WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The Democratic-led U.S. Senate, reflecting a major shift in the past decade in public support of gay rights, passed a bipartisan bill on Thursday to outlaw discrimination against gay workers.
But the measure, which cleared the Senate 64-32, with 10 Republicans joining 52 Democrats and two independents in voting "yes," faces an uphill struggle in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
The Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013 has become the latest battleground in an ideological fight within the Republican party.
An increasing number of Republicans support gay rights, but conservative groups threaten to challenge those who support the White House-backed bill.
Critics complain that the legislation represents an warranted federal intrusion in the workplace that would force employers to violate religious beliefs in deciding whom to hire.
Backers say legislation would protect people to be able to love whom they choose without the fear of losing their job.
Unlike a decade ago, when gay rights was a "wedge-issue" used to rally conservative voters, most Americans, including most Republicans, now support gay rights, polls show.
Senate passage of the non-discrimination bill came 19 years after such legislation was first introduced in Congress.
"This is a historic victory and shows that the country is moving forward," said assistant Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, "All Americans have the right to pursue the American dream."
But House Speaker John Boehner, top Republican in Congress, has declared his opposition to the bill, expressing fear it would trigger lawsuits that would hurt businesses and cost jobs.
At this point, Boehner and other Republican leaders might not bring the Senate bill up for a vote in the House. Backers promise to try to pressure them to do so.