Today, the U.S. House is set to pass the Equality Act, a sweeping bill that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in employment, housing, education, jury service, federally funded programs including healthcare, and businesses and any other spaces or entities that serve the public. These include retail stores, exhibitions, recreation, amusement and exercise providers, providers of goods, services and programs, and transportation service providers. The act covers public restrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms as well.
Identified as one of President Joe Biden’s top priorities in his first 100 days in office, the bill’s passage would add protections for LGBTQ Americans to the nation’s existing civil rights laws and would protect women and girls in public accommodations for the first time ever in federal law.
The legislation was introduced multiple times in Congress in the past.
But since it was last introduced in 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court found, in a ruling last June, that protections that the 1964 Civil Rights Acts guarantee on the basis of sex extend to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans.
“Judicial opinions and executive orders from a president that protect LGBTQ equality can be easily undone,” says Noah Ambrose, the LGBTQ caucus chair for the Young Democrats of North Carolina. “The Equality Act would codify non-discrimination protections people like me need for years, if not for my whole life.”
The bill also explicitly overrides the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which mandates a higher standard for the government to have to defend laws that people argue infringe upon religious freedoms. So the RFRA couldn’t be used to challenge provisions of the Equality Act, nor could anyone use the RFRA as a defense for discriminatory conduct.
This has religious conservatives, such as the folks at the North Carolina Values Coalition, up in arms and arguing that the Equality Act would hurt women and people of faith, groups that the 1964 Civil Rights Act “was created to protect.”
“This bill would limit the free exercise of religion, attacking individuals, churches, charities and businesses by forcing them to give up traditional norms regarding gender and marriage and recognize all forms of sexual orientation,” the group’s executive director, Tami Fitzgerald, wrote in an email message this week. “The fundamental concept of male and female will be erased throughout the most basic parts of American life.”
Ambrose says serving LGBTQ people is not an infringement on any person’s, charity’s, or business’s religious liberties.
“As a gay man who is also a Christian, I firmly believe we are strongest in our country when ‘we the people’ has been expanded to include everyone,” he says. “Protecting people from discrimination is not an affront to God or religion. It never has been. There has always been pushback when certain groups have gained rights and steps towards equality but the only effect is more people being granted fundamental rights that every American should be guaranteed.”
N.C. Congresswoman Alma Adams is one of the original co-sponsors of the Equality Act. Other North Carolina Democratic representatives to Congress, including freshmen congresswomen Deborah Ross and Kathy Manning, have said they will support the bill as well.
“This would be the most monumental victory for LQBTQ+ Americans in American legislative history,” Ambrose says. “We are happy with how North Carolina’s Democratic lawmakers, especially women, have been leading on this issue.”
The Equality Act faces a tougher fight in the U.S. Senate, where it will need the votes of all Democrats and an additional ten Republicans to overcome the filibuster. Democrats could opt to bypass the filibuster but it’s not clear if all Democratic Senators (including Arizona Senator Kyrsten Cinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin) will sign on.
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