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The Equality Act

By Sam Reeder, DignityUSA Editor

While marriage equality was granted recently through the Supreme Court, there are still many places where individuals and couples can be legally discriminated against.  In fact in 28 states it is legal for gay and bisexual individuals to be fired, evicted, denied credit, denied federal funding, or even barred from jury duty, and in 31 it is legal to do the same for transgender individuals. 

Nineteen states, and many local governments, have established legal protections, but many remain.  It has been good to see some progress, even in states like Utah, which recently passed a bill protecting the LGBT population from discrimination.  However, like many others, it had loopholes for religious organizations and small companies.  As for cities, while many large cities have granted protections, they can be trumped by state laws.  This is most hauntingly illustrated by North Carolina’s bill on March 23rd, which went from introduction, to passage in both houses, to being signed into law within the space of a single day.  This bill stripped all local protections, and banned the creation of new ones.  The bill passed the North Carolina Senate unanimously, because all of the Democratic Senators walked out in protest.  Problems like this are why we need federal protection.

The Equality Act was introduced to the Senate as S 1858, by Jeff Merkley D-OR, Tammy Baldwin D-WI, and Cory Booker D-NJ, and to the House as HR 3185 by David Cicilline D-RI and John Lewis D-GA last summer, and supported by 173 representatives and 41 senators.  The Equality Act amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and would provide federal prohibition of discrimination in employment, housing, and education, as well as some other items, based upon one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  The new language also provides protection against discrimination based upon political affiliation.

Unfortunately, while the bill has overwhelming support from the left, only two Republicans have lent their support to the bill, and they only did so in January.  These two are Illinois Senator Mark Kirk and Illinois Representative Robert Dold, the latter of whom has already indicated a desire to add broader religious exemptions.  Mark Kirk on the other hand, having given no indication that he would attempt to change the law, has now been endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign in his bid for re-election.  This has angered many Democrats, as his opponent, Tammy Duckworth, has long been a supporter of LGBT rights.  This endorsement is likely to have been given as a metaphorical carrot, to encourage the good behavior of Republicans, rather than as a slight to the Democrats, but the move remains controversial, much like HRC’s decision to endorse Hilary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders, even though both are currently LGBT advocates.

Realistically, it is unlikely that we will see much, if any, movement this year on the Equality Act in either the House or Senate for a number of reasons.  First, both chambers are currently controlled by the Republican Party, which is generally not concerned with the issue.  Second and more importantly, we are in the run up to elections, for a president, all House seats (435), and one third of Senate seats (34).  This puts both sides in a sort of “wait and see” position.  Should the Democrats retake both houses and retain the presidency, the bill would probably pass in short order sometime in February 2017.  A mixed Senate and House, or a Republican President, could cause difficulties.

So what gives?  The nation is generally behind this type of equality, including many Republicans, but Republican lawmakers are not.  After a bit of research, the most prominent reasons are related to the Tea Party and the Family Research Council (FRC) which  represent conflicting factions within the Republican Party. 

While we now think of the Tea Party as both fiscally and socially more conservative than mainstream Republicans, the Tea Party was only concerned with fiscal conservatism. Unfortunately, the candidates that they could find who were fiscally conservative enough were overwhelmingly socially conservative as well.  This has led to numerous shutdowns and general stagnation since 2010.  Those elected with Tea Party money have been some of the most hateful and homophobic lawmakers in recent years.

On the other hand, mainstream Republicans, who are often more reasonable, are still funded and influenced by social conservative groups like the Family Research Council, and numerous super PACs.  Even with FRC’s label as a hate-group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, they are able to use massive amounts of money to support campaigns without making it readily apparent to those candidates’ constituents.  This means that while many lawmakers may be personally happy to vote for a bill like the Equality Act, they will not because it would decrease their support.

So until campaign finances are reformed, we can expect little to no help from the Republican Party.  This might not seem so unexpected, but we should remember, this was the party of Lincoln, the party whose formation was heavily based in the need to abolish slavery, whose ideological ancestors gave us official freedom of speech, press, religion, and much more.  Oh how the mighty have fallen!   Our best hope for the Equality Act in the next year is to have the Democrats retake the House and Senate majorities in November, and hope the new president will not veto.  No matter how we get there though, it will be a long and hard fight.