Allow House vote on worthy anti-discrimination law

The News TribuneNovember 18, 2013 

The Senate may have passed legislation barring workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but supporters shouldn’t get their hopes up that it will become law anytime soon. There’s little chance that House Speaker John Boehner will allow a vote on ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

That’s unfortunate. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans – almost 90 percent – believe gays and lesbians are entitled to equal rights in the workplace. In fact, most Americans are under the impression they already have those rights.

They don’t. It’s unlawful for employers to discriminate against workers on the basis of gender, race, religion, pregnancy, age, disability and national origin. But homosexuality, bisexuality or transgender status is fair game in states and cities that don’t have their own nondiscrimination laws. Washington is one state that does extend workplace protection to sexual minorities.

In places that do not have nondiscrimination laws, gays can be fired simply because employers learned – or suspected – their sexual orientation was something other that straight. An employer can pay a gay person less than an equally qualified heterosexual or deny that person a promotion.

That’s not fair, and most Americans recognize it. Boehner should at least pay lip service to the anti-discrimination trend in this county that now allows gays to openly serve in the military and marry in 15 states and the District of Columbia. They can die for their country, but be denied a job or equal pay?

If Republicans are being honest about wanting to reach out to younger voters, denying workplace rights to sexual minorities isn’t the way to do it; those voters are even more likely to support equal rights. ENDA has sufficient protections for small businesses – it would only apply to employers with 15 or more workers – and has broad exemptions for religious institutions.

Some supporters of ENDA hope to do an end run around the House. They’re urging President Obama to use his executive order power to bar discrimination by employers receiving federal money – which would affect about 20 percent of the nation’s workforce.

There’s precedent for such action; Lyndon Johnson extended that kind of protection in 1965 on the basis of race, religion and national origin, followed in 1967 by an order barring gender-based discrimination.

Obama should give Boehner a chance to do the right thing. If the speaker fails to allow a vote in the House – where it’s expected that it would pass – then the president should use his executive order to at least require fair treatment by employers who receive federal dollars.

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