July 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Burr, Portman targeted ahead of ENDA vote
Richard Burr, Rob Portman, Republican Party, United States Senate, Ohio, North Carolina, gay news, Washington Blade

LGBT activists are pushing Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) (left) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to support ENDA (Photos public domain).

UPDATE: Following the initial posting of this article, Burr said in a statement to the Washington Blade that he plans to oppose ENDA.

If a Republican U.S. senator can support marriage equality or vote for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, why can’t he also back the Employment Non-Discrimination Act?

That’s the question LGBT activists are asking of Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on the eve of a historic Senate committee vote on ENDA, legislation that would prohibit bias against LGBT workers nationwide.

In one camp, the LGBT group Freedom to Work has enlisted Dan Gurley, who’s gay and a former executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, to push Burr to vote for ENDA. In another camp, the grassroots organization GetEQUAL is showcasing Ohio mothers to win over Portman.

Gurley, who oversaw anti-gay campaigns at the Republican National Committee before being outed by gay activist Mike Rogers and joining LGBT activism, told the Washington Blade as a former businessperson, Burr should have an interest in voting for ENDA because it would enhance North Carolina’s business climate.

“There’s a lot of transition still taking place in our economy here, but the growth areas, many of them are the creative fields of employment and white-collar growth,” Gurley said. “We strongly feel, and believes that there’s evidence to prove that having non-discrimination laws in place would serve as an important recruitment tool for business, and that’s why it’s an important thing to do for North Carolina and the country.”

Gurley said he hasn’t had any personal conversations with Burr on ENDA, but believes the North Carolina senator would be amenable to the bill because he’s heard from others familiar with his thinking that his support would be a logical step for him.

Burr voted in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in 2010, but also voted against cloture for the bill before the final vote took place. Burr has said he believes marriage is between one man, one woman, but at the same time believes it should be left for the states to decide.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said Burr should take heed from North Carolina companies that have set up LGBT non-discrimination employment policies.

“It’s long past time for our politicians to follow the good example set by companies with a strong North Carolina presence ranging from American Eagle Outfitters to BP gasoline to Coca-Cola, all of which have endorsed the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Almeida said.

In Ohio, GetEQUAL is showcasing two mothers with different stories. Both are set to speak at a news conference Wednesday at the John W. Bricker Federal Building in Columbus, Ohio.

One, Lyn Herron, is the mother of a straight son who was a salesperson at a national retail establishment for four years, but was denied several promotions allegedly because the district manager thought he was gay. The other, Gail Burkholder, is the mother of one gay son and one straight son, said she doesn’t know why the federal government treats them differently.

“Both of my boys are over six feet tall, are studying the sciences in college and graduate school, and have found the person with whom they want to have kids and grow old together,” Burkholder said in a statement. “Please tell me which one can and should be legally fired because of who he is, rather than what he can do for his employer!”

Heather Cronk, managing director for GetEQUAL, said her organization is helping bring these stories to Portman’s attention because he already publicly came out for marriage equality after learning his son is gay.

“We’re calling on Senator Portman to ‘evolve’ on workplace discrimination in the same way that he ‘evolved’ on marriage equality — by seeing this issue as one of fundamental fairness and equal opportunity,” Cronk said.

The Human Rights Campaign is also taking action in favor of ENDA on the eve of the Senate markup. The organization announced on Tuesday that the hotel chain Hilton Worldwide will become the 100th major corporation to join HRC’s “Business Coalition for Workplace Fairness,” a coalition of U.S. employers that support ENDA.

Although Portman isn’t a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, Burr is. The North Carolina senator’s views on ENDA will become known on Wednesday during the final vote to report the legislation to the floor.

In a statement to the Blade provided by his office, Burr said he plans to oppose ENDA despite his earlier vote in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal — even though he opposes discrimination.

“Like most Americans, I strongly oppose and condemn unjust discrimination,” Burr said. “It is my hope that our society can be tolerant of different people and ideas. That said, whenever we consider new legislation we must always consider the interplay of new laws with existing rights. I am concerned that the ENDA bill would go beyond our existing laws protecting individuals’ employment rights and would impose new burdens and legal uncertainties regarding the exercise of religious liberties. Therefore, I plan to oppose the bill.”

Last month, Jeffrey Sadosky, a Portman spokesperson, told the Blade that Portman is reviewing ENDA and opposes discrimination, but has concerns about the bill.

“Sen. Portman is strongly opposed to discrimination and is looking at proposals to address it,” Sadosky said. “He is concerned about excessive reliance on litigation as a tool for social change, and will continue to review the most recent version of ENDA.”

Attention is also focused on Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska,) a Republican member of the committee that will vote Wednesday on ENDA. She’s hasn’t yet articulated a position on the legislation, but is one of three sitting Republicans support marriage equality and voted for hate crimes protections and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

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

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