WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday to extend the nation’s employment discrimination protections to gay workers, the first time the long-proposed measure has passed either chamber of Congress.
In the debate, which lasted more than five hours, some members of Congress referred to the historic civil rights fight against racial prejudice while others appealed to the Democratic majority not to infringe on the rights of Christians who consider homosexuality an affront to God.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who survived beatings during marches for civil rights, said that he had “fought too long and too hard to end discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
Under the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, businesses with 15 or more employees would be prohibited from discriminating in hiring, firing or promoting individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation. The armed forces, private clubs and religious organizations would be exempted.
The 235-184 vote came after Democratic leaders opted not to include transgender individuals in the bill for fear that including them would cripple the coalition supporting the measure. That decision led to a bitter split among the bill’s backers, leaving advocates for transsexuals and transvestites angry.
Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., voted against the bill.
The bill’s future is uncertain. The Senate came within one vote of passing similar legislation in 1996, and sponsors say they have at least 51 votes in the Senate now. But a Republican filibuster threat would require 60 votes.
The Bush administration, in a statement of policy that recommended a veto, warned that the bill could weaken the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the legal union between a man and a woman.
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