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The Equality Act Is a Visionary Piece of Legislation -- and Way Overdue

Louise Melling,
Deputy Legal Director and Director of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty,
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July 24, 2015

Something extraordinary happened Thursday to advance fairness and equality in the United States. Members of Congress introduced legislation to amend the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 to embrace a more robust vision of equality.

The bill — aptly named the Equality Act — would amend existing law to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expand protections against discrimination for women. The bill would also extend the reach of protections against discrimination by businesses and stop the use of religion to discriminate. It’s historic — and it may also be a surprise because many people think such discrimination is already illegal.

The Equality Act is the first bill to be introduced in Congress to call so broadly and explicitly for an end to discrimination against LGBT people. Today there are no federal laws explicitly prohibiting corporations from refusing to hire people because they are gay. There are no federal laws to expressly prevent landlords from refusing to rent to same-sex couples. Federal law doesn’t prevent a bakery from refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Real estate agents are not squarely prohibited from steering gay and transgender people away from certain neighborhoods. And nothing in the law expressly bars hospitals from refusing to treat transgender people for basic healthcare needs.

The Equality Act would make all of that illegal.

The bill is historic for women also. The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against women in some areas — employment and housing, for example — but it does not prevent discrimination against women by places of public accommodation or recipients of federal funds.

Crazy, but true, and the Equality Act would change that.

If the bill passed, it would mean that a developer with a federal grant couldn’t discriminate against women-owned businesses in its contracting. It would mean that a car dealer couldn’t charge a woman who comes into the dealership more than a man. It would mean women couldn’t be barred from public establishments because they are breast feeding. And it would mean we would have a legal remedy when we are harassed at a store or a hotel when we go for services or are denied birth control at a pharmacy.

But this bill does more for all of us who have been subject to discrimination. Today federal civil rights law bars discrimination only in certain kinds of establishments — lodging, restaurants, and movie theaters, among others. (State laws can and sometimes do more.) The Equality Act will expand those protections to ensure the prohibitions against discrimination reach stores, banks, transportation carriers, and more. And the bill says that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act can’t be invoked to override any of the protections of the Civil Rights Act.

It really is a historic piece of legislation. It’s about protections that sound both visionary and way overdue. Equality will never be real if we fear being turned away from a job or business or treated differently because of who we are. It’s time to have a conversation about what’s missing now in our law. It’s time to talk about what fairness and equality for all mean. It’s time to take a giant step forward to provide additional protections to millions of Americans who face discrimination every day.

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