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November 20, 2009


Federal job bias bill may get a House vote soon

Washington, D.C.--A federal law to bar job discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity is headed for a U.S. House vote shortly after Thanksgiving, according to proponents.

This follows the postponement of a scheduled November 18 vote out of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, is expected to pass the House, then face a somewhat tougher fight in the Senate. President Obama has committed to signing the measure.

Versions of the bill have been introduced in Congress since 1974. The House passed one in 2007 that lacked gender identity protections, but it died in the Senate.

The present bill had a November 5 hearing in Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. It marked the first time the Senate has heard a version of the bill that includes protections for gender identity and expression. The committee is chaired by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, an ENDA supporter.

Witnesses testifying for the bill included Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez University of Colorado law professor Helen Norton, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan; Nike, Inc., Diversity and Inclusion team member Virginia Nguyen; and Mike Carney, a police officer in Springfield, Massachusetts who won a lawsuit for sexual orientation discrimination under Massachusetts law.

Opposing witnesses were National Religious Broadcasters Association  senior vice president Craig Parshall, and attorney Camille Olson.

Norton told the senators of discrimination against a gay Ohio police officer.

She outlined the plight of Fairfield Medical Center officer Chris Vickers, who was harassed and had his life threatened by colleagues for his sexual orientation. (Norton misstated his name as Michael and the state as Kentucky.)

Despite overwhelming evidence of egregious actions by Vickers’ co-workers and supervisors, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Vickers’ claim in 2006 saying it “should not be used to bootstrap protection for sexual orientation into Title VII,” which outlaws sexual harassment.

A few months later, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Sixth Circuit decision to stand.

Norton said ENDA would fix that. It “proposes to fill significant gaps in existing law by clearly articulating, for the first time, a national commitment to equal employment opportunity regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity while addressing concerns raised by religious institutions and other employers.”

As he did during House hearings, Parshall said that ENDA violates people’s religious right to discriminate.

“It is my legal opinion that if [ENDA] is passed into law, would impose a substantial, unconstitutional burden on religious organizations and would interfere with their ability to effectively pursue their missions, both those which are non-profit groups, as well as faith-based institutions and enterprises which operate commercially,” Parshall said.

Harkin is eager to pass the bill.

Citing the need to get health care reform off the table first, Harkin said, “We’re going to move this bill next year, I assure you.”




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