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Senate could expand LGBTQ protections with Equality Act

The Supreme Court handed down its landmark ruling legalizing same-sex marriage six years ago this June, a decision that was especially resonant because it occurred during Pride month. This month, the Senate is likely to to have the chance to pass civil rights legislation with similar significance for LGBTQ Americans, if it isn’t stymied by Republican opposition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced last month that the Senate could take up the Equality Act, which would enshrine legal protections for LGBTQ Americans, in June. Still, it’s not yet clear whether the Senate will actually consider the House-passed bill during Pride month.

Twenty-nine states do not have laws that explicitly shield LGBTQ Americans from discrimination, resulting in a patchwork of protections that vary from state to state. The Equality Act would extend protections to cover federally funded programs, employment, housing, loan applications, education and public accommodations.

“This would, for the first time, give us a comprehensive blanket of protections across the country that are badly needed,” said Zeke Stokes, a consultant for GLAAD, which is leading the organization’s Summer of Equality work to advocate for the bill’s passage.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the protections guaranteed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act on the basis of sex extended to discrimination against LGBTQ Americans. The Equality Act would explicitly set those protections for people based on orientation and gender identity, as opposed to having those safeguards included under the umbrella term of “sex.”

The Equality Act first passed the House in 2019 but wasn’t considered by the then-Republican controlled Senate and faced opposition from the Trump administration. It’s still uncertain whether the bill will be able to garner support from a sufficient number of Republicans to pass.

Most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate, and Democrats have a narrow majority in the 50-50 Senate. They need the support of at least 10 Republicans to pass most of their priorities, including the Equality Act.

Many Republican lawmakers have raised concerns about the Equality Act, worrying that it could infringe upon religious liberties. Republican Senator Susan Collins, who was the lone Republican co-sponsor for the bill in the previous Congress, has not co-sponsored the Equality Act as reintroduced this year, in part due to concerns about language in the bill pertaining to religious organizations.

The Equality Act would amend language in the Civil Rights Act to prevent discrimination under federally funded programs on the basis of sex or sexual orientation. But this would affect certain faith-based organizations that  receive federal funding, such as Catholic Charities, which has in the past refused its adoption services to same-sex couples. However, if the bill is changed in response to these concerns, it runs the risk of legitimizing exemptions it was written to address.

The bill also may not have universal Democratic support, as Senator Joe Manchin is the lone Democrat who is not a co-sponsor of the measure. Manchin said in 2019 that he would not support the bill without changes, explaining at the time that he was “not convinced 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.”

But the protections offered by the Equality Act are broadly popular among most Americans. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 76% of Americans support protections for LGBTQ Americans from discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodation. Although support is stronger among Democrats and independents, the poll found that a majority of Republicans, 62%, also support anti-discrimination laws.

Advocates argue that given the popularity of anti-discrimination measures even among Republicans, senators should from GOP-dominant states should vote with their constituents on the issue. GLAAD’s Summer of Equality campaign involves coordinating direct phone calls into offices of key senators, and targeting lawmakers with digital ads. 

The bill also has support from prominent figures in American pop culture like Taylor Swift, who has been a strong advocate for the Equality Act. In a statement posted on Twitter earlier this month, Swift expressed her support for the Summer of Equality campaign and the Equality Act.

GLAAD will also send messages to senators supporting the Equality Act on behalf of constituents who sign a letter through the organization’s website.

“We’re hopeful that fair-minded Republican senators like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Rob Portman and a few others will hear the messages from their constituents loud and clear in their state and be leaders inside their caucus,” Stokes said, referring to more moderate Republican senators. “In our view, equality really should never be a partisan political issue.”

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, who first introduced the Equality Act in 2015, noted that the bill had advanced further than ever before in the Senate.

“Already this year, the bill has been passed by the House with a bipartisan vote, gained more Senate cosponsors than ever before, received the support of more than 400 major businesses that have called for its passage, and had its first-ever Senate hearing before the Judiciary Committee,” Merkley said in a statement to CBS News.

Merkley added that he was “continuing to have productive conversations with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle about this landmark legislation,” and expressed hope that the Senate would get the bill passed and placed “onto President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.”

The Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ Americans, has also launched a campaign to promote the passage of the bill in the Senate, including encouraging supporters to call and email their senators. Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, told CBS News that the “multilayered national campaign” also included paid and earned media, polling, and direct lobbying.

“We understand that generating the support from 10 Republicans is not easy, but we also understand that advancing civil rights has never been easy,” David said.

Some progressives have advocated for eliminating the filibuster to pass Democratic priorities that have little to no chance of receiving Republican support in the Senate. Stokes said that he would personally support ending the filibuster if it proved an obstacle to passing the Equality Act.

“It would be a real shame if after two years we go into the 2022 election and we don’t have anything to show for it because of some arcane process in the U.S. Senate,” Stokes said. Democrats retook the White House and the Senate in the 2020 elections, but face a challenging map in the 2022 midterms, with a high possibility that they may lose the majority in Congress.

However, Manchin has repeatedly reiterated his opposition to eliminating the filibuster, as has Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Other Democratic senators have privately expressed concerns about ending the practice. Without support from all 50 Democrats in the Senate, the filibuster will remain in place.

Since the filibuster seems like it is here to stay, that brings activists back to their first and only option: somehow convincing a sufficient number of Republicans to support the bill. Stokes said that even if the bill does not pass this month or even this year, he has faith that “we will get it passed and signed by a pro-equality president” — but only if “Americans who care speak up loud and clearly.”

David urged the two-thirds of Americans who support the bill to reach out to their senators, as the voices of constituents may be the most important factor in changing senators’ minds about the bill.

“I’m confident that with a supermajority of voters supporting the Equality Act, we will ultimately get to the point where we can convince Republican senators to support the bill,” David said.


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