With its vote on Wednesday in favor of a bill to outlaw discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation, the House scored a significant, if long overdue, breakthrough for equality and fairness. The Senate should now pass its own bill, and President Bush should sign this guarantee into law.
The House bill's passage owes much to the diligent efforts of Barney Frank of
Protecting the employment rights of gay people no longer seems as bold as it did then. Americans have come a long way in accepting gay rights, and some 20 states already have adopted similar laws. Despite this progress, a federal law is still very much needed, since there remain 30 states that have not acted to prevent gay men, lesbians and bisexuals from being denied jobs or promotions simply because of who they are.
Winning a majority in the House required a painful decision by the bill's sponsors to jettison language extending the prohibition against employment discrimination to transgender individuals. As a result, some gay rights groups opposed the final bill.
We sympathize with the groups' sense of injustice, but disagree heartily as to strategy. Transgender people should be protected from discrimination, and we hope they soon will be. It would have been regrettable, however, had the sponsors refused to compromise, and as a result, lost the chance to extend basic civil rights to the millions of Americans who would be covered by the current bill.
Throughout American history, civil rights have been achieved in incremental steps. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, barred race discrimination in public accommodations, an enormous step forward at the time. It wasn't until the next year that Congress protected voting rights in a separate bill.
The Employment Nondiscrimination Act now moves to the Senate, where Senator Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, is planning to introduce the same bill. In 2007, the idea that no American should face workplace discrimination because of his or her sexual orientation should appeal across party lines. Disappointingly, however, only 35 Republicans voted for the House bill, and President Bush is threatening a veto.
The reasons the White House has given for opposing the bill -- that it would be too burdensome on businesses and that it would lead to too much litigation -- echo the ones given by opponents of every previous civil rights bill to pass Congress in the past 50 years or so. That parallel should make Mr. Bush and other opponents reconsider whether they want to be on the side of bigotry, and on the wrong side of history.