In 1996 — the same year the Defense of Marriage Act passed both houses of Congress with veto-proof margins — the Employment Non-Discrimination Act reached the Senate floor and was defeated by a single vote.
Reading the tea leaves then, it might have seemed that employment discrimination against gay workers would become illegal long before 17 years would pass. It was same-sex marriage that seemed unlikely.
But a nation that has evolved rapidly toward supporting marriage equality continues to drag its feet on workforce fairness. ENDA has been introduced in every Congress since 1994, save one.
Recently, however, there have been promising signs. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved ENDA by a 2-1 margin, with support from all Democrats and from Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. In a year when the Supreme Court has overturned a key part of DOMA, that bodes well for the act’s appearance on the Senate floor in the near future.
Meanwhile, President Obama could sign an executive order that would immediately protect gay and transgender employees of federal contractors from workplace discrimination.
The president promised on the campaign trail in 2008 that he would sign an executive order protecting gays in the federal contractor force. His failure to do so becomes increasingly indefensible. An executive order could generate momentum for ENDA, not to mention put in place at least some protections until the act becomes law.
After helping to end bias in the military and publicly endorsing same-sex marriage in his first term, it’s time the president honored the promise he made five years ago.