The White House endorsed legislation Tuesday that would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the Obama administration had been reviewing the bill “for several weeks.”
“Upon that review it is now clear that the administration strongly supports the Equality Act,” he said. “That bill is historic legislation that would advance the cause of equality for millions of Americans.
“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 . . . with the religious liberty that we hold dear in this country,” Earnest added.
Although there is little chance that this Congress will approve the legislation — which was introduced in July by Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Cory Booker (N.J.), and Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) — President Obama’s support elevates the question of whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans need greater legal safeguards. Last week, Houston voters rejected an ordinance that would have barred discrimination against gay and transgender people after opponents said it would allow men disguised as women to enter women’s restrooms.
The White House’s endorsement of the Equality Act came on the same day that Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to be featured on the cover of an LGBT publication, after he was named Out magazine’s “Ally of the Year” for 2015.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in June to legalize same-sex marriage, activists have been pressing for expanded protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity beyond employment discrimination, which had been the focus of past legislation. A bill that would have banned workplace discrimination passed the Senate with bipartisan support in 2013 but did not advance in the House.
With Republicans now in control of both chambers of Congress, there is little chance that the Equality Act, which has the support of 37 Democrats and two independents in the Senate and 170 Democrats in the House, will become law before Obama leaves office.
Still, the decision by the nation’s first African American president to back the measure is significant. Some leading civil rights groups — including the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — have been slow to endorse the legislation.
Although those groups support the idea of a broad LGBT anti-discrimination bill, they have been skeptical about reopening the landmark 1964 law for revisions.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in an interview that the civil rights community has “supported the concept of the Equality Act from its very inception.”
“It recognizes, however, there are questions that could benefit from further analysis,” he added. “Before it moves forward, there’s hope that those can be addressed.”
A majority of Americans, including Republicans, say in public surveys that they back civil rights safeguards based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Over the past six months, for example, the Public Religion Research Institute has found overall support at 68 percent or higher.
After Earnest’s announcement Tuesday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement that “the White House sent a strong message that it’s time to put the politics of discrimination behind us once and for all.”
“The unfortunate reality is that, while LGBT Americans can legally get married, millions remain at risk of being fired or denied services for who they are or who they love because the majority of states still lack explicit, comprehensive non-discrimination protections,” Griffin added.
Conservatives argue that the Equality Act would infringe on those Americans who object to homosexuality and being transgender on religious grounds. In July, the conservative Witherspoon Institute published an essay by Andrew T. Walker saying that, if enacted, the bill would “further erode religious liberty, transform public opinion on sexuality, and harm the public perception of those who believe in traditional or biblical sexual morality.”
The White House announcement comes after media coverage of celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, as well as a series of lawsuits, has increased the profile of transgender people. Jenner accepted a “Woman of the Year” award from Glamour magazine Monday night; Cox was one of the recipients last year.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Iowa and lawyers at the Des Moines firm Babich Goldman filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission against Drury Inn for discriminating against a black transgender woman in July.
Meagan Taylor and a friend, who also is black and transgender, checked into the hotel in West Des Moines on their way to a funeral and were interrogated by the staff there, according to the complaint. At some point between check-in and the next morning, the ACLU statement says, Drury Inn staff members called the police to report that they suspected Taylor and her friend were prostitutes because they were “men dressed like women,” and Taylor was arrested and held in solitary confinement.
Local police charged Taylor with possessing hormone pills without a copy of the prescription, but those charges were later dropped.
“This ordeal was humiliating, scary and traumatizing,” Taylor said in the complaint. “I realized I was not welcome in a public place simply because of who I am.”