The Equality Act

Progress for equal protections under the law for LGBT people has accelerated in recent years. Late last month, the Supreme Court laid a cornerstone of that progress when deciding to federally protect the right for gay couples to wed. While important, the right to marry dwarfs a set of basic, yet critical safeguards denied to members of the LGBT community.

Last month my boyfriend and I began searching for an apartment in Dayton. High on my list of thoughts were number of bedrooms we might need, a considerable amount of natural sunlight, and the difficult search for natural wooden floors. Never did it occur my being gay could play a role in house hunting.

It does; and last week, a bill introduced in Congress looks to change this.

With 205 Senate and House Democrats signing on, the Equality Act is the most extensive piece of legislation prohibiting public discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Attempts to pass similar laws have been made since the 1970s, but none have provided the all-encompassing rights the Equality Act seeks to provide.

According to Equality Ohio, of the 50 states in our country, only 22 protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Ohio is not among them.

While some employers and cities (like Dayton) implement nondiscrimination policies or ordinances, no protections for equal access to housing, employment, or public accommodations exist.

The Equality Act of 2015 is a bold measure because it is not a stand-alone bill, but rather an extension - or addition, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The hope of democratic sponsors is that case law supporting the CRA will essentially strengthen the same protections for LGBT people.

The act has only been introduced, and is already facing conservative opposition on the basis of religious freedom.

A key provision in the Equality Act would prohibit claims of it violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 - a piece of legislation frequently cited by those claiming religious exemption in accepting and protecting the rights of LGBT individuals. Conservatives like Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen argue businesses have a right to discriminatory polices on principle of religious freedom.

The congresswoman is the first sitting Republican in the House to support marriage equality.

She said, “While the Equality Act seeks to be an important step forward to protect LGBT individuals against discrimination in housing, workplaces, schools, and public accommodations, I have concerns about the current proposal’s broadness and how it will impact religious organizations… I remain committed to working to ensure all Americans are treated fairly.”

Log Cabin Republicans has also expressed worries over how “broad” the act is. In a statement released on the day of the Equality Act announcement, Executive Director Gregory Angelo said, “It is widely known that Log Cabin Republicans has long supported, lobbied, and advocated for comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination legislation, but we share hesitations about the Equality Act expressed by a number of organizations including LGBT advocates on the left and other civil rights groups.”

These religious arguments convolute the need for lawful protections on the basis of sex and gender.

The Equality Act does not infringe upon the beliefs or religious rights of any person or group - nor does it argue religious disapproval of LGBT individuals is wrong. The law simply seeks to extend the same rights awarded to every other person in this country who isn’t gay, bisexual or transgender.

In a piece debunking “myths” behind the act, writer Matt Baume puts the religious argument into perspective, writing, “We have wide latitude to practice religion in this country. That latitude stops where it hurts someone else.”

Note: This article appears in the August issue of Gay Dayton.