By a significant margin, the Senate passed today a historic bill that would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act passed 64-32 with bipartisan support. If it becomes law, it would prohibit employers from firing, refusing to hire, giving unequal pay to, or otherwise treating in a discriminatory manner any individual based on preceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It is the first time in history that Congress has passed a bill with employment protections based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.
"Let the bells of freedom ring,” Sen. Jeff Merkley declared after it passed. “We have fought to capture that vision of equality, and liberty, and opportunity, and fairness embedded in our founding documents, in our founding vision. We’ve taken a huge stride today in that direction.”
The bill passed after an amendment was added this week intended to protect religious groups. Churches, synagogues and mosques would be exempt from the law, as well as retail outlets with direct affiliations to religious groups.
Still, the exemption didn't go far enough for some Republicans. In voting against the bill, Indiana senator Dan Coats said, "We can’t pick and choose when to adhere to the Constitution, and when to cast it aside. 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."
Now, of course, the bill is off to die in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly said he opposes the bill. "I don't believe that it’s going very far in the house,” Heather Cronk, co-director of the organization GetEQUAL, tells NBC. “It’s clear that Speaker Boehner has no intention of bringing it up." But, she added, “it’s hugely helpful as far as public education goes, since 90% of Americans think this is already law."
President Obama issued this statement soon after the bill's passage:
For more than two centuries, the story of our nation has been the story of more citizens realizing the rights and freedoms that are our birthright as Americans. Today, a bipartisan majority in the Senate took another important step in this journey by passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would help end the injustice of our fellow Americans being denied a job or fired just because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
Just as no one in the United States can lose their job simply because of their race, gender, religion or a disability, no one should ever lose their job simply because of who they are or who they love. Today’s victory is a tribute to all those who fought for this progress ever since a similar bill was introduced after the Stonewall riots more than three decades ago. In particular, I thank Majority Leader Reid, Chairman Harkin, Senators Merkley and Collins for their leadership, and Senator Kirk for speaking so eloquently in support of this legislation. Now it’s up to the House of Representatives.
This bill has the overwhelming support of the American people, including a majority of Republican voters, as well as many corporations, small businesses and faith communities. They recognize that our country will be more just and more prosperous when we harness the God-given talents of every individual. 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. 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. On that day, our nation will take another historic step toward fulfilling the founding ideals that define us as Americans.