April 25, 1997 in Nation/World

Clinton Vows To Fight Job Discrimination Against Gays But President Kicks Off Campaign With Low-Key, Gingerly Approach

Washington Post

President Clinton vowed Thursday to wage a vigorous lobbying campaign to persuade Congress to pass legislation prohibiting job discrimination against gay workers, describing it as part of his “fight against bigotry and intolerance.”

The president issued a statement reaffirming his “strong support” for the Employment Nondiscrimination Act after meeting in the Oval Office with gay-rights activists and a bipartisan congressional delegation that plans to reintroduce the measure soon.

Yet, even as he pledged “to work hard for its passage,” Clinton did little to raise the profile of the issue Thursday. His meeting had not been listed on his public schedule and was held behind closed doors. His statement on behalf of the bill was made in writing rather than in person in front of television cameras.

The gingerly handling of the matter follows Clinton’s roller-coaster history with gay-rights issues. Burned by the backlash from past advocacy, such as his contentious effort to end the military ban on homosexuals, Clinton has tried to walk a more-cautious line. He pushed for the job-nondiscrimination bill last year, for example, but also waited until the middle of the night to sign another measure denying federal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Even if he did not do so Thursday, Clinton will demonstrate his commitment to the workplace-nondiscrimination bill more publicly later, aides said. “We hope, as it moves through the legislative process on Capitol Hill, we’ll have opportunities to address it in the future,” said White House press secretary Michael McCurry.

The proposal would provide civil-rights protection in the workplace based on sexual orientation, much as nine states already do, while providing exemptions for small businesses, the armed forces and religious organizations including parochial schools. Last year, the bill came within a single vote of passage in the Senate. However, even if the Senate were to reverse itself, the House appears to be a much tougher fight.

Sens. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt.; Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.; and Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn.; and Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.; and Barney Frank, D-Mass., have signed on to lead the effort on Capitol Hill.

David M. Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay-rights organization, said Clinton pledged during the meeting “that he was going to put the power of the White House fully behind the bill. … That sends a very strong message and, we believe, strengthens its chance of passing in this Congress.”

But Kristi S. Hamrick of the Family Research Council, a conservative group advocating traditional values, countered that “the president always misstates the issue when it comes to homosexuality. This is not about workplace fairness. This is about taking a sexual behavior and giving it special status and special privileges.”

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