Texas Attorney Who Fought for Marriage Stands up for Non-Discrimination
In January of 2015, Neel Lane stood before a panel of judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit and presented arguments on why same-sex couples should no longer be denied the freedom to marry in Texas. Six months later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the freedom to marry nationwide, handing Neel’s clients a victory. While he was excited to see marriage equality established at the highest level, he knows that LGBT Americans, including the very plaintiffs he represented in the marriage case, need full non-discrimination protections in Texas and across the country to ensure full equality.
“What we learned from the civil rights struggle of the 1960s is that you have to pass legislation to protect people.” – Neel Lane
“The general principle non-discrimination – fair and equal treatment – is work that remains to be done, that we must keep striving for,” he said. “You have the right to be married to a person of the same sex now, which is great, but in most states you can still be fired solely for being gay. That’s unacceptable.”
As a lawyer, Neel has been happy to see litigation proceed in the states and at the federal level arguing that discrimination against LGBT people should be protected under court interpretations of “sex discrimination” under existing federal statutes. He hopes this momentum, combined with legislative action, will lead to full protections for LGBT Americans in every state.
“What we learned from the civil rights struggle of the 1960s is that you have to pass legislation to protect people,” he said. “A constitutional guarantee of equal protection is not enough to protect people from invidious discrimination.”
Beyond his understanding that welcoming LGBT people is the right thing to do, Neel understands that it makes business sense, too: For a large international law firm like Akin Gump, which employs thousands of people around the United States and beyond, it’s vital that every state where the firm has an office is welcoming to all people. As the partner in charge of the San Antonio, Texas office, Neel has particular interest in seeing full protections for LGBT people established across Texas.
“We compete for talent against other firms in other states, and we do our best to hire the very best lawyers – because landing the best talent really makes a difference in our practice,” he said. “Even one lawyer can make a big difference in the quality of the work product we deliver to our clients. But if prospective employees perceive that a particular state will inflict unfair, discriminatory treatment against them, they’re likely to choose another destination instead.”
“If everyone is allowed to compete fairly, people are more likely to reach their greatest potential and the best people will rise to the top. That’s a basic economic reality.” – Neel Lane
“I want to be able to recruit the best talent in Texas to our firm,” he continued. “If someone won’t feel comfortable in Texas because of the perception of legal discrimination against gays and lesbians, then they’re not going to come here. And we’re going to lose that edge in top talent to competing law firms in other states. From an employer’s perspective, you cannot have a drain of the high-performing, best candidates to your competitors solely because they will face hardships in your home state due to an immutable characteristic they happen to have. We want the best lawyers of any race, gender, national background, or sexual orientation. From that perspective, it’s not only morally wrong to discriminate against gays and lesbians, it is also sure to hurt your bottom line.”
He added that ensuring a level playing field in the workforce is a central component of the fundamentally American belief that society gains most when individuals are allowed to succeed based on their own individual merit.
“If people are permitted to compete solely based on their merit – their knowledge, their expertise, their individual skill – and they are not held back by a characteristic they have no control over, we all win. And that is a bedrock conservative economic principle – even if some conservatives seem to have forgotten it. If everyone is allowed to compete fairly, people are more likely to reach their greatest potential and the best people will rise to the top. If a young person has a passion to pursue a particular profession – whether it’s the law something else – and they are not held back or scared off simply because of their sexual orientation, then that is a net gain for the society. That’s a basic economic reality.”
While Neel treasures his experience in the fight for marriage equality – and his role in striking down laws that deprived gays and lesbians of fundamental rights – he knows the country must continue moving forward, toward the day that no one is denied housing, employment, or public services just because of who they are or whom they love.
“For me, a major reason I got involved in the marriage fight was because my friends, relatives, coworkers – and even people I didn’t even know – were suffering injustice, and I knew that was wrong,” he said. “It wasn’t driven by some abstract principle. It was driven because people I know and love were being mistreated, and I wanted to stand up for them. It’s the same idea here: Separate and apart from the economic arguments is the fact that discrimination based on immutable characteristics is repugnant. It’s not right, it’s un-American, and we have to stop it.”