Democrats in the House have approved a sweeping anti-discrimination bill that would extend civil rights protections to LGBT people by prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The measure passed a vote of 236 yeas to 173 nays with eight Republicans joining Democrats in support of the bill.
Called the Equality Act, the legislation updates existing federal nondiscrimination laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act, to confirm that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is unlawful discrimination based on sex. It would extend protections to employment, housing, loan applications, education, public accommodations and other areas.
The bill is a top priority of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said it will bring the nation "closer to equal liberty and justice for all." Co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, said the "LGBT community has waited nearly 250 years" for such legislation to pass.
"Equal treatment under the law and a commitment to fairness and equality are founding values of our country. Discrimination of any kind is wrong and no one should ever be treated as less than equal because of who they are or who they love," said
Cicilline, who called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the bill to the floor as soon as possible.
Many of the 2020 Democratic contenders also came out in support of the legislation including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris as well as Julian Castro, Beto O'Rourke and Pete Buttigieg. The candidates all implored their Republican colleagues to seriously consider the legislation.
The measure has the support of a variety of LGBT advocacy groups, including The Trevor Project, the world's largest suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, who called the move a "monumental step" for equal rights protections, as well as of one the country's largest labor unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).
"Today's passage of the Equality Act by the House is a powerful step toward a future where millions of LGBTQ Americans and their families no longer have to worry about facing discrimination at work or in their communities. Too many Americans live in states with outdated laws that leave our LGBTQ neighbors, friends, and family vulnerable to discrimination," UFCW OUTreach Chair Michele Kessler said in a statement.
"We are proud to stand with Americans across the country in support of the Equality Act and urge the Senate to do the right thing and pass this bill immediately."
But most Republicans voted against the bill on Friday, calling it another example of government overreach. Many spoke out during the debate.
Republican Congressman Ross Spano of Florida went so far as to quote Coretta Scott King, the wife of Civil Rights champion Martin Luther King Jr., in his floor speech opposing the bill.
"Coretta Scott King wisely said, 'Freedom is never really won. We earn it and win it in every new generation,'" Spano said Friday. "H.R. 5 is bad for freedom. You see, it would immediately expose churches, religious schools and universities and faith-based organizations to legal liability for simply following their earnest beliefs."
A similar bill in the Senate faces long odds in the Republican-controlled chamber, something Lamda Legal, a legal advocacy group that works to protect the rights of the LGBT community, knows fully well.
"We know the Equality Act faces an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate. It shouldn't. LGBT Americans continue to face appalling, unjust discrimination in many aspects of their everyday lives. We know this from the thousands of calls Lambda Legal's Help Desk gets each year from all corners of our country. Specifically, we know that workplace discrimination is one of the most frequent problems that LGBT people face. Workplace equality has been a top priority for Lambda Legal since our founding nearly 50 years ago, and remains one today," said Lambda Legal Interim CEO Richard Burns.
"We call on the Senate to give the Equality Act the full, fair and comprehensive consideration it deserves," Burns added.
President Donald Trump, who reportedly opposes the bill, is widely expected to veto the legislation if it ever reaches his desk.
Emily Tillett and Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this report.