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Senate passes legislation barring anti-gay discrimination

Washington — The U.S. Senate passed legislation Thursday barring workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender employees in a vote viewed as a historic victory in a yearslong struggle toward equality for that community.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first open lesbian elected to the Senate and a co-sponsor of the bill, described the proceedings as "a day I will never forget."

"For more than two centuries, the story of our nation has been the story of more citizens realizing the rights and freedoms that are our birthright as Americans," said President Barack Obama, adding that Thursday's vote was another chapter in that story.

Despite a bipartisan vote of 64-32, the bill is not expected to be taken up by the House.

Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison, who is gay, urged House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to allow the bill to be brought up for a vote in the House. He said the bill's principles "are so fundamental that 80% of Americans already believe it is law, and the Senate today has moved us one step closer to making that a reality."

"Speaker Boehner now has a choice, stand behind frivolous excuses and remain on the wrong side of history, or join with the majority of the American people and honor the equality deserved by all Americans," he said.

Wisconsin's two senators split on the matter.

Joining top Senate Democratic leaders at a pre-vote news conference, Baldwin said the vote sends a powerful message.

Baldwin said "folks like myself" want to be judged in the workplace by skills on the job, adding the issue is one of freedom, fairness and opportunity. Earlier in the week, she credited Wisconsin for becoming the first state in the nation to add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination law in 1982, when only 41 cities and eight counties offered limited protections against such discrimination.

She noted the support the state's effort drew from the business community and members of the clergy.

"The measure was signed into law by our Republican governor, Lee Sherman Dreyfus," Baldwin said, adding that today 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed similar measures.

She said Thursday's roll call, which included yes votes from 52 Democrats, 10 Republicans and two independents, represents the extraordinary change that has occurred in the country on the issue.

Sen. Ron Johnson said he voted against the measure because it could trigger lawsuits and keep people from being hired.

Johnson said he had gays and lesbians working at his company, Pacur, and harassment at times occurred.

"I made it very clear," he said. "The only people that would be under threat of losing their job would be the people doing the harassment."

However, he felt the legislation voted on Thursday was flawed.

"It creates new burdens on employers through vague and undefined terms, increases the federal government's interference in labor markets and provides for a religious exemption that is too narrow," he said. "An amendment on the floor would have somewhat improved the religious exemption, but that amendment was not adopted."

Leading up to final passage, an amendment by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand the religious exemptions in the bill was defeated. Toomey said his amendment was designed to ensure a balance between two American values, equality and religious freedom.

Baldwin helped lead the effort against Toomey's amendment, saying the religious exemption provisions in the legislation grew out of careful negotiations, and that religious organizations are not affected by the bill.