House Democrats on Thursday passed the Equality Act, taking their cues from President Biden as he pushes transgender rights to the forefront over warnings of dire repercussions for religious freedom, women’s sports and female privacy.
The bill, which would add sex, gender identity and sexual orientation to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was approved 224-206, with three Republicans voting in favor of the measure, a drop from the eight who supported the measure in 2019.
The previous legislation had little chance with Republicans in charge of the Senate and President Trump in the White House, but Mr. Biden has made transgender rights a priority, starting with a landmark Day One executive order to combat discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
“Passing the Equality Act the last time was historic, a day of hope and happiness for millions,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said in her floor speech. “Now with a Democratic Senate majority and President Biden in the White House, and Vice President Harris there as well, we will pass it once more and we will never stop fighting until it becomes law.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat, introduced a Senate companion bill last week, but the road through the 50-50 Senate remains fraught. Democrats would need 10 Republicans to stave off a filibuster, and they may have lost their leading prospect.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, told the Washington Blade that she would not co-sponsor the Senate bill because its authors failed to address her concerns. She was the only Republican co-sponsor in the previous Congress.
“There were certain provisions of the Equality Act which needed revision,” Ms. Collins said in the Wednesday article. “Unfortunately, the commitments that were made to me were not [given] last year.”
The bill bars discrimination in areas including housing, employment, education, lending and public accommodations.
“The fact is in most states an LGBTQ person is at risk of being denied housing, education or the right to serve on a jury just because of who they are,” said Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat and the bill’s sponsor. “The Equality Act does no more or no less than say LGBTQ people deserve the same rights and responsibilities as all other Americans, most fundamentally the right to live lives free of discrimination.”
Critics argued that the bill goes further than that. Feminists and women’s sports advocates said the measure would effectively eliminate female athletics by requiring schools and leagues to include biological males who identify as females.
“This legislation would be devastating for women’s rights, forcing female athletes to compete against biological males and opening private women’s spaces to men, including bathrooms, locker rooms and shelters,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project. “It would also deeply imperil every American’s First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of religion.”
The bill specifically exempts itself from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, raising fears that churches, religious schools and devout small-business owners could be sanctioned for adhering to traditional beliefs or refusing to offer health insurance that covers gender reassignment.
“Religious charities like Little Sisters of the Poor could not opt out of this requirement or take such a case to court,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Missouri Republican. “Family-owned businesses, like Jack Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop or Barronelle Stutzman’s Arlene’s Flowers would be required to celebrate same-sex unions and transition procedures.”
The bill also bans discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” leading to concerns that the measure could become a mandate for federal abortion funding.
Rep. Yvette Herrell, New Mexico Republican, said that “any parent who doesn’t want [their child] to go through gender reassignment surgery at a young age would be stigmatized.”
Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, said the bill “is about to replace [parents] with bureaucrats.”
Dismissing those concerns was Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, who insisted that under the bill, “Women still have rights, religious freedom is still protected, parents are still involved in their children’s health care, and doctors are still free to exercise their professional medical judgment.”
‘Most pro-LGBTQ president’
While Mr. Biden has received more attention for his climate and energy orders, his administration has also made waves on transgender issues.
His Jan. 20 order directs agencies to comply with a more expansive interpretation of the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which found that workplace discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is prohibited under Title VII.
“Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports,” Mr. Biden said in his order.
He followed up by issuing a Jan. 25 order lifting the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military and issuing a foreign policy memorandum “to ensure that United States diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons.”
Elliot Imse, spokesperson for the LGBTQ Victory Fund, described Mr. Biden’s actions, including his efforts to increase diversity in his administration, as historic.
“President Biden is the most pro-LGBTQ president in U.S. history and is building an administration that includes LGBTQ people in every agency and at every level,” said Mr. Imse. “All Americans are better off when people with diverse lived experiences can provide input on policies and legislation.”
One such nominee is Dr. Rachel Levine, a Biden nominee for assistant secretary of health, who would be the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the Senate.
Dr. Levine ran into trouble Thursday when another physician, Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, quizzed the nominee on whether she supports government officials overriding parents to allow minors to take hormones and undergo medical gender-transition procedures.
“Senator, transgender medicine is a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and standards of care,” said Dr. Levine, prompting Mr. Paul to accuse her of evading the question.
“Biden nominee refuses to answer my question about whether the government should override a parent’s consent to allow a minor to receive puberty blockers or surgical amputation of breasts or genitalia,” Mr. Paul tweeted.
Emilie Kao, director of the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, said if the bill succeeds, “it won’t be the result of new scientific discoveries about the sexes.
“It will be the triumph of cancel culture over facts, reason and empirical knowledge,” said Ms. Kao. “And if the sex binary can be canceled, who knows what’s next?”
The House debate grew heated at times. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Michigan Democrat, said the bill’s supporters “send a powerful message to the bigots, including those here in Congress, that their time here is over.”
Republicans repeatedly referred to the bill as the “inequality act” or “so-called Equality Act.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, said “it’s not about giving rights. This is about taking away rights.”
At a press conference, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, condemned what he called “despicable” comments by Republicans.
“History is not kind to those who oppose or filibuster civil rights legislation, and excuses won’t pass muster with future generations,” said Annise Parker, president of LGBTQ Victory Institute. “It is imperative senators be given that same opportunity to vote and understand that the history books will remember their decision.”
The three Republicans who voted in favor of the bill were Reps. John Katko and Tom Reed of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.