New York Attorney General Letitia James Urges Senate To Pass Equality Act

June 23, 2021

New York Attorney General Letitia James today continued her fight to secure and protect the fundamental rights, civil liberties, and well-being of members of the LGBTQ+ community in New York and across the nation. 

Attorney General James, as part of a coalition of 25 attorneys general, today sent a letter to U.S. Senate leadership urging them to pass H.R. 5, the Equality Act, which would protect Americans from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“While we celebrate Pride and recognize all the progress made in the 52 years since Stonewall, the LGBTQ+ community is still fighting every day for their most fundamental rights,” said Attorney General James. “It is well past time for us to codify federal protections for LGBTQ+ individuals and make good on our country’s promise of equal protection under the law for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, or religion. My office will continue to stand with our LGBTQ+ neighbors until they are able to celebrate who they are and whom they love without fear of unfair treatment.”

The Equality Act would strengthen federal legal protections for LGBTQ+ Americans by clarifying and modernizing federal civil rights law and would prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals in employment, education, federally-funded programs, housing, public accommodations, credit, and jury service.

In June 2019, Attorney General James co-led a coalition of 22 attorneys general in filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Civil Rights Act should protect LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Then, last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Attorney General James’ cause that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees who are fired for being gay or transgender.

The court determined that employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is discrimination on the basis of sex, which is prohibited by Title VII.

In their letter today, the coalition asserts that despite the high court’s decision, the absence of explicit federal prohibitions on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity leave LGBTQ+ Americans vulnerable to experiencing discrimination in education, housing, credit, health care, federally-funded programs, and the jury system — essentially constituting legalized discrimination.

The Equality Act addresses these gaps by clarifying that existing protections under federal civil rights law include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, thereby creating and expanding protections for LGBTQ+ Americans facing discrimination in education, employment, housing, credit, and public facilities.

The legislation would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity, in sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibit discrimination in public accommodations and federal funding.

Additionally, the legislation would expand the definition of public accommodations to expressly prohibit sex discrimination, such as denying services to people because they are pregnant or breastfeeding, or denying transgender individuals access to sex-specific restrooms corresponding to their gender identities.

Lastly, the legislation would enable the U.S. attorney general to intervene in federal court actions alleging denial of equal protection of the laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In their letter, the attorneys general reiterate their commitment to protecting their citizens from unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

By increasing and specifying federal civil rights protections, the Equality Act would empower state attorneys general to better protect the LGBTQ+ communities in their state.

For example, the legislation adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of groups protected under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Fair Housing Act — both of which state attorneys general routinely enforce.

While a number of states, including New York, have amended their laws to expand protections for LGBTQ+ residents, the Equality Act is needed to fill the gap in the 27 states where LGBTQ+ Americans currently have no protection against discrimination.

In New York state specifically, LGBTQ+ residents are now protected from discrimination under the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) and the Gender-Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA).

These laws amended the New York State Human Rights Law to prohibit discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity or expression respectively — many other states have failed to take similar steps to protect their residents.

But the coalition insists, in today’s letter, that the Equality Act is needed to create a national standard that expands civil rights protections beyond the existing patchwork of state laws.

Furthermore, members of the LGBTQ+ community deserve, like every American, the federally guaranteed right to live their lives free of discrimination.

Joining Attorney General James in submitting the letter today are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

Photo credit: LGBTQ Life at MCNY in Harlem.

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