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Activists push statewide employment protections, domestic partnerships

by Joseph Erbentraut
Contributor
Friday Feb 4, 2011
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As lawmakers in many states have gotten down to business recent weeks, they have certainly not left LGBT issues out of the conversation. Upcoming marriage equality battles in Maryland, New York and Rhode Island have received some media attention, but progress at the state level remains possible in other areas as well.

Several state Legislatures could approve new employment protections and relationship recognition for their LGBT residents in 2011. But even as these opportunities have arisen, activists in Utah, Virginia and Florida will have to fend off challenges from social conservatives who promise to strip away existing LGBT-specific legal protections.

Utah activists have been working feverishly in recent years to pass local human rights ordinances that protect LGBT Utahns from discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. Eleven counties and cities have adopted such regulations, and activists have gained the widely influential Church of Latter-Day Saints’ support. They hope to take this success a step further with the passage of a statewide LGBT-inclusive human rights ordinance Mormon state Sen. Ben McAdams (D-Salt Lake City) has sponsored.

But activists in the Beehive State will also need to counter proposed anti-gay legislation during this legislative session, including the so-called "Family Policy" bill state Rep. LaVar Christensen (R-Draper) introduced this week. The measure would affirm marriages as "ordained by God" only between a man and a woman. The bill also contains broad language that could bar LGBT people from publicly-funded social programs, government services, laws and regulations. And Christensen has also proposed legislation that would prohibit same-sex couples from making a will and other contractual arrangements.

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, told EDGE she did not expect Christensen’s bills would alter her organization’s legislative strategy. And she looks forward to the upcoming debate on employment protections for LGBT Utahns.

"Utah is a state that traditionally has been very much about local government, so there’s a lot of support for local governments enacting their own policies," said Balken. "I think we have developed a strategy to both make a case for the non-discrimination bill while also discussing the dangers of stripping away protections that are great for business and great for the state. Our strategy moving forward is to point out the positives of the protections and continuing down that path. We shouldn’t turn back now. I’m feeling optimistic about our chances."

Virginia activists are also pursuing LGBT-specific employment protections for state employees after Gov. Bob McDonnell eliminated them last year. The state Senate this week passed a measure sponsored by state Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) that would restore these benefits, but a House subcommittee blocked it.

Despite this disappointment, LGBT Virginians applauded another House subcommittee’s defeat of a bill that sought to keep the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy in place for the state’s own National Guard.

James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, said public support is quite high for workplace protections for LGBT state and public employees. Going forward with other bills offering the option for state employers to offer benefits to their employees’ same-sex partners, Parrish said it’s key for Virginians to press their lawmakers on the issues.

"We need to continue to convince the members of the House of Delegates that there is support for these bills here," he added. "That effort would go a long way in helping us move these bills forward."

Two bills before the Florida Legislature would offer employment protections and domestic partnerships to LGBT Floridians. State Rep. Scott Randolph (D-Orlando) re-introduced the Competitive Workforce Act, which has failed to gain much traction in Tallahassee in recent years. And state Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach) introduced the Domestic Partnerships Act. The version has also been introduced in the state Senate.

While Florida Republicans who are not particularly known for their pro-LGBT philosophies had an extremely impressive showing last November, Equality Florida spokeswoman Mallory Wells said the introduction of both bills was not merely symbolic. She feels the Competitive Workforce Act would appeal to both sides of the aisle if supporters effectively sell it as a jobs measure.

"We think the Competitive Workforce Act is an incredible opportunity to build bridges with folks on both sides of the aisle in Tallahassee," she said, stressing Equality Florida hopes to educate legislators on LGBT-specific issues and move them forward this year. "Just because you don’t pass a bill doesn’t mean that progress isn’t happening. We need to continue to be present and meet with legislators to let them know that the concerns of our community are incredibly important and that protections are very much needed."

Rand Hoch of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council remains skeptical either bill would pass. He pointed to Gov. Rick Scott’s exclusion of LGBT Floridians in an executive order he issued last month pertaining to diversity in state employment as an ominous sign.

That said, however, Hoch considers the domestic partnership bill a good step forward. He further considered other threats from socially conservative lawmakers to challenge the Florida’s overturned gay adoption ban as empty rhetoric. He prefers to focus on county- and city-level advances, such as family and medical leave for same-sex couples in Palm Beach County-efforts Hoch sees as more winnable and successful in advancing an LGBT-specific agenda.

"I think of all of this as a way for our opponents to raise money," Hoch said. "But we have a legislature that is really not inclined with focusing on any progressive social issues."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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