WASHINGTON — A divided House on Thursday narrowly passed a bill that would extend civil rights protections to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but the measure faced an uphill battle to enactment, with Republicans almost uniformly opposed.
The legislation, passed 224-206 almost entirely along party lines, stands little chance of drawing enough Republican support in the Senate to advance, at least in its current form. It was the second time the Democratic-led House had passed the measure, known as the Equality Act, which seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add explicit bans on discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in both public and private spaces.
“In most states, LGBTQ people can be discriminated against because of who they are, or who they love,” said Rep. David Cicilline, an openly gay Democrat from Rhode Island and the lead sponsor. “It is past time for that to change.”
The passage of the legislation came as a broader fight over transgender rights played out on Capitol Hill, with Republicans attacking transgender people and Democrats insisting they warranted the same civil rights protections afforded to anyone else.
In the House, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the first-term Republican from Georgia who is known for spreading false and bigoted conspiracy theories, referred to the transgender daughter of Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., as “your biological son.”
Across the Capitol, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., attacked Dr. Rachel Levine, a pick for a top health post who would be the first transgender woman to be confirmed by the Senate, at a hearing to consider her nomination.
The confirmation hearing for Levine, a former Pennsylvania health secretary who President Joe Biden has chosen to be assistant secretary of health, turned briefly combative after Paul opened his questioning with a tirade about “genital mutilation,” and demanded to know whether she supported sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy for minors.
“You’re willing to let a minor take things that prevent their puberty, and you think they get that back?” Paul asked. “You give a woman testosterone enough that she grows a beard — you think she’s going to go back, looking like a woman when you stop the testosterone?”
As the Senate hearing unfolded, Democrats in the House were engaged in a fiery debate of their own. Several Republicans assailed the Equality Act as dangerous, leading one top Democrat, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, to accuse them of believing that gay and transgender people “are morally inferior, and that firing us should be permitted.”
“Why hide behind the ridiculous, embarrassing, easily debunked arguments, falsehoods, fearmongering about locker rooms and women’s sports?” said Maloney, the openly gay chair of House Democrats’ campaign arm. “Why not just say what they really mean?”
In a landmark decision in June, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 civil rights law protects gay and transgender people from workplace discrimination, and that the language of the law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. House Democrats sought to build on that ruling with the Equality Act, which would expand the scope of civil rights protections beyond workers to consumers at businesses including restaurants, taxi services, gas stations and shelters.
It would also water down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the 1993 law at the heart of the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case that set a high bar for governments to enact laws that “substantially burden” an individual’s freedom to exercise religious beliefs. Those protections have been cited by, for example, bakers or photographers who object to serving same-sex weddings.
Three Republicans — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Reps. John Katko and Tom Reed, both of New York — joined Democrats to support the bill.
The House first passed the legislation in 2019, but the Republican-controlled Senate at the time refused to take it up. Upon taking office, Biden encouraged the Democratic-controlled Congress to “swiftly pass” the bill, calling it a “critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality.”
But 10 Republicans would need to join Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to pass legislation under normal Senate procedures, a level of support its proponents are unlikely to muster, unless substantial changes are made.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the only Republican in that chamber to co-sponsor the legislation during the last Congress, told The Washington Blade that she would not do so again, citing the lack of certain revisions she had requested. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has indicated he would not support the legislation, saying it lacked “strong religious liberty protections.”
In the House, consideration of the measure devolved into bitter acrimony.
In emotional remarks in support of the bill, Newman said she was fighting to advance the legislation to ensure that people like her transgender daughter would no longer face discrimination. Greene responded on Twitter, saying Newman’s daughter did not “belong in my daughters’ bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams.”
The back-and-forth came after Newman had posted video of herself putting up a transgender pride flag outside her office on Capitol Hill so Greene, who has the office across the hall, would have to “look at it every time she opens her door,” Newman said. In response, Greene circulated her own video in which she put up a poster of her own outside her office that bore the phrase: “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE.”
Greene may have been the most vocal in her opposition to the legislation, but it drew fierce criticism from nearly all House Republicans, many of whom argued that the protections were overly expansive and infringed on religious freedom.
“This is a government using its power to tell us to bow down to the will of a cultural elite in this town who want to tell us what we’re supposed to believe,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas. “We’re not going to do that.”
Others claimed that the legislation could imperil women’s rights, an argument long used by conservatives to oppose transgender rights legislation despite the fact that the bill contains protections explicitly to prevent discrimination against women.
Before the vote, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, approvingly shared on Twitter a Wall Street Journal op-ed that asserted that the measure would “threaten the existence of women’s prisons, public-school girls’ locker rooms, and women’s and girls’ sports teams.”
“One of the many reasons to oppose this bill,” Jordan wrote.
The legislation has won the support of several civil rights groups as well as high-profile leaders in the business community, including Coca-Cola, IBM, Microsoft and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.