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Washington Digest: Senate approves LGBT workplace protections

WASHINGTON — The Senate last week passed a bill to ban workplace discrimination against gay and transgender employees.

Senators voted 64-32 for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a civil rights bill that has been on and off the radar for Congress since 1974.

The bill faces an uncertain future as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House would not act on it.

The measure extends workplace protections to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals, covering most businesses with 15 or more employees.

It already is illegal to discriminate against workers based on age, race, gender, ethnicity, religion and disability.

“Every American deserves the freedom to work free of discrimination,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who is openly gay.

The Williams Institute, a think tank associated with the UCLA School of Law, estimates 7 million private sector workers are LGBT, with another 1 million working for state and local governments and about 200,000 for the federal government.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act contains exemptions for churches, parochial schools, religious nonprofit groups and Native American tribes.

Those provisions enabled some Senate conservatives to embrace the measure.

Opposition to the bill largely was muted even as a third of the Senate voted against it.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., was the only opponent to speak publicly. He said its exemptions for religious liberty were vague “and do not extend to all organizations that wish to adhere to their moral or religious beliefs in their hiring practices.”

Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted for the bill.

Before final passage, senators rejected an amendment by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that sought to exempt more organizations managed by churches or religious groups. It was killed 43-55.

Heller voted for the Toomey amendment. Reid voted against it.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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