Civil rights groups change tune, now fully support Equality Act

By : Chris Johnson OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL LGBT MEDIA ASSOCIATION
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After previously withholding full support of the Equality Act, civil rights groups have now come out in favor of the legislation to ban anti-LGBT discrimination as the House prepares to consider the bill.

Civil groups groups were among those promoting the Equality Act at a news conference Monday on Capitol Hill one day before the first congressional hearing on the legislation.

Among those civil rights advocates was Kristine Lucius, executive vice president for policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, who said her organization is “proud to be here fighting for the Equality Act.”

“This transformative legislation would ensure that LGBTQ people across the country have clear and consistent protections in the public sphere,” Lucius said. “And the bill would clarify our civil rights laws to strengthen protections for all people, including religious groups and people of color. When our society is more equal, we are all better for it.”

Introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) in the House and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in the Senate, the Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit.

Representing the NAACP at the news conference was Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and senior vice president for policy and advocacy at the organization.

“For 110 years, we have struggled for the equality of all Americans, regardless of who they are or what they look like,” Shelton said. “As such, we strong[ly] support and urge swift passage of the Equality Act and urge its immediate enactment.”

That’s different from what those organizations have said before on the Equality Act. Previously, those groups said they support the goals of the Equality Act, but stopped short of fully endorsing the legislation.

At issue was the attempt to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination by amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Civil rights groups had expressed concern that opening up the law to amendments on the floors of Congress could water-down existing protections in the historic law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Wade Henderson, former president of the Leadership Conference, articulated those concerns in 2015 in an article for the Wall Street Journal at the time of the first introduction of the Equality Act.

“Some are concerned about opening up arguably the most important statute Congress has ever enacted for the issue of racial discrimination,” Henderson was quoted as saying.

LGBT rights groups have always insisted they’d drop support for the Equality Act if it were amended in such a way to lessen existing protections under the Civil Rights Act. Nonetheless, civil rights groups hadn’t come out for the legislation until its introduction in this Congress — the third iteration of the Equality Act.

So what’s changed? Among other things, the Equality Act has for the first time been introduced with Democrats in control of at least one chamber of Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said a floor vote on the legislation would be a personal priority for her.

After the news conference, Shelton told the Washington Blade the NAACP was “always supportive of every single provision in the bill and the protections it expands,” but had questioned whether the Equality Act was the right vehicle.

“We were trying to find the best vehicle, whether that should be an amendment, whether it should be free-standing, those kinds of things,” Shelton said. “As it was done with so many pieces of civil rights, voting rights and other kinds of legislation, we’re convinced with our conversations, sitting together with our coalition of different folks, backgrounds and experiences that this is the best bill and now’s the time to go.”

Lucius said in response to an email inquiry on the Leadership Conference’s new support for the Equality Act the legislation expands LGBT rights without jeopardizing existing protections.

“The Leadership Conference has long supported legislative efforts to ensure equal opportunity and dignity for all LGBTQ individuals in America,” Lucius said. “We are proud to support the Equality Act, which provides clarity to existing federal civil rights statutes but does not reduce existing protections in any way.”

The new support from civil rights leaders for the Equality Act has also translated to new support among lawmakers in Congress.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) had previously declined to support the Equality Act based on concerns expressed by civil rights groups. That stance was used against her when she flirted with a run against Pelosi for the speakership in the 116th Congress.

Fudge is now not only among the 230 co-sponsors of the legislation in the House, but an original co-sponsor of the Equality Act upon its introduction this year.

Fudge’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on why she is now a co-sponsor of the legislation.

In addition to amending the Civil Rights Act to bar anti-LGBT discrimination, the Equality Act would expand the definition of public accommodations to bar discrimination in retail stores, banks, transportation services and health care services.

According to supporters of the Equality Act, that means people of color who believe they’re facing harassment in shopping malls from retail store clerks or mall police would have recourse to sue if the Equality Act became law.

Moreover, the bill would make “sex” a prohibited category of discrimination in public accommodations, which bill supporters say would make charging women extra money for services such as dry cleaning or car purchases illegal under federal law.

As supporters of the Equality Act have promoted the legislation, they have highlighted the protections the Equality Act affords not only LGBT people, but women and people of color.

Sabrina Joy Stevens, senior manager of campaign and digital strategies for the National Women’s Law Center, articulated this point during the news conference Monday.

“It means that if a little lady gets overcharged while paying for a car or getting repairs, she’ll have federal law on her side,” Stevens said. “It means if a pharmacist tries to force their beliefs on a woman seeking contraception, she’ll have federal law on her side. It means if store employees harass black and brown teens when they visit the mall, they’ll have federal law on their side. It means if a federally funded police department takes gender-based violence less seriously than other crimes, survivors would have federal law on their side.”

Providing personal stories of anti-LGBT discrimination as the Equality Act moves forward are LGBT people of color who say the legislation is needed to address discrimination they face because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Data has shown LGBT people of color face disproportionate discrimination even among their peers. In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 20 percent of black transgender people reported being unemployed, which at the time was twice the rate among the general U.S. black population.

That disparity was worse for transgender Latinos. Twenty-one percent of transgender Latinos reported being unemployed, which at the time was three times the rate of the general Latino population.

Among these LGBT people of color with a personal story of discrimination is Carter Brown, who founded Black Transmen, Inc. and spoke at the news conference about the discrimination — and outing — he faced on the job in Texas for being transgender.

“The American Dream had been realized until the day that I arrived in my workplace and was confronted with questions from colleagues about rumors that I was a transgender man,” Brown said. “This was followed by personal and offensive questions and comments, office gossip and a series of discriminatory and harassing interactions from co-workers, managerial staff and even the human resources department. Being outed as transgender at work caused the loss of friendships from long-time colleagues, loss of respect I earned from my impeccable work ethic, and ultimately, loss of my job.”

Rev. Dennis Wiley, who’s black and pastor at the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ, represented both people of color and people of faith in support of the Equality Act at the news conference.

“We’re still trying to make sure that everybody in the so-called land of the free and home of the brave is safe and has the ability to become all that God has created them to become,” Wiley said. “It is so unfortunate also that the religious community finds itself, in far too many instances, holding up the other side of the argument. And it seems as though the state often has to lead the way while the church comes kicking and screaming way behind the movement.”

Both Brown and Wiley were set to testify Tuesday during a congressional hearing on the Equality Act before the House Judiciary Committee — the first-ever hearing on the legislation.

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