On Nov. 7, the House of Representatives passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a historic civil rights measure that would bar discrimination against workers in hiring, firing, or promotion based on sexual orientation. The vote was 235-184.

Democrats praised the bill as a monumental piece of civil rights legislation. Speaking on the floor of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said ENDA is part of a long tradition of the expansion of equal rights in U.S. history.

“Progress on civil rights is never easy,” she said. “It is often marked by small and difficult steps. We take this step today toward the ideal of equality that is both our heritage and our hope.”

Rep. John L. Lewis (D-Ga.) compared passage of ENDA to passage of past civil rights legislation. “Call it what you may, to discriminate against someone because they are gay is wrong,” he said. “It is wrong. It is wrong. It is not right.”

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) praised the struggle of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people for equality. “I regret that they have had to wait so long for this vote, but I’m pleased that this historic day has finally arrived,” he said.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) offered an amendment that would have reintroduced language to include protections based on gender identity. “Irrational hate and fear have no place in our society,” she said. She withdrew the amendment before it could be brought for a vote because it did not have the votes needed to pass.

The bill was originally introduced in the 1970s by Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.). Support for the bill grew over the next two decades, and many people were optimistic about its passage after President Clinton’s election in 1992. But the Republican takeover of Congress put passage of ENDA on the back burner until this year.

In the late 1990s, more and more groups came to support a version of ENDA that included protections for transgender people, including major national organizations like the National Organization for Women, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the AFL-CIO.

Language that would have extended protections from discrimination based on gender identity to transgender individuals was stripped from the bill in committee. This move sparked tremendous controversy among supporters of the bill.

Despite the fact that the employment non-discrimination bill had nothing to with redefining marriage, a last-minute amendment also incorporated language explicitly denying marriage equality.

The Senate isn’t likely to vote on the measure until after the 2008 elections.

Organizations that support an inclusive ENDA see the delay as giving them time to lobby harder to have inclusive language reinserted into the bill and to have language denying marriage equality stripped.

In a statement, the AFL-CIO’s Pride at Work, the voice of the LGBT community in the labor movement, urged “the labor and LGBT community and its friends and allies to continue the struggle for a fully inclusive ENDA.”

jwendland @politicalaffairs.net