The Equality Act Could End Legal LGBT Discrimination For Good

Krista and Jami Contreras of Detroit were refused service by a pediatrician for their six-year-old daughter, Bay. CREDIT: YOUTUBE/LGBT PROGRESS
Krista and Jami Contreras of Detroit were refused service by a pediatrician for their six-year-old daughter, Bay. CREDIT: YOUTUBE/LGBT PROGRESS

Despite widespread belief to the contrary, no federal law explicitly protects LGBT people from discrimination. Thursday marks the introduction of The Equality Act, a comprehensive bill that would, if passed, add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the protections that already exist based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. But it also would do more than that.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is an update to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that increases its protections for many Americans beyond the LGBT community as well. Here’s a look at how The Equality Act earns its name:

LGBT People Couldn’t Be Fired, Evicted, Or Denied Service For Who They Are

Currently, no federal law enumerates LGBT protections in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, or education. For example, though same-sex couples can now marry in all 50 states, they still don’t have employment protections in 28 states. Protections for transgender workers only exist in 19 states plus the District of Columbia. The numbers are similar for housing, public accommodations, and credit. Though LGBT people have found some protections through interpretations of existing law, as U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Chai Feldblum explained this week, there is still a need for “an explicit federal law that would give LGBT people and employers across the country absolute certainty that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity will be prohibited. That is what adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal non-discrimination laws would do and that would be a very important thing to achieve.”


Unlike the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which bounced around Congress for 20 years without ever passing both chambers in the same session, The Equality Act takes a comprehensive approach to protecting the LGBT community. “Sexual orientation” and “gender identity” would be added to protections in the following categories:

  • Employment: Any employer with at least 15 employees, as well as labor organizations, would be prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. There would be no religious exemption to discriminate against such employees, and all federal employees would be protected under law as well.
  • Housing: The Fair Housing Act would also be amended to ensure LGBT can not be denied the sale, rental or financing of housing.
  • Public Accommodations: LGBT could no longer be denied service in stores, banks, transportation, and health care services. This includes respecting transgender people’s access to the sex-segregated facility that matches their gender identity.
  • Public Education: LGBT people would be explicitly protected from discrimination when it comes to federal student financial aid programs.
  • Federal Funding: Any entity that receives federal funds would not be able to discriminate against LGBT people in programs such as healthcare, child welfare, nutrition assistance, public education, and financial assistance for higher education.
  • Credit: LGBT people would have equal access to credit, and the term “spouse” would replace references to “husband and wife” in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
  • Juries: Federal protections would ensure LGBT people cannot be excluded from service as a juror because of their identity.

Businesses Wouldn’t Be Able To Charge Women More

Currently, there is no federal protection on the basis of sex in public accommodations. In addition to sexual orientation and gender identity, The Equality Act adds “sex” to that list of protections as well. This would ensure that women have equal access to spaces with the same protection under federal law that other categories currently have. As Amanda Terkel explains at the Huffington Post, “This change would mean that a car dealership couldn’t charge a woman more than a man, simply because she’s a woman. Or a salon couldn’t charge men and women different prices for the exact same haircut.”

“Sex” would also be added to the protections for federal financial assistance under Title VI, meaning that women would also secure equal access to public funds, and no federal funding could be spent in a way that encourages or results in sex discrimination.

People Of Color Would Be Protected While Hailing A Cab

The Equality Act also updates the federal definition of public accommodations. Currently, some businesses are covered, such as hotels and inns, restaurants, theatres, and other entertainment venues. The legislation would add retail stores, banks, transportation services, health care services, among other services.


Many of these spaces are already protected under state law, but this bill would beef up those protections for all people under federal law. For example, people of color would be protected from discrimination in stores, salons, or when hailing a cab. The expanded definition of public accommodations would ensure that all people are able to fully participate in social and public spaces regardless of who they are.

Religious Exemptions Would Be Maintained, But Kept Narrow

Nothing in The Equality Act changes the exemptions that religious organizations and schools already enjoy to make hiring and other decisions on the basis of religious identity. It does, however, specify that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) cannot be invoked in an attempt to justify discrimination that would otherwise be covered. This would ensure that religion could not be used to refuse service on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.


The Equality Act is already receiving widespread support across the country. Ted Olson and David Boies, the politically opposed lawyers who worked together to fight California’s Proposition 8, endorsed the bill this week, calling it “a historic moment for our country.” They note that there is a “crazy quilt of laws” that would be remedied by this “comprehensive approach to non-discrimination protections.”

Businesses are also already rallying behind the legislation. Thursday morning, Apple, Dow Chemical Company, and Levi Strauss & Co. all added their support to its passage. According to Levi Strauss, the Equality Act is “both the right thing to do and simply good business.” Apple added, “We believe in equal treatment for everyone, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how they worship or who they love,” calling the bill “a matter of basic human dignity.”


So far, there are already several dozen Senate co-sponsors and nearly 100 House co-sponsors. Not one of them is a Republican.