Washington, D.C.- The Senate is considering House-passed legislation that would broaden federal protections for LGBTQ Americans against discrimination in housing, employment, and public services ranging from retail stores to doctors’ offices.
Advocates for the Equality Act are hoping chances for final passage have improved since the Democrats last November won narrow control of the Senate.
“In 29 states today, LGBTQ Americans can be married in the morning, rejected from a restaurant at lunch, denied a mortgage, dismissed from jury duty in the afternoon, and evicted from their home that same night,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, a proponent of the bill, said at a March 17 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “How can we say that any of these Americans are treated equally in dignity and promise to all others?”
The Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not only providing protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or sexual identity in housing, work and public accommodations, but also in education, federally-funded programs, credit and jury service.
LGBTQ Americans can currently lose their jobs in 21 states just for being LGBTQ, according to Christian Unkenholz, press secretary for Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Largo, They can be denied housing in 27 states, denied public accommodations in 25 states, denied education in 31 states, and denied the right to serve on a jury in 41 states.
The bill has twice passed the House – once in 2019, and again this year on Feb. 25, on a vote of 224-206. Just three House Republicans joined Democrats in approving the measure.
President Joe Biden has promised to sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk.
“Every person should be treated with dignity and respect, and this bill represents a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all,” he said in a Feb. 19 statement. “Full equality has been denied to LGBTQ+ Americans and their families for far too long. Despite the extraordinary progress the LGBTQ+ community has made to secure their basic civil rights, discrimination is still rampant in many areas of our society.”
However, the Equality Act remains a deeply partisan issue. Many Republicans in Congress say they fear what the bill would do to women’s rights under Title IX.
“Although this act supports the prevention of discrimination, it actually causes it by undermining hard-fought protections for women,” Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Mississippi, told the hearing.
The Equality Act would ensure that transgender women and girls are allowed to share private spaces such as bathrooms, dressing rooms, and locker rooms with cisgender women, which many opponents are concerned about.
The proposed law’s impact on women in sports also has fueled opposition. Chelsea Mitchell, a high school star athlete in Connecticut, told senators she thought it was unfair that she had to compete with transgender women who had a physical advantage over her.
“Losing a state championship is hard, but losing one because the race isn’t fair is gut-wrenching,” Mitchell said.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, said he worried about a lack of religious exemptions. The Equality Act would categorize churches as “public accommodations as an establishment.”
“Deeming houses of worship as public accommodations subjects them to needless litigation, and the Equality Act would literally strip them of the very defense they were given in 1993,” Lankford said.
But proponents of the bill emphasized at the hearing how crucial the Equality Act is for LGBTQ Americans.
“Our nation is at its best when it seeks to expand opportunity and embrace the beautiful diversity of the American people,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, the first openly LGBTQ senator, said during the March 17 hearing.
Baldwin said that the Equality Act is not about diminishing the rights of others, but making the nation’s decades-old framework inclusive of LGBTQ people and affording them more opportunities.
Stella Keating, a high school student from Tacoma, Washington, said in her testimony that she is worried as a transgender woman about how less than half of the states in the United States provide equal protection for her under the law.
“What happens if I want to attend college in a state that doesn’t protect me?” Keating asked. “Right now, I could be denied medical care or be evicted for simply being transgender in many states. How is that even right? How is that even American?”
Proponents of the Equality Act point to broad public support for the measure.
A poll released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that more than three in four (76 percent) Americans favor laws that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodation. Less than one in five (19 percent) oppose such protections.
The Equality Act also is supported by over 600 organizations across the political spectrum, the chief sponsor, Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, said. The organizations include the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the National PTA, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Hundreds of American companies, such as Kellogg’s and Hershey’s, also support his bill, Cicilline said.
This article originally published on CNSMaryland.org on Friday, March 26, 2021.