A Republican senator from Utah is about to halt the work of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, yanking workplace protections away from millions of Americans, all in the name of preventing a single queer woman from keeping her job.
Openly gay Chai Feldblum has served as a commissioner for the EEOC since 2010, when she was appointed by then-President Barack Obama and was re-nominated this year by Donald Trump, along with two other Republicans. Her current term is scheduled to end on December 31, 2018, and with two of the five seats on the commission already empty, if Feldblum is not confirmed by the end of the year, the commission will lack a quorum and will be unable to issue decisions.
Feldblum’s nomination should be relatively uncontroversial. Usually, the party that controls the White House gets to nominate three commissioners and the party out of power gets to name two. In the past, nominees have breezed through Congress. But because Feldblum supports equal rights for LGBTQ workers, right-wing activists have hounded elected officials to oppose her nomination.
Those activists found a sympathetic ally in Utah Senator Mike Lee. He’s vowed to hold up her nomination, which would essentially leave vulnerable workers like women, queer people, minorities, and people with disabilities without an agency that can protect them from unscrupulous and exploitative employers.
Lee’s justification is that Feldblum is “a threat to marriage,” a fabricated claim with no basis in fact.
In a statement released earlier this year, Lee imagined that Feldblum wants to “undermine our nation’s founding principles” by “curtailing the rights” of “you, your family, and your neighbors.” Lee didn’t specifically say how Feldblum might curtail any rights, simply that she wants to “stamp out traditional marriage supporters.”
It’s hard to say what exactly Lee thinks will happen if Feldblum is allowed to continue the job she has held for the better part of the last decade, but his vague ramblings echo the less veiled homophobia of groups like The Family Research Council, the Catholic League, and the National Organization for Marriage.
In one bulletin, the American Family Association called Feldblum “a menace to society,” “the dragon-queen,” and “a one-woman Spanish inquisition.”
To be clear, Feldblum’s qualifications for the job are extensive, even beyond the fact that she’s held it for the last eight years. She graduated from Harvard Law; clerked at the Supreme Court; helped draft the Americans with Disabilities Act; and founded various organizations at Georgetown University Law Center to improve access to employment for disadvantaged groups, among many other accomplishments.
Feldblum is also the daughter of a rabbi who survived the Holocaust and has expressed respect for religious freedom.
“The government should respect a statement by a religious person that complying with a non-discrimination law or some other law will place a burden on that person’s religious beliefs,” she wrote in a recent essay, adding that “respect for religion is a paramount and lifelong value for me.”
But Feldblum’s religious respect apparently isn’t sufficient to satisfy Mike Lee, a Mormon with a long history of attacking queer Americans.
Lee’s anti-equality agenda has permeated much of his political work. He opposed marriage equality and tried to pass a bill that would give religious individuals the right to deny equal treatment to same-sex couples. He supported Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the firing of openly queer service members.
And as far back as 2012, he sought to protect employers who fire workers for being queer.
For now, Lee may get his wish. By holding up Feldblum’s nomination, Lee can bring much of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s work to a halt — not just on behalf of LGBTQ people, but for anyone who needs help accessing workplace protections.
But his move could ultimately backfire.
Without a quorum in place, the EEOC will be unable to take certain actions against employers who discriminate against employees — including religious employees. If allegations were to arise that an employer was engaging in systemic discrimination against, just for example, Mormon job applicants, the EEOC would be unable to file suit against that employer. They would be unable to hire expert witnesses, file briefs, or issue guidance.
And beyond that, Lee’s stalling tactics have meant that the Senate has been unable to confirm two other Trump nominees, both Republicans. If Congressional Republicans had simply allowed Feldblum to continue serving, the Trump nominees could have sailed through with her and the EEOC would have been controlled by Republicans. But because Lee held up the process, Democrats currently on the commission have been able to continue serving.
And with the Senate remaining under Republican control in 2019, there will be little incentive for Senate leaders to call for a vote once the EEOC’s ability to function is curtailed. If Lee doesn’t back down, restoring the commission might have to wait until the 2020 election.
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