Thursday, May 16, 2013

Coming Out... & Ending H8 @ Work

The past year has been an incredibly exciting one on the civil rights front. Just over a year ago, both President Obama and US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) came out for marriage equality. And since then, we've seen stunning advancements there as four states voted in favor of marriage equality last fall, the US Supreme Court took up the DOMA & Prop 8 cases, several states passed marriage equality this year, and the Nevada Legislature is now moving on SJR 13 & giving voters a "redo" on marriage. (In fact, the Assembly Legislative Operations & Elections Committee will take on SJR 13 again as it goes to work session tonight.)

Yet amidst all the progress, a major problem remains: workplace discrimination. For many years, ENDA has languished in Congress. Even as Nevada and other states have passed their own state laws outlawing anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination, there's still no federal law covering the entire country. And as a result, millions of American workers are still at risk for harassment, denial of benefits, and even firing because of who they are.

But now, Senator Harry Reid is speaking up on the matter... And he's even sharing a family matter that had originally been kept private.

"My niece is a lesbian," Reid said during a sit-down with reporters. "She's a school teacher. Her employment shouldn't be affected with that. We should have a law that says that, not just the good graces of wherever you work."

Reid's niece declined to be interviewed or to give her name. But per Reid's spokesman, she was fine with Reid making her sexual orientation public.

Reid recalled meeting the president of the Human Rights Campaign in the 1990s and being encouraged to get behind the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The bill would prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

"He said to me, 'You're a moderate guy. If you came out for ENDA, we could pick up a lot more votes,'" Reid said. "I said he's probably right. So I agreed to cosponsor that, and as a result, we were able to put that on the floor. It failed by one vote, basically." [...]

Reid said there's "a chance" he'll bring up ENDA for a vote this year, noting that he had a meeting about it just last week. He wondered aloud why it doesn't have broad support to pass.

So this is personal for Senator Reid. Ah, if only more Members of Congress can take this personally.

Again, for millions of Americans, workplace discrimination is incredibly personal. After all, they're still enduring it. And last week, The New York Times editorial board called for an end to it.

Only 21 states have laws barring employers from refusing to hire people or firing them because of their sexual orientation, and only 16 of those have inclusive workplace nondiscrimination laws that cover bisexual and transgender people as well as gays and lesbians. [...]

Some conservative opponents of the act, known as ENDA, contend it would threaten religious freedom because its exemption for employers affiliated with religious organizations is too narrow. Actually, the proposed religious exemption is far too broad and needs to be scaled back. The American Civil Liberties Union and some gay rights groups rightly point out that as it is now drafted, the exemption — extending well beyond just houses of worship to hospitals and universities, for example, and encompassing medical personnel, billing clerks and others in jobs that are not directly involved in any religious function — amounts to a license to engage in the discrimination that ENDA is meant to remedy.

It is one thing for religious groups to further their religious mission by favoring people of their own faith in hiring, as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act permits. It is quite another to allow the firing of a lesbian physician or transgender nurse when a hospital that is not affiliated with a religious group happens to merge with an institution that is. Under Title VII’s religious exemption, houses of worship and religion-affiliated entities are subject to the law’s prohibition against discrimination based on race, sex and national origin. ENDA’s religious exemption should treat sexual orientation and gender identity in a similar fashion. To do otherwise would leave too many jobs outside of ENDA’s protections.

Congress has a duty to stop dawdling and approve a strong bill.

So what are we waiting for? What is Congress waiting for? Senator Reid is ready to move on ENDA. Will more of his Senate colleagues follow (including the one close to home)?

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