House poised to vote on legal safeguards for LGBTQ people

Thursday, February 25, 2021 | Kevin Freking, Associated Press

Nancy Pelosi
In this Feb. 11, 2021, photo, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. The Democratic-led House is poised to pass a bill that enshrines protections in the nation’s labor and civil rights laws for LGBTQ people, a top priority of President Joe Biden, though the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Democratic-led House is poised to pass a bill that would enshrine LGBTQ protections in the nation's labor and civil rights laws, a top priority of President Joe Biden, though the legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

The Equality Act amends existing civil rights law to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identification as protected characteristics. The protections would extend to employment, housing, loan applications, education, public accommodations and other areas. Supporters say the law before the House on Thursday is long overdue and would ensure that every person is treated equally under the law.

“In the absence of federal civil rights protection, there are members of the LGBTQ community who are fair game in the eyes of the law to be targeted, based on sexual orientation,” said House Democratic Conference Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “That is not America.”

Republicans broadly oppose the legislation, echoing concerns from religious groups and social conservatives who worry the bill would force people to take actions that contradict their religious beliefs. They warn that faith-based adoption agencies seeking to place children with a married mother and father could be forced to close, or that private schools would have to hire staff whose conduct violates tenets of the school's faith.

“The bill may have equality in the title, but it certainly does not serve all Americans," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. “It is a vehicle for serious, harmful consequences."

The House passed the Equality Act in the last Congress with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of eight Republicans, but Donald Trump's White House opposed the measure and it was not considered in the Senate, where 60 votes will be needed to overcome procedural hurdles. Democrats are trying to revive it now that they have control of Congress and the White House, but passage appears unlikely in the evenly divided Senate.

The Supreme Court provided the LGBTQ community with a resounding victory last year in a 6-3 ruling that said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to LGBTQ workers when it comes to barring discrimination on the basis of sex. Civil rights groups have encouraged Congress to follow up that decision and ensure that anti-bias protections addressing such areas as housing, public accommodations and public services are applied in all 50 states.

Biden made clear his support for the Equality Act in the lead-up to last year's election, saying it would be one of his first priorities.

Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon said her home state of Pennsylvania was one of about 30 that doesn’t have legal protections for LGBTQ people. She said the Equality Act is needed to end “the patchwork of state laws” around gay rights and create “uniform nationwide protection.”

“It's been personal since my baby sister came out to me almost 40 years ago," Scanlon said. “For many people all across this country and across this House, that is when the fight hits home."

The debate among lawmakers on Capitol Hill has also become personal. Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., whose daughter is transgender, tweeted a video of herself placing a transgender flag outside her office. Her office is across the hall from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who was recently blocked from serving on two committees because of past comments and tweets.

“Our neighbor, @RepMTG, tried to block the Equality Act because she believes prohibiting discrimination against trans Americans is “disgusting, immoral, and evil.” Thought we’d put up our Transgender flag so she can look at it every time she opens her door.," Newman tweeted.

Greene responded with a video of her own in which she puts up a sign that reads: “There are Two genders: MALE and FEMALE. “Trust The Science!"

“Our neighbor, @RepMarieNewman, wants to pass the so-called “Equality” Act to destroy women’s rights and religious freedoms. Thought we’d put up ours so she can look at it every time she opens her door," Greene tweeted.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pointed to the exchange to advocate for the bill Thursday.

“I wish it weren’t. It breaks my heart that it is necessary, but the fact is, and in fact we had a sad event here even this morning, demonstrating the need for us to have respect," Pelosi said, at one point pausing and taking a deep sigh. “Not even just respect, but take pride, take pride in our LGBT community."

Leaders at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote lawmakers this week to say they had grave concerns about the bill. Among the concerns the five bishops raised is that the bill would expand the government's definition of public places, forcing church halls and equivalent facilities to host functions that violate their beliefs, which could lead to closing their doors to the broader community.

Some of the nation's largest corporations are part of a coalition in support of the legislation, including Apple Inc., AT&T, Chevron and 3M Co., just to name a few of the hundreds of companies that have endorsed it.

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