Sixty-one Republicans and Democrats in the Senate joined forces earlier this week to move forward on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on sexual and gender orientation. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate by the week’s end, when it will go to the House of Representatives.
Once again, House Republicans under Speaker John Boehner are seeking to prove that their colleagues in the Senate are too rational for the rest of the GOP, whether those Senate Republicans like it or not. Those Senators, who include Dean Heller (R-Nevada) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), are miles ahead of the rest of their party, which becomes more divided with each issue that Congress tackles.
ENDA is not expected to see the light of day in the House. At best, the GOP opposition to the bill is grounded in both a skewed understanding of religious freedom and blind faith to “small businesses.” At worst, the House GOP is demonstrating blatant moral bankruptcy and proving that they will align themselves against people of different sexual and gender orientation at all costs.
State regulations already attempt to limit discrimination, but they are not nearly as comprehensive as federal laws. As long as federal law does not protect qualified Americans from being fired or not considered for jobs based on their identity, then it falls short of the ideals that the United States was founded upon. Apparently, so does the dominant ideology in the House of Representatives.
In a statement released to the public by Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, the Speaker voiced his opposition to anti-discrimination legislation. His reason?
“The speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small-business jobs.”
Beyond the absurdity of the factual claim, Boehner’s moral hierarchy is frightening. The last time I checked, the United States of America does not put the interests of small businesses above equality.
In addition, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a law that prohibited children from working in sweatshops, was also “costly” for small businesses. So were subsequent minimum wage laws that prohibited companies from paying workers ten cents an hour for backbreaking labor, like they do in China. Not convinced yet? Compare Speaker Boehner’s opposition to ENDA to this excerpt from another Congressional speech:
“By its attempt to regulate and govern the private businesses, which are miscalled public accommodations in the bill, this proposal would inject the Government into the most sensitive areas of human contractual relations — agreements for personal services.”
Sound familiar? It should. Both statements voice fundamental opposition to anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of economic priority and the ability of businesses to operate efficiently. The difference? The above quote is 49 years old. It’s an excerpt from a speech given by Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, in opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
And if you still aren’t convinced, let’s rewind another 100 years. How many plantation owners thought that the Emancipation Proclamation impeded their ability to run a cost-efficient “small business?”
The sad thing is, some members of the GOP drop the “small business” excuse every day. We can find it in nearly every speech in opposition to bills ranging from the Affordable Care Act to clean air regulations, and voters let them get away with it. Allowing economics to drive morality is a dangerous game, and the next defense of the law, “religious freedom,” potentially is even worse.
Before voicing support for the bill, Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey and Rob Portman met secretly and garnered their support for the bill on including exemptions for religious groups.
The right to the free exercise of religion protected by the Bill of Rights should never be used to defend the “right” of employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Such logic deems that religious groups should be given an “exception” to discriminate against homosexuals, and while it may have been socially acceptable 20 years ago, it certainly is not now.
The First Amendment also prohibits Congress from respecting an establishment of religion, inspired in part by colonial Maryland where the colonial government actively persecuted Quakers (and all other dissenters). Freedom of religion is intrinsically related to freedom from discrimination, and any religious group that seeks an “exception” to anti-discrimination legislation is forgetting that freedom of religion was established to protect them from discrimination in the first place.
The seven GOP Senators and handful of GOP representation willing to support ENDA should be commended, but it is downright reprehensible that the most significant equality measure since the repeal of “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” is expected to fail in the House of Representatives.
The last time I checked, the United States was better than this.
Nathaniel Haas is a sophomore majoring in economics and political science. His column “A House Divided” runs Thursdays.
Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @haas4prez2036