The U.S. Senate has finally passed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), a measure that has been languishing in Congress for at least twenty years despite the fact that for a good part of that time, multiple polls have shown support for passage hovering around 80%. (Approval by the more dysfunctional House remains uncertain.)
ENDA extends the basic civil rights protections that currently prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion and gender to GLBT workers. In other words, if you are an employer who is subject to civil rights laws, you can no longer fire someone –or refuse to hire someone–solely because s/he is gay or lesbian.
Although a number of Republican Senators voted against the measure, only one Senator took the floor to urge its rejection: Indiana’s own Dan Coats.
Coats says ENDA “violates religious liberty.” And it is certainly true that the law would prevent people whose religions preach intolerance from acting on that intolerance in the workplace.
Coats is making the same arguments that were used by those opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent state-level civil rights laws. “My religion teaches that women should tend the home.” “My religion teaches that black people shouldn’t mingle with whites.” And of course, the ever-popular, “A law telling me I can’t disapprove of certain people and refuse to serve/employ/educate them is an infringement of my liberty to run my establishment as I see fit.”
Well, yes it is. That’s the price we pay for living in a system that strives for equal protection of the laws, a system that separates civil law from religious beliefs.
I first met Dan Coats in 1980, when we were both Republican candidates for Congress. (He won his race; I lost mine.) When he later ran for Senate, he asked if I would host a fundraiser for him, and I agreed. I hadn’t paid much attention to his record, however, and when I asked several female friends if they would attend, I got an earful about his positions on reproductive rights and other issues affecting women. (For younger people who may be reading this, I kid you not: before the party effectively became an arm of fundamentalist Christianity, the GOP used to harbor lots of pro-choice women. Honest. Google it if you don’t believe me.)
When I explained to Dan that his votes to make abortion illegal made him persona non grata to pretty much anyone I’d invite, he was gracious about it. But I’ve never forgotten his explanation: “this is a religious issue for me.”
There are two problems with this defense. First, my religion (and that of many other Americans) had–and has– a very different view of reproductive morality, just as today religious denominations have very different positions on same-sex marriage. And second, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits people like Dan Coats or Rick Santorum or anyone else from using the law to impose their religious beliefs on those who don’t share them.
Coats is a perfect illustration of a phenomenon that drives me batty–the (apparently sincere) belief that if the law isn’t forcing everyone to live by his religious rules, he is the one being discriminated against.
Take that position to its logical consequences, and a diverse society could neither exist nor function. Dan Coats doesn’t have to like gay people, or Jewish people, or any other people. He doesn’t have to invite us into his private club, or invite us over for dinner. He does, however, have to share civil society with us.
And that, Dan, requires giving unto others the same rights you demand for yourself.
Speaking of morality, I would submit that an inability to understand that simple truth–an inability to respect the equal human dignity of people who differ from you– is a pretty significant moral failure in the view of most religions.