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Discharge petition filed for ENDA with narrowed religious exemption

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has filed a discharge petition for the Employment Non-DIscrimination Act.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The chief sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has initiated a legislative procedure known as a discharge petition to compel House leadership to bring up for a vote a version of the bill with a narrowed religious exemption, the Washington Blade has learned.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who’s gay and an co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, filed the discharge petition on Wednesday with the House clerk’s office. It would force a vote on ENDA, which would bar employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, if a majority of House members, or 218, sign the petition.

The Senate passed a version of the ENDA last year, but the House under the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has refused to bring the legislation up for a vote despite the eight Republican who have co-sponsored the bill. Supporters of ENDA, including the Human Rights Campaign, the White House and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), insisted the bill would pass if only Boehner would allow for a vote.

Meanwhile, numerous pro-LGBT groups, including the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the American Civil Liberties Union, dropped support for ENDA because of the bill’s religious exemption. Unlike the protections that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 affords to workers on the basis of race, national origin, religion and gender, passage of the Senate-passed ENDA would still allow religious-affiliated businesses to discriminate against LGBT workers in non-ministerial positions.

Following the outcry of these groups, Polis introduced a resolution before the House Rules Committee, H.Res. 678, that would narrow ENDA’s religious exemption in the event the committee approved the bill for a vote on the House floor.

It’s that version of ENDA that would come up for a vote if the discharge petition is successful. But it remains to be seen how that version of ENDA would fare in the Senate, where a more expanded religious exemption was deemed necessary for passage.

Supporters of ENDA face uphill battle in attempting to pass ENDA by initiating a discharge petition. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), an original co-sponsor of ENDA, has already told the Blade she wouldn’t sign the petition, saying through a spokesperson it’s a “partisan political tool.” No Republican co-sponsor has agreed to signing a discharge petition for ENDA.

Polis files the petition just two months before a mid-term election in which Democrats are fighting to maintain control of the Senate. The lack of Republican signers on the ENDA discharge petition could serve to highlight to difference between the Democratic and Republican parties just before Election Day.

Tico Almeida, president of the LGBT group Freedom to Work, praised Polis and Pelosi for taking action to “force a long overdue vote on LGBT workplace protections.”

“It’s always a good time to draw clear political distinctions between those who support fairness in the workplace and those who would allow prejudiced employers to fire talented gay employees just because of whom they love,” Almeida said.

Almeida added that the Senate should also take action on ENDA by attaching it as an amendment to defense authorization bill during the lame duck session of Congress.

Christian Berle, legislative director for Freedom to Work, said in a separate statement that attempting to pass ENDA with a more narrow religious exemption would come at a heavy cost in support for the legislation.

“Based on my hundreds of ENDA lobby meetings with every single undecided Member’s office in the House, including 100 percent of the Republican offices, I believe the new and more liberal religious language would cost ENDA around 50 fewer votes in the House and 20 fewer votes in the Senate,” Berle said.

In the event the House passed a version of ENDA with a narrower religious exemption, Berle said the bill would likely lose all 10 Republicans who voted for the bill in the Senate as well as Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Angus King (I-Maine), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).