In a bipartisan move last month, both the House and Senate introduced the Equality Act, which would provide nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people in areas including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service. The bill was introduced with 287 original cosponsors, which is the most congressional support that any piece of pro-LGBTQ legislation has received upon introduction, and it comes at a time when polls show overwhelming public support for such protections.
But some conservative southern lawmakers continue to introduce bills that would limit the rights of LGBTQ citizens and strip local governments from offering protection to them.
“Right now, more than a third of LGBTQ people in the United States call the South their home, but no southern state has passed statewide protections from anti-LGBTQ discrimination,” Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the executive director of the North Carolina-based Campaign for Southern Equality, recently told NBC News.
In Florida, Tennessee, and Texas, legislatures are currently considering measures that would weaken LGBTQ protections.
The Texas state legislature recently passed a bill that opponents say gives the state a “license to discriminate.” Senate Bill 17, introduced by Republican Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock, would allow some professionals to deny services based on their beliefs. The bill would protect from penalty doctors, child care providers, counselors, and other state-licensed workers who refuse services based on “a sincerely held religious belief.”
Republican Kel Seliger of Amarillo questioned whether a state-licensed worker should be able to deny service to a gay couple or a Muslim person. “When do you tell the difference between firmly held religious belief and bias?” he asked. Businesses including Apple, Google, and Dell have signed a letter opposing the bill, which is now being considered by the state House.
Tennessee, lawmakers are currently considering six anti-LGBTQ bills, described as a “slate of hate” by LGBTQ rights advocates. Two of the proposals would allow adoption agencies to refuse services to couples for religious reasons. The others would bar state and local governments from taking action against a business for discrimination; expand criminal charges for indecent exposure in bathrooms, dressing rooms, etc.; require the attorney general to defend schools sued for requiring students to use the restroom that matches their sex at birth; and define marriage as being between one man and one woman in violation of federal court rulings.
The measures are facing widespread opposition, including from 100 religious leaders in the state. “Year after year, a small group of Tennessee lawmakers appear bound and determined to undermine the rights of LGBTQ people,” said Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project.
In Florida, House Bill 3, sponsored by Republican Rep. Michael Grant of Port Charlotte, would block local laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Jacksonville’s Coalition For Equality has named Florida as a national leader in nondiscrimination laws passed at the local level, with 33 counties and cities in the state offering civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents of the bill cite the economic impact it could have on Florida, using North Carolina’s House Bill 2 as an example of the backlash. While the North Carolina legislature partially repealed HB2 in 2017, the economic damage caused by the controversial law and the boycotts announced in response is ongoing. The Associated Press has estimated it will ultimately cost the state $3.76 billion over 12 years.
However, some North Carolina lawmakers are taking a stand against anti-LGBTQ discrimination. Last month, Democratic state lawmakers introduced three bills that would expand LGBTQ rights. One would completely repeal HB2, another would ban licensed mental health professionals from providing gay conversion therapy to children, and the third would expand North Carolina’s anti-discrimination laws to include gender identity and sexual orientation as well as military or veteran status.