July 10, 2013 at 10:38 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
HISTORIC: Senate panel advances trans-inclusive ENDA
United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade, HELP Committee

Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee approved a trans-inclusive ENDA on Wednesday (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Senate committee made history on Wednesday by approving for the first time a trans-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and picking up key Republican support from Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee reported out ENDA by a 15-7 vote after a short period of discussion. No amendments were offered except for a manager’s amendment, although Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he’ll reserve three that he planned for consideration on the Senate floor.

Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) noted the historic nature of the committee’s action prior to the vote and said it’s “time, long past time” for Congress to take action against LGBT workplace discrimination.

“Qualified workers should not be turned away or have to fear losing their livelihood for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications, skills or performance,” Harkin said. “Let’s not mince words: such practices are un-American. They should have no place in any American workplace.”

All 12 Democrats on the committee, including lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), are co-sponsors of the bill as well as one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). They each voted in favor of ENDA during the final vote.

At the start of the markup, Kirk explained he has supported ENDA — both in his capacity as a U.S. House member and a U.S. senator — because gay people should “not have that cloud of potential discrimination” in the workplace.

Speaking with reporters afterwards, Kirk explained his support for ENDA derives in part from his work as an officer in the Navy Reserve.

“For me, as you guys know, I’m a military guy,” Kirk said. “We think about how blindingly idiotic it was for Adolf Hitler to discriminate against the Jews. When you think about all the Senate pieces of the Manhattan Project, we actually developed a war-winning weapon because we were protecting creativity and science, and we became a much stronger society that allowed us to prevail. The society that is more open will be stronger, in my view, probably economically and militarily.”

Tammy Baldwin, Mark Kirk, Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

New support for ENDA also came from Republicans on the panel: Hatch and Murkowksi. Hatch voted “yes” by proxy and Murkowski voted “yes” in person. The Alaska senator is the third sitting Republican U.S. senator to come out in favor of marriage equality.

In a statement after the markup, Murkowski said she voted “yes” because “discrimination should never be tolerated in the workplace.”

“I am a strong believer that individuals should be judged on whether they can do the job, not their sexual orientation – and I appreciate the hundreds of Alaskans who shared their thoughts with me and my staff as we considered this bill,” Murkowski said.

While she said improvements to the bill “might be in order in the form of floor amendments,” Murkowski added she’s pleased ENDA addresses “employers’ needs to run efficiently and reduce compliance costs” by prohibiting discrimination claims based on disparate impact.

In a statement provided to the Washington Blade, Hatch explained he was able to support ENDA because of the strong religious exemption in the bill.

“I appreciate that the authors of the bill were willing to include a robust religious exemption in this bill,” Hatch said. “I voted for it because it prohibits discrimination that should not occur in the workplace, it protects the rights of religious entities, and minimizes legal burdens on employers.”

The bill now heads to full Senate for passage on the floor, where 60 votes will likely be necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster. During the markup, Harkin said he expects ENDA to come to the floor “sometime in the fall,” but not before lawmakers leave for August break.

Asked by the Washington Blade after the committee vote whether he’s confident that ENDA will find 60 votes on the Senate floor, Harkin replied, “Yeah, I think we’ll have 60 votes.”

“As you saw, we had some very key Republicans on the committee, and that will be very helpful,” Harkin said. “As I said, I think society is there, and the things that have recently happened with the Supreme Court decision and others, I think we’re ready to move on in a way that we haven’t been ready move on in the past. Keep your fingers crossed.”

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is responsible for scheduling what comes to the floor in the Senate. His office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on when an ENDA floor vote would take place. In his Pride statement issued last month, Reid said he looks forward to bringing up ENDA “soon.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement saying President Obama “welcomes” the bipartisan support ENDA received in committee and looks forward to further action.

“The President has long supported an inclusive ENDA, which would enshrine into law strong, lasting and comprehensive protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Carney said. “We look forward to the full Senate’s consideration of ENDA, and continue to urge the House to move forward on this bill that upholds America’s core values of fairness and equality.”

