House committee considers bills to stop workplace discrimination

Political beliefs, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression could be added to the list of characteristics protected from employment discrimination under bills considered Monday by a Texas House of Representatives committee.

Employers are currently prohibited from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, disability, religion, sex, national origin or age, according to the Texas Labor Code. 

Gender identity and sexual orientation would join the list if House Bill 225 by state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, is passed. Johnson said these characteristics should not prevent individuals from having equal opportunity to obtain a job and support a family.

“Who someone sleeps with or the gender identity or expression they display is also worthy of that same protection,” Johnson said. “All I’m asking is for us to be bold and for us to be judged right by history.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled for mandatory protection of these classes in employment decisions, 22 states have passed laws similar to Johnson’s.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, said he believes sexual orientation is a choice and does not warrant protection under the law. Stickland said provisions in the bill could violate the standards of some religious institutions, and in some cases, such as hiring athletic coaches or ministers, sexual orientation and gender expression are relevant factors. 

“Obviously, someone can’t choose their gender or where they are from or what the color of their skin is,” Stickland said. “My faith is not really a choice, it’s very specific.”

While Johnson said he does not consider sexual orientation and gender expression to be choices, he said the argument lacks relevance because current law protects characteristics such as religious affiliation, which he regards as a choice. 

“What is all this discussion about whether or not being gay is a choice?” Johnson said. “Religion is a choice, and it’s a protected class.”  

House Bill 2787, authored by Rep. James White, R-Hillister, would add protection of political beliefs to the Labor Code. 

Under his bill, White said expressing political beliefs outside of work would not affect employment status or opportunities. He said political beliefs should enjoy the same protections from discrimination in the workplace as religious freedoms. 

“Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of our democracy,” White said. “It is the intent of the legislation to ensure that all of our freedoms are being protected.”

Johnson also introduced another bill before the committee, which he said aims to reduce the pay gap between men and women in Texas. To achieve this goal, Johnson said his bill would prohibit discrimination based on sex by requiring employers to pay men and women equal wages for doing the same work. 

The bill would also prohibit employers from requiring applicants to submit a salary history or obtain one through an applicant’s previous employers. The bill also bans contracts between employers and employees in which the employee would agree to accept a lower wage than the opposite sex in exchange for a job offer or job security. 

“These are our daughters, our sisters, our moms,” Johnson said. “We just want them to get paid what we get paid to do the same job.”

The committee took no action on the bills and left all of them pending.