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US Senate considers codifying LGBTQ civil rights

Published: Mar. 17, 2021 at 3:35 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 17, 2021 at 6:47 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (WCAX) - The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would codify federal civil rights protections for LGBTQ Americans. The Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday held a hearing on the legislation, which passed the House late last month. Supporters of the bill say it’s a long time coming but opponents say it goes too far.

Equal Justice Under Law. Those are the words engraved on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, but not the reality many Americans are living today.

“In 29 states today, LGBTQ Americans can be married in the morning, ejected from a restaurant at lunch, be denied a mortgage, be dismissed form jury duty in the afternoon and evicted from their home that same night,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley D-Oregon.

The Equality Act extends anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans in areas like employment, education, access to credit, jury service, federal funding, housing and public accommodations. Those protections exist in some states -- including Vermont -- but not everywhere. “How can we say, as Jefferson wrote, that all of us are created equal and deserving of the same right, when the law does not give the same rights and opportunities to LGBTQ Americans?” Merkley said.

Wednesday’s Senate hearing began with a short video, highlighting the advances that have been made for LGBTQ Americans. Lawmakers, advocates, parents, spoke in support of the bill that passed the House with support from both sides of the aisle. Stella Keating, a high school sophomore and trans activist, spoke about how current law has influenced her college search. “Less than half of the states in our country provide equal protection for me under the law. What happens if I want to attend college in a state that doesn’t protect me? Right now, I could be denied medical care or be evicted for simply being transgender in many states. How is that even right? How is that even American?” Keating said.

The chief arguments against the bill center around freedom of religion and transgender athletes competing in women’s sports.

“Biological sex matters in law, medicine, and for many of us, in the practice of our faith. The Equality Act goes where no legislation has gone before,” said Mary Rice Hassan, with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “By enshrining gender identity as a protected category, this bill would make it impossible ever to legally distinguish between a woman and a biological male who claims a female identity.”

Attorneys opposing the bill say it privileges gender identity over biological sex and hurts women in the process. They cited multiple cases where high school athletes competed against and lost to students who were born male and have since transitioned. Opponents also argue that mixing inmate populations could put people at risk of sexual assault.

However, supporters of the bill pointed to the many states where protections for LGBTQ people are already on the books.”I think it’s important as we talk about policy, to make sure that our policies are being driven by fact, not by fear. Because we’ve heard the fears, and we know that those fears are not materializing in those states,” said Alphonso David.

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