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US bill for gay workers' rights clears Senate hurdle

© Photo: AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-11-05

A bill to ban workplace discrimination against LGBT employees narrowly cleared a Republican procedural roadblock in the US Senate on Monday with just one vote more than needed.

A major anti-discrimination gay rights bill passed a first hurdle on Monday, a clear sign of Americans' greater acceptance of homosexuality nearly two decades after lawmakers narrowly rejected the same bill.

On a vote of 61-30 – just one more than the necessary 60 – the Democratic-led Senate agreed to move ahead on the bill that would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender employees. Lawmakers could pass the bill by the end of the week, but its prospects in the Republican-majority House of Representatives are dimmer.

Hours before Monday's vote, President Barack Obama issued a fresh plea for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which is the first significant gay rights at work bill since Congress lifted the ban on gays serving openly in the military nearly three years ago.

“Americans ought to be judged by one thing only in their workplaces: their ability to get their jobs done,'' the president said in a message written for “Does it make a difference if the firefighter who rescues you is gay – or the accountant who does your taxes or the mechanic who fixes your car?”

Republicans muddled

For Republicans, Monday's vote came as a stark reminder of the ongoing ideological struggle within the party.

While an increasing number of Republicans have begun gingerly lending their weight to the LGBT cause, conservative groups threaten to challenge the progressive shift in next year's elections when a third of Senate seats and all House seats go up for grabs.

Seven Republicans voted for the measure. But the three Republicans expected to vie for the position of party nominee in the 2016 presidential election – Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul – voted against it.

House Speaker John Boehner staked out his position in a one-sentence statement. “The speaker believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” Boehner’s press secretary said.

The anti-discrimination bill faces strong opposition from conservative groups – Heritage Action and the Faith and Freedom Coalition oppose the bill.

‘History of struggle’

Opening Senate debate, Majority Leader Harry Reid quoted slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk, who argued that freedom and individual rights shouldn't hinge on political deals and opinion polls.

The law, Reid said, would ensure that “all Americans regardless of where they live can go to work unafraid to be who they are”. Senator Tom Harkin called the measure another step forward in the country's progress.

The political implications resonated in Maine, as six-term Democratic Representative Mike Michaud, who is running for governor, announced that he was gay and questioned whether it still mattered to voters.

Senator Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay member of the Senate, praised the Republicans and Democrats united behind the bill.

“For those that stand up this week and answer the call for courage, I can say with confidence your courage will be respected and remembered when the history of this struggle is written,'' Baldwin said.

Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn't stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person's sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion.

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 14 US states and the District of Columbia. In June, The Supreme Court affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-11-05

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