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Senate adds stronger religious protections to workplace discrimination bill

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Senate added stronger protection for religious organizations Wednesday to a bill that would prohibit workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, though religious conservatives called the measure insufficient and its fate in the House remains doubtful.

Sponsored by Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, the amendment passed on a quick voice vote, paving the way for the Senate to vote on the bill Thursday.

The amendment would bar the government from withholding federal grants, contracts or tax exemptions from churches, religious schools or other religious organizations to penalize them for not following the law.

"People shouldn't be able to be fired just because they're gay," Mr. Portman said Wednesday on the Senate floor. "My amendment seeks to ensure that this bill designed to promote tolerance of one kind doesn't enshrine intolerance of another kind."

The amendment to the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) provides an extra layer of protection for religious organizations that are exempt from the law, but which want additional assurance that the government can't retaliate against them.

"My amendment prohibits the government from punishing a religious institution for adhering to its deeply held beliefs and thereby seeks to keep the state from interfering in matters of faith," Mr. Portman said. "Workplace fairness must be balanced against and made consistent with religious liberty."

David Christensen, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, said the amendment does not go far enough to protect the religious freedom of nonprofit groups and business owners.

"Senators may be looking for political cover from this amendment, but ENDA removes the ability of non-profits, para-church ministries, and individual business owners to make their own decisions about appropriate conduct in the workplace," he said Wednesday in a statement. "People's religious freedom rights do not stop at their front door on their way to work, whether they are a business owner or employee."

The Family Research Council also opposes an even broader religious freedom amendment proposed by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, that would expand the type of religious groups exempt from the legislation.

"Even Senator Toomey's supposedly more robust religious freedom exemption for religious groups does not expand the exemption to employers who operate their businesses from a faith perspective but are not tied to a particular religious denomination," Mr. Christensen said.

Ian Thompson, a legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization also opposes the Toomey amendment, though for the opposite reason — because it categorizes too many organizations as exempt.

"It seeks to broaden an already overly broad religious exemption and could create dangerous precedent," Mr. Thompson told The Washington Times. "Expanding this religious exemption to include for-profit corporations would dramatically diminish ENDA's protections and create an unacceptable, dangerous license to discriminate against [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people in federal civil rights law."

The Senate is expected to vote on Mr. Toomey's amendment Thursday morning.

On Monday night, the bill cleared a procedural hurdle in the Senate on a 61-30 bipartisan vote. However, the bill likely will be dead on arrival in the House as Speaker John A. Boehner has said he will not bring it up for a vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that he believes the measure would pass the House if Mr. Boehner allowed members to vote on it.

"I was disappointed to read yesterday that Speaker Boehner opposes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act because he believes it will lead to frivolous lawsuits," Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "But coming from the man whose caucus spent $3 million in taxpayer dollars defending the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage law in court, that is a pretty far reach."

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