LGBTQ advocates are renewing a push for passage of the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in various aspects of life based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
A previous version of the bill passed the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives in 2019, but failed to gain even a hearing in the Republican-led U.S. Senate. For many activists, passage of the Equality Act would mark the accomplishment of a long sought-after goal of enshrining LGBTQ legal protections into the nation’s civil rights laws.
The bill, introduced by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), is likely to pass the House of Representatives, where the only question will be how many Republican members cross party-lines and vote with Democrats to approve the bill.
In the Senate, the biggest obstacle to passage is likely to be the lack of 60 votes in favor of ending debate on the bill, due to Democrats’ reticence to eliminate or reform the filibuster. That means that even though Democrats hold the majority, they are unlikely to pass the Equality Act unless they can attach it as a rider to a spending bill or some other “must-pass” piece of legislation.
Additionally, Republicans are likely to attempt to put Democrats on the defensive by focusing on the impact that nondiscrimination and equal access laws would have on high school and collegiate-level sports, especially those designated for women. More than a dozen states are attempting to pass bills that would bar athletes from competing in a gender that differs from their assigned sex at birth, alleging that advances for the transgender community will destroy athletic opportunities for cisgender women, in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.
The likelihood of the bill stalling in Congress is a reality that advocates have had to grapple with, despite polls consistently showing that Americans overall, as well as American registered voters, overwhelmingly approve of protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, in practice, many politicians — particularly Republicans, in recent years — ignore public polling and choose to pander to socially conservative groups in their home districts. Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates have been eager to emphasize the popularity of a hypothetical nondiscrimination bill, in the hope of persuading reticent Republicans to back the legislation.
“Achieving LGBTQ equality is a unifying issue for our nation,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Today, the Equality Act was reintroduced in Congress with broad support from a majority of people in this country, hundreds of Members of Congress and an unprecedented number of businesses who believe that every person should be treated equally under the law.
“While President Biden’s executive order implementing the Supreme Court’s Bostock ruling was a crucial step in addressing discrimination against LGBTQ people, it’s still vital that Congress pass the Equality Act to codify the Bostock decision to ensure protection in key areas of life including where existing civil rights laws do not have protections on the basis of sex,” David added.
Kierra Johnson, of the National LGBTQ Task Force, called the bill a “historic and vital” piece of legislation, noting that the Task Force has pushed for a sweeping nondiscrimination bill since the organizations very first days.
“Discrimination is still far too commonplace for LGBTQ Americans. Passing the Equality Act would create more protections, for LGBTQ people, including fair access to housing, banking, health care, work, voting, jury service, public accommodation and more would be much needed progress,” Johnson said in a statement. “We know that the Equality Act has broad and deep support across lines of political parties, demographics, and geography, in particular public support, with over 80% of Americans supporting LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.”
A recent PRRI poll from October found that in excess of 80% of Americans say they favor laws that would protect LGBTQ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing, with even two-thirds of self-described Republicans agreeing. Currently, only 29 of the 50 states have state laws expressly prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
“For decades, our national government has wrongly denied full and lasting federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ people,” Johnson said in a statement. “Yet every federal elected official knows that the patchwork of state laws, court decisions and administrative efforts are inadequate to protect us, vulnerable to political whims. To be protected in one state and losing those protections when one crosses state lines is unacceptable.
“Patchwork protection is unfair and harmful, and leaves LGBTQ people, our families and our children highly vulnerable, especially when we are Black or brown, Transgender or gender non-binary, living with multiple marginalized identities, with disabilities, in poverty, as immigrants and so many other situations,” she added, “Discrimination is a real problem for real people. The Equality Act is the solution, providing fair access to housing, banking, health care, work, voting, jury service, public accommodation and more.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD, praised the bill’s reintroduction, citing past GLAAD research shows overwhelming majorities of Americans support anti-discrimination provisions for their LGBTQ friends and neighbors.
“The Equality Act secures those core values of fairness and equal treatment to protect LGBTQ people everywhere, and allow us the chance at full participation in all areas of American life,” Ellis said. “The House and Senate should move as quickly as possible to pass the Equality Act, and President Biden to sign it into law as promised.”
“The Equality Act is a bill for us all: It is designed to ensure that everyone in this country is treated with respect, dignity, and equality, regardless of who we are or how we show up in the world,” David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said in a statement. “Building on foundations of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and other existing civil rights laws, the Equality Act fills in legal gaps for Black people and members of other marginalized communities who face discrimination, including women and non-binary people.
“By expanding existing anti-discrimination laws to new domains like ridesharing apps and retail stores, the Equality Act provides legal protection and recourse that has been historically absent for Black and LGBTQ+/SGL experiencing prejudice,” Johns added.
“Lambda Legal applauds the re-introduction of the Equality Act, long past-due federal legislation which provides clear, comprehensive, and explicit protections for LGBTQ people in federal law,” Kevin Jennings, the CEO of Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “Coupled with President Biden’s early action applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County to all federal laws currently prohibiting sex discrimination, we can see true equality on the horizon.”
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said this year — early in a new presidential administration and not during an election year — is probably the “best chance in 10 years” to get the bill passed.
“No act of Congress can end bias overnight or stop all attacks against transgender people. But the Equality Act is a clear, consistent and nationwide statement that says our country believes that all people — including those who are transgender — should be treated fairly and with respect,” Keisling said. “For transgender people, every trip to the store, every dinner out, every job interview or attempt to rent an apartment carries the risk of disrespect , discrimination and potentially violence. The Equality Act will help allow transgender people to live their lives openly and without fear.”
The National Center for Lesbian Rights hailed the reintroduction of the bipartisan bill as carving a “clear path to LGBTQ equality” in the United States and the decision to support it as one that affirms human dignity.
“Broad nondiscrimination protections in housing, education, social services, and other areas of life included in the Equality Act are on a long list of changes needed to ensure the basic needs of low-income LGBTQ people and families are addressed,” Tryone Hanley, NCLR’s senior policy counsel, said in a statement. “Far too often, low-income LGBTQ people and families are at the mercy of the powerful and privileged who can literally make life or death decisions about their lives. No one should have the power to deny others their basic needs, including on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.”
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