Four years ago this week, and over a decade after the brutal hate motivated murders of its namesakes, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The law expanded hate crimes legislation to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It was also the first federal action that extended legal protections to transgender people.
True to America’s cornerstone values of fairness and equality, this anniversary marks yet another occasion in our country’s history where a fundamental wrong was recognized and a more free, just and inclusive course was charted.
On the anniversary of this important legislation comes news this week that Senator Reid plans to bring the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to the Senate floor for a vote, almost 17 years after it was defeated by the narrowest of margins –one vote. With bipartisan support in the Senate, ENDA will surely make its way to the House of Representatives next month, where it faces a steeper uphill climb. Just like the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, ENDA represents a significant, long overdue milestone on the road to equality for our LGBT community.
ENDA extends current federal employment discrimination protections based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability to sexual orientation and gender identity. It would prohibit public and private employers, with rare exceptions for small businesses and religious organizations, from using sexual orientation and gender identity as factors in employment decisions.
As a member of the LGBT Equality Caucus, I am proud to be an original cosponsor of this bill. Employees should be evaluated based upon their qualifications and competency, not personal characteristics that have no bearing on job performance.
Everyone has the right to their own personal and religious beliefs, and of course an exception for religious organizations and small businesses is explicitly included in ENDA. An employer’s personal beliefs though, should not be a factor in employment decisions. Just as an employer’s personal feelings towards another race or religion are not a legal basis for discriminating against a worker, neither should an employee’s sexual orientation.
Freedom from discrimination is not a privilege given by an employer, but a right possessed by all employees. It is past time for the federal government to ensure this right is guaranteed to all Americans. I will do all I can to support the passage of this legislation in the 113th Congress.