Congressional Democrats formally introduced the Equality Act today, a bill that would essentially ban all forms of discrimination against the LGBT community by expanding the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill has 40 co-sponsors in the Senate and 155 in the House. They are all Democrats.
The fact that no Republican was willing to sign on to the bill at its outset is the clearest indication that its chances of passage are even lower than ENDA. While you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Republican co-sponsors of ENDA, you could at least count them: In 2013, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senators Susan Collins and Mark Kirk were original co-sponsors of that iteration of the workplace anti-discrimination bill, which — as it has for decades — failed make it to the president’s desk.
This lack of even token Republican support stems from the fact that the Equality Act goes beyond ENDA in a number of ways that make it a dealbreaker for even the most moderate of Republicans. ENDA included a religious exemption; the Equality Act clarifies that Religious Freedom Restoration Acts cannot be used to discriminate against LGBT people. The Equality Act also expands the definition of public accommodations to include almost any business; the Civil Rights Act only classified restaurants, theaters and hotels as places of public accommodation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Equality Act applies outside of the workplace, barring discrimination in housing, education and other areas of life not covered by ENDA.
As Chris Johnson at The Washington Blade noted, some LGBT activists dropped their support from ENDA in 2013 over its inclusion of religious exemptions. However, others are withholding support from the Equality Act because, by aiming to revise the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act, it could allow the Republican-controlled Congress to revise them more generally. The end result could be a watered-down Equality Act that also weakens the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts.
A version of that watering down has already been proposed by Republican Congressman Charlie Dent. His compromise legislation would pair the Equality Act with the First Amendment Defense Act, prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination in housing and employment but protecting religious organizations who oppose same-sex marriage from losing their tax-exempt status, while expressing “the sense of Congress the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling under RFRA shouldn’t burden free exercise of religion.”
Both of those would be dangerous concessions to give Congressional Republicans, and conservatives more generally, who are dead-set on carving out legal protections in as vague as terms as possible to allow them to continue to discriminate in as many places as possible — all while keeping the tax breaks that our government shouldn’t be granting them in the first place.