The Obama administration strongly endorsed Senator Jeff Merkley's gay protections bill at its first hearing on Capitol Hill.

“It is a privilege to testify here today and to voice the Obama administration's strong support for fully-inclusive legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Right Division Tom Perez told members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) on Thursday.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (transgender protections).

Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank introduced the House version of ENDA in July. In August two Democratic Senators – the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley – and two Republican Senators – Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine introduced the Senate version.

Both versions of the bill have been reworked, adding back transgender protections removed from last year's bill. Gay rights groups warned politicos last year that they would not support a gay-only protections bill. Despite the bill being watered down, it fizzled in the Senate after the House approved the measure.

“We do oppose ENDA,” Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Religious Broadcasters, testified. “ENDA … would impose a substantial unconstitutional burden on religious organizations and would interfere with their effectiveness in terms of pursuing their mission.”

Parshall argued that ENDA's religious exemptions were simply not strong enough.

“Let's say if ENDA is passed and we have a Christian bookstore as an example that decides they do not want to hire a homosexual, the courts will most likely decide that the decision was really not based on the job applicant's religion but on his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and as a result no exemption will be proved to be effective.”

Mike Carney testified about his experience as a gay cop in Massachusetts, a state that bans employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“I'm a good cop,” Carney said. “But I lost 2.5 years of my employment fighting to get my job back because I'm gay.”

“Workplace discrimination impacts the lives of everyone, it deprives people of jobs and safe working conditions, it robs the federal government of an exceptional pool of specialists, and it robs our citizens of the services that they would have received from talented, dedicated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workers,” he said.

Also testifying at the nearly 3-hour long hearing was the attorney general of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, and a representative from shoe giant Nike. Both said they support the legislation.

The bill has a good chance at passage this year. In the Senate, it has attracted 41 co-sponsors, and at least 8 senators have expressed support for the bill. Based on their votes for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act that was approved last month, another 12 senators appear likely to be in favor of the measure. The bill enjoys overwhelming support in the House.