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In uphill fight, Dems make case for Equality Act

Supporters confident bill would pass if GOP leaders allow a vote

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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.)

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U.S. Federal Courts

Senator Wiener’s Net Neutrality law is upheld by Federal appeals court

Supporters of the California law were enthusiastic over the 9th Circuit’s decision including the current Chair of the FCC

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

SAN FRANCISCO – In a unanimous decision Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit published a ruling upholding SB 822, California’s Net Neutrality law. Out State Senator Scott Wiener, (D-SF) authored SB 822 in 2018, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. It has undergone multiple legal attacks from the telecom and cable industries and from the Trump Administration. 

“Today marks a huge win for a free and open internet. California’s Net Neutrality law was enacted in 2018, and remains the strongest in the nation. This is a victory for everyone who uses the internet – who needs it for work, school, or simply connecting with family and friends. Given the importance of the internet in our society – now more than ever – this is a landmark day for our state,” Wiener said in a statement released by his office.

During oral arguments from the telecom and cable industries before a panel of the 9th Circuit, their lawyers appealed a decision from February of 2021 where a U.S. District Court judge denied their request to issue a preliminary injunction against the law.

Tech reporter Andrew Wyrich writing for The Daily Dot noted at the time:

A federal judge denied a request by groups representing internet service providers (ISPs) on Tuesday to issue a preliminary injunction against California’s net neutrality law.

Lawyers for both California and the trade groups went back-and-forth before Judge John A. Mendez on Tuesday, arguing both for and against the state’s law, which has been hailed as the “gold standard” for states to follow because it goes further than the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2015 Open Internet Order, which established net neutrality rules.

While the Department of Justice (DOJ) withdrew from its lawsuit challenging California’s law earlier in February, the trade groups continued its lawsuit. The DOJ filed a lawsuit against California over the law in 2018 during the Trump administration.

Supporters of the California law were enthusiastic over the 9th Circuit’s decision including the current Chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica Rosenworcel, who tweeted; “When the last Administration rolled back #NetNeutrality rules, states stepped into the void and put in place their own policies. Today the 9th Circuit upholds California’s effort. It’s good news. I support Net Neutrality and we need once again to make it the law of the land.”

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Florida

Florida school district removes 16 books after complaints

The decision came after the County Citizens Defending Freedom, an ultra-conservative, Christian group, complained about the book

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Screenshot via WFLA NBC 8 Tampa

BARTOW, Fl. – Polk County Public Schools (PCPS) Superintendent Frederick Heid asked middle and high schools in the Florida county to remove 16 books, many of which deal with LGBTQ themes or racism, from libraries after a conservative political group complained that they contained pornographic materials. 

The Lakeland Ledger reported that Heid sent an email Monday to middle and high school principals and librarians that said a “stakeholder group” alleged that the books violate a Florida law banning the distribution of obscene or harmful materials to children. 

“While it is not the role of my office to approve/evaluate instructional or resource materials at that level, I do have an obligation to review any allegation that a crime is being or has been committed,” Heid wrote. “It is also my obligation to provide safeguards to protect our employees. The district will be taking the following steps to ensure that we address this issue honestly, fairly, and transparently.” 

In an email, PCPS spokesperson Jason Geary said the books had been placed “in quarantine,” according to the newspaper. 

“It is important to note that these 16 books have NOT been censored or banned at this time,” he said. “They have been removed so a thorough, thoughtful review of their content can take place.” 

Geary added that the “process is traditionally done at the individual school level. However, copies of some of the named titles are currently housed in multiple secondary school media centers, so this review will be conducted at the district level. It is important to note that these books will not be available during this period of review.”

The decision comes after the County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF-USA), an ultra-conservative, Christain group, complained to Heid about the books. 

“CCDF-USA believes the content within the pages of these books is not appropriate for distribution to minors, especially in a public-school library,” read a statement from the group responding to articles by the Ledger and LkldNow

As listed by the Ledger, the books are: 

“Two Boys Kissing” by David Levithan

“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini 

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer 

 “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher 

“The Vincent Boys” by Abbi Glines 

“It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley

“Real Live Boyfriends” by E. Lockhart 

 “George” by Alex Gino 

“I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings

“Drama” by Raina Telgemeier

“Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult

“More Happy Than Not” by Adam Silvera

“Beloved” by Toni Morrison 

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison 

“Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins

“Almost Perfect” by Brian Katcher

Many of the above books – including “I am Jazz,” “Two Boys Kissing” and “It’s Perfectly Normal” – deal with LGBTQ themes and characters. In addition, Toni Morrison, included twice on the list, is a world-renowned author whose award-winning books deal with racism. 

