As the LGBT community continues to pursue equal rights, it can point to substantial gains at the state level, broad public support and increased momentum toward a federal Equality Act.
On the other hand, a majority of states still lack laws banning discrimination, and those pesky bills that would curtail gay rights keep popping up.
The latest State Equality Index, a yearly report of statewide laws and policies that impact LGBT people produced by the Human Rights Campaign and the Equality Federation Institute and released Thursday, revealed a record 17 states (and the District of Columbia) earning a top rating. That’s an increase of four states over last year and more than double the total of eight from 2014, the first year the SEI was published.
Of course, that still leaves 33 states in the other three rankings, with a whopping 28 of them in the lowest category, dubbed, “High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality.’’
“It’s incredibly important that these states have taken action to make sure LGBTQ people are afforded equal rights under the law in their states, but certainly, it’s concerning that there are still 33 states that are not there,’’ said Cathryn Oakley, the HRC’s state legislative director, and senior counsel.
Just as troubling to the HRC, the nation’s largest gay rights organization, is the spate of legislative initiatives that have sprouted since the 2015 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed same-sex couples the right marry.
The SEI details more than 100 bills it considers anti-LGBT that were introduced across 29 states in 2018. Only two passed.
Oakley also cited measures like Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2015 and North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill of 2016 – both seen as infringing on LGBT rights – as either responses or anticipatory moves related to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.
On Thursday, the Arkansas state Supreme Court rejected an attempt by the city of Fayetteville to continue enforcing its ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, saying the measure violates a state law aimed at preventing local protections for LGBT people.
That was viewed as a jurisdictional ruling more than anything else, but Arkansas is one of 30 states that doesn’t provide civil rights protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The HRC is one of the advocacy groups pushing for an Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in areas including employment, housing, public accommodations, etc.
“LGBTQ people still face the sobering reality that their rights are determined by which side of a state or city line they call home,’’ HRC president Chad Griffin said in a statement. “As this year’s State Equality Index makes clear, the time has come for us to do away with this patchwork of state laws and to protect all LGBTQ people by passing the federal Equality Act.’’
Previous attempts at such a law have died in committee, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has committed to making the bill a priority. The California Democrat has public support on her side, with a survey published in August by the Public Religion Research Institute revealing that 71 percent of Americans favor safeguards for the LGBT community.
In addition, the HRC said more than 130 major companies throughout the country have joined its effort to push for the bill.
Then again, there’s no certainty the Republican-controlled Senate would approve it, and even less that President Donald Trump – who wants to ban transgender people from serving openly in the military – would sign it.
Oakley said the HRC is optimistic about the bill’s prospects this year while recognizing it will be a huge undertaking to get it passed.
“It’s absolutely a big lift, but it should be a big lift,’’ she said. “It’s a major piece of civil rights legislation and it only makes sense it would take work to pass it. That said, it’s had bipartisan support in the past, and we know we have tremendous support from the American public, and we have a lot of support from the business community.’’