The U.S. Senate is poised to approve important legislation today outlawing employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which would provide added protection for workers against bigotry and intolerance. Florida is one of 29 states where employers can fire or refuse to hire someone based on his or her sexual orientation, and residents are ahead of their elected state leaders on this issue.
Florida now offers uneven protection against discrimination. For example, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Orange counties have human rights ordinances that ban discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. County ordinances in Broward, Monroe and Pinellas have those protections and add protection against discrimination based on gender identity. Tampa, Dunedin and Gulfport are among the Tampa Bay communities that protect transgender individuals. That all reflects well on the inclusive nature of those areas, but protections against discrimination should not be a patchwork with so many missing pieces.
There is a big loophole in the Senate bill that should be closed. To build support among conservatives, the bill would exempt religious institutions and their affiliates from the antidiscrimination requirements. That means the exception goes beyond churches and would allow religiously affiliated operations such as hospitals and universities to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. People with jobs without direct religious ties — such as accountants and maintenance workers — should not be subject to such discrimination, and other civil rights laws do not carve out such broad exemptions.
The Senate bill passed a key procedural hurdle Monday with a vote by 61 senators to get past a Republican filibuster. Predictably, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson voted to move forward with the bill as one of its co-sponsors and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio voted against it. The bill faces a difficult road in the House, but House Speaker John Boehner should let it come up for a vote even though he opposes it. The antidiscrimination measure has the support of at least a few House Republicans, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, who is a co-sponsor of the House bill.
As the congressional battle drags on, the Florida Legislature should take up the issue as well. State Reps. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, and Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, led a rally in Tallahassee this week for legislation they filed that mirrors the federal bill. There is no reason Floridians should have to wait for protection from job discrimination from Washington.
Versions of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act have been introduced for years in Congress and quietly died without a vote. But Americans are more inclusive and understanding now about the need to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers from job discrimination. President Barack Obama supports adding the federal protections, and the Senate should approve the legislation today and encourage the House to embrace it.