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US Senate Approves Gay Workplace Protections

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leads a news conference as Democrats gathered after the Senate debate to move toward a historic vote on legislation to outlaw workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, on Capitol Hill in Wa
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leads a news conference as Democrats gathered after the Senate debate to move toward a historic vote on legislation to outlaw workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, on Capitol Hill in Wa
Michael Bowman
— The U.S. Senate has approved workplace protections for gay and transgender Americans by a vote of 64 to 32. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA] has languished in Congress for nearly two decades, and faces an uncertain fate in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

ENDA’s passage in the Senate, with bipartisan support, caps a watershed week for gay rights in America. Days ago, Illinois lawmakers voted to make their state the 15th in the nation where gay couples can marry. One-third of Americans now live in states recognizing same-sex unions.

Originally championed by former Senator Edward Kennedy in the 1990s, ENDA would make it illegal for employers to decline to hire or to fire a worker on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Democratic Senator Al Franken said those protections are just and needed. “You can be a hard-worker, you can show up on time and get exemplary performance reviews. But if your boss discovers that you are gay or transgender or suspects it, he can fire you for being who you are, and there is nothing you can do about it. That is a terrible injustice.”

ENDA has exemptions for religious organizations. For instance, a faith-based charity belonging to a denomination that disapproves of homosexuality would retain the ability to reject gay job applicants.  

That exception is not sufficient for Republican senators like Dan Coats, though, who voted against ENDA. Coats says all Americans who object to homosexuality should be able to run their businesses as their conscience dictates.

“Freedom of religion has been a core American principle. Unfortunately, this principle of religious freedom is under attack across our country today. Make no mistake, we are seeing the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech constrained and restricted,” said Coats.

Current federal law protects workers on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age and disability. The Senate’s only openly-gay member, Tammy Baldwin, says sexual orientation should be added to the list.

“It is about freedom, the freedom to realize our Founding Fathers’ belief that all Americans are created equal under the law," she said. "And it is about opportunity, about whether every American gets to dream the same dreams and chase the same ambitions and have the same shot at success.”

The White House issued a statement applauding the Senate vote and urging swift ENDA approval in the House of Representatives. Speaker John Boehner opposes the bill, however, saying it would encourage frivolous lawsuits and harm job creation.

It is unlikely ENDA will get a House vote without Boehner’s support. Gay rights groups say they will work to build bipartisan House backing for the bill.

Meanwhile, the European Union's top court has ruled that refugees facing jail for same-sex activity can constitute grounds for asylum.

The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice ruled Thursday that laws allowing the imprisonment of homosexuals can be considered an act of persecution if routinely enforced. It said that sexual orientation is "a characteristic fundamental to a person's identity," and they should not be forced to conceal it.

The case centered on a request by three men from Sierra Leone, Uganda and Senegal who sought asylum in the Netherlands on the grounds of sexual persecution.

The court said it will be up to individual nations to assess asylum applications and decide whether the situation in the applicant's home country amounts to persecution.

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