ENDA Hearing Renews Battle for Inclusive Workplace Protections

rsz_1enda_hearingOn Wednesday morning, the U.S. House of Representatives Labor & Education Committee held its long-awaited hearing for the inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 3017). The Committee heard testimony in support of the bill from Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Acting Chairman Stuart Ishimaru; Vandy Beth Glenn, fired from her Georgia state legislative job when she told her supervisor she was transitioning from male to female; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director, the Religious Action Center, among others.

The Washington Blade reported that the hearing represented “the first step in the legislative process” toward passing ENDA, according to Committee spokesperson Aaron Albright. ENDA would make it “illegal to fire, refuse to hire or refuse to promote an employee based on the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity at companies with 15 or more employees.” The legislation was introduced in the U.S. House on June 24th and a similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate on August 5.

In his opening statement published on the Education & Labor Committee’s website, Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) wrote, “For more than three decades, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have waged a courageous campaign for their workplace rights. I regret that they had to wait so long for us to respond.”

Vandy Beth Glenn, who had worked for the state legislature in Georgia, related her compelling story of the workplace discrimination that resulted in her termination:

My editorial skills had not changed. My work ethic had not changed.  I was still ready and willing to burn the midnight oil with my colleagues, making sure every bill was letter perfect.  My commitment to the General Assembly, to its leaders, and to Mr. Brumby had not faltered. The only thing that had changed was my gender, and because of that the legislature I had worked so hard for no longer had any use for my skills.

Glenn added, “No one should ever get fired for the reason I was fired, and no one should have to wonder if the law protects them.  Transgender workers like me need a federal law that clearly and unmistakably bans gender identity discrimination.”  Several attendees reported the noticeable effect that her words had on many of the representatives.

Throughout the hearing, concerns centered on whether ENDA was necessary, given the existing protections provided under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as the potentially limiting effect of such a bill on religious liberties.  However, The Advocate reported a generally positive atmosphere in the chambers, where Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force commented about the opposition, “They were not the arguments that we have heard over the past 20 years that have been degrading, insulting and inhumane. I think that bodes well for the passage of ENDA.”

Solid testimony from Stuart Ishimaru, Acting Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, confirmed that cases of discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation brought under Title VII claims have been historically turned down by the EEOC, which must reply, “We can’t help you; the law doesn’t apply.”

In answer to the religious concerns, supporters reminded the Committee that ENDA includes even stronger exemption than Title VII does for religious organizations.  Shannon Minter, Legal Director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, explained to The Advocate that:

Title VII permits certain religious employers to discriminate based on religion but not based on ‘race’ or ‘gender.’ ENDA actually allows those religious organizations more latitude by permitting them to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Pam’s House Blend posted the official House of Representatives press release for the hearing, in which Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism represented the coalition of faith-based organizations and communities supporting the bill:

ENDA simply ensures that workers are judged and rewarded based on their qualifications and performance, rather than on irrelevant and prejudicial factors.  At the same time, it protects the right of religious communities to make their own employment decisions in this sensitive area.

One of the chief sponsors of the bill, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) closed his introductory statement with:

Let me just say to my colleagues -- there's nothing to be afraid of. These are our fellow human beings. They aren't asking you for anything other, in this bill, than the right to earn a living. Can't you give them that?

GLAAD will continue to track media coverage of the progress of ENDA through Congress and keep you updated.

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