U.S. Senate moves ahead on gay rights bill

Proponents of a bill that would outlaw discrimination against gays in the workplace argued on Tuesday that the measure is rooted in fundamental fairness for all Americans.

WASHINGTON — Proponents of a bill that would outlaw discrimination against gays in the workplace argued on Tuesday that the measure is rooted in fundamental fairness for all Americans.

Republican opponents of the measure were largely silent, neither addressing the issue on the second day of Senate debate nor commenting unless asked. Written statements from some rendered their judgment that the bill would result in costly, frivolous lawsuits and mandate federal law based on sexuality.

The Senate moved closer to completing its work on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said a final vote in the Senate is possible by week’s end.

The bill advanced to a floor debate after clearing its first procedural hurdle Monday night on a 61-30 vote.

Senate passage of the bill would represent a major victory for advocates of gay rights just months after the Supreme Court cleared the way for ending a ban on same-sex marriages in California and struck down a 1996 law passed by Congress that banned federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. It came three years after Congress ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

Illinois was poised to become the 15th state to legalize gay marriage after the state’s Legislature gave its final approval Tuesday, sending it to the governor, who has said he will sign it.

“I don’t believe in discriminating against anybody,” said Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, a backer of the measure who voted against a similar, narrower bill 17 years ago. Hatch said the bill has language ensuring religious freedom that he expects the Senate to toughen.

The measure, however, faces strong opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner maintains that it is unnecessary and could prove too expensive and litigious for businesses.

Resistance remains within Republican ranks even as the national party, looking beyond core older voters, tries to be more inclusive. Republicans struggled to win over young people and independents in the 2012 presidential election who largely favour expanding gay rights.

Asked why he opposed the bill, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe said the measure is “somewhat pandering to the special groups that I think should not have to be singled out by themselves. I think they’re normal citizens like everybody else.”

A bipartisan group of senators pressed ahead with the legislation, casting it as a clear sign of Americans’ greater acceptance of homosexuality that has significantly changed the political dynamic.

A Pew Research survey in June found that more Americans said homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by society by a margin of 60 per cent to 31 per cent. Opinions were more evenly divided 10 years ago.

“What changed is society has changed,” said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. “Personal attitudes have changed, business is for it. There’s just widespread support for taking these other steps in passing a civil rights bill.”

About 88 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have adopted nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights advocacy group.

About 57 per cent of those companies include gender identity.

“It’s time to end this discrimination,” Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a Senate speech.

“It’s certainly about the vision of the Declaration of Independence that has the promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as the founding motivation.”

Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn’t stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion. The bill would exempt religious institutions and the military.

Republican Sens. Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte were crafting an amendment to the bill that would prevent federal, state and local governments from retaliating against religious groups that are exempt from the law.

“It focuses on religious liberty,” Portman said.

“It provides a non-retaliation clause in the federal law comparable to what a lot of states have.”