Rand Paul retreats to states’ rights on LGBT hiring discrimination

On Wednesday, Rand Paul put himself in some hot water when he was a hair too libertarian for polite political discourse, telling an audience at Drake University in Iowa that employers should be able to discriminate against LGBT people in the hiring and firing processes. As he explained, he doesn’t want to set up “a whole industry for people who want to sue,” and that “there are plenty of places that will hire you” if you’re gay.

After facing a fair bit of backlash immediately following his comments, which were (rightly) interpreted as him calling for a version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for the entire economy, requiring LGBT people to stay in the closet for fear of being fired, he attempted to walk back his position yesterday. He didn’t mean that employers should be able to fire LGBT people willy-nilly, he just thinks that the issue should be left to the states:

This policy represents precisely zero change from the status quo, at least in the private sector. While the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) has already ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents federal agencies from hiring and firing based on sexual or gender identity, that ruling has not been applied to non-federal employers. This being the case, it remains legal in 28 states to fire someone for no reason other than being gay.

In attempting to clarify his remarks, Paul did say that he thinks it’s a crying shame if you’re fired based on things “from your personal life,” telling Wolf Blitzer that “I might have been able to word it better, but I don’t think [being gay] should enter the decision at all.” But while an employer might be a jerk for firing someone based on who they love, in Paul’s view that employee shouldn’t be allowed to sue their employer unless they get the go-ahead from their state.

Or, in Jeb Bush’s terms: Fired for being gay? Stuff happens.

Rand Paul, via Wikimedia Commons

Rand Paul, via Wikimedia Commons

States’ rights is a convenient cop-out for politicians who don’t want to say that they don’t support a popular policy — employment non-discrimination is so popular that most Americans already think it’s a federal law — but Paul’s retreat to federalism was hasty and transparent. It was even too much for the Log Cabin Republicans, who applauded Paul’s assertion that being fired for being gay is bad but nevertheless called his position out as a dodge. As their president, Gregory Angelo, told the Washington Blade, “The state-by-state punt that Sen. Paul — and others like Jeb Bush — make on this point is perplexing. If firing someone for their sexual orientation is wrong, then it should be wrong in, say, Arkansas just as much as it’s wrong in Vermont.”

Rand Paul may not personally like it when people are fired due to their sexual and gender identities, but the consequences of the policies Rand Paul supports and opposes mean that, across the country, Americans will continue to be fired due to their sexual and gender identities. This being the case, his clarification is no better than his original position.

In light of Paul’s twisting and turning on LGBT workplace discrimination, it’s worth revisiting what Paul had to say about the Civil Rights Act and racial discrimination in 2010. Here’s an excerpt of an interview he gave to the Louisville Courier-Journal:

PAUL: I like the Civil Rights Act in the sense that it ended discrimination in all public domains, and I’m all in favor of that.


PAUL: You had to ask me the “but.” I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners — I abhor racism. I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant — but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I absolutely think there should be no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s most of what I think the Civil Rights Act was about in my mind.

INTERVIEWER: But under your philosophy, it would be okay for Dr. King not to be served at the counter at Woolworth’s?

PAUL: I would not go to that Woolworths, and I would stand up in my community and say that it is abhorrent, um, but, the hard part — and this is the hard part about believing in freedom — is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example — you have to, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things and uh, we’re here at the bastion of newspaperdom, I’m sure you believe in the First Amendment so you understand that people can say bad things.It’s the same way with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior, but if we’re civilized people, we publicly criticize that, and don’t belong to those groups, or don’t associate with those people.

America decided to reject this “Ew, but go ahead” position on discrimination a long time ago. Paul has since distanced himself from this position on racial discrimination, and he was right to do so. Perhaps he’ll go through the same evolution on LGBT discrimination, as well.

But in a Republican primary, I wouldn’t count on it.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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