An overdue measure to outlaw employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity cleared a procedural hurdle on Monday night in the Senate. The move is one step toward putting into federal law a basic principle most Americans support: Job applicants and employees should be judged on their professional credentials and the caliber of their work, and not be held back because of who they are.
The Employment Nondiscrimination Act, however, has a significant flaw — a terribly broad religious exemption. The exemption would extend beyond churches and other houses of worship to any religiously affiliated institution, like hospitals and universities, and would allow those institutions to discriminate against people in jobs with no religious function, like billing clerks, cafeteria workers and medical personnel.
The exemption — which was inserted to appease some opponents who say the act threatens religious freedom — is a departure from the approach of earlier civil rights laws. And though the law would protect millions of workers from bias, the exemption would give a stamp of legitimacy to the very sort of discrimination the act is meant to end. Any attempt to further enlarge the exemption should be rejected.
In all, 61 senators voted to overcome a Republican filibuster, including seven Republicans, who put to shame colleagues in their party who are still mired in intolerant thinking and too scared of Tea Party reactionaries to do the right thing. The victory on the motion to proceed appears to ensure Senate approval by the end of the week.
The measure is urgently needed. Currently, just 17 states have laws barring employers from refusing to hire or promote people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and another four states have workplace nondiscrimination laws that cover gay men, lesbians and bisexuals but not transgender people.
The outcome of Monday’s vote was assured when Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., announced that he would provide the 60th vote needed to let a debate on the bill proceed. The House speaker, John Boehner, responded immediately by stating his opposition to the bill. Even after Senate passage, winning approval from the Republican-led House will be very tough.
A spokesman for Boehner said the speaker believes that ensuring workplace fairness for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual Americans would “increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs.” Those concerns are not borne out by the experience in states that have had such protections for years. And that kind of excuse, of course, was used decades ago to try to block legislation to outlaw discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, national origin and disabilities.
Many businesses already have nondiscrimination policies, and a growing number of business leaders support the bill. This is just another example of House Republican leaders refusing to accept the evolving culture of tolerance in America to avoid a revolt by the most extreme members of their caucus.
— The New York Times
An editorial in Monday’s edition gave an incorrect figure for the number of Americans who died as a result of battle and other deaths during World War I. The number is closer to 116,500 soldiers. We regret the error.