Editorial: After decades, it's time to pass ENDA


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As 2013 draws to a close, it lends an opportunity to reflect on what will make history these past months.

From the Supreme Court’s reversal of a provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to several states, such as Hawaii and New Jersey, allowing same sex-marriage, civil rights and discrimination policies took much of the spotlight this year. But one more piece of civil-rights legislation faces Congress, and it has a real chance to make a difference.

The Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 2013 would protect employees from discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identification and would allow those who feel they have been discriminated against to take their case to court. The bill passed the U.S. Senate, 64-32, on Nov. 7, but now it must pass the House.

Though the public no longer tolerates viewpoints that are openly in favor of discrimination based on race or sex, transgendered and homosexual job applicants do not enjoy such support or broad protections. In 29 states, it is legal to fire or refuse to hire people based on their sexual orientation. In 33, discrimination against transgendered people has not been outlawed.

With more and more states legalizing gay marriage and public sentiment across the nation moving in favor of giving same-sex couples more protection, some may wonder why legislation such as this is necessary. But the unfortunate reality remains that it only takes one closed-minded employer to create discrimination.

Another unfortunate reality? The anti-bias act has been proposed in Congress every year since 1974 (with the exception of 1994) with no success. Though the country had moved past legal discrimination based on color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people have been put on the back burner.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, made the case for the bill in a visit to Iowa City on Nov. 15. Now that it has passed the Senate, Harkin argues, the buck stops with the House, specifically with Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.

“Now we have to make our stand … it’s really up to Speaker Boehner,” Harkin said. ” We have to advocate, educate; we’ve got to continue to get our people together to put our pressure on Mr. Boehner. History is on our side; history is on our side.”

Harkin’s message rings true to those that see the bigger picture. In the short-term, the antidiscrimination act faces backlash from business leaders and others who feel the act places undue restrictions on companies. They argue that the bill is unnecessary.

In the long-term however, the bill represents a logical step in antidiscrimination policies. Even if most employers don’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identification, the few bad apples make legislation like this necessary.

As the bill goes to the House for a vote, it’s important to remember where antidiscrimination policies started and why. The expression of racist, sexist, or homophobic sentiments is frowned upon today. But the root causes of such attitudes are still just under the surface.

Years from now, students of history will look back on the antidiscrimination act, much like the students of today learn about the Civil Rights Act or the Emancipation Proclamation. But these students won’t ask why we passed the anti-bias. They’ll ask why it took so long.

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