June 4, 2014 at 12:52 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Is it time to ditch ENDA?
GetEQUAL, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, ENDA, gay news, Washington Blade, LGBT workers

An employment non-discrimination protest in May, 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Despite new calls to ditch support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act over objections to a religious exemption in the bill, major national LGBT groups say they continue to support the legislation.

Gregory Nevins, an attorney and Workplace Fairness Program Strategist for Lambda Legal, was among those saying his organization continues to back ENDA so that long sought-after federal non-discrimination protections in the workplace would be enshrined in law.

“The bottom line is that we continue to support ENDA and the legal protections it would provide to millions of LGBT workers and the clarity it provides to employers,” Nevins said. “Of course, we also are grateful for the efforts of you and other journalists to educate our community and the public about the problematic religious exemption and our efforts to bring it in line with existing Title VII law.”

Lambda continues to support ENDA even though the organization — along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Transgender Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights — signed a joint letter expressing “grave concerns” about the religious exemption at the time Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced the bill last year in the U.S. Senate.

ENDA’s religious exemption would provide leeway for religious institutions, like churches or religious schools, to discriminate against LGBT workers in non-ministerial positions even if ENDA were to become law. It’s broader than similar exemptions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for categories of race, gender, religion and national origin.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the ACLU, said his organization still supports ENDA even though it plans to keep speaking out about concerns over the religious exemption.

“When ENDA was reintroduced in 2013 with an unchanged, sweeping religious exemption, we made our very grave concerns crystal clear,” Thompson said. “At the same time, given the lack of explicit statewide non-discrimination protections in a majority of the country and the millions of LGBT Americans who would benefit from ENDA’s protections, we announced our support for the bill. Since then, we have worked tirelessly to educate the broader community about the dangers of ENDA’s current religious exemption and the need for it to be narrowed. While our position remains unchanged, we will continue to work with our partner organizations and allies in Congress to ensure that ENDA’s religious exemption is narrowed.”

In fact, the ACLU is a founding member of the Americans for Workplace Opportunities coalition, a group that worked to pass the current version of ENDA through the Senate last year, and aims to do the same this year in the House.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said her organization is also behind ENDA as it’s currently written — even though she penned an op-ed in The Huffington Post saying ENDA should be strengthened prior to its reintroduction.

“Trans and other LGBT people need us to pass a strong federal anti-discrimination bill, and we strongly support ENDA this year,” Keisling said. “The current state of anti-discrimination law is obviously not sufficient, and though the current form of ENDA is far less than perfect, we advocate for conversations with the community and with Congress about how to improve ENDA. NCTE has been engaged already in conversations about both the scope of the bill and its religious exemption.”

Concerns about the religious exemption, and whether or not the LGBT community should continue to support the bill because of that language, have become more pronounced recently after a prominent LGBT advocate and the New York-based grassroots group Queer Nation said it’s time to abandon the bill.

Matt Foreman, former head of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said it’s “time to pull the plug on this essentially lifeless corpse” in favor of a broader civil rights bill that contains protections for housing and public accommodations. He criticized ENDA for having “a religious exemption big enough for an 18-wheeler to cruise through.”

After the Human Rights Campaign sent a letter last week to the Vatican expressing concerns about the firing of teachers for being gay at Catholic schools, Queer Nation issued a statement condemning the national group for continuing to lobby for a version of ENDA that would allow such discrimination to happen.

“HRC can’t have it both ways,” said Ken Kidd, a member of Queer Nation. “It can’t criticize Roman Catholic schools for discriminating against LGBT Americans and then seek to make that discrimination legal under federal law. ENDA is a lousy bill and it should be scrapped. What the LGBT community needs is comprehensive federal civil rights legislation.”

Queer Nation has asserted that none of the major LGBT legal groups back ENDA because of the religious exemption. But the continued expressed support of the bill from Lambda and ACLU contradicts that claim.

Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, said in response to the criticism from Queen Nation that his organization continues to support ENDA because it would help stop workplace discrimination against LGBT people.

“Without the important legal protections that would come with legislation like ENDA, millions of LGBT people across America will continue to face the very real threat of workplace discrimination for no other reason than their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Sainz said. “We will continue to work with our partner organizations to ensure that LGBT Americans are not subject to discrimination.”

Also continuing to support ENDA, even though it has previously expressed concerns about the religious exemption, is Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

“LGBT people are facing economic insecurity and employment discrimination everywhere, everyday, with many living in places with zero protections,” Carey said. “While ENDA is far from perfect, including the existing religious exemption, we currently support ENDA as one piece of the solution to help tackle this urgent problem.”

Still, Carey said her organization sees ENDA as just one piece of a solution to a larger problem of addressing inequity and discrimination in America.

“We also believe that ending discrimination against LGBT people and their families requires more than ENDA and that ending employment discrimination is just one piece of a much bigger, more comprehensive set of changes needed to deliver real freedom and justice for all LGBTQ people — including ending discrimination in housing, fixing our broken immigration system and ensuring the right to vote in this country,” Carey said.

An LGBT activist involved with ENDA, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the current version of ENDA is a compromise and the result of significant negotiation in the Senate to obtain support from Republicans — in some cases support from conservative Democrats —  for a successful vote on the floor.

“There is no doubt that the religious exemption is not what we want it to be,” the activist said. “Getting it to the point where it was a negotiated solution.”

The activist said the primary goal for groups working on ENDA is securing additional Republican co-sponsors in the House to encourage a vote in that chamber. However, if ENDA doesn’t pass this year, the activist said the bill likely won’t be reintroduced as it’s currently written next year. The activist wasn’t able to speculate about what this new version of ENDA would look like, or definitively say whether the religious exemption would be different.

The offices of gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo) and Merkley, who lead the legislation in the House and Senate, didn’t respond to a request for comment on calls to drop ENDA over concerns regarding the religious exemption.

The only national LGBT group that refuses to support ENDA because of its religious exemption is the grassroots group GetEQUAL, which had first articulated its opposition to the bill in September just prior to the U.S. Senate vote on it.

Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said the position remains the case for her organization, but added it would support a broader civil rights bill that offers protection for LGBT people in areas other than employment.

“GetEQUAL does not support this version of ENDA,” Cronk said. “Carving out broad religious exemptions to civil rights legislation is dangerous — it’s dangerous for LGBTQ individuals, it’s dangerous for women, and it’s dangerous for anyone who is currently protected by other civil rights legislation but whose safety and security would be compromised by the precedent this version of the bill would set.”

The current religious exemption in ENDA was actually co-written by Tico Almeida, now president of Freedom to Work. In 2007, the religious exemption was adopted as an amendment on the House floor to the sexual-orientation version of ENDA that passed the chamber at that time. At the time, Almeida was a staffer for the House Education & Labor Committee.

Almeida, who has championed the current version of ENDA, called for a broader bill that would achieve more than just employment protections for LGBT people in response to an inquiry about dropping support for ENDA over the religious exemption.

“Freedom to Work supports a comprehensive LGBT bill covering housing, public accommodations, federal programs and credit along with employment protections, and we plan to lobby for it once introduced,” Almeida said.

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

  • Religion has always and remains a problem for LGBT folks. It is the main justification given for homophobia, for discrimination, and hate for gay people. Religion is a problem! I wonder why gay folks still attend ANY church. Humanism is the best viable alternative to anti-gay religion.

  • We give religion, especially those with a history of hate, intolerance, discrimination, and even violence against gays, too much power by writing broad religious exemptions into law. At the very least we should expect and demand that religious institutions, such as churches and schools, follow the law as all others must. We are after all a country governed by laws and not by personal belief systems. We have already seen catholic schools claim that their teachers are all "ministers" and are therefore exempt from following the law.

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