Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Should homosexuals receive the same preferences under the law as women and racial minorities? That's the question broached Wednesday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee as they considered the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA.
The legislation would add "sexual orientation" to the list of classes protected by federal civil rights laws, along with sex, race, religion, ethnicity, and national origin.
Supporters say the change is necessary to end "widespread discrimination" against homosexuals and transsexuals.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who chairs the HELP Committee, has been a long-time supporter of the idea and is the sponsor of the current bill.
"We must continue the progress toward freeing ourselves from this form of discrimination," he said. "America will never be America until we do."
The bill would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of "sexual orientation" by employers and prohibits related retaliation and coercion, according to a summary provided by the Congressional Research Service. It would also give homosexuals and transsexuals the right to sue when they believe they have been discriminated against.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) supports the legislation.
"It extends fair employment practices, not special rights, to lesbians, to gay men, to bisexuals," Clinton said. "This is not as dramatic or revolutionary a step as many people have advocated that it is."
Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, disagrees.
"Civil rights legislation was enacted to protect the rights of racial minorities," he argued. "ENDA is not a logical extension of that legislation because it is aimed at providing special protections for a particular behavior."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) questioned whether passing ENDA would achieve the desired effect, or simply make matters worse.
"If we impose a federal law, which some will view as an unwanted edict imposed from Washington, is that really going to promote acceptance and compliance," Collins asked. "Are we going advance the cause by passing federal legislation?"
Richard Womack, director of the civil rights department at the AFL-CIO, who also testified in support of the bill, believes Collins' question misses the point
"Some of our folks are still in the dark ages, and they just need to be enlightened," Womack said. "Anyone who practices, who indulges in discrimination, I say, should be sued."
But Connor says the bill is more about indoctrination than discrimination.
"The issue is not job discrimination, it's whether private businesses will be forced by law to accommodate homosexual activists' attempts to force acceptance of a certain behavior," he said. "It violates the rights of millions of Americans with different views on that behavior."
The head of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute, Robert Knight, criticized Kennedy for not scheduling witnesses to present opposition to the bill.
"Mr. Kennedy is being openly complicit with attempts by the homosexual lobby to force organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America to either hire open homosexuals, against their policies and against the wishes of parents, or face federally funded lawsuits," he warned. "That's just one of many ugly ramifications of this bill."
Knight says ENDA would also:
- Expand federal power over the workplace.
- Create new grounds for lawsuits by injecting sexual preference into civil rights law.
- Elevate multiple-sex-partner relationships into a federally protected "right."
- Put the federal government on record, and in law, in opposition to traditional marriage.
- Forbid employers from taking sexual conduct into account when hiring childcare workers.
Although the bill does contain exemptions for "religious organizations," opponents fear that exemption would be struck down by the courts, opening churches, synagogues, and mosques to the threat of lawsuits if they refuse to hire homosexuals, even for positions of "moral leadership."
Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition says the opportunities for abuse of religious institutions would be great if the bill becomes law.
"This will mean that homosexuals, bisexuals, transvestites, and even voyeurs could claim federal protection for their particular 'orientation,'" he warned. "Christians and other religious individuals will be silenced under this law."
Kennedy plans to hold another hearing on the bill in March.
"This legislation has been before Congress for 25 years," he said. "It's time that we take the steps to enact it."
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