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

The Senate has an historic opportunity today to take discrimination out of the workplace by casting a vote for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  Today’s vote has been 20 years in the making, and it is long overdue for Congress to extend these protections to all American workers.  Years from now we will look back on this remedy as another substantial milestone on our Nation’s everlasting quest to achieve a more perfect union – a quest to realize more completely the motto engraved in Vermont marble above the Supreme Court building that declares: “Equal Justice Under Law.”

We now have protections for workers from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin and disability, as we should.  Yet there are no Federal protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  In 29 states, it is still legal for an employer to fire employees based on their sexual orientation, and in 33 states employees can be fired based on their gender identity.  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 our founding values.  It is time to remedy that.

As the son of Vermont printers, I learned at an early age the primary importance of the First Amendment.  The First Amendment in our Bill of Rights is the foundation of our democracy and our way of life.  It is one of the most defining principles of our national character.  It helps preserve all of our other rights.  By guaranteeing a free press and the free exercise of religion, it ensures an informed electorate and the freedom to worship God and to practice our religion as we choose – or to practice no religion at all.  

Religious freedom does not end with the vital protections afforded by the First Amendment.  The bill before us contains important protections for religious organizations by ensuring that they can continue to make significant faith-based employment decisions.  The carefully crafted religious exemption in this legislation is consistent with the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

All Americans deserve civil rights protections under our Constitution, which, in addition to the First Amendment, also ensures due process and equal protection.  In previous legislative debates like the one before us today, Congress has protected and bolstered these rights by passing legislation to fill gaps in our Federal laws.  This includes passing legislation to protect the practice of religion without discrimination, to prevent pay discrimination based on sex, and to serve openly in the military.  By passing the remedy before us today, we will take another significant step forward in taking discrimination out of our laws and ensuring the equal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans.

I thank Chairman Harkin and Senators Merkley and Collins for their leadership on this significant, overdue, and bipartisan antidiscrimination remedy.  I also am mindful and appreciative of the leading role that Senator Jim Jeffords of my State of Vermont took in advancing this remedy during his time in this body.  And I thank Majority Leader Reid for making this a priority for the Senate.  I know that my late friend Senator Kennedy is smiling down on this chamber today as we advance his efforts to end employment discrimination.  Today we can honor his legacy with this historic vote.

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