Equality-minded Nevadans were appropriately thrilled last year when the legislators in Carson City expanded our state’s anti-discrimination laws to encompass gender identity and gender expression. When the laws took effect last October, we all felt proud for helping ensure that transgender people in our state would not have their access to jobs, housing, and places of public accommodation unfairly denied.
But what happens after the confetti has fallen and the celebratory crowds have moved on to other causes? As citizens, we trust that our government will enforce the will of the people and uphold its duty to protect the vulnerable. Right?
Bad news. It’s not always that simple.
The ACLU, along with a coalition of like-minded groups and individuals, has continued the struggle for meaningful equality—not the kind merely proclaimed in political speeches—by tracking the enforcement of these anti-discrimination laws. Naturally, our attention turned to the Nevada Equal Rights Commission (NERC), the state agency entrusted with reviewing, mediating, and determining the merit of various discrimination complaints.
Let me explain something important here. For anyone who cares about combating discrimination in Nevada, NERC is a vital agency. For those, in particular, who are targeted for their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression—NERC is the only agency they can go to. Federal law does not cover these groups in any of its discrimination laws.It came to the ACLU’s attention that there was ambiguity about whether NERC would handle complaints from public school students who are suffering discrimination. And we’re not just talking about LGBT students, but students of color, disabled students, students of faith, etc.
You see, a lot of school districts in Nevada don’t have very strong or inclusive anti-discrimination policies. The ACLU was even forced to litigate a case in Washoe County several years ago concerning the harassment of an Egyptian-American, Muslim high school student. The State Department of Education doesn’t handle individual discrimination complaints, so unless they can go to NERC, our most vulnerable students have very few places to turn, other than, perhaps, hiring a private attorney. One place they sometimes turn to is the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Dept. of Education, but it enforces laws against discrimination only on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age.
So, the ACLU wrote to NERC and requested that it officially affirm—for school districts, for students, and for the general public—that existing laws do give the agency the authority to review discrimination complaints from public schools (which, by widely accepted legal definition, fall under the category of “public accommodations”). NERC is allowed to issue such a statement—it is well within its purview to clarify the applicability of a law that it is entrusted with enforcing. This was a perfect opportunity for the state to educate citizens about the rights they already possess.
The ACLU, with the support of a broad coalition of other groups, appeared before the commissioners of NERC this month and asked for a formal clarification of the law that would empower and encourage students who are being harassed and intimidated. But guess what? It refused. Mind you, the commissioners didn’t reject the ACLU’s argument that public schools are covered under Nevada’s anti-discrimination laws. Instead, they refused to make any decision on the merits of the request. Our petition was, instead, dismissed. Their response was, essentially, “nah, we’d rather not take a position on this.”
Shouldn’t we expect more than this from the government agency that is supposed to stand up for our rights? When Nevadans, via their elected representatives, endorse the role of government in protecting people from discrimination, we expect that the government will fulfill its side of the bargain. At this point, it is unclear whether that’s going to happen here. Students experiencing discrimination can knock at NERC’s door, but it’s anyone’s guess whether it will answer.