During a recent meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin, I urged him to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Manchin said he firmly believes that no one should be discriminated against unfairly, including gays and lesbians. However, he said he does not feel the religious exemption in the bill is strong enough and that it “leaves the law subject to various lawsuits.”
I disagree with Manchin’s assessment that the religious exemptions of ENDA are not strong enough. It turns out I am not the only one who does. The very morning of the day I met with him, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee passed ENDA in a vote of 15-7. Three of the votes in favor of ENDA came from Republicans, including a surprise “yes” from Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Hatch, a devout Mormon, said he supported the bill because it exempted religiously affiliated institutions. As a firm believer and advocate of equal rights, I support the religious exemption of ENDA.
Before I introduced the Harpers Ferry Human Rights Ordinance for approval, I similarly wrote in a religious exemption.
The simple truth, though, is we cannot legislate based on religious beliefs. Such religious exemptions can only go so far before the core value of equal rights laws are diminished. As elected officials, it is our role to be first and foremost a voice for the people, not organized religion. We inherited from our forefathers an underlying tenet that church and state must be kept separate, along with the basic ideal that all men – and women – are created equal. Our constituents are diverse, and we must always keep that at the forefront of our minds when doing the work that we are democratically elected to do.
Every new day that we deliberate the language of ENDA further, more and more people in this country are being terminated or harassed at the workplace because of a lack of adequate protections. This is critically important in states like West Virginia, where jobs in many locations can be very difficult to find. In the backwoods and the small towns of rural Appalachia, unemployed persons are likely to stay that way for a long while.
They cannot pay income taxes, but must rely on nutrition assistance benefits and other forms of welfare, increasing the burden on our government. To a senator who touts the idea that he “doesn’t want government to be our provider,” but rather our partner, this problem alone should have great meaning.
To use Manchin’s own words, he is “on the wrong side of history in this area,” unless and until he comes to support ENDA. Enough is enough. There are a multitude of reasons to support this bill, I do not need to detail them all here. Our society, and indeed the entire First World, is evolving, progressing, realizing that discrimination in any form, for any reason, is unfair and unjust.
I urge all West Virginians to contact Sen. Manchin to make it clear to that the people of this state feel it is time to pass ENDA into law once and for all. Our great nation must remain on the right side of history.
— Kevin Carden is the town recorder
for Harpers Ferry