Our guest blogger is Ben Harris, intern for LGBT Progress.
Today the Senate held a hearing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2011, or ENDA — a crucial piece of legislation that will finally prohibit discrimination against LGBT Americans in the workforce. The last time the Senate held a hearing on this topic was in November 2009. Until Congress passes ENDA, it will remain legal in 29 states to fire someone for being gay, and in 34 states for being transgender.
In anticipation of today’s hearing, the Center for American Progress released a report yesterday on the ways that ENDA ensures both the freedom to work and the freedom to worship. While prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, ENDA also contains a significantly broad exemption for religious organizations — such as churches, synagogues, mosques, religiously-run schools, and others — that allows them to take sexual orientation and gender identity into account when making employment decisions. In other words, this exemption gives religious organizations full license to discriminate against LGBT people. Under ENDA, a church can fire a Sunday school teacher for being lesbian or a religiously-run school can fire its janitor for being transgender.
Still, conservative opponents of workplace fairness continue to make disingenuous arguments in a blatant attempt to distract from the debate and derail ENDA. Craig Parshall, senior vice president for the National Religious Broadcasters Association, testified today that he believes ENDA subjects religious groups to a “crazy-quilt of inconsistent decisions” about what entities would be exempt. In fact, ENDA does the opposite by using the religious exemption language in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This language has been consistently upheld by the courts, which have made very clear which religious entities are exempt and which are not.
Parshall further complained that Title VII doesn’t provide an exemption for “a small, closely held manufacturing shop whose owner had a clearly Christian world view and wanted it to permeate the work place.” On this one, Parshall’s actually right — and that’s a good thing. ENDA gives a broad exemption to religious organizations, but not to business owners who have religious objections to LGBT people. To allow anyone who runs a secular business to discriminate based on personal reasons would defeat the purpose of ENDA in the first place.
The misleading and insulting arguments regarding ENDA and religious liberty didn’t stop there. Parshall ironically claimed that ENDA would subject religious organizations to “endless, expensive, and harassing litigation.” First, reality begs to differ. The Title VII exemption language is well established and well defined — by using it, ENDA actually avoids extensive litigation. Second, the real harassment is perpetrated against gay and transgender workers, not by them. Today’s hearing included numerous stories of hard-working employees fired simply because they were gay, and a personal account of discrimination from the first-ever transgender witness to testify before the United States Senate. These workers know first-hand the endless, expensive, and harassing nature of blatant workplace discrimination.
Religious freedom is no doubt an important tenet of our constitutional system, as is equality. Conservatives falsely argue that the two are mutually exclusive, when in fact ENDA effectively protects both. The senators voting on this legislation would do well to remember that claims to the contrary are based in fiction, not fact.