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.
“Now we’ve finished the trilogy,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a chief sponsor of the disabilities law, said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
The first openly gay senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, called the vote a “tremendous milestone” that she will always remember throughout her time in the Senate.
Democrats echoed Obama in pushing for the House to act, with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois reminding the GOP leader of the history of his party.
“The Republican Party in the United States of America came into being in the 1980s over the issue of slavery, and the man who embodied the ideals of that Republican Party was none other than Abraham Lincoln, who gave his life for his country to end discrimination,” Durbin said. “Keep that proud Republican tradition alive.”
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 of Indiana said the legislation would force employers to violate their religious beliefs, a direct counter to rights embodied in the 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.
The Senate rejected an amendment sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would have expanded the number of groups that are covered under the religious exemption. Opponents argued that it would undermine the core bill.
If the House fails to act on the bill, gay rights advocates are likely to press Obama to act unilaterally and issue an executive order barring anti-gay workplace discrimination by federal contractors.