WASHINGTON - This nation began not as merely a plot of land or as a group of people united by language or ethnicity. It began with an idea: "That all men are created equal." Our story since Thomas Jefferson wrote those words has been a story of progress toward honoring what has been called "the immortal phrase."
A few weeks ago, the Senate voted to move our nation one important step forward in honoring the truth of those words by finally passing the Employment Nondiscrimination Act or ENDA. This legislation would ensure that no American is deprived of the opportunity to work - the opportunity to succeed as all of us want to succeed - merely because of sexual orientation or gender identity, just as we have acted to protect that opportunity against discrimination based on age, race, color, religion, national origin or disability.
This legislation is carefully crafted to protect the sincere religious beliefs many Americans hold. It embodies a simple but powerful American ideal: On the job, what matters is your work, not your gender or skin color or faith or your sexual orientation any other extraneous matter.
Sen. Carl Levin
There may have been times in the past when the Congress pushed Americans into new and perhaps uncomfortable territory in the march toward equality. But today, the law lags public opinion in this area. Public opinion polls show that roughly 7 in 10 Americans believe workplace discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgendered individuals should be against the law. In fact, they think it already is - according to one poll, 80 percent of Americans believe such discrimination is already a violation of federal law.
And support for ENDA is not confined to one region of the country - polls show that majorities in every state in the union support it, including Michigan, where more than 30 municipalities already have local statutes prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. So passage of ENDA is not some bold social experiment or engineering process. It is what the American people want and are ready for.
That is as true today as it was in 1996, the last time the Senate held a vote on this measure. Even then, a majority of Americans supported it, and just as today, it enjoyed the support of a diverse group of religious and business organizations. Then, as today, American businesses recognized that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is just bad business.
This is also not a partisan issue. The Senate's bipartisan vote was possible because members of both parties showed principled leadership and dedication.
But the ultimate reason I have supported this legislation for decades now is not related to public opinion polls or endorsement letters from churches and corporations, though those are heartening and welcome. Simply, it is wrong to deny employment to anyone who can do the job, just because of their sexual orientation. "All men are created equal" means giving every American the opportunity to earn what their talents and dedication allow, to provide for themselves and their families. Denying anyone that right is at odds with the ideals on which this country was founded and on which it depends to this day.
I was proud to vote for this legislation. I have urged the leaders of the House of Representatives to recognize just how far behind the American people they have fallen on this issue and bring the Employee Nondiscrimination Act to the House floor for a vote.
- - -
Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan.