Sexual Orientation Bill Passes House Committee for First Time

By Staff Report

Oct. 19, 2007

In a historic vote, a House committee approved a bill on Thursday, October 18, banning workplace discrimination against homosexuals.

The measure would extend the same rights to gay, lesbian and bisexual people that exist for gender, race and ethnicity. It prohibits employers from basing hiring, firing, promotion or compensation decisions on sexual orientation.

The vote was the first ever on sexual-orientation discrimination legislation. But the bill that passed the House Education and Labor Committee in a 27-21 vote was narrower than the one that was introduced in April. The original included protections for transgender people.

The bill’s author, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, decided to remove the gender identity portion because there was not enough support in the House to pass a broader bill.

When it reaches the House floor in coming weeks, the new bill will have to overcome opposition not only from religious conservatives, who proposed four amendments that failed in committee, but also from liberals who contend that the bill is too weak without the gender identity language.

In the committee, four Republicans supported the bill and three Democrats opposed it in what was otherwise a party-line vote.

Supporters say a federal statute would close a gap created by the 30 states that do not have sexual orientation discrimination laws on their books.

“It is hard to believe that otherwise fully qualified, bright and capable individuals are being denied employment or fired from their jobs for … completely nonwork-related reasons,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and committee chairman. “This is profoundly unfair and, indeed, un-American.”

Miller praised large corporations such as General Mills, Cisco Systems, Kaiser Permanente, Microsoft, Citibank, Morgan Stanley and Time Warner for implementing inclusive employment policies that cover sexual orientation. About 46 big companies supported the original sexual orientation bill.

“While this is an encouraging trend, our entire workforce and our nation’s competitiveness will benefit from making sure that every state and all large workplaces are covered,” Miller said.

But the side of the aisle most often associated with big business is resisting the bill. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California and the panel’s highest-ranking Republican, said, “The legislation raises several complex questions about how it would impact employers, whether it would encroach on employee privacy, and how it comports with existing anti-discrimination statutes.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest employer group in the nation, is neutral toward the bill. It does not take a position on gender identity.

But its concerns about the broader bill were addressed when language was removed that potentially would have allowed local governments to mandate that companies provide benefits for same-sex partners.

“Our approach has been to be sure that the bill provides appropriate protection without unintended consequences,” said Michael Eastman, executive director of labor law policy at the Chamber of Commerce.

The business community’s equanimity is not shared by conservative Republicans, who strenuously oppose the bill.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Indiana, asserted that language referring to “actual or perceived sexual orientation” could potentially drag employers into court to defend against a vaguely defined term.

“If we get into the whole question of what’s perceived, we’re going down the road of an incredible litigation nightmare,” Souder said.

Souder argued that the bill would effectively curb religious freedom to express opposition to homosexual lifestyles. He and other colleagues said it also would threaten religious organizations.

“This bill is an aggressive attack on people of faith and faith-based institutions in this country,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan.

But Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, said the exemptions provided for religious organizations are stronger in the sexual orientation bill than they are in existing discrimination law.

Rep. Danny Davis, D-Illinois, cited the Golden Rule in defending the bill. “The most basic of all human desires is the desire to be treated fairly with respect, with equal opportunity and with equal protection under the law,” he said.

But there was opposition to the bill from Davis’ side of the aisle, too. Some Democrats said it should have included gender identity. “This legislation is incomplete,” said Yvette Clark, D-New York.

Some who expressed the same concern but voted for the bill anyway said they will support a gender identity amendment during the House floor debate.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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