Ed. Note: This blog is cross-posted from the United States Department of Justice.
The fact remains that, across the country, far too many LGBT Americans suffer discrimination each and every day. That’s why the Department will keep working to promote opportunity and access for every individual. It’s why this will continue to be a priority for this Department as long as I have the privilege to serve as Attorney General. It’s why we will continue to advocate for essential legislative changes and reforms, like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, to extend workplace protections to all Americans.
-Attorney General Eric Holder, June 2013
Right now, in 29 states, lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGBT) Americans lack sufficient protections against employment discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This week, the Senate passed a bill—the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)—that would close this gap in our nation’s civil rights laws.
Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federal law has prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Yet five decades later, while we wait for ENDA to pass the House of Representatives, no federal law exists that explicitly prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and the majority of states lack basic workplace protections for LGBT Americans.
As President Obama has stated: “[O]ur journey as a nation is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
If signed into law, a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act would explicitly prohibit workplace discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. ENDA’s prohibition of intentional discrimination makes clear that LGBT Americans deserve the same types of protections that are available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The ability to earn a living and climb up the economic ladder is at the heart of the American dream. No individual should be denied a job or the opportunity to earn promotions and pay raises because of who they are or who they love. That’s why President Obama, Attorney General Holder, the Civil Rights Division, and the administration as a whole have been committed to the passage of an inclusive ENDA.
In 2009, Tom Perez, then Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division, testified on behalf of the department before the Senate HELP Committee in support of this legislation, stating: “We have come too far in our struggle for ‘equal justice under the law’ to remain silent or stoic when our LGBT brothers and sisters are still being mistreated and ostracized for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their skills or abilities.”
The Civil Rights Division regularly receives letters from LGBT individuals all over the country documenting instances of employment discrimination. This discrimination takes many forms—from cruel instances of harassment, to explicit denials of employment or career-enhancing assignments. It is painfully disappointing to have to tell these men and women that, in the United States of America in 2013, insufficient legal tools exist to address this discrimination. While the Division makes every effort to address these complaints, because there are no federal laws that provide explicit protection against sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, far too many people are left without clear protections.
Four years ago, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act to protect LGBT individuals from hate-fueled violence. Now it’s time for Congress to make certain that these Americans enjoy equal opportunity in the workplace and equal access to the American dream.
Fifty years after the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Division seeks to advance this nation’s long struggle to embrace the principle so eloquently captured by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—that persons should be judged based on the content of their character, and not on their race, color, sex, national origin, religion or any other irrelevant factors.
Our existing civil rights laws, enforced by the Civil Rights Division, reflect and uphold this noble principle. So does the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Its passage would move this great nation one step closer to fulfilling our Constitution’s promise of liberty, opportunity and equality for all.
Jocelyn Samuels is the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice.