‘Let the bells of freedom ring’—Senate passes ENDA

Senate lawmakers on Thursday passed a bill banning workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals in a historic victory four decades in the making.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed its final vote in the full Senate 64-32, just three days after its first since 1996, when a similar measure failed but just one vote. The full Senate would not vote again on a workplace protection bill for gays and lesbians until this past Monday, when lawmakers voted to begin debate. It was 1974 when Congress first saw a bill of this kind.

Ten Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two Independents in voting “yes,” signaling how far the gay rights movement has come in recent years. Many see support for ENDA as a stepping stone on the way to support for marriage equality, which only three Republican senators currently endorse.

Signs of the measure becoming law were stunted earlier in the week, however, when House Speaker John Boehner voiced his opposition on the grounds that it would cost small businesses and create “frivolous litigation.” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s spokesperson confirmed the dim prospects (and took a swipe at the Senate majority leader) in a statement Thursday:

“The bill is currently not scheduled in the House. I hope Majority Leader Reid soon addresses the dozens of House-passed bills that have been ignored in the Senate that create jobs, improve education and create opportunity while Americans struggle to find a good-paying job.”

Despite there being little chance of seeing an ENDA vote before the GOP-controlled House, Senate leaders still championed the progress in a press conference Thursday and laid out arguments for Republican opponents to change course.

“Let the bells of freedom ring,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, who along with Republican Sen. Mark Kirk introduced the legislation earlier this year. “We have fought to capture that vision of equality, and liberty, and opportunity, and fairness embedded in our founding documents, in our founding vision. We’ve taken a huge stride today in that direction.”

Minutes before, the Senate had voted down an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey that would have expended the bill’s religious exemption. Modelled after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the bill prohibits employers across the country from firing, refusing to hire, giving unequal pay to, or otherwise treating in a discriminatory manner any individual based on sexual orientation or gender identity. And like existing federal law–which bars employment discrimination because of religion, race, gender, national origin, or disability–ENDA would not apply to houses of worship or organizations that serve a religious function.

Democratic Sen. Harkin criticized the Toomey amendment ahead of the vote, saying it threatened “to gut the fundamental principle of ENDA.” Afterward, he spoke to the bill’s significance.

“Today is an historic day,” said Harkin. “In 1964, we passed the Civil Rights Act–none of us were here then of course. And then in 1990, we passed the Americans with Disabilities Act–some of us were here at that time. And now we sort of finished the trilogy.”

Even though his amendment was blocked, Sen. Toomey ended up voting for the bill anyway.

“The takeaway for Democrats is that they should be putting more LGBT equality bills forward, and attempts to curb the impact of those bills should be resisted,” said Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, in an email to msnbc. “Religious liberty and LGBT equality can exist side-by-side without cementing second-class status for LGBT Americans into law.”

Thursday’s passage marks the first in Congress on a bill that includes employment protections based on both sexual orientation, and gender identity. The House of Representatives passed a version without transgender provisions in 2007, but it died in the upper chamber.

Advocates were confident going into Thursday’s vote, but they acknowledged the victory would largely be symbolic.

“I dont believe that it’s going very far in the house,” said Cronk, prior to the final vote. “It’s clear that Speaker Boehner has no intention of bringing it up.”

But, she added, “it’s hugely helpful as far as public education goes, since 90% of Americans think this is already law.”

Cronk and other advocates plan to maintain pressure on President Obama to expand an existing executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors. “That would make the symbolic win feel much more tangible,” she said.

The president, who has pushed for workplace protections via legislation–not executive action–hailed Senate lawmakers for passing ENDA in a statement Thursday:

“Just as no one in the United States can lose their job simply because of their race, gender, religion or a disability, no one should ever lose their job simply because of who they are or who they love.”