Earlier this month, the Senate approved a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in a milestone vote that, for the first time in the Senate’s history, includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the U.S.’ nondiscrimination law, reports the New York Times.
The bipartisan measure — called the Employment Nondiscrimination Act — was voted on 64 to 32, and though Republicans showed “initial wariness” about the bill, 10 voted with 54 Democrats to approve it. Said President Obama in a 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… Now is the time to end this kind of discrimination in the workplace, not enable it.”
Specifically, the bill specifies protections for religious entities, including certain ones added last-minute to improve Republican support. The act also includes a provision stating no federal agency or state or local government that accepts money from the federal government can act out against religious institutions for lack of compliance, such as through denying them tax-exempt status, licenses, certifications, or grant money. Institutions exempt from the bill include churches, synagogues and mosques, as well as schools or retail stores associated directly with churches. (It would not apply to those institutions with looser religious affiliations.)
There is still opposition, however. Speaker John Boehner has voiced his disapproval of the bill several times. (Spokesman Michael Steel explained, “The speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small-business jobs,” according to CNN.) The Republicans who voted against the bill did not largely speak out. Dan Coats of Indiana, however, did share his opinion that, according to the New York Times, “The so-called protections from 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.”
The Times reported that the reaction was much different this month than compared to 17 years ago, the last time a gay rights nondiscrimination bill was voted on — and which failed by one vote. At that time, senators on the floor called homosexuality immoral. Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, said back then, “The drive for same-sex marriage… is, in effect, an effort to make a sneak attack on society by encoding this aberrant behavior in legal form before society itself has decided it should be legal.”
Gay employment protections first took hold in 1974, when New York representatives introduced extensive antidiscrimination legislation, but the bill “went nowhere,” according to CNN. 1994 saw the development of the first Employment Nondiscrimination Act, and, in 1996, the Senate took on the legislation. It failed by a 49-50 vote. In 2007, the House passed the Act, but did not make it to the Senate. The current act is the first to include transgender protections. It is also the first time the Senate has addressed the Act since 1996.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said “the time has come for Congress to pass a federal law that ensures all citizens, regardless of where they live, can go to work not afraid of who they are,” and mentioned that the majority of Americans believe such a law already exists. “Well, it isn’t already the law,” he confirmed. “Let’s do what the American people think already exists.”