Senate passes bill to ban discrimination against gay workers

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) (L-R), Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) celebrate with supporters after a vote to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), legislation to ban workplace discrimination against gays, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington November 7, 2013. REUTERS-Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) (L-R), Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) celebrate with supporters after a vote to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), legislation to ban workplace discrimination against gays, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington November 7, 2013. REUTERS-Jonathan Ernst

(Reuters) – The Democratic-led Senate, reflecting a major shift in the past decade in public opinion, passed a bipartisan bill on Thursday to outlaw discrimination against gay workers. But the measure faces an uphill struggle in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

The bill cleared the Senate 64-32, with 10 Republicans joining 52 Democrats and two independents in voting “yes.”

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 has become the latest battleground in an ideological fight within the Republican Party. An increasing number of Republicans support gay rights, but conservative groups threaten to challenge many of those who support the White House-backed bill.

Critics complain that the legislation represents an unwarranted federal intrusion in the workplace that would force employers to violate religious beliefs in deciding whom to hire.

Backers say legislation would protect people to be able to love whom they choose without the fear of losing their job.

Unlike a decade ago, when gay rights was a “wedge-issue” used to rally conservative voters, most Americans, including most Republicans, now support gay rights, polls show.

Senate passage of the non-discrimination bill came 19 years after such legislation was first introduced in Congress.

“This is a historic victory and shows that the country is moving forward,” said Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, “All Americans have the right to pursue the American dream.”

But House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, has declared his opposition, expressing fear the measure would trigger lawsuits that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.

Backers of the legislation reject concerns about lawsuits, noting that it has not been a problem for states that have adopted similar laws in recent years.

The Senate bill would ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Existing federal law already prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age, and disability.

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