Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Outlaw workplace discrimination against gays

The Florida National Guard made an end run around the state Constitution’s gay-marriage ban this week by having all married military couples — gay and straight — apply for and receive benefits at federal, not state, facilities. Smart move.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that the federal government must recognize legally married same-sex couples, the Pentagon made same-sex spouses of military members eligible for the same benefits as opposite-sex spouses. But in Florida, the Guard was in a quandary because recognizing same-sex military spouses could violate the state Constitution. Its admirable solution — using the aegis of federal power — is a good example of why federal non-discrimination laws have so much clout.

It’s also another argument for Congress passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would outlaw workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The proposed law has languished for almost 40 years, an example of how behind the times Congress can be. Really, if the Pentagon banned discrimination against gays and lesbians, can’t the U.S. House and Senate do the same after all these years?

That’s the question in the Senate this week, where seven Republicans commendably stepped across the aisle Monday and voted to begin debate on ENDA. Sad to say, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wasn’t among them. A disappointing no-show, especially since his fellow Miami lawmaker, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is a prominent sponsor of the companion bill in the House.

The cloture vote, 61-30, triggered a full Senate debate. If ENDA passes, as it should, it would extend a federal civil right to gay, lesbian and bisexual workers, a much-needed — and overdue — protection.

Under current law, employers in 29 states — including Florida — can refuse to hire someone based on his or her sexual orientation. Federal law prohibits employer discrimination based on race, gender, religion, age and national origin. The same law should shield gays, lesbians and transgender persons in the workplace.

But a proposed amendment would exempt religious and religiously affiliated institutions, such as churches, hospitals and universities, from the anti-discrimination measures. The ACLU says this would create a “right” to discriminate by churches and such. Correct. The amendment’s sweep is much broader than in other civil-rights laws, which allow religious institutions to show a preference for members of their own religion when hiring, but bans them from using race, sex, age, etc., in employment policies.

The proposed exemptions are overly broad and should be voted down. What protects other minorities should be no different when it comes to protecting gays, lesbians and transgender people.

If the Senate approves ENDA, it’s on to the House, where it will be Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s turn to urge passage. We wish her success.

Like so much other progressive legislation, the act faces a tough time in the House. Speaker John Boehner’s office warned that ENDA would increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs.

That argument has been wielded against all anti-discrimination legislation — from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to 1990’s Americans with Disabilities Act — and it failed to develop traction with the passing years. House members need to lift the blinders and recognize that gay, lesbian and transgender Americans deserve the same rights as every other U.S. citizen.

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