs (human rights ordinances), 21% of Michiganders are protected. Several states fare even better than Michigan in this regard, most notably Florida, where 53% of the state’s LGBT population is covered. Indeed, in the 33 states lacking fully comprehensive and inclusive LGBT nondiscrimination laws, NDOs provide much needed protections for as many people as possible.

NDOs are also critical in the fight to secure statewide LGBT nondiscrimination laws. Through a sort of bottom-up policy diffusion, local ordinances can influence state-level laws by setting precedent and educating the public about the need for such protections. They also make the case for a statewide law in that they create a patchwork of protections that can be hard to defend. LGBT advocates can argue that it shouldn’t matter where in a state a person lives — everyone deserves the same protections.

Utah is a case in point. That state made history earlier this year by passing the first sexual orientation and gender identity nondiscrimination law since 2009. It broke a six year dry spell thanks in part to a tireless local ordinance campaign and the work of Equality Utah. An unprecedented 54% of Utah’s population was covered through local ordinances across the state, a number still unmatched by any other state. In other words, Utah’s local to statewide strategy worked.

Now that legislative sessions are winding down, we are starting to rack up even more local victories. Let’s take a look at some recent ones:

  • Thurmond, West Virginia became the smallest town in America to pass an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In a unanimous vote in February, the town of five residents adopted employment, housing and public accommodation protections to a new town-wide Human Rights Act. 
  • Swampscott, Massachusetts passed gender identity protections in February. Following a unanimous vote, Swampscott became the twelfth Massachusetts jurisdiction to add gender identity protections to its public accommodations nondiscrimination policy.
  • Eureka Springs, Arkansas unanimously passed an NDO/HRO in February, just days after legislators passed that preemption law banning cities from doing so. And just this month, voters decided at the ballot box to uphold that ordinance by a margin of 579 to 231. Elsewhere in Arkansas, Little Rock also challenged the new statewide preemption law by expanding its own nondiscrimination protections, banning discrimination against LGBT people in hiring and city services, including those offered through outside vendors.
  • Hailey, Idaho became the 11th city in that state to pass an NDO/HRO. Passed in April, it prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on a person's sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
  • East Grand Rapids, Michigan added sexual orientation and gender identity to an existing nondiscrimination ordinance on housing and employment. Passed in May, this made it the 38th city in Michigan, along with four counties, to have such protections.
  • Laramie, Wyoming – the town where gay college student Matthew Shepard was fatally beaten in 1998 – passed an ordinance on May 13 prohibiting the discrimination of the LGBT community in housing, employment and public businesses. Laramie is the first municipality in the Equality State with an NDO/HRO.
  • In Fairfax County, Virginia, the School Board recently voted 10 to 1 to expand its public school system's nondiscrimination policy to include protections for transgender students and employees. 

Unfortunately, the news has not been all good. An NDO in Springfield, Missouri was repealed earlier this year in a closely watched battle. Houston, Texas also has a repeal effort afoot, although the signatures required for that are being contested. Lastly, Charlotte, North Carolina failed to pass protections in a heated debate. Despite these losses, one thing is certain: we are winning! And it is thanks to the hard work of advocates nationwide, like Federation members Fairness West VirginiaMassEquality, MTPC, Wyoming Equality, Equality Virginia, PROMO, Equality Michigan, Equality Texas, and many more, who continue to work for the LGBT community in their state.

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Andy Garcia

Andy is Program Manager at Equality Federation, the strategic partner to state-based organizations working to win equality in the communities we call home. In this role, he strengthens the states working to pass local and state-level nondiscrimination laws by identifying and developing programs and resources, including legal and legislative support, communications resources, messaging, and constituency group expertise.

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