March 4, 2023

House passes bill to protect LGBTQ community from discrimination

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

A bill to expand the scope of the New Mexico Human Rights Act to include protections for the LGBTQ community passed the House by 47-to-20.

HB 207, Expand the Human Rights Act Scope, is sponsored by state Rep. Kristina Ortez, D-Taos. It updates language in the state Human Rights Act to better reflect current language for the LGBTQ community and for the disabled community. The words “handicap” would be replaced with “disability” and the bill includes words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” It would also define the words “sex” and “gender.”

The bill would also expand the scope of current statute to prohibit public bodies and government contractors who receive public funding from discriminating against LGBTQ individuals. The New Mexico Human Rights Act was written in 1971 and updated in 2003, Ortez said.

“It needed to be updated,” Ortez said.

Many Democrats shared personal experiences of friends or family members who are queer or transgender during the three-hour debate. Ortez said the reason why the bill is important right now is because “a student can face discrimination and have no means to remedy that discrimination because political subdivisions are not covered in the Human Rights Act. Queer and trans homeless youth can be turned away from services because a shelter discriminates on the basis of who they are and who they love. It’s hurting our young people…and they can’t do anything about it,” she said.

Ortez also said there are, currently, over 300 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation that have been filed in state legislatures this year.

State Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, asked Ortez to clarify what would happen if a teacher uses a person’s preferred pronouns incorrectly.

Ortez said “we make mistakes.”

“If that child feels like they are not being listened to and singled out, discriminated against over and over, this bill allows a pathway to seek remedy. It’s not one single mistake,” she said.

Ortez said that if a person feels discriminated against, they would take the case to the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. The commission would determine if the individual has enough evidence to take the case to court.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said she sponsored the bill in 2003 that updated the language in the New Mexico Civil Rights Act 20 years ago. She asked what happens if there is a pattern of discrimination that “rises to a violation of the law?”

Ortez said a hearing officer would make the first determination and that if the hearing officer finds no discrimination, the individual could still take further action.

“A fact finder, a judge or jury, if the hearing officer was wrong,” Chasey said.

Chasey asked Ortez to explain why it’s important to update the language.

“Sometimes we have to modernize legislation that has been passed….what this does is it ensures our taxpayer dollars are not being used to discriminate,” she said.

Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, referenced the change in language from “handicap” to “disability.”

She said the original intent of the word “handicap” has negative connotations and called it “high time” the language is changed.

“We’re all different. It’s important that people with differences are included,” she said.

Some Republicans tried to argue that the bill would force government contractors to hire individuals within protected classes.

“Is that contractor obligated to hire her [an 8-month pregnant woman] for that service?” Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, asked.

Ortez said the answer would depend “on whether the person can do the job,” but also said that protected classes are already protected in employment law.

Block asked about the changing of definitions in the bill.

“What’s the difference between gender identity in the old bill [current statute] and the new bill?” He asked.

“In the previous [current] legislation, gender identity is referred to as “male” or “female.” It now [in the bill] refers to a spectrum,” Ortez said.

State Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, who is a cosponsor on the bill, said the bill is “about ensuring our values are embedded in our policies.”

Republicans attempted two amendments. One, brought by Block, would have included provisions to restrict bathrooms or locker rooms, interscholastic or intramural teams on the basis of gender identity in public primary or secondary schools. Ortez called it an unfriendly amendment and asked if Block was “creating a carve out for discrimination against the LGBTQ community.”

Block said he was not, but said it was “a carve-out only for protected areas for individuals who are children in local schools not subjected to gender identity or any kind of sexualization in the schools.”

The House tabled the amendment on a 39-22 vote.

A second amendment, introduce brought by state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, would have included a provision to exclude religious organizations that receive public funds to provide services to be able to discriminate in their hiring practices. He said he was concerned that religious organizations which, in small towns in particular, are sometimes the “only entity providing those services and we need to make sure they continue to provide those services.”

“They should be able to hire people who profess the tenants of that faith,” Nibert said.

Ortez said that, currently, religious entities are not allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices under employment law.

“We’re not asking someone to take on additional duties that are not part of their services,” she said and added that the amendment was unfriendly.

The House tabled that amendment 43-22.

The bill heads next to the Senate.