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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Markup of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“Today is an historic day in the HELP Committee, where we have the opportunity to move forward with landmark civil rights legislation that will make us a stronger, better, fairer country.  Today’s proceedings are the culmination of a long history of work by this Committee – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ‘ENDA’ as it is known – was considered by this Committee in 2002, and was the subject of hearings in 2009 and 2012.  Today will mark the first time we report to the full Senate a bill that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

“Over the past nearly half century, we have made great strides towards eliminating discrimination in the workplace.  We still have a long way to go, but our country is a far better place because of laws barring discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, religion, age and disability, among others.  It is time, at long last, also to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  Such discrimination is wrong and cannot be tolerated.

“From the bottom up, a rapidly growing majority of Americans are demanding equal rights for citizens, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  And, the week before last, the Supreme Court recognized the fundamental rights of married same-sex couples.  Yet, despite this progress, under federal law, it is still entirely legal to fire, refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against a citizen based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  It is time to say that it should not be legal to discrimination in this fashion.  It is time to make clear that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans are equal, first-class citizens.  They are fully recognized and welcomed as members of our American family.  And they deserve the same civil rights protections as all other Americans.

“As I said, change is coming from the bottom up.  Many states, cities, and businesses are already leading the way toward ensuring full equality.  Seventeen states, including my home state of Iowa, plus the District of Columbia currently prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  Another five states prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation but do not include a prohibition on gender identity.  Further, 434 of the Fortune 500 companies – that is 88 percent – have implemented non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, and 282 companies – 57 percent – have policies that include gender identity.   These companies are demonstrating that anti-discrimination laws and policies are not only the right thing to do, but also creates a better workplace that benefits all of us. 

“However, the harsh reality is that – in the second decade of the 21st century – employers in most states can still fire, refuse to hire, or otherwise discriminate against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity – and, shockingly, they can do so within the law. 

“This means that countless hardworking Americans, whether employed by private companies or by public entities, are being judged not by their talent, ability and qualifications, but by their sexual orientation or gender identity.  They are being judged not by what they can contribute to a company, but by who they are or whom they choose to love.  Sadly, the record is replete with countless cases of bigotry and blatant job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  Equal opportunity is not an abstract principle or a matter of statistics.  Decent, hardworking Americans are being hurt by discrimination every day.  They correctly demand the same equal opportunity and nondiscrimination that other Americans enjoy.

“Qualified workers should not be turned away or have to fear losing their livelihood for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications, skills or performance.  Let’s not mince words:  such practices are un-American.  They should have no place in any American workplace. 

“I want to thank Senators Merkley and Kirk for introducing ENDA and for their leadership.  I also want to acknowledge the tireless efforts of Senator Baldwin, who has been a champion for full equality for years in the House and now in the Senate. 

“This bill is not complex.  It makes clear that private businesses, public employers and labor unions cannot make employment decisions – hiring, firing, promotion or compensation – based on a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  The bill contains exemptions for small businesses and religious organizations.  It expressly prohibits disparate impact claims.  The manager’s amendment we will be adopting incorporates many suggestions from Republican Senators regarding language that they believed needed clarification.  I am glad we could work on a bipartisan basis to improve the bill.

“We are pleased that this bill has bipartisan support, as well as the endorsement of civil rights organizations, religious leaders and a very broad range of businesses.  As Kenneth Charles, Vice President at General Mills, testified, ‘ENDA will be good for business and good for America.’  I would like to put into the record a letter of support from nearly 100 businesses and over 40 religious organizations.  As I said, this bill is not complex.  Likewise, the principle underlying this bill is very simple.  We are talking about a fundamental American value – equal treatment for all – the principle that no citizen of the United States should face discrimination.  I am proud that our Committee is taking the lead in advancing this long-overdue legislation today.”