Religious Exemptions at Issue in Proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), introduced in both the House and the Senate, would protect many LGBTQ individuals from workplace discrimination, something a strong majority of Americans support.

However, the proposed version of the law would not protect LGBTQ employees at Catholic schools and some other religiously affiliated institutions. The House and Senate versions of ENDA (HR 1755 and S 815) include an identical exemption for religious organizations:

This Act shall not apply to a corporation, association, educational institution or institution of learning, or society that is exempt from the religious discrimination provisions of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 pursuant (42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq.) to section 702(a) or 703(e)(2) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 2000e-1(a), 2000e-2(e)(2)).

In response, one national LGBTQ equality group has withdrawn its support for the bill. In an email sent to supporters Wednesday, GetEQUAL Managing Co-Director Heather Cronk said, “Just last week, a teacher at a Catholic school in Arkansas was fired after she and her same-sex partner married in another state. Unfortunately, the version of ENDA that’s being advocated right now likely would have offered her no protections in the workplace. The same is true for Carla Hale—fired from her job in a Catholic school in Ohio after mentioning her same-sex partner in her mother’s obituary.”

According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, educational programs that are “in whole or substantial part owned, supported, controlled, or managed by a particular religion” or have curriculum “directed toward the propagation of a particular religion” may legally hire and employ on the basis of religion. Should the current version of ENDA pass, courts may ultimately be called upon to decide if the sexuality of an employee or prospective employee is relevant to the religious viewpoint promulgated by an employer.

In an interview with RH Reality Check, Cronk drew parallels between the fight for employment protections for LGBTQ individuals and ongoing court battles regarding employee access to birth control coverage in third-party insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act.

Speaking of how both sets of battles are pitted against the religious beliefs of employers, she said, “As a seminary graduate who was raised in the church, I find it offensive and bewildering that the radical right in the U.S. is so bold as to perpetuate the lie that their religious bigotry should be protected under the fundamental American principle of religious liberty.”

Other LGTBQ rights groups have taken a different tack. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest group of its kind, supports the bill and is leading a campaign to “Pass ENDA Now.” The bill is not without bipartisan support. A cover story in the Washington Post earlier this week detailed a push within the Republican party to move toward the middle on gay rights, reporting that former members of Congress Tom Reynolds (R-NY) and Norm Coleman (R-MN) have been hired as lobbyists to work in favor of the employment bill.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Senate version of ENDA as “S 185.” The article has been updated to reflect that the Senate version of ENDA is “S 815.”

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  • cvxxx

    Work is paycheck that simple. Discrimination is plain wrong.