The New Mexico house has voted to restore to tens of thousands of New Mexico workers the antidiscrimination protections that were unintentionally erased last year. A divided house of representatives also agreed Wednesday that the gay rights section of the Human Rights Act--which is already in effect--should apply to businesses with four or more workers. Currently, only companies with 15 or more workers must comply with the provision, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill was approved 38-25 over the protests of lawmakers who said it would leave small businesses open to lawsuits that were expensive to defend even if they were groundless. "If we're talking about protection, we've got to look at the employers' protection as well," said Rep. Donald Bratto (R-Hobbs). Supporters of the bill argued that last year's mistake left 34% of the state's private-sector businesses--and more than 155,000 employees--outside the law. "We're talking about discrimination.... We need to correct the wrong," said Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton (D-Albuquerque).
When the legislature added the gay rights provision to the Human Rights Act last year, it intended to exempt employers with fewer than 15 workers from having to comply with that provision alone. The rest of the antidiscrimination law was intended to apply to businesses with four or more workers, as it has for decades. But the legislature sent the governor, and he signed, the wrong version of the bill. As a result, companies with fewer than 15 workers were exempt from complying with the entire Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on race, religion, handicaps, and other factors. "Don't let New Mexico be the state that gives the right for...businesses to discriminate," Stapleton said.
Fixing the glitch prompted renewed debate over the sexual orientation language, which Rep. Earlene Roberts (R-Lovington) said was "a very divisive issue." Opponents of the measure said they were troubled by the prospect of teachers switching sexual identities or employers having to accommodate, for example, men who dressed as women and wanted to use women's bathrooms.