WASHINGTON, D.C. The U.S. Senate has approved for the first time legislation to grant workplace civil rights on the basis of homosexual, bisexual or transgender status, leaving the House of Representatives as the lone potential barrier to enactment of the controversial proposal.
Senators voted 64-32 Thursday (Nov. 7) for the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA), rejecting an amendment to strengthen religious freedom protections for employers in the process. President Obama supports the bill, but ENDA faces a substantial challenge to passage in the House, where Speaker John Boehner opposes it.
After Senate passage, Obama urged the House to approve the measure, saying in a written statement, "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."
ENDA, however, provides several reasons for opposition, the bill's critics contend. For one, there is the threat to the conscience rights of employers. In addition, there is its promotion of a view of sexuality that not only conflicts with Christianity but harms human prosperity. Foes also point to concerns about a growth in frivolous lawsuits and a loss of jobs.
The Senate defeated an amendment by Sen. Pat Toomey, R.-Pa., that sought to address religious freedom concerns. The 55-43 roll call vote against Toomey's proposal two hours before passage of the bill left the legislation without an adequate safeguard for the religious liberty of employers, critics said.
"This legislation does nothing to fight against unjust discrimination," said Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a statement.
"The legislation instead is fraught with ambiguous language on protecting the conscience rights of religious persons and organizations," Moore said. "We have seen too many cases of the government steamrolling consciences in the name of equality."
Moore called on the House to reject "this counter-productive legislation, and I'm confident they will." In a letter sent Friday (Nov. 8) the ERLC urged Boehner and other House leaders to oppose ENDA.
Jerry Johnson, new president of the National Religious Broadcasters, also urged ENDA's defeat in the House, saying in a written statement ENDA "remains narrow, convoluted, and promises a legal burden and chill on employers committed to honoring the tenets of their faith in the workplace."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, expressed disappointment in the Senate vote, saying in a written release the bill "would transform the workplace into an environment in which certain self-identifications and conduct must be given special privileges by employers and in which any moral or religious expression in opposition would be suppressed."
ENDA's advocates celebrated the Senate vote and urged House approval.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), called on Boehner to allow a floor vote in the House. His organization believes the House would approve ENDA if it were permitted "to vote its conscience," Griffin said in a written statement. HRC is the country's largest political organization advocating for homosexual, bisexual and transgender rights.
ENDA would make discrimination based on "an individual's actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity" illegal in such areas as hiring, firing and compensation in both the private and public workplaces. The measure would treat "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" in a fashion similar to other federally protected categories, such as race, gender, age and religion. "Sexual orientation" normally encompasses homosexuality and bisexuality, while "gender identity," or transgender status, includes transsexuals and cross-dressers.
In recent comments Andrew Walker, the ERLC's director of policy studies, explained the entity's opposition to ENDA.
While the ERLC agrees "sexual orientation should not be a contributing factor in most employment situations, we cannot conclude that it shouldn't be a contributing factor in every situation," he said in an interview published Nov. 4 on the blog of Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky. "We cannot agree that the government's interest in creating this non-discriminatory environment is more important than the free exercise of religion and speech guaranteed by the First Amendment."
Language in the bill that bans actions that "adversely affect the status of the individual as an employee or as an applicant for employment" could enable a person to claim his status "has been adversely affected by the mere presence of a Bible on an employer's desk," Walker said. "We are deeply concerned by the potential chilling effect this language will have on the ability of religious employers to conduct their personal lives," as well as their businesses, according to their faith.
"We aren't trying to impose our particular worldview when we oppose ENDA," he told BP. "We oppose ENDA because it conflicts with a Christian understanding of human flourishing. We can't, in good conscience, support legislation that serves to only confuse our fellow citizens."
Before the Nov. 7 roll call, the only previous Senate vote on ENDA came in 1996, when senators rejected it by 50-49.
The House approved ENDA in 2007. With President George W. Bush opposed to the measure, the Senate never voted on ENDA that year.
Ten Republican members joined the Democratic majority in supporting ENDA in the Nov. 7 roll call. They were Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio and Toomey. All 32 "no" votes came from Republicans. A Democrat and three GOP senators did not vote.
Senators twice voted for cloture 61-30 Nov. 4 and 64-34 Nov. 7 to bring ENDA to the floor for consideration and a vote. A similar House bill has 193 cosponsors.