The nation’s attitudes – and laws – on discrimination have changed in a remarkably short time. From civil rights to same-sex marriage, the walls are coming down. It is time now for protections against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender assignment to be set into law.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban workplace discrimination against people who are gay, lesbian or transgender, is once again working its way through Congress. House Republicans have been largely opposed to this bill. They are wrong.
Just as the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination on the basis of race and gender in hiring, promoting and firing, ENDA would provide critical protections for an entire group.
Legislation that would end such discrimination has languished in Congress for decades. Republican resistance has hinged on both business and religious grounds. Thomas M. Reynolds, a conservative Republican from Clarence, was once one of those strongly opposed to ENDA. He retired from Congress nearly five years ago and is now a lobbyist whose clients includes the American Unity Fund, an all-out effort to win Republican support for gay rights issues.
Reynolds voted against the bill in 2007. He worried it would produce a number of frivolous lawsuits. Rep. Chris Collins, who now holds Reynolds’ old seat, expresses similar concerns. A spokesman for Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, said last week that he supports it.
Reynolds has said that now, at 63, he sees a lot of things differently and he’s evolved on this issue. We take him at his word, while recognizing that he’s paid to push ENDA. During his last years in Congress he employed an openly gay chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, and persuaded then Rep. Mark A. Foley, a gay Florida Republican, to run for re-election. That move backfired months later when it was publicly revealed that Foley had sent inappropriate emails to a teenage House page, and Reynolds withstood withering criticism.
In June the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law blocking federal recognition of gay marriage. Gay marriage is now legal in 14 states, plus the District of Columbia. A recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling cleared the way there when Gov. Chris Christie gave up the state’s legal challenge. Civil unions are allowed in six other states.
The Senate could vote on ENDA as soon as Thursday. But then the legislation faces an uphill climb, as does a similar bill in the New York State Legislature called the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, affirmed his opposition to ENDA, citing the same tired excuse that it would put a financial burden on businesses. The Christian right is concerned that even though the bill has a religious exemption, religious institutions or deeply Christian business owners could be forced to hire people they would otherwise choose not to employ.
That stance is unfortunate, especially so as more and more Americans are dropping their opposition to gay, lesbian and transgender rights issues. Republicans can’t hold back the tide forever. They should follow Reynolds down the path of non-discrimination.