ENDA: Time for U.S. to Take Next Step Toward LGBT Equality

— by Amber Powers

   Sexual orientation & gender identity: all employment
   Sexual orientation: all employment
   Sexual orientation & gender identity: state employment
   Sexual orientation: state employment
   No state-level protection for LGBT employees.

In Pennsylvania, unless you are a public employee, you can be fired solely on the basis of being gay, lesbian or transgender.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, but there is still no such federal protection for lesbian, gay and transgender people.

Today, it remains legal in 29 states to refuse to hire or promote someone, or to demote or fire them, just because they are gay, and in 33 states to do so if someone is transgender.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would put an end to such discrimination. Majority Leader Harry Reid has committed to bringing ENDA (S. 815) to the Senate floor for a vote before Thanksgiving — the bill’s first full Senate vote since 1996. The corresponding House Bill (HR 1755)  was referred to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections last July.

Momentum for ENDA is growing by the day. As people of faith, and as Americans, we must ensure passage of this crucial legislation.

More after the jump.
The ethical imperative to protect the vulnerable is core to my identity as a person and as a religious leader. Jewish tradition teaches us to always be mindful of our own history as an oppressed people and to use that knowledge to guide our actions and inform our understanding of what it means to create a just society.  

In Exodus, it is written, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Biblical prophets implore the Israelites to apply this lesson widely and to remember that anyone in our midst who is vulnerable is worthy of our protection. I don’t need to go all the way back to my distant ancestors’ experiences in another land to bring these lessons home.

In the 1930s, here in the United States, my grandfather faced discrimination as a young Jewish man trying to support himself as a travelling salesman. After repeatedly being denied a hotel room, he made the difficult decision to permanently change his surname from “Perlowitz” to “Powers” to better hide his Jewishness. Every time I write or say my name, I am reminded of his story and of the dangers of discrimination.

Thankfully, employment discrimination against Jews and other people of faith is largely a thing of the past in the United States. We must not stand idly by as others suffer from discrimination today.

The religious denomination with which I am affiliated, Reconstructionist Judaism, is fully committed to inclusion in all aspects of Jewish life, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.  

The 1992 Report of the Reconstructionist Commission on Homosexuality articulated a vision for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian individuals in our communities and I am proud to be a religious leader within a tradition that continues to hold inclusion as a treasured central value.

Reconstructionist Jews are certainly not alone in supporting ENDA. Sixty-five faith groups, including ten religious denominations, have also signed a letter in support of the legislation. Some of these groups have pointed to the importance of the broad religious exemption in ENDA, which also exempts small businesses from its scope.

Although these groups may differ on the issue of same-sex relationship recognition, we all agree that people should be judged in the workplace based on the quality of their work and not personal characteristics.

Moreover, an overwhelming number of Americans now support a law that protects gay, lesbian and transgender Americans from discrimination in the workplace. According to national poll, even 56% of Republicans support this type of law.  

A Public Religion Research Institute poll last May showed that 61% of minority Protestants, 59% of white evangelical Protestants, 75% of white mainline Protestants, 76% of Catholics and 84% of religiously unaffiliated Americans support workplace nondiscrimination for gays and lesbians.

According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index, America’s top businesses are also on board: 88% of Fortune 500 companies already have policies prohibiting discrimination against gay and lesbian employees in their workplaces, and 57% also protect transgender employees.

As a Reconstructionist rabbi and an American, I call on all of us to recognize our moral responsibility to protect the ability of our lesbian, gay and transgender brothers and sisters to earn their livelihood. It’s time for our country to take this next step on our journey toward equality and fairness.


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