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Proposed Transgender Discrimination Protections Spark Debate

gay rights graphic w/ scales of justice
AP

Updated April 22, 9:30 a.m. ET

A House committee is poised to vote on a bill that would protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but an opponent of the legislation said on "Washington Unplugged" today that Democratic leaders can't afford to make their members "walk the plank" with another controversial vote. Meanwhile, an advocate of the bill said it reflects fundamental American values.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has promised a vote either this week or next on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill he sponsored (it has 198 co-sponsors). Democrats have tried to pass a version of the legislation for years, but social conservatives say the bill is now especially controversial because of the protections it would grant to transgender and transsexual teachers.

"This bill will override the law in 38 states and make it so that a school district and a local school will be unable to make hiring decisions regarding transgendered teachers," Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative lobbying group which claims to represent 43,000 churches, told moderator Nancy Cordes. "Speaker Pelosi is going to ask these conservative Democrats to walk the plank on a highly controversial issue."

Lafferty said she expects the vote on the bill to be delayed because Democrats want as little debate as possible on the issue.

"They know if the light is shown on this, they lose," she said.

Allyson Robinson, associate director of diversity for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist group Human Rights Campaign, countered that most Americans support the values the bill upholds.

"What ENDA does is it takes what a majority of Americans do recognize as a fundamental value, fairness in the workplace -- we judge people on the basis of the work that they perform, not on the basis of how they look, or what they do outside of work -- and it applies that standard to federal law," she said.

"Most Americans don't realize that in 29 states in this country, it's perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay just because you don't like gay people," Robinson added. "In 38 states, perfectly legal to fire someone for being transgendered just because you don't like transgendered people."

The Traditional Values Coalition is focusing the debate on what the law would mean for schools. Lafferty said it would not be safe to place students with teachers who have gender identity issues.

"Why are we giving our schoolchildren over to people with a serious mental disorder?" she asked, citing the American Psychiatric Association. She said a transgender teacher could leave students "confused."

Lafferty added, "We have no problem with people with a serious mental disorder receiving help, but to give them an elevated status within civil rights, within law is very different."

Robinson said there are very few transgender teachers and that the concern has been blown out of proportion.

"The fact remains that there are 12 states where these protections exist, and there has been no epidemic of children coming out of those public school environments profoundly harmed," she said.

Watch the full show above, plus Politico's Eamon Javers on Goldman Sachs' new hire to combat their legal woes. Also on the show: protecting Second Amendment rights.

"Washington Unplugged," CBSNews.com's exclusive daily politics Webshow, appears live on CBSNews.com each weekday at 12:30 p.m. ET. Click here to check out previous episodes.