The US House of Representatives has voted to pass the Equality Act, a landmark civil rights bill prohibiting discrimination against LGBT+ people in all 50 states.
The House voted 224-206 on Thursday (25 February) to pass the sweeping legislation, which substantially expands the existing 1964 Civil Rights Act to include specific protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.ADVERTISING
Its passage represents an enormous step forward for LGBT+ rights in America as it finally addresses the “patchwork” state coverage that leaves countless queer people vulnerable to discrimination.
Representative Ritchie Torres, the first LGBT+ Black and Afro Latino member of congress, said he felt “the weight of history” on his shoulders as he voted to claim what discrimination denies: equal protection under law.
“My younger self could’ve never imagined standing on the floor of the house as a member of congress voting for legislation that, if enacted, will make me equal in the eyes of the law,” he said.
“We are here to uphold the abiding truth of the American experiment – that we are all created equal, and that none of us should be evicted, fired or denied accommodations and services simply because of who we are and whom we love.
“We are equal by nature, and we ought to be equal by law.”
The Equality Act builds on the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Bostock v Clayton County, which included LGBT+ people under sex-based employment protections.
The difference is that the Equality Act cements this by explicitly enshrining sexual orientation and gender identity protections in law, rather than looping them under the umbrella of “sex”.
It also goes far beyond employment: it would cover housing, public accommodations, public education, federal funding, credit, and the jury system, among other areas.
“The Equality Act is vital to ensuring the promise of a level playing field for all Americans,” said Jason Wu, executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders.
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“[It] is a critical step toward ensuring that LGBTQ people – and all people – can protect their families and contribute to their communities and workplaces. It also ensures the fairness and dignity all Americans need and deserve.”
This has unfortunately brought it into conflict with religious conservatives, who fear it could spell an end to businesses refusing to serve LGBT+ customers on the basis of “religious freedom”.
“Just as [a business] would not be able to turn away somebody for any other prohibited reason in the law, they would not be able to do that for LGBT+ people either. And we think that’s a really important principle to maintain,” said Ian Thompson, a senior legislative representative at the ACLU.
Because of this the legislation has long lingered in congress, with Republicans standing in the way of the measure and its predecessor bills for more than two decades.
The most recent hurdle came in 2019 when it was stalled by the senate after the Trump administration labelled it a “poison pill” that would “undermine parental and conscience rights”.
But Joe Biden championed the Equality Act throughout his presidential campaign, saying it was “essential” to reducing economic barriers and ensuring consistent protection for the LGBT+ community.
The legislation remains highly controversial and its fate in the senate is still unclear, as Democrats and Republicans are evenly divided.
Even if all 50 Democratic and Democratic-caucusing Independents in the Senate voted in favour of the Equality Act, it would still need the backing of at least 10 Republicans to clear the upper chamber’s traditional 60-vote threshold for final passage.