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News Opinion Editorial

Equal rights on the job

Most Americans believe that a person should not be discriminated against in the workplace because of sexual orientation. Polls have shown this consistently and strongly for years. So it shouldn't be too much of a shock if the U.S. Senate this week approves legislation to ban on-the-job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Yet it is a bit of an eye-opener.

Not because it's not the right thing to do but because there are still so many lawmakers in Washington and around the country who favor discrimination. That apparently includes House Speaker John Boehner, who opposes the bill because it will, according to a spokesman, "increase frivolous litigation that will cost Americans jobs."

In other words, the top House Republican opposes banning discrimination because somebody might actually seek to enforce such a ban — presumably gay people who are refused jobs. Never mind that's not been the experience of the 21 states and the District of Columbia that have approved similar protections against workplace discrimination. What happens most often in those places is that employers simply comply with the law.

Monday night's procedural vote in the Senate produced a 61-30 majority in favor, including seven Republicans. That's a pretty extraordinary level of bipartisan support, and if it holds, it will be sufficient to ensure that the measure can overcome the threat of filibuster.

Even so, those who choose to vote against the measure have some explaining to do. We are a country that doesn't countenance discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, race or national origin. Why should it be perfectly fine to fire or refuse to hire people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender?

Indeed, the more appropriate criticism of the proposal before the Senate is that it doesn't go far enough. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act provides a too-broad exemption to religious institutions including hospitals and schools that would leave out such positions as a church-affiliated college librarian or hospital cafeteria worker.

Attitudes are changing in this country, and history will not be kind to those who cling to discriminatory attitudes of the past. The same-sex marriage movement has been one barometer of that social evolution, but nondiscrimination employment policies ought to be regarded as just as fundamental. Many business owners are on board, too.

Nor should this be viewed as a red state versus blue state issue. Senate Republicans who voted in favor of the cloture Monday included Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and Orrin Hatch of Utah. Not one Senate Republican rose to speak against the bill prior to the vote.

Banning workplace discrimination against gays may seem like old hat in Maryland, which approved such a prohibition in 2001. But unfortunately, the state law does not include gender identity — although four of the state's largest subdivisions, Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties, have extended those protections to transgender people.

A bill to ban employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity died in a Maryland Senate committee earlier this year, which means that if the U.S. Senate approves the anti-discrimination bill as expected, it will have demonstrated itself to be more progressive on civil rights than the Maryland Senate. How bizarre is that?

Supporters have vowed to try again when the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes in January, and they are hoping that this week's vote will stir the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee into reversing course and approving the bill. Observers are confident that the legislation would face smooth sailing on the Senate floor and in the House of Delegates.

After all, the legislature surely doesn't want to appear as intolerant as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives where the anti-gay politics of the GOP circa 2004 appear to be alive and well. It's another example of the growing gap between mainstream America and the political right. Average people don't see much profit in discrimination (nor do many CEOs like Apple's Tim Cook who backs the federal bill), but House leaders somehow can't bear the thought of bringing the matter to a vote. Shame on them.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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