House Passes Historic Employment Non-discrimination Act


11-08-07, 2:48 pm

The House of Representatives yesterday (11-07-07) passed the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA), an historic civil rights measure that would bar discrimination against workers in hiring, firing, or promotion based on sexual orientation.

Language that would have extended protections from discrimination based on gender identity to transgender individuals was stripped from the bill in committee. This move sparked tremendous controversy among supporters of the bill.

In an interview with one media outlet, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who shepherded the bill through the committee process, said eliminating the more inclusive language was needed to help the bill pass.

'If you insist that you can't protect anybody until you protect everybody, you'll protect nobody,' Frank insisted.

Despite the fact that the employment non-discrimination bill had nothing to with redefining marriage, a last minute amendment incorporated language explicitly denying marriage equality.

Even with the changes, Democrats praised the bill as a monumental piece of civil rights legislation. Speaking on the floor of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said ENDA is part of a long tradition of the expansion of equal rights in US history.

'Progress on civil rights is never easy,' she said. 'It is often marked by small and difficult steps. We take this step today toward the ideal of equality that is both our heritage and our hope.'

In an extremely moving speech, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) saw passage of ENDA as part of America's democratic values. 'No one in America believes you can pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without the opportunity to have employment.'

ENDA, Hoyer said, is a 'momentous step in breaking down centuries of rank injustice, unthinking prejudice, and unjustified discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans.'

Rep. John L. Lewis (D-GA) compared passage of ENDA to passage of past civil rights legislation. 'Call it what you may, to discriminate against someone because they are gay is wrong. It is wrong. It is wrong. It is not right.'

Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (IL) reminded the House of the historic expansion of equality to various groups. 'Now it is our turn to offer protection to those of a different orientation,' he remarked.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) offered an amendment that would have reintroduced language to include protections based on gender identity. 'Irrational hate and fear have no place in our society,' she said. She withdrew the amendment before it could be brought for a vote because it did not have the votes needed to pass.

An Inclusive ENDA

The bill was originally introduced in the 1970s by Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY). Support for the bill grew over the next two decades, and many people were optimistic about its passage after President Clinton's election in 1992. But the Republican takeover of Congress put passage of ENDA on the back burner until this year.

In the late 1990s, more and more groups came to support an ENDA that included protections for transgender people, including huge national organizations like the National Organization for Women, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the AFL-CIO.

At this point, however, the bill is not expected to come up for a vote in the Senate this fall, and probably will be tabled in the 2008 election season.

Organizations who support an inclusive ENDA see the delay as giving them time to lobby harder to have inclusive language reinserted into the bill and to have language denying marriage equality stripped.

In a statement, Pride at Work, AFL-CIO, the voice of the LGBT community in the labor movement, urged 'the Labor and LGBT community and its friends and allies to continue the struggle for a fully inclusive ENDA.'

A statement by Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, praised the work of supporters of the inclusive ENDA bill and called for continued lobbying to pass a better bill. “We are relieved this episode is behind us, and starting right now we are going to pick up where we were six weeks ago — namely, working to pass into law in 2009 the ENDA our entire community wants and deserves.'

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Vice President Nancy Zirkin applauded passage of ENDA, saying, 'While we celebrate this victory, we do not intend to let another 10 years pass before we protect the entire community. Today's passage creates momentum that we intend to use to push for legislation that is fully inclusive.'

--Reach Joel Wendland at