Jeff Merkley introduces sweeping LGBT rights bill that makes big changes to Civil Rights Act

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who led the fight in the last Senate for a ban on job discrimination against gays, has said for months that he’s shifting to a more expansive approach.

On Thursday, Merkley and his allies introduced their new bill, and it is indeed far more sweeping than anything the Oregon Democrat has proposed on gay rights in the past.  The new measure would provide broad new protection for gays, transgender people and potentially for women as well.

At a crowded press conference on Capitol Hill, Merkley said that there have been big gains made by gays — such as winning the right to marry in all states.  But the “harsh reality is in too many states there are no laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT Americans,” he added.

The bill, which has the backing of 158 House members and 40 senators, would add gender, sexual orientation and gender identity to the existing protected classes in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. The act now covers race, color, religion and national origin.

A number of federal laws already call for equal treatment for women, but Fatima Coss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center said the bill “closes several longstanding gaps in legal protections against sex discrimination.”

The measure would apply in six broad areas: employment, housing, finance, education, public accommodations and jury selection. Oregon already has broad protections based on sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, but many states do not.

Merkley and other participants at the press conference repeatedly talked about how it was wrong that someone could be married in the morning but fired in the afternoon for posting a picture of their same-sex wedding.

The reach of the bill would extend into several controversial areas.  Critics of Oregon’s public accommodations law have complained about the sanctions against a Gresham bakery that refused to bake a cake for the wedding of two women.  Some private religious schools could object to being forced to accept openly gay students or lose federal tuition aid.

Merkley and other supporters of the legislation acknowledged that they don’t expect action on their measure in the near future.  The measure did not attract any Republican support in the Senate and GOP leaders of both houses have not expressed any interest in moving the legislation.

But Merkley has repeatedly said that he hopes to build support around a broad call for ending discrimination, and that at some point there will be a political opening to move the bill.

“We need to set the gold standard and simply say, ‘Discrimination is wrong. Equality and opportunity are right,” Merkley said in an interview with the Huffington Post.