Dems block expanded ENDA exemption

Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked the expansion of a religious exemption in legislation that would ban employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) amendment to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was rejected in a 43-55 vote.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) voted against Toomey's amendment — they are both co-sponsors of the underlying bill — along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) voted for the amendment.

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Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said Toomey’s amendment would have allowed private businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community.

"This amendment threatens to gut the very nature of ENDA," Harkin said ahead of the vote. "The amendment, I believe, is ill-defined."

Final passage of ENDA, which bans workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, is expected later Thursday.

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

Toomey said his amendment was necessary because there is a “lack of uniformity” across the country because of different court decisions on which religious institutions are exempt from Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act.

“It would clarify that religious exemptions apply to religious hospitals and schools,” Toomey said. “It simply ensures that we strike a good, sensible balance between equality in the workforce … and the religious freedom.”

Gay rights groups opposed Toomey’s amendment, saying it would have broadened the exemption too far.

“We’re especially opposed to changes like Sen. Toomey’s amendment that could allow for-profit corporations to escape accountability by citing religion to unfairly terminate qualified gay and transgender employees,” said Tico Almeida, founder and president of Freedom to Work.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) allowed a vote on Toomey’s amendment after the Republican joined Democrats on Monday in voting to end debate on the motion to proceed to the bill.

On Wednesday, the Senate approved an amendment from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would prevent government retaliation against religious organizations that don't hire someone because of sexual orientation or identity. Portman’s amendment was approved by voice-vote.

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

“It is time for Congress to pass a federal law that ensures all our citizens — regardless of where they live — can go to work unafraid to be who they are," Reid said Thursday.

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.

Democrats counter that nearly half of the states already have a law similar to ENDA on the books, and say those states haven’t seen a large increase in lawsuits.