WASHINGTON -- Some religious organizations will be prevented from acting on their beliefs in making employment decisions regarding homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people if the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is passed, a Senate committee has been told.
"ENDA, in its present form, would impose a substantial or unconstitutional burden on religious organizations and would interfere in their effectiveness in terms of pursuing their vision," lawyer Craig Parshall said in testifying against the bill in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The legislation would make discrimination based on "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" illegal in such areas as hiring, firing and compensation for both the private and public workplace. The measure would treat "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" in a fashion similar to other federally protected categories, such as race, gender, age and religion. "Sexual orientation" includes homosexuality and bisexuality, while "gender identity," or transgendered status, takes in transsexuals and cross-dressers.
The bill provides exemptions for religious organizations, the military and businesses with fewer than 15 employees, but Parshall said the exemption for religious organizations is insufficient for those motivated by a biblical conviction that homosexuality is sinful.
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"It really provides no meaningful protection for the vast number of Christian ministries out there, both non-profit and particularly for-profit Christian ministries, bookstores, Christian publishers and so forth. In an area like this, clarity is necessary," Parshall told Baptist Press after the hearing.
For instance, if a Christian bookstore decides not to hire a homosexual, the courts can rule that the decision was made not because of the applicant's religion but because of his sexual orientation, said Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Religious Broadcasters.
"I'm fairly confident that after many, many years, if this has passed, we will finally get the courts to recognize it's unconstitutional, but between now and then, a great deal of damage is going to be done in ministries," he told BP.
Camille Olson, another witness, said ENDA should be easier to understand.
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If ENDA is clarified, "there would be less ambiguity, less confusion and more likelihood that individuals would understand how to comply with ENDA," said Olson, a lawyer at a Chicago firm.
In the meantime, while the bill is in the process of being reviewed, homosexual individuals are in need of protection in the workforce, some witnesses and senators said. Secular businesses, such as Nike Inc,. will thrive if the bill passes, the committee was told.
"Nike's support of this bill is a reflection of our employment policies, practices and training programs.... [T]hese are designed to reinforce a culture of inclusion and respect where each employee can reach their full potential," said Virginia Nguyen, a diversity and inclusion team member at Nike, at the hearing.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, said at the Nov. 5 hearing the "harsh reality is that employers in most states in this country can still fire, refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identification; shockingly, they can do so within the law."
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, said President Obama supports the bill.
"The Obama administration believes that ENDA must be the next step and that this act will be a worthy addition to its venerable predecessors," Perez said.
The Senate version of ENDA is S. 1584, while the House bill is H.R. 3017. The Senate bill has 43 cosponsors; the House measure has 189.