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Congressional Democrats on Wednesday introduced The Equality Act for the third time in its current form, proposing amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to, essentially, prohibit discrimination against LGBTQI individuals. The legislation, which was first introduced in some form in 1974, has enjoyed broad support among the American public since at least 2017, when an estimated 70% of the overall population supported codifying nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people into federal law. The bill as introduced Wednesday clarifies the meaning of places of public accommodation to include all establishments open to the public, including transportation services, and specifies that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) cannot be used “to undercut civil rights protection for anyone,” as the ACLU put it.
This time around, the bill not only boasts vocal support from major corporations nationwide, but also has an uncharacteristically vocal champion in Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who made history in 2013 as the first out lesbian elected to the Senate, though she’s historically kept her support for LGBT-specific initiatives low-key. Ahead of the bill’s introduction this year, Baldwin went on record with NBC News to state, unequivocally, “we need The Equality Act.” She went on to contend that if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) were to bring the bill to the floor, it would receive enough votes to pass.
Of course, the likelihood of Sen. McConnell calling a floor vote on a bill that would make illegal many of the central tenets of Donald Trump’s operating procedure seems low. If the Equality Act were in force, plainly transphobic policies like the Administration’s newly announced ban on transgender people serving in the military would be even more difficult to justify legally than they already are. While it’s certainly no bandage for deeply engrained systemic injustice, The Equality Act, which would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex (including pregnancy and childbirth), could provide an important legal enforcement tool to encourage government and society to catch up with public opinion.
New national survey results from the Public Religion Research Institute suggest that even religious Americans—a portion of which is frequently credited with handing Trump the White House and serves as a fiercely loyal base—find the idea of formally exiling LGBT Americans from public life unpopular. As has been the case for several years, PRRI’s latest data confirm that a majority of Americans, across all 50 states and regardless of political ideology or demographic identity, support legal nondiscrimination protections for their fellow LGBT citizens. That support extends across “all major religious groups in the U.S.,” according to PRRI. Support for nondiscrimination protections is highest among those who identify with New Age religions (86%), Judaism (80%), Hinduism (79%), Buddhism (75%) and the much-discussed “Nones,” (78%) who are religiously unaffiliated.
Those results are likely unsurprising to anyone who’s been following the rise of the so-called religious left, but even as the religious ideologies surveyed move to the right, support for nondiscrimination protections stays above the 50% mark. Mormons support nondiscrimination protections by a 70% margin, white mainline Catholics and Protestants both fall at 71%, Hispanic Catholics at 72%, while other non-white Catholics are in favor by 68%. Black Protestants register their support (65%) above other non-white Protestants (61%), while Hispanic Protestants and Muslims both support such protections by 60%, and Orthodox Christians hover at 59% support. Most interestingly, PRRI found that a full 54% of white evangelical Protestants—who overwhelmingly voted for and continue to support Trump—are in favor of nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Americans. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses registered lower levels of support, at 53%.
It’s worth noting that the PRRI survey gauged support for state laws that protected LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, while the Equality Act would codify those protections on a federal level. Currently, only a handful of states offer nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, and even fewer extend those protections to transgender, nonbinary, or genderqueer residents. Protections in housing and education are even more piecemeal, sometimes varying widely between counties within a given state. It’s also worth noting that the wording and framing of this survey had a significant impact on the result. Had the question included “religious exemptions,” or some such language, the results would likely have been quite different.
There’s no question that Sen. Baldwin was correct: We do need the Equality Act. But the larger questions still loom: Will Sen. McConnell give the American people what they need? Does he even see LGBT Americans as Americans, let alone worthy of equal protection under the law? And would Donald Trump ever consider signing such a bill, when it would directly undermine so many of the domestic policy proposals his right-wing cabinet and advisers have implemented?
For supporters of the bill, the best hope might lie in the knowledge that, more than ideological consistency or even appeasing his base, this President loves “winning.” And if he did sign The Equality Act into law, there would finally be a (tiny) grain of truth to his campaign promise to be an “LGBT-friendly” Republican. It wouldn’t undo the very real harm done to countless LGBTQ people by this Administration, but it would offer a modicum of security to those of us fortunate enough to be U.S. citizens who are employed, housed, and able to access public spaces.