The events of the past week in Indiana and Arkansas brought to the forefront discussions about Civil Rights, focusing on Religious Rights and Sexual Orientation Rights. The word “discrimination” has crept into the discussion. We may have learned that there is a Religion Freedom Restoration Act which relates only to the Federal Government. That is why many states have (or are in the process of developing) laws to protect their residents’ Religious Rights. We may have also learned that the federal government has not passed the Employment Non-Desctinimation Act (ENDA), therefore Sexual Orientation is not a protected class at the federal level. States would have to decide if Sexual Orientation is a class that should be protected in their state. Neither Indiana nor Arkansas have declared Sexual Orientation a non-discriminatory class.
What about New York State? Probably most of us don’t know what classes are protected from discrimination. The New York State Attorney General’s website on Civil Rights is dedicated to provide up-to-date information to us. By looking at the New York State’s Fair Housing Law, you’ll get an idea which groups are protected by Federal Laws, and which ones New York State decided to add to their protected classes. The Federal Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate because a person’s:
- family status (presence of children under age 18)
- national origin
- disability (physical or mental)
New York State has added the following groups to their list:
- sexual orientation
- martial status
- military service
Please note that New York State does not list Gender Identity as a protected group.
Local municipalities can tailor their list by adding groups to protect. For example, New York City has added the following protected groups to their Fair Housing Law: gender, citizenship status, partnership status, gender identity, lawful occupation, and lawful source of income (including public assistance or housing assistance, social security, supplemental security income, pensions, annuities, or unemployment benefits). Buffalo, Hamburg, West Seneca and Nassau County also prohibit source of income discrimination in housing.
You may want to check to see if you local government’s Fair Housing Policy has been updated to include all of the protected classes.
What about Religious Rights in New York State? In 2011 Attorney General Eric Scheiderman had the Religious Right Initiative, which promoted our Religious Right laws and provided “tools/resources” to help us understand and obey the law.
NYS’s Religious Rights deals with rights in the workplace. We are protected from Religious Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation by Employers. Employers must “Reasonably Accommodate” Religious Beliefs. This includes all aspects of our religious practice, even ones not that are not “required” by the religion. This also includes religious dress and appearance, and for prayer during the workday. The accommodations can not create an “undue hardship” for the employer. The State has created a brochure which summarizes our religious rights.
Please notice that our State’s religious rights law does not give business owners the right to decide who they serve. The turmoil in Indiana and Arkansas created quick and loud protests. Americans feel strongly about their rights, and may be confused about where one’s rights end and someone else’s begins. The NYS Civil Rights Bureau would a good place to start to review our Rights and Responsibilities.