The Senate passed historic gay rights legislation Thursday to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, another victory for the gay rights movement that has been gaining favor in the courts and electoral politics.
Senators voted 64 to 32 to approve the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
The vote marked the first time lawmakers had approved legislation to advance gay rights since repealing the military’s ban on gay men and lesbians in uniform in late 2010 and came two days after Illinois became the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Just four months ago the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned federal recognition of legally married gay couples.
“Let freedom ring,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the bill’s chief sponsor, said shortly before the vote.
But the measure still faces a steep uphill climb in the Republican-controlled House still dominated by social conservatives. Top GOP leaders consider the measure written so broadly as to invite a fresh wave of litigation against employers and unnecessary because of existing federal, state and private workplace protections.
The effort to protect gays and lesbians in the workplace began nearly 17 years ago, and supporters have struggled for years to earn a vote on the measure in the House or Senate. Even in 2006, when Senate Democrats held 60 seats, leaders decided not to advance the bill out of fear that moderate Democrats in conservative-leaning states would suffer political consequences.
In a sign of rapidly shifting opinions on gay rights, every member of the Senate Democratic caucus was joined by 10 Republican senators to approve the measure. The first time the Senate voted on a measure similar to ENDA in 1996, Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted no. On Thursday they voted yes.
“This is the right thing to do,” McCain told reporters shortly before he cast his vote.
In the final days of debate, Merkley sought to bolster GOP support by agreeing to permit votes on two amendments designed to bolster the religious liberties of affected organizations. The first amendment by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) was approved Wednesday and prevents state and local governments from taking legal action against religious groups that take advantage of the bill’s religious exemption clause. A second amendment by Sen. Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) that sought to broaden the types of groups covered under the religious exemption clause failed.
Ultimately, Portman, Ayotte and Toomey voted for the bill.
Opponents of the measure stayed largely silent until Thursday, when Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said on the Senate floor that ENDA “diminishes” the religious freedom of organizations and employers who may feel compelled to hire people who hold religious views contrary to the organization.
“I oppose discrimination of any kind, and that includes discrimination, however, also of individuals or institutions for their faith and values, which often gets lost and has been lost in this discussion,” Coats said.
Those concerns are shared by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who reiterated his years-long opposition to the proposal this week. The speaker’s opposition prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to suggest that supporters would mount a public pressure campaign similar to one used to ensure the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act this year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also bemoaned Boehner’s resistance to the legislation Thursday morning, predicting that it would “pass by a nice margin in the House if the speaker would allow a vote.”
But Democrats and gay rights organizations have said very little about how they might force a vote in the House.