In a victory for LGBTQ rights, the House passed the Equality Act, a bill that would ban discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, on February 24.
All House Democrats and three House Republicans — Reps. John Katko (NY), Tom Reed (NY), and Brian Fitzpatrick (PA) — joined together to pass the bill, 224-206. Now, the legislation moves to the Senate, where it faces tougher opposition because it will need all 50 Democrats plus 10 Republican senators to pass it. The bill, which has been introduced four times in its current form but has existed since 1974, passed the House in 2019 but was blocked by the then-Republican-controlled Senate.
The Equality Act would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to explicitly enumerate LGBTQ+ Americans as a class protected from discrimination. While the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton last year that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity was unconstitutional under the “sex” provision in the Civil Rights Act — thereby extending protections in housing, education, and employment to LGBTQ people — the Equality Act would go further, banning discrimination for all federally funded programs and “public accommodations,” like stores, stadiums, rental establishments, and hotels.
That last feature has been a sticking point for religious groups because it would prohibit businesses from claiming religious freedom to deny service to LGBTQ+ Americans, in turn explicitly superseding 1993’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. To use a famous example, a bakery would no longer be able to deny its wedding cake services to a same-sex couple based on the owners’ religion if the Equality Act were passed.
LGBTQ groups lauded the bill’s passage in the House, noting the Equality Act was the culmination of decades of work from LGBTQ activists.
“At the Trevor Project, our crisis counselors constantly hear from LGBTQ young people who are negatively impacted by discrimination and stigma in their everyday life and want nothing more than to be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else,” Amit Paley, executive director of the Trevor Project, which provides crisis services to LGBTQ people under 25, told Vox. “We hope the Senate will act swiftly and send a strong message to LGBTQ young people that they deserve to be able to live their lives openly, proudly, and without fear.”
LGBTQ House Democrats also said the bill was a long-overdue step toward guaranteeing equal protection under the law.
“Today we send a powerful message to LGBTQ people around the country, and indeed around the world, that they are seen, that they are valued, that their lives are worthy of being protected,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), one of the first openly LGBTQ Black members of Congress.
.@RepMondaire, one of the first openly LGBTQ Black members of Congress, supports the #EqualityAct on the House floor:— Human Rights Campaign (@HRC) February 25, 2021
"To grow up poor, Black and gay is to not see yourself anywhere. It is also to feel completely unseen as so many people around invalidate your very existence." pic.twitter.com/xWzF9jrsmY
In a press conference, Democrats made direct appeals to their Republican colleagues in the Senate, saying the bill just extends the same protections to LGBTQ Americans as other protected classes.
“We want no more, nor should we accept any less,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), one of two openly LGBTQ senators, said.
They emphasized religious exemptions would apply the same way they do to race and sex. But a number of religious groups are lobbying against the bill, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Coalition for Jewish Values, which represents over 1500 Orthodox Jewish rabbis, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Religious opposition has been the crux of the GOP’s opposition, but Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has put Republicans in an awkward spot with her transphobic comments and actions over the vote this week, while Sen. Rand Paul spread transphobic misinformation at Dr. Rachel Levine’s confirmation hearing. Now, Republicans like Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) say the GOP needs to be more intentional in its anti-Equality Act messaging — making clear they are tangentially opposed to LGBTQ+ equality because of purported religious freedom arguments rather than explicitly homophobic and transphobic.
GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy group, countered that narrative, saying in a press release that majorities of all faith groups — which have significant LGBTQ+ populations — support anti-discrimination laws, including Catholics, Jews, and non-white Protestants.
In the Senate, there are a few Republicans who may vote in support of the bill. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) cosponsored the bill in 2019, though she said she will not do so this time because certain provisions “need revision.” Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have been supportive of LGBTQ+ rights before, though Portman said he could object on religious grounds. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) has already said he will oppose the bill.
When asked how the Senate plans to get 60 votes, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said he hopes the process will be like the 2013 Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a narrower bill that Democrats lobbied their Republican colleagues for to eventually get the requisite votes.
Correction, March 31: An earlier version of this piece misidentified Sen. Jeff Merkley.