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Same-sex couples have few private workplace protections in Mississippi

 

Matt Steffey

Matt Steffey

By TED CARTER 

The U.S. Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriages legal but huge gaps remain in protecting gays, lesbians and transgender Americans from discrimination in private-sector hiring, firing and worker benefits.

So says Matthew Steffey, a Mississippi College School of Law professor whose expertise includes civil rights and constitutional law.

“Married in the morning, fired in the afternoon” is how one commentator put it last weekend.

Steffey would not think that assessment to be off target. It comes down to Mississippi “quite possibly having no protections for gay people,” he said.

Because employers in Mississippi are free to reject applicants based on sexual preferences, it follows that they have a free hand in dismissing workers who are in a same-sex marriage or withholding company benefits they provide other married couples, he said in an interview soon after last Friday’s Supreme Court ruling declaring gay marriage a legal right.

It’s a murky area bound to be litigated in the years to come, Steffey said.

» READ MORE: State mulling options on extending benefits to same-sex spouses

On the worker benefits issue, federal, state and local governmental entities will have to treat same-sex married couples the way they do other married couples, he added.

But private employers?

“That’s a more difficult question,” he said. “They only have to comply to the extent that a specific law” says they do.

That specific law is the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, or ERISA. The Act sets minimum standards for most voluntarily established pension and health plans in private industry to provide protection for individuals in these plans, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Among other things, the law requires plans to establish a grievance and appeals process for participants to get benefits from their plans; and gives participants the right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty.

While federal statutes protect workers on the basis of age, gender, religion and race, no such protections exist for sexual preferences, according to Steffey, a 1990 graduate of Columbia University School of Law.

Steffey said there is a possibility, however slight, that private employers who discriminate in awarding of company benefits would be open to claims of gender discrimination. “In the private sector if they set up one system for straight and one for gay, I would argue they are penalizing people with a weird form of gender discrimination.”

But taking that argument into court could produce an uncertain outcome, “I’m not sure what is going to happen” if and when such a claim is made, Steffey said.

While the law may be standing still in regards to private-sector hiring, firing and the providing of worker benefits, the culture is not, the law professor noted.

“We are moving in the direction of inclusion.”

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