In battle for LGBT rights, cities run ahead of states

A new report by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, finds that more cities than ever are implementing initiatives to protect LGBT rights, despite pushback from states.

Kevin Wolf/AP/File
Supporters of marriage equality gather outside the Supreme Court to demonstrate support for same-sex couples on Tuesday, April 28, 2015, in Washington.

A growing number of cities are prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, according to a new report by LGBT advocates at the Human Rights Campaign, and many are doing so in defiance of state laws.

This year, 60 US cities earned perfect scores in the fifth annual Municipal Equality Index, released Monday in partnership with the Equality Federation Institute, for “advancing fully inclusive policies and practices.” This number is up from 47 in 2015 and 11 in 2012, marking a milestone of at least 24 million people living in cities with transgender-inclusive non-discrimination laws.

Gains in LGBT rights at the municipal level comes amid a parallel rise of state anti-LGBT measures that threaten to invalidate municipal laws, pitting cities against states.

The controversial North Carolina HB2 law that reversed an LGBT-friendly ordinance passed by the city of Charlotte is a prominent example. Most recently, Louisiana's attorney general won a lawsuit on Tuesday that allows him to abstain from approving state contracts that protect LGBT rights in the workplace.

“This year, dozens of cities across the nation showed they are willing to stand up for LGBTQ people in their communities even when state governments are not,” HRC President Chad Griffin said in a press release.

“This builds on a trend we have long observed: that local governments are at the forefront of our fight for equality. Unfortunately, our opponents have witnessed this progress too, and in recent years, anti-LGBTQ lawmakers have pushed spiteful legislation aimed at pre-empting local protections. That’s why it’s so important that we continue to not only fight for equality at the state and local levels, but to enact comprehensive federal protections for LGBTQ people under the Equality Act.”

HRC and EFI researchers scored 506 cities, including all 50 capitals and 200 of the largest cities in the United States. The criteria for evaluation included the presence of nondiscrimination laws, municipal employment policies such as transgender-inclusive insurance coverage, inclusiveness of city services, access to law enforcement resources such as hate crimes reporting, and municipal leadership on equality issues.

The report found that in states without LGBT nondiscrimination laws, 87 cities scored above the nationwide mean of 55 points, and 37 of those scored above 85 points, an increase from previous years. Cities with more same-sex couples and openly LGBT city officials had higher scores.

The 60 top-ranked cities include Phoenix and Tuscon, Ariz.; Orlando, Fla.; Dayton, Ohio; and New York City. Cities that scored zero include Auburn, Ala., and Clemson, S.C.

While North Carolina has received much attention after it was sued by the Justice Department for its bathroom law, some other cities in red states are gaining ground in implementing LGBT-friendly municipal laws.

"Salt Lake City is a peculiar city," said Stan Penfold, who in 2010 became the first openly gay councilman of the city, reported the The Salt Lake Tribune. "We are a very conservative state and yet Salt Lake City continues to be at the forefront of the LGBTQ issues, rights and concerns in this country."

Salt Lake City earned an MEI score of 69, the highest in Utah, a red state and home of the socially conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the Tribune, Mr. Penfold and Councilman Derek Kitchen plan to create a public-accommodation law that bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in retail stores, education institutions, recreation facilities, and other places. They hope it eventually “paves the way for a statewide law.”

It has been done before: In 2009, a Salt Lake City ban on LGBT discrimination in housing and employment became a model for a 2015 statewide law, passed by the state legislature with the blessing of the Mormon church.

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