It was the first markup of ENDA in the Senate since 2002 and the first time ever a committee in either chamber of Congress approved a version of ENDA that protects not only gay, lesbian and bisexual people from workplace discrimination, but also transgender people.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said a trans-inclusive ENDA has been advancing all along, but committee approval of the bill with gender identity protections is “really amazing.”

“This is a life-or-death issue for trans people, and I think this shows that we’re moving, we’re going to get it done,” Keisling said. “Next, we’re going to get it passed in the Senate, and we’re going to try to figure out how to get it through the dysfunctional House of Representatives. But it’s really important and shows trans people everywhere that this is going to happen — whether it’s this year or another year — it’s going to happen. We are going to get relief from job discrimination.”

Transgender inclusion in ENDA has been a sensitive issue in the LGBT community. In 2007, gay former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) removed ENDA’s gender identity provisions before holding a House vote on the bill because he said the votes were lacking to pass the legislation with those protections on the House floor. The decision led to an outcry and ENDA advanced no further even though Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, praised the Senate committee approval of ENDA, calling the vote “fantastic.”

“It was a big, bipartisan win, and we’re going this ride momentum to 60 votes by September,” Almeida said. “We think we can get to 60 votes in the Senate in September — possibly October if it takes that long. We could actually get between 60 and 65 votes in the end in the Senate, and that huge momentum will allow us to do some real campaigning with members of the House.”

Despite the support ENDA’s religious exemption has received from Republicans like Hatch, there are differing opinions on the language within the LGBT community.

Unlike existing employment discrimination law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, ENDA’s religious exemption provides leeway for religious organizations, like churches or religious schools, to discriminate against LGBT employees.

Some ENDA supporters, like the Center for American Progress, say ENDA’s religious exemption is politically necessary for the bill to pass Congress, while others, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say it allows for continued LGBT workplace discrimination. No action was taken on the religious exemption during the markup.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the ACLU, said after the markup he’s pleased with the progress on ENDA, but added the growing support for LGBT rights demonstrates the bill’s religious exemption may no longer be necessary.

“Today’s vote clearly demonstrates that the tide has turned on LGBT rights,” Thompson said. “What was true five, 10, and 20 years ago is no longer the case. To that end, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no reason to adopt an exemption that would needlessly dilute ENDA’s critical protections.”

Before final passage, the committee approved by unanimous consent a manager’s amendment that made technical changes to ENDA.

Some changes were made at the behest of GOP supporters who wanted clarification on certain issues. Among them is ensuring under ENDA disparate impact claims are not allowed; a plaintiff cannot recover for the same offense under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and ENDA; and an employer can amend an existing poster notifying employees of the non-discrimination policy, rather than creating a separate poster.

The manager’s amendment also updates ENDA in the wake of Supreme Court rulings on employment non-discrimination law. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2009 case of Gross v. FBL Financial, the bill now includes language to ensure that the burden of proof in mixed motive cases is the same under ENDA as it is under Title VII.

Almeida, who had called for an update to ENDA in the wake of the Gross ruling, commended Harkin and his counsel for “fixing the loopholes and technical mistakes” that existed in the original version of ENDA.

“Some were on the left, and some were on the right,” Almeida said. “By making these corrections, Chairman has shown respect for Republicans on the committee and created a smarter, better Employment Non-Discrimination Act.”

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

  • It’s pretty clear that however distasteful the religious exemption in the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act may be for its supporters, it is, unfortunately, necessary for the legislation to avoid a First Amendment freedom-of-religion legal challenge in court — a legal challenge religious groups opposed to LGBT rights would almost certainly win if ENDA became law without the exemption.

  • About time that they have their rights…………

  • I think the article should name the fifteens senators who voted “Yes” and the seven senators who voted “No”. I am for this bill and I would like to know how everyone voted. I am sure many other readers would also.

  • Typo corrected: I meant “fifteen”, of course. Sorry.

  • One day I came across an article asking the question of why a strait white guy would support transgender rights. The answer is simple. Many transgenders have proven their worth to society. Everyday their contributions go unnoticed, but they are there and they make our world a better place to live.

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