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The Equality Act could soon be getting a vote in the Senate. What are its chances?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/7/2021 Savannah Behrmann, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – Nearly half a century after the first legislation to protect against LGBTQ discrimination passed Congress, lawmakers will again face a vote on a bill that would provide more protections for the community.

And while some additional protections for LGBTQ people were upheld by the Supreme Court last year, experts say federal legislation is needed to protect the community as a growing number of states are passing laws restricting LGBTQ rights, and a more conservative Supreme Court has signaled its desire to strengthen religious freedom protections.

a group of people posing for the camera: FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, supporters of LGBTQ rights hold placards in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Legislation that would create new protections for LGBTQ Americans is stalling out in the U.S. Senate. Democrats were hopeful they could pass the Equality Act this year since they control Congress and the White House. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) ORG XMIT: WX201 © Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2019, file photo, supporters of LGBTQ rights hold placards in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Legislation that would create new protections for LGBTQ Americans is stalling out in the U.S. Senate. Democrats were hopeful they could pass the Equality Act this year since they control Congress and the White House. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) ORG XMIT: WX201

The Equality Act – sweeping legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity – will soon get a vote in the Senate, and if it passes, make its way to President Joe Biden's desk.

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According to a 2020 survey by national advocacy group GLAAD, an overwhelming number of Americans believe LGBTQ people have federal protections against discrimination that are, in reality, not available to them – including protection against discrimination in housing, public spaces and employment benefits.

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It's still legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in almost 30 states said GLAAD communications coordinator Serena Sonoma.

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Here's how the Equality Act would combat some of this, and its chances of becoming law:

What the Equality Act would do

The Equality Act would amend existing federal civil rights laws – including the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 – to extend protections for LGBTQ Americans.

The Civil Rights Act had banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin, and the Equality Act would go a step further to include protections on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

It also would prohibit such discrimination in public places, on transportation and in government-funded programs. 

By expanding federal civil rights to prohibit discrimination, it would provide the protections many Americans believe had already been enshrined into law. 

Although many states have enacted anti-discrimination laws, advocates, such as the Human Rights Campaign argue that today's "patchwork" of laws across states leaves LGBTQ Americans vulnerable to discrimination. They say it would make significant progress toward legal protections for all Americans.

It could also affect what is being taught in classrooms by enabling protections within education, particularly on how teachers implement LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum: LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum is lacking in many classrooms. Nationally, fewer than 20% of respondents to GLSEN's 2019 National School Climate Survey said they had been taught positive representations of LGBTQ people, history or events in their schools.

More: Kids aren't learning LGBTQ history. The Equality Act might change that.

Passed House roughly on party lines

The House passed the bill in February on a largely party-line vote. Lawmakers passed the legislation on a 224-206 with three Republicans voting with all Democrats. 

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who introduced the House measure, said "every American deserves respect and dignity," and the Equality Act, if it became law, would "ensure that LGBTQ Americans can live lives free of discrimination." 

He said it was important to pass the legislation because many Americans thought the protections were already enshrined in law. The idea that Americans could be denied service in a restaurant simply because of their sexual orientation "doesn't comport with our basic understanding of fairness and equality," he said. 

The House also passed a similar version of the bill in May 2019, but it died in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. 

Faces uncertain future in Senate

The bill now faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republican and Democratic members with Vice President Kamala Harris in a tiebreaking role.

It would need at least 10 Republicans to vote with all Democrats to advance the bill past a key procedural obstacle called the filibuster. 

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote to colleagues Friday he would be bringing the bill to a vote before the month of June ends, which is Pride Month. 

Earlier he said he would use his powers as majority leader to put the bill on the floor, and would dare Republicans to vote against it.

However, several Senate Republicans have expressed concerns that the legislation could infringe upon religious liberty, or lead to inequality in athletic competitions if transgender women compete against cisgender women. 

In March, Senators in the Judiciary Committee sparred over the legislation, with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, saying it was "none of the government’s business what consenting adults do in their own bedrooms. It is none of the government’s business the sexual orientation or gender identity of adults in their own lives."

Rather, Cruz argued, the Equality Act is "not about that. This bill is about mandating that biological males should be allowed to compete in girls’ sports and ... about suing pastors and churches if they teach biblical teachings on sexuality and morality."

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., argued that religion was being used as a shield to protect discrimination, saying “We have seen this phenomenon of religion being used to justify slavery, segregation, bans on interracial marriage."

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The debate in the upper chamber comes as LGBTQ rights have become a contentious political topic nationwide, with more states passing bans on transgender athletes participating in women's sports,  such as Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enacting the measure on the first day of Pride Month.

Biden urged Congress to pass it

Biden said signing the bill into law was one of his top legislative priorities – one that was not accomplished within his first 100 days in office.

He urged Congress in April, during his first address to a joint session of Congress, to pass the Equality Act "to protect the rights of LGBTQ Americans."

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Biden pledged to sign it into law in his first 100 days of office, which was not possible since it was not through Congress, but one of his earliest acts supporting the transgender community was lifting President Donald Trump's ban on transgender troops. 

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On his first day in office, he signed an executive order implementing a Supreme Court ruling that declared anti-LGBTQ job discrimination to be illegal as a form of sex discrimination.

The first day of Pride Month, Biden again called "on the Congress to pass the Equality Act, which will ensure civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ people and families across our country."  

"While I am proud of the progress my Administration has made in advancing protections for the LGBTQ+ community, I will not rest until full equality for LGBTQ+ Americans is finally achieved and codified into law," Biden continued.

GLAAD has compiled a list of resources for transgender people here.

Contributing: Christine Fernando, John Fritze, Elinor Aspegren

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Equality Act could soon be getting a vote in the Senate. What are its chances?

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