Despite support expressed by Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden over the weekend, the White House said Tuesday President Obama isn’t ready to endorse the Equality Act, although he backs the idea of federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the Equality Act, which would amend existing areas of civil rights law to include gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, is still under review by the administration.
Earnest made the remarks during a routine news briefing when the Washington Blade asked if he’s ready to announce President Obama endorses the Equality Act after positive comments from Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, and Biden, who’s considering a presidential bid.
“I’m not prepared to say that yet,” Earnest said. “This is a piece of legislation that the White House does continue to review. There’s significant consequences to this bill going into effect. It has an impact on housing law and a variety of other policies in the federal government, so it’s something that’s still being carefully reviewed by the administration.”
But Earnest said even without explicit support for the bill, Obama believes “we must ensure all Americans are treated equally under federal law” and is still behind the idea of enshrining comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
“The president believes the passage of comprehensive legislation that protects LGBT Americans from discrimination would mark an important step toward that outcome,” Earnest added. “So, we would applaud the efforts of members of Congress to try to advance that goal, but when it comes to this specific piece of legislation, it’s something that is still under review by the administration.”
Asked if the vice president was out of step with the administration when he said Congress “will pass” the Equality Act during his speech at the 19th annual Human Rights Campaign dinner on Saturday, Earnest downplayed the notion of a split between Biden and Obama on the issue.
“I think the vice president was certainly expressing a set of values and views that are consistent with the policies of the administration, but as it relates to the administration’s review of this particular piece of legislation, that’s still ongoing,” Earnest said.
Earnest talked about the “broad impact” of the Equality Act when asked why the review is still ongoing and why the White House hasn’t yet endorsed it.
“It’s just simply that this particular piece of legislation the way that it’s written would have a significant impact across a broad set of policies, and so the administration wants to take a careful look to make sure that we understand the broad impact that this particular piece of legislation would have,” Earnest said. “But this is a review that’s ongoing and we’ll keep you posted.”
The White House’s delay in endorsing the Equality Act is consistent with the hesitation seen from major non-LGBT civil rights groups on the bill. The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have to yet to endorse the bill. LCCHR and the LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL have expressed concern about opening up the Civil Rights Act to amendments in Congress out of fear that could weaken the entire law.
No Republicans are co-sponsors of the Equality Act in either the House or the Senate. Each of the 170 co-sponsors in the House and the 39 co-sponsors in the Senate are Democrats.
Supporters of the Equality Act include corporations like Amazon, American Airlines, Apple, the Dow Chemical Company, Facebook, General Electric, General Mills, Google, HP, IBM, Intel, Levi Strauss & Co, Microsoft, Nike, Oracle, Orbitz, PayPal and Symantec Corp. Civil rights groups that support the Equality Act include the League of United Latin American Citizens and women’s rights groups.
Earnest’s remarks are similar to what he said upon introduction of the Equality Act by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in July. At the time, Earnest said the White House supports the goals of the bill, but the administration is reviewing the legislation.
David Stacy, the Human Rights Campaign’s director of government affairs, said the nation’s largest LGBT group welcomes the review underway within the administration.
“The Equality Act has earned incredible support over a very short period of time,” Stacy said. “We welcome the Administration’s review of the legislation and are pleased that the White House has embraced the premise of the bill, that LGBT Americans should be able to live free from fear of discrimination and be treated equally under the law.”
Ian Thompson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed confidence Obama would come around to support the Equality Act.
“As Vice President Biden eloquently stated on Saturday, the Equality Act is worthy of support because its goal – nondiscrimination – is simple and straightforward,” Thompson said. “It will provide critical protections to LGBT people, women and communities of color, and I am confident that the Obama White House will endorse it.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said also predicted the administration would support the Equality Act.
“We look forward to the administration reviewing and supporting the Equality Act,” Keisling said. “The president has shown that he really understands the need for additional protections for LGBT people and we are hopeful that he will be supporting the legislation when we need him to.”
Laura Durso, director of LGBT research and communications at the Center for American Progress, took note the administration supports the goals of the Equality Act as the review is underway.
“The White House has already expressed support for the goal of comprehensive federal LGBT protections – the first administration to do so – and we’re confident that the Equality Act presents the best path forward in achieving the principle of equal protection for LGBT Americans in all areas of life,” Durso said. “We know the President is a champion for equality and he and his team are closely reviewing the bill.”
The offices of Cicilline and Merkley haven’t responded to repeated requests for comment from the Blade on the Obama administration’s lack of endorsement of the bill.