Merkley bill protects gays from bias in the workplace

Merkley bill protects gays from bias in the workplace

Oregon senator takes up cause championed by Sen. Ted Kennedy. A bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley would make it illegal to discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

By:  Keith Chu

WASHINGTON — Freshman U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced a bill on Wednesday to protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination, taking up a cause long championed by Senate veteran Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

Merkley, D-Ore., said he was honored that Kennedy picked him to sponsor the latest version of the law. Kennedy has cut back from nearly all of his Senate activities this year while he fights brain cancer.

“Kennedy wanted to pass the baton on this issue, which is very close to his heart, to someone who cares a great deal about it,” Merkley said. “I believe to my core that our nation of equality under the law has to include equality in employment.”

The bill makes it illegal to fire, not hire or discriminate against an employee based solely on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

Merkley continues a history of Oregon lawmakers partnering with Kennedy to advance gay rights. Merkley’s predecessor, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, co-sponsored several gay-rights bills with Kennedy.

Oregon already has an employment nondiscrimination law on the books, which went into effect in 2008, meaning the federal law wouldn’t change much for gays and lesbians in the state.

On the local front

But symbolically, the law would mean a lot to the community, said Jenni Peskin, executive director of Bend-based Human Dignity Coalition.

“Most people don’t realize that up until 2008 in Oregon, it was legal to fire someone who was gay or lesbian or perceived to be gay or lesbian,” Peskin said. “To be able to share these rights nationwide is a huge step forward in the movement for equality.”

In 2004, four years before Oregon’s nondiscrimination law went into effect, the Bend City Council made it a crime to discriminate against anyone in Bend based on a person’s sexual orientation. It protects gays from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, such as seats at restaurants.

The Bend Chamber of Commerce opposed the ordinance at the time, arguing that it could leave businesses vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits.

But current chamber Chairman-Elect Troy Reinhardt said he’s unaware of any business that has had a problem with the law.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s been a nonissue,” Reinhardt said.

Passing the law would also provide an achievement to help build toward expanding gay marriage, Peskin said. Oregon voters passed a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2004, with 56 percent approval.

“We can look at laws like (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) as a great step forward toward things like marriage equality,” Peskin said. “It allows us to start having these conversations.”

Part of a rising tide in gay rights

Merkley and Kennedy have already attracted 36 other co-sponsors for the federal bill, including Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. The next step, Merkley said, is to meet with those senators to set a strategy for turning the bill into a law.

Although the federal nondiscrimination bill failed to emerge from committee in 2005, the last time it was introduced in the Senate, Merkley said things have changed. Businesses across the country — including Portland’s Nike — have signed on to the bill.

And although President Barack Obama’s staff hasn’t confirmed his support of the bill to Merkley, the White House Web site says Obama “continues to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and believes that our anti-discrimination employment laws should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Now, “the tide of recognizing that it’s unacceptable to discriminate is rising,” Merkley said. “People should be judged at work by their work, not by their sexual orientation.”