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Washington (AFP) – The Senate passed a historic gay rights bill Thursday, one that would prohibit companies from hiring and firing based on an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Supporters hail the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) as among the most important rights legislation in years, following in the track of landmark laws that enshrined racial equality and banned discrimination against people with disabilities.

“The Senate has clearly spoken to end discrimination in the workplace,” said Senator Jeff Merkely, who spearheaded the effort to get the legislation approved in the Democratic-led chamber.

Ten Republicans joined a united Democratic side in backing the measure, which now heads to the House of Representatives where Speaker John Boehner has signaled his opposition.

President Barack Obama commended the vote as “another historic step toward fulfilling the founding ideals that define us as Americans,” and he pressed Boehner to bring the bill to the House floor.

“Just as no one in the United States can lose their job simply because of their race, gender, religion or a disability, no one should ever lose their job simply because of who they are or who they love,” Obama said in a statement.

Conservative opponents warn the bill would erode religious freedom and open the door to a cascade of law suits.

But longstanding opposition within the chamber eased dramatically over the past week, as the legislation passed procedural hurdles and the senators unanimously approved a Republican amendment that protects religious groups exempted under the legislation.

“It has taken a long time to get to this day,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins, who a decade ago co-sponsored similar legislation with senator Ted Kennedy, an early proponent of workplace protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

“It is past time that we close this gap with our LGBT employees,” Collins added.

Most Americans believe such discrimination is already prohibited, but Merkely noted it remains legal in 29 states — home to 76 million U.S. workers — to discriminate against LGBT employees.

“That is simply wrong and this legislation seeks to right this wrong,” said Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the chamber’s first openly gay senator.

“For folks like myself in the LGBT community, the opportunity to be judged in the workplace by your skills and qualifications, your loyalty, your work ethic, is an important pronouncement for this nation.”

A leading family and religious freedom activist, Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, blasted ENDA as “dumb politics” that could backfire on Democrats.

“It is also a dagger aimed at the heart of religious freedom for millions of Americans,” Reed said in an op-ed in USA Today, arguing the bill’s religious exemptions are vague and “inadequate.”

But ENDA received a boost when Republican Senators Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte backed the measure and added their amendment clarifying the protection of religious groups from government retaliation.

Senator Pat Toomey sought to expand the number of groups that could be exempted from the ban, to include organizations affiliated to a church or religious group, but his amendment failed.

Current federal law bars discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender and age, but it does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

ENDA would be the latest in a series of recent victories for gay rights.

In June, the US Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Senate Democrat Amy Klobuchar released a report Tuesday citing studies in which a majority of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies say that diversity policies increase profitability.

Ending discrimination would also be economically advantageous. The reports noted that overall costs tied to various forms of workplace discrimination amount to $64 billion annually.

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Photo by Kevin McCarthy (Public domain)

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