With seven Republican senators and all 55 Democratic senators publicly on board, it now seems likely that the Senate will debate and vote this week on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would ban employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. If the bill moves forward, it would represent the newest effort since the 1970s to address the issue and the first time since 1996 that the Senate has given the legislation an up-or-down vote.
Although you would not guess it by the tepid support among most Republican senators, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans support workplace protections for gay and lesbian Americans. Among younger Americans, a group Republicans candidates have struggled to attract, support rises to 81 percent. And most striking is this: majorities of both Republicans (60 percent) and Democrats (80 percent) as well as majorities of every major religious group, including six-in-ten (59 percent) white evangelical Protestants, favor workplace protections for gay and lesbian people.
If ENDA passes, it will also mark the first time legislation has explicitly included protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Although this gender identity provision has been a point of contention among lawmakers in the past, rank-and-file Americans make no significant distinctions between employment protections for gay and lesbian Americans and transgender Americans. When asked directly about the inclusion of transgender Americans, three-quarters (75 percent) of Americans—including majorities of Republicans and conservative religious groups such as white evangelical Protestants—also agree that Congress should pass laws to protect transgender people from job discrimination.
Two Republican members of Congress from Ohio may be poised to play a critical role. In the Senate, Rob Portman, who earlier this year made the surprise announcement that he supports same-sex marriage, may provide one of the key Republican votes in support of the bill. And in the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will largely control the fate of the bill. If they intend to follow their constituents on this issue, their decision is a relatively straightforward one. According to PRRI’s Ohio Values Survey, nearly seven-in-ten (68 percent) Ohio voters favor laws protecting gay and lesbian people against job discrimination. Like Americans overall, solid majorities of Ohio voters in both political parties and in every major religious group support workplace nondiscrimination laws for gay and lesbian people. Notably, the vast majority of Ohio voters incorrectly believe it is already illegal under Ohio and federal law to fire or refuse to hire someone because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
While the future of ENDA in the Senate looks moderately bright, its prospects in the Republican-controlled House seem much dimmer. But one thing is clear: if Republican representatives in either chamber fail to back ENDA, it will be for reasons other than representing their constituents’ views.