An extraordinarily large number of members of Congress wanted to testify at the first Senate hearing for a civil rights bill that would give LGBTQ people explicit legal protections from discrimination, and their messages set out the personal nature of the partisan split that will mean a tough path to becoming law.
Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the first openly lesbian member of Congress, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that discrimination remains a daily reality for that community in employment, housing, public accommodations and education.
Baldwin said passing the bill, known as the Equality Act, would expand a decades-old anti-discrimination law to cover more people in the majority of states where there aren't protections, not diminish the rights of others.
“Doing so will allow LGBTQ people, who are your family members, friends, neighbors, staff and colleagues, the chance to contribute to their workplaces, schools, communities, as their full selves, without fear of discrimination,” Baldwin said.
And Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who first introduced the bill in 2014, told the committee it was “way past time” to “end the dark history of discrimination and prejudice against our fellow LGBT Americans.”
But a trio of Republican senators raised concerns that the bill’s sweeping language would stop others from living as their full selves, such as curbing protections from religious freedoms and undermining safe places for women such as on sports fields, in prisons and at school housing.
Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma pointed out the bill would literally strip houses of worship of the legal defenses Congress gave them in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires a compelling government interest to intrude on religious beliefs.
Without clarifying language, Lankford said, medical conditions related to pregnancy will include abortion and the Equality Act will mandate that churches pay for health care coverage for abortion.
“For those of us that believe a baby is not just a medical condition, for the people that believe children of any age or size or degree of development are worthy of life, we’re not bigots,” Lankford said. “We’re people who live by our genuine faith and see a child as a child.”
Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith told the committee that the bill’s changes to the definition of sex would “totally undermine” women’s sports by allowing transgender women to join and have significant advantages.
“I know the importance of sports for females from my own first-hand experience playing both youth and high school basketball,” Hyde-Smith said. “Point guards are pretty tough. My experiences playing basketball as part of a team of girls helped develop my character and confidence to lead me where I am today, the first female member of Congress from Mississippi.”
And Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, herself a member of the Judiciary Committee, testified that the bill as drafted “undermines the fight” for women’s rights by taking away their ability to feel safe by forcing them to share women-only spaces such as domestic violence centers and prisons with transgender women.
“I would urge my colleagues to take a step back and ask themselves why they believe that forcing vulnerable women into these dangerous situations would somehow represent a step in the right direction,” Blackburn said.
The House in February voted 224-206 to pass the bill, which would prevent discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Only three Republicans supported it.
The measure is one of at least 10 bills from House Democrats that languished in a Republican-led Senate and still faces long odds to become law this session despite unified Democratic control. Even if all 50 Senate Democrats supported the bill, it's unlikely 10 Republicans would join them to overcome a filibuster of the bill in its current form.
The two Democratic House members who testified brought personal aspects to the hearing.
Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline is the sponsor of the House version of the bill and one of seven openly gay members of the House who all co-chair the LGBT Equality Caucus.
And Illinois Democratic Rep. Marie Newman said her transgender daughter emerged from a deep depression when she discovered her authentic self. In 25 states she could be thrown out of a restaurant, evicted from her apartment, denied access to education and denied health care “just because of who she is,” Newman said.
“I encourage all of you to not weaponize religion, and not weaponize red herrings about sports," Newman said. "And I also encourage you to talk to your faith leaders and your sports directors at all of your colleges. Because I have talked to many of them, and they encouraged me today, and were excited I was speaking out on this topic about my family.”