Nikki Ditto, WLP Intern
On June 12th, the U.S Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing to debate the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Currently no federal law exists barring discrimination of individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity. ENDA would provide an equal standard of workplace protection for LGBT Americans. It was last discussed in 2009, and has been stalled in Congress for the past three years. Activists hope the Senate hearing will be the first step to getting the bill moving in Congress once again.
To gain bipartisan support within the committee, and, it is hoped, within the full senate, a broad exception for religious organizations is included in the bill. The exception is more extensive than in previous discrimination bills, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on which ENDA is based. The Civil Rights Act lays out protections for individuals based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Religious organizations are allowed to take an individual’s religion into account, but that is the only exemption they are given. For example, a Catholic school can require that all staff and faculty is Catholic, but they cannot fire someone for being a woman or being African American.
The religious exception in ENDA goes one step further, and allows religious organizations to continue to discriminate against members of the LGBT community. Religious organizations will not be held accountable for firing employees whom they learn to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. While this weakens the force of the bill, lawmakers believe it is the only way to ensure the bill is passed.
Pennsylvania is one of 29 states that does not have a law banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. While 24 local governments in Pennsylvania have ordinances that prohibit “discrimination against LGBT people, approximately 70% of the state’s population remains unprotected,” according to the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Both the Pennsylvania Senate and House debated employment discrimination bills in 2011, but neither came to a vote and there has been little talk for the last year of granting these protections.
This hearing also marks the first time that an individual who is openly transgender has testified in the Senate. Kylar Broadus is the founder of the Trans People of Color Coalition of Columbia, Missouri. He started the organization after he was fired from his job for coming out as transgender and beginning to transition. He had no way to fight his employer because there was no law that made firing him illegal.
There is widespread support for passing ENDA within the American public, even among Republicans and those usually unsympathetic to LGBT rights. A poll found that 73% of Americans believe Congress should pass ENDA, and many think that federal workplace protection already exists for LGBT individuals. Proponents of ENDA are hopeful that the bill will come to a vote sometime this year.