U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) affirmed on Tuesday the importance of non-discrimination protections during a Capitol Hill event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even though he has refused to bring up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act for a vote.
Boehner was among the congressional leaders who attended the event, which took place in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, as they posthumously awarded Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.
“On July 2, 1964, Congress completed what may be the most fundamental, most consequential legislation of our long history,” Boehner said. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 recognizes that every citizen has the right to pursue happiness without discrimination, or segregation, on the grounds of race, color, religion or national origin.”
Boehner’s praise for the Civil RIghts Act of 1964, which bars discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, stands in sharp contrast to his refusal to bring up ENDA, which would bar employers from discriminating against LGBT workers, and his personal opposition to the legislation.
“I am opposed to discrimination of any kind, in the workplace and anyplace else,” Boehner said in November. “But I think this legislation that I’ve dealt with as chairman of The Education & The Workforce Committee long before I was back in the leadership is unnecessary and would provide a basis for frivolous lawsuits. People are already protected in the workplace. I’m opposed to continuing this. Listen, I understand people have differing opinions on this issue, and I respect those opinions. But as someone who’s worked in the employment law area for all my years in the State House and all my years here, I see no basis or no need for this legislation.”
Boehner’s argument against ENDA is similar to what opponents of civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act have said in the past — and his points have been rejected by LGBT advocates as inaccurate.
Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesperson, said in response to an inquiry about why Boehner would celebrate passage of the Civil Rights Act, but not bring up ENDA for vote, “I think the Speaker’s position on that legislation is clear.”
ENDA passed late last year in the Senate on a bipartisan basis, but remains pending in the House despite the growth of Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. ENDA supporters say the votes are present for passage in the U.S. House, which is all that needs to happen before President Obama can sign the legislation.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, said Boehner should put his money where his mouth is if he believes the Civil Rights Act is an important piece of legislation.
“Civil and human rights must be measured by a single yardstick,” Henderson said. “Speaker Boehner should be applauded for extolling the virtues of the Civil Rights Act, but that acknowledgement comes with a responsibility to ensure that no worker is denied employment protections and that no citizen is denied the right to vote. Speaker Boehner’s words will be empty should he continue to be a roadblock to passage of ENDA, immigration reform, and the Voting Rights Amendment Act.”
Also speaking at the event in favor of the Civil Rights Act was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who’s facing a tough challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergran Grimes in his re-election bid this fall. Despite his support for the Civil Rights Act, McConnell was among the Republicans who voted “no” on ENDA when it came up for a vote in the Senate last year.
Democrats who spoke during the event were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge (D-Calif.). A main theme among the Democrats was bringing up the Voting Rights Amendment of 2014 for a vote.
Other LGBT advocates were reluctant to criticize Boehner directly for speaking in favor of the Civil Rights Act, but not bringing up ENDA, as they continue to work with him to bring the bill up for a vote.
Gregory Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, said he wouldn’t read too much into the Boehner’s appearance at the event.
“We’re continuing to do the work we’ve always done: bringing on more Republican co-sponsors to this common-sense conservative legislation in order to hit a critical mass that will push the Speaker to prioritize ENDA on the legislative calendar,” Angelo said.
Christian Berle, legislative director for Freedom to Work, had no comment on Boehner’s remarks on the Civil Rights Act, saying he had recently met to lobby with his office on ENDA.
“Throughout the rest of the year, there will be a number of efforts to push Speaker Boehner to allow a long overdue vote for LGBT workplace protections,” Berle said.