Most employers would be banned from firing, demoting or refusing to hire workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity under legislation in line for action today in the U.S. Senate.
The measure, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, would extend protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers. A vote on passage will follow consideration of an amendment that would expand exemptions in the legislation for religious groups.
“This issue of freedom from discrimination is a core issue of freedom,” Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat and the bill’s author, 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.
In the Republican-controlled House, Speaker John Boehner has expressed opposition to the measure. A House bill that was introduced in April has only five Republican cosponsors, compared with 188 Democratic cosponsors.
While the Senate bill carves out exemptions for religious organizations, entities that aren’t primarily religious in purpose would have to comply.
Some Republicans have said the religious exemptions aren’t broad enough, prompting Senate leaders to agree to a vote on an amendment that would change the definition of religious groups to provide for more exemptions, including for religiously chartered hospitals. As a compromise, the amendment’s backers agreed that it will need 60 votes for adoption.
“We must strive to reach the appropriate balance between protecting workers and protecting religious freedom,” said the amendment’s author, Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
His amendment is opposed by some of the bill’s backers, including the gay-rights advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign.
Another amendment, which would bar 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 by the Senate. It was sponsored by Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.
“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.”
A Nov. 4 procedural vote on the bill drew the support of 61 senators, including Toomey, Portman and five other Republicans, suggesting sufficient support for passage, which requires a simple majority.
During the debate this week, 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.
Gay-rights advocates have made the legislation their top priority on Capitol Hill after the Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. President Barack Obama, most congressional Democrats and almost 70 Fortune 500 companies, such as Citigroup Inc. and Dow Chemical Co., support the measure.
The legislation is opposed by groups including 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.”
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.
–With assistance from James Rowley in Washington. Editors: Katherine Rizzo, Robin Meszoly