In its statement, the CCDF-USA acknowledged that the books “have been written by award-winning authors and produced by renowned publishers.” However, “the issue at hand is the content of the books in question describing in graphic detail several sensitive topics including sexual assault, rape, failure to address mental illness as a cause of suicide, racism, incest, child molestation, offensive language, sexually explicit material, bestiality, necrophilia, infanticide, and violence,” the group wrote. 

The news comes as Florida’s state legislature is pushing through a bill that critics say would simply empower homophobic parents to challenge reading materials that contain affirming LGBTQ+ characters or content.

“The authoritarian march toward DeSantis’ Surveillance State of Florida continues as GOP leaders hijack an unrelated bill to try and force costly book banning onto Floridians,” Equality Florida Press Secretary Brandon J. Wolf told the Blade in an email. “We should be using state funding to fill our public schools’ bookshelves with resources to expand the knowledge and wonder of our youth, not emptying them out through government censorship.”

Conservatives across the country are attempting to ban books in schools that deal with LGBTQ issues and racism. 

Last December, the American Library Association (ALA) announced that it had documented 155 separate incidents of efforts to remove or ban books by or about LGBTQ+ and Black people since June 2021.

The ALA noted that the groups and people trying to ban such books “falsely [claim] that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections.”

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Indiana

Indiana anti-Trans sports bill passes House

If passed Indiana would become the 11th state to ban Trans students from playing sports in accordance with their gender identity

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Indiana State Capitol building (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers in Indiana’s House voted Thursday to advance a bill that would ban Trans women and girls from participating in K-12 school sports that align with their gender identity. 

House Bill 1041, which passed the Republican-dominated House by a 66-30 vote, takes aim at Trans women and girls but does not prevent trans men from playing on men’s sports teams. 

Initially, the bill would have also banned trans women from playing sports at a collegiate level, but a Monday amendment took out language regarding post-secondary institutions. 

The legislation now heads to the state Senate, which is also controlled by conservatives. 

The bill cleared the House Thursday, even as Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ+ advocates in the state denounced the measure as unconstitutional and transphobic. 

“This bill is not only unconstitutional, it sends a cruel message to vulnerable trans kids that they are not welcome or accepted in their communities,” tweeted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana, adding that it “will continue to fight every day to ensure this discriminatory ban never sees the light of day.”

Indiana Democrats made similar arguments during Thursday’s brief debate on the bill, adding that the Indiana High School Athletic Association already has a policy in place surrounding trans participation in sports. The rules require that Trans girls complete “a minimum of one year of hormone treatment related to gender transition” or undergo “a medically confirmed gender reassignment procedure.”

“When we pass laws on issues like this, we are usually trying to put an end to discrimination,” said state Rep. Tonya Pfaff (D-43). “This law puts discrimination into Indiana law.”

State Rep. Matt Pierce (D-61) contended that the proposal was a waste of time and that Republicans were hypocritical for believing in small government and introducing this legislation. “Well, what are you doing with this bill?” he asked his colleagues. 

Proponents of the bill argue it is about “protecting” the integrity in women’s sports, seeing Trans people as having an “unfair” advantage over cisgender peers. 

“I know from experience that female athletes deserve fair competition and an even playing field, and this bill ensures just that — a fair opportunity,” said state Rep. Michelle Davis (R-58), who authored the legislation. 

The Associated Press reported that Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray (R-37) said Republican senators hadn’t yet discussed whether they would take up the House proposal. 

“It’s a fairness for young ladies who are trying to compete and, at least to some folks, it doesn’t feel fair if you allow somebody who at least started out as a male to go in and compete with them in the same sport, so that’s an issue that has some folks’ interest over here,” he said.

If passed, Indiana would become the 11th state in the country to ban Trans students from playing sports in accordance with their gender identity. However, the Movement Advancement project notes that temporary injunctions block enforcement of such bans in two states: Idaho and West Virginia. 

The ACLU of Indiana has maintained that it will file a lawsuit if the bill is signed into law.

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