The town of Latta, South Carolina might not seem like the safest place to be openly gay. In 2006, when a state constitutional amendment banning marriage equality was put on the ballot, Latta voters “overwhelmingly” supported the measure. But this April, when residents began to suspect that their police chief was fired from her job for her sexual orientation, the town rallied around her. The story is heartwarming–but it also unmistakably demonstrates how our federal government is failing to protect many workers from discrimination.
If you ask the average Latta resident what they think about police chief Crystal Moore, you’ll hear an inspiring tale of public service. As a high school student, Moore volunteered as a police dispatcher and helped clear roads after the destruction of Hurricane Hugo. After she graduated, Moore served the police department for 23 years and recently became the first female police chief in the town’s history. Moore’s record as police chief was also stellar, and when the town elected Earl Bullard as their new mayor in 2013, he frequently praised Moore in front of the city council. But four months after he took office, Bullard presented Moore with seven reprimands in one day. These reprimands were related to Moore’s investigation of Vontray Sellers (a government employee who Bullard had recently hired) after she received reports that he was driving with a suspended license after receiving a DUI. In other words, Moore was chastised for doing her job. When she requested to talk to her attorney before signing the reprimands, Bullard fired her.
This decision seemed to be one of petty retribution, but some town councilmembers believed that Bullard was determined from the beginning to oust Moore because of her sexual orientation. After Moore was fired, Town Councilman Jarett Taylor was able to catch Bullard’s homophobia on tape. In the recording, he said: “I’d much rather have somebody who drank and drank too much taking care of my child than I had somebody whose lifestyle is questionable around children, because that ain’t the damn way it’s supposed to be.”
While Bullard vehemently denied that his decision to fire Moore was based on the fact that she was openly gay, his own words suggest otherwise. Moreover, his statement about trusting someone who “drank too much” over someone “whose lifestyle is questionable” suggests that Bullard is relating Moore’s sexual orientation to her investigation of Sellers. Simply put, Bullard would rather employ Sellers (who has a DUI charge) than Moore (who is openly gay). Even if the connection was unintended, Bullard’s words reveal a deep-seated prejudice against LGBT people that cannot be easily discounted.
Whether Bullard fired Moore based on a desire for revenge, her sexual orientation, or a combination of the two factors, the residents of Latta immediately stepped in to hold him accountable. At the next town council meeting, more than a hundred people came to voice their support for Moore, but the Mayor refused to allow discussion on the issue. Because Bullard made it clear that he wasn’t going to consider rehiring Moore, the town council grew irritated with his inflexibility. Eventually, they decided to change Latta’s form of government from “strong mayor-weak council” to “strong council,” effectively stripping the Mayoral position of many of its powers. Bullard remains in office, but can no longer unilaterally fire or hire public employees. Last month, the town council took advantage of its new authority by unanimously voting to reinstate Moore and to expunge the reprimands on her record. Additionally, the state government came to the conclusion that Moore was fired “without cause” and should receive back pay. However, her victory came at the cost of around $20,000 in legal expenses. (Naturally, Latta residents are arranging a fundraiser to help Moore with her bills.)
Crystal Moore’s story is truly inspiring. But if Moore hadn’t received that community support, it would have ended very differently. Though Bullard has publicly said that he did not fire Moore due to her sexual orientation, he could have legally done so. In South Carolina (and in 28 other states), it is legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation. In 32 states, it is legal to fire someone based on their gender identity. Despite the fact that three quarters of Americans believe that workplace discrimination protections already exist for LGBT people, most Americans are not covered. LGBT people of color are particularly impacted by a lack of workplace protections because they experience disproportionately higher rates of discrimination. And homophobia was not the only type of discrimination that Moore faced; before she was re-hired, the new police chief that Bullard hired to replace her was offered a salary of $8,000 more per year than Moore was earning when she was fired. The fact that Moore was earning significantly less than her male replacement despite having worked for the police department for over 20 years clearly smacks of pay discrimination.
Unfortunately, legislation that would have helped Moore keep her job and earn a fair wage is languishing in Congress. One such bill is the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would take steps to end gender discrimination in pay. Though it has been re-introduced over a dozen times, consistent Republican opposition has prevented the bill from becoming law. Another piece of legislation that Congress has failed to pass is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Despite receiving bipartisan support in the Senate, Speaker of the House John Boehner has refused to allow the House of Representatives to vote on ENDA, calling it “unnecessary.” Even more concerning is the fact that ENDA contains an exemption for religious organizations that may widen considerably because of a recent Supreme Court decision. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, many LGBT groups have withdrawn their support for ENDA, believing that Hobby Lobby’s precedent would allow religiously-affiliated organizations to discriminate against LGBT people with impunity.
Thankfully, with the help of a supportive community, Crystal Moore was able to get her job back. But South Carolina still lacks many essential workplace protections. It shouldn’t fall to the residents of Latta to make up for Congress’ failures. Ultimately, our national government needs to do better.