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Tomorrow the Supreme Court considers the issue of discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace. Most states do not have explicit protections, and in those states the court's decision could have a significant effect. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.
KATHLEEN O'DONNELL: Are you ready to go to the park?
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It's a hectic morning for Kathleen O'Donnell and her wife Casey.
O'DONNELL: Yeah, we just got a new kiddo yesterday.
FADEL: Overnight the couple got a 4-year-old foster daughter. Kathleen is getting her ready for the park. Casey's wrangling the four dogs after getting their 11-year-old son off to school - a typical day at the O'Donnell house on a tree-lined street in Billings, Mont.
O'DONNELL: So all of my family lives in Billings, so we kind of, you know, with a kid and stuff, decided to be around them.
FADEL: But when she and her wife chose to make Billings home in 2014, they knew it came with risks as a same-sex couple. Montana is one of more than two dozen states that don't have explicit statewide laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Five cities in Montana have local nondiscrimination ordinances, but Billings - the largest city in Montana - is not one of them. That became clear quickly. When Kathleen found a prospective home, the landlord handed her an application. Under spouse's name, she wrote Casey.
O'DONNELL: And he asked me, like, OK, well, is it a girl or a boy? Which is an odd question to ask someone.
FADEL: She said girl.
O'DONNELL: And so when I did that, that's when he's like, oh, I don't rent to your kind here.
FADEL: They found a different place to live. Two years later Kathleen landed a new job at a local auto dealership. She says the owner's son called her names.
O'DONNELL: And he felt it was OK to make names based on my appearance. And so they did not refer to me by Kathleen; they would refer to me like Bob.
FADEL: She needed the job. Everyone else was kind, so she stayed. A few days before her six-month probationary period was up, her supervisor fired her.
O'DONNELL: I just looked at him. I was like, why am I being fired? I was like, I've never been in trouble. I've shown up to work. And he said, it's because the owner does not like that you're gay.
FADEL: The dealership would not comment on O'Donnell's firing.
O'DONNELL: So I called the Montana state employment and told them my story. And they're like, yeah, unfortunately, there's nothing we can do for you.
FADEL: Gender identity and sexual orientation are not protected classes under Montana state law. Now, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says Title VII, the federal statute that bars work discrimination on the basis of sex, does protect those categories. But the courts are split on whether Title VII actually includes LGBTQ people. This week the Supreme Court will hear three cases - two on sexual orientation and one on gender identity.
ADAM ROMERO: What these cases will decide is, does the federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in employment cover discrimination on the basis of someone's sexual orientation or their gender identity? Because those forms of discrimination are sex-based.
O'DONNELL: That's Andrew Romero (ph), the federal policy director at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. He's referring to Title VII. And what the court decides will have a ripple effect beyond employment.
ROMERO: The question of discrimination in housing, in education, in public accommodations, in credit and other vital spheres of our lives, there are statutes that prohibit sex discrimination in those settings, and so the Supreme Court's decision in the employment context will inform courts decisions in these other contexts as well.
LISA FULLERTON: Historically, sex has been biology-based, and its association is the basis for government programs that were written to help women.
FADEL: Lisa Fullerton owns the San Antonio-based company A Novel Idea, a group of fast-food franchises. Texas, like Montana, does not have explicit LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections, although San Antonio does.
FULLERTON: When a person's sex is arbitrarily defined or interpreted by judges or government, the opportunities are actually going to vanish for the women that they were designed to benefit.
FADEL: She says she employs LGBTQ people but is concerned about government overreach.
FULLERTON: The fear is that, if handled through the court, it might brutally force inclusion, which could be seen as intolerant of the rights and differences of people of the cisgender orientation.
FADEL: Back in Billings, the mayor is closely watching the Supreme Court cases. Bill Cole says there are two reasons the city does not have a nondiscrimination ordinance. Montana state laws, he says, dictate that an employer can't dismiss someone without good cause once their probationary period ends and...
BILL COLE: Anything that we do may be made moot by cases now pending before the United States Supreme Court.
FADEL: In 2014 the city considered passing a protections ordinance, but the mayor at the time cast the deciding vote, saying Billings just isn't ready. That's when Reverend Sarah Beck at Billings Grace United Methodist Church decided if the city wasn't ready to say we'll protect you, her church would. It began the Rainbow Coffee House, a meeting space for LGBTQ teens.
SARAH BECK: If our community isn't going to create safe space, how do we find safe space for them? And so that's kind of where the Rainbow Coffee House came out of, was sort of people in the community saying, we want our community to be safe for people.
FADEL: Last year that safe space was defaced multiple times with anti-gay flyers, a swastika spray-painted on the rainbow flag that hangs in the church window, another on a church door, and outside a church sign was spray painted with the words no gays. Beck says community leaders like Mayor Cole and others condemned the incidents and stood by the church.
BECK: That is all wonderful. But at the same time, what is the expectation when the message that you send to the community is, these people don't need to be protected? Then these sorts of things are inevitable.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No piggyback rides.
FADEL: On this day, teens lounge in the grass. Some are playing cards, others roughhousing and laughing. This place, it's welcoming. But these high schoolers, Beck says, may graduate into a city and maybe a nation that's not.
Leila Fadel, NPR News, Billings.
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