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Capitol Hill is still fighting over LGBT rights with competing bills

Lawmakers are pushing for competing bills that would either make it easier to discriminate against LGBT Americans, or extend unprecedented protections to them.

The Supreme Court’s decision last month to make marriage equality the law of the land didn’t settle the debate over LGBT rights on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers are pushing for competing bills that would either make it easier to discriminate against LGBT Americans, or extend unprecedented protections to that community. Though it’s unclear whether either measure stands a chance at becoming law, their back-to-back introductions demonstrate that the LGBT rights fight didn’t end with nationwide marriage equality.

Later this week, Democrats in Congress plan to introduce broad legislation that would bar discrimination in housing, workplaces, schools, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Titled the “Equality Act,” the bill would essentially extend to LGBT Americans the same level of protection currently guaranteed under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, gender, national origin, and disability.

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In a “dear colleagues” letter, obtained Monday by BuzzFeed, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island called for “a uniform federal standard” of protection for LGBT Americans and requested co-sponsors for his bill. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon plans to file a companion measure in the Senate.

“In most states, a same-sex couple can get married on Saturday, post pictures on Facebook on Sunday, and then risk being fired from their job or kicked out of their apartment on Monday,” Cicilline wrote. “A majority of states in our country do not have laws that protect LGBT individuals against discrimination.”

Though public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of LGBT rights in recent years, the Equality Act still faces an uphill battle. It is considerably more broad than the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA,) a bill that would bar workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans -- if only it could pass. Lawmakers have introduced versions of ENDA multiple times over the last four decades -- most recently in 2013 -- yet none have been able to clear Congress. With Republicans now in control of both chambers, that feat seems all the more daunting.

Republicans, for their part, are pushing an opposing bill that critics fear would sanction discrimination against LGBT people on religious grounds. Such “religious freedom” legislation became the subject of national condemnation earlier this year in Indiana and Arkansas, and is widely viewed as the main counterforce to the LGBT equality movement.

Introduced last month by Rep. Raul Labrador in the House and Sen. Mike Lee in the Senate, the First Amendment Defense Act would prohibit the federal government from taking “any discriminatory action against a person, wholly or partially on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.” The bill defines “person” broadly to include for-profit organizations, and “discriminatory action” as the revocation of tax-exempt status or the termination of federal contracts.

In a blog post Monday, the ACLU’s Ian Thompson called the bill “Indiana on steroids” and warned it would “open the door to unprecedented taxpayer-funded discrimination against LGBT people, single mothers, and unmarried couples.” Among its “parade of horribles,” as Thompson referred to it, the bill could allow federal contractors or grantees to turn away LGBT people, effectively nullifying President Obama’s executive order barring LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. It could also permit federal employees to refuse to process tax returns, visa applications, or Social Security checks for married same-sex couples, Thompson said.

The House version currently has 130 cosponsors (one of whom is a Democrat), while the Senate companion has 36. Despite that strong support, however, Congressional leaders don’t seem anxious to move the bill forward. The House Committee on Government Affairs -- one of two committees to which the bill has been referred -- was expected to have a vote this week. But M.J. Henshaw, a spokesperson for the House Committee on Governmental Affairs, told the Washington Blade the panel was “still reviewing” the legislation and had no plans to act on it before the August recess.

Speaker John Boehner also seemed indifferent to bill’s fate when asked last week whether he’d allow it to come up for a floor vote.

“The Supreme Court decision on marriage raises a lot of questions,” Boehner said. “A number of members have concerns about issues that it raises and how they might be addressed, but no decision has been made on how best to address these.”