With a new poll showing more than three-quarters of all Americans support the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, Democrats in both houses of Congress today introduced the most significant new legislation to protect LGBT people from discrimination.
The Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal laws. But without support from the opposition, Republicans in control of both House and Senate are unlikely to pass this bill.
"This commonsense legislation is long overdue. I stand with my colleagues in support of these vital protections for members of the LGBT community.” said Sen. Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader.
Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Cory Booker of New Jersey are the lead sponsors in the Senate; David Cicilline of Rhode Island, also a Democrat, is the lead sponsor in the House.
“In most states, you can get married on Saturday, post your wedding photos to Facebook on Sunday, and then get fired on Monday just because of who you are," said Cicilline at a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill. "This is completely wrong. Fairness and equality are core American values. No American citizen should ever have to live their lives in fear of discrimination. I am introducing the Equality Act today with 157 House co-sponsors in order to ensure that LGBT Americans have the same rights and protections afforded to all other Americans.”
“The time has come for us as a nation to be bolder and better in ensuring full rights for the LGBT community,” said Sen. Merkley. “Every person deserves to live free from fear of discrimination, regardless of who they are or whom they love."
Sen. Baldwin told reporters, “It’s now time to take bold legislative action and pass on to the next generation an America that is more equal, not less. Every American deserves the freedom and opportunity to dream the same dreams, chase the same ambitions, and have the same shot at success.”
Sen. Booker added: “Brave men and women in every generation throughout America’s history have mustered the conviction to fight for freedom and equality against all odds - from abolitionists and suffragettes to civil rights activists. With each fight for justice, ordinary people have challenged our nation to become a more perfect union. The Equality Act builds on the work of those who have struggled and fought for LGBT rights by extending basic civil rights protections that must be guaranteed to every American."
The Equality Act would include protections in public accommodations, public education, employment, housing, federal funding, jury service, legal protections, and credit. The bill would also clarify that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be used to defend discrimination against LGBT people.
The proposed legislation also clarifies that sex-segregated facilities must admit individuals in accordance to their gender identity, and that it applies to anyone discriminated against because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or association with a protected class.
Just hours after the bill was introduced, the Williams Institute at UCLA released a new studyshowing a whopping 78 percent support federal protections from discrimination for LGBT people. If passed, the Equality Act would protect the rights of 9.5 million Americans, according to the institute.
Civil Rights legend Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who marched on Selma 50 years ago, is a cosponsor. “This legislation is what justice requires, and like the recent Supreme Court decision, it is long overdue. No longer should America turn her back on our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters. We must come together to create one nation and one people, a country free of hate, free of fear, and that respects dignity and worth of every human being.”
“This bill is about justice. It is about freedom,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said. “The Equality Act is about ensuring that every American – no matter who they love, no matter who they are – can enjoy the full blessings of American democracy.”
“No one should be faced with the threat of being fired or discrimination in the workplace simply because of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. “Neither should anyone be denied housing, health care, educational opportunities, or other services for the same reasons. America was founded on the principle that all are created equal and ought to have an equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream."
Sen. Baldwin and Rep. Cicilline are both out legislators while Senators Merkley, Lewis and Booker, as well as Rep. Hoyer, are forceful allies for LGBT rights.
Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder, Colo., the first openly gay person to successfully run for Congress and the first openly gay parent to serve in Congress, said in a statement: “The Equality Act is a historic piece of civil rights legislation, and the principle at its core could not be simpler: discrimination is wrong, no matter what form it takes, whom it targets, or where it occurs.” Polis is the senior most co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.
“In a nation built on the foundation of equality and individual liberty, no person should ever be fired from a job, bullied at school, evicted from their home, or turned away from a business simply because of who they are or who they love."
Rep. Barbara Lee, named “statistically the most pro-LGBT member of Congress” by ThinkProgress in 2012, issued this statement: "LGBT Americans in 31 states currently lack protections from discrimination. They can be fired, evicted, denied loans and rejected from jury duty simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s simply wrong... With the introduction of the Equality Act, we must recommit ourselves to the unfinished work of ending discrimination, in all its forms, against LGBT individuals and against all Americans.”
Support also came from religious leaders. corporations and non-LGBT civil rights organizations, such as the National Black Justice Coalition: “When a person is both Black and LGBT, discrimination—and the evils of blatant and systemic racism—is too common place and faced on a number of levels that are fundamentally unacceptable in a democracy. As such, NBJC supports the Equality Act, which would provide vital legal protections to so many in the Black LGBT community who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination in our nation.” said Sharon Lettman-Hicks, NBJC Executive Director and CEO.
The NBJC statement quoted a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, which found 3.7 percent of all adult African Americans identify as LGBT. That amounts to more than one million Black LGBT Americans. And many of them live in states that often lack non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement:
"The LGBT community has gotten only piecemeal solutions to their second-class citizenship— like marriage equality, coverage under hate crimes legislation, and open participation in military service – and we stand united in agreement that the time for comprehensive federal LGBT civil rights protections is now."
The executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Mara Keisling, was on hand for the announcement of the bill, and wrote a compelling op-ed for The Advocate about why the act is needed to protect transgender and all members of the LGBT community. A trans man named Caleb E. wrote a letter to the media on behalf of NCTE:
"We’re changing the game today. Congress just introduced the bill we’ve been waiting for—the Equality Act. As our movement’s new flagship LGBT bill, the Equality Act would make clear and comprehensive LGBT nondiscrimination protections in employment, education, housing, and public accommodations the law.
"When I was fired for being trans, I wanted nothing except to have protections like this. The bill’s introduction today is bittersweet—while I’m overjoyed that this bill could help thousands of others, I’m saddened that, while Congress works its way to law, hundreds of others like me will not have clear and secure protections and could still lose their jobs for being who they are."
The Human Rights Campaign applauded the bill's introduction. "The time has come for full federal equality -- nothing more, nothing less," said HRC president Chad Griffin.
"While America is now a marriage equality nation, the tragic reality is that millions of LGBT Americans face persistent discrimination in their lives each and every day. In most states in this country, a couple who gets married at 10 AM is at risk of being fired from their jobs by noon and evicted from their home by 2 PM, simply for posting their wedding photos online. Congress must pass the Equality Act to ensure that LGBT people and their families are just as safe at work or at school as they are in their marriages."
Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, added that this is not a cure-all: "it does not solve every problem facing LGBTQ people and their families, such as the ongoing anti-transgender violence, the racial profiling by local police, the need to restore the Voting Rights Act, and the need to fix the nation’s broken immigration system."
Kris Hayashi, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, echoed that sentiment in her statement about "the epidemic levels of violence and discrimination for trans and gender-nonconforming people.
"Just this week, we learned of the murder of a Black transgender woman in Florida – the tenth confirmed murder of a transgender woman this year. Transgender women are held in prisons, jails, and immigration detention facilities with men, where the state subjects them to horrific abuse and assault. A majority of states and the federal government still lack explicit protections for transgender employees, and employers exploit that lack, despite significant rulings from the EEOC in two cases brought by Transgender Law Center holding that discrimination based on gender identity violates existing federal laws against sex discrimination.
Hayashi added that in addition to these efforts, more must be done "to end the detention of transgender immigrants, stop the ongoing criminalization and murder of Black communities, and ensure all transgender and gender nonconforming people have the opportunity to stay alive and thrive as their authentic selves.”
Also focused on trans equality was MassEquality Director of Legislative and Political Affairs Krina Patel, who released this statement: “In Massachusetts, transgender people are not explicitly protected under the law in public accommodations, and several states have significantly fewer statewide protections. Now more than ever, we must continue to fight on both the federal and statewide levels so that all LGBTQ people are provided comprehensive legal protections.”
"The Equality Act will go a long way toward enabling LGBT people to participate as equal members of society," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in a statement. "But as we pursue expanded protection for LGBT civil rights, we are mindful that the civil rights of many – particularly communities of color – remain far from secure even fifty years after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We at NCLR remain committed to working arm-in-arm with our allies to work toward a day when no one’s rights and opportunities are denied because of who they are.”
“The Equality Act will provide clear and comprehensive protections both in New England and throughout the entire country, as well as send a clear message from our federal government that ongoing discrimination against LGBT Americans in employment, housing, and public accommodations is unacceptable in 2015 and must stop,” said Janson Wu, Executive Director ofGay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.
The measure has been in the works for months, as The Advocate reported in April. It was first announced by Merkley in December. The codirectors of GetEQUAL, Heather Cronk and Angela Peoples, wrote in an Advocate op-ed last month that they saw the legislation as “dangerous,” fearing right-wing lawmakers would not only strip the bill of its intended protections with amendments, but also gut the civil rights laws being amended.
The Equality Act would make sweeping changes to federal civil rights law. One of the most notable, and likely controversial, sections would expand the list of businesses listed as public accommodations to include banks, retail stores, and companies that provide transportation and health care services — covering nearly every business that provides goods or services.
Republicans in Congress have been rushing to the defense of businesses like florists and bakers who've refused to provide services for same-sex couples getting married. They argue that the business owners' religious freedom is being violated and have introduced federal legislation that would allow them to discriminate. The first committee hearing on the Republican bill will coincide with the introduction of the Equality Act. Similar laws in Indiana and Arkansas have drawn fire in the past year as opponents characterized it as legalized discrimination against LGBT people.
The Equality Act would also amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include employment protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Religious beliefs, race, sex, color, and national origin are already protected characteristics. The bill would not change existing religious exemptions for religious corporations, schools, and associations to make hiring decisions based on religious beliefs if the employee will be performing work connected with their religious activities.
