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WA, Nation Work to Protect LGBT Employees from Discrimination

PHOTO: The new attention same-sex marriage is receiving is one reason more legal action is seen on the issue of workplace protections for LGBT employees. Photo credit: innovatedcaptures/iStockphoto.com.
PHOTO: The new attention same-sex marriage is receiving is one reason more legal action is seen on the issue of workplace protections for LGBT employees. Photo credit: innovatedcaptures/iStockphoto.com.
June 18, 2014

OLYMPIA, Wash. - President Obama's upcoming executive order protecting people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender against discrimination as federal contract workers is the latest chapter in an area of law that is evolving along with public opinion.

Washington was one of the first states to pass any kind of anti-discrimination law in the 1940s, but today its largest city ranks third in the nation for hate crimes, said Jesse Wing, an attorney at MacDonald, Hoague and Bayless in Seattle. He said he thinks some of the most contentious legal standoffs will be with companies that cite religious beliefs as reasons not to hire or serve people of nontraditional sexual orientation.

"I think we're going to see more and more of those cases as they wind their way through the courts," he said, "and the courts have to make a decision as to whether the religious freedom or the freedom from discrimination takes the higher priority."

Wing said attorneys are getting more calls now that people know they have legal rights to fight harassment and retaliation. He cited one case in 2009 in which a Washington woman won a settlement of more than $4 million from her employer. She said she lost her job for reporting anti-gay remarks made by coworkers.

Obama's executive order is expected to protect more than 1 million LGBT employees of federal contractors.

In Congress, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed the Senate last year, but was stuck in the House. Even advocates for LGBT workers were concerned it wouldn't have been effective by exempting religious organizations. Despite the president's executive order, Wing predicted progress will continue to be slow but steady.

"The whole national trend toward accepting gay marriage is kind of a sea-change," he said. "I think it's causing people to reflect more seriously about, if you can get married and you're gay, maybe you shouldn't be mistreated in your workplace because of it."

State law also could be more clear, he said. For instance, perceived sexual orientation is not protected - that is, if a person is harassed for being gay when he or she isn't. The state also doesn't require companies to have anti-discrimination policies, although he said he thinks that may someday change.

The Washington Human Rights Commission FAQ page on gender-identity questions is online at hum.wa.gov.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA