NEW YORK: LGBT+ Americans moved a step closer to winning legal protection from discrimination on Thursday as the U.S. House of Representatives passed a key civil rights bill backed by President Joe Biden.
By a vote of 224 to 206, the House passed the landmark Equality Act, which amends the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in addition to race, religion, sex and national origin.
The vote closely followed party lines, with only three Republican lawmakers supporting the bill.
“Without the Equality Act, this nation will never live up to its principles of freedom and equality,” Democratic Representative Marie Newman of Illinois, who has a trans daughter, said on the House floor on Wednesday.
“I’m voting yes on the Equality Act for Evie Newman, my daughter and the strongest, bravest person I know.”
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people often encounter prejudice in housing, credit, jury service and public spaces, as only 22 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
State legislatures regularly advance laws that limit local LGBT+ protections. Since the start of the year, a dozen states have introduced or passed laws to bar trans girls from participating in girls’ sports leagues.
For the Equality Act to become law, it must win 60 votes in the U.S. Senate, where there is a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans.
Several Republicans have expressed their opposition, including Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a former presidential candidate, who said he would oppose the bill unless it added a provision giving “strong religious liberty protections”.
Matt Sharp, senior counsel for the Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom – which won a Supreme Court victory in 2018 for a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple – echoed Romney’s concerns.
“It’s giving the government the authority to compel people to affirm things, to celebrate things, to create speech and expression that violates their deepest convictions,” Sharp told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to the bill.
“No one should be forced to do that.”
LGBT+ advocates say they are confident the bill will become law because of its popularity among the American public.
An estimated 83% of Americans favor laws that would protect LGBT+ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodation and housing, including 68% of Republicans, according to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute.
“In a period of such polarization, where else do you have over 80% of support for a piece of legislation?” said Janson Wu, executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). “This should be a ‘no brainer’ for any legislator regardless of their party.”
The House first passed the Equality Act in 2019, but it stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate during the Trump administration, which opposed the bill. The Democrats won control of the Senate in November’s elections.
Biden is a vocal supporter of LGBT+ rights, in a clear departure from the Trump administration, which barred trans people from joining the military and issued orders emphasizing the importance of “biological sex” rather than gender identity.
Since taking office in January, Biden signed an executive order that federal agencies must not discriminate against LGBT+ people and issued a memorandum aimed at protecting LGBT+ rights worldwide, including potentially through the use of sanctions.
“Every person should be treated with dignity and respect,” Biden said in a statement when the Equality Act was introduced to the House last week.
“This bill represents a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all.”
LGBT+ advocates praised Biden’s use of the executive office but reiterated the need for comprehensive legislation.
“We deserve more than temporary measures,” said Erin Uritus, chief executive of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, in a statement.
“Turning the Equality Act into the law of the land is absolutely necessary to cement civil rights protections for LGBTQ Americans.”