The U.S. Senate sent a bill banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity on the path to passage Monday, a moment decades in the making for the gay rights movement.
Georgia’s Republican senators stood against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, as House Speaker John Boehner reaffirmed his opposition to the bill as burdensome on business, putting its chances of becoming law in serious doubt.
The bill would ban employers from hiring or firing based on whether employees are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, adding those to similar prohibitions on racial discrimination. Religious organizations are not bound by the bill.
Variations of the bill came within one vote of Senate passage in 1996 and passed a Democratic-controlled House in 2007 without Senate action, so Monday’s 61-30 tally was seen as a milestone.
“Today we saw American democracy in action with the U.S. Senate finally following the will of a diverse and bipartisan collection of Americans calling for workplace fairness,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, after the bill cleared a 60-vote procedural test that could lead to final passage this week.
President Barack Obama backed the legislation along with a unanimous Democratic caucus and seven Republican senators.
But Boehner’s office said the man who controls the House agenda continues to oppose the bill because an increase in discrimination lawsuits could cost jobs and he believes existing law is sufficient to protect against discrimination.
Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson had similar concerns, even though no senators spoke against the bill on the floor Monday. Isakson voted no and Chambliss missed the vote, though a spokeswoman said he opposed the bill.
“No employee should be hired or fired on the basis of anything but his or her ability to do the job, but I am concerned that the [Employment] Non-Discrimination Act as currently written could open up small businesses to frivolous litigation and could impose moral positions upon organizations, particularly faith-based entities,” Isakson said in a prepared statement.
“Furthermore, I prefer that this issue be addressed at the local and state level, rather than through a federal mandate.”
Georgia is one of 29 states that do not have workplace protections for gays and lesbians, according to a tally by the Human Rights Campaign.
Tanya Ditty, director of Concerned Women for America of Georgia, urged both Georgia senators to vote no – and to be more outspoken about it.
“We believe that it will impact businesses that take a stand on who they want to hire and any private business that … might have religious beliefs on not wanting to hire people based on their sexual orientation – man or woman, transgendered,” Ditty said. “We think it’s a very, very dangerous law.”
The legal landscape is already shifting in ENDA’s direction.
Last year the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that transgendered people are protected from discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the same provision ENDA would expand.
For some, this is an indication that a new law is unnecessary. But having a law on the books would add more certainty to cases like that of Vandy Beth Glenn, who works in the Office of Legislative Counsel in the Georgia General Assembly.
In 2007, then known as Glenn Morrison, Glenn informed her boss, Sewell Brumby, that she had been diagnosed with gender identity disorder and planned a sex change. Brumby fired her.
After a lengthy court battle, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Glenn’s civil rights had been violated and she got her old job back in December 2011. The advocacy group Lambda Legal took on her case, but Glenn’s savings were depleted by being unemployed or underemployed for four years, she said.
“Had [ENDA] been law in 2007, he would have known not to risk that,” Glenn said of Brumby. “He would have known that he couldn’t have gotten away with firing me.”
Glenn said she was not planning to celebrate Monday’s vote.
“What would be the point? ENDA is never going to become law with the current leadership in the House of Representatives,” she said. “I’m pleased that the Senate has finally stepped up to endorse the bill in principle through this vote, but it’s only a gesture of good will at this point in history.”
Advocates have urged the Obama administration to issue an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
But the White House has resisted that in favor of a broader law, which Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday still has a chance of passage despite what Boehner says.
“It may be taken or accepted as a fait accompli that because the speaker has said this and taken this position that it cannot move through the House,” Carney said. “But I would point you to instances where that has not proved to be the case, as recently as the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which we saw happen, fortunately, earlier this year.”