The House of Representatives on Friday passed the Equality Act in a historic milestone for the nation’s most comprehensive bill to protect LGBT rights.
The 236–173 vote led by Democrats sends the measure to the Senate while leading Republicans to predict it will cause catastrophic gender-bending and gut religious exercise. Eight House Republicans voted for the bill.
Known as H.R. 5, the Equality Act would expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 along with a handful of other laws that collectively ban discrimination in housing, finances, employment, schools, and public places on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“No one should lose their job because of who they are or who they love,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a floor speech, echoing the Democrats’ theme that the law creates overdue parity for LGBT Americans.
If approved by the Republican-controlled Senate and signed into law, which appears unlikely, the measure would elevate LGBT rights to the same status as other classes protected from discrimination, such as race and national origin.
While the GOP spent decades fighting LGBT rights, House Republicans instead focused their arguments against the Equality Act in a kind of concern-trolling, warning that the bill will have unintended consequences — particularly for women and people of faith — rather than explicitly saying that that LGBT Americans shouldn't be protected from discrimination.
“That’s my problem — not the intent,” said Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia. “It’s about how you go about it.”
The bill would leave little room to discriminate, even in cases of moral objections. Several Republicans were alarmed the bill is exempt from Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that says religious exercise cannot be burdened unless the government has a compelling reason.
“It would allow the government to force its rigid and unyielding fist inside the church,” said Republican Rep. Ross Spano of Florida.
He contended it would encroach on the rights of religious business owners to discriminate against LGBT workers or customers based on their moral objections, saying, “It would deliver a crushing blow to the base of the tree of religious liberty.”
Because the Equality Act bans discrimination based on a person’s gender identity, Republicans said it creates an arbitrary distinction that lets men pretend to be women, threatening women in restrooms.
Opponents claim the bill would give transgender women — who they call men — an unfair advantage in women’s sports and allow children to undergo medically assisted gender transitions without any oversight of parents.
“A vote for this bill is a vote against women,” said Rep. Vicky Hartzler.
The attack repurposes feminist themes from the left and LGBT communities — which have long fought rigid sex stereotypes and gender norms — to portray the bill as a weapon. The criticism also inverts the bill’s most basic frame: Rather than transgender people being the victims of discrimination (transgender people suffer indisputably high rates of bias), transgender people are portrayed as an all-male brigade that subjugates women.
Equality Act supporters have cited surveys that find overwhelming support for LGBT rights — but polling is more complicated.
The Public Religion Research Institute found in 2017 that 70% of Americans support comprehensive LGBT nondiscrimination laws, though 39% also supported laws banning transgender people from restrooms that match their gender identity.
Once a wedding cake or floral arrangement comes into play, support is mushy. A 2018 PRRI survey found a growing number of American think wedding-based businesses should be allowed to turn away customers on religious grounds. Forty-six percent of Americans believe businesses should be allowed to, while 48% disagreed. A year before, 53% had disagreed.
Despite the Equality Act’s strong House support from Democrats, the measure faces slim chances in the GOP-run Senate, where it’s widely expected to die without a vote.
“At the moment,” a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told BuzzFeed News on Thursday, “I have no scheduling announcements regarding Senate action.”
Without a path to become law, and given President Donald Trump’s opposition, a coalition of religious conservatives have come together to plan to introduce a bill this year that would strike a compromise. Their bill would create new federal LGBT rights and add religious exemptions — a notion that has alarmed both the left and the right.