July 23, 2015 at 1:40 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Equality Act introduced with great fanfare
Equality Act, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) speaks at the press conference introducing the Equality Act on July 23, 2015 in the LBJ Room of the U.S. Senate. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Great fanfare marked the introduction of legislation in Congress on Thursday that would enshrine sweeping protections against anti-LGBT discrimination in all areas of civil rights law.

House and Senate Democrats, openly gay lawmakers and LGBT advocates were energized and delivered passionate remarks in support of the measure, known as the Equality Act, at a news conference in the Lyndon B. Johnson room on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol announcing the debut of the bill.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, said during the news conference the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage expanded rights for same-sex couples, but “we’ve got a lot of work to do” as long as discrimination is still permitted against LGBT people.

“Discrimination has no place in our nation’s laws,” Merkley said. “If it’s wrong in marriage, it’s wrong in employment. If it’s wrong in employment it’s wrong in housing. If it’s wrong in housing, it’s wrong in education, jury duty and mortgages. To put it simply, people deserve to live free from fear, free from violence and free from discrimination regardless of who they are or whom they love.”

Joining Merkley to introduce the 23-page bill in the Senate was Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in the Senate, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). The Senate version of the bill has 40 original co-sponsors, including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.).

In the House, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who’s gay, is the lead sponsor for the bill, which he said during the news conference has 155 original co-sponsors.

That includes each of the other openly LGB members of the U.S. House — Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Other co-sponsors who at the briefing were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.).

Also speaking at the event were LGBT victims of discrimination: Krista and Jami Contreras, a lesbian from Michigan who faced discrimination when a doctor refused to treat their child; Carter Brown, a transgender man from Texas who was fired from his job because of his gender identity; and Luke Peterson, a gay man from Nebraska who said he’s lost three jobs because of his sexual orientation.

For years, legislation known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act seeking to bar employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — and in later versions on the basis of gender identity — languished in Congress. The Equality Act seeks to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination not only in employment, but public accommodations, education, housing, federal programs, jury service and credit.

Cicilline said lawmakers who support LGBT rights are taking this comprehensive approach at this time because the country is in a different place than it has been in years past.

“Some might wonder why we’re taking this approach, a comprehensive non-discrimination bill, rather than the approach we’ve taken in the years past with ENDA and other piecemeal bills that would ban discrimination in one area or other,” Cicilline said. “The answer is that our community is in a different place now and momentum is on our side.”

To enact these sweeping protections, the Equality Act seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Because the public accommodations protections under the Civil Rights Act are limited to hotels, restaurants and theaters, the Equality Act expands the list of public accommodations in which discrimination is prohibited to nearly all entities. That includes retail stores, banks and entities that provide transportation and health services. The bill also adds gender protections to the public accommodations and federal programs portions of the Civil Rights Act, which were heretofore absent from the statute.

Additionally, the bill would clarify the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be a tool for discrimination against LGBT people. The Equality Act also ensures that for sex-segreated facilities such as restrooms, all individuals, including transgender people, must be admitted in accordance with their gender identity.

In 2013, many LGBT advocacy groups dropped support from ENDA because the bill’s religious exemption would continue to allow discrimination against secular employees working for religious organizations, such as a religious-affiliated church or hospital. Because the Equality Act is based on the Civil Rights Act, those employees would receive protections against discrimination in those facilities in the same way that discrimination based on race, gender and national origin is prohibited.

Amending the Civil Rights Act to include gay people is a concept once explored more than 40 years ago by the late Rep. Bella Abzug of New York City. In 1974, she introduced a bill — also dubbed the Equality Act — that would have amended the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation. The measure never passed and eventually gave way to ENDA.

Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for the Center for American Progress, made the case for the bill by invoking the memory of Abzug and saying discrimination faced by LGBT Americans “is not hypothetical”

“Forty years ago, Bella Abzug introduced the first Equality Act,” Stachelberg said. “Last night, I heard from Bella Abzug’s daughter, Liz. She said, ‘Forty years later after my bold and incredible mom introduced the first Equality Act, we’ll complete the job.”

Although Merkley and Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin hinted the Equality Act should have bipartisan appeal during their remarks, no Republicans are original co-sponsors of the legislation.

