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Senate passes workplace protections for gay, transgender Americans

WASHINGTON -- The Senate gave its final approval Thursday to a bill that would offer historic new protections to gay and transgender individuals in the workplace, shifting the fight now to the Republican-led House.

Ten Republicans joined with all Democrats in a 64-32 vote to pass the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA. Ten Republicans had voted to advance the measure in an earlier procedural vote.

“This is a really tremendous milestone, a day I will never forget in my service in the Senate,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay person elected to the Senate. “For folks like myself in the LGBT community, the opportunity to be judged in the workplace by your skills and qualifications, your loyalty, your work ethic is an important pronouncement for this nation.”

Gay-rights advocates hailed the bipartisan vote and renewed their call for House Speaker John A. Boehner to allow the measure to come to the floor in that chamber.

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“This broad Senate coalition has sent a vital message that civil rights legislation should never be tied up by partisan political games,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

“We firmly believe that if the House of Representative were freed by Speaker John Boehner to vote its conscience, this bill could pass immediately,” Griffin said. "It’s unconscionable that any one person would stand in the way of this crucial piece of the civil rights puzzle.”

Congress hasn't passed major gay-rights legislation since 2010, when it voted to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that barred gays from openly serving in the military.

The Senate bill would prohibit public and private employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for decisions about employment, promotion or compensation.

Federal law extends such protections based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia also protect sexual orientation; all but four of those include a similar protection for transgender individuals.

On Wednesday, senators approved an amendment offered by Republicans to strengthen an exception provided in the bill for religious organizations, and to ensure that the government could not retaliate against such groups in awarding contracts and grants. An additional amendment to further strengthen the exemption was offered Thursday before the vote, but was defeated.

The House in 2007, then controlled by Democrats, passed a version of ENDA that did not include the provision for transgender individuals. Thirty-five Republicans voted for it at the time, though only 10 continue to serve in the House today.

One of them, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), would not commit to supporting the Senate-passed bill.

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“Congressman Ryan does not believe someone should be fired because of their sexual orientation. That said, any legislation to address this concern should be narrowly crafted to guard against unintended consequences,” said Ryan spokesman Kevin Seifert.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said this week that “95 percent” of Democrats stand ready to vote for the Senate-passed bill in the House, and that just 10% of Republicans would need to add their votes to ensure passage.

“Everyone talks about gridlock in Washington. It rests with one man: Speaker Boehner,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters. “Nearly every time the Senate passes a bill, it’s like we’re banishing the issue to a far-away jail, and Speaker Boehner’s the prison warden.”

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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