Push for Equality Act Renewed in Wake of Anti-LGBT Laws

“The federal law would take precedence and it would provide protection at the federal level for individuals."


Amid consternation over the newly enacted state laws enabling discrimination against LGBT people, congressional lawmakers have renewed their push for comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination legislation at the federal level.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who’s gay and lead sponsor of the Equality Act, along with congressional Democrats during a news conference on Capitol Hill called for a hearing on the legislation in the House Judiciary Committee.

Cicilline said the lack of congressional action on LGBT rights under Republican leadership has created a “vacuum of leadership” enabling states like Kansas, North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee to enact anti-LGBT laws.

“As we all know, nature abhors vacuums,” Cicilline said. “And so, in recent weeks, we’ve seen state lawmakers who have rushed to fill this vacuum with new laws that legalize discrimination against the LGBT community.”

The Equality Act, introduced last year by Cicilline in the U.S. House and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in the U.S. Senate, would amend the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people in all areas of federal civil rights law.

Asked by the Washington Blade what the impact the Equality Act would have on state anti-LGBT laws, Cicilline said “the federal law would take precedence and it would provide protection at the federal level for individuals and prohibit them from being discriminated against because of the sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The news conference highlighted a bipartisan letter signed by 116 lawmakers calling for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on the Equality Act. Although he didn’t appear at the news conference, Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.), the sole Republican who co-sponsors the Equality Act in the House, is among those who signed the letter.

The House Judiciary Committee is chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who has an anti-LGBT reputation and scored “0” on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard. The committee didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on whether it would proceed with a hearing on the Equality Act.

Others who appeared at the news conference were Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who’s chair of the Democratic National Committee; Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who’s gay; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chair of the Democratic Conference; Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who’s gay; Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.); Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.), Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) and Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.).

In February, Ryan punted to the committee of jurisdiction in response to a question from the Blade on whether supports movement on the Equality Act, saying he’s for regular order and “you got to get bills out of committee to get them to the floor.”

After its introduction last year, the Equality Act in the House was referred to five multiple committees: the Judiciary Committee, the Education & the Workforce Committee, the Financial Services Committee, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee and the House Administration Committee. The Judiciary Committee is the only one of these on which Cicilline serves.

Cicilline said bills in general obtain hearings when House leadership intends to move them or if pressure outside Congress compels a committee to act. The lawmaker added he hopes “both of those will be the case” when Goodlatte looks at the number of lawmakers who co-sponsor the Equality Act and who signed the letter seeking a hearing.

“People fundamentally believe in equality, they fundamentally believe that discrimination is wrong, and I think that, as Jerry Nadler said, there’s no question that the Equality Act will become the law of the land, the only question is over what period of time, how quickly that will happen and how much we can all work together to accelerate that occurrence so that we bring equality to all Americans as quickly as possible,” Cicilline concluded.