Op-ed: Dear John (Boehner)
Dear Speaker Boehner,
I know you’re having a really rough fall, and you may be sitting in your office right now, wistfully wishing the holiday recess would arrive. But the Senate has just passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would protect LGBT Americans from being fired because of who they are. And you can bring ENDA up for a vote without facing shutdown-style fallout — instead just skipping straight to the standing ovation. Here’s why:
You may be an old-school politician at heart, but public opinion is shifting on LGBT issues faster than you think. Sixty-eight percent of Americans — including 56 percent of Republicans — support a federal law protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from being discriminated against at work. Voter modeling shows majority support for ENDA in every single state. Americans are more likely to support the reelection of a member of Congress who voted for an LGBT workplace non-discrimination bill than not. And before you start talking about primary voters, you should know 59 percent of white evangelical Protestants support workplace protections for gay and lesbian people. Honestly, 80 percent of the country already thinks ENDA is law, so they shouldn’t even notice.
But it’s not just the public that’s coming around — so is your caucus. The tenor of the ENDA debate in the Senate last week was shocking — for just how boring it was. You were in Congress in 1996 when the House debated the Defense of Marriage Act. Do you remember Republican representative Bob Barr of Georgia warning, “The very foundations of our society are in danger of being burned,” or Republican representative David Funderburk of North Carolina saying that “homosexuality has been discouraged in all cultures because it is inherently wrong and harmful to individuals, families, and societies”? Contrast that to this past week — when nary a Republican seemed to want to speak in opposition to the bill, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee ceded his opening statement at the committee vote to a Republican cosponsor of ENDA rather than using that time to oppose the bill, and amendments proposed on the floor mostly tried to change the subject, from right-to-work to sex-selective abortion bans.
Where are the hellfires, you ask? Two Senate Republicans were ENDA cosponsors. Three voted the bill out of the HELP Committee. Seven voted for cloture. Ten voted for the bill on final passage. And for the record, the last time the House voted on ENDA in 2007, it passed with 235 votes — including 35 Republicans.
The bill is politically a safe bet because it’s actually rooted in conservative values. Conservatives hold sacred meritocracy, and that value lies at the core of ENDA. Everyone should be hired or fired based on the quality of the work they do, and nothing else. This bill is about qualifications, not quotas, which is why the business community is already ahead of Congress on this. Eighty-eight percent of Fortune 500 companies have implemented policies prohibiting discrimination against gay and lesbian employees, and 57 percent include transgender employees.
You won’t need to worry about ENDA’s impact on small businesses, either — they’re totally exempt. Also exempted are all religious organizations — like churches, schools, hospitals, social services agencies, religious publishers, and anyone else whose “purpose and character are primarily religious” under the strong and tested definition from Title VII. That’s why you, along with Eric Cantor and 175 other Republicans, already voted for this exact religious exemption in 2007 — an exemption that was endorsed when it was drafted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists. The bill does not force employers or employees who have religious objections to homosexuality to change their views or beliefs. It merely requires that people put their disagreements aside during business hours and exhibit professionalism to their colleagues in the workplace. That’s business as usual — and who loves business more than Republicans?
Speaker Boehner, this is your chance to prove you want to move forward legislation that furthers your party’s values and to show young voters and others who have been turned off by previous Republican antigay maneuvers that you’re not stuck in the past. Bring ENDA up for a vote. If your party really has a problem with the bill, let them voice it — and then let the House take a vote.
SARAH TRUMBLE is a policy counsel at Third Way, a moderate think tank in Washington, D.C.