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Employment Non-Discrimination Act support reflects changing attitudes in GOP

November 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Senate took a bipartisan step toward approving the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a law that would ban discrimination against gay workers. To examine the divide within the GOP on gay rights issues, Jeffrey Brown speaks with Gregory Angelo of the Log Cabin Republicans and Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council.

GWEN IFILL: Late yesterday, in a rare bipartisan step, the Senate moved toward approving a law banning discrimination against gay workers. As public opinion has continued to shift on gays in the military and same-sex marriage, seven Republicans joined with Democrats yesterday to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

SEN. BEN CARDIN, D- Md.: It’s now time to pass a national law.

JEFFREY BROWN: Supporters of the bill, including Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland, pressed today for federal action to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees.

BEN CARDIN: If we’re going to be able to adequately compete globally, we need to empower all of the people of this country. We can’t leave anyone behind.

JEFFREY BROWN: ENDA, or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, bans employers from using sexual orientation or gender identity to discriminate in hiring and employment. The bill cleared a key procedural hurdle Monday evening, marking a turnaround from 1996.

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MAN: The ayes are 49. The nos are 50. The bill is not agreed to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then, a similar measure failed in the Senate by a single vote. That same year, Congress adopted DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage.


JEFFREY BROWN: Seventeen years later, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned DOMA, more states are legalizing same-sex marriage, and polls find the American public increasingly accepting of gay rights.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: I think we will finish ENDA this week. And there’s been good work on both sides. There’s been trust, which is so — so very, very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats are unanimous in supporting the employment discrimination bill. A majority of Senate Republicans are opposed, although none spoke today.

It remains unclear if the bill will even come up in the House, where Republicans are the majority. Speaker John Boehner issued a statement yesterday repeating his longstanding view that such measures can only increase frivolous litigation and put a new burden on business.

And we walk through the arguments and examine the divisions within the Republican Party on this issue with a supporter of the legislation, Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, and an opponent, Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. Both groups have worked to lobby GOP lawmakers on this issue.

Peter Sprigg, let me start with you.

And start were the argument that has been raised by John Boehner, that this will have an adverse business and litigation impact. Explain that for us.

PETER SPRIGG, Family Research Council: Well, whenever you expand the number of protected categories under these type of laws, what you’re actually doing is giving a license to sue to new groups that didn’t have such a license before.

It’s almost an inevitable result that there will be further litigation, and that will impose costs in terms of time and expense, even in cases where the merits of the case may be relatively weak. So I don’t think any Republican should be supporting this kind of further intrusion into the practices of private businesses.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Gregory Angelo why he thinks Republicans should support this.

GREGORY ANGELO, Log Cabin Republicans: Sure.

Well, you know, first, to refute that argument that this legislation will be a boon to trial lawyers, the GAO just came out with a report less than two months ago saying that they have studied states that actually have employment protections for gay and lesbian individuals and haven’t seen an explosion and an uptick and this legislation and a boon for trial lawyers.

I don’t like trial lawyers just as much as the next Republican. The fact is that there’s a strong conservative case to be made from employment non-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals. It’s something that is good for business. It’s good for the economy. It’s great to attract American workers.

And it’s also great to make sure that gay and lesbian workers don’t live in fear of being fired simply because of their sexual orientation. It’s just commonsense legislation from a conservative perspective.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, another issue in this debate — and I will start with you on this one, Gregory Angelo — is this question of exemptions for religious organizations, which is in, in part, in the — in the bill that’s being debated before the Senate. Do you think that that is the right way to go? Is it sufficiently done?

GREGORY ANGELO: I most definitely think it’s the right way to go.

In fact, if you look at the religious protections that exist, they’re exceptionally strong. They’re right in line with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. All the religious organizations that are exempt under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act are still exempt under the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as it exists right now, much to the chagrin, I will add, of a number of Democrats, who don’t believe that those religious protections should be there.

So the work that we’re doing in lobbying Republicans is to make sure that they know they need to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. If they support religious liberty, they also need to support this legislation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Sprigg, what do you think about the exemptions that are there so far for religious institutions?

PETER SPRIGG: I don’t think there’s any way to write a religious exemption that would be broad enough to adequately deal with the concerns that we have.

Even if you have an exemption which thoroughly covers all religious nonprofit organizations, as well as churches, the chances that such an exemption would cover profit-making companies that seeks to operate in accordance with their personal moral beliefs and their faith is unlikely.

This is the same kind of problem we’re seeing, for example, with the HHS Mandate under Obamacare. Those corporations have the right to practice their business in accordance with their faith as well. And we’re concerned, too, about the impact on individual employees, that this will create a situation of reverse discrimination, where people within the work force who — who express a personal opinion disapproving of homosexual conduct or saying that they believe marriage should be the union of a man and a woman may themselves become victims of retaliation and persecution.

We will have a system in which the homosexuals are brought out of the closet and Christians are driven into the closet.


JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Gregory Angelo, respond to that. That’s…


This type of fear-mongering is something that really doesn’t have any credence. And it’s really what social conservatives are falling back on in a last-ditch effort to prevent this legislation from passing. We have never had a history in the United States of allowing for-profit institutions to discriminate.

And this simply codifies that into law for individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity. And also the fact that we might be entering uncharted territory if we pass this legislation is something that is absolutely incorrect. Right now, we have 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, that currently recognize employment nondiscrimination for individuals based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

You have not seen religious organizations affected by this. You have not seen an uptick in litigation. And you have not seen any of the doom and gloom that individuals such as Family — and organizations such as Family Research Council are predicting will happen if we pass ENDA now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Sprigg, you can respond to that, but I want to ask you about the gender — the more — the broader issue here that we referred to, the cultural shift in favor in the public, we see in various legislation, we see in polls, of gay rights.

Do you see that legislation playing into that? Do you see a broader cultural shift, and do you see that legislation playing into it?

PETER SPRIGG: Well, I think we see a situation in which people have been basically intimidated from saying anything negative about homosexuality in public because they don’t want to be attacked, stigmatized, and vilified as being bigots.

And so we do see a growth in people saying, you know, that in a general sense they believe that gay people should have the same rights as anybody else. But they don’t understand, I don’t think, the implications of this kind of bill in terms of its intrusion on religious liberty and on free markets.

I think particularly people are not well-informed about the gender identity provisions of this. I mean, sexual orientation is a characteristic that’s essentially invisible. Nobody would have opportunity to know someone’s sexual orientation unless they make a point of proclaiming it.

But, in the case of gender identity, you’re talking about situations in which people who are still biologically male, but present themselves as female, will be guaranteed the right to use facilities, including showers and locker rooms, in which they might appear nude before other females. That’s a — that’s a shocking implication of this bill that I don’t think has been adequately publicized.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gregory Angelo, last word from you. Do you — respond to that, and do you see this cultural shift affecting Republican politics?


Number one, when it comes to the transgender issue, you’re — this is dealing with the notion that individuals who are transgender are doing it by choice. What we’re talking about in this legislation are people who have a medical diagnosis of gender identity issues. So we’re not talking about people one day waking up and deciding they want to — quote — as Peter says, “present themselves” as being man or woman.

But, certainly, we are seeing cultural shift among Republicans. I think it’s interesting to note that, right now, we have 56 percent of Republicans who are supportive of ENDA right now, far ahead of where the United States Congress is. I only wish 56 percent of Republicans in the House and the Senate supported this legislation. It would certainly make my job a lot easier.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gregory Angelo, Peter Sprigg, thank you both very much.

GREGORY ANGELO: Thank you, Jeff.