Marriage Isn’t Everything—Here Are the LGBT Civil Rights Battles That Still Need to be Fought

Gay marriage is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, but there are plenty of areas of American law where inequality persists.

(Photo: Eric Audras/Getty Images)

Jan 28, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

Champagne bottles popped across the country this month when the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review gay marriage cases from four states and take up the marriage equality debate on a national level—just gaining traction with the high court is a major moment in the civil rights movement for LGBT equality. While the justices’ decision may put to rest one aspect of the fight for LGBT equality, many gay-rights advocates think it may not be the most important win.

Thirty-nine percent of the LGBT community thinks gay marriage has taken away too much focus from other issues that are crucial to their quality of life, according to data published Tuesday by Pew Research. Although most LGBT Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage, their support comes in varying degrees. Young adults between the ages of 18 to 29 are more likely to “strongly favor” marriage equality than are older LGBT Americans, according to the Pew survey, which was conducted in 2013.

New forms of anti-LGBT legislation are popping up like the pests in Whack-a-Mole at the state level, and the everyday liberties of gay and transgender individuals are at stake, advocates say. Here are three major LGBT equality battles that will rage this year.

1. Workplace Equality

There is no explicit, cohesive federal law that protects Americans from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. President Barack Obama’s executive order from last summer protects employees of federal contractors, and decisions from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission can further existing employment protections. But gaping loopholes leave LGBT individuals vulnerable to discrimination in employment, housing, and public services.

“The fact is that it’s a patchwork and incomplete. There is no federal overall legislation,” said Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of Equality Federation.

This is why her organization, along with dozens of other LGBT advocacy groups, kicked off the #DiscriminationExists education campaign on Monday. The weeklong effort aims to promote the passage of nondiscrimination laws at the state level. More than 206 million LGBT people and their families live in states that have outdated or incomprehensive nondiscrimination laws, according to Equality Federation.

States including Alaska, Alabama, Idaho, Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia are working to pass new or update existing nondiscrimination laws to protect the LGBT community, advocates say. Other states, such as North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah, are attacking the issue at a local level and using municipal ordinances to get the protections they need.

Still, many states, including Mississippi and Alabama, don’t even have nondiscrimination laws protecting citizens based on race or gender, said Rose Saxe, senior staff attorney at the ACLU. “[In] those states it’s obviously a bigger lift to get broader protections,” she said.

2. Rights to Raising Children

The legalization of gay marriage in 35 states and Washington, D.C., has given an increasing number of gay couples access to adoption by granting them equal rights to state laws that allow married couples to adopt. Depending on the state, many gay parents can file for joint adoption, second parent adoption, or stepparent adoption, according to a report released this month from the Human Rights Campaign. But this doesn’t mean gay adoption rights are safe.

“As a backlash against marriage equality, we will likely see anti-equality lawmakers introduce legislation to limit the ability of LGBT people to adopt, either directly or by granting conscience clause exemptions to adopt service providers,” the HRC report states.

In Mississippi, a proposal before the state legislature could actively limit the rights of LGBT parents by creating “a rebuttable presumption that placing a child in the sole custody, joint legal custody, or joint physical custody of a homosexual parent or person is not in the best interest of the child,” according to U.S. News and World Report.

Gay advocates are concerned that restrictions like these may see a resurgence, said Saxe. “There are too many kids who need loving placements and who shouldn’t suffer being denied an appropriate home out of antigay animus and politics.”

3. Your God, My Country

With the rapid progress of LGBT equality comes pushback from the religious right, often in the form of “religious freedom” bills that are popping up in states from Utah to Indiana.

In 2014, there was a marked increase in the number of states considering religious freedom bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign report. Although the language of many of these bills is broad and doesn’t explicitly name LGBT individuals as the intended target, many gay advocates say they open the door for brazen discrimination.

Other recent proposals do specifically target the gay community. In Virginia, a state where same-sex marriage is legal, the legislature is considering a bill that would allow government employees to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples if it violates that employee’s “religious or moral convictions.” A similar law is being considered in Utah, where “a person authorized to solemnize a marriage” is not required to do so if it violates the individual’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” or “right to religious liberty.”

These types of religious freedom bills are “designed to erode equality and ensure that people who aren’t comfortable with the idea of gay couples marrying don’t have to interact with them,” said Saxe.

As gay couples continue to marry and live their lives openly and publicly, the need for explicit LGBT protections will only increase, she said.