On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) committee held a hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in most workplaces. This hearing was the first since 2009 to be held in the long-running effort to pass an employment non-discrimination bill at the federal level.
Although the bill in its various forms has failed to pass a number of times since its initial introduction in 1994, support is stronger now, more than ever. Introduced by Senators Merkley and Kirk in the Senate, and Reps. Frank and Ros-Lehtinen in the House, ENDA has bipartisan support in both Houses. It also has the written support of approximately 90 corporations and 37 religious organizations. Tuesday’s hearing also marked the first time a transgender witness has testified in the history of the Senate.
Also telling of the potential success of the bill was the lack of opposition from those in attendance at the hearing. Only one of the five witnesses, Craig Parshall of the Religious Broadcasters Associations, testified against ENDA, arguing that the current religious exemption could possibly infringe on religious liberty interests and spur a flood of litigation. However, Prof. Samuel Bagenstos of the University of Michigan Law School countered these claims by pointing to the breadth of ENDA’s religious exemptions compared to other federal employment protections, such as Title VII.
The real question at this point is what happens next. It is up to the HELP committee to move this bill to the full Senate. Until Senator Harkin brings the bill to a vote, the majority of LGBT individuals who lack employment protections in their local or state laws will continue living without workplace protection. We commend the committee for holding the hearing, but in order to insure the safety of the economic security in LGBT families these next steps need to take place. Based on the support and clear lack of controversy displayed at the hearing now would be an ideal time to listen to the 73% of Americans who believe it should be illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment.