Today’s headlines are eerily reminiscent of the acrimonious debate within the LGBT community over the ENDA bill that passed the House of Representatives on Nov. 7, 2007.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) made a personal and emotional speech on the floor of the House that culminated in passage of the bill. Then came the vicious backlash from many individuals and groups, including Stonewall Democrats, a group Frank founded, because the bill didn’t include protections for transgender people.
At the time, Frank and others said that the question was getting protections for the many, which was possible, versus getting protections for none. In 2007, a bill including protections for transgender people had zero chance of passing. It turned out with or without the inclusion of trans people that bill didn’t get through the Senate.
Now once again the LGBT community is fighting over ENDA. This time it passed the Democratic-controlled Senate with the leadership of lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), another hero to our community. It’s now stalled in the Republican-controlled House. On July 8, a group of LGBT and civil rights organizations formally dropped their support for the bill, which apparently still has the support of President Obama and the Human Rights Campaign. The reason given by the groups to formally withdraw their support is based on the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.
The Hobby Lobby ruling has given credence to the view that the wide religious exemption in the current ENDA bill would allow for gaps in how the bill could be applied and open the door to continued discrimination against many in the LGBT community. The national groups that pulled their support for ENDA include the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center and Pride at Work.
HRC, the largest LGBT advocacy group, has not withdrawn its support for the bill. HRC spokesperson Fred Sainz said, “HRC supports ENDA because it will provide essential workplace protections to millions of LGBT people.” Following some backlash, HRC President Chad Griffin released a statement that still indicated support for the bill but noted HRC wants changes made to the section on religious exemptions. He also tried to change the subject by saying HRC supports an overarching civil rights bill for the LGBT community. This would be a bill similar to the one first introduced by Rep. Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.) in 1974.
The debate in the community over whether to pull support for the current bill may be moot as it appears the House will not take up ENDA this session. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he will not bring it to the floor for a vote even in the lame-duck session. That means the next Congress will begin the process anew. This debate will, however, draw heightened attention to the question of what will be included in the executive order banning discrimination against the LGBT community in federal contracting ,which after six years of stalling, the president has said he would sign. He has to be questioning what the LGBT community’s response would be if religious exemptions are in the EO. There appears to be broad opposition to providing those exemptions.
Baldwin is now in a bind and being demonized by some in the community. She, like Frank before her, worked hard to get the best bill she could pass. She worked with colleagues to draft a bill that would attract the needed votes. We need to remember that Baldwin will have to continue to work with those colleagues in the next Congress and gain their votes for a new bill if this one doesn’t pass. House members like Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) will be in a bind if Boehner decides to bring up the bill in the lame-duck session. Baldwin, like Frank before her, understood that to pass any legislation compromise is needed. She worked with the support of the community on the assumption that if we could protect the rights of the huge majority of LGBT persons that was better than protecting none. Clearly many groups now disagree, with legitimate reason, but we must also remember that when the bill passed it had overwhelming community support.
The next flashpoint in this debate may come when the president issues the long-awaited executive order.