Flags are waved during the National LGBT 50th Anniversary Ceremony, Saturday, July 4, 2015, in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Congressional Democrats on July 23 introduced sweeping legislation that would protect lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people from discrimination.
The Equality Act of 2015, which was introduced in both chambers of Congress by 40 senators and 158 representatives, would amend several federal laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The legislation would add sexual orientation and gender identity to other protected classes such as race and religion; and it would ban discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, access to credit and federal funding.
“This commonsense legislation is long overdue,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“Brave men and women in every generation throughout America’s history have mustered the conviction to fight for freedom and equality against all odds—from abolitionists and suffragettes to civil rights activists,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of the sponsors of the bill. “With each fight for justice, ordinary people have challenged our nation to become a more perfect union. The Equality Act builds on the work of those who have struggled and fought for LGBT rights by extending basic civil rights protections that must be guaranteed to every American.”
The bill was introduced on the same day as the release of a poll showing that 78 percent of Americans support federal protections from discrimination for LGBT people. The Equality Act would offer such protections to approximately 9.5 million U.S. adults who identify as LGBT, according to the report by The Williams Institute.
The comprehensive legislation comes one week after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a 3-2 decision prohibited workplace discrimination against employees based on their sexual orientation, deeming it a form of “sex” discrimination, which is explicitly prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination means that employers may not ‘rel upon sex-based considerations’ or take gender into account when making employment decisions…. This applies equally in claims brought by lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals under Title VII,” the 17-page opinion stated in part.
“When an employee raises a claim of sexual orientation discrimination as sex discrimination under Title VII, the question is not whether sexual orientation is explicitly listed in Title VII as a prohibited basis for employment actions. It is not,” the opinion continued. “Rather, the question for purposes of Title VII coverage of a sexual orientation claim is the same as any other Title VII case involving allegations of sex discrimination—whether the agency has ‘relied on sex-based considerations’ or ‘take gender into account’ when taking die challenged employment action.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act deems it unlawful for an employer to “discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
However, Congress has repeatedly rejected legislation that would extend Title VII to cover sexual orientation. Circuit Courts have cited Congress’ rejection as the basis of their rulings to exclude sexual orientation from Title VII coverage.
But the reasoning behind those earlier court decisions were outmoded, the EEOC opinion argued. Three years ago, for example, the EEOC ruled that discrimination against transgender Americans is considered sex discrimination under Title VII, and courts have largely adopted this reasoning. In the same manner, the concept of sexual orientation has been illumined in recent years and that understanding has been reflected by several courts, including the Supreme Court, the EEOC stated, citing several cases.
Indeed, “‘sexual orientation’ as a concept,” the opinion read, “cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex.”
Former EEOC Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton called the decision a “historic” and courageous one based on scholarly research and logic.
“The Commission’s ruling is, by definition, a landmark, gutsy decision,” the congresswoman said in a statement. “Cases increasingly filed before the commission…demonstrated the justifiable impatience of the LGBTQ community with continuing unequal treatment in all areas of American life. The Commission could have equivocated. Instead, in this historic ruling, the Commission recognized its mandate, its obligation under the rule of law, and the logic of its own and U.S. court decisions.”