LGBT Workplace Protections Move Forward In Senate

The Senate voted Monday to move ahead on legislation that would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill won the approval of enough Republican senators late Monday to cross the 60-vote threshold and move onto a floor vote. Such a thing would have been impossible even a few years ago.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish in California.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

A bill to protect people from workplace discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation cleared a major hurdle tonight in the Senate. Sixty-one senators, among them six Republicans, voted to thwart a filibuster of the measure. It would expand nationwide the workplace protections that 21 states have already adopted. A similar measure lost in the Senate 17 years ago by one vote. This bill appears likely to pass the Senate later this week, but it's not getting any traction in the House of Representatives.

NPR congressional correspondent David Welna is following this story. And, David, if this bill were to become law, why don't you explain what it would change for American workers?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, or ENDA as it's called, is really an expansion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bars workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sex and national origin, and which disabilities was later added.

The law, if it's expanded, would explicitly forbid discrimination when it comes to hiring, firing or promoting employees based on either sexual orientation or gender identity. And it would apply to all private firms with 15 or more employees, as well as to all public employers. But religious organizations and the U.S. military are exempted. Lawmakers have been trying for two decades to pass this measure but not until now has there been enough support, at least in the Senate.

BLOCK: And if you look at polling, what does it show in terms of whether this expansion of workers' protections is supported by the general public?

WELNA: Well, reflecting a big shift in public opinion in general toward gays, support has been very broad. Polls show more than 80 percent of Americans support these protections for LGBT workers. And even Mississippi, the state with the lowest level of support, still has nearly two-thirds backing such an expansion. Four out of five Americans, in fact, believe these protections already exist for everyone, when in reality 56 percent of the population does not yet have them.

Nearly nine out of 10 of the Fortune 500 companies have adopted these protections, and many other firms also endorse them. And so do all 55 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, including some who are seeking reelection next year in states that went for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. Majority Leader Harry Reid praised them on the Senate floor today, as well as the five Senate Republicans who, before today's vote, had already promised their support for ENDA; though Reid was also critical of Republicans.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Once again, Republican Congress are out of step with Republicans and the rest of the country. House Speaker John Boehner this morning said that he does not support this legislation. But the speaker should take his cue from 56 percent of Republicans nationwide would support ENDA.

WELNA: Still, one of Boehner's aides today said the speaker has long fought ENDA is a bad law. The House did pass a more limited version of it in 2007, but that was when Democrats controlled the chamber.

BLOCK: And, David, we heard Harry Reid there saying Republicans are out of step. What are the arguments that are made against passing this bill?

WELNA: The case being made against ENDA by many GOP lawmakers is that it's a potential job killer. Many won't say that publicly, not one Republican spoke against the bill on the Senate floor today. But a statement that Boehner's office put out this morning did say that the speaker, quote, "believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs," unquote.

And an aide said the speaker thinks gays and lesbians already are protected by current employment laws. But, in fact, most states have no such law against firing someone because he or she is gay or transgender.

And when the Government Accountability Office, a few months ago, looked at the states that do have such protections, it found that in the last five years there have been, in its words, relatively few employment discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And the conservative Faith and Family Coalition warned senators today that voting to let this bill moves forward would be scored as what it called an anti-family vote on the congressional scorecards it distributes to more than 100,000 churches across the country.

BLOCK: David, I think there are versions of this anti-discrimination bill going back as far as the 1970s. It hasn't gotten through, obviously. What are the prospects for this becoming law anytime soon?

WELNA: It doesn't look at all likely that Speaker Boehner would allow a House vote on ENDA, even though about 100 to 90 House members, including five Republicans, are cosponsoring a measure. I think it's really a matter of how much longer Boehner and other Republicans are willing to be seen as the party blocking gay rights at a time when public opinion has shifted very much in the other direction.

BLOCK: OK, David Welna, at the Capitol. David, thanks.

WELNA: You're welcome.

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