May 2, 2017 at 4:25 pm PDT | by Chris Johnson
In uphill fight, Dems make case for Equality Act

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)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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.

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.

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.)

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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