The Equality Act was the focus of a roundtable discussion featuring U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, Lambda Legal counsel Camilla Taylor and Kimberly Hively LGBT civil rights plaintiff in the Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College caseJune 20 at Hinshaw & Culbertston's Chicago headquarters.
Moderated by Hinshaw & Culbertson attorney Cecilia Horan and hosted by Hinshaw & Culbertston, in partnership with the law firm's LGBT Affinity Network and the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago ( LAGBAC ), the discussion focused on education surrounding the bill and ways to build a coalition of support for the legislation.
Horanwho is also LAGBAC presidentcalled for a moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre ahead of the discussion.
Cicilline spoke about why he conceived and introduced the Equality Act alongside Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley last summer. ( The bill currently has 176 co-sponsors in the House and 42 co-sponsors in the Senate. ) He noted in the past legislators were pushing for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act but that isn't enough.
"The question we asked ourselves is why are we approaching this in a piecemeal way when today we're in a different place as a country," said Cicilline. "It occurred to us that we needed comprehensive protections. The most extreme forms of discrimination are hate and violence and we saw that in Orlando. … It was a hate crime. … The legislation says sexual orientation and gender identity should be folded into the existing Civil Rights Act architecture."
Cicilline explained that although the entire country has marriage equality over half of the states don't have legal protections for LGBT people in housing, employment, public accommodations, public education, juries, credit and other areas. He noted the Equality Act is a priority for both House and Senate Democrats, however, until they regain control of both chambers there won't be any movement on the bill. Cicilline said he hopes these roundtable discussions will help educate the LGBT community and their allies about the bill. He also wants citizens to pressure Congress to pass the bill.
When asked who doesn't support the bill and why, Schakowsky said most of the GOP. She noted their homophobia and transphobia and mentioned the recent National Defense Authorization Act and Water Bill as examples of the House GOP leadership using their majority status to keep anti-LGBT policies in place on a federal level.
"What we're looking at here is their [GOP] last gasp but what we know about last gasps is they can be really fierce," said Schakowsky.
Schakowsky said that, in the past, Democrats had to worry about being pro-LGBT; however, now the GOP has to worry about being anti-LGBT. She explained the need for citizens to be engaged more than ever and mobilize across the country in order to get the Equality Act passed. Schakowsky also said elections matter so get out and vote.
Horan asked Hively to speak about her case against Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College, where she worked for 14 and a half years as an adjunct math teacher. Hively noted that she had no reprimands in her file but couldn't get hired for a full-time job ( she applied for seven teaching jobs over the years ) at the college despite her impeccable reputation including receiving the Adjunct Excellence in Teaching Award in 2011. She said she'd never explicitly come out as a lesbian, however, she did date a co-worker who was out and let everyone at the college know they were dating.
Hively explained that the anti-LGBT harassment escalated over the years including comments about her decorum and style of dressi.e. not wearing a skirt to her job interviews. When she wasn't invited back as an adjunct teacher she filed a pro se complaint in federal trial court since no lawyer in Indiana would touch the case ( Indiana doesn't have comprehensive LGBT protections ). Lambda Legal has stepped in and is representing Hively. The case is still pending a decision by the 7th Circuit Court.
Taylor noted that Hively wouldn't have needed to sue her former employer if the Equality Act was the law of the land. Legally there's been less traction regarding sexual orientation cases versus gender identity cases due to Title VII protections based on a person's sex, Taylor remarked. She noted the EEOC is ahead of the courts in protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
"Courts are wrestling with whether the prohibition based on sex in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is also a prohibition based on sexual orientation and gender identity," said Taylor. "This is why the Equality Act is so important. It's a remarkable piece of legislation that would make a huge difference in the lives of so many people."
When asked how Steans and other marriage equality supporters got the bill passed in Illinois, she noted the groundwork done by the Illinois Unites for Marriage group and others. Steans said the key was getting everyone operating on the same page. She explained that doing polling and hiring field operators were a part of the strategy to figure out who would be the best person to speak to individual legislators so they would support the bill. Steans said Illinois already has a version of the Equality Act which she is confident will pass in the Congress.
"It was really all hands on deck to get marriage equality passed in Illinois," said Steans. "The LGBTQ community came together in a way I'd not seen before or since with the groups focused on this one bill."
A Q&A session followed the discussion.
See www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/3185 and www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1858 for more information about the Equality Act, including who is currently signed on as co-sponsors.