June 5, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Major legal groups won’t support ENDA because of religious exemption
Shannon Minter, NCLR, gay news, Washington Blade

Shannon Minter said the National Center for Lesbian Rights doesn’t support the current version of ENDA. (Photo courtesy NCLR)

Two major LGBT legal groups announced on Thursday they don’t support the current version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act pending before Congress because of the bill’s religious exemption.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center told the Washington Blade they don’t support ENDA because the religious exemption is greater than it is under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for other classifications of people.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the religious exemption must be more narrow if his organization is to continue backing ENDA.

“We strongly oppose any religious exemption in ENDA or any other federal, state, or local non-discrimination law that is broader than the religious exemption that already exists under federal civil rights laws,” Minter said. “We do not support legislation that will create a new and broader exemption for LGBT people than exists for other protected groups. While we are confident the current discriminatory religious exemption in ENDA will not be part of the final legislation, we will not continue to support ENDA if it is not changed to be consistent with Title VII’s religious exemption.”

To clarify, Minter said his organization “does not support any version of ENDA that contains the current discriminatory religious exclusion.”

NCLR was among the groups — along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Transgender Law Center and Lambda Legal — that wrote an open letter to Sen. Jeff Merkely (D-Ore.) upon ENDA’s introduction last year expressing “grave concerns” over the religious exemption.

Mark Snyder, spokesperson for the Transgender Law Center, reaffirmed the concerns expressed over the religious exemption in that letter on Thursday via an email to the Blade.

“We reaffirm the joint statement we issued last spring that outlined our very grave concerns with the religious exemption in ENDA that is significantly broader than the exemptions in other federal civil rights laws like Title VII,” Snyder said. “Our laws should not treat discrimination against LGBT people as a more acceptable form of discrimination.”

But Snyder went further on Thursday by unequivocally saying his organization won’t support ENDA as long as the current religious exemption remains in the legislation.

“Over the past year, the public conversation and context regarding religious exemptions to nondiscrimination laws has evolved significantly,” Snyder said. “As a result, at this time we are unable to support ENDA in its current form. We are fully committed to continuing to work for the passage of a law like ENDA that contains an exemption for religious organizations that is no broader than the exemption in Title VII.”

ENDA’s religious exemption would provide leeway for religious institutions, like churches or religious schools, to discriminate against LGBT workers in non-ministerial positions even if the bill were to become law. It’s broader than similar exemptions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for categories of race, gender, religion and national origin.

On Wednesday, the Washington Blade reported that numerous national LGBT groups — including the ACLU and Lambda — continue to support ENDA even with the current religious exemption. Prior to the announcements from NCLR and the Transgender Law Center, the only national LGBT group to withhold support for ENDA was the grassroots group GetEQUAL.

Also on Thursday, the statewide LGBT group Equality Illinois issued a statement on ENDA, saying the religious exemption has to be removed from “any bill that moves forward in either chamber.”

“We support the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which aims to prohibit workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans, but we strongly oppose including any exemptions that would give LGBT people less protection than other protected groups already enjoy under federal civil rights law,” the statement says. “Illinois’ own Human Rights Act, enacted in 2005 with bipartisan support, has worked effectively to protect LGBT employees on the same terms as other groups. To add new and far broader religious exemptions to LGBT nondiscrimination laws would set a dangerous precedent for new carve-outs to other existing federal civil rights law.”

The statement thanks the U.S. senators from Illinois — Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — for their work on ENDA, as well as U.S. House members who have co-sponsored the bill.

“We know that they are committed to fully equal treatment of LGBT Americans, and we feel confident that the current discriminatory religious exemption in ENDA will not be part of the final legislation that reaches the President,” the statement says. “We will continue to work with the Illinois Congressional Delegation and our national partners to remove this discriminatory exclusion from any bill that moves forward in either chamber in the future.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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