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The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would extend federal workplace discrimination protections to gay, lesbian and transgender employees.
First proposed in 1994, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, S. 815, would make it illegal for employers with more than 15 full-time workers to refuse to hire, terminate or otherwise discriminate against any individual on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, classes that are not currently protected under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The bill was approved in the Senate by a vote of 64-32, with 10 Republicans joining the Democratic majority in supporting Title VII's expansion to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.
“Everyone should have the right to work hard and earn a living,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the bill's chief sponsor, said in a statement released shortly after the vote. “No one should be fired for who they are or who they love. The Senate said today in a strong bipartisan voice that discrimination is just plain wrong. We are one step closer to equality for our LGBT friends and family.”
Only 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation outlawing employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Four states — Maryland, New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin — have passed laws prohibiting discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation, but not gender identity.
The proposed law includes exemptions for religious institutions and nonprofit members-only organizations, apart from labor unions. On Wednesday, the Senate approved an amendment prohibiting the federal, state or local regulators from retaliating against exempt organizations that refuse to voluntarily comply with the proposed law.
Thursday’s vote marks the first time the full Senate has voted in favor of extending workplace discrimination protections to LGBT workers. A previous incarnation of the ENDA bill was approved in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007, though that law would not have included protections from discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
“Just as no one in the United States can lose their job simply because of their race, gender, religion or a disability, no one should ever lose their job simply because of who they are or who they love,” President Barack Obama said in a statement following the Senate’s vote. “I urge the House Republican leadership to bring this bill to the floor for a vote and send it to my desk so I can sign it into law.”
Despite ENDA’s bipartisan support in the Senate, the bill is predicted to fail in the Republican-controlled House. Earlier this week, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement to media outlets indicating that Mr. Boehner opposes the law on the basis that it will expose employers to undue civil litigation.