Senate Rejects Religious Exemptions, As Should the Courts
On Thursday, the Senate voted to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA) — a law that would protect employees across the country against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — in a vote of 64-32.
First, a moment of celebration!!
Second, earlier in the day another important vote happened: by 55-43, the Senate rejected a measure to broaden a religious exemption to ENDA. The amendment, offered by Senator Toomey, would have expanded ENDA's current exemption, which — by the way — already provides LGBT people with less protection from workplace discrimination than other protected groups.
With their votes, the Senate made it clear that bosses can't use their religious — or any other — objections to discriminate against LGBT people. This vote upheld the principle underlying our antidiscrimination laws: in exchange for entering the marketplace, bosses cannot pick and choose which laws they will comply with or use their views to deny their employees the benefits of laws enacted to protect them.
That principle is being challenged not only in the ENDA context, but also by over forty for-profit businesses challenging the Affordable Care Act's (ACA) contraceptive coverage rule. The contraceptive coverage rule is simple: a business that offers health insurance to its employees must include coverage for birth control with no cost-sharing. Bosses, however, are asking courts for the right to discriminate against female employees and dependents because the bosses have religious objections to birth control. They're even arguing that for-profit businesses are people capable of having religious beliefs that should be imposed on employees too.
But, carve outs to laws like ENDA or the contraceptive coverage rule undermine the very purpose of these laws: advancing equality. If we allow very broad religious exemptions that would let bosses use religion to discriminate, then instead of moving forward with such laws we in fact fall backward. Simply put, religious beliefs must not be used to discriminate against others and thereby undermine full workplace equality.
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