Merkley moves to end workplace discrimination against gays

— Reprising yet another battle fought as a member of the Oregon Legislature, Sen. Jeff Merkley is offering legislation that would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act seeks to realize a long and so-far unsuccessful goal by gay rights advocates to offer federal legal protection to workers who believe they have been denied jobs or promotion based on their sexual orientation.

The legislation introduced Wednesday by Merkley who was joined by fellow Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden is also an original co-sponsor.

If it becomes law, EDNA would prohibit employers, employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees from firing, refusing to hire, or discriminating against those employed or seeking employment, on the basis of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. Such protections are already in place prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age, and disability.

Kennedy has been the prime backer of previous attempts to pass the legislation. But he is stricken with brain cancer and asked Merkley to lead the effort. In all, 34 senators have endorsed the bill but it’s prospects are uncertain.

Previous attempts to extend workplace protection to gays have been blocked in Congress.

But in an interview Wednesday, Merkley said momentum is building. Last month, the Senate voted 63-28 to expand the definition of hate crimes to include attacks against people based on their sexual orientation. The Senate provision is similar to one already passed by the House.

“As I’ve gone around the state and in town hall meetings, I haven’t heard one person raise objections” to the idea of extending workplace protections to gays, Merkley said.

“And people agree that equality under the law based on sexual orientation and gender identity has a long way to go,” Merkley said.