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Equality Act introduced in House to provide sweeping LGBTQ protections

Parade-goers carry rainbow flags during the Pride March in New York, marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, in June 2019. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

Democratic U.S. lawmakers on Thursday introduced sweeping legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, marking the first step in advancing a set of historic measures that President Biden has pledged to sign.

The Equality Act would amend existing civil rights laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act, to explicitly ban LGBTQ discrimination in the workforce, housing, education, credit, jury service and other areas of American life.

If passed, the legislation would provide the most comprehensive LGBTQ civil rights protections in U.S. history, advocates say, significantly altering the legal landscape in a country where more than half of states lack explicit legal protections on the basis of sexuality or gender identity.

“Our nation was founded on the promise that all are created equal and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of who they are or whom they love,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “With the reintroduction of the Equality Act, Congressional Democrats are making a resounding commitment to this truth: that all Americans must be treated equally under the law, not just in the workplace, but in every place.”

Decades in the making, the Equality Act passed in the House in May 2019 but was blocked in the Republican-led Senate. Now, with Democratic control of the House, Senate and White House, the reintroduction of the bill represents the “best opportunity we have ever had to have comprehensive legal protections for LGBTQ people,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

Introduced by U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the Equality Act has broad support in the House, which will vote on the measure next week. But it will likely face opposition in the Senate, where it will need at least 10 Republicans to vote in favor of the bill.

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Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has said he would oppose the Equality Act because of its lack of “religious liberty protections.”

“Sen. Romney believes that strong religious liberty protections are essential to any legislation on this issue, and since those provisions are absent from this particular bill, he is not able to support it,” Arielle Mueller, a Romney spokesperson, said in a statement to the Washington Blade this week.

Republican lawmakers made similar arguments during an emotional House debate in 2019, saying the bill infringes on the rights of people whose faith-based convictions are opposed to same-sex marriage or other LGBTQ rights.

David, of the Human Rights Campaign, said gaining the necessary support from senators will require a “substantial amount of education and outreach to members of the Senate that are operating under, in some instances, fear and misinformation.”

“I’m optimistic that we have an opportunity to do this,” David said. “But, I should say, it will be hard work.”

The Equality Act has been a pillar of the LGBTQ civil rights movement since similar legislation was first discussed after the Stonewall riots in 1969. Democratic Reps. Bella Abzug and Ed Koch of New York first introduced the Equality Act in 1974.

In the ensuing decades, public opinion has shifted dramatically toward support of such protections. More than 8 in 10 Americans favor laws that would protect LGBTQ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing, according to a 2020 Public Religion Research Institute American Values Survey.

More than 21 states have passed laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations or other realms. But the patchwork of laws leave large gaps in LGBTQ protections. In 27 states, a person can be denied housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They can be denied access to education in 31 states and the right to serve on a jury in 41 states, according to a statement released by Cicilline’s office Thursday.

Biden pledged to make the Equality Act a policy priority during his first 100 days in office. On his first day, he also issued a sweeping executive order calling on agencies across the federal government to review existing regulations and policies that prohibit sex discrimination and to revise them as necessary to clarify that “sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

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The executive order implements last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that gay and transgender employees are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex.” The Equality Act would codify the ruling so that it can’t be rolled back by a future administration.

The Supreme Court ruling does not apply to two other sections of civil rights law — regarding all federally funded programs and public spaces and services — because they do not currently prohibit sex discrimination. The Equality Act would add sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity to these parts of the Civil Rights Act.

The legislation and moves by the Biden administration stand in stark contrast with efforts to roll back LGBTQ rights at the state level. Republican state lawmakers in more than a dozen states have relaunched campaigns to restrict transgender people’s access to medical care and school athletics.

“Across the country, state legislators are taking aim at transgender people, trying to deny us appropriate health care, prohibiting us from participating in school sports or denying us access to public facilities,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “The Equality Act does more than just expand nondiscrimination protections; it has the potential to dramatically change the lives of transgender people for the better.”

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