Demand legal protection: It’s okay to be gay at work

This article was originally published in the Washington Post’s On Faith on July 15, 2013.

You can still be fired for being gay in 29 states, and for being transgender in 33 states. It should be a national priority to end such discrimination, yet most people don’t even realize such legal discrimination exists. This week, the Senate took a momentous step towards rectifying this situation, sending the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) out of committee to the Senate floor – with a strong bipartisan vote of 15-7.

ENDA, which has been introduced in nearly every Congress since 1994, would provide long-overdue protections nationwide, with exemptions for small businesses and religious organizations, ensuring that all workers are judged on their ability to perform the job rather than who they are or whom they love. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – parts of which were drafted in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s conference room and which was shepherded through Congress with strong involvement from the religious community – prohibited discrimination in the workplace based on race, sex, religion, ethnicity and national origin. Later laws added pregnancy and disability to this list. However, there is still no federal law that bars discrimination in the workplace based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Our moral imperative to build an equal and fair society demands that we eradicate LGBT discrimination in the workplace. Jewish tradition teaches that all people are created b’tselem elohim– in the image of the Divine – and the Reform Jewish Movement has thus had a longstanding position against LGBT workplace discrimination. According to the recently released “A Broken Bargain” report (issued by the Movement Advancement Project, the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for American Progress), LGBT couples with children are twice as likely to have household incomes near the poverty line as non-LGBT couples with children. The effects of discrimination are particularly dire for transgender people, who, according to the study, are four times more likely than the population as a whole to have a household income of under $10,000 a year (15 percent v. 4 percent). Without federal protections, LGBT individuals and their families will continue to suffer the undeserved and tangible consequences of workplace discrimination.

Dozens of religious organizations are taking a stand on this issue, joining Reform Judaism in its pursuit of fairness in the workplace. This year, the RAC helped coordinate a letter to Senators of support for ENDA from 50 religious groups, including 9 major religious denominations. These groups ranged from the Presbyterians to the Lutherans to the Conservative Jews. According to Public Religion Research Institute’s poll from May of this year, majorities of all major religious groups support protecting gay and lesbian people from employment discrimination, including white evangelical Protestants (59 percent), minority Protestants (61 percent), white mainline Protestants (75 percent), Catholics (76 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (84 percent).

It is no longer just the “usual suspects” who are speaking up in support of workplace protections for LGBT people. In 2009, Salt Lake City approved a non-discrimination ordinance with the backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And just this week, Senator Orrin Hatch switched from opposing the bill in 1996 (the last Senate floor vote) to voting for ENDA, alongside Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and longtime supporter Mark Kirk. None of this was imaginable when ENDA was first drafted in 1994.

One of the highlights of my job here at the Religious Action Center is working with numerous high school students, college students and recent college graduates, teaching them and learning from them simultaneously about social justice issues. It inspires me that the existing right to discriminate is virtually unfathomable to them; they consistently support anti-discrimination measures like ENDA. This generation has broken free of the closed and harmful mindset that was still present even when my own Generation X was growing up. It breaks my heart to imagine that any of these young adults would have to fear that discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity could someday interfere with their ability to earn a living.

The moral tide has turned.  It’s past time for Congress to join the sea change and pass ENDA.

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Rachel Laser

About Rachel Laser

Rachel Laser, Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, has been the General Counsel for Planned Parenthood Metropolitan Washington, Senior Counsel for the National Women’s Law Center and Director of the Culture Program at Third Way, where she helped draft the first ever pro-life/pro-choice abortion bill in Congress.

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