Statement by the President on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (1997)


by Bill Clinton

April 24, 1997

Today, Vice-President Gore and I met with a bi-partisan delegation from Congress, representing the lead House and Senate sponsors of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”) — an important piece of civil rights legislation which would extend basic employment discrimination protections to gay and lesbian Americans. At our meeting, I underscored my strong support of the bill, which will soon be re-introduced in Congress, and our intention to work hard for its passage.

As I said in my State of the Union address this January, we must never, ever believe that our diversity is a weakness, for it is our greatest strength. People on every continent can look to us and see the reflection of their own great potential — and they always will, as long as we strive to give all of our citizens an opportunity to achieve their own greatness. We’re not there yet — and that is why ENDA is so important. It is about the right of each individual in America to be judged on their merits and abilities and to be allowed to contribute to society without facing unfair discrimination on account of sexual orientation. It is about our ongoing fight against bigotry and intolerance, in our country and in our hearts.

I applaud the bi-partisan efforts of Senators Jeffords, Kennedy and Lieberman and Congressmen Shays and Frank to make the Employment Non-Discrimination Act the law. I also thank the members of the Human Rights Campaign and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, whose executive directors joined in our meeting, for their early support and hard work on behalf of this bill. It failed to win passage by only one vote in the Senate last year. My Administration worked hard for its passage then and we will continue our efforts until it becomes law.

Discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation is currently legal in 41 states. Most Americans don’t know that men and women in those states may be fired from their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation, even when it is has no bearing on their job performance. Those who face this kind of job discrimination have no legal recourse, in either our state or federal courts. This is wrong.

Individuals should not be denied a job on the basis of something that has no relationship to their ability to perform their work. Sadly, as the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee has documented during hearings held in the last Congress, this kind of job discrimination is not rare.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is careful to apply certain exemptions. It provides an exemption for small businesses, the Armed Forces, and religious organizations, including schools and other educational institutions that are substantially controlled or supported by religious organizations. This later provision respects the deeply held religious beliefs of many Americans. The bill specifically prohibits preferential treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, including quotas. It does not require employers to provide special benefits.

As I indicated when I originally announced my support of this legislation in October of 1995, the bill in its current form appears to answer all the legitimate objections previously raised against it, while ensuring that Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation, can find and keep their jobs based on their ability and the quality of their work. It is designed to protect the rights of all Americans to participate in the job market without fear of unfair discrimination. I support it and I urge all Americans to do so. And I urge Congress to pass it expeditiously.

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