WASHINGTON — The Senate is expected to pass legislation today that would prohibit workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians, but it appears that it will be done without the support of Republican senators from Nebraska and Iowa.
All three voted earlier in the week to prevent the legislation from advancing, including Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who suggested that such measures can make a situation worse.
“I don't like the fact that we carve out all these special privileges. That has always, always bothered me,” Fischer told The World-Herald. “I don't think anybody, anybody should be discriminated against. As a woman I shouldn't be discriminated against. I don't think it's helpful to always carve this out, though, saying women shouldn't be discriminated against.”
Fischer also raised concerns about whether the legislation includes adequate exceptions for religious institutions.
She said she planned to support an amendment by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to strengthen those provisions. A vote on the amendment will precede the final passage vote today.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is leading the effort to pass the legislation in his role as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Harkin talked on the Senate floor Wednesday about the need to provide legal recourse to those who get fired simply because of whom they love and characterized the move as the latest in the long march toward equality and civil rights for all.
“We've got reams of records here — people fired because they were gay or lesbian,” Harkin said. “Not because they couldn't do the job, not because they weren't doing their job. They were fired because that's who they were. And guess what? That gay person walked down to that courthouse door — it's locked. It's locked. Just as it was for people with disabilities before 1990. Just as it was for African-Americans before 1964, and for women.”
Harkin noted that most states — including Nebraska — do not have laws on the books protecting gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination. Iowa is one of the 21 states that does.
Fischer noted that even in states lacking such protections, many municipalities have adopted them, including Omaha.
Harkin praised the legislation as a “huge step forward, one too long in coming.”
But the measure is expected to die in the Republican-controlled House, where it might not even be voted on. And many Republican senators will vote against it today.
“I surely don't think people ought to be fired for (being gay), but what kind of legislation protects them from being fired and what is the impact of that and I have to look at the whole thing,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday during his weekly conference call with reporters.
“I have to look at the wrong of being fired for that reason, but I also have to look at what is it going to do to other employers that have certain other beliefs.”
Grassley noted that the bill includes “reasonable” exceptions for religious institutions, but he said it doesn't protect ordinary business owners.
“The people who want to run their businesses consistently with those moral and religious views or their conscience could be abnormally affected by this,” Grassley said.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., cited similar concerns in a statement released after he voted Monday to support an unsuccessful Republican filibuster of the bill.
“I firmly believe every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but I have serious concerns about the impact this legislation would have on religious organizations and private business owners with deeply-held religious beliefs,” Johanns said.