WASHINGTON — U.S. House lawmakers on Friday voted to approve sweeping legislation aimed at barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in spite of broad opposition from House Republicans.
In a major victory for LGBTQ rights advocates, the House approved the bill, dubbed the Equality Act, by a vote of 236-173, including eight Republican votes. The North Carolina delegation split along partisan lines with all three Democrats voting for the measure and seven of eight republicans voting “no.” Rep. Mark Walker did not vote.
The measure would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act by explicitly banning discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in education, employment, housing, credit and the jury system.
House Democrats celebrated the bill’s passage as a landmark achievement by Congress.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, noted that Friday marked the 65th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which found that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.
“Today is also a historic day for the LGBTQ community,” Scott said. “Over the last decade, we’ve made progress in securing rights for the LGBTQ community … however, many legal barriers still remain. … The inconsistent patchwork of state laws leaves millions of people vulnerable to discrimination.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said,“We need to … ensure that all people in this country, no matter where they live are protected against hate and bigotry, exclusion and discrimination. The opportunities this country offers must be open to everyone in our country.”
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) called it ironic that her “LGBTQ constituents can get married to each other, but still in 29 states can be discriminated against in their jobs and public education and even in their jury service. This is wrong. This is un-American.”
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) said that “in Florida and many other states, LGBTQ Americans are still at risk of being fired, evicted, denied services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” She called the passage of the Equality Act a fitting way to commemorate the anniversary of the uprising at Stonewall, which took place in June 1969 and is considered the birth of the the modern LGBT rights movement.
Currently, less than half of the U.S. states have enacted their own laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank.
“In most states, same sex couples can be denied service in restaurants, fired from jobs, evicted from homes with no legal recourse. They can be mistreated and discriminated against and their government won’t stand up for them,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.). “This legislation takes us the next step in a long American tradition of expanding civil rights and protections. It affirms that in this country there is no us and them, it’s just us.”
Despite the fanfare in the House, the effort is unlikely to be enacted into law this Congress. The Senate companion version has one Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, but is unlikely to garner broad GOP support in that chamber. And the administration opposes the effort.
“The Trump administration absolutely opposes discrimination of any kind and supports the equal treatment of all,” an administration official told NBC News. “However, this bill in its current form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.”
House Republicans assailed the effort, warning that Democrats don’t understand the reach of the bill.
“Its vague and circular definitions of gender identity will lead only to uncertainty, litigation and harm to individuals and organizations that will be forced to comply with a law the authors don’t even seem to understand,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.).
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said that the bill would “erase women and girls’ rights by requiring facilities such as schools, churches, dormitories, domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters to allow biological males who identify as women in women’s bathrooms, women’s and girls’ shelters, women’s and girls’ showers and in women’s locker rooms.”
Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of playing up fears about the bill as a distraction.
At a hearing about the legislation in April, openly transgender witness Carter Brown, who leads an organization called Black Transmen Inc., said lawmakers had discussed “transgender people as a threat, in the bathroom, in sports,” Time reported.
Brown added, “My identity is not a threat to anyone else.” Without explicit federal protections to protect LGBTQ people, “it’s a threat to me and my ability to provide for myself and my family.”
Robin Bravender is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member.