The Senate took a major step last month when it passed a bill Nov. 7 to bar employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The 64-22 vote for the bill, S. 815, is the first time either house of Congress has approved legislation to protect transgender as well as gay, lesbian and bisexual workers. Known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the bill would prohibit private businesses, public employers and labor unions from making employment decisions – hiring, firing, promotion or compensation – based on a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Employers with a primarily religious purpose and character would be exempt from the provisions. During debate on the bill, senators adopted an amendment that would prevent state and municipal governments from retaliating against religious employers who do not employ gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, pointed out during Senate debate on the bill that, despite the passage of anti-discrimination laws at the state and local levels, discrimination in the workplace continues to be all too real.
According to a 2012 report produced by the Williams Institute at UCLA, studies have found that, as recently as 2008, as many as 37 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual employees experienced discrimination in the workplace. Transgender and other gender nonconforming persons face severe discrimination in all public aspects of their lives, particularly employment. A 2011 survey of transgender people showed that 90 percent of respondents reported having experienced harassment or mistreatment at their workplace.
Harkin emphasized that it has been almost 50 years since the nation first took steps to eliminate discrimination at work and 23 years since enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He said the country is a far better place because of laws against discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, religion, age and disability.
“At long last,” he said, “it is time for us to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” adding that such discrimination is “wrong and cannot be tolerated any longer in our country.”
The ABA has been urging lawmakers to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation since 1989, and approved policy in 2006 urging enactment of legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of real or perceived gender identity in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations.
Just prior to the Senate vote, the Obama administration issued a statement strongly supporting the bill. “This bipartisan legislation is necessary to ensure that strong federal protections exist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers no matter where they live,” the statement said, emphasizing that “passage of this bill is long overdue.”
A companion bill, H.R. 1755, is pending in the House where the nearly 200 cosponsors are primarily Democrats, making prospects for the legislation uncertain without stronger Republican support.