The Democrat-led US house of representatives has passed a bill that seeks to enshrine LGBTQ protections in America’s labour and civil rights laws.
The move is a top priority of US president Joe Biden, though the legislation faces an uphill battle to get through the senate.
The bill passed by a vote of 224-206, with three Republicans joining Democrats in voting yes.
The Equality Act amends existing US civil rights law to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identification as protected characteristics.
The protections would extend to employment, housing, loan applications, education, public accommodations and other areas.
Supporters say the law is long overdue and would ensure that every person is treated equally under the law.
David Cicilline, the bill’s lead sponsor, said: “The LGBT community has waited long enough.
“The time has come to extend the blessings of liberty and equality to all of Americans regardless of who they are and who they love.”
Republicans broadly opposed the legislation. They echoed concerns from religious groups and social conservatives who worry the bill would force people to take actions that contradict their religious beliefs.
They warned that faith-based adoption agencies seeking to place children with a married mother and father could be forced to close, or that private schools would have to hire staff whose conduct violates tenets of the school’s faith.
The so-called “Equality” Act is not about stopping discrimination.— Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (@RepMTG) February 25, 2021
It’s about causing discrimination against women and religious freedom.
I moved to adjourn for the day to give the 117th Congress more time to think about this immoral bill. pic.twitter.com/GIbKxeL7kk
Republican Mike Johnson said: “This is unprecedented. It’s dangerous. It’s an attack on our first freedom, the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights, religious liberty.”
The house passed the Equality Act in the last congress with unanimous Democratic support and the backing of eight Republicans, but Donald Trump’s White House opposed the measure and it was not considered in the senate, where 60 votes will be needed to overcome procedural hurdles.
Democrats are trying to revive it now that they have control of congress and the White House, but passage still appears unlikely in the evenly divided senate.
This time, Republican representatives Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and John Katko and Tom Reed of New York sided with Democrats in voting for the bill.
The US supreme court provided the LGBTQ community with a resounding victory last year in a 6-3 ruling that said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to LGBTQ workers when it comes to barring discrimination on the basis of sex.
Transgender rights are human rights — and the House made that clear today by passing the Equality Act.— President Biden (@POTUS) February 26, 2021
Now it's time for the Senate to do the same.
Civil rights groups have encouraged US congress to follow up that decision and ensure that anti-bias protections addressing such areas as housing, public accommodations and public services are applied in all 50 states.
Mr Biden made clear his support for the Equality Act in the lead-up to last year’s election, saying it would be one of his first priorities.
The debate among legislators on Capitol Hill also become personal.
Democrat Marie Newman, whose daughter is transgender, tweeted a video of herself placing a transgender flag outside her office.
Her office is across the hall from Republican representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was recently blocked from serving on two committees because of past comments and tweets.
Ms Newman tweeted: “Our neighbor, @RepMTG, tried to block the Equality Act because she believes prohibiting discrimination against trans Americans is ‘disgusting, immoral, and evil’. Thought we’d put up our Transgender flag so she can look at it every time she opens her door.”
However, Ms Greene responded with a video of her own in which she puts up a sign that reads: “There are Two genders: MALE and FEMALE. Trust The Science!”
The Republican tweeted: “Our neighbor, @RepMarieNewman, wants to pass the so-called ‘Equality’ Act to destroy women’s rights and religious freedoms. Thought we’d put up ours so she can look at it every time she opens her door.”
House speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to this exchange as she advocated for the bill.
“It breaks my heart that it is necessary, but the fact is, and in fact we had a sad event here even this morning, demonstrating the need for us to have respect,” Ms Pelosi said, at one point pausing and taking a deep sigh.
“Not even just respect, but take pride, take pride in our LGBT community.”
Gay and lesbian members of congress spoke about how meaningful the bill is for them.
“Look, we’re not asking for anything that any other American doesn’t already enjoy,” said Democrat Chris Pappas.
“We just want to be treated the same. We just want politicians in Washington to catch up with the times and the constitution.”