March 13, 2019 at 3:33 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Equality Act returns — with House Democrats in majority
Rep. David Cicilline has reintroduced the Equality Act. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Optimistic about the prospects of enshrining a prohibition on anti-LGBT discrimination into federal law with a new Democratic majority in the U.S. House, Democrats on Wednesday introduced legislation known as the Equality Act to make that long-sought goal a reality.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) chief sponsors of the Equality Act in their respective chambers of Congress, on Wednesday trumpeted the introduction of the legislation with great fanfare during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol.

Cicilline said the Equality Act is necessary because “millions of LGBTQ Americans are still less equal where they live.”

“We are reintroducing the Equality Act in order to fix this,” Cicilline said. “Enacting and protecting civil rights laws is one of the most important things we can do in this building.”

Merkley said the Equality Act would create a national rule amid a patchwork of protections for LGBT people across the states, 30 of which have insufficient legal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

“In over half our country, you can in fact stand and make a lifetime commitment in marriage to your partner, and yet be thrown out of your apartment and thrown out of your restaurant, fired from your job,” Merkley said. “It’s well past time to change. So let’s pass a national Equality Act and let’s do it this year.”

The Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit.

The bill also seeks to update federal law to include sex in the list of protected classes in public accommodation in addition to expanding the definition of public accommodations to include retail stores, banks, transportation services and health care services. Further, the Equality Act would establish that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a 1994 law aimed at protecting religious liberty — can’t be used to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement passage of the Equality Act was essential to prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

“The harsh reality is that LGBTQ Americans still face real and persistent discrimination in their everyday lives,” Griffin said. “The new pro-equality majority in Congress has the chance to finally ensure LGBTQ people’s rights are not determined by what side of a city or state line they live on. With the unprecedented backing of 70 percent of Americans, more than 280 members of Congress, 165 leading businesses and 288 organizations from across the country, now is the time to pass the bipartisan Equality Act.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement the Equality Act would address the high rate of discrimination against transgender people.

“The Equality Act is the long overdue next chapter in our nation’s struggle against the forces of prejudice, animus, and hate,” Keisling said. “The introduction of this bill marks a historic opportunity to improve the lives of tens of millions of people across the country, including nearly 2 million transgender people. Too many of us endure hatred, prejudice, and violence throughout our lives, often waged by those who feel their bias is legally sanctioned by our government’s inaction.”

For the first time, the Equality Act is introduced with Democrats in control of at least one chamber of Congress, giving the bill room for early movement.

The legislation has more than 239 co-sponsors in the House and 47 co-sponosors in the Senate. Those numbers represent the strongest level of support the bill has ever enjoyed in Congress. In the House, the number of co-sponsors is well above the 218 needed for majority passage of the bill.

The only Republicans who co-sponsor the bill are Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Rep. John Kapko (N.Y.) in the House and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine in the Senate. Fitzpatrick explained his support in a statement to the Blade.

 “LGBTQ Americans are part of the fabric of our society and should be free to exercise the rights guaranteed to every American by the Constitution to participate fully in our society and pursue every opportunity,” Fitzpatrick said. “The Equality Act will protect Americans from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity because discrimination against the LGBTQ community is an injustice which must be confronted.”

During the event at the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Committee on Education & Labor, said they’d move forward with hearings on the legislation.

The expected timeline for the Equality Act in the House is introduction this week, followed by hearings in April and May, followed by a vote on the House floor in the May through July period to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Civil rights groups other than LGBT advocates are pointing to the Equality Act’s expansion of the Civil Rights Act’s protections for public accommodations and on the basis of sex as additional reasons to support the bill.

Fatima Goss Graves, CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement the Equality Act “closes longstanding gaps in civil rights law by adding new protections from discrimination on the basis of sex.”

“For a transgender woman who loses her job because of employer discrimination, or a child turned away from a doctor’s office because they have two parents of the same gender, or a woman being refused her birth control prescription at a local pharmacy, or for someone excluded from public places for choosing to breastfeed — there would now be a clear remedy,” Graves said. “In the midst of the #MeToo movement, this legislation would also give new protections to survivors, from those facing inadequate responses from police departments to those facing harassment in restaurants or public transportation. The bottom line is this bill protects the civil rights of all people, and it’s vital and long overdue that it becomes law.”

Historically, the legislation hasn’t enjoyed full support of civil rights groups, which have said they support of the goals of the Equality Act without providing a full-throated endorsement. These groups have expressed concerns about opening up the Civil Rights Act to amendments in congressional debate that could water down the historic law.

But LGBT advocates have insisted they would pull support for the Equality Act if the amendment process compromised the Civil Rights Act and the views of civil rights groups seem to have evolved.

Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, came out in full support of the Equality Act upon its reintroduction.

“Discrimination is wrong,” Gupta said. “But in 30 states, people can fire, refuse housing, or deny services to LGBTQ people simply because of who they are and who they love. We need clarity in federal civil rights statutes that help ensure equal opportunity and dignity for all LGBTQ individuals in America. This clarification must protect existing provisions of core civil rights statutes by expanding them and not rolling them back in any way. We urge Congress to pass the Equality Act.”

Despite the confidence about passage of the bill in the House, the other chamber of Congress and the White House are another matter. The Republicans a have 55-member majority in the Senate and President Trump has built an anti-LGBT record that makes it unlikely he’d support the legislation.

Among the opponents of the Equality Act is the anti-LGBT legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, which issued a statement arguing the legislation would undermine the First Amendment.

“Our laws should respect the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of every citizen, but the so-called ‘Equality Act’ fails to meet this basic standard,” ADF Senior Vice President Kristen Waggoner said. “It would undermine women’s equality and force women and girls to share private, intimate spaces with men who identify as female, in addition to denying women fair competition in sports. Like similar state and local laws, it would force Americans to participate in events and speak messages that violate their core beliefs. 

In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, ADF argued the First Amendment guaranteed Colorado baker Jack Phillips to right to refuse to make a custom-made wedding cake for same-sex couples on religious grounds. The Supreme Court last year ruled for Phillips, but narrowly and based on the facts of the case, not First Amendment grounds.

According to new polling from the Public Religion Research Institute unveiled this week, a supermajority of the U.S. public backs LGBT protections along the lines of the Equality Act. Sixty-nine percent of Americans favor laws that would prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in jobs, public accommodation and housing, Moreover, a majority of the public in every state supports these protections.

Supporters of the Equality Act may cling to the hope Trump would support the legislation based on comments he made in 2000 exploring a presidential run as a Reform Party candidate. At the time, Trump said he likes the idea of amending the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation, which is a key component of the Equality Act.

Over the past two years, the Washington Blade has repeatedly submitted requests to the White House seeking comment on whether Trump still holds that view and would support including transgender protections in the bill. The Blade renewed that request today and asked whether he’d support the Equality Act, but the White House didn’t respond.


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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