Toomey backs bill barring discrimination against gays at work

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), was one of seven Senate Republicans to vote to advance the bill earlier this week. (File Photo / Staff)

WASHINGTON – Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), voted in favor of a gay-rights bill Thursday morning, joining Democrats and a handful of Republicans to help it clear the Senate.

With final votes still being counted, Toomey was one of 10 Republicans to support the bill Thursday.

"I have long believed that more legal protections are appropriate to prevent employment discrimination based on sexual orientation," Toomey said in a news release. "I also believe we need to strike a reasonable balance between protecting workers and protecting religious freedom."

Toomey fought for broader exemptions for religious groups, an idea opposed by gay rights groups, but still supported the bill after his idea was rejected.

The bill, which bans employers from considering sexual orientation or gender identity when hiring and firing, is a top priority for advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender people, and its expected passage is seen as a symbol of the sea change in the politics around gay rights.

Toomey was one of seven Senate Republicans to vote to advance the bill past a procedural hurdle earlier this week. He effectively broke with his party -- which in Pennsylvania's state legislature has resisted such laws -- on a hot-button social issue.

Less surprisingly, New Jersey Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker voted in favor of the measure.

"With today's passage of ENDA in the Senate, we take yet another step towards a more tolerant society," Menendez said in a news release.

As Booker voted, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) called out, "good vote, Cory!"

Booker sent a celebratory Tweet from the Senate floor. "ENDA passes!!!"

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) was absent. He is with his wife after her heart surgery earlier this week.

The passage of a measure pushed for more than a decade by gay rights groups was seen as an historic moment in the Senate -- though the bill is likely to be blocked in the Republican-controlled House.

For Toomey, who opposes same-sex marriage but supported ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," his votes in favor of ENDA are another example of his moving to the middle on cultural issues (see his support of a background check bill earlier this year) while remaining steadfastly conservative on fiscal concerns -- his top priority.

Toomey supported ENDA Thursday after first offering an amendment to expand and strengthen the definition of the religious groups who would be exempt from the anti-discrimination law. It was defeated 43-55, with Republicans largely in support and Democrats largely in opposition. The plan needed 60 votes for approval.

"While my amendment was not accepted, I voted for final passage to help move the legislative process forward," Toomey said in his statement. "I hope that -- should the House consider this bill -- it will move to improve and strengthen this measure so we can both advance equality in the workplace and protect religious liberty.”

Toomey's amendment would have expanded exceptions within the anti-discrimination bill. Instead of limiting exceptions to organizations whose function is primarily religious – an exemption that exists in other civil rights laws, allowing faith groups to give hiring preference to people of the same religion – Toomey proposed language that would include institutions that are not primarily religious, but are affiliated with a specific religion, such as schools or hospitals.

Democratic opponents said his plan would open the door to a broad interpretation, and allow private businesses with faint religious ties to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

“Every individual is entitled to dignity and respect and fairness,” Toomey said on the Senate floor. “A person’s sexual orientation is irrelevant to their ability to be a good doctor, engineer or athlete or a federal judge, and that’s why I’ve supported acknowledging that reality.”

But Toomey said ENDA also should “guarantee religious groups’ rights for the free exercise of their religion.”

He said his amendment would provide clarity about which groups are exempt, since court rulings can vary by state and circumstance.

“In the absence of my amendment, my concern is that there will be no uniform national standard for determining when a … religious entity is exempt from the bill,” Toomey said.

But Sen. Tom Harkin (D., IA), said Toomey’s plan could “allow thousands of private businesses to discriminate” and “threatens to gut the fundamental premise of ENDA.”

Harkin said existing civil rights laws all allow exceptions based on the same language that was proposed in ENDA. New language, he argued, would create confusion about who is exempt and open the door to far-reaching exceptions to for-profit companies.

“ENDA already exempts the same religious organizations that qualify for an exemption under Title VII of Civil Rights Act,” Harkin said.

Toomey had argued for more clear protections, but gay-rights groups – which had praised him for help the bill advance earlier this week – opposed his plan to amend the bill.

The bill is set for final passage later this afternoon.

Democratic New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker supported the measure -- as expected. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) was absent. He is spending time with his wife after she had heart surgery earlier this week.

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