40 Years of Fighting to End Workplace Discrimination
In 1974, two members of the House of Representatives, Reps. Bella Abzug (D-NY) and Ed Koch (D-NY), introduced a bill entitled the “Equality Act of 1974." This bill would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment on a national level. This was the first of its kind. In 1994, this effort morphed into a bill known as ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. At first, this legislation would have made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation. For some, this wasn’t enough, as the 1994 bill did not include gender identity or expression until 2007 when actual or perceived gender identity/expression was added under what constituted illegal discrimination in the bill. Support for ENDA continued to grow, and in fact, this past November the Senate passed ENDA with sexual orientation and gender identity/expression included.
However, organizations are once again questioning the bill, especially following the Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision. Within the bill currently lies a broad religious exemption that LGBT organizations disliked but many believe it couldn’t pass without it. Now, prominent LGBT organizations, including Pride at Work, where I was a summer intern, have withdrawn their support of ENDA in its current form. Following the decision, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force stated, “We are deeply concerned that ENDA’s broad exemption will be used as a similar license to discriminate across the country…We need new federal non-discrimination legislation that contains a reasonable religious accommodation.”
Despite all of the controversy, one thing is clear: Employment discrimination is a real and present issue. In my home state of Indiana, unless I work for the state government, I can be fired solely for being gay. This is the reality for 52% of the nation’s LGBT population. Only 18 states and the District of Colombia have state laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. There is a need for a federal law, especially with the recent overturn of marriage equality bans in many states. There are states where LGBT workers can now legally marry their partner but can be fired for displaying their picture at work.
The need for employment protections was realized 40 years ago. As Jews, we know what discrimination is like and the need for fair labor practices. As our ancestors took 40 years to escape slavery in Egypt, LGBT workers have waited their 40 years for their promised land – a work environment where they are not judged by who they love. As Jews, we fought to gain our rights as a people throughout history. We fought in 1964 for the Civil Rights Act knowing discrimination, and refusing that treatment of others. Now, 50 years later, that fight has not ended- employment non-discrimination with a fair religious exemption needs to be the law of the land.
Frankie Salzman is a rising sophomore at Indiana University double majoring in Jewish and religious Studies. Originally from Carmel, IN, Frankie is the president of the IU Keshet Club and hopes to one day become a rabbi.