July 29, 2015 at 9:47 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Will civil rights groups support Equality Act?
John Lewis, United States House of Representatives, U.S. Congress, Georgia, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is among the co-sponsors of the Equality Act. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Although many civil rights groups have endorsed the Equality Act, the reluctance of others to support the sweeping new LGBT rights bill raises questions about its viability.

The Washington Blade surveyed civil rights groups representing racial and religious minorities on whether they support the measure, which would amend the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act to enshrine into law federal LGBT non-discrimination protections in employment, housing, education, jury service, credit, public accommodations and federal programs.

The civil rights groups were among the 80-plus organizations that were part of the coalition that sought to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which was limited to protections against anti-LGBT bias in the workplace and was standalone legislation that would leave the Civil Rights Act untouched. Unlike the Equality Act, which was introduced last week, ENDA languished in Congress without passage for decades.

Luis Torres, director of education policy for the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, told the Blade on Monday his organization “just signed up” as among the civil rights groups that support the Equality Act.

While initially the group withheld support for the legislation, Torres said LULAC “of course” agreed to support the Equality Act after the Human Rights Campaign agreed to review proposed changes to the bill. The organization seeks to add ethnicity to protected classes in the legislation and adding language centers to the list of establishments prohibited from engaging in anti-LGBT discrimination.

“We do still want to see changes, but we don’t want to hold off on the process,” Torres said. “We know that it’s moving already, so we want to make sure that we are supporting full equality in all its forms.”

The nation’s largest Latino advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza, was one of the few civil rights organizations to declare support for the Equality Act on the day of its introduction last week, making an announcement on the bill via Twitter.

Julian Teixeira, an NCLR spokesperson, affirmed via email his organization supports the Equality Act because “like our tweet said we believe equal rights = equal rights.”

Other civil rights groups declaring support for the Equality Act include Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Calfornia-based Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center.

But other key civil rights groups have yet to declare support for the Equality Act. Many groups have expressed concern over enacting LGBT non-discrimination protections by amending the Civil Rights Act, which they said could open up the historic law to dangerous poison-pill amendments or expanded religious accommodations if the legislation reaches the floor of the House and Senate.

At the same time, amending the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity would take existing legal precedent under the law to cover LGBT people. In an interview with SiriusXM’s Michelangelo Signorile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), lead sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, said it doesn’t “feel right” to separate the bill from the Civil Rights Act.

Kham Moua, a spokesperson for the Organization of Chinese Americans, signaled support for the legislation, but acknowledged concern about amending the Civil Rights Act to achieve non-discrimination protections.

“OCA supports the Equality Act,” Moua said. “Though we are concerned that key sections of the CRA may be hurt by potential toxic amendments, we believe that the act will further civil rights for all minority groups, particularly LGBT racial minority community members.”

Chief among the groups that haven’t endorsed the bill is the Leadership Council on Civil & Human Rights, an umbrella group founded in 1950 that coordinates national lobbying efforts for civil rights measures. The group supported ENDA, but has yet to endorse the Equality Act.

On the day the Equality Act was introduced, Wade Henderson, president of LCCHR, issued a statement applauding efforts to ban anti-LGBT discrimination, saying “we look forward to working toward passage of this bill or similar legislation” to the achieve those goals. An LCCHR spokesperson clarified for the Blade the organization supports the aims of the Equality Act, but is “still vetting this particular legislative vehicle.”

Not responding to repeated requests to comment on whether it supports the Equality Act is the NAACP, which was on the record in support of ENDA and marriage equality. Nothing on the organization’s website indicates the NAACP’s position on the bill.

Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the NAACP, nonetheless wrote an op-ed piece for The Advocate prior to the introduction of the bill calling for the addition of LGBT protections to existing civil rights law.

“It’s time to add concrete protections for LGBT people to existing civil rights law, ensuring that sexual orientation and gender identity enjoy similar treatment as religion, national origin, and race; and guaranteeing nondiscrimination protections in employment, housing, public spaces and services, education, federal funding, and other areas,” Bond said. “It’s time for true federal equality: nothing more, nothing less.”

Tina Matsuoka, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, which has supported ENDA, said her organization supports the aims of the Equality Act, but is still reviewing the legislation.

