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Legislative Memo: Sex Discrimination

This bill would extend the reach of New York State’s civil rights and human rights protections to more than one million New Yorkers who are gay, lesbian or bisexual. The New York Civil Liberties Union strongly supports equal protection under the law for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Consequently, we strongly urge the passage of this bill.

The bill would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, education, public accommodations and housing. In essence, it would establish the principle that one cannot be denied the basic necessities of life — whether it be a job or an apartment or service in a restaurant — because one is believed to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Federal law barring workplace discrimination does not include sexual orientation in the list of protected categories.

Although former Governor Mario Cuomo signed an executive order in 1987 barring discrimination based on sexual orientation by state agencies and departments, no state law protects New York’s gay and lesbian community from such discrimination in private employment, housing, and public accommodations. As discrimination against gays and lesbians is a continuing reality, legal protection is imperative.

Equal opportunity to fulfill one’s potential is one of the basic principles on which American society was founded, enriching society as a whole. Gays and lesbians have not been guaranteed this opportunity. Employees should be judged according to their performance on the job, not upon moral opinions of private lives.

During the McCarthy era, at least 1,700 people lost their federal employment after allegations of homosexuality. Fortunately, today roughly half of the Fortune 1000 companies have policies that offer protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Universally extending protection against this recognized danger is vital.

The right of legal equality for gays, lesbians and bisexuals rests upon several fundamental constitutional principles. Equal protection under the law is guaranteed by both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Equal Protection Clause should also apply to discrimination based upon sexual orientation. The right to privacy is guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Several Supreme Court decisions have underscored the principle that decisions about intimate relationships are personal and should be left up to the individual, including Griswold v. Connecticut, Loving v. Virginia, Einsenstadt v. Baird, and Roe v. Wade.

In addition, First Amendment protections concerning the freedom of speech and association should also include a gay or lesbian’s right to socialize in a restaurant and be free from discrimination.

The basic concept of this bill is neither radical or novel. Nine states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin), and the District of Columbia, and over 200 municipalities, (including New York City and Albany), have enacted laws which protect gays and lesbians from employment discrimination. However, in most locales of New York State, such discrimination is not illegal.

Legal protections against discrimination are necessary for all minority groups in a diverse society. It does not matter whether the defining factors of the minority group are race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religious or political beliefs, or sexual orientation. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals suffer from discrimination and deserve the same basic legal protections allotted other minority groups.

This bill would promote the most basic values underlying our political system — those of personal liberty, tolerance of diverse backgrounds and points of view, and respect for privacy. We strongly recommend its approval.

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Civil Liberties Union