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Wed., Nov. 6, 2013, midnight

Editorial: U.S. House should put gay rights bill to a vote

Nearly 20 years ago, Congress began debating the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers from singling out workers or job applicants on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identification. On Monday night, the bill cleared a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate with 61 votes, including seven from Republicans. Now it can be debated on the floor.

It helps that public opinion has shifted and that many states have already outlawed such discrimination. But a different kind of majority runs the U.S. House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner embraces the Hastert Rule, meaning no bill goes to the floor unless it’s supported by a majority of the majority. Problem is, that majority constitutes a minority on this subject.

It’s telling that 17 years ago, politicians would freely share their pro-discrimination views. Now they hide behind process.

In the Idaho Legislature, leadership squelches debate. Some city councils, such as those in Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene, have adopted their own anti-discrimination ordinances. But rather than directly denounce these laws, some political opponents hide their views and call for a vote of the people. In other words, when they control the issue, no vote. When they don’t, let everyone vote.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives can also hide in this fashion because leadership, which includes U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, refuses to allow a vote. Boehner says the bill will kill jobs and promote frivolous lawsuits. Yet, he provides no evidence that discrimination is a job preserver, and he offers no compelling examples of trivial litigation. The District of Columbia and 21 states, including Washington, have adopted similar anti-discrimination measures, so there’s been ample opportunities for these supposed outcomes to arise.

Studies show that discrimination based on sexual orientation results in lower pay, fewer benefits and workplace harassment. That is, if gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual workers are hired in the first place. Certainly by expanding the class of people who are protected, the potential for increased litigation exists. But if that’s the chief concern, Congress might as well roll back the civil rights gains of minorities and women.

Let’s be honest: Boehner’s objections are merely a smokescreen for the real reason people want to discriminate. They believe gay, lesbian and transgendered citizens are morally inferior, so treating them as equals offends religious beliefs. But there is no government interest in religion-based discrimination.

In any event, the bill has a religious exception, which makes it weaker than most state laws. Religiously affiliated organizations, such has hospitals, are exempted. It’s a flaw in the bill, but passing it is much better than the status quo. Also, the bill does not apply to businesses with 15 or fewer employees, which knocks down Boehner’s contention that small businesses will be harmed.

House leaders ought to put this bill to a vote, so members can publicly argue their positions and plant the flag for or against discrimination. Failing to do so only adds cowardice to their shameful position.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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