The U.S. House passed legislation Friday that would expand Federal civil rights protections on basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as it stands, only explicitly provides protections for race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The legislation, entitled The Equality Act, would provide the aforementioned identities with protections related to public accommodations, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system.
All five Minnesota Democrats in the House cosponsored the bill. It passed 236-173, with four Minnesota Democrats voting in favor and all three Minnesota Republicans voting against the bill. Rep. Collin Peterson cosponsored the bill, but was the only Democrat in the Minnesota delegation who did not vote.
Eight House Republicans in total voted for the bill, with two of them cosponsoring the legislation: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Rep. John Katko of New York.
Mirroring state protections
A handful of states already similar protections to those found in the House bill and Minnesota is one such state. The Minnesota Human Rights Act was first passed in 1973, but amended in 1993 to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, making it the first law in the country to do so.
Minnesota Commissioner Commissioner of Human Rights Rebecca Lucero said her department uses litigation as a tool to protect all Minnesotans from discrimination, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. “We know there is a lot of work to be done in Minnesota and across the country to breakdown implicit and explicit bias and violence, especially against trans women of color and gender nonconforming individuals,” she said.
Explicit protections related to gender identity, like those that would be put into place by The Equality Act, are not codified into Federal law, although courts are currently deciding whether or not many of these same protections already apply under current law. The Department of Education under President Barack Obama did issue guidelines that extended Title IX protections of sex-discrimination to transgender students in 2014. Those guidelines were revoked last year by President Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The Minnesota Human Rights Act also provides these protections, and if signed into law, The Equality Act would as well.
“I do still think that Title IX does prohibit discrimination under transgender status, but that is something that will have to be decided by the courts,” said Teresa Nelson, Legal Director at the ACLU of Minnesota. “So having a state law that very explicitly says you can’t discriminate based on transgender status is very important in the absence of strong federal protections.”
Reps. Tom Emmer, of the sixth district, and Pete Stauber, of the eighth, did not respond to request for comment as to why they voted against the bill. First district Rep. Jim Hagedorn’s office said they would put out a statement on Friday but had yet to do so as of publication of this story.
The bill will now move forward to the Senate, where their version of the bill has 47 sponsors and one Republican co-sponsor: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Both Senators from Minnesota support the legislation.
The White House has not yet given a position on the bill, but like most bills to come out of the House, is not likely to make it past a Senate led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Smith was candid about the bill’s prospects. “I hate to say it, but to be honest, I think the Senate has really just become a graveyard for almost all legislation. I’m not hopeful,” Smith said.
As to what she would say to her Republican colleagues, moving forward, she said that she wishes that the Senate took each piece of legislation on their own individual merits more seriously.
“Mitch McConnell has turned the Senate into a personnel agency for the White House. I think that’s a real shame,” she said. “I know that the Equality Act passed with a handful of Republican votes in the House and we should be able to see that same kind of bipartisan leadership in the Senate.”