Workplace discrimination is alive and well. If the fact that I was gay became common knowledge at the school where I teach, then it is likely that I would lose my job. I believe that I would have the support of my headmaster, a good portion of the faculty, and several people on the schools board of directors. However, even that might not save my job, but the U.S. Senate passage of S.285, the Employee Nondiscrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA) yesterday could give me the protection I would need if it also passed the House and was signed by President Obama. If passed, ENDA would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by civilian, nonreligious employers with at least 15 employees. Though my school may consider itself Christian-oriented, we are not affiliated with any religious organization and we have more than 15 employees. Therefore, they could not be exempt from ENDA.
I am not the only teacher in America who works extremely hard to educate America’s children who risk losing their job each day because of their sexual orientation. Besides, it does not just pertain to teachers, but all professions. The American people have, over the past two decades, become much more amenable to LGBT Americans, and LGBT rights in general, yet there are still parts of the country which need a push further in the right direction (i.e. the South). According to the Williams Institute at UCLA Law, between 15 and 43 percent of LGB people have experienced workplace discrimination or harassment, and between 8 and 17 percent have been hired or fired due to their sexual orientation. Just as startlingly, up to 41 percent of LGB employees have experienced anti-gay harassment or abuse in the workplace. That number soars up to 90 percent for trans people. Meanwhile, gay people can still be fired for their sexuality in 29 states. (For trans people, it’s 34.)
The first time the full U.S. Senate had an opportunity to vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was on Sept. 5, 1996, after the legislation had already died twice in what was then known as the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. When all of the votes had been cast, ENDA lost by just one, 50-49. Flash-forward to today, and ENDA has now passed the Senate by a 64-32 margin. The Senate roll call vote tells the tale: of the 50 seats from which a “Nay” vote was cast in 1996, 20 are now occupied by “Yea” voting senators, while only four “Yea” voting seats have flipped back. In Alaska, Colorado, and New Hampshire, there have been complete makeovers — two “Nays” swapped out for a pair of “Yeas” in each state.
One of the most commonly observed features in the growing support for LGBT people across the country is the fact that younger Americans tend to be leading the shift in opinion. Interestingly enough, there were some examples of this in the Senate vote. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted for the bill Thursday, 17 years after her father, then-Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), voted against it. And Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) voted in favor, while back in 1996, his father, then-Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), did not vote.
Republicans should support these protections, and I hope the GOP leadership in the House schedules the bill for a vote. It’s the morally right thing to do. No one should lose their job, or not get hired, because of their sexual orientation. Allowing people to be successful in their workplaces is an essential piece of individual opportunity and liberty. Working for a living is one of America’s freedoms. It’s a virtue to be encouraged — and supporting it is important to the future of the Republican Party. In an era in which the government often punishes hard work and individual success, this bill encourages it.
At its core, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is about individual liberty. All employees should be treated the same and be judged on their job performance. No one should receive special treatment, and no one should be fired because of their sexual orientation. Since the 1960s, Congress has passed laws ensuring that employers can’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion or gender — personal characteristics that have nothing to do with how well someone does his or her job. These laws are widely accepted throughout our society. Who among us today would say an employer should have the right to fire someone because of their faith or the color of their skin? The same sense of fairness and respect should apply to the hundreds of thousands of qualified, hardworking Americans covered by ENDA.
Many in the business community, recognizing the importance of a qualified, skilled workforce, are well ahead of the federal government. Now is time for the government to catch up so that nondiscrimination laws protect workers at all companies, not just some. The reason there is Republican and business support for ENDA is simple: It’s reasonable. The bill respects many different viewpoints, allowing exemptions for religious organizations, for example.
Senator John McCain put out a statement Thursday before the vote, indicating that he planned to support the bill:
I have always believed that workplace discrimination – whether based on religion, gender, race, national origin or sexual orientation – is inconsistent with the basic values that America holds dear. With the addition of an amendment I co-sponsored with Senators Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte strengthening protections for religious institutions, I am pleased to support this legislation.
Republicans in the House claim that the bill would encourage frivolous lawsuits that have more to do with enriching attorneys and less to do with fighting discrimination. But there is no evidence to suggest that would not be the case, based on the experience of the states and municipalities that have already adopted ENDA-like policies and the growing number of businesses that have done the same. If Fortune 500 companies were concerned about lawsuits, they wouldn’t be tackling discrimination on their own.
I hope the House Republicans do the right thing by bringing ENDA up for a vote and voting for its passage.