One of the eight Republican co-sponsors of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act opposes rewriting the bill despite the controversy over its religious exemption, saying that the language could enable a successful vote as an amendment to a larger legislative vehicle.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a Republican known for his support for LGBT rights, said in an interview with the Washington Blade that ENDA should remain as it’s currently written when asked if he would support a bill with a narrower exemption.
“I’m standing by the bill that I co-sponsored, and that’s been introduced in the House and has passed the Senate,” Dent said. “That’s the bill that I support. I don’t believe that the religious exemption should be amended in the aftermath of the Hobby Lobby case.”
A major theme among groups that pulled support from ENDA last week was the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case, but Dent said he would advise against looking to that decision for guidance on the ENDA religious exemption given the lawsuit’s outcome.
“In fact, I would argue very strenuously that we ought not be looking to the health care law for guidance on how to draft this exemption given how that whole situation has gone,” Dent said.
Counting Dent, the eight Republican co-sponsors of ENDA in the House are Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.), Jon Runyan (N.J.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Mike Coffman (Colo.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.) and Chris Gibson (N.Y.)
Dent, who’s also a supporter of marriage equality, asserted the religious exemption in ENDA isn’t controversial because he says it’s consistent with the Civil Rights of 1964.
LGBT opponents of the bill say they dropped support for the religious exemption because it’s broader than the exemption under existing law. Even if ENDA were signed into law, religious organizations could still discriminate against or fire someone in a non-minsterial role based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Informed that LGBT opponents of ENDA believe the religious exemption in the bill is broader than civil rights laws protecting other groups, Dent maintained the current language is important because that version of the bill passed the Senate.
“In order to get further bipartisan support, I believe weakening, or narrowing the religious exemption, will limit our ability to get further support from the Republican side of the aisle,” Dent said. “So, I guess the issue is I believe we need to maintain the broader religious exemption in order to pass the bill.”
Despite the withdrawal of support from many, including the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the American Civil Liberties Union, Dent noted the Human Rights Campaign still backs the bill and said he does not sense a groundswell of opposition to the bill.
Dent’s position is along the lines of other LGBT Republican groups — such as Log Cabin Republican and the American Unity Fund — that continue to support the bill with its current religious exemption, despite the withdrawal of support from LGBT groups.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said his organization’s position on ENDA is aligned with the Pennsylvania Republican’s views.
“I spoke with Congressman Dent personally on Friday, and our position on ENDA is the same as his: This version of ENDA received broad bi-partisan support in the Senate and has bi-partisan support in the House,” Angelo said. “We support ENDA as-is and will continue to push for its passage in this Congress.”
Spokespersons for Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who were among the 10 Republicans to vote for ENDA in the Senate last year, also said they continue to support ENDA with its current language.
And even though House Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly said he opposes the legislation and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said the chances are “not very good” ENDA will pass the Republican-controlled House, Dent envisioned a way to the pass the current bill by attaching it to another legislative vehicle.
“There’s always the possibility that some other legislative vehicle would come before the House that could be amended to include the House and Senate ENDA language,” Dent said. “And that possibility still remains. The question is, will there be an appropriate legislative vehicle to be amended? That’s the issue.”
Dent said he wasn’t sure which bill would be appropriate to amend.
Amid controversy over ENDA, a number of groups, including HRC, have endorsed the idea of a comprehensive bill that in addition to banning anti-LGBT discrimination in employment would cover other categories like public accommodations, housing and credit.
Asked whether he would support such a bill, Dent said he thinks it’s important to pass legislation first that’s pending before Congress.
“I say let’s walk before we run. Let’s pass the bill that’s under consideration,” Dent said. “I suppose we can always cross those other bridges when we come to that. For some people, the perfect will always be the enemy of the good. I think one has to accept incremental progress.”
There’s speculation that groups dropped support for ENDA to make a stronger case against a religious exemption in a planned executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors.
Faith-based groups, including Catholic Charities USA, are calling for an exemption in the upcoming directive to allow religious organizations to discriminate against LGBT workers while receiving federal contractors.
Asked whether he would support a religious exemption in the executive order, Dent he prefers addressing the issue of LGBT workplace discrimination legislatively without resorting to administrative action.
“I believe we should deal with this issue legislatively as opposed to administratively. President Obama can issue an executive order if he’d like,” Dent said. “But frankly, President Obama doesn’t have a particularly good record with religious exemptions.”
Asked if that response means a religious exemption in the planned executive order would be a good idea, Dent replied, “Yeah, sure.” But he expressed skepticism the Obama administration would find the right language to withstand scrutiny from the courts.
“I just don’t see them writing a religious exemption that will be not used against us is [like] the one that they provided for under the health care law with respect to Hobby Lobby case,” Dent said. “This falls to religiously affiliated institutions like schools, hospitals and charities, where there is also pending litigation. I just believe the administration has been walking on thin ice with respect to these religious exemptions.”