Why Some Activists Are Still Pushing for ENDA

Efforts to keep up the fight for ENDA have been planned to last all year. Some say it would be detrimental to suddenly halt it over religious exemptions.

BY Michelle Garcia

July 11 2014 5:00 AM ET

In the aftermath of a bold decision by a number of LGBT organizations to drop support for the current version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, some efforts are pivoting with an eye toward an even larger bill.

Since so many groups decided to publicly drop ENDA this week over the religious exemptions, there has been more talk of an omnibus bill that would ensure equal rights on all fronts for all people, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. While some members of Congress have told The Advocate they agree the religious exemptions in the current version of ENDA are overbroad, some lawmakers, such as lead ENDA sponsor Jared Polis, have long been on record as backing a proposal for an omnibus civil rights bill.

Activists were already leery of religious exemptions in the workplace discrimination bill that passed the Senate earlier this year, then the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling had several major groups abandoning ENDA over renewed concern it could harm LGBT employees more than help them. Among the groups was the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, followed by the ACLU, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Transgender Law Center, and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.

For its part, the Human Rights Campaign struck a slightly different tone and stood up for the bill with a short statement even after the wave of defectors, and president Chad Griffin elaborated on Thursday in a commentary piece for Buzzfeedarguing that "a strong ENDA is worth fighting for" and that "we all knew the bill wouldn’t be perfect, because legislating always involves compromises."

Griffin said HRC supports any version of ENDA that includes gender identity (a fight over which scuttled one of the many earlier efforts) and that ensures private employers can't cite a religious reason to discriminate against an employee.

"But regardless of whether or not ENDA passes in this session of Congress," Griffin said, showing a focus on the future, "it is time for the LGBT movement to throw its weight behind a fully comprehensive LGBT civil rights bill. A bill that, at long last, would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in all core civil rights categories — including housing, public accommodations, credit, education, and, if ENDA fails to pass, employment. This is a visionary idea that Congresswoman Bella Abzug brought to Congress in 1974. Its time has come."
 
So ENDA isn't exactly finished, but religious exemptions in their current form appear largely untenable. The National Center for Transgender Equality is pressing on with its 2014 Transgender Lobby Day in Washington, D.C., Monday and Tuesday, making the case for workplace protection and a modified version of ENDA "without the overly broad religious exemption."

Mara Keisling, executive director of the NCTE, says the effort behind Lobby Day is about more than just this version of ENDA. At its core, Lobby Day is about educating the public on the basics when it comes to LGBT rights and the dire need for strong employment protections, specifically those for transgender people.

"Everyone agrees that clear federal employment protections are urgent for us, and that we need to continue to do education," Keisling told The Advocate on Thursday. "Our lobby day materials will be making clear that we all support changing the religious exemption and that we do not support the current religious exemption. Folks are coming to tell their stories and win over hearts and minds."

And even with its opposition to the current version of ENDA, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is also a cosponsor of Lobby Day. Other organizations, including the Transgender People of Color Coalition, Trans Latina Coalition, Black Transmen Inc., Black Transwomen Inc., and PFLAG National, will draw at least 215 people to Washington, D.C., next week for the big event.

Meanwhile, the summer-long push to gather cosponsors for ENDA is still underway, with HRC leading an effort to get more than 30 field organizers on the ground in 17 states, according to Politico. So far, the push has piqued the interest of at least eight Republican-leaning public affairs firms as well. Obama administration veterans have been brought in to help HRC with messaging, and locally targeted campaigns have contacted members of Congress through postcard-writing efforts, phone banking, canvassing, and a cumulative 1,000 phone calls, just in the last month.

Accompanying that effort is Freedom to Work, which has been evaluating a select group of House members who would be a good fit to cosponsor the bill. The plan is to get enough cosponsors — Democrats and Republicans alike — to essentially force Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote. So far he's dismissed ENDA as unnecessary.

Or, even if none of that makes any difference in this session, successful lobbying could help ENDA one day become wrapped into something much larger. "Increasing the number of ENDA cosponsors this year increases our chances of getting a stronger civil rights bill introduced in Congress next year, and that means a comprehensive bill that includes LGBT protections in things like housing and education in addition to employment," says Christopher Berle of Freedom to Work.

In any case, the current House has always presented an uphill battle for passing ENDA, the efforts that will endure through 2014 now seem to serve the future, as a new congressional session might offer new hope in getting a bill passed, whether it's ENDA or a comprehensive civil rights act.

Meanwhile, as President Obama considers the exact language for a promised executive order that will extend workplace protections to employees of federal contractors, the message from LGBT groups on whether to model any religious exemptions on the current version of ENDA is a resounding no.

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