That’s unlike versions of ENDA in years past, which have enjoyed bipartisan support. In 2013, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in the House and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) were original co-sponsors, but that isn’t the case for the Equality Act. Their offices didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment throughout the week about their position on the legislation.

Asked by the Washington Blade during the news conference if any Republicans were co-sponsors of the bill, Merkley affirmed all co-sponsors are Democrats and outreach to obtain more support continues.

“The principles involved in this, the principles of non-discrimination are broadly supported on both sides of the aisle,” Merkley said. “It’s a tradition that is deeply embedded in both parties. I look forward as we did with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to continue to reach out across the aisle to become familiar with the bill.”

Although no GOP lawmakers yet support the Equality Act, Ted Olson, a Republican former U.S. solicitor general under George W. Bush, endorsed the Equality Act in a joint statement with David Boies, a Democratic attorney. The two lawyers were lead attorneys in the Prop 8 lawsuit that restored marriage equality to California and litigation that struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“The introduction of the Equality Act marks a historic moment for our country,” Olson and Boies said. “The patchwork of protections in this country has provided a crazy quilt of laws, threatening the livelihood of many of the same couples who fought so long and so hard to have their marriages recognized. That’s why we support the idea of a comprehensive approach to non-discrimination protections that would embrace LGBT people as other groups who are protected by our civil rights laws. We urge Republicans and Democrats to once again come together to support this important legislation that provides the same protections to LGBT people as other Americans.”

The business community has also begun to speak. Prior to the news conference, the Human Rights Campaign made public statements in support of the legislation from Apple, Dow Chemical and Levi Strauss.

Although mainstream LGBT rights supporters are touting the Equality Act as a means to achieve full LGBT non-discrimination protections, some LGBT advocates are withholding support from the bill. One chief reason is the worry that seeking to amend the Civil Rights Act would open up the historic statute to dangerous potential revisions on the floor from lawmakers hostile to civil rights laws. Although the Equality Act has support from women’s groups, no civil rights group representing racial minorities has come out in support of the bill.

Wade Henderson, CEO of the umbrella civil rights group known as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, previously expressed concerns about the bill and in a statement Thursday was only supportive of the Equality Act in principle.

“The Equality Act presents an opportunity to codify these protections into law nationwide and we look forward to working toward passage of this bill or similar legislation that helps to realize the promise of non-discrimination and dignity for LGBT Americans,” Henderson said.

Asked whether that statement from LCCHR supports the Equality Act, Scott Simpson, an LCCHR spokesperson replied, “We absolutely support the effort and aims of the bill…still vetting this particular legislative vehicle.”

Serving at the event as a voice in favor of the Equality Act on behalf of the civil rights movement was Lewis, who recalled his own efforts in the struggle of black Americans in the 1960s and said, “This legislation is what justice requires; this legislation is what justice deserves.”

In the current Congress where Republicans control both the House and Senate and enjoy their greatest majority in the House since the Truman administration, passing the bill will be an uphill battle to say the least.

During his weekly news conference, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has opposed efforts to pass ENDA, was non-committal when asked by the Blade if he’d be open to allowing the Equality Act to come up for a House floor vote.

“I’ve not seen any details on it, but I’ll take a look at it,” Boehner said.

The Equality Act is competing for passage with the First Amendment Defense Act, religious freedom legislation seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate Republican, has proposed compromise legislation that would prohibit anti-LGBT employment and housing discrimination, but ensure non-profits won’t have their tax-exempt status revoked for opposing same-sex marriage and express the sense of Congress the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling under RFRA shouldn’t burden free exercise of religion.

Equality Act, gay news, Washington Blade

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (Washington Blade photo by Antwan J. Thompson)

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

  • The Equality Act is definitely the right choice and should be the law as it is about civil, equal rights for American citizens, all of them. I am anxiously awaiting to see if Congress can keep church and state separate as the Equality Act does not force churches to change their doctrines such as making them perform same-gender marriages.

  • If you like other people of the same gender or think you are another gender than that should have no effect on your rights under the law. Ordinary people do not have the right to choose which bathroom they want to use and neither should transgender people. Normal people do not have the right to marry whoever they want and neither should gay people. Normal people do not have the right to force a company to serve them and neither should gay people.

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