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job bias bill gets first
Washington, D.C.--For the first time in five years, Congress held hearings on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act on September 5.
The two-part hearing was held before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee of the Education and Labor Committee of the House of Representatives.
In the first section of the hearing, members of Congress spoke in favor of the legislation, which would bar employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, both of whom are gay, spoke in favor of the legislation, as did Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, a Methodist minister.
“All Americans deserve the right of equal protection under the law,” Cleaver said. “Now is the time to guarantee all Americans the God-given right to be, "
In the second half of the hearing, which brought expert testimony to the floor, only two witnesses questioned the necessity or the efficacy of ENDA.
Larry Lorber, of the Washington, D.C. law firm Proskauer Rose, was concerned that the law would “burden” employers, while lawyer Mark Fahleson of Remboldt Ludtke in Lincoln, Nebraska opined that the religious exemption was overly complex.
Religious exemptions and the faiths of employers came up in a question from Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, who asked Prof. Helen Norton of the University of Colorado Law School whether she believed that the government should honor the religious beliefs of private employers who might be opposed to homosexuality.
Norton noted that the same argument was used in support of employers who opposed the original civil rights laws because they did not want to be forced to work with women or people of other races and religions.
Among the other witnesses testifying before the subcommittee were Brooke Waits, a lesbian from Dallas, Texas who was fired when her boss saw a picture of her kissing her girlfriend--on Waits’ own cell phone, and Officer Michael P. Carney, who had trouble being rehired by the Springfield, Mass., police department because he is gay. He testified at the behest of the Springfield chief of police.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has pledged a floor vote in September or October on ENDA.
The first gay equal rights law was introduced in 1974 by Reps. Bella Abzug and Ed Koch. It came closest to passage in 1996, when it was defeated by one vote in the Senate.