Senate adopts ENDA amendment designed to protect churches

The Senate on Wednesday adopted an amendment to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would prevent retaliation against religious organizations.

Portman’s amendment — which would prevent retaliation against religious organizations that don't hire someone because of sexual orientation or gender identity — passed by voice-vote.

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The Senate is working this week on ENDA, which bans workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill exempts religious organizations from complying with the bill if it becomes law, but Portman said he wanted to ensure federal, state and local governments would continue to provide funding to religious organizations.

“The bill's religious exemption ensures that churches and other religious employers may continue to operate according to their deeply held beliefs," Portman said. "I had concerns, however, that ENDA could leave the door open for the government to discriminate against these very groups on the basis of those beliefs.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also set up a vote that could happen later Wednesday on an amendment from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that would expand the religious exemption.

Currently, the bill language exempts churches, but Toomey’s amendment would extend that exemption to any employer that is partially owned by a religion or has religious affiliations — including religious universities.

Toomey and Portman joined Democrats in voting Monday to end debate on the motion to proceed to the bill. In exchange for their votes, they were told they could offer an amendment to ENDA.

Reid has said he wants to complete work on ENDA by the end of the week.

Democrats will need five Republicans to vote with them on ending debate on the legislation to reach the 60-vote threshold.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced S. 815 earlier this year. He said the legislation is necessary because more than half of states still allow discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity.

“In 29 states, you can still be fired from a job and told not to apply in the beginning because of your sexual identity or orientation,” Merkley said Tuesday. “It’s time to end that discrimination and enhance the vision of equality and fairness.”

Even if his bill passes in the Senate, it’s unlikely that the House would take up the measure. Earlier this week, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the House GOP leader opposes the bill because it would increase “frivolous” lawsuits. But Merkley pointed out that his home state and several others have already had this law on the books for years and haven’t seen a large increase in unwarranted lawsuits.