House Passes Gay Employment Bill

The House approved on Wednesday a bill that requires all employers, including Christian organizations, to not make hiring or firing decisions based on "sexual orientation."

Representatives voted 235-184 to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) or H.R. 3685, which adds "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.

Backed mostly by Democrats, the legislation was approved without the inclusion of an amendment that extends the same privileges to transgender people. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) decided to withdraw the amendment at the 11th hour in hopes of garnering more support for the bill.

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Republicans sought to send the bill back to committee — a move that would have killed the legislation since this session of Congress is scheduled to adjourn in five calendar days — but lacked the votes.

In passing the bill, the House approved two amendments. One amendment exempts certain religious positions that would also be exempt under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and stipulates that ENDA "does not alter the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in any way." The second amendment removes prohibition against employers requiring an employee to be married or being eligible to be married.

The White House has made it clear that President Bush will veto the legislation even if the proposal does pass the Senate during the 2007-08 session of Congress. The administration cited constitutional concerns and called the bill "inconsistent" with the right to free exercise of religion.

A veto override would require 270 votes or two-thirds of the House.

Many gay right activist groups and Democrats were upset that the bill did not include transgender workers.

But other supporters of gay rights, such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), were pleased with the bill's passage. Pelosi said on the floor that while she shared in the disappointment that transgender workers were not mentioned in the bill, she was supporting the bill's passage now "to build momentum for it" in the near future.

Meanwhile, Republicans said the bill would violate the constitutional rights of employers, such as those from Christian organizations, who oppose homosexuality for religious reasons.

Furthermore, many had argued that it would also endanger the institution of marriage and lead to endless discrimination lawsuits over such terms as "actual or perceived" sexual orientation.

The House bill would make it a federal crime for an employer "to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to the compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment of the individual, because of such individual's actual or perceived sexual orientation."

Conservative groups say the bill criminalizes religious beliefs of employers.

Following the House's decision, Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group based in Florida, issued an alert urging its supporters to ask President Bush to veto the bill.

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