Less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians can marry in every state, congressional Democrats introduced sweeping antidiscrimination legislation Thursday that would place sexual orientation and gender identity on a par with race, religion and other classes receiving the highest level of protection under federal civil rights law.
The Equality Act would leapfrog a failed decades-long effort in Congress to ban workplace discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. The new legislation would ban bias not only on the job, but also in housing, health care, public accommodations and other areas of life.
Elevating LGBT people to a so-called protected class would mark a major expansion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It would demand that any form of discrimination meet the highest level of legal scrutiny — one that requires a compelling governmental interest.
The level of fanfare was rare for a bill introduction, especially one that is unlikely to pass Congress under Republican control. While laying out a marker for Democrats, the legislation was framed by supporters as the logical next step for full LGBT equality after the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling, drawing on the specter of gays and lesbians posting wedding pictures on Sunday and being fired on Monday.
Top Dems turn out
The event was staged in the Senate’s Lyndon B. Johnson Room, named after the former president who signed the Civil Rights Act. The podium was packed with top Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon from Georgia, and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Senate minority leader set to replace retiring Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT lobbying group, orchestrated a sophisticated roll-out, including corporate endorsements from Apple, Dow Chemical and Levi Strauss. It also coordinated public backing from a host of civil rights and gay and transgender groups as well as from David Boies and Ted Olson, the attorneys who led the successful legal battle to overturn California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage.
Borrowing from the marriage equality fight, supporters brought in individuals to tell their stories. Dallas resident Carter Brown, a transgender man, said he had received three promotions in two years in his real estate job and was earning a six-figure salary when an “office gossip” outed him and “drastically changed my life.” He was swiftly fired, an act he called “legally justifiable” under Texas law.
Jami and Krista Contreras, a lesbian married couple from Michigan, said they were “shocked and humiliated” after a pediatrician declined to treat their daughter. The doctor told the Contrerases that she had changed her mind after she “prayed on it,” the couple said.
And Lucas Peterson of Nebraska said he had been fired three times for being gay, most recently from a wine shop after bringing his boyfriend to visit his workplace.
Few states ban bias
None of those cases violated state laws. Thirty-one states, mainly in the South and Midwest, do not ban employment discrimination against LGBT people. California is among a handful of states that already ban discrimination in the areas the Democratic bill would cover.
Transgender people throughout the country face significant discrimination and violence, said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. As recently as 2007, top House Democrats, including Pelosi and openly gay former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, stripped transgender people from a hate crimes bill after concluding that the legislation could not pass even a Democratic-controlled House.
“This is not a vision bill; this is not a messaging bill,” said Winnie Stachelberg, a top executive at the liberal Center for American Progress and a veteran of congressional battles over LGBT rights. She said the “paradox” of gays and lesbians having marriage equality while remaining vulnerable to being fired or evicted is “indefensible, unsustainable and runs counter to our values as a country.”
Gay GOP group
The Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, has not endorsed the bill. Executive director Gregory Angelo said the legislation included no input from Republicans or Log Cabin, which he described as potentially lethal to the bill’s chances as long as Republicans control Congress. He said he first saw the bill at 8 p.m. Tuesday, after gay-oriented publications had been given the text.
“Our conversations with our Republican allies in the House and Senate, Republicans who by the way have records of tremendous support for the LGBT community, have expressed similar dissatisfaction with not being sufficiently engaged with the drafting and introduction of this bill,” Angelo said.
“Reforming and amending the Civil Rights Act is not something that Log Cabin Republicans take lightly,” Angelo said, describing that law as “one of, if not the most, historic and comprehensive pieces of legislation to come out of Congress in the last century.”
Pelosi said Democrats had initially decided that reintroducing the Employment Non Discrimination Act, first introduced in 1994, was the logical next step after victories on hate crimes legislation, the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell ban on gays in the military, and the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage.
But she said Democrats and their allies had concluded, “Wait a minute, there is no place for discrimination in America, not in employment, not in housing, not in transportation, not in health care, not in any subject that you can name.”
‘Principle is equality’
Human Rights Campaign spokesman Brandon Lorenz said the decision to aim legislation beyond employment discrimination was made because “the principle is equality,” and the Equality Act “puts LGBT Americans on the same plane, with the same treatment under federal law as everybody” under the Civil Rights Act.
As far as consulting Republicans, Lorenz said, “we look forward to having that conversation in the weeks and months ahead and reaching out to everyone.”
He pointed to polls showing strong support among voters in both parties “for the principle of LGBT nondiscrimination. People across the country understand that and view nondiscrimination as a shared American value, and that’s a really good starting point.”