Job equality bill is back in Congress

Rep. Deborah Pryce of Columbus is a lead co-sponsor

Eric Resnick writes for GayPeoplesChronicle.

Washington, D.C.–Congress is again considering a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The most recent version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was introduced in the House of Representatives April 24 by two Democrats and two Republicans, who will become the bill’s lead sponsors. One is from Columbus.

The four are openly gay Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Barney Frank of Massachusetts, plus Republicans Chris Shays of Connecticut and Deborah Pryce of Ohio.

Versions of the bill have been introduced since 1994, though it has never gotten very far and never passed a floor vote in either house. It came within one vote of passing the Senate in 1996–immediately after the chamber approved the Defense of Marriage Act.

Currently, it is legal to fire, or fail to promote, someone because of their sexual orientation in 33 states, including Ohio, and their gender identity in 42 states, also including Ohio.

ENDA would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing federal law prohibiting employment discrimination by race, religion, color and national origin. The bill exempts members of the armed forces, veterans groups and religious organizations.

At press time, neither a bill number, bill text, nor a list of co-sponsors was available.

Though support for the measure continues to build among public and private sector employers, organized labor, religious leaders and local governments, the bill’s fate is not clear.

The Human Rights Campaign is the lead organization lobbying for the measure. Earlier this month, HRC field director Marty Rouse told a Cleveland audience that it is the organization’s second legislative priority behind the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act, which adds penalties for violence motivated by hatred of LGBT people.

Rouse said that the reason ENDA is second is that it has less support in both houses of Congress.

“[Lawmakers] are uncomfortable with it,” Rouse said. “We expect it could be a wedge issue again, closer to the national election, that could be used against candidates in a close race.”

Rouse also said that even though the congressional leadership has changed from Republican to Democratic, “the makeup of Congress has not changed much. The conservative Republicans are still there and some of the new Democrats are very conservative on social issues.”

Still, HRC believes it is important to mobilize around the measure in order to push it farther than it has gone before–one more step in its eventual passage.

It will take “thousands of e-mails and post cards” especially to those lawmakers identified as “persuadable targets,” or ones who could vote either way, Rouse said.

The four sponsors rolled out the bill in an April 24 press conference with HRC president Joe Solmonese, Rev. Dr. Dennis Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C and Nationwide Insurance vice president Steven Keyes.

Nationwide, headquartered in Columbus, has been a leader in LGBT equality among major corporations for more than a decade. Corporate employers are, in general, far more willing than other sectors to have both LGBT non-discrimination policies and domestic partner benefits.

Eighty-six percent of Fortune 500 corporations have non-discrimination policies.

“Twenty five years ago, my own state of Wisconsin was the first in the nation to add sexual orientation to anti-discrimination statutes,” Baldwin said. Since then, 16 states have done the same.”

The seventeen state laws, plus about 80 local ordinances in other areas, cover roughly half the nation’s population.

“We call on Congress now to set a higher standard,” Baldwin added.

“In my judgment, this is common sense legislation,” Shays said. “Working men and women should be judged on their performance at work. They should not have to fear being fired because of their sexual orientation.”

Frank said the employment non-discrimination laws in states that have them have “caused none of the problems that opponents inaccurately claimed” and allow LGBT people “to be allowed to do their jobs and be judged on their job performance.”

Pryce added, “This legislation is first and foremost about fairness–about allowing all Americans to pursue their right to earn a living. Workplace discrimination of any kind is wrong, period.”

“I know something about this because, as a black man in America, I have experienced firsthand the injustice of being discriminated against not because of what I could do, but simply because of who I was,” said Rev. Wiley. “I made up my mind a long time ago that I would never intentionally oppress others in the manner in which I, myself have been oppressed.”

Solmonese said passing ENDA “will simply be adding another proud chapter to the amazing American story of opportunity.”

Keyes said, “Having a corporate culture that embraces diversity improves the productivity of our associates, helps the company recruit the best talent and makes Nationwide more competitive in the insurance and financial services industry.”

NCR Corporation of Dayton was also recognized as an ENDA supporter. Both companies score 100 percent on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index.

Later, Keyes elaborated on that to a reporter.

Using his company’s advertising phrase, Keyes said, “Our only way to deliver an “˜on your side’ experience for our customers is to also deliver an “˜on your side’ experience for our employees.”

“That means providing everyone a respectful, challenging work environment free of irrational bias,” said Keyes. “So this bill fits into our culture.”

Keyes said that Nationwide, which has supported the ENDA legislation since 2002 and had its own similar policy since 1996, will continue to influence other corporate employers to enact policies of their own and support ENDA.

Pryce, however, will not be doing anything to win fellow Republicans to support of the bill, said her spokesperson Rob Nichols. She was the fourth most powerful member of the House when her party controlled it.

Two Ohio Republicans, Pat Tiberi of suburban Columbus and David Hobson of Springfield, are considered “persuadable targets” that will be worked by HRC. Their districts border Pryce’s.

Asked if Pryce would be using her influence to sway the two to support ENDA, Nichols first said Pryce does not attempt to influence her colleagues’ votes.

Asked to compare ENDA with what Pryce does to win a budget item or something for her district, Nichols responded, “There will be no strategic effort to win those two specifically. There is not anything we’re directing specifically to or at them.”

Another Ohioan, first-term Democrat Zack Space of Dover, is the third HRC target in the state.