WASHINGTON -- For Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians is just as reprehensible as bias against blacks and women.
That's why the Kansas City, Mo., Democrat is a leading proponent of a House bill that would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The measure has been introduced in some form or another since 1994, but supporters believe it could gain more traction this year with Democrats in control of Congress. A House panel is expected to send the bill to the full House for a vote later this month.
Cleaver, an ordained minister who still preaches every Sunday at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, drew on his religious training at a recent hearing where he testified in support of the bill.
"An individual's sexual orientation has nothing, absolutely no connection with my God's issued mandate to minister to their needs, including their right to barrier-free access to employment," Cleaver told a House panel.
Opponents of the bill, such as the Washington-based conservative Christian group Family Research Council, say Congress should not grant "special rights" to homosexuals that would "force private businesses to abandon their moral principles."
"We simply don't accept the premise that sexual orientation or gender identity are characteristics that are comparable to race or sex and therefore deserving of special protection under the law," said Peter Sprigg, the Family Research Council's vice president for policy.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia currently have laws banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Missouri and Kansas are among the 31 states where it remains legal to fire or refuse to hire an employee who is gay.
The House bill -- the Employment Nondiscrimination Act -- is modeled after a portion of the landmark federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits job discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
The measure would make it illegal for businesses with 15 or more employees to make decisions about hiring, firing, promoting or paying an employee based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Churches and the military would be exempt.
Supporters of the measure, such as Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., are already predicting the ban will win passage in the House later this year, but they are less optimistic about prospects in the narrowly divided Senate.
The anti-discrimination measure already has 167 co-sponsors, including Cleaver and Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo. and Russ Carnahan, D-Mo. Kansas Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat from Lenexa, has also signed on to the bill. Just a handful of Republicans have backed the measure.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., plans to introduce a similar measure in the Senate later this month.
While Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has not seen the specifics of the bill, she said she has been "very supportive in the past and I would continue to be supportive of any legislation that ferrets out discrimination."
Missouri's senior senator, Republican Kit Bond, said he would examine the bill "if and when" it comes before the Senate.