11.04.13

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee On The Employment Non-Discrimination Act

Leahy: “Until we pass legislation banning all discrimination in the workplace, we will fail to achieve the motto engraved in Vermont marble above the Supreme Court building that declares ‘Equal justice under law.’”

Today, Senators will finally have a chance to cast a vote that will put, on the Record, where every Senator stands on a fundamental issue of fairness.  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act will help bring this great Nation one step closer to the goal of equal rights for all Americans. 

I have long believed that American workers should be evaluated based on how they perform, not on irrelevant considerations such as race, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation.  And in these difficult economic times, ensuring equal protection in the workplace is even more critical.  We must do better.  Maintaining the status quo would keep in place a system that supports a second-class of workers in a majority of states.  This runs counter to the values upon which America was founded and it must end.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit workplace discrimination by making it illegal to fire, refuse to hire, or refuse to promote employees simply based on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  Currently, Federal law protects against employment discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin or disability, but not sexual orientation or gender identity.  It is long overdue for Congress to extend these protections to all American workers.

I am proud to represent Vermont, which has led the country on many civil rights issues.  Vermonters believe in individual rights, in fairness, and in equality.  More than two decades ago, the State of Vermont added sexual orientation to the list of protected categories in its anti-discrimination employment law, and Vermont expanded its protections to include gender identity protection six years ago.  Yet in 29 states, an employer can fire employees based on their sexual orientation, and in 33 states employees can be fired based on their gender identity.  This is not right.

Many employers have taken this issue into their own hands, making up for Congress’ inaction by implementing important anti-discrimination policies.  As of April of this year, 88 percent of the Fortune 500 companies had non-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation, and 57 percent had policies including gender identity.  I am proud of two Vermont companies in particular, Fletcher Allen Health Care and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, for showing real leadership on this issue by banning discrimination in the workplace based on gender identity and sexual orientation.  I also applaud companies such as IBM, Microsoft, General Electric, and Time Warner for doing the right thing.  These corporations know that treating all of their employees is not only fair but makes good business sense.  Workplace discrimination hurts families and the hatred that drives discrimination has no place in a Nation continually striving to form a more perfect union. 

I thank Chairman Harkin for making this bipartisan legislation a priority in his committee, and for conducting the ground work and creating the record we need to ensure this important bill’s passage.  The bipartisan team of Senator Merkley and Senator Collins has brought members together by their thoughtfulness and tenacity.  I know the late Senator Ted Kennedy is looking down on this chamber tonight as we try to pass legislation that he worked so hard to craft in his final years in the Senate.  I was happy to work on this civil rights legislation with him then and with his partner on this effort, a former Vermont Senator, Jim Jeffords.  We honor their leadership tonight with this vote. 

I am encouraged that States and employers are moving forward where we have not, but I believe that ending discrimination must also be a priority for Congress.  Until we pass legislation banning all discrimination in the workplace, we will fail to achieve the motto engraved in Vermont marble above the Supreme Court building that declares “Equal justice under law.”  Let us make sure that all Americans have the equal rights that they deserve.  I urge my fellow Senators to come together to support this important, bipartisan bill without further delay. 

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