White House Backs Civil Rights Law Protecting LGBT People. Now What?

By Paul L. Young

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After months of threat and damage assessment and downright vacillation, the Obama administration last Tuesday endorsed amendments to the 1964 Civil Right Act that would guarantee federal protection against discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The Equality Act would extend the Act’s anti-discrimination enforcement to persons on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, housing, public accommodation and education – protections that do not currently exist in federal law.

Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced the Equality Act in July, one month after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Rep. David N. Cicilline of Rhode Island co-sponsored the bill in the House.

As recently as six weeks ago, President Obama was still reviewing the “significant consequences” and “broad impact” of endorsing the bill, according to remarks made in early October by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The apparent stumbling blocks were concerns by traditional civil rights organizations about opening the Civil Rights Act to amendments that could weaken existing law and fear of backlash by religious conservatives.

The latter concern appears unfounded. Late October polls by Public Religion Research Institute showed 70 percent of Americans supporting anti-discrimination legislation for LGBT persons, versus 25 percent opposed to such laws. In addition, 62 percent of the general public opposes a small business’s refusing services to gay and lesbian people on the basis of religious beliefs, against 32 percent who support that business’s ability to do so.

The week included Caitlyn Jenner being named Glamour magazine’s Woman of the Year on Monday and Obama’s being the first sitting president to appear on the cover of an LGBT publication on Tuesday. OUT magazine named him Ally of the Year. The sad reality is that the Equality Act stands no chance of passage in a Republican-controlled Congress.

More important, within the next 12 months, the bill will be overshadowed by the political and military necessity of a response by the U.S. and its European allies to last Friday’s tragic massacre of 129 civilians in Paris, murders claimed by the Islamic State.  Next year, after all, the nation will elect a new president. The candidates must put themselves on display as potential commanders-in-chief, leaving little room for the actual work of turning the Equality Act into law.

To date, no Republicans in Congress have expressed support for the Equality Act, though such Fortune 100 corporations as Apple, Amazon, General Electric, Microsoft, Google and IBM have endorsed it. Now what?

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