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 Merkley (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 Collins (Maine), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Dean Heller (Nev.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), John McCain (Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (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 Boehner (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 Boehner 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 Reid (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 Coats (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.