Democrats proposing bills to increase LGBT protections in South Carolina

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, has introduced an anti-discrimination measure to ensure the LGBT community is protected.

COLUMBIA — With Indiana and Arkansas hurriedly backpedaling on religious freedom laws assailed by rights advocates and major corporations, two South Carolina Democrats say gays and lesbians need added protections under state law.

State Sen. Brad Hutto and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford each say they would propose changing state law to explicitly protect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community against discrimination.

Hutto’s measure would protect the LGBT community from discrimination in employment, housing, hotels and restaurants, adding language to existing state law in those areas. Rutherford’s proposal would prohibit businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“It would be better to have clearer protection in the non-discrimination laws we have,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. “But if there are gaps in existing law that could be exploited to discriminate against people ... then that is a concern. We’re talking about values and fully respecting our fellow residents.”

The proposals would create a new protected class for the LGBT community so that, like religion or race, the law is clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal.

House Democratic spokesman Tyler Jones said that conservatives are clinging to “Hail Mary passes” in an effort to turn back the clock on gay marriage as federal courts have legalized it in much of the country. The Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge, which South Carolina has joined, in coming weeks and a ruling is expected this summer.

“At this point, anti-gay forces across the country know good and well the game is over and they’ve lost,” Jones said in an email. “Unfortunately, most Republicans still think it’s OK to treat gays and lesbians like second-class citizens. It’s embarrassing to watch them cling to these Jim Crow-style discrimination laws against the LGBT community. All they are doing is hurting people and pushing younger voters away from their party.”

Hutto said that the backlash from corporate America makes it an issue that South Carolina, as a business-friendly state, must address.

“Corporate America is looking at it as a litmus test — if we’re going to be a jobs-friendly state we also need to be a tolerant state,” he said. “I’m just trying to get ahead of the curve on that.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin said that there are Republican state lawmakers who are opposed to same-sex marriage and making LGBT a protected class because of their religious views.

Martin said that he agrees with Democrats that no one should be discriminated against and is willing to examine whether South Carolina’s laws need to be changed. However, Martin believes existing protections are adequate.

“We’ve got quite a history when it comes to (protecting) minorities in South Carolina and I just don’t know that our law is insufficient,” Martin said. “I think that existing law is adequate, but I don’t know.”

Like Indiana, South Carolina does not provide legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Advocates have condemned Indiana and Arkansas lawmakers in the past week for passing laws that some said would have allowed religious beliefs to be used as a legal defense for discriminating against gays and lesbians.

Major corporations, including Wal-Mart in Arkansas, opposed the religious freedom law, and Internet giant Angie’s List threatened to move employees out of Indiana if the law wasn’t changed to address gay rights concerns.

Indiana’s lawmakers said their intent wasn’t to allow religious beliefs to be used to discriminate and responded to demands to “fix” the law by approving changes Thursday that amended the law to explicitly prohibit it from being used that way.

Arkansas’ governor has refused to sign the law until it, too, is amended to bar discrimination against gays on religious grounds.

Julie Scott, a state Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman, said it’s not an issue business leaders have had to address directly and they do not yet have any position on the Democrats’ bills.

“We’re not aware of any complaints in South Carolina, so we haven’t really had to look at that issue,” Scott said.

Indiana and South Carolina are among the 20 states that have enacted religious freedom laws since 1993, but they’re the only two that specify that businesses are protected, too. The states’ laws make it illegal for the government to “substantially burden” people’s ability to practice their religious beliefs.

“The big concern is how far the federal government will go into our religious institutions with requiring adherence of gay marriage,” Martin said. “I think that’s the thing that concerns me. It’s not just about gay marriage. It’s anything to do with the free exercise of our faith. And a lot of people are concerned about that.”

Hutto stressed in a speech on the Senate floor this week that his measure would not affect religious practice or institutions.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.