WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday is set to pass sweeping legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, though it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
The Equality Act would amend existing federal civil rights laws to extend protections for LGBTQ Americans in what Democratic lawmakers and advocates say would make significant progress toward legal protections for all Americans. It is one of President Joe Biden’s top legislative priorities.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who has introduced versions of the bill in each session of Congress since 2015, said he was “excited” to see the likely passage of the bill in the House.
“In many ways,” the coming vote showed how Congress was “catching up to the rest of the country” on LGBTQ rights, he said, citing shifts in public opinion in support of anti-discrimination legislation. The legislation was “long overdue,” he told USA TODAY.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Wednesday that the bill “makes sure the LGBTQ community is protected in all of its rights, not just some. … We think that’s the right thing to do.”
Nine members of the House openly identify as LGBTQ and two in the Senate, amounting to about 2% of each chamber. A recent Gallup Poll showed a record 5.6% of U.S. adults identified as LGBTQ.
More:‘Society is changing’: A record 5.6% of US adults identify as LGBTQ, poll shows. And young people are driving the numbers.
What would the act do?
The legislation amends civil rights laws such as the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin, to include protections on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. It also would prohibit such discrimination in public places, on transportation and in government-funded programs.
Although many states have enacted anti-discrimination laws, advocates such as the Human Rights Campaign argue that today’s “patchwork” of laws across states leaves LGBTQ Americans vulnerable to discrimination.
The Supreme Court’s ruling last June in the case Bostock v. Clay County extended workplace protections to LGBTQ Americans, but groups such as the National Women’s Law Center say the legislation would codify the court’s decision and create explicit federal protections for LGBTQ Americans beyond the workplace.
Who supports and opposes the act?
The House passed a similar version of the bill in May 2019, but it died in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. Eight Republicans voted for it in 2019, though no Republicans have co-sponsored this year’s version of the legislation.
Hoyer told reporters Wednesday that he expected every Democrat to vote for the legislation again and that he hoped a “large number of Republicans” would vote for it.
House Republican leaders are recommending GOP lawmakers vote against the legislation, but they aren’t pushing members on the decision, calling it a “vote of conscience,” according to a House Republican leadership aide not authorized to speak on the record.
The White House says it supports the bill, and Biden has pledged to sign it into law in his first 100 days in office.
Some conservatives have expressed concerns that the legislation could infringe upon religious liberty or lead to inequality in athletic competitions if transgender women compete against cisgender women.
The conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposes the bill, says it could threaten religious freedoms, give transgender athletes an unfair advantage and harm constitutional freedoms.
Cicilline countered that the athletics argument was a “non-issue,” arguing there was not evidence more transgender athletes were competing in women’s sports or had a greater rate of success than cisgender female athletes. He also said that concerns from religious organizations would be allayed by the bill’s structure and that previous religious exemptions in civil rights law would “apply the same way.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who opposes the legislation, disrupted a procedural debate over the measure on Wednesday, drawing the ire of her Democratic colleagues.
Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., whose office sits across from Greene’s, put a transgender flag outside her office “so she can look at it every time she opens her door.”
What are the odds the bill passes the Senate?
The bill is very likely to pass the Democratic-controlled House, but it faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democratic caucus members, with Vice President Kamala Harris in a tiebreaking role. It would need at least 10 Republicans to vote with all Democrats to advance the bill past a key procedural obstacle called the filibuster.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who introduced the Senate’s version of the legislation, said he supported ending the filibuster but said ending the measure probably was not a “conversation we’re going to win this particular year.”
Instead, he said, he wanted the Senate to act in a “bipartisan fashion” as it had with other legislation ending forms of discrimination in the workplace.
Merkley said that “when doors are slammed through discrimination” based on whom people love, it was an affront to the founding American ideal of “opportunity and fairness and justice for all.”
Contributing: Susan Miller