Blog / Civil Rights

Achieving Equal Protection against Discrimination through the Ohio Fairness Act

November 8, 2018 / Chip Cooper

The law is intended to protect the rights of all citizens equally. But what happens to equal protection when the laws are inconsistent from one jurisdiction to the next? In that case, the promise of protection waivers, and the rights of certain individuals and groups become unclear.

That’s what is going on right now in Ohio regarding LGBT rights. There is, however, a potential solution on the horizon—if Ohio’s legislators can demonstrate the commitment to fairness required to enact it.

Hit-or-miss discrimination laws

Nearly half of the states in the U.S. lack a statewide law offering blanket protection of civil rights for LGBT citizens. Ohio is one of those states.

Some of Ohio’s municipalities and counties have anti-discrimination laws that address sexual orientation and transgender identity. But in localities where there are no laws covering specific instances of LGBT discrimination, there are no legal means to fight against or seek damages for those injustices.

Federal law does not fill the gap. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination against employees by employers on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, or religion. This law generally only applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments. Title VII also fails to specifically address situations that involve housing, education, and credit.

Historically, courts are divided as to whether Title VII protections extend to gay and transgender people.

Protecting LGBT rights with the Ohio Fairness Act

The Ohio legislature has addressed the issue of statewide protection for LGBT rights, but it has not completed its task. House Bill 160 would introduce the Ohio Fairness Act. This sweeping anti-discrimination legislation is fair and needed.

Unfortunately, as of now, the bill is still only pending.

The proposed House Bill 160 aims to extend legal protection against discrimination specifically to the LGBT community. It would make it illegal for any Ohio employer, employment agency, or labor organization to discriminate against an employee or applicant based on an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Similar versions of House Bill 160 have been introduced over the last decade, yet none have passed. The current version of the bill had its hearing earlier this year, but the legislature, once again, failed to pass it.

In our opinion, that failure hurts all of Ohio’s citizens.

Why equal protection matters

Enacting the Ohio Fairness Act is not only the right thing to do for Ohio and its citizens. It also has real-life benefits for the people of Ohio.

As civil rights attorneys, we routinely field inquiries from people who have been discriminated against based on sexual orientation or transgender identity. While we do have resources and alternate avenues by which we can help people seek justice for discrimination, we’re not able to use the full potential of the civil litigation system for individuals who don’t live and work in one of the few Ohio localities where appropriate discrimination laws are already in effect. Passing House Bill 160 would empower us to use civil litigation to its fullest against discriminating parties anywhere in Ohio.

In addition, the non-discrimination protections afforded by House Bill 160 would be good for Ohio’s economy and business environment. By protecting the LGBT community’s right to work, the bill could only enhance the ability of Ohio businesses to attract and retain talent. That’s why House Bill 160 is backed by numerous chambers of commerce as well as Ohio Business Competes, a collective of more than 475 statewide businesses.

Since the 1960s, our society has—piece by piece—pulled down the walls of discrimination that unfairly blocked good people from basic rights and opportunities. The malicious discrimination of the past—common prejudices based on race, gender, religion, disabilities, and national origins—were remedied starting with laws that empowered enforcement agencies and set the stage for private lawsuits. The explicit statewide protections that would be afforded by the Ohio Fairness Act are no less needed, and the LGBT community no less deserving.

As the new Ohio Legislature returns to office this fall, a number of things could happen with House Bill 160

If you agree that statewide protection against discrimination should be equally available to all Ohioans, then let your voice be heard in support of House Bill 160 by reaching out to Equality Ohio or the Ohio ACLU.

And if you believe that you have been unfairly discriminated against, contact the civil rights attorneys at Cooper & Elliott.

Connect with us—we’re here to help.

The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.

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