Gay marriage isn’t the only way conservatives can stand up for equality

— By Lori Sanders

Two recent Huffington Post pieces on gay marriage at the state level highlight an interesting contrast for Republican supporters of the cause. On Monday, the outlet reported that, though Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker may personally favor gay marriage, nothing will be done in the near term to roll back the state’s constitutional ban.

The reasoning is simple: overturning a constitutional amendment is a difficult process. Currently, 24 state constitutions ban same-sex marriage, and 19 ban both same-sex marriage and civil unions. Though the process differs by state, no simple routes to marriage equality exist, and of the 24 states with bans, Republicans hold 21 governorships.

For those of us who strongly support gay rights, this news is disheartening. If you believe the party needs to be more in front in of the issue, the very fact that so many states face incredibly high barriers to progress brings up numerous worries. Taking on state constitutional amendments is an overwhelming ordeal, and would produce nasty battles.

To the extent that it depends on ballot initiatives, you need more than a simple majority of voters from your state in favor of marriage equality, since the vocal opponents will be far more likely to vote. And just starting a conversation on the possibility of reform opens up a Pandora’s box of media opportunities for Republican opponents outside of leadership, which will certainly be gaffe-filled and do nothing for the Republican brand with the majority of Americans who favor equality.

It would seem, then, that without an unlikely and sweeping Supreme Court ruling, Republicans are doomed to years of struggle as the issue is gradually sorted out at the state level. But the second Huffington Post piece, brings a ray of light to Republicans seeking to do better by the gay community.

Focused this time on Wisconsin’s neighbor Michigan, the article discusses the likelihood that the state will deal with a second pressing issue for those of us who favor equality – the lack of protected status for LGBT citizens in employment law. Without legislative protection, those individuals are open to discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, making it possible to fire them based on sexual preference.

There are 19 states that still lack this simple provision for any form of employment, and an additional ten only protect state employees from discrimination Surprise, surprise, of the 24 states with some type of constitutional ban on same-sex marriage or unions, all are on this list.

Fortunately, changing employment law is relatively simple, requiring just an act of the legislature. As individual states see their populations shift to majority support for gay rights, this would be a natural place to start, and a much less divisive fight. Of the states with no employer protection,  17 are led by a Republican governor. And of the ten states that protect only state employees, Republicans control the executive in seven.

Clearly, expecting these majority conservative states to move en masse in favor of employment equality is a pipe dream. But for those governors looking to take a stand on the issue, this is a much less controversial starting point. While marriage and civil unions come with much cultural baggage, ending discriminatory employment practices appeals to both conservatives and liberals, so long as religious liberties are protected.

For states that aren’t specifically looking to advance parts of the gay rights agenda, the idea should still have an intrinsic appeal. Blatant discrimination destroys equality of opportunity, one of the most sacrosanct features of American life for conservatives. As economic mobility falls, conservatives should be doing everything they can to advance opportunity, and ending discrimination is an incredibly easy way to do so.

The main concern for employment protection based on sexual preference is the potential threat to religious institutions who wish to hire based on certain characteristics, and new employment protections should be carefully crafted to assuage these concerns. But exemptions and special circumstance considerations already exist in employment law, making this a relatively easy feature to include. Also, careful dedication to religious liberty on this issue will hopefully help ease the concerns of those worried about the implications of gay marriage or civil unions for churches and other religious institutions.

Republicans have a long way to go and a lot of damage to undo before the party can be seen as equality advocates. But for those looking to shift the public’s mindset, common sense employment reforms should be the first place to start.

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