Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

January 8,  2007  



California considers expanding its anti-discrimination laws

By Thomas F. Coleman

A bill recently introduced into the California Legislature seeks to protect unmarried residents from marital status discrimination in a broad range of business practices and government services. 

Assembly Bill 14, known as the "Civil Rights Act of 2007," adds "marital status" as a prohibited form of discrimination in dozens of state statutes which currently apply to race, sex, color, and other traditionally protected categories.  The bill is authored by Assembly member John Laird.

For many years, California law has prohibited public and private employers from engaging in marital status discrimination.  Longstanding fair housing statutes have outlawed such discrimination by landlords. 

Last year, in another bill authored by Laird, state law was amended to prohibit all business establishments of any kind from engaging in marital status discrimination against consumers. But gaps still exist in state law, especially with respect to government programs.  

The new bill by Laird would create protections against marital status discrimination in a variety of situations where such protection currently does not exist, such as participation in the Cal Grant program, voter registration programs, delivery of emergency services, awarding of public contracts, and food stamp eligibility.

"Throughout California law there remain significant gaps in civil rights protections for Californians, leaving people vulnerable to discrimination in a wide variety of situations," said Laird. "AB 14 strengthens dozens of codes so they are indexed to the strongest level of protection in state law."

This is the fourth in a series of anti-discrimination bills authored by Laird in recent years. 

In 2004, he carried AB 2900, which amended more than 30 labor and employment-related nondiscrimination provisions. In 2006, he authored AB 1400, which prohibits marital status discrimination by business establishments in their consumer practices, and AB 2800, which amended 17 housing-related anti-bias provisions. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed all of these bills into law.

If AB 14 is enacted, California will have more protections against marital status discrimination than any other state in the nation. 

State laws aimed at curbing marital status discrimination are important to unmarried employees, tenants, and consumers, since federal law allows such discrimination in employment and housing.  The Equal Credit Opportunity Act is the only major equal rights law at the national level which prohibits marital status discrimination.

Unmarried adults now head up a majority of households in some 24 states, as well as the nation as a whole.  Given this demographic reality, and considering that marital status discrimination is widespread, one would logically think that federal law would address this problem in a systematic manner and that states with unmarried majorities would make the elimination of marital status discrimination more of a priority.

Only 20 states have laws prohibiting marital status discrimination in employment, while 23 include marital status in their fair housing laws. 

In many areas of the nation there is a disconnect between outdated public policies and the new demographic reality of family diversity.

For example, a majority of households in Arizona are headed by unmarried adults and yet that state does not protect the unmarried majority from discrimination in employment or housing. The same holds true for Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Tennessee -- where most households are unmarried but legal protections against marital status discrimination are absent.

Being denied a promotion or getting less pay because of one's marital status is wrong, just as it is wrong for a landlord to discriminate against unmarried tenants who are otherwise qualified as responsible renters.  State and federal laws should declare that such practices are against public policy and outlaw them.

Since no member of Congress is currently taking up the cause of fairness for unmarried Americans, the political leadership in this area is falling on the shoulders of elected representatives at the state level of government. 

Politicians like John Baird of California should be commended for using their clout and some of their political capital to end marital status discrimination.  Perhaps a few representatives in other states will find the courage to follow in his footsteps.


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Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.