U.S. Senate still question mark for LGBTQ protections

Even as the U.S. House passed legislation for the second time in two years, the Senate remains the question mark for federal efforts to shield gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination.

The House voted 224-206 on Thursday, Feb. 25, for legislation (HR 5) to bar discrimination in housing, credit and other matters. A similar bill with the same designation passed 236-173 in 2019, but died without a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The Senate now has a tenuous Democratic majority – Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaker in a chamber split 50-50 – but it is uncertain at best whether advocates can muster at least 10 Republicans for a 60-vote majority to avert a filibuster.

“Today’s House passage of the Equality Act is an important step forward and a shining source of hope for every American who values freedom and equality for all,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, one of the longtime leaders of the congressional effort, said with Senate sponsors at a news conference after the House vote.

“So let’s celebrate this major milestone, and also use this day to recommit ourselves to bringing the fight to ban LGBTQ discrimination to the Senate. Let’s make 2021 the year that we end discrimination that remains legal in the majority of American states. Let’s make 2021 the year that we ring the bells of freedom for every American.”

The latest bill won support from all four Oregon Democrats, but opposition from the lone Republican, Cliff Bentz. Bentz’s Republican predecessor, Greg Walden, voted for the 2019 version along with the Democrats.

A month after the 2019 House vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “based on sex,” barred employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Beaverton, said it’s time for Congress to extend anti-discrimination protection to other sectors.

“Our LGBTQ friends, neighbors, colleagues, and community members should not miss an educational opportunity, or be denied housing, credit, or health care because of who they are or who they love,” she said as she spoke during House debate on the latest bill.

“As the chair of the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee, I have heard from students and workers who were discriminated against, and people who were deeply harmed by anti-gay and transphobic attacks. Today, I am thinking about the young trans people in Oregon and around the country who are bravely standing up for equality. We stand with you, and we will keep working to create a world where you are safe, free and supported.”

Bonamici was a new state representative in 2007 when the Oregon Legislature passed and then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed a state version of anti-discrimination legislation.

“The same arguments were made against it back in 2007 that some of our colleagues are making today. Those concerns did not come to pass,” she said.

“In fact, what happened? The law has brought dignity, security and peace of mind to our LGBTQ community. It is long past time that LGBTQ Americans across the country have the same protections.”

Oregon is among 21 states with a wide range of legal protections – the 2020 State Equality Index compiled by the Human Rights Campaign says Oregon lacks a few improvements – but 27 states have no protections in their laws.

Merkley was the speaker of the Oregon House back in 2007, before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008. Since Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy asked him to assume leadership of that cause in 2009, before Kennedy died of cancer, Merkley has been a vocal advocate of federal anti-discrimination legislation. He has teamed up with two other Democrats, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Cory Booker of New Jersey, to sponsor the latest Senate effort.

The Senate passed a nondiscrimination law affecting employment only by a 64-32 vote in 2013. But that bill died without a vote in the Republican-controlled House.

“In the land of the free, the doors of opportunity should not be slammed shut because of who Americans are or whom they love,” Merkley said. “It is way past time to end the dark history of discrimination and begin a new era of equality and justice for our fellow LGBTQ Americans.”