It would pertain to any public or private businesses with more than 15 employees as well as labor organizations. This is the same standard currently in place in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The bill would also update the Government Employees Rights Act of 1991 and the Civil Service Reform Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity protections for federal and District of Columbia government employees.
Other areas covered in the sweeping legislation include nondiscrimination protections for those seeking child welfare, public education, student loans, healthcare or nutrition assistance. LGBT people would also be protected from discrimination in any aspect of purchasing or renting a house.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Jury Service and Selection Act would also be amended to include sexual orientation and gender identity protections and would update the terms "husband" and "wife" to the more inclusive designation of "spouse."
Religious leaders like Rabbi Jack Moline, director of Interfaith Alliance, also lent their voice in support of the bill, which he said "accomplishes this push toward a more complete equality without creating a new religious exemption. The tension between civil rights and religious freedom is neither unprecedented nor unmanageable. By drawing on the existing religious exemptions that have shaped these civil rights laws for decades, this bill ensures that anti-LGBT animus is not considered more legitimate, more worthy of protection, than any other form of religious belief.”
Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Federation, said in a statement:
“My college-age daughter and her friends can only imagine a world where everyone is equal. The time has come. The Equality Act would provide permanent protections so that every American has a fair chance to earn a living and provide for their families, including LGBT people. Employees should be hired, fired and promoted based on their performance, not their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Empire State Pride Agenda’s Executive Director Nathan M. Schaefer called the Equality Act "sorely-needed legislation that would embrace LGBTQ Americans into the legal protections that form the bedrock of modern civil rights. When lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning Americans look across the nation now, they see a patchwork of jurisdictions that secure the rights of Americans of all genders and sexual orientations and those that do not. “
“A patchwork of state-level laws protecting LGBTQ citizens is unacceptable," said Summer Foster, legislative director of Equality Michigan. "While we remain cautiously optimistic that such legislation can be signed into law, we must continue our efforts to modernize Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. LGBTQ Michiganians, as well as all LGBTQ Americans, should not be in fear of losing a job or being turned away when seeking accommodations or services merely because of whom they love.”
Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, the state’s oldest and largest LGBT advocacy organization, boasted that “if states are the laboratories of democracy, then Illinois has proven that we can protect LGBT Americans with a strong but fair law that balances religious freedom. We fought long and hard for and are proud of the non-discrimination protections enshrined in Illinois law. However, when a LGBT Illinoisan crosses the Mississippi River into Missouri or crosses the border into Indiana, his or her legal protections vanish. For example, they can be denied a hotel room or a restaurant meal or a job simply for being who they are,” Cherkasov said. “This is unacceptable and proof of the need for the Equality Act.”
According to Grant Stancliff, communications director for Equality Ohio. “LGBTQ people have always been part of our Ohio communities. When it comes to earning a living, having a place to live, or being served by a business or government office, they should not be discriminated against and should be treated like anyone else.”
Among major corporations, Apple stands alone with an out CEO, Tim Cook. The company released a statement, declaring: “At Apple we believe in equal treatment for everyone, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how they worship or who they love. We fully support the expansion of legal protections as a matter of basic human dignity.”
Dow Chemical issued a statement as well: “Dow applauds the introduction of the Equality Act and continues to support a comprehensive federal framework that ensures fairness and opportunity for everyone. Full inclusion of our LGBT colleagues and citizens is quite simply the right thing to do – for business and for society.”
And jeansmaker Levi Strauss & Company said in a statement it "is proud to support the Equality Act. We have a long history of supporting LGBT equality, and the time has come in this country for full, federal equality for the LGBT community. Ensuring fairness in our workplaces and communities is both the right thing to do and simply good business.”
The HRC noted each of these three major companies scored a perfect 100 on HRC’s annualCorporate Equality Index, a nationally recognized benchmark of LGBT inclusion in the workplace, and were recognized on HRC’s list of Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality in 2015.
And organized labor is onboard as well. Jerome Davis, executive director of the AFL-CIO groupPride at Work, said in a statement: “The promise of the Equality Act is that it seeks to add protections far beyond the workplace by addressing public accommodations, housing, and much more.” Marc Perrone, International President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, added:
“Currently union contracts are often the only protection LGBTQ workers and their families have to combat discrimination. Our UFCW family strongly supports full equality for LGBTQ people both at home and on the job. We support the basic right for everyone to have employment opportunities and to keep their job regardless sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression. Our legislators should follow the path that labor has set for LGBTQ equality and protections. For the better America we all believe in, I urge Congress to pass the Equality Act.”
Given the political dynamic in Washington, observers say passage of the legislation is unlikely in this Congress. No Republican cosponsors have been announced so far. Instead, conservatives have focused on measures that would prevent the federal government from revoking tax exemptions or fining businesses that discriminate against same-sex couples.