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What is the Equality Act?
The Equality Act amends various civil rights laws throughout history, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to include protections against discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, in addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s ban on discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin. Additionally, the Equality Act is one of the top priorities of the Biden administration’s plan for the first 100 days in office.
The Equality Act passed in the House of Representatives 224-206, mostly on party lines with three Republicans voting siding with the Democrats, on Thursday, February 25, 2021. Now the Act will be passed along to the Senate and will be voted on. With the Senate split at 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris being the tie-breaker, the Act could pass. However, at least 10 Republican Senators must vote with all of the Democrat Senators in order for the Act to avoid the dreaded filibuster, or an informal attempt to delay or block action on a bill in the Senate by one or more Senators.
Why is there nothing like the Equality Act already?
An earlier version of the Equality Act was passed in the House of Representatives in May 2019, but once passed along to the Republican-controlled Senate, the bill quickly died. Although some similar Acts offer some of the protections set forth by the Equality Act at individual state levels, nothing of its nature exists at the Federal level.
Although something similar to the Equality Act may have been able to pass in the past when the Democrats were controlling the Legislative Branch, there is still strong opposition to the Act from the Republican party that largely prevents it from moving forward. Many lawmakers are celebrating this initial victory in the pursuit of equal rights, while others stand in opposition, and are not afraid to say it:
Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), the first openly gay person of color in Congress, tweeted on Thursday that “I’m thinking of those who marched and built a movement to protect the lives of LGBTQ+ people and expand our rights.”
On the other hand, however, stands staunch Republican lawmakers, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) tweeted on Thursday that “The so-called ‘Equality’ Act is not about stopping discrimination. It’s about causing discrimination against women and religious freedom.”
Just examining these two statements from opposite sides of the aisle, not only does the political chasm in the United States become clear, but the mere reason why a law similar to the Equality Act has not previously passed is evident.
What does the Equality Act mean for universities?
Depending on the current rules of a university, the Equality Act could mean massive changes, or it could fly under the radar and go largely unnoticed. The Equality Act makes it illegal to discriminate against students, prospective and current staff on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, the Equality Act makes it illegal for schools and universities to stop students from starting organizations, such as a Gay-Straight Alliance. Most notably, for some, is the fact that all people can use the bathroom and locker room of their choice, without any interference from administrators. This comes in stark contrast to laws that have existed in the past in some states that have made bathroom laws that require people use the bathroom of the assigned sex at birth, such as HB2 in North Carolina. Although many of these laws have since been shut down, federal mandates on this subject will allow for a more inclusive future.
What’s the bottom line?
If the Equality Act passes the Senate, it will bring massive changes to some institutions’ ability to discriminate. In some states, similar laws are already in place, so it would merely become an additional federal law to recognize, but would not change their practices at all.
We need something like the Equality Act desperately, for the LGBTQ+ who fought for their rights and have been ignored by the system should not be left out again. The ultimate challenge, however, comes in actually implementing a law of this nature. The thoughts and words of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are notable and technically recognized, but everyone knows that those rights are too often violated, and we cannot let this trend continue.