WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives passed sweeping legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, though it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
Lawmakers passed the legislation on a 224-204, mostly party-line vote. Three Republicans voted with all Democrats.
The bill is one of President Joe Biden’s top legislative priorities, one he wants passed in his first 100 days in office.
The legislation amends civil rights laws including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin, to include protections on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. It also would prohibit such discrimination in public places, on transportation and in government-funded programs.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who introduced the House measure, said “every American deserves respect and dignity,” and the Equality Act, if it became law, would “ensure that LGBTQ Americans can live lives free of discrimination.”
He said it was important to pass the legislation because many Americans thought the protections were already enshrined in law. The idea that Americans could be denied service in a restaurant simply because of their sexual orientation “doesn’t comport with our basic understanding of fairness and equality,” he said.
The House passed a similar version of the bill in May 2019, but it died in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. Eight Republicans voted for it in 2019, though no Republicans co-sponsored this year’s version of the legislation.
The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democratic caucus members, with Vice President Kamala Harris in a tiebreaking role. It would need at least 10 Republicans to vote with all Democrats to advance the bill past a key procedural obstacle called the filibuster.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would use his powers as majority leader to put the bill on the floor and would dare Republicans to vote against it, though he declined to say when he would bring the legislation up in the Senate.
More:The Equality Act with protections for LGBTQ Americans is up for a vote in the House. What is it?
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the first openly gay person of color in Congress, told reporters when he voted Thursday he would “be thinking of all the LGBTQ activists who marched, protested and built a movement to protect the lives of LGBTQ people and expand our rights.”
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., who had been the first openly gay member of Congress when first elected to the House in 1999 and the first openly gay member of the Senate when elected in 2012, told reporters as a lawyer she’d seen firsthand how the law fell short in providing protections for her clients who faced discrimination.
“It’s time to end this kind of discrimination against the LGBTQ community,” she said.
Although many states have enacted anti-discrimination laws, advocates such as the Human Rights Campaign argue today’s “patchwork” of laws across states leaves LGBTQ Americans vulnerable to discrimination.
The Supreme Court’s ruling last June in the case Bostock v. Clay County extended workplace protections to LGBTQ Americans, but groups such as the National Women’s Law Center say the legislation would codify the court’s decision and create explicit federal protections for LGBTQ Americans beyond the workplace.
Some conservatives and Republicans have expressed concerns that the legislation could infringe upon religious liberty or lead to inequality in athletic competitions if transgender women compete against cisgender women.
Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., said the bill would “force churches in the public square to do things that counter their deeply held beliefs” and result in an intrusion by the federal government into private life.
Cicilline responded to the religious objections, saying “religious organizations would still enjoy the rights they have” under existing law.
The conservative Heritage Foundation, which opposes the bill, says it could threaten religious freedoms, give transgender athletes an unfair advantage and harm constitutional freedoms.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who opposes the legislation, disrupted a procedural debate over the measure on Wednesday, drawing the ire of her Democratic colleagues.
Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., whose office sits across from Greene’s, put a transgender flag outside her office “so she can look at it every time she opens her door.”
Greene responded by posting an anti-transgender sign outside her office.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., addressed the feud during a Thursday press conference, telling reporters there was a “sad event here this morning demonstrating the need for us to have respect. It’s not even just respect, but take pride, take pride in our LGBTQ community.”
Contributing: Christal Hayes