On the Hill: With ENDA Stalled, Obama Must Act

Photo by Matt Wade

Congress is infamous for its snail-like pace in passing legislation, and that reputation is certainly well deserved when it comes to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

ENDA, if passed, would prohibit discrimination in the workforce that occurs because of an employee’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. As I mentioned in a previous article about ENDA, 29 states currently permit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and 32 states permit discrimination based on gender identity, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This means that an employee can be fired or demoted simply because of how they identify and who they love, or that a job applicant might be refused a position they are qualified for because of those very same factors.

ENDA was proposed in order to expand the federal laws that currently ban employment discrimination based on factors such as race and gender so that they also ban employment discrimination that is based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It should be noted that ENDA is not without its own set of problems, as the legislation would exempt religiously affiliated businesses from abiding by the anti-discrimination provisions within the bill, thereby giving a special privilege to religious Americans and jeopardizing the rights of countless LGBTQ Americans across the country. That being said, non-religious and secular organizations like the American Humanist Association are still pushing for the passage of this bill while working with congressional leaders to get this religious exemption removed.

Unfortunately, it looks as though ENDA is going nowhere. While the bill has passed the Senate, opposition from conservative and religious members in the House of Representatives has all but guaranteed that the bill won’t reach the president’s desk.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing can be done to protect LGBTQ employees. President Obama can take several executive actions that don’t require congressional approval. In fact, around 200 members of Congress recently signed on to a letter sent to the White House asking President Obama to “sign an executive order providing workplace protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans” in the federal workforce. While this executive order would apply only to contractors and businesses that work with the federal government and not all employers, such an action would be a huge step forward in the battle for workplace equality.

So far, President Obama hasn’t committed to signing such an executive order, but the increased pressure he’s facing from advocacy organizations on this issue suggests he will need to act soon. And while this executive order wouldn’t be necessary if ENDA was passed, the lack of progress on that bill suggests that the only way to protect vulnerable employees at the moment is through action by the White House. President Obama must now decide whether he cares more about protecting LGBTQ Americans or preventing a public backlash from religiously conservative organizations and members of Congress.

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