House passes Equality Act

The Equality Act - HRC
THE EQUALITY ACT still has a long way to go before it becomes a law. Image from Human Rights Campaign

Maxine Davey | Editor in Chief

March 5, 2021

In a bipartisan vote on February 15, 2021, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a bill amending multiple existing civil rights laws—such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Fair Housing Act, and Equal Credit Opportunity Act—to include and protect gender identity and sexual orientation. If passed, the bill would cement Joe Biden’s executive order regarding LGBTQ+ policy into law.

“Amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include LGBTQ+ Americans provides a more substantial basis to continue standing up to the intolerant discrimination of queer people, more so than individual laws have done in the past,” senior Zack Mallgrave said.

Introduced by openly gay Rhode Island Democrat Rep. David Cicilline, the bill seeks to strengthen protections in all areas, not just employment, and many see this as a massive victory for the LGBTQ+ community.

“Currently the only area in which individuals are protected from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender identity nationally is employment, and only as of June last year,” senior Juliet Heal said. “LGBTQ+ people can still legally be denied healthcare, housing, and other essential services, which inhibits their basic right to life within the States.”

In the past, cases have reached the courts which focus on discrimination based on freedom of religion—for example, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make a custom cake for a gay couple. “Focus on such cases trivializes the issue at hand, and the legal precedent set by these allows discrimination in matters more vital than cake,” Heal said.

Why You Can't Sell Your Cake and Control it Too: Distinguishing Use from Design in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado | Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE CAKE: Protests against the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Photo from Harvard Civil Rights—Civil Liberties Law Review

If passed in the Senate, the Equality Act would trump the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, which “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.” A litigator would not be able to use the RFRA as a defense in a similar case.

However, many are concerned with the implications of the Equality Act. If passed, transgender women would be able to change in girls’ locker rooms, play on girls’ sports teams, and serve time in women’s prisons—for many, this crosses the line. Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert (R) went so far as to call the passing of the bill a movement for “supremacy of gays and lesbians and transvestites,” and it is extremely unlikely that the bill as it stands will be able to gather the 60 Senate votes necessary.

The bill will most likely return to the House for modifications, just as it did after getting killed in the Senate in 2019. Nonetheless, the improvement of civil liberties for the LGBTQ+ community seems to be a priority for the Biden Administration.

“The Equality Act is essential to overturning a history of court decisions which give legal justification to discrimination such that LGBTQ+ Americans have an equal opportunity to basic necessities for life,” Heal said.

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