"Such discrimination is wrong and cannot be tolerated,” Sen.… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — A Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a victory for gay rights activists just two weeks after the Supreme Court handed down rulings expanding protections for married same-sex couples.
Three Republicans — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois — voted for the bill, which passed on a 15-7 vote. The Republican support gave the perennial bill called the Employer Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, some hope of passage in the Senate, though its prospects in the House were less certain.
"Such discrimination is wrong and cannot be tolerated," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said during the brief session of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "It is still entirely legal to fire, refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against a citizen based on sexual orientation or gender identity."
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the vote was "huge" and the farthest the bill, first introduced in 1994, has advanced in 17 years. "Everybody knows a gay person now, and more and more people know a trans person," Keisling said. "It's an issue that 20 years from now, opponents are going to be ashamed to have opposed."
Under federal law, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability. Between 15% to 43% of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender workers have experienced being fired, denied promotions or harassed, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law that studies LGBT issues.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 16 states and the District of Columbia protect gender identity, according to a June report by three advocacy groups — the Movement Advancement Project, Center for American Progress and Human Rights Campaign.
In 2007, "gender identity" was first added to the Employer Non-Discrimination Act. A House version lacking the provision passed that year but died in the Senate.
On Wednesday, the conservative Traditional Values Coalition denounced the latest version of the legislation. "Our children's education and well-being should be more important than catering to the unhealthy psychological condition of a very small group of individuals," coalition President Andrea Lafferty said in a statement.
During the markup of the bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) praised Kirk, who became the act's leading Republican proponent as a House member in 2007. "There may still be some improvements to be made, and we have some amendments that will be offered," Alexander said, noting bipartisan sponsors are "willing to make changes." He voted against the bill.
It is unclear whether House Republican leaders will consider the bill. The act's exemption for religious employers may sway undecided senators, said Tico Almeida, president of the Freedom to Work advocacy group.
Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he would schedule the measure for a floor debate following Congress' August recess. Almeida said LGBT groups had secured 55 Senate votes, and needed three Democrats and two Republicans to prevent a filibuster.