Breaking Old Paradigms and Molding New Ones
In 2013, a flurry of activity finally took place around the long-suffering Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. This piece of legislation would provide employment and workplace protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers—meaning that employers could not discriminate against LGBT applicants or employees simply on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Given that nine out of 10 American voters believe that LGBT individuals are already protected from discrimination in the workplace (according to a poll from the Center for American Progress), one would think that passing a bill like this would be a no-brainer. No such luck. Despite the fact that ENDA and bills like it have been meandering through Congress for 40 years, the bill looks unlikely to pass in this congressional session. But that’s not the striking part of the story—what’s potentially more shocking is that LGBT advocates continue to shop around a greatly compromised version of the bill with broad, and potentially dangerous, religious exemptions.
Make no mistake—ENDA is badly needed. I work every day with LGBT folks across the country who are struggling to make ends meet because there are no federal workplace protections. While about half the 50 states have state-based protections for LGBT workers, those laws do little good for those who have to move because of family obligations or are transferred from one state to another. And while many Fortune 500 companies offer protections, the real problem occurs for the working poor and for those in rural areas. For LGBT people who don’t work for these companies or live in these states, policies protecting their rights are out of reach for many.
If federal legislation carves out broad religious exemptions, it’s far easier to convince state legislatures that LGBT people do not actually deserve equal protection under the law.
Given the recent progress made by the LGBT movement, one would think that pushing for legislation like this would be relatively simple. However, many advocates and legislators are still looking at LGBT issues with 1990s eyes—and LGBT Americans are suffering the consequences. The version of ENDA that passed the Senate and is now languishing in the House contains broad religious exemptions that are not only ill-advised but potentially dangerous. These exemptions are so broad that they could be interpreted to allow any employer with some marginal religious history to claim an exemption from the law—including hospitals, schools, universities and community organizations. In the rural communities that are most desperately in need of legal protections, these broad exemptions would not only continue to permit LGBT discrimination, but also cement into place a dangerous second-class status.
In recent months, a spate of “religious discrimination” bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, which—in some instances—would have made it legal for private businesses to refuse service to LGBT individuals. And, unfortunately, legislation like ENDA that contains broad religious exemptions gives implicit permission to move harmful bills like these forward. If federal legislation carves out broad religious exemptions, it’s far easier to convince state legislatures that LGBT people do not actually deserve equal protection under the law.
If we are to truly make real progress for LGBT folks across the country, we must insist on equality without asterisks, without caveats and without loopholes. Even as some LGBT advocates continue to push for ENDA to be passed through the House, we must ask ourselves whether we are content with legislation that contains so many caveats, or whether we want to put 2014 lenses on our 1990s eyes and push for real equal protection under the law.
As long as we continue to be complicit with the narrative that religion should be used as a tool to discriminate against LGBT Americans, we will not be equal and we will not be free. As long as we continue to permit exemptions and exceptions to US law, we will not be equal and we will not be free. And as long as we continue to internalize the very same homophobia and transphobia that we are fighting against, we will not be equal and we will not be free. It is my hope that we will lean into the hard work of breaking apart those old paradigms and molding a new, equal and just future for us all.