Many American workers are vulnerable to the caprice of prejudiced employers in states that lack non-discrimination laws. Twenty-nine states do not have statutes that protect workers from being fired based solely on sexual orientation or gender identity. Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., bar workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 16 prohibit it with regard to gender identity.

Many city and county governments provide protections at the municipal level. Gubernatorial executive orders shield some LGBT state employees and contractors. But federal protection would fix this.

On April 25, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, introduced identical bills into their respective legislative bodies, to be known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 (ENDA). This bill has 178 House co-sponsors and is assigned to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice; in the Senate, there are 53 co-sponsors. On July 10, the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee voted 15-7 to send ENDA to the full Senate.

In its current form, ENDA would extend the federal employment discrimination protections that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 now provides based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability to cover sexual orientation and gender identity as well.

Various versions of ENDA have been introduced into Congress since 1994. Gender identity protections were first added to these proposals in 2007. The July 10 advancement is the first time that a trans-inclusive ENDA bill has made it out of committee during a time when the sitting president has said that he would sign it.

As written, ENDA would prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor unions from using a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for things such as hiring, firing, promotion, or compensation. ENDA includes exemptions for religious organizations (not individuals). Employers with fewer than 15 employees are also exempt.

A.J. Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide organization that advocates for LGBT equality, thinks ENDA will pass the Senate with bipartisan support. He says, “The challenge with ENDA in its current form is the extent to which the religious exemptions go beyond current standard practice in law. For example, any religiously affiliated entity can legally discriminate if the current exemptions are enacted. Regardless, a vote by the Senate is a key vote in the long-term strategy for passage of ENDA.”

On July 21, Missouri State Sen. Jolie Justus (D, Kansas City) spoke about employment discrimination, at both the federal and state levels, at the Human Rights Campaign Kansas City steering committee’s first annual Equality Brunch. Justus has sponsored the state-level version of ENDA — the Missouri Non-discrimination Act (MONA) — in the Missouri Senate since 2007. Others sponsored it before her.

Justus, an open lesbian, told the brunch attendees the story of her first encounter with then-State Sen. Kevin Engler of Farmington, saying that Engler introduced himself as the guy who banned gay marriage in Missouri. This rough initial greeting is the sort of thing to be expected in a red state legislature. But Justus explained how she and Engler slowly came to know and respect one another and said that even though the two had differing political views, the small-town conservative and the progressive city lawyer agreed on one thing: It was un-American to fire someone simply for being gay. She recruited Engler to the MONA cause.

When Engler was forced to leave the Senate due to term limits, he ran for his district’s House seat and won. In 2013, largely due to the efforts of Justus, MONA was passed out of the Senate for the first time ever. Engler co-sponsored the bill in the House, where it did not receive a vote. MONA will be filed again in 2014, Bockelman said, by Sen. Justus and Rep. Stephen Webber (D, Boone County). Because of term limits, Justus will leave the Senate after next year.

According to Bockelman, sexual-orientation and gender-identity protections in housing, public accommodations and employment now exist in St. Louis City, St. Louis County (unincorporated), Kansas City, Jackson County (unincorporated) Columbia, Kirksville (housing-sexual orientation only) and several metro St. Louis cities. An ordinance in Springfield continues to move forward.

In 2010, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, issued an executive order prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In Kansas, the Kansas Equality Coalition (KEC), working through local and regional chapters across the state, is a non-partisan group of fair-minded people determined to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

KEC has proposed changes to state law, specifically the Kansas Act Against Discrimination, to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the list of protected classes. Although state law does not yet include these factors, many jurisdictions in Kansas have passed ordinances or policies banning LGBT discrimination. Thomas Witt, executive director of KEC, provided information on non-discrimination efforts in Kansas, as summarized in his organization’s May 2013 newsletter.

Lawrence has a comprehensive human rights ordinance that covers sexual orientation and gender identity. Topeka prohibits discrimination in city hiring based on sexual orientation. Mission bars city officials and employees from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2007, Democratic Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed an executive order banning discrimination in State of Kansas employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which remains in effect.
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