Metro Weekly

Sen. Merkley announces plans to introduce LGBT civil rights bill

Jeff Merkley - Credit: Ralph Alswang/Center for American Progress
Jeff Merkley – Credit: Ralph Alswang/Center for American Progress

Sen. Jeff Merkley formally announced Wednesday his intention to introduce a comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill in the next Congress.

During remarks at the Center for American Progress, the Oregon Democrat said he will spearhead efforts to pass federal legislation that would protect LGBT people in nearly every aspect of American life, including employment, housing, public accommodations and credit. 

Merkley said that while the Senate’s passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in November of last year by a 64-32 vote after the bill failed by one vote in 1996 was a “tremendous victory,” if discrimination is wrong in employment, it also must be wrong in areas such as housing, public accommodations and financial transactions.

“Such an act would be a major advance for opportunity and equality for the LGBT community and would be a major stride toward a more just society,” said Merkley, who has been the lead sponsor of ENDA in the Senate since assuming that role from Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2009.

Merkley made the announcement during the unveiling of a new report by the Center for American Progress addressing the need for comprehensive LGBT nondiscrimination protections. 

As Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives, Merkley helped pass a law prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the state. According to Merkley, lessons can be learned from Oregon’s efforts to ban discrimination against LGBT people. “Just as Oregon has been on this path, so has the nation,” he said.

Merkley’s address marks the first formal announcement that he will introduce an omnibus bill in the next Congress, but it is not unexpected.

Despite having previously supported ENDA as written, this summer seven organizations withdrew their support for ENDA due to the scope of the religious exemption: The National LGBTQ Task Force, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), Transgender Law Center and Pride at Work. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) vowed to back a comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill in the next Congress that would include protections for housing, public accommodations, credit, education and employment.

Merkley said the religious exemption in the expected omnibus bill should track identically to federal nondiscrimination provisions addressing race. “Obviously there’s going to be an intense conversation between stakeholders and we hope to bring in a bipartisan coalition,” Merkley said. But narrowing the religious exemption could prove detrimental to Republican support.

During a panel discussion following Merkley’s address, out Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said the existing religious exemption has been key to Republican support and the short term chances for an omnibus bill in either the House or Senate “are probably zero.” ENDA has languished in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for more than a year since passing the Democratically-controlled Senate, but in January the Senate majority will switch Republican.

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While HRC President Chad Griffin said securing comprehensive LGBT federal protections could take years, he argued it sets the goal posts for moving forward.

“I have great faith in those on Capitol Hill in the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, who have led on ENDA who will lead us on how we get there,” Griffin said. “This is going to take a long time and this is going to be perhaps the biggest battle we’ve ever had when it comes to federal legislation.”

As attention turns to a broader bill, there remains the possibility that Republican supporters of ENDA could reintroduce the legislation with the broader religious exemption approved by the Senate. Following a failed attempt in committee by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) last week to attach ENDA with a narrowed religious exemption to a broader defense bill, a spokesperson for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fl.) — one of ENDA’s eight GOP cosponsors in the House — said options remain open for ENDA in the next Congress. “We are in conversations regarding ENDA reintroduction but as of yet, no decisions have been made,” Ros-Lehtinen spokesperson Keith Fernandez said.

If Republicans were to separately introduce ENDA next year, it would prove to be a remarkable moment in American politics, pitting a more conservative LGBT-rights bill once broadly backed by advocates against sweeping legislation that would confer LGBT Americans the same protections afforded to minorities such as women and African-Americans in areas extending beyond employment.

Griffin, however, threw cold water on such a possibility when asked if HRC would back ENDA as well as an omnibus bill should they both be introduced. “Those I have spoken to indicate support for the comprehensive approach. There may be folks who have that view but in terms of the advocacy and policy world folks that I talk to they’re onboard with a comprehensive approach,” Griffin told Metro Weekly. “I feel like the momentum is going to be there with bipartisan support both in the advocacy world as well as some of our bipartisan folks on the Hill who’ve really led on ENDA on the comprehensive approach, so I don’t think we’ll end up in that place. What we’ll be supporting is the comprehensive bill that the leadership on the Hill ultimately introduces.”

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