White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced on Tuesday the Obama administration “strongly supports” legislation that would prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination known as the Equality Act following a weeks-long review of the bill.
Earnest made the announcement under questioning from the Washington Blade just one week after voters in Houston rejected by a wide margin a high-profile non-discrimination ordinance that would have prohibited discrimination against LGBT people among 15 classes of individuals.
“It is now clear that the administration strongly supports the Equality Act,” Earnest said. “That bill is historic legislation that would advance the cause of equality for millions of Americans and we certainly are pleased with the many legislators in Congress that have stepped forward to try to advance a bill that would deliver comprehensive equal rights for LGBT Americans.”
Earnest said the legislative process for passing the Equality Act should enable both a prohibition on LGBT discrimination while at the same time protecting religious liberty.
“We look forward to working with Congress to ensure that the legislative process produces a result that balances both the bedrock principles of civil rights like those I’ve just described with the religious liberty that we hold dear,” Earnest said.
Introduced in July by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) in the U.S. House and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in the U.S. Senate, the Equality Act would expand the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Until this time, the White House had refrained from endorsing the Equality Act, saying the legislation was under review. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernard Sanders and Martin O’Malley have endorsed the legislation. Vice President Joseph Biden also expressed support for the bill this year during the national dinner of the Human Rights Campaign.
Earnest said the administration is now able to endorse the Equality Act because the review has concluded the broad scope of the bill would be effective in combatting anti-LGBT discrimination.
“The Equality Act would have an impact on a substantial number of government policies, so there was a review that was conducted to evaluate exactly what impact the law would have on a wide range of government policies and programs,” Earnest said. “After concluding that review and determining that this kind of legislation would achieve the desired effect, we believe that we can support it, and we can do so knowing that at the same time we can protect the religious liberty that’s also enshrined in our Constitution.”
Asked if Obama himself would speak out in favor of the legislation and to what extent it would be a legislative priority in the remaining year of his administration, Earnest said Obama would “have a conversation” about the bill if asked.
“The administration does look forward to working with Congress to try to advance this legislation consistent with the values that we have articulated about the importance of equal rights and making sure people can’t be discriminated against because of who they love while at the same time making sure that we can protect the religious liberty at the same time,” Earnest said. “The president is confident that as this works its way through the legislative process that’s something that can certainly be achieved.”
In a statement, Cicilline praised Obama for supporting the Equality Act and said the endorsement is consistent with the administration’s support for LGBT rights.
“During his time in office, President Obama has championed the cause of LGBT equality by signing new hate crimes legislation, ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and requiring federal employee health insurers to cover services for transgender employees,” Cicilline said. “His support has been critical throughout this fight, and I thank him for endorsing the Equality Act today.”
LGBT advocates working to pass the Equality Act also praised the White House for announcing the Obama administration’s support for the legislation.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the Equality Act is important because despite the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality “millions remain at risk of being fired or denied services for who they are or who they love.
“By endorsing the Equality Act, the White House sent a strong message that it’s time to put the politics of discrimination behind us once and for all,” Griffin said. “Now it’s time for Congress to act. Everyone should be able to live free from fear of discrimination and have a fair chance to earn a living and provide for their families, including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.”
Neera Tanden, CEO of the progressive think-tank Center for American Progress, praised the White House for the announcement and said it builds on Obama’s record in support of LGBT rights.
“Today’s announcement by the White House builds on President Obama’s historic record of leadership on LGBT equality and reflects the growing momentum among elected officials, the business community, and voters of all parties in support of the Equality Act,” Tanden said. “When the Equality Act becomes law, progress made under President Obama’s leadership will have played an important role in making it so.”
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said her organization is “very thankful” for Obama’s endorsement of the Equality Act.
“The president has been a strong supporter of LGBT rights, with trans people in particular having seen our policy agenda advance rapidly during his administration,” Keisling said. “His support of the Equality Act shows his understanding of the need to solidify protections for LGBT people.”
A number of civil rights organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, the NAACP and the LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL have hesitated on the Equality Act out of fear that amending the Civil Rights Act would open up the historic law to dangerous amendments on the House and Senate floor.
Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said her organization is glad Obama supports “the call for full federal equality that we made when GetEQUAL launched five years ago,” but equality isn’t enough with a record number of transgender murders and undocumented LGBT immigrants being deported.
“What we need from the president, and from Congress, is not just support for legal equality but support for liberation in our lived experience — we are looking for leadership, not simply a late RSVP to the party,” Cronk said. “We look forward to the day when President Obama takes the lead in the fight for LGBTQ liberation — but today’s announcement does not yet get us where we need to be.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment.
Efforts to pass the Equality Act will be an uphill fight in the Republican-controlled Congress. The office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment. A spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) deferred comment to the House Judiciary Committee, which didn’t immediately respond.