WASHINGTON — Michael Carney, a gay cop in Massachusetts, figures there’s one reason he got his job back: The state makes it illegal to discriminate against employees because of sexual orientation.
But in 31 states, including Missouri and Kansas, employees have no such legal protection. Carney, who left his job when he was struggling as a closeted gay and then was reinstated after a long legal battle, hopes that will change. He’s urging Congress to pass a federal law called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would put bias involving sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace on the same legal footing as discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age and disability.
With a vote expected in the House of Representatives in the next month, the latest twist over gay rights is setting off a skirmish on Capitol Hill.
The Traditional Values Coalition is lobbying against the bill, saying it would make “homosexuality and gender confusion” a protected class and “describes how employers are to treat cross-dressers, drag queens and transsexuals.”
On the other side is Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Methodist minister from Kansas City and one of the bill’s 165 co-sponsors. Testifying at a hearing earlier this month, he said he listens to religious radio almost every day, and he’s familiar with the arguments.
“No one has yet explained," he said, "how keeping someone from gaining equal consideration based on their individual skill set to obtain lawful employment pleases God.”
Gay-rights groups, which are counting on the legislation to pass after helping put Democrats in charge of Congress, are pressuring those members of the majority whom they regard as reluctant.
While the issue gains steam on Capitol Hill, it’s also being debated in the 2008 presidential race. Gay-rights group note that all of the Democratic candidates have endorsed the legislation, with statements similar to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who said it’s wrong that employees “can still be fired because of who they love.”
Brooke Waits of Dallas cites her case: She was fired from her job as an inventory control manager in Texas after a manager spotted a photo on her cell phone showing her kissing her girlfriend at a New Year’s Eve party. She said she had just received a raise and was well regarded until then.
“In a single afternoon I went from being a highly praised employee to out of a job,” said Waits, who testified before the House subcommittee on health, employment, labor and pensions on Sept. 5.
Cleaver joined two openly gay House members — Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the bill’s chief sponsor, and Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — to promote passage of the bill at the hearing.
Frank said the bill has a simple principle: “In America, if you apply for a job and are working on that job, you should be judged by your job performance only. That’s it.”
Baldwin said the law would protect people from “discrimination based on irrational prejudice” and ensure “that an employer cannot fire an employee solely because she is a woman with a masculine walk or a man with an effeminate voice.”
Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., the chairman of the subcommittee, said there’s a strong economic argument in favor of the bill because the country “cannot afford to leave any of its talented people” out of the workplace.
His counterpart, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top-ranked Republican on the subcommittee, said the bill could be too far-reaching and place “unnecessary burdens on employers and employees.”
“As with any new federal mandate, I believe we must begin consideration of this legislation by determining whether it is necessary,” Kline said. “Is there evidence that this type of discrimination is occurring?”
Mark Fahleson, an employment attorney from Lincoln, Neb., whose clients have included religious institutions, said the bill would “add yet another layer of confusion” for religious groups in hiring decisions, raising constitutional issues regarding “the entangling of government into religious affairs.”
Frank, who heads the House Financial Services Committee, said Carney is an example of what an antidiscrimination law can do to protect gays and lesbians. He said Carney left his job because of personal problems, then applied for readmission after coming to terms with his homosexuality. He was told he couldn’t have his job back, however, even though other officers who had left under similar circumstances were allowed back.
Carney told Congress he realized soon after graduating from the police academy that his safety and future were “seriously jeopardized” because he was gay. So he hid his homosexuality, began drinking heavily, became depressed and resigned. When he decided he wanted his job back, it led to a two-and-a-half-year legal fight.
“For me, it allowed me to hit a bottom … to seek some help, to find out who I really am, and, more importantly, it's OK who I am,” Carney said. “And it's OK to be a gay American. And now, it's OK, with laws in place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, to work for my agency and very proudly to do so.”