July 24, 2015 — Federal lawmakers on Thursday proposed a bill to bolster civil rights protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, as well as protections against sex discrimination, the Huffington Post reports.
According to the Post, current federal law prohibits certain public places from discriminating against individuals based on race, color, religion or nationality. However, there are no federal laws that bar discrimination based on a person's sex or gender identity.
To address the issue, Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced the Equality Act to bolster protections in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Specifically, the measure would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the classes protected under the 1964 law against "discrimination in credit, education, employment, housing, federal financial assistance, jury service and public accommodations," according to the Post. The legislation also would prohibit sex discrimination in public accommodations, local and state government programs, and federal funding.
Further, the bill would broaden the definition of a public accommodation to include almost every facility that provides programs, services or goods. Currently, federal law defines public accommodations based on spaces popular in 1964, such as restaurants and movie theaters (Terkel, Huffington Post, 7/22). The measure also would ensure that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141) cannot be used to discriminate against LGBT individuals (Johnson, Washington Blade, 7/23).
Bill Resolves 'Piecemeal Strategy'
According to Politico, the bill marks a departure from the previous Congress, which worked on a "piecemeal strategy" for bolstering LGBT rights through the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (S 815). The sponsors of the Equality Act said they will not pursue ENDA in the future, regardless of how presidential and congressional elections turn out, because that bill only focused on discrimination in the workplace (Everett, Politico, 7/23).
Cicilline said lawmakers who support LGBT rights are pursuing a more comprehensive approach because of increasing support for LGBT rights across the country. "Some might wonder why we're taking this approach, a comprehensive non-discrimination bill, rather than the approach we've taken in the years past with ENDA and other piecemeal bills that would ban discrimination in one area or other," he said, adding, "The answer is that our community is in a different place now and momentum is on our side" (Washington Blade, 7/23).
Separately, Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women's Law Center, said the Equality Act would help to bridge together a patchwork of state statutes that prohibit sex discrimination in "public places like stores and hotels and restaurants." She noted that such laws "all define" sex discrimination "differently and some states don't do it at all." She said, "This would be a really important step forward that would have real significance for women" (Huffington Post, 7/22).
Garnering Support for the Equality Act
According to Politico, the measure has support from progressive lawmakers but could face difficultly garnering support from conservative lawmakers. Merkley said, "We've reached out across the aisle. We do not anticipate in the immediate future we will have [conservative] sponsors in the Senate. It may take some dialogue, some exploration for folks to become comfortable and step up" to support the measure (Politico, 7/23).
Meanwhile, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has helped to push the legislation, is reaching out to African American leaders who have expressed concern the measure could erode the Civil Rights Act (Politico, 7/23). According to the Blade, some groups that support LGBT rights have not yet expressed support for the measure, citing concerns that amending the Civil Rights Act would allow lawmakers who do not support civil rights protections to offer their own revisions. No group that supports civil rights for minority populations has yet voiced support, the Blade reports.
However, the Blade reports that the measure has received support from women's rights groups (Washington Blade, 7/22). Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, said the measure's introduction "marks a historic moment in our nation's march toward full equality." She added, "For too long, discrimination has been allowed in our nation's workplaces, public spaces, schools, housing and elsewhere due to exclusions in our nation's civil rights laws. This bill would help change that and benefit women, LGBT people and our nation tremendously. It is past time" (National Partnership statement, 7/23).