Virginia delegation splits on party lines on LGBTQ rights bill

The U.S. Capitol. (Credit: Toni Smith, USGS. Public domain

WASHINGTON — U.S. House lawmakers on Friday voted to approve sweeping legislation aimed at barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in spite of broad opposition from House Republicans.

In a major step for LGBTQ rights advocates, the House approved the bill, dubbed the Equality Act, by a vote of 236-173, including eight Republican votes.

The measure would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act by explicitly banning discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in education, employment, housing, credit and the jury system.

House Democrats celebrated the bill’s passage as a landmark achievement by Congress.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-3rd), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, noted that Friday marked the 65th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which found that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.

“Today is also a historic day for the LGBTQ community,” Scott said. “Over the last decade, we’ve made progress in securing rights for the LGBTQ community … however, many legal barriers still remain. … The inconsistent patchwork of state laws leaves millions of people vulnerable to discrimination.”

U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-8th, said it was the first time a chamber of Congress has passed comprehensive civil rights protections for LGBTQ people.

“No one should be discriminated against for the person they love or their gender identity and today we took a big step to making that a reality,” Beyer said.

“Today House Democrats kept their promise to fight for all Americans, and I am proud to stand with my Democratic colleagues to pass this long overdue legislation. I urge the Senate to pass this bill as soon as possible to ensure LGBTQ people are finally protected under the United States’ civil rights laws.”

Virginia’s four Republican congressman voted against the bill. Several could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Currently, less than half of the U.S. states have enacted their own laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank. Virginia is among the states without “explicit prohibitions for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in state law,” the group says.

Despite the fanfare in the House, the effort is unlikely to be enacted into law this Congress. The Senate companion version has one Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, but is unlikely to garner broad GOP support in that chamber. And the administration opposes the effort.

“The Trump administration absolutely opposes discrimination of any kind and supports the equal treatment of all,” an administration official told NBC News. “However, this bill in its current form is filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights.”

House Republicans assailed the effort, warning that Democrats don’t understand the reach of the bill.

“Its vague and circular definitions of gender identity will lead only to uncertainty, litigation and harm to individuals and organizations that will be forced to comply with a law the authors don’t even seem to understand,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., said that the bill would “erase women and girls’ rights by requiring facilities such as schools, churches, dormitories, domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters to allow biological males who identify as women in women’s bathrooms, women’s and girls’ shelters, women’s and girls’ showers and in women’s locker rooms.”

Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., said the bill would have “grave consequences” for religious freedom by forcing religious organizations to go against their beliefs or risk violating the law. He and others also warned that female athletes could be forced to compete against biologically male athletes.

Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of playing up fears about the bill as a distraction.