On Thursday, The House voted to pass the Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In 2019, the legislation was passed by the House, but it was blocked by the Republican-led Senate. However, this time the White House, House, and Senate are all dominated by Democrats. President Joe Biden has expressed his support for the bill, but the Senate is still facing an uphill challenge, where 60 votes will be required to break a parliamentary filibuster.
During a House floor speech that Thursday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “The Civil Rights Act is a sacred pillar of freedom in our country. It is not amended lightly.” She then thanked members of the Congressional Black Caucus who “gave their imprimatur to the opening of the Civil Rights Act to end discrimination against LGBTQ Americans.”
The House voted 224 to 206 for the measure after a tense and often personal debate, with three Republicans joining all of the Democrats to vote yes.
In order to ensure protection for LGBTQ Americans in jobs, education, housing, credit, jury service, and other fields, the legislation will amend federal civil rights laws. Biden, who in a statement last week called the bill “a crucial step towards ensuring that America lives up to our foundational ideals of equality and freedom for all,” is a top legislative priority.
Global LGBTQ rights organizations celebrated the passage of the bill, calling it “a major milestone for equality bringing us closer to ensuring that every person is treated equally under the law.”
The group’s president, Alphonso David, said in a statement, “Now, the ball is in the Senate’s court to pass the Equality Act and finally allow LGBTQ Americans the ability to live their lives free from discrimination.”
However, a number of religious denominations are lobbying against the bill, arguing that its lack of religious exemptions poses one of the most sweeping threats in decades to religious freedom.
Groups like the Latter-day Saints’ Church of Jesus Christ, Orthodox Jews, and Seventh-day Adventists, among others, say it might stop free and reduced-cost lunches for children attending single-gender parochial schools around the country, encourage church community halls to rent space for LGBTQ services, and target synagogues and mosques facing violence with federal protection grants.
Personal testimony from several legislators was included in the House debate on the subject. Among those who rose in favor of the bill were some LGBTQ members of Congress, as were lawmakers whose family members are transgender.
During the debate on Thursday, Rep. Ritchie Torres, the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress, said: “I am here to claim what discrimination denies: equal protection under the law.”
Rep. Sara Jacobs noted that she is “the proud sister to a trans brother and a gender-nonconforming sibling” in announcing her support for the bill.
On Tuesday, an emotional floor speech was delivered by freshman Rep. Marie Newman, in which she listed her daughter, who she said came to her years ago, as a transgender.
“I knew from that day on, my daughter would be living in a nation wherein most of its states, she could be discriminated against merely because of who she is,” Newman said. “And yet, it was still the happiest day of my life, and my daughter has found her authentic self. And as any mother would, I swore that I would fight to ensure this country changes for the better.”
In support of the bill, Newman raised a Transgender Pride flag outside her office this week, another House freshman, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of the most outspoken critics of the legislation, replied with a poster mocking Newman that she hung directly across the hall outside her own office.
“There are TWO genders: Male & Female. Trust The Science!” the poster reads.
This month, the House voted to suspend Greene from her two committee assignments because she consistently promoted false and extremist charges, including the philosophy radicalized by QAnon. On Thursday, Rep. Mark Pocan criticized Greene without naming her, pointing out a lawmaker who hung an “anti-trans poster on the wall outside her office.”
“This new QAnon spirit across the aisle is also appearing in a nasty and hateful way,” Pocan said, arguing that a vote against the measure is “a vote for discrimination, plain and simple.”
Republicans also claimed that the Equality Act violated people’s moral values and increased the specter of women’s sports repeatedly.
Rep. Andrew Clyde consistently referred to transgender women as “biological males” in remarks on the House floor Thursday morning and said the Equality Act would violate the right of women to privacy and protection in locker rooms and showers. He also called the clauses of the bill on medical services such as gender-affirming hormones and surgery for minors “child abuse.”
“God help us,” Clyde said. “Have we lost our ever-loving minds?”
A strong critique on the content of the bill was delivered by members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus Thursday, with many calling it part of a wider liberal attack on traditional Christian values.
Since similar legislation was first debated during the Stonewall riots in 1969, the Equality Act has become a cornerstone of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. The key sponsor of the Equality Act in 1974 was Democratic Rep. Bella Abzug of New York; other influential proponents of the law included Rep. Ed Koch.
Public sentiment has changed significantly towards adopting such protections. According to the American Values Survey of the 2020 Public Religion Research Institute, more than 8 in 10 Americans support legislation that would shield LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, public accommodation, and housing.
More than 21 states have adopted legislation specifically banning discrimination in jobs, housing, public housing, and other places. But the patchwork of legislation has left wide gaps in the security of LGBTQ people.
An individual may be denied housing due to their sexual orientation or gender identity in 27 states. According to a statement released last week by the office of Rep. David Cicilline, they could be denied access to education in 31 states and the right to serve on a jury in 41 states.