Two openly gay members of Congress on Wednesday urged their colleagues to pass a sweeping job-discrimination bill that would — for the first time — protect gays and transsexuals from workplace bias.
The testimony from Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., comes as supporters of the measure believe Congress is closer than ever to banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Frank told the House Education and Labor Committee that opponents of the bill often accuse the gay-rights community of pushing a "radical agenda."
"Trying to get a job or join the military has not been the hallmark of radicalism," he said.
Baldwin, whose home state of Wisconsin was the first to pass a law protecting gay employees from bias in 1982, said it was time "to bring our laws in line with the reality of American life."
The Employment Nondiscrimination Act would ban employers from making any decisions about hiring, firing, promotions or pay based on a worker's sexual orientation or gender identity. It would exempt the military, religious groups and businesses with fewer than 15 employees.
Opponents complain some of the bill's language is too murky. It offers protection based on "perceived" sexual orientation and for workers who have "undergone" or are "undergoing" gender transition without defining those terms.
"It does not take a legal scholar to recognize that such vaguely defined protections will lead to an explosion in litigation and inconsistent judicial decisions," said Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the committee's top Republican.
Craig Parshall, general counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters, warned lawmakers the bill would subject religious groups to "a crazy quilt" of inconsistent court decisions and send a "chilling pall" over their activities.
He also argued that for-profit faith-based groups, like Christian radio stations, would be denied any exemption at all from the measure.
The House passed a similar bill two years ago — without protections for transgender workers — but it stalled in the Senate and faced the possibility of a veto from President George W. Bush. This time, President Barack Obama supports the bill.
Stuart Ishimaru, acting chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said the measure would not create the chaos and confusion predicted by opponents.
Frank says chances have improved for passage, given a stronger Democratic majority this year. A House vote is expected later this year, but the Senate is not expected to consider it until next year.
Twenty-one states already ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 12 states also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.