The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) partnered with OfficeMax and Chicago law firm Jenner & Block to present an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) briefing Aug. 25.
First introduced in 1974, ENDA would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite decades of activist efforts, the bill has never been signed into law, and there are no federal employment protections for the LGBT community. While Illinois does protect its LGBT citizens, it is currently legal to discriminate against sexual orientation in 29 states and gender identity in 35, according to the HRC website.
"You can't consider yourself the greatest democracy in the world when discrimination is okay," said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D) of Illinois's 5th District. "I don't want to live in a country where it's okay to discriminate in the majority of states."
Quigley opened the evening's panel before leaving to make a prior engagement. Other panelists included Bill Weeks, HRC political chair for Illinois; Rocco Claps, director of the Dept. of Human Relations in Illinois; Jay Schleppenbach, litigation associate at Jenner & Block; and Carolynn Brooks, chief diversity officer at OfficeMax.
Claps detailed the history of the Illinois Human Rights Act, which has provided LGBT discrimination protection since 2005. He cited activist support and a Democratic-led legislature as major boons, and he suggested that having legislators vote on earlier failed iterations of the bill actually helped it succeed later.
"It was good for people to vote on it because then there were legislators who saw that God didn't come down and kill their children, and it wasn't a situation where their constituents were out to get them," Claps said. "And it made them more comfortable with the idea of just voting on it." Similar failed ENDA trials in Congress could pave the way for success.
Some Illinois residents might think ENDA wouldn't affect them since the Illinois Human Rights Act already protects the state's queer community, Schleppenbach said. But the Illinois law doesn't cover in-state federal employees, out-of-state travel or lawsuit rights.
Schleppenbach said the current Illinois statues rarely allow for cases to be presented in court (they are instead brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and caps damages at $50,000. That would change with ENDA.
"Just as people today are able to sue for race discrimination or gender discrimination or sexual harassment, the doors to the federal court house would be open to them," Schleppenbach said.
He continued, "With a national law comes national awareness, national enforcement and national acceptance. The pattern that we've seen with discrimination laws in general is that once it goes national, it's not something that people can ignore quite as easily anymore."
Weeks said that 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies already offer LGBT discrimination protections, and he suggested that Congress use the business world as a model.
"It really cuts those who argue against [ENDA and other progressive] measures that so many people in the Fortune 500 world do this," Quigley said. "It's just a matter of, 'Okay, government is behind the times, right?' Especially for folks who are so pro-business. They say, 'Wow, how do major universities and major law firms do this?' It really helps."
Brooks, who was instrumental in developing OfficeMax's domestic partner benefits policy, said LGBT protections are smart financially. She stressed that progressive companies attract and maintain talented employees.
"In the corporate world," she said, "we've got to do business. We've got to make money. To be able to sit there and say that you're going to discriminate in any way and prevent an individual from coming to work and being who they areit just doesn't make good business sense."
Promoting LGBT rights as a smart economic choice could help fast-track progressive policies. "I wish we were a country where we didn't have to have acts passed for people to be treated equally," Brooks said. "But I do think Congress doesn't get it. Corporations get it."