July 29, 2014 at 5:30 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Will Congress take up a comprehensive LGBT rights bill?
National Equality March, gay news, Washington Blade

LGBT advocates are calling for the introduction of a comprehensive LGBT bill in a subsequent Congress (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

A new idea is gaining traction for advancing LGBT rights after controversy over the stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act: a  comprehensive federal non-discrimination bill.

As several LGBT groups have announced they would no longer support ENDA because of its broad religious exemption, the idea of a comprehensive bill stands in contrast to ENDA because it would address discrimination in areas other than the singular issue of employment.

It’s for that reason — and not just the religious exemption — that the New York-based LGBT group Queer Nation has urged for the rejection of ENDA in favor of a comprehensive bill that would institute non-discrimination coverage in a plethora of categories.

Andrew Miller, a member of Queer Nation, said in a phone interview with the Washington Blade that his organization doesn’t back any version of ENDA — either with or without the expanded religious exemption.

“If you believe, as I do, that LGBT Americans are equal in every way to our fellow Americans, then it makes sense to pass legislation that affords the same civil protections as our fellow Americans,” Miller said. “I think that strategy of incrementalism behind ENDA, telegraphs or signals that LGBT Americans are not equal to our fellow Americans. If we want full equality because we know that we are equal in every way to our fellow citizens, then that’s what we should be demanding.”

The content of a comprehensive bill isn’t clear as the idea is just beginning to take hold, but the general sense is the legislation would aim to eliminate anti-LGBT discrimination across the board and would be introduced in the subsequent Congress. The presence of an employment component would be contingent on the likely event that ENDA won’t pass the U.S. House this year before Congress adjourns.

But Miller said his organization has a more concrete view of what issues should be included in the legislation: housing, employment, public accommodations, credit and federal programs.

“I think that what it would be is a bill, a law, that would afford the same civil rights protections that all other Americans have to LGBT Americans,” Miller said. “Those protections are from discrimination in not just employment, but in housing and in public accommodations, in housing and credit and federal programs. Those are the categories that are covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Gay people should be afforded all those protections themselves.”

Many national LGBT groups have already endorsed the idea of a comprehensive LGBT bill to address discrimination, including the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Work. The categories that Queer Nation enumerated (with the exception of federal programs) were along the lines of the categories that HRC President Chad Griffin envisioned for the legislation in an op-ed published in Buzzfeed that also explained the organization’s continued support for ENDA.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization also backs the idea of a comprehensive bill as a means to institute “explicit, effective and, above all, equal protections in federal law” for LGBT people.

“The concept of a more comprehensive bill is something that we are supportive of, but what we want to ensure at the end of the day is that LGBT people have explicit, effective and, above all, equal non-discrimination protections in federal law,” Thompson said.

The idea of a comprehensive LGBT bill as opposed to an incrementalist strategy isn’t new. Gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has said for years he was considering an omnibus LGBT bill that would act as a symbolic measure. The grassroots group GetEQUAL also has called for a full civil rights bill for LGBT people.

Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said her organization has been speaking out for the need to pass comprehensive LGBT legislation since its inception.

“For too long, our movement has fought for piecemeal legislation,” Cronk said. “It isn’t what we need; it isn’t what we deserve. We’ve been talking about some kind of larger civil rights bill since we began four years ago. Whether that looks like an omnibus bill, or a collection of smaller bills that is passed at the same time, we don’t really know what it looks like. We just want to make sure that we’re fighting for it and putting that on the table.”

In an attempt to build support for a comprehensive bill, Queer Nation has called on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the eight openly LGB members of Congress to endorse the idea.

Drew Hamill, a Pelosi spokesperson, confirmed his boss supports the idea of a comprehensive bill in response to an inquiry from the Washington Blade.

“She supports such legislation and would want to work closely with the leading LGBT national organizations to see it become a reality in the next Congress,” Hammill said.

Spokespersons for four of the eight openly LGB members of Congress — Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Sean Patrick Maloney and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) — said the lawmakers also support the idea of a comprehensive bill.

Scott Overland, a Polis spokesperson, said his boss “is committed to passing legislation to ensure that LGBT Americans have equal protection under the law in all of these dimensions.” He didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up question on whether that means support for a singular, comprehensive bill.

