WASHINGTON — Reflecting Americans’ increasing acceptance of gays, the Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Gay rights advocates hailed the bipartisan, 64-32 vote as a historic step, although it could prove short-lived. A foe of the bill, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has signaled that the Republican-led House is unlikely to even vote. Senate proponents were looking for a way around that obstacle.
Seventeen years after a similar anti-discrimination measure failed by one vote, 54 members of the Senate Democratic majority and 10 Republicans voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It is the first major gay rights bill since Congress repealed the ban on gays serving openly in the military three years ago.
“All Americans deserve a fair opportunity to pursue the American dream,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a chief sponsor of the bill.
Proponents cast the effort as Congress following the lead of business and localities as some 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 22 states have outlawed employment discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
Supporters described it as the final step in a long congressional fight against discrimination, coming nearly 50 years after enactment of the Civil Rights Act and 23 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Now we’ve finished the trilogy,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a chief sponsor of the disabilities law, at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Two Republican senators who voted against anti-discrimination legislation in 1996, Arizona’s John McCain, the presidential nominee in 2008, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, backed the measure this time. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted in favor; her father, Frank, opposed a similar bill nearly two decades ago, underscoring the generational shift.
“Let the bells of freedom ring,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who took the lead on the legislation from the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
Senate passage came in a momentous year for gay rights advocates. The Supreme Court in June granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, though it avoided a sweeping ruling that would have paved the way for same-sex unions nationwide. Illinois is on the verge of becoming the 15th state to legalize gay marriage along with the District of Columbia.
A Pew Research survey in June found that more Americans said homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by society by a margin of 60 percent to 31 percent. Opinions were more evenly divided 10 years ago.
In the House, Boehner has maintained his longstanding opposition despite pleas from national Republicans for the GOP to broaden its appeal to a fast-changing demographic. Boehner argues that the bill is unnecessary and would touch off costly, meritless lawsuits for businesses.
President Barack Obama and Democrats used the progressive legislation piling up in the House as a cudgel on the GOP, with the gay rights bill likely to join the stalled measure to overhaul the immigration system.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said if the House fails to act, “they’ll be sending their party straight to oblivion.”
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois reminded Boehner of the history of his party in the 1880s over the issue of slavery and Abraham Lincoln’s life work.
“Keep that proud Republican tradition alive,” Durbin said.
Obama, in a statement, said “one party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do.”
Gay rights advocates reminded Obama that he could act unilaterally and issue an executive order barring anti-gay workplace discrimination by federal contractors. Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Obama is empowered to act and called on him to sign the executive order.
One possible option exists for proponents, adding the gay rights bill to the annual defense policy measure that the Senate will consider later this month and force the House to reject the popular legislation.
Through three days of Senate debate, opponents of the legislation remained mute, with no lawmaker speaking out. That changed on Thursday, as Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana said the legislation would force employers to violate their religious beliefs.
“There’s two types of discrimination here we’re dealing with, and one of those goes to the very fundamental right granted to every American through our Constitution, a cherished value of freedom of expression and religion,” Coats said.
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 workers 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. It would exempt religious institutions and the military.
The Senate approved an amendment from Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire that would prevent federal, state and local governments from retaliating against religious groups that are exempt from the law.
The Senate rejected an amendment sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would have expanded the number of groups that are covered under the religious exemption.
Portman, Ayotte and Toomey voted for the legislation.
The first openly gay senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, called the vote a “tremendous milestone” that she will always remember throughout her time in the Senate.
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., did not vote. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a supporter of the bill, said his wife underwent heart surgery this week and he was unable to make the vote.