March 12, 2021 at 9:42 am EST | by Chris Johnson
EXCLUSIVE: Collins spells out demands for supporting LGBTQ Equality Act
Equality Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has spelled out the changes she’s seeking for the Equality Act. (Photo public domain)

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose support for the Equality Act is seen as crucial to winning Republican votes for the LGBTQ non-discrimination bill, is breaking her silence on the proposed revisions she’s demanding in exchange for her support.

Annie Clark, a Collins spokesperson, laid out the proposed changes this week after the Maine senator previously told the Washington Blade she won’t co-sponsor the Equality Act as she did in the previous Congress. Collins at the time said she wanted a revision, but didn’t specify what she was seeking.

Identifying three general areas where Collins seeks changes, Clark said Collins articulated them to the Equality Act’s supporters in the previous Congress.

“The Equality Act was a starting point for negotiations,” Clark said. “Sen. Collins cosponsored the bill last Congress with the agreement that the supporters would work together to make further changes so that the bill could become law.”

One change would essentially grant additional leeway for religious institutions to turn away LGBTQ people. Further, the changes would allow domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters and school sports teams to take sex into account when deciding to place transgender people in sex-segregated areas.

Here are the changes in more detail as laid out by Collins’ spokesperson:

  • “Those changes included exemptions to make clear that vital programs that serve men and women separately, like domestic violence and homeless shelters, could continue to do so. Sen. Collins recommended language like that in the VAWA Reauthorization Act of 2013, signed by President Obama, allowing organizations to provide housing and support in separate facilities.
  • Sen. Collins also has concerns about some of the language pertaining to religious organizations, and thinks that faith-based community partners, like Catholic Charities, and the important services they provide should not be unfairly excluded from receiving federal funding.
  •  In addition, she has been a leading advocate for girls’ and women’s sports, and also transgender rights, and she believes this complex issue needs further study.”

It’s a dilemma: If supporters of the Equality Act were to accept the proposed changes, they’d be acquiescing to exemptions for anti-LGBTQ discrimination the bill was intended to address. On the other hand, without support from Collins, there’s certainly no way to find the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome a legislative filibuster and advance the legislation (unless the Democratic caucus can come to unanimity on scrapping the filibuster altogether).

Additionally, Collins isn’t going anywhere for a while. The Maine senator recently won re-election, which means she’s set to serve a term of another six years.

In addition to articulating Collins’ proposed changes, Clark added some implicit criticism of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the Equality Act, for refusing to make changes to the bill that were promised in the previous Congress.

“Unfortunately, the sponsor of the Equality Act was unwilling to make any changes to the bill whatsoever,” Clark said, “Sen. Collins has, therefore, decided not to cosponsor it at this time.” 

Martina McLennan, a spokesperson for Merkley, expressed an openness in response to a Blade inquiry on the proposed changes from Collins, but said as of now the position of the bill’s supporters remains the same.

“Of course Sen. Merkley is open to discussions with Sen. Collins and other senators about the Equality Act as the legislative process unfolds,” McLennan said. “He is committed to working with civil rights and LGBTQ advocates to maintain strong and meaningful protections while working with senators on both sides of the aisle to garner the support needed for passage. Our position is unchanged from before Sen. Collins’ re-election, as is the bill – the legislative process is a long one, and there’s plenty of time if she wants to re-engage, which we hope she will.”

Although Collins isn’t co-sponsoring the Equality Act in its current form, Clark said the Maine senator continues to entertain “all possible options” as Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House have proposed an alternative Fairness for All Act, which would amount to a compromise on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom.”

“She continues to support passing a law to protect the civil rights of Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Clark said.

While Collins is willing to present her demands for the Equality Act in the open, other supporters of the Equality Act aren’t willing to address them publicly. The Human Rights Campaign, which had endorsed Collins’ Democratic challenger in the last election, declined to comment for this article. The office of Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) didn’t respond to a request Thursday to comment on whether the House would accept the proposed changes.

The White House also didn’t respond to a request for comment. President Biden ran in the 2020 election on making the Equality Act his No. 1 legislative priority and said he’d sign it within 100 days of his administration. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told the Blade Biden would reach out to lawmakers “when given the opportunity” on the Equality Act, but stopped short of saying he’d support ending the filibuster to get the legislation to his desk.

One of the proposed changes articulated by Collins, granting faith-based community partners like Catholic Charities more leeway in the name of religious liberty, may be made for lawmakers by another branch of government. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which will determine whether Catholic Social Services has a First Amendment right to reject child placement into families for being LGBTQ and maintain a taxpayer-funded contract with the city.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic Social Services, the First Amendment protection to discrimination would stand regardless of whatever the Equality Act would enshrine in law.

One option for the proposed changes is a separate bill on the issues without making any changes to the text of the Equality Act. When the American Rescue Plan came before the Senate, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) proposed an amendment that would have defunded schools and universities for allowing transgender kids in sports. The amendment failed, but won bipartisan support from Collins and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

When the Blade followed up via email on the potential Supreme Court ruling and the possibility of holding votes on these issues independent of the Equality Act, a Collins aide said she isn’t “precluding paths forward” and “open to all different ways to get this done.”

“For example, in 2013, Congress just focused on employment discrimination, and we just did that bill,” the aide added. “We are truly just not cosponsoring this specific bill text at this specific time.”

Collins has a reputation of being the most pro-LGBTQ Republican over the decades she’s been in the Senate, having bucked her party to vote against a Federal Marriage Amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage nationwide during the Bush years. Collins also had a leading role in hate crimes legislation, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The reputation, however, has been marred by her recent vote for the amendment against transgender kids in sports.

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

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