WASHINGTON – The House voted Thursday to pass the Equality Act, a far-reaching measure that has been decades in the making and would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The legislation was passed by the House in 2019 but blocked in the Republican-led Senate. This time, Democrats control the White House, House and Senate. President Joe Biden has signaled his support for the measure, but it still faces an uphill fight in the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to break a legislative filibuster.
“The Civil Rights Act is a sacred pillar of freedom in our country. It is not amended lightly,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a House floor speech Thursday afternoon. She 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.”
After a tense and often personal debate, the House voted 224 to 206 for the measure, with three Republicans joining all Democrats to vote yes.
The legislation would amend federal civil rights laws to ensure protections for LGBTQ Americans in employment, education, housing, credit, jury service and other areas. It is a top legislative priority of Biden, who in a statement last week called the bill “a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all.”
National LGBTQ rights groups hailed the measure’s passage, with the Human Rights Campaign calling it “a major milestone for equality bringing us closer to ensuring that every person is treated equally under the law.”
“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,” the group’s president, Alphonso David, said in a statement.
A number of religious denominations, however, are lobbying against the measure, saying its lack of religious exemptions creates one of the most sweeping challenges to religious liberty in decades.
Groups including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox Jews and Seventh-day Adventists, among others, say it could halt free and reduced-cost lunches for children across the country who attend single-gender parochial schools, require church community halls to rent space for LGBTQ ceremonies, and threaten federal security grants for synagogues and mosques facing violence.
The House debate over the issue included personal testimony from several lawmakers. Several LGBTQ members of Congress were among those who rose in support of the measure, as were lawmakers whose family members are transgender.
Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress, said during Thursday’s debate: “I am here to claim what discrimination denies: equal protection under the law.”
In announcing her support for the bill Wednesday, Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., noted that she is “the proud sister to a trans brother and a gender nonconforming sibling.”
On Tuesday, freshman Rep. Marie Newman, D-Ill., delivered an emotional floor speech in which she mentioned her daughter, who she said came out to her as transgender years ago.
“I knew from that day on, my daughter would be living in a nation where in 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.”
Newman raised a transgender pride flag outside her office this week in support of the bill. Another House freshman, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., one of the legislation’s most vocal opponents, responded by mocking Newman with a poster that she hung outside her own office directly across the hall.
“There are TWO genders: Male & Female. Trust The Science!” the poster reads.
The House voted this month to remove Greene from her two committee assignments because she repeatedly espoused false and extremist claims, including the QAnon radicalized ideology. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., on Thursday criticized Greene without naming her, calling 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 have argued that the Equality Act infringes on the religious beliefs of individuals and repeatedly raised the specter of women’s sports.
In remarks on the House floor Thursday morning, Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., repeatedly referred to transgender women as “biological males” and said the Equality Act would violate women’s right to privacy and safety in locker rooms and showers. He also denounced as “child abuse” the bill’s provisions on medical treatments such as gender-affirming hormones and surgeries for minors.
“God help us,” Clyde said. “Have we lost our ever-loving minds?”
Members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus delivered a broad attack on the substance of the bill Thursday, with many calling it part of a broader liberal attack on traditional Christian values. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, called the bill “anti-life, anti-family and anti-faith,” while Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., argued that it “moves our nation away from our Judeo-Christian values and takes away parents’ rights to decide.”
The Equality Act has been a pillar of the LGBTQ civil rights movement since similar legislation was first discussed after the Stonewall riots in 1969. Democratic Rep. Bella Abzug of New York was the main sponsor of the Equality Act in 1974; ; other prominent supporters of the legislation included Rep. Ed Koch, D-N.Y.
In the ensuing decades, public opinion has shifted dramatically toward support of such protections. More than 8 in 10 Americans favor laws that would protect LGBTQ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing, according to a 2020 Public Religion Research Institute American Values Survey.
More than 21 states have passed laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations or other realms. But the patchwork of laws leave large gaps in LGBTQ protections.
In 27 states, a person can be denied housing because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They can be denied access to education in 31 states and the right to serve on a jury in 41 states, according to a statement released last week by the office of Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the measure’s chief sponsor.
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The Washington Post’s Katie Shepherd contributed to this report.