House Passes Equality Act, Bolstering LGBTQ Protections

The bill expands federal protections for LGBTQ people by prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks about the Congress Equality Act, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House of Representatives passed sweeping legislation on Thursday to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The act would amend the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion and sex.

Representatives voted 224 to 206, with three Republicans joining Democrats in favor of the motion.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act protections also prohibit employers from discriminating against their employees based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. Approval of the Equality Act would expand protections beyond the workplace and further solidify the protections by making them an explicit part of the law.

A number of states across the nation already have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but advocates say that LGBTQ Americans in many states are still legally susceptible to discrimination. 

“Even today, the signs of discrimination based on sexual orientation abound, from education to housing to family planning, from the workplace to adoption, to immigration,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday “Discrimination against LGBTQ+ people remains a serious problem that demands Congress’s attention.”

Many House Republicans fiercely oppose the bill as they say that it could infringe on religious liberty by pressuring faith-based organizations to change their policies, like forcing adoption agencies to either abandon their beliefs or shut down, or requiring church community halls to rent space for LGBTQ ceremonies. 

They also say that the bill could expand access to abortions by forcing health care providers to perform them, despite religious beliefs. 

Several prominent religious groups have opposed the bill, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists, expressing concern over the lack of religious exemptions. 

In a heated debate on Thursday, Democrats pushed back against arguments over religious liberty. 

“Every scoundrel in American history has tried to dress up his or her opposition to other people’s civil rights in religious garb,” Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland said on the House floor.  

Opponents of the legislation also expressed concern that it will allow transgender girls to compete in school sports against cisgender girls, and share locker rooms and restrooms. 

Republican Representative Greg Steube of Florida said that the bill would “single handedly destroy women’s sports in the name of equality.”

“How ironic,” he said during the House debate.

The act is a top legislative priority for President Joe Biden, who called it “long overdue” and “a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all” in a statement last week. 

Congress tried to enact similar legislation in 2019, but after passing the Democrat-controlled House, the bill died in the Republican-controlled Senate. 

The future of the Equality Act remains uncertain as it heads into the Senate, which is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie breaker. At least 10 Republicans would have to side with Democrats to get past the filibuster, a procedural hurdle. 

Schumer has already noted that he will bring the bill to the Senate floor, though he didn’t specify when. 

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