Wooden judges gavel on wooden table, close up

A new ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court on gay rights is imposing new restrictions on Arizona employers that neither the Legislature nor state courts were willing to do.

The 6-3 decision by the high court effectively puts a provision into federal law that says people who contend they were fired the opportunity to sue under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars employers from discriminating based on sex.

“Homosexuality and transgender status are inextricably bound up with sex,’’ the justices said.

The move follows decades of unsuccessful efforts by some legislators to add sexual orientation and gender identification to existing laws that now prohibit discrimination in public accommodation and employment.

Monday’s court ruling catches the rest of the state up to cities like Tucson, Phoenix, Tempe and Flagstaff – whose anti-discrimination laws already cover sexual orientation. But the high court decision covers only employment discrimination.

Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, chair of the Arizona LGBTQ Caucus, called the ruling a significant but only partial victory. He said nothing in the ruling provides blanket legal protections for gays.

“In Arizona, you can still be discriminated against in stores, restaurants and hotels,’’ he said. “You can still be denied housing.’’

Hernandez noted that the Arizona Supreme Court last year ruled that Phoenix could not enforce its anti-discrimination ordinance against the owners of a calligraphy firm who refused to design wedding invitations for same-sex couples because it conflicted with their Christian beliefs.

On one hand, Hernandez said, it was a narrow ruling, with the justices applying it to only the specific facts in that case.

“But it laid out, essentially, a toolkit for those businesses that want to discriminate,’’ he said. 

 House Speaker Rusty Bowers of Mesa earlier this year refused to assign his anti-discrimination proposal to a committee for a hearing, telling Capitol Media Services at the time he saw no reason to overturn that state Supreme Court ruling.

“I think that my right of freedom of religion and religious beliefs and expression is at least equal to anybody else’s,’’ he said.

What might happen next year could depend in part on business community backing. 

But the head of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, while declaring his support for what the Supreme Court did, refused to commit to backing such a law.

“We’re going to be very sympathetic when we look at different laws to make sure we don’t have discriminatory treatment in our society,’’ said Glenn Hamer, the organization’s president and CEO. “We will certainly review any proposal of that sort.’’

As recently as last year, the governor said he did not support extending state anti-discrimination laws to protect people based on sexual orientation.

The governor declined comment on Monday’s Supreme Court ruling.

In a 1994 ruling, the state Court of Appeals, pointed out that state lawmakers have never extended legal protections to individuals based on sexual orientation. 

And based on that, the judges ruled that Arizona employers are free to fire workers solely because they are gay.

Since that time there have been no new cases on the issue. 

In some ways, Arizona’s business community is out ahead of Ducey and state lawmakers.

Many major Arizona employers already have policies prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

And some in 2014 went on record in urging then-Gov. Jan Brewer to veto legislation which would have expanded the right of businesses to claim they are entitled to deny service to anyone based on the owner’s “sincerely held’’ religious beliefs.

Brewer ended up killing the measure.

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