The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House passes bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) joined at right by Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) before the House voted on legislation that modifies existing civil rights law to extend anti-discrimination protections to LGBT Americans. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The House passed sweeping legislation Friday to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity after an emotional debate that underscored the divide between the two parties.

Democrats cast the decades-in-the-making move to change the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a historic step to extend protections to LGBTQ Americans, with several gay and bisexual lawmakers emphasizing the need for the bill called the Equality Act.

Republicans warned of the threat to religious freedom and argued that the measure could undermine women’s rights, with men who identify as women taking spots on women’s sports teams and denying them athletics scholarships.

The bill would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education, jury service and federal financing, protecting people from being fired or harassed for their sexuality or gender identity.

As Democrats cheered and applauded, the bill passed 236-to-173, with eight Republicans breaking ranks and joining all Democrats in backing the measure. It is unlikely to get a vote in the Republican-led Senate, and the White House has signaled President Trump would veto the measure if it ever reached his desk.

The Trump administration has taken several steps to roll back or limit rights for LGBTQ people, most notably Trump’s broad restriction on transgender people serving in the military.

Despite a sea change in the past decade in public opinion regarding gay rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage nationally, 30 states have no laws protecting people, and proponents argued that the measure would create a national standard.

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is openly gay and the chief sponsor of the measure, called it “a life-saving bill that addresses some of the fundamental inequality that still exists.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “no one should be forced to lose his or her job, their home or to live in fear because of who they are and whom they love.”

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, tweeted his approval and urged Americans to call senators and press for a vote.

“Thanks to the work of thousands of activists, organizers, and voters, the Equality Act has [in] passed the House. This is a historic moment for equal rights in America,” the South Bend, Ind., mayor wrote.

Republicans countered that the bill infringes on the religious beliefs of individuals and repeatedly raised the specter of women’s sports.

“It is bad for freedom to force small business owners all across this country to provide services or products to the public that may violate their deeply held faith-based convictions,” Rep. Ross Spano (R-Fla) said.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) said Democrats were making bad laws just to protect the feelings of “people who are gender confused or suffering gender dysphoria, the opposite of euphoria.”

And Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) described the bill as government-imposed discrimination against those Americans with “time-honored views” of marriage. She also wondered what would happen in future Olympics.

“It would only take three biological males who identify as female to prevent the best female athletes from reaching the medal stand,” Hartzler said.

Democrats dismissed the sports argument, with Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who identifies as bisexual, delivering an impassioned rebuke.

“I can’t believe I’m standing here and having a man telling me what protections I need,” she told GOP lawmakers, arguing that no transgender person is trying to “game the system to participate in sports.”

“You, my colleagues, are on the wrong side of history, and we will be waiting for you on the other side,” she said to applause from Democrats.

The bill had the support of many well-known businesses like Google, Apple and General Motors. After passage, IBM tweeted a statement, “While this is a historic milestone to be celebrated, we know there’s still much work ahead. IBM will continue to push for final passage of the Equality Act to prevent discrimination against Americans for being who they are.”