Senate passes gay-rights bill with help from Mormon lawmakers
Washington • The Senate easily passed a bill Thursday that bans workplace discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
Ten Republicans joined 54 Democrats to give gay-rights supporters a major victory. They overcame the objections of 32 Republicans who warned of frivolous lawsuits and argued the bill didn't do enough to protect religious groups that have a moral objection to homosexualty.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act also received the support of five of the Senate's seven Mormons, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who opposed the bill in 1997. The ENDA vote is indicative of a national shift in support for broader gay rights, which is also taking place within the LDS faith.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat who is Mormon, told The Washington Blade this week: "When I attend church here in Washington, D.C., I bet more people agree with me than disagree with me and so the church is changing, and that's good."
While Reid supports gay marriage, the LDS Church does not. The church also didn't take an official stand on ENDA.
Other than Hatch and Reid, the Mormon senators who voted for this bill are: Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, voted against the bill.
"The reason I supported this bill is simple â I believe that this discrimination is wrong," Hatch said.
Lee declined to elaborate on his opposition, instead relying on a statement he issued earlier in the week.
"We all oppose unjust workplace discrimination, but the Senate's version of ENDA could have unintended consequences and has a potential to be abused in a way that violates individuals' fundamental protections under the Constitution," he said.
End ot the line? • At this time, it doesn't appear likely that the bill will advance any further. House Speaker John Boehner opposes the measure and said he won't bring it up for a vote.
In heralding Thursday's vote, President Barack Obama called on the House to at least take a vote.
"One party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do," the president said after the vote. " Now is the time to end this kind of discrimination in the workplace, not enable it."
Of Utah's four House members, only Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has announced his support for ENDA.
Valarie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, said while the bill may not become a law this year, she called Thursday's victory in the Senate "a giant reflection on the shift in this conversation."
"We have come a long way with people recognizing that, yes indeed, we are discriminated against because of who we are," she said. "I think people have come to see that discrimination doesn't belong in our country."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who is gay, said he was "thrilled" by the vote and said those who stand in the way of this law will lose eventually.
"This horse has left the barn and those who continue to fight against it are spitting in the wind," he said. While he hopes the House would pass the bill, Dabakis said he believes its rejection will only help House Democrats retake the majority.
Utah's stance • Utah is one of 29 states that do not ban workplace discrimination for lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people, though 11 cities and counties in the state have enacted the prohibition. The first was Salt Lake City, which passed its ordinance in 2009 with the backing of the LDS Church. LDS officials have also negotiated with leaders in the gay community on a statewide bill, which is sponsored by state Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.
Hatch and his staff have discussed Salt Lake City's ordinance and ENDA's religious exemption with LDS Church officials and other religious leaders in Utah.
ENDA has the same exemption for religious organizations that appears in the Civil Rights Act, applying to a corporation, association, educational institution or society affiliated with a faith. That would mean the bill would exempt Mormon-controlled entities like Brigham Young University, Deseret Book and Deseret Industries.
Hatch believes these protections are sufficient, but for some Republican senators they don't go far enough.
On Thursday, the Senate rejected a proposal pushed by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would have broadened the scope of the exemption for religious organizations to groups that are not primarily religious, such as those that are loosely affiliated with a religion or teach religion occasionally. Hatch and Lee voted for Toomey's amendment, which failed 43 to 55 after Democratic senators argued it could have gutted the legislation by allowing thousands of businesses with some nominal religious connection to discriminate.
Retaliation • The Senate did accept a noncontroversial amendment offered by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, on Wednesday that blocks the government from retaliating against religious employers that refuse to hire gay or transgendered people by either denying a federal grant or rescinding a faith's tax-exempt status.
"My biggest concern with ENDA has always been the religious exemption, and I was proud to work with my colleagues to strengthen this exemption before the bill passed the Senate this week," Hatch said.
Lee and like-minded Republicans such as Utah state Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, believe freedom of religion should trump claims of discrimination, saying they wanted a law that protects "conscience rights."
Reid said any employer who has a personal religious objection should be able to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity otherwise "They are going to be forced to choose between their livelihoods and their religious beliefs."
He also slammed Hatch for voting for ENDA.
"Apparently Senator Hatch has gone to the other side and is willing to discriminate against those with moral or religious consciences," Reid said.