- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2019

The Equality Act passed the U.S. House on Friday, with eight Republicans breaking rank to vote with Democratic colleagues for legislation supporters say will add needed federal protections in housing, employment and health care to millions of LGBTQ Americans.

However, the legislation is not expected to be brought up for a vote in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, has referred to the upper chamber as a graveyard for progressive measures.

No Democrats voted against the measure, though three Democratic presidential candidates — Reps. Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton — did not cast votes for or against the bill.

The bill bolsters the list of protected classes under the seminal 1964 Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act, as well as other civil rights laws, to include for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” It’s the last class, however, that has drawn the most ire for what critics call its open-endedness.

In the waning moments before Friday’s vote, Republican opponents sought to cast the bill as a vaguely-written statute that would allow trans female athletes to run roughshod over biologically female opponents and open up churches to prosecution for discrimination against LGBTQ persons.

“H.R. 5 is bad for freedom,” said Rep. Ross Spano, a suburban Floridian. “It would immediately expose churches to ‘legal liability’ for simply following their earnest beliefs.”

But Democrats — more forcefully than in the previous hearings — sought to dispel arguments with faith. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, talked about her faith while holding a copy of the Constitution.

“How would you feel if you’ve got to knock on the door and you could not get in?” Ms. Jackson Lee said, referencing property managers’ rights to not rent to gay tenants. “If they had no place for you at the inn?”

Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah Democrat, staged a colloquy with the bill’s sponsor, Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline, during debate.

“Nothing compels a clergy member to perform a ceremony in conflict with their beliefs?” Mr. McAdams asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Ciciline said. “H.R. 5 does not nor could any laws supersede the First Amendment.”

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and early opponent of the bill, briefly interrupted the sequence of scheduled speakers to rebut the exchange, which he called a “cover” for Mr. McAdams to take a hard vote.

Earlier this week, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the most recognized organ of the Mormon faith, issued its opposition to the bill earlier this week, saying it did not provide enough balance of religious liberty as a 2015 state law in Utah.

“This colloquy was nice,” Mr. Collins said. “But it did not answer the underlying concerns.”

But ultimately arguments — or polling back home, which shows majority margins of support for the Equality Act — won over more Republicans than Democrats. While the House version of the legislation enjoyed three Republican sponsors (with one, Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner Jenniffer González, unable to vote), the final vote showed eight GOP votes, with support from Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana, Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas, Greg Walden of Oregon and John Katko, Tom Reed and Elise Stefanik, all from New York.

“I cannot oppose a bill that seeks to prevent discrimination,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said in a statement Friday, describing the bill as “flawed” and a “messaging bill” for Democrats.

Ms. Brooks said after the vote that she co-authored a fair housing provision in the bill ensuring fair treatment for LGBTQ renters or homebuyers. She also noted concern over allegations the bill would coerce doctors to perform hormone therapy against their wishes on children — a claim dismissed by the bill’s author.

“As the legislative process moves forward, I will advocate for clarification language that would improve this bill,” said Ms. Brooks, who represents parts of Indianapolis.

While critics pushed women’s equality — suggesting that the inclusion of “gender identity” into the 1964 Civil Rights Act, including Title IX, which ushered in an era of women’s and girl’s sports, would allow males masquerading as females to dominate female competition — the rallying cry of religious liberty has increased in recent days.

While previous iterations of the Equality Act were introduced but never made it to the floor of either chamber, the version introduced in March included an explicit statement saying the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 could not act as a protection for discrimination, seemingly knocking out a law that had figured prominently in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case in 2014.

Last week, four high-ranking U.S. Catholic bishops signed a letter from other religious leaders saying they had “grave concern over the devastating consequences to religious freedom” in the bill. Chiefly, they cited language in the bill that expanded the definition of protections under “public accommodations.”

Outspoken evangelist Pat Robertson also warned of harm to America and that the land “will vomit you out” if Congress members supported the Equality Act.

However, other religious organizations represented a general shift toward LGBTQ inclusivity in various facets of American life by siding with the legislation, including a group of Catholic sisters who organized the “Nuns on the Bus” tour and the National Council of Jewish Women, who offered talking points on its website.

The social justice wing of the United Methodist Church — the General Board of Church and Society — also got behind the Equality Act. Methodists voted to continue disallowing gay marriage in churches in February, but group members said the Equality Act’s call for equal protection under the law spoke to the broader faith’s belief in basic justice.

Calling religious liberty concerns hyperbolic, Mr. Cicilline, who sat through the entire 90-minute debate on the House floor and was often visibly shaking his head in disbelief at opponents’ testimony, rattled off a list of things the bill didn’t do, including eliminating women’s colleges or women’s athletics or forcing churches to act as public accommodations.

“The LGBTQ community has waited nearly 250 years for full equality in our country,” Mr. Cicilline tweeted after the vote. “Today, we’re one step closer to that goal.”

Another Democrat, Texas Rep. Sylvia Garcia, referenced her faith as her reason for supporting the bill.

“As a woman and as a Catholic, I’m not giving away my women’s rights or my religious rights,” Ms. Garcia said. “When we say ‘justice for all’ at the end of our pledge, we should mean ‘justice for all.’”

Republicans maintained their calls that the bill supplants a governmental agenda in the place of a religious one.

Pointing to the marble relief of Moses above the House Chamber, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, who did not vote for the bill, said, “We are not wiser at this time than Moses.”

The Supreme Court will take up whether the word “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — which addresses employment discrimination — should be construed to mean LGBTQ Americans are also protected from being fired from their jobs for their sexual orientation. The various federal appeals courts are currently split on that question.

With a conservative-leaning court, supporters of the Equality Act argue a bright-line rule is needed in federal statute to prevent discrimination in the workplace and other venues.

The Trump administration said in a statement this week that while it supports equality for all Americans, it does not like this version of a bill, saying it was full of “poison pills.”

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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