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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 12, 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 50
Comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill to be introduced in new Congress
Section One
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Comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill to be introduced in new Congress

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said on December 10 that he will introduce a comprehensive LGBT civil rights in the new Congress that will convene in January. Unlike ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act), Merkley's bill will cover housing, public accommodations, and credit as well as employment.

The Senate's bipartisan passage of ENDA in November 2013 was a 'tremendous victory,' Merkley said, but if discrimination against LGBT Americans is wrong at work, it is also wrong in all other areas of life.

'Such an act would be a major advance for opportunity and equality for the LGBT community and would be a major stride toward a more just society,' Merkley said.

Merkley made his announcement at an event for the Center for American Progress, which was releasing its own new report on the need for just such a comprehensive civil rights bill.

The Oregon Senator has been the lead sponsor of ENDA in the Senate since assuming that role from Senator Ted Kennedy in 2009. The new legislation would replace ENDA.

Most national LGBT organizations withdrew support for ENDA in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, because they feared that ENDA's very broad religious exemption would allow employers to gut protections for their LGBT employees under the pretext of religious convictions.

The National LGBTQ Task Force, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Gay and Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), Transgender Law Center, and Pride at Work all dropped support for ENDA at that time.

The HRC reaffirmed their support for ENDA, but also promised to back a comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill in the next Congress.

Merkley said the religious exemption in his new bill would be identical with federal nondiscrimination provisions related to race.

'Obviously, there's going to be an intense conversation between stakeholders and we hope to bring in a bipartisan coalition,' Merkley said.

However openly Gay Representative Mark Takano (D-CA) noted during a panel discussion that ENDA's broad religious exemption was put into the bill to draw more Republican support, and he doubted the legislation's viability without similar language.

Since Republicans will control both houses of the new Congress, Merkley's chances of passing his new bill 'are probably zero,' Takano added.

HRC President Chad Griffin said passing federal LGBT protections could take years.

'I have great faith in those on Capitol Hill in the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, who have led on ENDA who will lead us on how we get there,' Griffin said.

'This is going to take a long time and this is going to be perhaps the biggest battle we've ever had when it comes to federal legislation.'

Ironically, the old ENDA bill, which Republicans have kept off the floor of the House, may become the preferred vehicle for Congressional conservatives, as pro-Gay members of Congress line up to support Merkley's more ambitious measure.

A spokesperson for Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), one of ENDA's eight GOP cosponsors in the House, said options remain open for reintroducing ENDA in the next Congress.

'We are in conversations regarding ENDA reintroduction but as of yet, no decisions have been made,' Ros-Lehtinen spokesperson Keith Fernandez told the Washington Blade.

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