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September 16, 2014

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Activists urge Heller to back anti-discrimination bill

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Matt Hufman

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., reins in his horse during the Nevada Day parade in Carson City on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013.

Activists in Nevada are asking Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., to vote for a bill in the Senate that would add federal employment protections to gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.

The Human Rights Campaign delivered more than 1,000 postcards to Heller on Thursday in support for legislation that would add "gender identity and expression” and “sexual orientation” to a federal list of protected classes such as race, creed, economic class and religion, against which employers cannot discriminate.

Heller hasn’t yet made up his mind on whether he’ll vote for or against the bill known as the “Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” which is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon.

"Sen. Heller has been reviewing this legislation carefully, including meeting with Sen. Merkley for additional discussion just last week,” said Chandler Smith, spokeswoman for Heller. “He will continue to listen to his constituents and converse with his colleagues about this particular bill in the days to come."

Advocates view Heller as a potential “yes” vote. Staff in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are counting votes, and they say they have 59 of 60 votes necessary to move the bill forward next week, so Heller’s support could be a deciding factor in the fate of the legislation.

“We feel we are up to 55 Democrats; every one of my Democrats supports this legislation,” Reid told MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow on Wednesday. “I think without a lot of question, we are going to get at least five Republicans to pass this, send it to the House, (and) if the House again has any sense, and I hope they do, they’ll pick this up and pass it.”

The bill has the support of politically powerful groups like Culinary Local 226, the large labor union representing workers at most Strip resorts, as well as the Human Rights Campaign and other progressive organizations.

“The union fights for workers' rights and no worker should face discrimination in their place of work, so fighting to pass ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) is in line with what the union believes in,” said Yvanna Cancela, spokeswoman for the Culinary Local 226.

Caesars Entertainment also wrote an Oct. 20 column in the Sun expressing support for the legislation. And Wynn Resorts also supports the proposed law.

"As one of the first gaming resort companies to receive a 100 percent rating in the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, our support for ENDA is a natural extension of our company's long-standing and profound belief in the fair treatment and equal rights for all citizens," said Michael Weaver, senior vice president of marketing strategy at Wynn Las Vegas.

Since August, the Human Rights Campaign has had three full-time employees lobbying for the bill’s passage in Nevada, said Dan Rafter, associate director of communications with the Human Rights Campaign.

They’ve been making phone calls to try to sell the legislation’s merits to Nevadans.

“Having the ability to get a job and earn a living for yourself and your family is so fundamental to all of us that none of us would want to be told, 'You can’t get this job or this promotion' or 'You can’t do this because of who you are,'” Rafter said, describing the nature of the messages in the telephone calls. “Really the message we’re trying to convey is that his (Heller’s) constituents of all backgrounds really support ENDA.”

The bill mainly has the support of Democratic senators, although Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois are also co-sponsors of the bill.

Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Orrin Hatch of Utah, while not sponsors of the legislation, voted for the bill in committee this year

In Nevada, similar state-level proposals have also had bipartisan support.

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval broke ranks with the majority of legislative Republicans in May 2011 when he signed Assembly Bill 211, a bill that made job, housing and public accommodation discrimination against transgender people illegal.

Every state Senate Republican except for Sen. Ben Kieckhefer of Reno voted against the bill, and just three Republicans — Ed Goedhart of Amargosa Valley, John Hambrick of Las Vegas, Kelly Kite of Minden — voted for it in the Assembly.

In Nevada, it’s unlawful for an employer to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability or national origin.

Since Oct. 1, 2011, transgender individuals have been able to file complaints with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission if they think an employer has discriminated against them. That commission evaluates their claims and determines if they’re legitimate.

It’s unclear, however, whether Heller will support extending these state-level protections to the nation as a whole.

Nevada is one of 17 states that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

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