Bipartisan backing for ban on discrimination against gays

By:  Seattle Times - Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle Times

A U.S. Senate committee on Tuesday gave strong bipartisan backing to federal legislation that would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in the workplace, or denial of employment based on sexual identity. The legislation is edging toward enough support to overcome a blocking filibuster.

The 15-7 vote in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee included a trio of Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  Yes, Orrin Hatch, who was persuaded by bill language providing strong exemptions for religious employers.

“Discrimination of any kind, against anyone, is unacceptable, so I am incredibly proud to have voted for this historic legislation today,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the committee.

Twenty-one states (including Washington) and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, with just 16 including provisions on sexual identity.

Anne Levinson, a former judge and Seattle deputy mayor, noted that the issue has been before Congress for 19 years.

“Many Americans don’t realize that federal law prohibiting discrimination does not protect gay employees,” said Levinson.  “For those lesbians and gay individuals who live in states without a non-discrimination law, they can still get fired without cause, nor not hired at all.

“Ironically, they may be able to travel to another state to marry, but they run the risk of being fired if their employer reads their marriage announcement.”

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act has a total of 53 Senate cosponsors, including Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.  Two are Republicans.  With Murkowski and Hatch voting in support, the legislation is not far from the 60 votes needed to overcome certain efforts by conservative Republicans to block floor consideration.

The leadership of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives remains hostile to the legislation.  Still, the Senate committee vote was taken as an encouraging sign by supporters.

“This is real progress for the first time on federal legislation:  The bipartisan vote is very encouraging,” said State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who fought 17 years in the Legislature to bring marriage equality to Washington.