Dems Advance Bill to Grant Special Workplace Rights to Homosexuals

A bill that would force many religious and conservative groups to grant special rights to homosexuals in the workplace is scheduled for a full House vote next week after the Committee on Education and Labor moved it forward Thursday.

By a 27 to 21 vote, Democrats and three Republicans passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make it illegal for employers to make decisions about hiring, firing, promoting or paying an employee based on sexual orientation.

The legislation seeks to add "sexual orientation" to a list of federally protected classes under a 1964 act that prohibits job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

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Conservatives are concerned that the bill would strip constitutional rights from faith-based businesses that don't agree with the lifestyles of homosexuals or bisexuals.

"When you strive to protect some people, you take away protections of other people," noted Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif). "That is the difficulty, and I think some of us on this side are representing some of those people that feel like as good as your intentions are, you're taking away their rights in their religious beliefs and dealings on a day-to-day basis."

Notably, the Committee rejected four amendments offered by Republicans that would have protected the religious freedom of faith-based groups and individuals.

"It's an attack on businesses and people of faith," said Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, in a Chicago Tribune report.

"Businesses wouldn't have the freedom to hire whoever they want," he added.

Republicans who voted against advancing the bill argued that equating "sexual orientation" to other federally protected classes doesn't add up.

"Sexual orientation is not the same as race, gender or age, which do not depend on perception at all," said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind).

Souder called the legislation a "possible litigation nightmare," saying that perceptions are enough to cause lawsuits resulting to a hostile workplace.

McKeon had also criticized the ambiguous language in the bill since one's perception of sexual orientation is subjective.

"Under the bill, we would legislate a prohibition against employment discrimination based upon a person's 'perceived' sexual orientation," he said in opening remarks. "This vague term is not defined anywhere in this bill. It increases employee liability and will needlessly require litigation on the meaning of this term and how it applies to the work place."

Meanwhile, Democrats were divided Thursday over the removal of "gender identity" from the bill, which would have extended special rights to people who identify themselves as transgender.

Despite the removal, Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative Christian group, argued in a news release sent out Thursday that transgenders could use the term "perceived" to their advantage and still claim protection under ENDA.

"The term 'perceived' provides homosexuals and transgenders far broader protection than for African-Americans, Hispanics, women, or people of faith under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," stated the group in the e-mail news release.

It's a "slap in the face to all who fought in the Civil Rights Movement," added TVC.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the bill's sponsor, said he dropped the category "gender identity" because the Democrats didn't have the votes to pass it.

Still, Democratic leaders promised to try and get additional legislation in the future.

"I believe that the step we are taking today will lay the foundation for passing these additional protections in the future," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, according to The Associated Press.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., who also backed the bill, has agreed to allow an amendment on the floor to include transgender rights, which is expected to fail.

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