Ahead of the expected introduction this week in Congress of comprehensive LGBT legislation known as the Equality Act, LGBT advocates met in D.C. on Tuesday to discuss the path forward for the bill — although they don’t agree that the measure is the right direction to take.
Numerous advocates confirmed they attended the meeting, which took place at the headquarters of an umbrella civil rights group known as the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights. Scott Simpson, a spokesperson for LCCHR, confirmed the meeting took place, but added it was a closed-door discussion and declined to provide additional information.
The meetings at LCCHR are commonplace for the coalition of LGBT advocates — which heretofore had met to discuss strategy for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But now the meeting was focused on the Equality Act days ahead of its expected introduction in Congress. The new legislation is set to address not just anti-LGBT employment discrimination, but education, public accommodations, credit, federal programs, jury service and housing.
Attendees were largely tight-lipped about the meeting because of its off-the-record nature, although one advocate who spoke about it to the Washington Blade said there was an underlying disagreement about strategy. The disagreement stems from the apparent decision that Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) intend to make the legislation basically consist of amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
For starters, whether LCCHR itself will support the legislation is unclear. Even prior to the announced plan to introduce the bill, sources have told the Washington Blade amending the Civil Rights Act to include LGBT protections makes some longtime civil rights advocates uneasy because it potentially opens the historic law up to harmful amendments.
Although LCCHR has supported iterations of ENDA in the past, the organization didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on whether the organization will support the Equality Act upon its introduction.
Wade Henderson, president of the LCCHR, is quoted in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this month as expressing concern about the bill.
“Some are concerned about opening up arguably the most important statute Congress has ever enacted for the issue of racial discrimination,” Henderson said.
Heather Cronk, co-director of the LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL, has previously objected to the idea of amending the Civil Rights Act to enact LGBT non-discrimination protections and told the Blade on Tuesday she’s “not sure” if her organization would be able to support the Equality Act.
Cronk cited concerns that the proposal would open up the Civil Rights Act to amendments, which she said is “way past dangerous,” but also said the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect LGBT people.
Amid frequent media reports of police brutality and harassment, Cronk said black LGBT people have unique challenges in the criminal justice system that should be addressed as part of the proposal. Additionally, Cronk faulted the measure for not addressing detention and deportation of LGBT immigrants, who face unusually high rates of violence in the immigration system.
“We’ve been really clear that we don’t support amending the Civil Rights Act because there’s so many potential downfalls, but also because amending the Civil Rights Act actually doesn’t fully protect LGBTQ folks in the unique way that we need, and so we continue to advocate for a standalone bill,” Cronk said.
But the mainstream view of LGBT advocates is praise and excitement ahead of the introduction of the bill. Amid media reports the legislation would be introduced in the coming days, the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for American Progress issued statements in support of the measure.
HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement the non-discrimination bill would “create permanent and clear protections to ensure that all employees are hired, fired or promoted based on their performance.”
“No one in our community should be at risk of being fired, evicted from their home, or denied services because of who they are or whom they love,” Griffin said. “There is an unacceptable patchwork of state-level protections for LGBT people, and more than half of LGBT Americans live in a state that lacks fully-inclusive non-discrimination laws. The time has come in this country for full, federal equality, and nothing less.”
The Center for American Progress statement cites statistics on the importance of passing the legislation. According to the organization, one in 10 lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers reports being fired because of their sexual orientation, one in four transgender workers reported being fired because of their gender identity and one in four same-sex couples experienced discrimination when trying to buy a home according to one study.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the Blade she’s in the camp of advocates supporting the bill as it has been proposed.
“In a nutshell, I’ll say that I’ve been very interested for 10 years in expanding anti-discrimination away from just being about employment and becoming other things, and I think this bill really will expand our baseline to be about more than just about employment,” Keisling said.
Although Keisling acknowledged changes could be made to the bill, she wouldn’t immediately identify them and said legislation often is altered in the days before introduction anyway.
Responding to concerns raised by GetEQUAL, Keisling said her organization also supports efforts to change the immigration and criminal justice system — in addition to updating the Voting Rights Act and insurance coverage for transgender people — but doesn’t expect that to be part of the Equality Act.
“This isn’t a message bill where we’re just dumping the LGBT stuff and hoping we get it all,” Keisling said. “This is a bill that will be cohesive, something that we all really want and need and expect to pass. Not that putting that in would make it unpassable, [but] anytime you add something to a bill you make it harder to pass because someone’s going to have a complaint with every tiny bit of it.”
For now, GetEQUAL may be unique in its reasons for withholding support for the bill. But in 2013, the group was first to withhold support for ENDA over the legislation’s religious exemption — a position that virtually every LGBT group later adopted with the exception of HRC, NCTE and Freedom to Work.
Yet another concern, cited by Log Cabin Republicans, is the lack of GOP involvement in the legislation. According to a “Dear Colleague” letter from Cicilline, lawmakers have until Thursday at noon to sign on as an original co-sponsor, but no Republican supporter is expected.
Gregory Angelo, Log Cabin’s executive director, slammed the process leading to the introduction of the bill as a partisan attempt to make Republicans look bad.
“Considering Republicans control the House and the Senate — and will control at least the House for years to come, if not both chambers — it is deeply concerning that this legislation has been drafted with next to zero input from Republicans,” Angelo said. “Even Republican LGBT allies feel they were alienated by the process, which indicates this bill was drafted more to be a partisan cudgel than a pragmatic LGBT non-discrimination bill.”
Angelo declined to comment on whether his organization will support the legislation, saying Log Cabin would issue a statement on Thursday.
The offices of Cicilline and Merkley haven’t responded to repeated requests for comment on the bill or criticism over the proposal.
LGBT advocates weren’t the only groups set to meet Tuesday about the Equality Act. Senate Democrats were set to receive a briefing from Merkley on the bill during their weekly closed-door caucus, but had to reschedule the discussion because they ran out of time.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted plans for the discussion during his weekly news conference on Tuesday when the Washington Blade asked if he’d be an original co-sponsor of the Equality Act.
Reid said co-sponsoring the Equality Act “sounds like something I would agree to,” but he needs to know more about the legislation. Further, he said Merkley would speak on the bill during next week’s all-caucus lunch.
Also on Tuesday, Drew Hamill, a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), confirmed his boss would be an original co-sponsor of the House version of the Equality Act.