Today, the ACLU and the ACLU of Mississippi filed suit on behalf of Andre Cooley, a correctional officer in the Forrest County Sheriff's Department in Mississippi, who was fired the day after his superiors discovered that he is gay.
Andre grew up in the foster care system and, after earning a bachelor's degree in administration of justice, decided to become a juvenile correctional officer in order to serve as a positive role model for teenagers in trouble. When Andre was first hired as a correctional officer at the Forrest County Sheriff's Department, he was told that he had the best resume of any person that had applied for the job. Although Andre disclosed his sexual orientation to a small number of coworkers, he was not "out of the closet" at work.
This past June, when Andre was off duty and out of uniform, Andre's boyfriend became physically violent at Andre's house, and Andre dialed 911 for help. When police officers arrived at the house in response to the emergency call, Andre's boyfriend "outed" him to one of his superiors. The next day, the Staff Sergeant of Jail Operations informed Andre that he was being permanently terminated. Andre asked the staff sergeant if he was being fired because he was gay, and the staff sergeant responded, "Yes." Andre has never been given a written explanation for why he was fired.
As demonstrated by Andre's unblemished record at the Sheriff's Department, Andre's sexual orientation has no bearing on his ability to perform his job as a correctional officer. Because the Sheriff's Department is a government employer, the Constitution protects Andre from anti-gay discrimination at work. Andre is suing his supervisors and the Sheriff's Department for violating his 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and substantive due process.
But what happened to Andre is also a reminder that in most parts of the country, people who work for private companies do not have any protection from anti-gay discrimination. In 29 states — including Mississippi — it is still legal for a private employer to fire someone solely based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would make it illegal to discriminate against an employee for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, just as it is currently illegal to discriminate against an employee because of his or her race, religion, national origin, disability or gender. President Obama has said he will sign ENDA if it passes Congress, but even though ENDA was first introduced over 16 years ago and has broad support in both the Senate and the House, it still has not passed Congress.
It's time for Congress to act and finally pass ENDA, so the best person for the job can stay 'on the job' free from discrimination.