Equality Act seeks to protect gay Americans from discrimination

Same-sex marriage is now legal in every U.S. state, but advocates say there is still a long way to go to ensure equal rights for LGBT Americans. The Equality Act, recently introduced in Congress, is seeking to protect them from discrimination nationwide. Passing it is expected to be a challenge.

In 31 states, people can still be fired because of gender identity or sexual identity

A crowd celebrates outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on June 26 after it ruled in favour of same-sex marriage nationwide. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Same-sex marriage was declared legal across the United States by the Supreme Court in June, but the fight for equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans is far from over, say those engaged in the struggle.

"You can get married in the morning, you can publicize it on Facebook in the afternoon and you can be fired before you go to work the next day. Not only that, you can be thrown out of a restaurant, the theatre, you can be denied a rental contract, you can be denied a job. That is still true in the majority of states in this country and it's absolutely unacceptable," Senator Jeff Merkley said in an interview.

The Oregon senator is trying to change that with the Equality Act, a bill he and other Democrats introduced in the U.S. Congress on July 23.

The Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling was a historic moment for supporters, but in 31 states there is no explicit legal protection when it comes to other kinds of discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender Americans.
The White House was lit up in rainbow colours on June 26 to mark the historic Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Members of the LGBT community in these states have no legal recourse if they are denied a job or fired because of their sexual orientation, or if they are kicked out of their apartment or a store. There is a patchwork of laws across the country and Merkley and his allies are seeking to enshrine anti-discrimination protection nationwide.

"Eliminating discrimination is just a very important human value. It's a value I deeply believe in and it's a fight I feel very good about being involved in," said Merkley.

The bill would ban discrimination in employment, education, housing, public accommodations (hotels, restaurants, entertainment venues), jury service, access to credit, federally funded services and financial assistance.

It would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing list of protections, which now includes race and religion, and it would also change a number of other laws.

Discrimination in daily life persists

The act would also stipulate that the federal religious freedom law could not be used as a defence for discriminating against someone.

Opponents say the proposed Equality Act and other bills like it at various levels of government in fact undermine civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech and the exercise of religion. Governments shouldn't interfere with business owners' decisions, some say, and a florist or baker, for example, should be free to refuse to service certain customers.

Supporters, on the other hand, say the Equality Act is common sense legislation that is long overdue.

Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel and a director at Lambda Legal, a non-profit LGBT rights organization, said that despite marriage equality from coast to coast, discrimination persists.

This is too important an issue to the environment in which millions of Americans live to have it forever swept under the rug.- Senator Jeff Merkley

"In so many parts of our daily lives there is discrimination, and that's been a problem for a very long time," she said.

Pizer noted some activists are concerned that after the same-sex marriage ruling some Americans think everything is hunky-dory in the LGBT rights world, but, "that's just not true."

She described the Equality Act as a "momentous step forward" in the work to eliminate discrimination. But how far forward will it actually move? With Republicans in control of the House and the Senate, perhaps not very far at all.

The bill will be referred to the Senate's judiciary committee, and it's up to the Republicans on that committee to determine the agenda. They could let it languish indefinitely.

No Republicans voiced support for the Equality Act when it was introduced. Forty Democratic senators and 158 House members signed on to it.

Talks with Republicans

Pizer said there are "ongoing and meaningful" conversations with Republicans and she's confident some will eventually co-sponsor the bill. She hopes that after they spend time in their constituencies during the August break they will return to Washington in the fall ready to put it on the agenda.

"The chances are very good that this bill will become law, in time, and I think it will happen sooner than some might think," she said.

Outside of Washington, advocates are trying to build public and corporate support for the proposed legislation.

Major companies, including Apple, Dow Chemical, Google, Facebook, Nike, General Mills and Levi Strauss, have already endorsed the Equality Act.

Merkley said their support is "helpful" and expanding that list is part of the strategy to get the bill passed. Big businesses are important to the local communities where they are based, and when they take positions on public policy they can influence representatives in Washington.

Merkley knows building momentum for the bill will take some time, but he is intent on pressing his colleagues in Congress to take a stand on it, especially as the 2016 election approaches.

"Voters have a right to know where they stand on civil rights," he said. "This is too important an issue to the environment in which millions of Americans live to have it forever swept under the rug."