The remaining three — Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), and Mike Michaud (D-Maine) as well as Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) — didn’t respond to the Blade’s request for comment. Michaud is in the middle of a campaign to become the next governor of Maine.

The process for passing a comprehensive LGBT bill in Congress would be different than efforts to pass other bills with a singular focus because such legislation would likely be referred to multiple committees. That would be similar to the process leading to the passage of health care reform legislation, which was approved by five different committees in the House and Senate before being combined into one piece of legislation for President Obama to sign.

In the Senate, the piece on employment and education would likely mean a referral to the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee and the piece on public accommodations would mean a referral to the Judiciary Committee, while the component on credit may mean a referral to the Finance Committee and the component on federal programs may send the bill to the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee.

Assuming the legislation introduced is favorable enough for lawmakers to seek to advance the bill, the most challenging piece may be credit because it’s an area where the history of discrimination against LGBT people isn’t as widely known.

Thompson said he would be “not at all surprised” if a comprehensive bill would be referred to multiple committees, dismissing the notion that referrals would hamper passage.

“I think what would be the first, important step in that is doing the education and the outreach to congressional offices to make sure that they have a very good understanding about why a proposal like this is needed, why its time has come,” Thompson said.

Another possible approach to enacting comprehensive legislation would be amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which provides protections based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin — to include the categories of sexual orientation and gender identity. Such a move would ensure the religious exemption to discriminate against LGBT people would be the same as it is for other categories of people.

According to some LGBT advocates familiar with ENDA, other civil rights groups are wary of amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LGBT people because it would make the historic law seem too easy to change. Moreover, amending that law wouldn’t institute non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in housing because those protections are in the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Ayofemi Kirby, a spokesperson for the Congressional Black Caucus, said she “can’t speak” to whether lawmakers in her caucus would support that idea because that discussion hasn’t taken place, but noted a number of members of her caucus support ENDA.

A more likely scenario for the bill would be an amalgamation of other LGBT non-discrimination bills combined into one piece of legislation.

For example, the employment piece could consist of the version of ENDA with the narrower religious exemption that Polis introduced as a resolution before the House Rules Committee following controversy over the bill in a possible attempt to start a discharge petition on the legislation. The piece related to education may be the Student Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would prohibit harassment and discrimination against students in K-12 schools.

Another question is whether President Obama would make the push in the final years of his administration to pass a comprehensive bill. Despite the progress seen on LGBT issues under his administration and strongly articulated support for legislation to end discrimination in the workforce, Obama has made no announcement in support of a comprehensive bill.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to commit support when the Washington Blade asked about such legislation earlier this month, saying, “We’d consider it…but not I’m personally familiar with it.”

GetEQUAL’s Cronk said an endorsement from Obama of a comprehensive LGBT bill “would be helpful” in generating additional support for the bill.

“I think that would be a very core part of his legacy would be to go beyond advocating for things that other people have put on the table,” Cronk said. “I think it would be very powerful for President Obama to say, ‘Look, I endorse full equality for LGBT people, and this is what I mean by that.'”

Still, not every LGBT organization is offering a ringing endorsement of a comprehensive bill as the way to advance LGBT rights.

Stacey Long Simmons, policy and government affairs director for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, was non-committal about backing a singular bill, but insisted the goal should be comprehensive protections.

“While tackling employment discrimination is extremely important, it is but one piece of a much bigger, more wide-ranging set of changes needed to deliver real freedom and justice for all LGBTQ people,” Simmons said. “These changes include ending discrimination in housing, health care, education and in our democracy. In other words, a 360 approach that helps to create a nation where we all can equally access the promise of America. We care less about whether it’s done in one comprehensive bill than getting it done comprehensively.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • El Dorado

    Why do people who supposedly speak for our movement live in such a fantasy world? Queer Nation for example says we should demand for a comprehensive people because of our beliefs in equality. We can’t even get a fair up and down vote on ENDA, so you think a bill that would expand our rights and equality further under the law would be easer to pass? Stop living in a bubble before it pops you back into reality. Homophobia hasn’t been defeated. It’s still out there and isn’t going to lie down and die easily. Hell, racism still hasn’t gone away despite all the advances under the law for race. Nice little speeches on being on the right side of history mean nothing to those that oppose our freedom!

