WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee approved a bill Wednesday prohibiting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, just two weeks after the Supreme Court handed down rulings expanding protections for married same-sex couples.
Three Republicans -- Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Mark Kirk of Illinois -- voted for the bill, which passed 15 to 7. The Republican support gave the perennial bill some hope of passage in the Senate, though its prospects in the House are less certain.
"Such discrimination is wrong and cannot be tolerated," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) during the brief hearing. "It is still entirely legal to fire, refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate against a citizen based on sexual orientation or gender identity."
Under federal law, employers currently cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, age or disability. Though some states have passed laws to fill in the gap, others still lack such protections.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, while 16 states have provisions for gender identity, according to a June report by the Movement Advancement Project, Center for American Progress and Human Rights Campaign.
When introducing the bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) noted the work of Kirk, who became the leading Republican proponent of the act as a House member in 2007. "There may still be some improvements to be made, and we have some amendments that will be offered," Alexander said. "He and his staff are willing to make changes, as are the Democratic co-sponsors."
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the vote was "huge," and the farthest that the bill, first introduced in 1994, has advanced in Congress in 17 years.
"It's mostly because of people coming out to their families, reporters and churches," Keisling said. "Everybody knows a gay person now, and more and more people know a trans person. It's an issue that 20 years from now, opponents are going to be ashamed to have opposed."
It is not clear whether GOP leaders in the House will consider the bill, though the act's exemption for religious employers may help sway undecided senators, said Tico Almeida of the Freedom to Work advocacy group.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told LGBT groups he expects the Senate to take up the act later this year, and Almeida said getting 60 to 70 votes in support of the bill by then was possible. Almeida said his group hoped to see a bipartisan bill on President Obama's desk by December.