On Feb. 25, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a bill that proposes to amend federal civil rights law to prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in employment, housing, public schools, among other areas. The U.S. Supreme Court already has interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity but the Equality Act would enshrine the prohibition in the statutory language and provide broader protections.
In a letter to Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said the organization and its “more than 300,000+ HR professional and business executive members strongly support policy that bars workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as envisioned in H.R. 5, the Equality Act of 2021.” The letter noted that SHRM was the first employer association in 2008 to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), prior legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity that “included important guidance for both employers and employees.” SHRM said the Equality Act “should be strengthened with previous provisions of the ENDA that provide much needed clarity, especially for small and mid-sized businesses—those most negatively impacted by the pandemic.”
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The vote in the House was close, 224-to-206, with three Republicans joining all Democrats in favor of the legislation. The legislation would provide protections for LGBTQ individuals not only in employment, but also education, housing, credit, jury service and other areas. President Joe Biden has called the bill “a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all.” But some religious denominations oppose the legislation, saying that its lack of religious exemptions challenges religious liberty.
Uncertain Future in the Senate
The bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which is divided 50-50 among Democrats and Republicans with Vice President Kamala Harris having the tie-breaking vote. The bill would need 60 votes to advance in the Senate, unless the Democrats take the controversial step of eliminating the filibuster. If the filibuster were eliminated, the bill could pass with a simple majority.
Biden’s Support Emphasized
“We are really excited to have the incredible support of President Biden and his commitment to make the Equality Act the law of the land,” Cicilline, a co-sponsor of the Equality Act, said. “Every American deserves respect and dignity and it’s important that the Equality Act become law because it will once and for all ensure that LGBTQ Americans can live lives free of discrimination.”
Public Accommodations Would Be Affected
The Equality Act would affect private businesses open to the public—public accommodations—like retail stores, such as flower shops and bakeries that have been at the center of discrimination court cases. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that a baker did not have to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding. Supporters of the bill say it would cement protections that could otherwise be left open to interpretation.
Federal Anti-Bias Law Protects LGBTQ Workers
The Supreme Court ruled last year that Title VII shields workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. “An individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch for the court. “That’s because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”