A Civil Rights Law

Friday, September 28, 2007

REP. BARNEY FRANK (D-Mass.) is set to introduce two versions of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the House Education and Labor Committee. One would extend civil rights protections based on sexual orientation. The other would do so for gender identity, which would cover transgender people who have changed their sex, are living their lives as the opposite sex or who do not conform to traditional gender roles. This will be done because within the past few days it became clear that an inclusive bill would be defeated because of the transgender protection. Mr. Frank, one of two openly gay members of Congress, deserves credit for devising the plan that might well save the basic bill.

It requires time and patience to educate the public and lawmakers about how prejudice harms some people. That's what gays and lesbians have been doing in their quest for equality for nearly 40 years. And that's what transgender people will have to do. Delaying passage of ENDA, which was first introduced in the House in the mid-1970s by Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), until the transgender community changes enough hearts and minds would be a mistake.

The last time Congress took up ENDA was in 1996, when it failed to clear the Senate by just one vote. It should have passed then, and it most certainly should pass now. The bill will not give "special rights" to homosexuals, as opponents claim. The reality is ENDA will give homosexuals basic civil rights on a federal level. If the legislation is passed, it would be illegal to fire, refuse to hire or refuse to promote an employee because of the person's real or perceived sexual orientation. The prohibition would apply to local, state and federal governments, private employers with 15 or more employees, labor unions and employment agencies. Religious institutions and the military would be exempt from the law. Already, 20 states, 276 municipalities (including the District of Columbia) and 433 companies of the Fortune 500 ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Passage of ENDA would send a strong and clear message that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is wrong. Ultimately, those who work hard and play by the rules should not lose their jobs -- or be denied opportunity -- because of who they are.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company