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Senate OKs gay rights bill banning discrimination

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Senate approved legislation Thursday outlawing workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, demonstrating the nation’s quickly evolving attitude toward gay rights nearly two decades after Congress rejected same-sex marriage.

The enthusiasm of the bill’s supporters was tempered by the reality that the Republican-led House of Representatives, where conservatives have a firm grip on the agenda, is unlikely to even vote on the legislation. House Speaker John Boehner opposes the measure, arguing that it is unnecessary and certain to create costly, frivolous lawsuits for businesses.

If the House fails to act, gay rights advocates are likely to press President Barack Obama to act unilaterally and issue an executive order barring anti-gay workplace discrimination by federal contractors.

Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin, but it doesn’t stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The bill would bar employers with 15 or more workers from using a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as the basis for making employment decisions, including hiring, firing, compensation or promotion. It would exempt religious institutions and the military

Fifty-four members of the Senate Democratic majority, including the Senate’s first openly gay member, and 10 Republicans voted for the first major gay rights bill since Congress repealed the ban on gays in the military three years ago. The vote in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was 64-32.

Obama welcomed the vote and urged the House to act.

“One party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do,” Obama said in a statement. “Now is the time to end this kind of discrimination in the workplace, not enable it.”

Gay rights advocates hailed Senate passage as a major victory in a momentous year for the issue. The Supreme Court in June granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, though it avoided a sweeping ruling that would have paved the way for same-sex unions nationwide. Illinois is on the verge of becoming the 15th state to legalize gay marriage, along with the Washington federal district..

Supporters called the bill the final step in a long congressional tradition of trying to stop discrimination, coming nearly 50 years after enactment of the Civil Rights Act and 23 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the Senate, opponents of the legislation remained mute through three days of debate, with no lawmaker speaking out. That changed on Thursday, as Republican Sen. Dan Coats said the legislation would force employers to violate their religious beliefs, a direct counter to rights embodied in the U.S. Constitution.

“There’s two types of discrimination here we’re dealing with, and one of those goes to the very fundamental right granted to every American through our Constitution, a cherished value of freedom of expression and religion,” Coats said.