    It’s nice to speak in terms of what our beliefs on fairness and equality are but how far is a majority of Congress let alone a sitting President willing to endorse those beliefs in our rights into law? We’ve been down this path before. I recall a bill once being discussed in Congress to protect us in Housing. A conservative congressman griped that his mother-in-law shouldn’t have to rent to Sister Boom Boom of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Some of you may recall this group of queer men in San Francisco who dressed up as nuns and marched in gay pride parades? Now, those were just queens having fun.

    I can imagine the push back from social conservatives on renting to Transgender people or having gay couples stay in public accommodations owned by Christian conservatives. It’s hard enough for them to accept working with openly GLBT people in secular businesses but when you get into the realm of them having to be your landlord or host, having you do god knows what on their property, you really will push boundaries they will oppose greatly.

    Rather than ram a major change like this through Congress, like we did when we added Transgender people to ENDA, you should first test the waters and line up solid support from enough people in Congress to pass the legislation. It sucks wasting our lives waiting for what we know should be a know brainer, but you’re dealing with people who are not fair, don’t see this as the right thing to do and aren’t easily going to be swayed to endorse it. Do your homework rather than waste yet another round of a bill that is going nowhere!

    The piecemeal approach is an attempt to at least get something like employment into federal law before tackling issue that are even more of a challenge to get wide acceptance on.

  • brians ions

    “I think that what it would be is a bill, a law, that would afford the same civil rights protections that all other Americans have to LGBT Americans,” Miller said. “Those protections are from discrimination in not just employment, but in housing and in public accommodations, in housing and credit and federal programs. Those are the categories that are covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Gay people should be afforded all those protections themselves.”
    =============================================================
    Yes, but SEPARATE is so NOT EQUAL.
     
    And it can’t be truly “comprehensive” AND effective immediately unless it is attached to America’s best-known, already tested and well-settled civil rights laws — which DOJ and EEOC lawyers know like the back of their hands. They’ve been enforcing the ’64 and ’68 Civil Rights Acts for going on 50 years after all.
     
    The 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title II/public accommodations and Title VII/Equal Employment, esp.) and its related update, The 1968 Civil Rights Act (Fair Housing) need only have four words added to them (“sexual orientation and “gender identity”).
     
    The simple addition of FOUR WORDS to those two laws would be a monumental achievement for all time.
     
    And that is a lot easier to persuade congress to do. Why can’t that be handled by one bill?
     
    BTW, the EEOC has already ruled (unanimously) that the existing “sex” discrimination prohibition in Title VII *INCLUDES* sexual identity and transgender status.
    **See the Blade’s coverage, April, 2012**…
    http://www.washingtonblade.com/2012/04/24/historic-eeoc-ruling-protects-trans-workers-from-discrimination/
    So that specifically-stated trans inclusion should not be such a ‘hard sell’ to Congress — if we utilize America’s existing ’64 Civil Rights Act.
     
    It would be great to see ACLU, HRC and Get Equal get behind those essential and EQUAL-treatment-for-LGBTs updates to those two prestigious civil rights laws.
     
    Introduction of such a bill some time after SCOTUS hears a final Marriage Equality appeal, if, as is probable, in its next term, too, might have the added advantage of good timing with a growing buzz/ anticipation favoring LGBT civil rights.
     
    A subsequent or same-track separate bill– likely involving more details — can then be crafted for fair credit, lending and financial institution discrimination as well.
     
    That’s a doable WIN-WIN-WIN scenario lots of us can unite behind. It would likely motivate us more to get the House gavel back in Nancy’s hands again this fall. And what a crowning achievement it could be for the president as well.
     

    • El Dorado

      Damn, you are obsessed with our rights under the law being added to the 1964 Civil rights act. You’re the first I’ve heard to think that achieving the same ends through a separate law makes it separate but NOT equal. If the rights under a law are the same as the rights under Title VII then they are equal baby. I’m not offended or feel any less equal simply because we don’t realize our rights under Title VII but through some other legislation.

      Frankly, other than you who cares how we codify our rights under Federal laws as long as it happens? No need to take it to such ridiculous extremes. You’re likely the type that would oppose legislation unless it were included under Title VII which is insane. I swear if activists derail legislation again due to some silly concept like this they deserve to have nothing.

      • brians ions

        If the rights under a law are the same as the rights under Title VII then they are equal baby. I’m not offended or feel any less equal simply because we don’t realize our rights under Title VII but through some other legislation. – El Dorado
        ======================================

        No. You’re very much mistaken about that, Mr. Dorado ;), as you assume a separate bill will be “the same” as Title VII (employment discrimination) and Title II (public accommodations… discrimination by hotels, restaurants, retail stores, etc.).

        Like good medicine, limiting ourselves to simple, doable legislation that is both SAFE (politically, esp. for the Republican votes Pelosi and Reid need to attract) and EFFECTIVE (ready to protect us from day one without ‘new law’ court challenges) is the way to go.

        Both the ’64 and ’68 laws have been well-tested in the courts and well-argued by DOJ and EEOC lawyers. So simply adding the words, *sexual orientation* and *gender identity* to those laws makes them easier to enforce for LGBTs from the start.

        Unless we have overwhelming Dem majorities as happened in the 111th Congress (Jan 2009 – Jan 2011) any new “omnibus” bill will be amended to nothing-worth-having as happened with ENDA in the Senate (then strengthened by SCOTUS/Hobby Lobby).

        Conversely, that’s the beauty of simply adding FOUR WORDS to the two, EXISTING civil rights laws that have been around for 50 years, and 46 years, respectively. The fact that the ’64 Civil Rights Act (public accommodations & employment non-discrimination) and its ’68 counterpart for fair housing are popular, accepted and well-settled laws is likely to prevent ANY other changes to them in Congress.

        Moreover, votes for simple changes to existing laws are easier for Republicans and Blue Dog Dems to justify to their ultra-conservatives back home, too.

        Look, that’s all we can reasonably expect to get out of the likely next Congress anyway. Keep it simple/ stupid. It can’t be capable of being dissed and labeled as a radical, LGBT/ ‘gay agenda’ bill. And at the end of the day, it has to be reasonably bipartisan.

        Make it too comprehensive or making it sound too ‘big government boot-heeled’ will be a deal-killer for lots of Republicans. We should avoid descriptions like *omnibus*, e.g.

        And trying to add fair lending/ banking to an ‘omnibus’/ ‘comprehensive’ bill would be a prescription for legislative disaster! Banks, credit unions, national and state Chambers of Commerce, would all unite to kill such a overreaching bill. Maybe even big labor would oppose it too. Fear of new, invasive government regs make for strange bedfellows.

        New, separate legislation that imposes new, separate regulations on any businesses, esp. small and medium businesses, is likely to give them and their congressional representatives and senators tons of heartburn.

        In turn, that would likely threaten all that can be achieved by simply using the existing ’64 & ’68 Civil Rights Acts for limited– but still very powerful– employment, public accommodations and housing civil rights protections.

    • brians ions

      The idea is also 5 years in the FAILING, then, too.
       
      That’s because a separate and unequal, “omnibus” bill is designed to tell LGBT *DONORS* what they want to hear, rather than craft simple changes to existing law that can actually become effective civil rights protection for LGBT people.
       
      Some of these groups are grasping at what they must know are sham, impossible-to-pass legislative proposals to use for their own, self-serving fundraising. Worse still, that disempowers the overall cause of LGBT civil rights, too.
       
      If LGBT voters and our lobbying groups keep looking like naive losers, legislators — both federal and local — will treat us like naive losers.
       
      Oh, many LGBT-friendly politicians will give us a wink and a nod, and speak at LGBT events integral to everyone’s fundraising game. They will certainly take any LGBT money offered for such sham efforts.
       
      But those politicians are not going to seriously work to gather sufficient congressional votes to pass such “omnibus” legislation. Why? Because congressional members’ votes for such sweeping legislation– especially with a “For LGBTs Only” label slapped on it– simply aren’t there.

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