Senate Passes Workplace Discrimination Bill

The U.S. Senate passed legislation that would prohibit most employers from firing, demoting or refusing to hire workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bill, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, would extend workplace protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. The vote, which required only a simple majority for passage, was 64-32. Ten Republicans joined the chamber’s Democrats in supporting the bill.

“This issue of freedom from discrimination is a core issue of freedom,” the bill’s sponsor, Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, said on the Senate floor. The legislation “will make a difference in millions of lives, and it will make a difference in the strength and character of our nation,” he said.

The bill’s future is less certain in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has expressed opposition to the measure. A similar House bill introduced in April has only five Republican co-sponsors, compared with 188 Democratic co-sponsors.

“One party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do,” President Barack Obama said today in a statement after the vote. “I urge the House Republican leadership to bring this bill to the floor for a vote and send it to my desk so I can sign it into law.”

Religious Exemptions

While the Senate bill carves out exemptions for religious organizations, entities that aren’t primarily religious in purpose would have to comply.

Some Republicans said the religious exemptions weren’t broad enough, prompting Senate leaders to agree to a vote earlier today on an amendment that would have expanded the definition of religious groups to provide for more exemptions from the bill’s provisions, including for religiously chartered hospitals. That amendment, which under the agreement needed 60 votes for adoption, failed by a vote of 43-55.

“The so-called protections for religious liberty in this bill are vaguely defined and do not extend to all organizations that wish to adhere to their moral or religious beliefs in their hiring practices,” Indiana Republican Dan Coats said today on the Senate floor.

‘Appropriate Balance’

“We must strive to reach the appropriate balance between protecting workers and protecting religious freedom,” said the amendment’s author, Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican.

Toomey’s amendment was opposed by some of the bill’s backers, including the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay-rights advocacy group.

Another amendment, which would prohibit the government from taking action against religious organizations exempt from the bill by denying them federal benefits such as grants or a tax-exempt status, was adopted yesterday by voice vote. It was sponsored by Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman.

“ENDA will help create a level playing field and ensure that employment opportunities are available to all, but that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect bill,” Portman said in a statement. “We must make certain that in pursuit of enforcing non-discrimination, those religious employers are not subject to a different form of discrimination -- government retaliation.”

Muted Criticism

During the debate this week, most of the bill’s opponents refrained from public criticism of the bill, instead devoting their floor speeches to attacking the flawed rollout of the 2010 health-care law.

After the Supreme Court in a June 26 ruling struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, gay-rights advocates made ENDA their top priority on Capitol Hill. Most congressional Democrats and almost 70 Fortune 500 companies, including Citigroup Inc. and Dow Chemical Co., support the measure.

Among the groups opposing the legislation is the Washington-based Traditional Values Coalition.

“Picture your child in a classroom full of students when a formerly male teacher walks in as a transgendered female at the beginning of the school year,” Andrea Lafferty, president of the coalition, said in a statement. “Our children’s education and well-being should be more important than catering to the unhealthy psychological condition of a very small group of individuals.”

Gender-Identity Provision

Lawmakers have considered extending civil rights protections to gay and lesbian workers since 1994. In 1996, a version of the bill that didn’t include a gender-identity provision fell one vote short of Senate passage.

In 2007, the House passed a version with only the sexual-orientation component after some members balked at extending protections to transgender workers -- those who express a gender identity different from the one on their birth certificates. It died in the Senate.

This year’s Senate bill is S. 815.

(Updates with Obama comment in fifth paragraph.)
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