Republicans should support ENDA

A bipartisan group of congressional leaders recently introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would give LGBT Americans the freedom to build successful careers without facing on-the-job discrimination or harassment.

The idea of protecting gay Americans from workplace discrimination has been around for a while. Reps. Bella Abzug (D-NY) and Ed Koch (D-NY) introduced the Equality Act of 1974, an early version of ENDA, nearly 40 years ago. That bill, which would have amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect gay Americans, went nowhere.

The idea re-emerged in 1994 as ENDA. Since then, the bill has periodically come up for debate but has never become law.

The bill is quite simple: It would prohibit both public and private employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. Religious institutions, schools, and charities would be exempt, as would small businesses with fewer than 15 employees. In 2007, the bill was amended to also protect transgender employees, who face incredibly high levels of workplace discrimination.

Polls show widespread public support for ENDA. Yet the Senate hasn’t voted on it since 1996, and the House hasn’t voted on it since 2007, when it passed the then-Democrat-controlled chamber with the support of 35 Republicans, including Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), John Campbell (R-CA), and a number of other conservatives.

Well, it’s back this year and on track for a long-overdue Senate vote. It has Republican co-sponsors in both chambers: Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Susan Collins (R-ME) in the Senate; and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Richard Hanna (R-NY), and Charlie Dent (R-PA) in the House.

Most people are surprised to learn that gays and lesbians are still excluded from the federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, nationality, ethnic background, religion, and a variety of other characteristics. In polls going back more than 30 years, the overwhelming majority of Americans (more than 80 percent) have opposed workplace discrimination on the basis or sexual orientation. This includes a majority of Republicans: a 2011 poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, for example, showed 66 percent of Republicans oppose LGBT workplace discrimination. Among rank-and-file Republicans, this is not a partisan issue.

And yet, because of the active opposition from Christian-right organizations and their spokesmen in Congress, the GOP leadership has always opposed adding sexual orientation (and now gender identity) to the law that protects other groups of Americans that have historically been frequent victims of employment discrimination. To be sure, some conservatives and libertarians oppose any law that interferes with a private firm’s ability to hire and fire who it wants, but they are in a small minority.

In fact, most Republican opponents of ENDA have no such philosophical opposition to federal laws that prohibit workplace discrimination — few of them would call for the repeal of the Civil Rights Act’s ban on racial or religious discrimination. They just don’t want to extend those laws to cover a group of people they dislike: LGBT Americans. Opponents are certainly entitled to their personal moral judgments about homosexuality, but in a country that prides itself on the rule of law, the arbitrary exclusion of an entire class of citizens from coverage by a government statute based solely on personal animus is simply not legitimate. It makes a mockery of one of our enduring constitutional principles: equal protection of the law.