In light of the illness of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Democratic leaders in the Senate have indicated that they will not bring up a civil rights bill he has championed this year. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, approved last year by the House on a 235-184 vote, is long overdue. It would prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, just as they are currently barred from firing or refusing to promote workers because of their race, religion or gender.
Touching as the concern for Kennedy may be, it is hardly the only motive for sidelining the act. Although public opinion polls suggest that a huge majority of Americans believe that gays and lesbians shouldn’t be subjected to discrimination at work, homosexuality remains a hot-button issue for some voters. Too hot, apparently, for Democrats during an election year when Republican presidential candidate John McCain is seeking to shore up support among Christian conservatives while Democratic opponent Barack Obama is emphasizing the economy over divisive social issues.
Obama supports the nondiscrimination act. McCain voted against an earlier version in 1996. Despite their differences, however, they have remained silent on the controversial legislation, perhaps in a bid to avoid angering swing voters on either side of the issue. That’s a shame, because equality for gays and lesbians is a basic individual right that is protected by 20 states, including California. Desirable as state laws may be, however, only Congress can establish a national policy of nondiscrimination.
The Employee Non-Discrimination Act is actually a much more modest measure than its opponents suggest. Although it would forbid private employers, unions and state governments from discriminating on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation, the U.S. military would not be affected. It would not repeal the armed services’ unjust “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Before it passed the House, the bill also was stripped of a provision protecting transgender people from discrimination. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has proposed separate legislation to protected transgender workers.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may believe that sidelining the act will serve the tactical interests of the Obama campaign. But it’s possible that Obama would benefit politically from passage of a measure he has enthusiastically endorsed. Such a stand could counter accusations that he has placed expediency above principle in this campaign. On the other hand, muting his support will not spare him from right-wing accusations that he supports a sinister “homosexual agenda.”
Obama should give Reid a nudge to add the act to the Senate’s end-of-the-session schedule. That would be the ultimate tribute to Kennedy’s activism on this issue.