U.S. House passes LGBTQ rights bill over GOP opposition

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WASHINGTON — U.S. House lawmakers on Friday voted to approve sweeping legislation aimed at barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in spite of broad opposition from House Republicans.

U.S. Capitol | Creative Commons

In a major victory for LGBTQ rights advocates, the House approved the bill, dubbed the Equality Act, by a vote of 236-173, including eight Republican votes.

The Michigan delegation was split on party lines, with six Democrats voting in favor — who were all co-sponsors — and all seven Republicans standing opposed.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), who also co-sponsored the bill, was not in Washington to vote, as she was in Lansing attending the induction of her late husband, former U.S. Rep. John Dingell, into the Michigan Military and Veterans Hall of Honor Inaugural Ceremony.

The measure would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act by explicitly banning discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in education, employment, housing, credit and the jury system.

House Democrats celebrated the bill’s passage as a landmark achievement by Congress.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens | Ken Coleman

“Today is an historic day for LGBTQ Americans and for every person who believes in equal justice under the law,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.). “The House today affirmed that every person deserves protection from discrimination, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. This statement made by the House is as powerful as it is practical — every American, no matter where they live, should be able to live, work, marry and even serve on a jury without facing discrimination.”

Passage of the bill “will send a powerful bipartisan message to members of the LGBTQ community that they are not second-class citizens,” U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester) said on the House floor ahead of the vote. “In this country, in this year 2019, we must choose acceptance to grow our economy, to promote the general welfare.”

The measure also was backed by groups in Michigan, including the Human Rights Campaign of Michigan and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

Bobby Scott

“Not only is it the smart thing to do; it is the right thing to do,” said President Rick Baker in a statement. “We believe everyone deserves the right to show up as their whole person in all aspects of their life. Equality under the law fosters an environment where America’s diverse workforce can reach its full potential without fear of discrimination.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, noted that Friday marked the 65th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which found that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.

“Today is also a historic day for the LGBTQ community,” Scott said. “Over the last decade, we’ve made progress in securing rights for the LGBTQ community … however, many legal barriers still remain. … The inconsistent patchwork of state laws leaves millions of people vulnerable to discrimination.”

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said, “We need to … ensure that all people in this country, no matter where they live are protected against hate and bigotry, exclusion and discrimination. The opportunities this country offers must be open to everyone in our country.”

Stonewall Inn, 1969 | Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) said that “in Florida and many other states, LGBTQ Americans are still at risk of being fired, evicted, denied services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

She called the passage of the Equality Act a fitting way to commemorate the anniversary of the uprising at Stonewall, which took place in June 1969 and is considered the birth of the the modern LGBT rights movement.

Currently, less than half of the U.S. states have enacted their own laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank.

Despite the fanfare in the House, the effort is unlikely to be enacted into law this Congress. The Senate companion version has one Republican co-sponsor, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, but is unlikely to garner broad GOP support in that chamber. And the President Donald Trump administration opposes the effort.

“The Trump administration absolutely opposes discrimination of any kind and supports the equal treatment of all,” an administration official told NBC News. “However, this bill in its current form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.”

House Republicans assailed the effort, warning that Democrats don’t understand the reach of the bill.

Donald Trump | Wikimedia Commons

“It’s vague and circular definitions of gender identity will lead only to uncertainty, litigation and harm to individuals and organizations that will be forced to comply with a law the authors don’t even seem to understand,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.).

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said that the bill would “erase women and girls’ rights by requiring facilities such as schools, churches, dormitories, domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters to allow biological males who identify as women in women’s bathrooms, women’s and girls’ shelters, women’s and girls’ showers and in women’s locker rooms.”

Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) said the bill would have “grave consequences” for religious freedom by forcing religious organizations to go against their beliefs or risk violating the law. He and others also warned that female athletes could be forced to compete against biologically male athletes.

Washington, D.C. | Susan J. Demas

Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of playing up fears about the bill as a distraction.

At a hearing about the legislation in April, openly transgender witness Carter Brown, who leads an organization called Black Transmen Inc., said lawmakers had discussed “transgender people as a threat, in the bathroom, in sports,” Time reported.

Brown added, “My identity is not a threat to anyone else.” Without explicit federal protections to protect LGBTQ people, “it’s a threat to me and my ability to provide for myself and my family.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Robin Bravender
Michigan native Robin Bravender is the DC Bureau Chief for the Newsroom, a consortium of 10 nonprofit news publications, including the Michigan Advance. Previously, Robin was a reporter for Politico, E&E News and Thomson Reuters.

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