Civil and Human Rights

House Stands for Gay Rights With Passage of Sweeping Equality Act

The House of Representatives passed a bill Friday that would expand longstanding civil rights legislation to protect women and members of the LGBT community from discrimination.

First introduced in 2015, the Equality Act or H.R. 5 inserts the words “sex,” “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” into bills like the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, thereby creating, for the first time in U.S. history, national nondiscrimination laws protecting transgender, gay and queer individuals.

The bill specifies that these groups cannot be discriminated against in areas such as employment, public accommodation, housing, education, access to credit or jury duty. To serve that end, the legislation also broadens the definition of “public accommodations” to include health care services and facilities, transportation services, banks, and retail businesses.

Sponsored by Representative David Cicilline, D-R.I., the bill also makes plain that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that preserves religious liberty, cannot be used as a way to discriminate against LGBT people in contravention of the Equality Act’s protections.

With unanimous Democratic support in the House and support from eight Republicans, the bill passed the House today 236-173. It is likely to die in the GOP-controlled Senate, however, where the bill has been criticized by Republican congressmen and women alike as an attempt to “erase” and undermine women’s rights.

In an op-ed for The Hill newspaper ahead of Friday’s vote, Representative Vicky Hartzler, a Republican from Montana, said the bill “enshrines inequality for women, girls, parents and children, into federal law.” Hartzler also called the bill an “imminent threat to the common good” because it requires “all federally funded programs ignore the biological differences between the sexes.”

Ian Thompson, senior legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, denied Hartzler’s characterizations of the bill.

“Far from ‘erasing’ women’s rights, the Equality Act fills significant gaps in our federal civil rights laws for all women,” Thompson said in an interview.

Thompson added that the bill, if passed by the Senate and fully enforced, would mean that women would be protected from sexist behavior by retailers and merchants. Thompson cited the statistically backed trope of disreputable car mechanics as an example.

A 2013 study at Northwestern University found that women are frequently charged more than men for mechanic services. If H.R. 5 was fully enacted, it would mean that behavior would finally be illegal – for the first time – under federal law.

Republicans took issue Friday meanwhile with what they see as a lack of specificity around the term “gender identity” in the legislation.

Gender identity is widely considered to be defined as “self-reported,” or “self-defined.” Republicans like Georgia Representative Doug Collins have said that H.R. 5’s amorphous language on gender identity could open the door to false claims of prejudice and opportunistic litigation.

But Thompson pushed back against this as well.

“To claim that trans people will falsify their gender identity to game the legal system is absurd,” Thompson said. “Many states and localities across the country have explicit prohibitions on gender identity-based discrimination, and have definitions that closely track the Equality Act.”

Thompson advised that, rather than raising “ridiculous claims,” opponents should have to address the “very real and significant rates of discrimination, harassment and violence that transgender people live with every day simply because of who they are.”

During an interview in 2000 with The Advocate, President Donald Trump said he “liked the idea” of amending the Civil Rights Act to include a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“It would be simple,” Trump said. “It would be straightforward. … Amending the Civil Rights Act would grant the same protection to gay people that we give to other Americans. It’s only fair.”

Today, Trump is expected to veto the bill if it ever reaches his desk.

According to the Associated Press, an administration official who asked not to be identified said that the Trump administration opposes discrimination, but feels that the bill in its current form “is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parent and conscience rights.”

Ahead of the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that resistance to passage of the bill was shortsighted, ill-conceived and disrespectful.

“This is not about tolerance,” Pelosi said during a debate on the House floor Friday. “This is about respect of our LGBTQ community. This is about taking pride and this is what we do today. For older LGBTQ couples, workers, for young LGBTQ, this is a historic, transformative moments that will bring our nation closer to the founding promise of liberty and justice for all. This is personal, it’s not just about policy, it’s about people.”

Republicans like Texas Representative Louie Gohmert argued Friday that H.R. 5 effectively undermines promises set out in the U.S. Constitution because it provides a window for preferential treatment of a certain group.

The suggestion was one quickly unraveled by Praveen Fernandes, vice president of the nonprofit think tank the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington, D.C.

“H.R. 5 does not invalidate any rights described in any part of the Constitution,” Fernandes said in an interview. “The rights described in [it] cannot be changed by simple legislation. What the Equality Act does is amend key civil rights statues to provide consistent and explicit nondiscrimination protections.”

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