The Senate voted Thursday to approve valuable, if imperfect, legislation that would prohibit job bias on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Debate over the measure has shown Ohio’s congressional delegation — especially its Republican majority — at its best (Sen. Rob Portman) and its worst (House Speaker John Boehner).
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is based on a seemingly unassailable premise: Employees in the private and public sectors ought to be hired, paid, promoted, and fired because of their qualifications, their experience, and the quality of their work.
They should not have to endure workplace prejudice because of such personal matters as their race, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability — or sexual orientation. Polls suggest a large majority of Americans support the bill.
Yet opponents of the measure continue to trot out the despicable old canard that an appeal for equality and fairness is a demand for “special rights.” A spokesman for Mr. Boehner said this week that the speaker believes ENDA would “increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small-business jobs.” (The law would not apply to employers with fewer than 15 workers.)
Obstructed economic growth hasn’t been the result in the 21 states that have outlawed employment bias against gay people. Ohio and Michigan do not have such laws, but administrative measures in both states prohibit discrimination against gay public employees. Michigan, but not Ohio, provides state employees with domestic-partner benefits.
Even opponents of ENDA concede that state laws have not generated the volume of lawsuits that alarmist critics predicted. Hundreds of local governments and most major employers impose their bans on anti-gay job discrimination, out of economic self-interest.
Mr. Portman was one of seven Republican senators who broke ranks with their party this week to vote to break a threatened filibuster and advance ENDA to final Senate passage. He also was one of 10 Republicans who voted for the bill.
Now the question appears to be whether an adequate number of lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House will show similar courage and support ENDA — assuming that Mr. Boehner will permit a vote on the bill at all, rather than bury it to appease the most radical members of his caucus.
ENDA is not ideal. It would exempt not just churches but also related religious institutions such as universities, schools, hospitals, and charities from its anti-bias provisions, even for jobs that are not religiously oriented. At the least, the exemption should not be broadened to include secular employers who oppose the measure in the name of “religious freedom.”
Despite its flaws, though, ENDA would protect millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans against unjust and unfair discrimination in the workplace. Conferring this basic civil right is not only timely but overdue.
Does Mr. Boehner truly believe that intolerance of gay people is still a winning political strategy, in Ohio or anywhere else? He might want to talk to his fellow Cincinnati Republican, Mr. Portman, about that — if the speaker can get the Tea Party’s permission to do so.
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