- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2015

On the heels of last month’s Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, congressional Democrats introduced new legislation to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity Thursday afternoon.

Dubbed the “Equality Act,” the bill would offer federal protections in jobs, housing, public accommodations, education, banking and access to public assistance programs. It also specifically prohibits claims of religious belief under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as a defense for discrimination.

“No longer should America try to turn its back on our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters,” said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and only living member of the “Big Six,” a group of key leaders of the African-American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

There are 31 states without workplace, employment and housing protections for sexual identity, said Rep. David N. Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat and one of the top sponsors. This bill would affect those states and ensure they provide equal protections.

Carter Brown, a transgender man from Texas who spoke at the bill’s announcement, said he was harassed and ultimately fired from his job in the real estate industry after a colleague outed him as being transgender. His termination was legally justified because Texas has “at will” laws, meaning an employer can fire an employee without having to establish cause, Mr. Brown said.

“Unfortunately, my story isn’t very unique,” Mr. Brown said. “Equal opportunity should not be a matter of sex or gender. It is a matter of survival.”

The Equality Act is broader than the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which backers have tried for years to push through Congress, without success. That bill would have only applied to the workplace, but the Equality Act would extend existing protections in civil rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.

Religious organizations and schools would still be able to operate on the basis of their religious identity, but Religious Freedom Restoration Act laws could not be used to permit discrimination, said an analysis by ThinkProgress.

Gay rights groups, and businesses such as Apple, Dow Chemical Company, Levi Strauss and Amalgamated Bank, applauded the bill’s introduction.

No Republicans have signed on as sponsors of the bill, and Ryan T. Anderson at The Heritage Foundation told The Daily Signal on Thursday that the measure would “endanger” constitutionally protected religious freedoms and free speech rights.

After the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, several Republicans in Congress introduced legislation condemning the decision and arguing that states should be allowed to reject the Supreme Court ruling, as well as legislation to prevent the federal government from discriminating against people who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said that this was the next step to take after the hate crimes legislation in 2009, the 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay troops and the Supreme Court decision in June that established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said his bill has more than 100 Democratic co-sponsors, but it does not have any Republican co-sponsors yet — likely dooming it in a Congress with both chambers controlled by the GOP.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Thursday at his weekly press conference that he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the Equality Act, but said he would look at its details.

Other top sponsors include Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey and Mr. Cicilline. Ms. Baldwin and Mr. Cicilline are both openly gay.

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