In the spring of 1941 the United States, not yet at war but observing that much of the rest of the world was, was cranking its defense industry to full speed. It hit road bumps, one being a systematic unwillingness by some employers to hire certain workers, often on the basis of race or religion.
To counter this, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802. He declared that, “There is evidence available that needed workers have been barred from industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color or national origin, to the detriment of workers' morale and of national unity.” And he ordered that defense contractors hire and treat employees the same regardless of “race, creed, color, or national origin,” not just as a matter of fairness but also as a matter of national security.
This long preceded the civil rights movement, but if the language sounds familiar, that’s no accident. The move toward equity seeded in World War II later set a kind of bar. In areas far beyond national defense, Congress and state legislatures declared that, in varying ways and for diverse groups of people, large-scale and commonplace discrimination has occurred, and that pushing back against it is in the national or state interest.
The 20-plus hours of testimony last week in Boise over House Bill 2, the now-rejected proposal to “add the words” of sexual orientation and gender identity, was an emotional event on both sides, but questions of broader interest, touching all Idahoans, got little attention.
The experience of other states and Idaho cities that have adopted similar language indicates that actual usage of the law probably would be slight. Since Boise passed a similar ordinance in December 2012, either two complaints or none (depending on your analysis) have been filed, and quietly handled, under it. That would be in line with most of the 20 or so states that have passed similar laws; the few much-noted cases involving cake-bakers and florists are rare enough to serve better as fluke news stories rather than as harbingers of trends.
Discrimination against gay and transsexual people, however, is not rare and not hard to document in substantial numbers, and in many places has mirrored the experience of people originally covered under the “race, creed, color” approach. Not many other social segments mentioned as prospects for “covered” groups (tall people, obese, smokers, others) can claim that scale of negative treatment.
Is there a social problem here, a need for action, as Roosevelt cited in 1941? Departing Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson offered one, saying that communities will be safer with the law in place because people afraid to report violent attacks became more willing to do so after Boise changed its ordinance. “We’ll all enjoy a safer community if we add the words to protect sexual orientation and gender identity in our Human Rights Act,” he said. (more…)