Who Would God Discriminate Against?

The vote on S. 815, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), will take place soon. ENDA would protect gay, lesbian and transgender Americans from discrimination in the workplace. Seventeen years ago, the Senate voted on the same bill and was one vote shy. Today with a number of senators still undecided, we hope to muster the votes we need to pass ENDA in the Senate this time.

While the political momentum is not what it should be, the faith community has a more positive story to tell. An array of denominations, faith organizations and faith leaders with differing views on same-sex marriage and civil unions have joined to say employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is wrong and ENDA should be passed. Many senators are probably not aware that there is a letter of support for ENDA from sixty faith groups, including ten national faith denominations. The letter explicitly states:

"Our faith traditions hold different and sometimes evolving beliefs about the nature of human sexuality and marriage as well as gender identity and gender expression, but we can all agree on the fundamental premise that every human being is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace."

This group spans the gamut from Dr. Martin Luther King's denomination -- the Progressive National Baptist Convention -- to the evangelical group Sojourners, to the Islamic Society of North America, to mainline Christian denominations like the Methodists and Presbyterians to the Reform and Conservative Jewish Movement.

In supporting ENDA, these faith leaders are in sync with their members. A Public Religion Research Institute poll shows that 61 percent of minority Protestants, 59 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 75 percent of white mainline Protestants, 76 percent of Catholics and 84 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans support workplace nondiscrimination for gays and lesbians. Although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is now in opposition to the bill (and thus not aligned with American Catholics on this issue), in 2007 they were explicitly neutral on ENDA (and in support of the exact same religious exemption it now contains). Also noteworthy is that the Church of Latter Day Saints and the National Association of Evangelicals are quiet on the bill this time. Other groups that take a robust interpretation of religious liberty, such as the Orthodox Jews and Seventh Day Adventists, have, while not supporting the bill, maintained that the religious exemption meets their needs and stayed neutral on it.

Many faith groups feel comfortable supporting ENDA because it has a broad religious exemption. Specifically, ENDA has a religious exemption that is wider in scope than that of Title VII or the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is thought to be one of the broadest religious exemptions in federal law. This is why some gay rights groups and the ACLU have complained vociferously about the exemption. A New York Times editorial explains their critique this way: "It is one thing for religious groups to further their religious mission by favoring people of their own faith in hiring, as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act permits. It is quite another to allow the firing of a lesbian physician or transgender nurse when a hospital that is not affiliated with a religious group happens to merge with an institution that is." Many of the more progressive religious denominations and some gay rights groups who are sympathetic to this critique are willing to accept the broad religious exemption as a compromise because we want the bill to be enacted into law and thereby protect the civil rights of millions of Americans currently vulnerable to discrimination. This exact same religious exemption was in the bill and passed muster in 2007, when 35 Republicans including Paul Ryan and now-Senator Jeff Flake voted for the bill on the House floor and it passed.

Other religious institutional leaders are newly announcing their support for ENDA too. Recently, Seminary Presidents of the Chicago Theological Seminary, the Andover Newtown Theological School, the Episcopal Divinity School, the Graduate Theological Union and Vanderbilt Divinity School stated in a letter backing ENDA: "Fairness and protection from discrimination in secular employment should be a fundamental protection and value that all should affirm."

Evangelical megachurch pastors are coming along too. Pastor Joel Hunter, Senior Pastor of a 20,000 congregant white Evangelical church in Northland Florida, who has opposed same-sex marriage, recently expressed his support for ENDA this way: "There is no need to bring sexuality into the workplace where it does not apply to one's job performance. I can support the spirit of fairness in this bill as well as its exemptions for religious organizations."

The bill can be a blessing to our nation if the Senate leads the way in saying no to employment discrimination.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.