Human rights and civil liberties organizations have pulled their support for a bill that would ban workplace discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people, dealing a potential deathblow to legislation they had hailed as a milestone for civil rights.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been in the works for two decades. Initially passed by the House in 2007, the Senate passed a version last year with vocal support from President Obama.
But advocates are turning against the legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, which last week gave some private employers the right to opt out of providing birth control if they have religious objections.
A religious exemption was also added to the version of ENDA that passed the Senate, and some groups now view it as a poison pill for the legislation.
With the ruling at the Supreme Court, the groups said in a joint statement, “it has become clear that the inclusion of this provision is no longer tenable.”
Groups dropping the support for the bill include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center.
The groups said the Hobby Lobby decision gives employers with a religious affiliation carte blanche to interpret the ENDA exemption as a way to discriminate against LGBT individuals. They said the bill could legitimize discrimination by hospitals, nursing homes and universities.
The groups and their allies in Congress were signing a different tune in November, when the Senate passed the anti-discrimination bill in a 64-32 vote.
“Let the bells of freedom ring,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the bill, at the time.
"The Senate has clearly spoken to end discrimination in the workplace."
Ten Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), voted for the legislation after the exemption was added for organizations funded or owned by those with religious affiliations.
“The provision essentially says that anti-LGBT discrimination is different — more acceptable and legitimate — than discrimination against individuals based on their race or sex,” the ACLU and the other groups said in a statement on Tuesday.
Another major supporter of ENDA, the Human Rights Campaign, said it is standing behind the bill.
The group "supports ENDA because it will provide essential workplace protections to millions of LGBT people," spokesman Fred Sainz told The Hill on Tuesday.
Groups pushing for LGBT rights are pressing President Obama to sign an executive order that would ban federal contractors from discriminating against individuals who are gay or transgender.
“It is unacceptable that in the year 2014, men and women are forced to hide who they are or whom they love when they go to work,” the groups said.
The decision to pull support from ENDA did not come easily for some, according to The Washington Post, which first reported that the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force had rescinded its backing of the legislation shortly before the joint statement from the other groups was released.
“If a private company can take its own religious beliefs and say you can’t have access to certain health-care, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to an interpretation that a private company could have religious beliefs that LGBT people are not equal or somehow go against their beliefs and therefore fire them,” Rea Carey, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told The Post.
"We do not take this move lightly," she said. "We’ve been pushing for this bill for 20 years."