Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) speaks at the reintroduction of the Equality Act at the U.S. Capitol on May 2. Washington Blade photo by Michael Key

In Uphill Fight, Democrats Make Case for Equality Act

BY CHRIS JOHNSON, WASHINGTON BLADE

President Trump's November victory and Republican majorities in Congress aren't stopping Democrats from reintroducing legislation seeking to enshrine into law comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

At an event Tuesday at the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), lead sponsors of the legislation in their respective chambers of Congress, touted the Equality Act as a means to extend LGBT progress in the face of current obstacles.

Cicilline, lead sponsor of the Equality Act in the U.S. House, said the legislation has more supporters than ever in the House and "reflects the simple idea that everyone, including members of the LGBT community, is entitled to equal treatment under the law and right to live free of discrimination."

"It's long past time to guarantee that equal protection under the law applies to every single American regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that's exactly what the Equality Act will accomplish," Cicilline said.

Merkley, lead sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, said the Equality Act is the answer to the question of what constitutes a just and equal society.

"Every American deserves to be treated with dignity and respect," Merkley said. "Every American deserves to be able to pursue their full potential without the door of discrimination being slammed in their face. When we pass the Equality Act, non-discrimination will be the law of the land here in America once and for all, and that day could not come sooner."

As when it was first introduced in the previous Congress, the Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit.

The bill also seeks to update federal law to include gender in the list of protected classes in public accommodation in addition to expanding the definition of public accommodations to include retail stores, banks, transportation services and health care services. Further, the Equality Act would establish that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- a 1994 law aimed at protecting religious liberty -- can't used to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) invoked the recent ruling from the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that found anti-gay discrimination on the job constitutes sex discrimination under current law, but said the Equality Act is needed to expand protections into other areas.

"Now we must pass the Equality Act to remove all doubt that sexual orientation and gender identity warrant civil rights protection, not just in the workplace, but every place," Pelosi said.

Lawmakers at the event characterized the legislation as an effort to make a distinction between supporters of LGBT rights and their opposition in the White House and Congress.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, lamented being at "a different place" with Trump in the White House than expected when Hillary Clinton was leading in the polls.

"The truth is there has never been a more important time to keep up this fight, to lay out a vision for the kind of country that we all know we can be and to come together to pass the Equality Act," Murray said. "Since the moment he walked into the White House, President Trump has laid out a hateful, damaging agenda to undo the hard won progress for the LGBTQ community."

Upon its reintroduction in the 115th Congress, the Equality Act has a greater number of total co-sponsors in the House and Senate than ever before. The legislation has 195 co-sponsors in the House and 46 co-sponsors in the Senate. But the only Republican co-sponsor in either chamber is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), an LGBT-supportive Republican who this weekend said she plans to retire from Congress at the end of next year.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been a Republican who has taken the lead on pro-LGBT measures in the past, such as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but isn't an Equality Act co-sponsor. The Washington Blade has placed a call to her office seeking comment on why she doesn't co-sponsor the bill.

The remaining co-sponsors are all members of the Democratic caucuses. In the House, the only two Democrats who aren't co-sponsors are Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.). Lipinski is a rare member of the Democratic caucus who's known for holding anti-LGBT views. In the Senate, the only two Democrats who aren't co-sponsors are Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)

Despite the lack of Republican support in a Republican Congress, Cicilline expressed confidence Congress would approve the measure if the measure is allowed to come up for a vote when asked by a reporter about GOP support.

"It's like so many things: The ultimate decision on whether or not this bill comes to the floor for a vote rests with the speaker of the House," Cicilline said. "I have every confidence that if the bill came to the floor it would pass because I think most members of Congress recognize voting to continue practices of discrimination against individuals is un-American, and we would be successful in passing it."

On the same day Democrats reintroduced the Equality Act, the Center for American Progress unveiled the results of a new report titled "Widespread Discrimination Continues to Shape LGBT People's Lives in Both Subtle and Significant Ways," which found 1 in 4 LGBT people report having experienced discrimination in 2016.

Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president of external affairs for the Center for American Progress, cited the pervasive discrimination found in the report as she made the case for the Equality Act.

"Two years ago, we introduced the Equality Act on the heels of marriage equality's victory at the Supreme Court," Stachelberg said. "At that time, progress on LGBT rights was heralded as inevitable. It is true that we have made progress toward that more perfect union, yet we stand here two years later with the sword of discrimination hanging over our heads and without an iron clad shield of federal civil rights laws to protect us."

The Equality Act has been a source of heartburn for members of the civil rights community who fear the consequences of moving to the floor legislation that seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act. Poison pill or "religious freedom" amendments to the Equality Act could weaken the historic measure if they become law along with the Equality Act.

But that seems to be abating. Of the 47 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 46 are co-sponsors, including Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Cedric Richmond, chair of the caucus. That's up from the last Congress when just more than two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus were co-sponsors of the legislation.

Wade Henderson, outgoing CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, expressed support for the goals of the Equality Act in a statement upon introduction without explicitly endorsing the measure.

"We welcome the introduction of the Equality Act of 2017, which would provide comprehensive civil rights protections to the LGBTQ community," Henderson said. "It is shameful that LGBTQ Americans in many parts of the country remain vulnerable to discrimination in housing, credit, education, employment, and public accommodations. The Leadership Conference stands ready to work with Congress to pass long-overdue federal protections that help ensure equal opportunity and dignity for all LGBTQ Americans."

Trump is unlikely to support the legislation given anti-LGBT actions from the administration, such as reversal of Obama-era guidance protecting transgender kids from discrimination in school and ensuring they have access to school restrooms consistent with their gender identity. (The Equality Act was introduced just hours before a breaking news report in Politico that Trump intends to sign on Thursday a "religious freedom" executive order, which critics fear would enable anti-LGBT discrimination.)

However, 17 years ago, Trump was quoted as saying in an interview with The Advocate he supported amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation, which is a core component of the Equality Act.

"I like the idea of amending the the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include a ban of discrimination based on sexual orientation," Trump reportedly said. "It would be simple. It would be straightforward. We don't need to rewrite the laws currently on the books, although I do think we need to address hate-crimes legislation. But amending the Civil Rights Act would grant the same protection to gay people that we give to other Americans -- it's only fair."

Trump hasn't explicitly addressed whether that remains his position during his presidential campaign or since the time he has occupied the White House. The Washington Blade has repeatedly placed requests to the White House since the start of the Trump administration seeking comment on whether Trump's stated position from 17 years ago still holds.

In response to a question from the Washington Blade on Trump's remarks from 2000, Cicilline said he's aware of the comments, but added, "I don't know that is his current position."

"It's obvious he made that statement, but if you look at the conduct and the decisions and the rhetoric the president's used since taking office and even over the course of his campaign, it's difficult to have a lot of confidence that he's going to be a great advocate for the Equality Act, but welcome his support if that's the case," Cicilline said.

On Trump potentially supporting the Equality Act, Merkley said, "I think that the president could start by not continuing to nominate individuals who support discrimination."

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National Gay Media Association.
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