Dominic Holden, BuzzFeed News Reporter
Democrats in Congress plan to introduce broad legislation this week to protect LGBT people from discrimination — including in housing, workplaces, schools, and public accommodations. In effect, the Equality Act would extend the same raft of rights to LGBT Americans that are currently afforded to other protected groups, including people of color, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The bill marks the first major attempt by Democrats to advance LGBT rights in both chambers of Republican-led Congress since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in June.
The measure has been long in the works and attempts to get traction where a more narrowly tailored LGBT workplace nondiscrimination bill — known as ENDA — had faltered for years.
Conversely, the measure’s introduction coincides with a committee vote on a Republican-backed bill to protect people and organizations who disagree with same-sex couples marrying.
Rep. David Cicilline outlined goals for the LGBT-rights bill on Monday in a “dear colleagues” letter that requested co-sponsors. The Rhode Island congressman said he intends to introduce the measure later this week while Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon files a companion bill in the Senate.
“In most states, a same-sex couple can get married on Saturday, post pictures on Facebook on Sunday, and then risk being fired from their job or kicked out of their apartment on Monday,” said Cicilline’s letter. “A majority of states in our country do not have laws that protect LGBT individuals against discrimination.”
“We need a uniform federal standard that protects all LGBT Americans from
discrimination,” he said.
Provisions of the bill to ban discrimination in places of public accommodations may draw the most scrutiny, and elevate local debates over faith. Religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas became national lightning rods this spring, raising disagreement about whether business owners selling cakes or flowers to same-sex couples who are marrying compromised the moral rights of Christians.
But Allison Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates for LGBT rights and religious liberties, argues this should be an open and shut issue.
“Open for business means open for all,” Steinberg told BuzzFeed News. “A public serving business owner can’t turn someone away because of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, nor should they be allowed to deny someone service because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Despite Democrats finding the wind at their backs in terms of public opinion, it is unclear if their nondiscrimination bill will have sufficient backing from Democrats to constitute a full court press in the Republican-led chambers, or if, rather, the bill amounts to a liberal building block for LGBT rights over the next few years.
Four times this year, a majority of the GOP-controlled senate has voted for LGBT rights legislation, but no bill has received the 60 votes needed to overcome a threatened filibuster. Still, those majorities may reflect a warming trend for LGBT legislation.
Last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that sexual orientation-based discrimination was protected under existing civil rights law, echoing an earlier decision based on gender identity-based discrimination. The decision applies to the federal government and guides, but is not controlling as to, courts facing similar disputes.
The LGBT rights bill would “provide explicit, consistent protections for sexual orientation and gender identity,” Cicilline’s letter said. He explained the bill would cover seven areas of federal law: People who are credit worthy could not be refused loans, leases, or credit cards for being LGBT; public education institutions that receive federal money could not discriminate against LGBT students; otherwise qualified employees and job applicants could not be discriminated against in hiring, promotion, or firing; LGBT renters and home buyers could not be discriminated against in leasing or purchasing homes, securing home loans, or using brokerage services; people could not be held off of juries or denied federal funding for being LGBT; and finally, people could not be refused services in places of public accommodation, from hotels to stores, based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
“There is an unacceptable patchwork of state-level protections for LGBT people, and more than half of LGBT Americans live in a state that lack fully-inclusive non-discrimination laws,” Chad Griffin, president of LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
“A federal non-discrimination bill will create permanent and clear protections to ensure that all employees are hired, fired or promoted based on their performance,” he said.
The bill is set to be introduced the same week a committee vote is scheduled on the First Amendment Defense Act. That GOP-led bill would bar the federal government from revoking tax exemptions or denying benefits because an individual or organization believes marriage should be reserved for opposite sex couples.
Sixty-nine percent of American voters — including 51% of Republicans — want a federal law that prohibits discriminating against someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a national poll released in April. The poll was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and commissioned by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy organization.
On the issue of religious freedom, a Reuters poll in April found 54% of Americans believed a business should not be allowed to deny services based on their religious beliefs, while only 28% said a business should be allowed to do so.