Senator says gay rights bill violates freedom of speech, religion

Greg Nash

Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) on Thursday became the first senator to speak on the floor against a gay rights bill that the Senate is expected to pass by the early afternoon. [WATCH VIDEO]

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is aimed at preventing workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But Coats said the bill goes too far and would infringe on the right to freely exercise religious beliefs in certain religious institutions.

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"I oppose discrimination of any kind, and that includes discrimination, however, also of individuals or institutions for their faith and values," Coats said. "This often gets lost, and it has been lost in this discussion."

"So I feel it's vital for this body to stand up for our country's long-standing right to the freedom of religion and speech," he added. "For these reasons, I am not able to support this current legislation."

Coats said specifically that, while the bill does include some protections for religious liberty, those protections are "vaguely defined" and don't apply as broadly to religious organizations as he wants. As one example, he said faith-based day care providers could be forced under the bill to hire people with "views contrary" to those of the organization.

"Do we really want to support policies that discriminate against an employer's religious beliefs and require employers to hire individuals who contradict their most deeply held religious beliefs?" he asked.

Coats said he would support Republican amendments to the bill aimed at strengthening these protections, even though he said those changes still don't go far enough. Earlier in the week, the Senate approved language from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would prevent government retaliation against religious groups exempted under the bill.

Today, the Senate will vote on language from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that would apply the religious exemptions to a broader group of institutions. But that amendment will need 60 votes to pass.

Many Republicans are expected to oppose the bill later today, although Coats is, so far, the only Republican member to speak against it. House Republicans have also said they would not consider the bill at all, over fears that it could create new legal liability for small companies.

Coats addressed that issue today, and said the bill would hold companies liable for failing to meet the bill's nondiscrimination requirements against LGBT workers. He said that liability could force people in religious institutions to hold their own beliefs in check in order to comply with the law.

"This possibility runs counter to everything America stands for in the realm of free speech," he said.

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