In 1996, by a 50-49 vote, the U.S. Senate defeated a bill outlawing job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Last week, in a step that dramatized how much attitudes have changed in recent years, the Senate approved a similar bill by a vote of 64-32, with 10 Republicans joining the majority.
It’s about time the Senate got around to approving this. Since 1964, federal civil rights law has forbidden employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. But gays and lesbians have no protection, except in the states and cities that have passed laws including them. In the rest of the country, an exemplary worker may be punished or fired merely for coming out of the closet.
The Senate is actually lagging the American people on this issue.
Most people, in fact, think it’s already against the law to fire someone on the basis of sexual orientation. That’s probably because Americans generally regard such discrimination as grossly unfair and unwarranted, and find it hard to imagine that the law would not treat it as so.
The case for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, is self-evident. Sexual orientation and gender identity have no more relevance to one’s ability to perform on the job than skin color or religion.
The measure contains a broad exemption for religious organizations. No church or parochial school would have to employ someone who is gay or lesbian.
Despite public support, the fate of this bill is uncertain, since Republican House Speaker John Boehner opposes it and might refuse to allow it to come to a vote — even though it might pass.
For a long time, gays and lesbians have been victims of a great injustice in the American workplace. The House owes them at least a vote.