WASHINGTON — Gay rights advocates notched another victory Wednesday after a Senate panel approved a bill that would prohibit employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The measure won support from all the Democrats and three Republicans on the 22-member committee, signaling it has a strong chance of passage in the full Senate.
The vote is another sign of rapidly changing attitudes on gay rights in Congress and the nation. It comes just two weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex spouses are entitled to the same federal benefits as other married couples in states where gay marriage is legal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he expects the full Senate to take up the measure later this year. But it is not clear whether GOP leaders in the House will allow the bill to come to a vote.
“I think society is there and the things that have happened in the Supreme Court show we’re ready to move on in a way we haven’t moved on in the past,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Harkin said he expects to have 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a potential filibuster. Republican Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska all voted in favor of the bill Wednesday.
White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a statement praising the vote and highlighting President Barack Obama’s longtime support for the measure. He urged the House “to move forward on this bill that upholds America’s core values of fairness and equality.”
The committee proceeding took less than 15 minutes, with none of the Republican members on the panel speaking against it. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the committee’s top Republican, deferred to Kirk, who described how he has supported the Employment Nondiscrimination Act for years.
“I think it’s becoming increasingly embarrassing to speak against gay rights,” said Tico Almeida, president of the gay advocacy group Freedom to Work.
Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin, but it doesn’t stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire a worker solely because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion. A similar measure went to the Senate floor in 1996, but failed to pass on a 50-49 vote. The previous measure did not include protections for transgender people.
Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition, urged the Senate to reject the bill, saying the provision covering transgender people is “catering to the unhealthy psychological condition of a very small group of individuals.”
“Picture your child in a classroom full of students, when a formerly male teacher walks in as a transgendered female at the beginning of the school year,” Lafferty said. “What would you tell your child?”
The bill contains an exemption that allows churches, religious schools and religious nonprofit organizations to make hiring decision based on the tenets of their faith. That exemption was considered key to garnering GOP support.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have already approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of those also prohibit employers from discriminating based on gender identity.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called on the Senate to pass the measure quickly.
“The cruel irony of the Supreme Court’s recent marriage decisions is that an LGBT couple could get married one day, and on the very next day, because we still don’t have federal laws to ban employment discrimination, those same individuals could be fired from their jobs,” Carey said.
About 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have already adopted non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign. About 57 percent of those companies include gender identity.
Alexander said the GOP planned to offer several amendments to the bill before it comes to a floor vote, including one that would require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to define when a person is “in transition” to change their gender identity.