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Workplace Protections: A Rare Opportunity for Compromise | Commentary

Lawmakers returning to town after Labor Day are facing an agenda filled with political land mines, from threats of a government shutdown over spending to the sequester. But there is one bill that is smooth sailing, enormously popular and so common-sense that Americans are routinely shocked to learn it isn’t already law.

A fundamental tenet of the American Dream is that everyone should have the freedom and opportunity to secure a job and provide for their family, and that they be judged by their merits in the process. Previous Congresses have gotten rid of many forms of workplace discrimination throughout history, be it based on religion, race, gender, disability or any other personal characteristic that has nothing to do with one’s ability to excel in their job.

The same should apply to sexual orientation and gender identity; no one should be fired or harassed in the workplace because they’re gay or transgender. Such discrimination is still pervasive and there are no state laws addressing it in nearly two-thirds of the United States. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would ban this type of workplace discrimination for all Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has stated numerous times his desire to bring ENDA to the floor for a vote this fall. Passing ENDA is good policy and good politics for both sides of the aisle.

Earlier this summer, ENDA was reported out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on a 15-7 vote. Republican senators on the committee — Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — voted “yes” on the bill. (Kirk, in fact, has been a leading Republican voice supporting ENDA.) They join fellow Republican colleagues such as Susan Collins of Maine and the bipartisan supermajority (almost 80 percent) of American voters from all backgrounds — conservatives, rural residents, people of faith and senior citizens — who agree that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is wrong. Even voters in the most conservative pockets of the country agree: polling shows 77 percent of observant Christians, 72 percent of Deep South residents and 70 percent of Republicans support these long-overdue protections.

The nation’s largest businesses are pioneers in the push for workplace protections. Almost every Fortune 500 company has sexual orientation non-discrimination policies on the books, while nearly 60 percent have gender identity non-discrimination policies. If you ask Nationwide Insurance, Nike, Merck, US Airways, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, MillerCoors, and Ernst & Young (among many others) why they back ENDA, they’ll tell you it’s just smart business.

Hundreds of other businesses across the country, large and small, have expressed their support for ENDA because they want to attract and retain the best employees and treat them fairly once they’re hired.

Let’s be clear: ENDA does not prevent any employer from firing an employee — any employee — for laziness, incompetence or wrongdoing. It merely says employees can’t be fired solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The version of the bill pending before Congress also includes religious exemptions. It does not apply to churches or other religiously based institutions. And it very clearly exempts small businesses with fewer than 15 employees.

Perhaps one of our greatest challenges in advancing these much-needed protections is public misconception: Most Americans think there are already federal non-discrimination protections for gay and transgender employees in the workplace. It’s 2013, after all. From those who never follow politics to those who do it for a living, the refrain is the same: Of course there is such a law!

Sadly, there is not. Yet.

Senators on both sides of the aisle can begin the process of remedying that injustice. It’s time for Congress to pass this bill, 20 years in the making. At a time of relentless gridlock in Washington, this is an opportunity to get something meaningful done. Working to ensure freedom for all Americans and allow hard-working men and women across the country to provide for their families is a value we all share.

Nothing should stand in the way of every American pursuing his or her dream.

Matt McTighe is the campaign manager for Americans for Workplace Opportunity, the campaign to pass ENDA through Congress.

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