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Democrats Will Reintroduce A Major LGBT Bill As A Wedge Issue In Congress

The backers hope to show there are miles between the parties on LGBT rights — even if the bill won't pass.

Last updated on March 13, 2017, at 4:06 p.m. ET

Posted on March 13, 2017, at 2:27 p.m. ET

Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Sen. Jeff Merkley and supporters of the Equality Act in 2015.

Democrats in Congress plan to reintroduce legislation this month that would ban LGBT discrimination nationwide, despite facing a conservative majority that's been generally hostile toward the issue.

While the bill has little shot of passage, progressives hope inaction by Republicans can illustrate a chasm between the major political parties as they approach the 2018 midterm election.

"It's important for Americans to know whether members of Congress support full equality for our community or whether they support continued discrimination against LGBT Americans," Rhode Island's David Cicilline, a Democrat who will sponsor the bill in the House, told BuzzFeed News.

A companion bill will be reintroduced in the Senate by Oregon's Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, who said colleagues opposed to the bill "should have to stand up and explain why.”

Dozens of Democrats sponsored similar legislation in 2015, with a small harmony of support across the aisle, marking the most sweeping effort to date to provide LGBT civil rights. But Republican leaders never gave it a committee hearing. Rep. Cicilline argued that opponents should pay a political price if they continue to blockade the bill, saying, "If Republicans in Washington want to keep standing in the doorway of opportunity, they'll have to answer to their constituents in just two short years."

The Equality Act, as it's known, would amend existing civil rights laws to add protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in workplaces, housing, and public spaces.

It would also clarify that transgender students can use single-sex facilities in schools in accordance with their gender identity, possibly settling a dispute tangled in courts.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

Rep. David Cicilline

President Donald Trump has helped shift his party toward more LGBT-friendly language, offering pledges of general support — but his cabinet brings a trove of anti-LGBT views. The administration recently withdrew protections for transgender students and Trump himself has endorsed states creating their own policies that allow discrimination.

Cicilline argued in a dear-colleague letter seeking House co-sponsors this week that a state-to-state patchwork of LGBT rights underscores the need for a consistently applied federal law. Despite winning marriage equality at the Supreme Court, for example, gay people can still be fired in the dozens of states where LGBT discrimination remains legal.

"We need a uniform federal standard that protects all LGBT Americans from discrimination," the letter says.

Polls have show most Americans believe LGBT people should be protected from discrimination.

“Every member of Congress should have to be counted and show exactly where they stand: either for or against full equality for all Americans," Sen. Merkley told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "In 2017, any elected leader who wants to use their position to maintain outdated and discriminatory policies should have to stand up and explain why.”

Several congressional Republicans have cited concerns from religious conservatives who claim their faith is at odds with accommodating LGBT people, particularly with selling merchandise for same-sex weddings.

The Equality Act would not add new religious exemptions; rather, it would let stand the religious protections codified in existing civil rights laws. But at least one Republican lawmaker and some LGBT conservatives have argued that the only way to advance LGBT nondiscrimination legislation in Congress with the current Republican majority is by adding new provisions for people with religious objections.

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