On Feb. 25 the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R 5, known as the Equality Act, with a vote of 224-206. Congressional members, depending on their party, saw the act as either a dangerous unraveling of religious freedom and conscience protections or a bold and necessary step forward for protecting sexual minorities.
“Nays” from the N.C. congressional delegation included Reps. Dan Bishop, Ted Budd, Madison Cawthorn, Virginia Foxx, Richard Hudson, Patrick McHenry, Greg Murphy and David Rouzer — all Republicans — and “yeas” included Reps. Alma Adams, G.K. Butterfield, Kathy Manning, David Price and Deborah Ross — all Democrats.
According to the summary on the bill’s congressional webpage, the Equality Act “prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system.”
It accomplishes this by including “sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity among the prohibited categories of discrimination or segregation.”
The summary also states that H.R. 5 will prohibit “an individual from being denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, a locker room, and a dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual’s gender identity.”
This means that in businesses open to the public, schools, housing and any place that receives federal funding, people must be given access to locker rooms, bathrooms and other facilities based on their internal sense of gender, known as “gender identity,” not their biological sex.
But religious conservatives are worried the bill would eliminate their right to incorporate key doctrines of their faith. The Equality Act specifically excludes prior protections in Section 1107, saying, “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”
Another element that has religious conservatives particularly worried is the way that H.R. 5 prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy in its section on medical procedures. Because of the way other legal cases, and the EEOC, have defined pregnancy-related procedures to include abortion, this section is being read as eliminating conscience protections for medical personnel who do not wish to participate in abortions.
With this in mind, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced the “Conscience Protection Act of 2021” on the same day the Equality Act passed the House.
“Health care workers should not be forced to compromise their beliefs because they fear workplace discrimination,” said Tillis. “This legislation provides permanent legal protection for health care workers who decline to participate in or perform abortion services.”
EqualityNC, the state’s main LGBTQ-advocacy group, celebrated the House’s passage of the bill, saying in a press release, “Great news — the Equality Act, comprehensive federal legislation protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination, was approved today by the U.S. House of Representatives, the first step toward its passage. We’re grateful for several members of the North Carolina congressional delegation for joining the bill as original co-sponsors.”
All five Democrat members of N.C.’s delegation co-sponsored the legislation.
Manning, who represents District 6, said in a statement, “For too long, LGBTQ Americans have faced discrimination in the workplace, housing, and lending systems. The passage of this bill is an important step to guaranteeing that every American has the fundamental right to equality under the law. I encourage the Senate to take swift action to pass The Equality Act.”
Adams, who represents District 12, said, “This landmark legislation reaffirms that freedom from discrimination is a fundamental civil right that belongs to every American and that no North Carolinian or any American should ever lose their job or their home, or be denied access to essential services simply because of who they are or whom they love. I urge the United States Senate to send this bill to President Biden’s desk because we can’t sleep on equality — we have to win it.”
North Carolina’s Republicans met the bill’s passage with equal energy, but in opposition.
“The so-called Equality Act is ‘the triumph of cancel culture over facts, reason, and empirical knowledge.’” Budd posted on his social media, quoting a Washington Examiner piece.
Murphy, who represents District 3, said while he opposes discrimination, the Equality Act “is a blatant attack on science, religious liberty, women and parents’ rights.” He added that “It would force religious institutions to go against their beliefs in clear violation of the First Amendment” and “allows physicians to administer puberty blockers and sex reassignment surgeries without parents’ consent to underage minors, undermining parental authority.”
The bill now heads to the U.S. Senate, where it would need 60 votes to overcome any Republican filibuster. Democrats are unlikely to reach this threshold since the chamber is split evenly, with 50 senators for each party. The Democrats do have a tie-breaking vote in Vice President Kamala Harris, but that would not be enough to make up the difference unless a few Republican senators are convinced to get on board.
Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, two frequent swing voters, have signaled they will not support the bill because it doesn’t have religious protections. In addition, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia did not support the bill in 2019 and would be under pressure in his deep-red state to maintain this position.
The bill’s only narrow chance would be securing 100% Democrat support and then eliminating the filibuster, so it could be passed 51-50 with a Harris tie-breaking vote. Biden told Politico during his campaign that he would be open to getting rid of the filibuster, but said it would depend on how “obstreperous,” meaning defiant and uncooperative, Republicans become.