“NAPABA has long supported LGBT equality, including the freedom to marry and full equality in the workplace and in public accommodations,” Matsuoka said. “We haven’t yet fully reviewed the Equality Act but it appears to include many anti-discrimination provisions that are consistent with our policy platform.”

Civil rights and legal groups that didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the Equality Act are the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Japanese American Citizens League, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and Legal Momentum.

One noteworthy group that has remained silent on the Equality Act is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which as part of its civil rights efforts has undertaken efforts to win marriage equality in the South. An SPLC spokesperson said experts who would be able to speak on the legislation were unavailable.

Another organization that seeks to bridge the LGBT and black communities came out enthusiastically in support of the legislation on the day of its introduction.

Sharon Lettman-Hicks, CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, said without federal legislation like the Equality Act, LGBT people have insufficient protection amid the current patchwork of state non-discrimination laws.

“When a person is both black and LGBT, discrimination — and the evils of blatant and systemic racism — is too common place and faced on a number of levels that are fundamentally unacceptable in a democracy,” Lettman-Hicks said. “As such, NBJC supports the Equality Act, which would provide vital legal protections to so many in the black LGBT community who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in our nation.”

The Human Rights Campaign, which has taken the lead on the Equality Act and its promotion, didn’t respond to a request for comment on support from civil rights groups for the legislation.

Ian Thompson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, sought to allay concerns about opening up the Civil Rights Act to amendments by saying the adoption of dangerous measures would lead supporters to abandon the bill.

“I think what you see on the part of LGBT groups and women’s rights groups is a rock-solid commitment not to do anything with the legislation that’s going to undermine existing civil rights protections,” Thompson said.

Thompson acknowledged LCCHR and NAACP are currently not on board with the Equality Act, but said they’re in the process of evaluating the bill and have an underlying support for the idea of federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

Arguably as a reflection of discomfort with the bill among civil rights groups, two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus are designated as co-sponsors of the Equality Act. Thirty members of 46-member caucus were among the co-sponsors of the legislation.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, stopped short of endorsing the Equality Act upon its introduction, but maintained the caucus opposes anti-LGBT discrimination.

“We believe that all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are entitled to protection of the law from discrimination in all aspects of American life,” Butterfield said. “We believe these principles must be enacted into law. We look forward to the opportunity to analyze the bill introduced today.”

Civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), said upon introduction of the bill, “This legislation is what justice requires, and like the recent Supreme Court decision, it is long overdue.”

Many women’s groups are at the forefront of efforts to pass the Equality Act. In addition to enacting LGBT non-discrimination protections, the legislation would add gender provisions to the public accommodations and federal program sections of the Civil Rights Act, which are currently absent from the statute.

Civil rights groups representing religious minorities generally had the same perspective on the Equality Act as women’s groups, even though the potential danger of amendments to the Civil Rights Act would apply to the religion provisions just as much as the race provisions.

Issuing statements in favor of the Equality Act upon its introduction were the Anti-Defamation League, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and the Interfaith Alliance.

Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, signaled support for the legislation in a statement to the Blade, commending the inclusion of legislation to ensure the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be used to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

“The National Council of Jewish Women supports passage of the Equality Act because we believe no one should be denied employment, housing, transportation, retail services, public accommodations or other programs because of discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity,” Kaufman said.

Sharon Bender, a spokesperson for B’nai B’rith International, said her organization supports the aims of the bill, but hasn’t yet vetted the Equality Act.

“We are generally supportive of protections for LGBT people from discrimination in workplace, housing, public accommodations, etc., but we haven’t had time to fully evaluate this particular vehicle for reaching that goal,” Bender said.

Not responding to a request for comment was Disciples Justice Action Network, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Making a prediction civil rights groups would universally come on board with the Equality Act was Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Freedom for All Americans who formerly led the Americans for Workplace Opportunity coalition to pass ENDA in the previous Congress.

“We need to continue having open conversations with everyone – Republicans and Democrats alike – to ultimately achieve that consensus, and I’m confident that our allies in the civil rights community will continue to stand with us, as they long have done in the fight for LGBT equality,” McTighe said. “That partnership will also be integral in our state and local work where nondiscrimination protections are still lacking or under attack, including in cities like Houston, where Freedom for All Americans will partner with state and national groups to defend the nondiscrimination ordinance passed by the city last year.”

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

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