Equality Act could protect LGBT people from discrimination nationwide 

click to enlarge The White House celebrated same-sex marriage. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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  • The White House celebrated same-sex marriage.

When it comes to protecting LGBT people against discrimination, Colorado could be a role model for much of America.

This state obviously allows same-sex marriage, but it also has long allowed second-parent adoption, protection for LGBT people under hate crime laws, and protection against discrimination in public accommodations (think restaurants and hotels), housing, employment and health care.

Much of the nation, however, lacks those safeguards. Allison Steinberg, spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union, says 31 states don't have basic nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people. And the protection that states offer is often incomplete and confusing, because laws may, say, protect LGBT people in educational settings but not in employment.

"Right now," she says, "there is really a patchwork of protections across the country."

The Equality Act, recently introduced in both houses of Congress, would change that. An expansion of the Civil Rights Act, it would protect LGBT people based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender in employment, housing, education, credit, public accommodations, jury service and federally funded programs. It would expand protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identification, and protect people from discrimination who are associated with LGBT people (for instance, a lesbian couple's children).

The Equality Act has support from various interest groups, but it's unclear whether it will make headway in a Republican-controlled Congress. Steinberg notes there is no date set for it to be debated and voted on. But she says there are big advantages for LGBT people should it pass, even those living in states with nondiscrimination laws already on the books, like Colorado.

"If anything, the federal law is sweeping," she says. "So it would reinforce the laws at the state level and it would protect people when they travel between states, which is no small thing, to be able to go on vacation and feel safe."

Laura "Pinky" Reinsch, spokesperson for the LGBT advocacy group One Colorado, notes another difference.

"One place where the Equality Act offers greater protection than Colorado's law is that it will ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in federally-funded programs," she states in an email to the Independent.

(It's worth noting that President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2014 that took effect in April 2015, protecting LGBT people against discrimination from federal contractors and subcontractors.)

A poll released in April by Reuters/Ipsos, with a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points, found widespread public support for nondiscrimination laws, even if they intersected with religious beliefs.

According to Reuters: "The poll found solid opposition to allowing businesses to refuse services or refuse to hire people or groups based on religious beliefs ... 54 percent said it was wrong for businesses to refuse services, while 28 percent said they should have that right. And 55 percent said businesses should not have the right to refuse to hire certain people or groups based on the employer's religious beliefs, while 27 percent said businesses should have the right."

Locally, Shari Zabel, who is on the board of directors for LGBT group Springs Equality, says even if the bill doesn't pass, it's a step in the right direction.

"At Springs Equality we believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and equally under the law and no one should be discriminated against based on who they are," she says, "which is what the Equality Act is trying to correct."

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