On April 24, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee approved, by voice vote, legislation (S. 1284) that would bar discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation.
Sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would extend the existing employment protections based on race, religion, gender, age, and disability to sexual orientation. The bill would prohibit employers, employment agencies, and unions from making any employment decisions, such as hiring, firing, and promotions, based on an individual’s sexual orientation.
ENDA would not apply to small businesses with fewer than 15 employees, to religious organizations, the military, and volunteer organizations. Additionally, ENDA would prohibit quotas and affirmative action, would not require benefits for domestic partners, and would bar the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from gathering statistics on sexual orientation.
“Although twelve states and the District of Columbia have laws similar to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and many businesses have anti-discrimination policies, this patchwork of protection from employment discrimination leaves many Americans without redress,” said Sen. Kennedy. “The time has come to extend basic civil rights to all employees,” he added.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) complained that the bill might interfere with states’ rights. “State and local governments, not Congress, are the more appropriate entities to craft this legislation,” he said, indicating that he would propose changes to the bill when it reaches the Senate floor. He also contended that the bill would encourage employees who hold a grudge against their employers to file a lawsuit.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) agreed that “the public is more likely to accept the underlying principle if it were a matter of state, rather than federal, law.” However, she expressed support for the bill. “I have reached the decision to support ENDA because, in the final analysis, I simply do not believe it is fair to allow discrimination in the workplace against men and women solely because of their sexual orientation,” she said. “As we wait for the states to act, discrimination against gay men and lesbians continues and is legal in nearly 3 out of 4 states,” she added.
The committee approved, by voice vote, two amendments by Sen. Collins that would bring the legislation more in line with the existing civil rights law. One would prohibit employers from retaliation against an employee who assists in the investigation of suspected job discrimination case. The other would allow employers to continue to regulate the conduct of employees to the same extent as under existing law, regardless of sexual orientation.