Senate passes gay rights bill

The Senate on Thursday approved the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in a historic advance for the gay rights cause.

The upper chamber approved ENDA in a 64-32 vote, and 10 Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the bill.

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“Let the bells of freedom ring," Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyOPINION | Shailene Woodley: US should run on renewable energy by 2050 Gore wishes Mikulski a happy birthday at 'Inconvenient Sequel' premiere Callista Gingrich touts Trump's commitment to environment despite Paris deal pullout MORE (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said Thursday. "The Senate has clearly spoken to end discrimination in the workplace."

The legislation would create federal workplace protections for gay and transgender people by banning employers from making hiring and firing decisions on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Republicans voting in favor of ENDA were Sens. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSenate healthcare bill appears headed for failure Collins: Trump should not comment on special counsel GOP wrestles with soaring deductibles in healthcare bill MORE (Maine), Mark KirkMark KirkMcConnell: Senate to try to repeal ObamaCare next week GOP senator: Not 'appropriate' to repeal ObamaCare without replacement GOP's repeal-only plan quickly collapses in Senate MORE (Ill.), Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiTrump's DOJ gears up for crackdown on marijuana Pro-ObamaCare group targets key senators in new ads The GOP Wonder Women who saved healthcare for 22 million MORE (Alaska), Dean HellerDean HellerTrump slams 'sad' Republicans who won't 'protect' him Trump backers eye GOP primary challenges for Flake, Heller Pro-ObamaCare group targets key senators in new ads MORE (Nev.), Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteOPINION: Democracy will send ISIS to the same grave as communism Kelly Ayotte joins defense contractor's board of directors Week ahead: Comey firing dominates Washington MORE (N.H.), Rob PortmanRob PortmanOPINION | They told us to abandon ObamaCare — then came the resistance Regulatory experts push Senate leaders for regulatory reform Conservative group to give GOP healthcare holdouts ‘Freedom Traitors Award’ MORE (Ohio), Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeTrump slams 'sad' Republicans who won't 'protect' him Trump backers eye GOP primary challenges for Flake, Heller McCain’s primary challenger asks him to step aside after diagnosis MORE (Ariz.), John McCainJohn McCainSenate healthcare bill appears headed for failure Trump backers eye GOP primary challenges for Flake, Heller Manchin bashes GOP candidate for pushing McCain to resign MORE (Ariz.), Orrin HatchOrrin HatchHatch shares gif of dumpster fire: ‘Checking in on Dodd Frank’ Senate panel advances Trump's tax policy nominee Healthcare debacle raises pressure for GOP on taxes MORE (Utah) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).

Gay and human rights activists have been pushing ENDA for nearly two decades, starting with advocacy from the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994.

ENDA passed the House in 2007, but had never passed the Senate until Thursday.

The victory for gay rights activists isn’t total, however, as the bill appears to be going nowhere in the Republican House.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerSudan sanctions spur intense lobbying OPINION | GOP's 7-year ObamaCare blood oath ends in failure A simple fix to encourage bipartisanship in the House MORE (R-Ohio) says he opposes the bill because it would expose businesses to “frivolous lawsuits,” and conservative groups such as Heritage Action oppose it on the grounds that it would threaten First Amendment freedoms.

“The Speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small-business jobs,” said BoehnerJohn BoehnerSudan sanctions spur intense lobbying OPINION | GOP's 7-year ObamaCare blood oath ends in failure A simple fix to encourage bipartisanship in the House MORE spokesman Michael Steel.

President Obama heralded the Senate vote as "a tribute to all those who fought for this progress,” and pressed House Republicans to act on the bill.

"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," Obama said in a statement. "Now is the time to end this kind of discrimination in the workplace, not enable it."

"Just as no one in the United States can lose their job simply because of their race, gender, religion or a disability, no one should ever lose their job simply because of who they are or who they love," Obama said.

The Senate vote brings activists one step closer to enactment of legislation that would create new workplace protections in all 50 states.

The prospects for passage of ENDA brightened earlier this year when nearly every Senate Democrat, including those from conservative-leaning states, announced their support for gay marriage ahead of the Supreme Court’s ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act.

Several Republican lawmakers, including Portman and Murkowski, also came out in support of gay marriage this year.

Polls have found a broad shift in public opinion toward acceptance of gay rights. A Gallup poll in July found that 54 percent of people in the United States think same-sex marriage should be legal, doubling the 27 percent support recorded in 1993.

"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," Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidConservative Senate candidate calls on GOP to end filibuster Ex-Reid aide: McConnell's 'original sin' was casting ObamaCare as 'partisan, socialist takeover' GOP faces growing demographic nightmare in West MORE (D-Nev.) said ahead of the vote.

Under the bill, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would enforce the new workplace rules. Small businesses with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt.

The legislation also contains language that exempts religious organizations.

The Senate on Thursday adopted an amendment from Portman that would prevent government retaliation against religious organizations that don't hire someone because of sexual orientation or identity.

But Democrats rejected an amendment from Toomey that would have extended the religious exemption to any employer that is partially owned or funded by a religion or has religious affiliations — including universities.

Sen. Dan CoatsDan CoatsTrump intel chief: No agencies dispute Russian election meddling Obama intel chief wonders if Trump is trying to make 'Russia great again' Overnight Cybersecurity: White House says 'cyber unit' with Russia wouldn't share intel | Colorado moves to audit digital voting | Top State Department cyber official leaving | Dow Jones customer data exposed MORE (R-Ind.) said he supported Toomey and Portman's amendments, but argued they did not go far enough in making a "bad bill better."

"I feel it's vital for this body to stand up for our country's longstanding right to the freedom of religion and speech," Coats said. "For these reasons, I am not able to support this current legislation." 

— This story was updated at 3:09 p.m.