By Winnie Stachelberg
Hanging in my office is the vote tally for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, sent to me by Senator Edward Kennedy soon after September 10, 1996. That day, I had watched from the Senate gallery as a bill to protect gay and lesbian workers from on-the-job discrimination based on their sexual orientation failed to pass by one vote.
Since that time, we have seen extraordinary movement forward on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — in public opinion and in the law of the land. We can judge how much on Thursday, when the Senate is again due to vote on a bill that prohibits job discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Recent victories in the march toward equality have been historic. This summer, for example, the Supreme Court struck down key segments of the Defense of Marriage Act, which I had seen voted into law 85-14 just hours before ENDA failed. In 2010, Congress passed the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which President Barack Obama signed.
Yet our work is far from over. Protecting America's LGBT veterans and current military members is an essential measure of the progress of our nation — and one that federal law has ignored for too long. Thursday in the Senate, we have the opportunity to make meaningful progress by passing ENDA.
Most Americans — 90 percent in fact - believe that this non-discrimination act is already the law. Majorities in every state support it. Democrats, Independents and Republicans alike back ENDA by strong majorities. So it was in the months before the Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed — 78 percent of Americans supported that move toward equality and fairness.
We know ENDA shares the same strong support from every party and in every state. Even 45 percent of Tea Party members in the key swing state of Ohio support the measure.
What many Americans don't know, however, is that service members who can now proudly serve our country openly, without fear of discrimination based on sexual orientation, will not always receive these protections when they return home. In fact, gay and lesbian veterans can leave the military with full honors and their nation's gratitude — only to be fired solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In 33 states, they have no recourse for this profound injustice.
More than 1 million veterans and 70,000 current military members are LGBT. They must all return to civilian life when they finish their term of service - which includes finding a job. We cannot honor the commitment and sacrifice of all our veterans if we sit idle to something as callous and unethical as workplace discrimination.
Though Congress has passed laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of military service, set up affirmative action programs among federal contractors for hiring veterans, and offered tax credits for hiring veterans, our lawmakers have done nothing when it comes to something as simple as ensuring veterans are not discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Service members volunteer to deploy overseas to defend our values, including equality under the law and the right to make a decent living. It is unacceptable for these men and women to fight for us abroad, only to come home and realize they are not entitled to these same basic freedoms as other Americans.
Policymakers should be fully aware that voting against ENDA is a vote against those who have served. With Don't Ask Don't Tell relegated to the dustbin of history three years ago, our veterans, along with every American, deserve a fair shot in the workplace — regardless of who they are or who they love.
(Winnie Stachelberg is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are her own)