The Senate will hold on Monday a vote on a bill that would prevent employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity – a measure that some faith-based organizations and Christian businesses and ministries say would violate their religious freedom.
The vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, comes months after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
The bill, introduced in this session by Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in the Senate, requires 60 votes to clear a procedural hurdle before the final vote. It is just one vote short of the threshold.
"I think society continues to evolve on the issue of gay rights," The Associated Press quotes Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a co-sponsor of the measure, as saying. "As more and more gay individuals are open about their sexual orientation, people come to realize that they are their neighbors, their family members, their friends, their co-workers. That's made a big difference."
Sen. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.), also co-sponsored the bill. Republicans Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted for the bill in committee. The 55 Democrat senators have all said they will support the measure. Therefore, just one more Republican senator will be needed for the bill to pass the filibuster test on Monday.
However, the measure faces strong opposition from conservative groups.
ENDA is bad public policy, said Heritage Action in a statement.
"The legislation would severely undermine civil liberties, increase government interference in the labor market, and trample on religious liberty, says the policy advocacy organization. "It is flawed public policy based in part on the tenuously defined term 'gender identity,' which is commonly understood to be subjective, self-disclosed, and self-defined."
Business owners would be required by law to adopt the government's values which are based on a vague, subjective definition of "gender identity," the group adds.
Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins has also urged the U.S. Senate to reject the measure.
"The Senate should vote against ENDA because it threatens the free market, undermines employers' rights, and violates the free exercise of religion," Perkins said in a statement last week. "The vast majority of employers would not consider an employee's sexual orientation relevant or even want to know about an employee's sex life. However, ENDA would transform the workplace into an environment in which certain sexual lifestyles are given a special status by the federal government and religious expression is suppressed."
Perkins added that ENDA would be a magnet for costly lawsuits, afflicting businesses in an already suffering economy. "Under ENDA, employers could be sued over a characteristic which may not be visible or known by the employer. Employers will translate these new liabilities into legal and financial costs that are passed on to consumers," he said.
"Most importantly, the legislation violates employers' and employees' constitutional freedoms of religion, speech and association. One employee's sexual preference does not deserve greater protection than a business owner's exercise of religious liberty," concluded Perkins.
ENDA has been introduced in several other congressional sessions since 1994. It was passed 235-184 in the House in November 2007, but died in the Senate.
"This is a bad bill with bad consequences for our nation," Richard Land, former president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said after the bill was passed in the House six years ago.