The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is a piece of legislation that is so simple, so common-sense, that you will be shocked that it isn't already the law of the land.
Right now, federal law declares that employers can't fire or refuse to hire someone simply on the basis of their race, religion, gender, age or disability status. Yet in more than half the states in this country, a boss faces no legal repercussions for walking over to one of his employees and saying, "You're gay and I don't want any gay people working here. You're fired." All passing ENDA into law would do is change that. It simply expands the circle of workplace fairness to include LGBT Americans.
Didn't know this wasn't already the law? You're not alone. ENDA is supported by more than two-thirds of Americans; it's backed by broad majorities of Democrats and Republicans. Most Americans assume that a policy so straightforward would have been enacted years ago.
But it hasn't been. And right now we have an opportunity to make things right. Last month, the U. S. Senate passed ENDA with a huge bipartisan majority. Ten Senate Republicans joined with every Senate Democrat to support the bill. Now focus is turning to the House of Representatives, where many are confident that ENDA could pass if the House leadership brings the bill to the floor and allows the chamber to vote its conscience.
I'm profoundly optimistic about ENDA's chances because the arguments against the bill are so transparently phony that they don't even hold up to the most modest scrutiny.
The bill's most radical adversaries have argued that it represents "the end of religious freedom in America." But ENDA contains exemptions – in keeping with other federal laws – which ensure that religious organizations will always be free to make personnel decisions on the basis of their religious tenets.
Others have argued that ENDA will hurt small businesses and kill jobs. Again, a quick scan of the bill reveals that to be false. The text contains a standard small-business exemption. And, when it comes to jobs, more than 100 major corporations have endorsed ENDA as the right thing to do and good for business, too.
In fact, Sen. Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, supports ENDA specifically because of its business bona fides. "The fact that a majority of Fortune 500 companies already have taken steps to stop discrimination in the workplace highlights that our action is overdue," Kirk said, before further arguing that this legislation is essential if the United States hopes to "maintain our competitive edge in the global economy."
But the most baffling argument against ENDA is made by opponents who suggest that these protections are already guaranteed by existing law. It's a nice thought, but the LGBT Americans who continue to experience workplace discrimination in dozens of states across this country would beg to differ.
At a time when Washington is perceived as deeply divided, there is simply no good reason why both parties shouldn't come together and get behind a unifying bill like ENDA. Americans are looking for a sign that folks in Congress can still get big things done – that our elected officials can still do the right thing. I hope the House of Representatives seizes this opportunity, as the Senate already has done, to do the right thing for millions of Americans and to guarantee that every worker gets a fair shake on the job.
Allison Herwitt is vice president for government affairs at the Human Rights Campaign.
- Vote: Should Congress Pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act?
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- Read Susan Milligan: Don't Boycott the 2014 Olympics Over Putin and Gays – It Won't Help