Senate OKs gay rights bill banning discrimination; Utah senators split vote

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 1:22 p.m. MST

The Senate rejected an amendment sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would have expanded the number of groups that are covered under the religious exemption. Opponents argued that it would undermine the core bill.

If the House fails to act on the bill, gay rights advocates are likely to press Obama to act unilaterally and issue an executive order barring anti-gay workplace discrimination by federal contractors.

Backers of the bill repeatedly described it as an issue of fairness.

"It is well past time that we, as elected representatives, ensure that our laws protect against discrimination in the workplace for all individuals, that we ensure ... some protections for those within the LGBT community," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who described the diversity in her state.

Murkowski's support underscored the generational shift. Seventeen years ago, when a bill dealing with discrimination based on sexual orientation failed by one vote in the Senate, the senator's father, Frank, voted against it. That was the same year that Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act.

Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn't stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person's sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion. It would exempt religious institutions and the military.

By voice vote Wednesday, the Senate approved an amendment from Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire that would prevent federal, state and local governments from retaliating against religious groups that are exempt from the law.

Likely Senate approval of the overall bill reflects the nation's growing tolerance of gays and the GOP's political calculation as it looks for support beyond its core base of older voters. A Pew Research survey in June found that more Americans said homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by society by a margin of 60 percent to 31 percent. Opinions were more evenly divided 10 years ago.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of those also prohibit employers from discriminating based on gender identity.

About 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. About 57 percent of those companies include gender identity.

Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., did not vote.

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