On the Hill: Equality Act Introduced to End LGBTQ Discrimination

The American Humanist Association was proud to be an endorsing organization when the Equality Act was reintroduced in Congress last week. The Equality Act would amend existing federal anti-discrimination laws to ensure that LGBTQ Americans cannot be discriminated against in the workforce because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill would also prevent discrimination in housing towards LGBTQ Americans.

Unfortunately, while many states and localities have passed laws preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, most states have not. In fact, only twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment in the public and private sector. Fifty percent of Americans live in one of those states. More than half of LGBTQ Americans live in a state where they remain legally unprotected. And only twenty-two states have protections prohibiting housing discrimination against LGBTQ Americans.

This bill is very likely to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but it’s going to have a much harder time in the Senate and at the White House. For one, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) is voting against the bill. He claims to be unconvinced “that the Equality Act as written provides sufficient guidance to the local officials who will be responsible for implementing it, particularly with respect to students transitioning between genders in public schools.”

Manchin’s real reason for opposing the bill is that he represents a socially conservative state, and he believes that a vote for LGBTQ equality would cost him his seat. Whether or not his political calculations are correct is a different matter, but his decision leaves Democrats with only forty-six votes in favor of the legislation on their side of the aisle. Meanwhile, four currently serving Republican Senators have voted for extremely similar legislation in the past, and may potentially support this new bill. Unfortunately, that gives the Equality Act only fifty votes in favor, with fifty-one voting against (including the tiebreaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence, who is the president of the Senate).

Another complicating factor is the potential of a filibuster. With sixty votes needed to break any filibuster of the Equality Act, Democrats would need a further ten Republican votes in favor of ending a filibuster (if not in favor of voting for the Equality Act) for the bill to even proceed to a floor vote.

Assuming that Democrats get the sixty votes to end a filibuster and fifty-one votes to actually pass the legislation, they would then need to deal with President Donald Trump, who has made his opposition to LGBTQ equality well known through religious freedom executive orders and his ban on transgender servicemembers in our military.

This is all to say that while the Equality Act is a truly important piece of legislation, it has a long way to go before becoming an enforceable law. Voters must elect representatives who are supportive of LGBTQ equality (from all parties!) before this legislation can move. Until then, the AHA and supportive organizations will continue to meet with representatives, senators, and presidents of all parties to support this legislation.