Just one Republican senator publicly voiced opposition to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would make it illegal to fire an employee based on sexual orientation or gender identity. During the week the Senate was given to debate the legislation, the lone GOP gripe was that it violates the religious freedoms of for-profit businesses who do not want to employ lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.
“The legislation before us raises very serious concerns regarding religious freedom. 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,” Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) said on the floor Thursday. “For example, the religious beliefs of faith-based child care providers and small business owners would be disregarded under this legislation. Faith-based daycare providers could be forced to hire individuals with views contrary to the faith incorporated values of the daycare providers.”
Coats’ remarks came within a few hours of expected passage of ENDA. The GOP’s days-long radio silence against the LGBT rights bill — even as 30 of them voted to filibuster it — had become conspicuous. His implication seemed to be that the bill discriminates against businesses’ right to fire — or refuse to hire — those who identify as LGBT.
The legislation would prohibit most businesses with 15 or more workers from making employment decisions based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It exempts churches, religious non-profits and businesses owned by the government or a Native American tribe.
“Do we want to support policies that discriminate against an employer’s religious beliefs and require employers to hire individuals who contradict their very most deeply held religious beliefs?” Coats said. “This bill also would allow employers to be held liable to workplace environment complaints opening the door to the silencing of employees who express their deeply held beliefs. This possibility runs counter to everything America stands for in the realm of free speech.”
Meanwhile, supporters gave stirring speeches in favor of the workplace equality measure, heralding it as part of America’s inexorable march toward a more perfect union.
“Every American deserves the freedom to work free of discrimination,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who is openly lesbian, said in an impassioned speech Monday. “And passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act strengthens this freedom by recognizing the right to be judged based on your skills, talents, loyalty, character, integrity and work ethic.”
Democratic leaders and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), celebrated the coming victory at a press availability in the Capitol before the final vote.
“It is time for Congress to pass a federal law that ensures all our citizens — regardless of where they live — can go to work unafraid to be who they are,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on Thursday. “And I hope Speaker Boehner will reconsider his decision not to bring ENDA up for a vote in the House of Representatives.”